May 19 2022

Fighting the System in D&D

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A monk performs a stunning strike in a Modern-era campaign.

WARNING: Rant ahead.

When D&D fifth edition landed, it was such a breath of fresh air. 3.x and Pathfinder (first edition) had become so cumbersome with bonuses, status effects, corner cases, and who-knows-what, that I had reached the point of not being able to bear to run them. Even with reskinning, books full of source material, and so on, I got so sick of my Saturday nights being an extended math class that I switched to Savage Worlds and ran only that for a while… which had its own problems, but that’s for some other time. Point is, I ran The Lost Mine of Phandelver and instantly fell in love. It was D&D, but with rules that made sense and moved fast, and it was amazing.

But over the past several months, I find myself fighting with it a lot more than enjoying it, and it’s starting to grind at me, both as a player and as the DM.

You Can’t Make That Character In This Game

I am a HERO System child, and that will always be part of me. One result is that I come up with very fleshed-out character concepts and “kits,” strong ideas about who the character is and how they should work. For example, a character I recently wanted to build was a pistol-packing harengon ship’s engineer, just in case a Spelljammer campaign materialized in my future. Think a cross between Gadget Hackwrench and Tracer from Overwatch. Should be a fairly straightforward thing, right? Artillerist Artificer, and you’re good to go. Except Artillerist is a pet class. You can carry your little turret companion like a weapon if you want to, but it’s still basically a familiar doing its own thing. I also wanted this character to have a wicked kick, with those harengon legs—not something she’d be doing on the regular, more as a bit of character fluff and a potential back-up to fall on if she was pinned down for some reason. So Fighting Initiate could get that with the Unarmed Combat style… except a harengon doesn’t get access to a feat until 4th level, and has to give up one of their quite-probably-only ASIs to get it.

So I tried an Armorer with Thunder Gauntlets, reskinning a heavy crossbow as her paired pew-pew pistols (making one attack requiring two hands), or using the Custom Lineage option to build a kinda-sorta harengon who could get Fighting Initiate but lost the signature leap ability in the process, or Artificer with a couple of levels of Fighter… I tried all sorts of combos. Some of them kinda-sorta worked, but none of them were what I really wanted, or at least wouldn’t become what I really wanted until well into the campaign. Which points to the next problem.

D&D Is Secretly a Seven-Level Game

5E’s designers made it no secret that they really considered 3rd level to be where most campaigns should probably start, but that they felt compelled to include the “training wheels” levels of 1-2 for reasons of tradition and easing new players in. Which, meh, but I could live with that if the game didn’t start to come apart at 6th level and generally go off the rails completely by 9th or 10th. I’m not just talking about the famously-broken CR system that doesn’t work past 3rd, but just the sheer arms race between the PCs and the monsters. Once the 3rd- and 4th-level spells come out, no monster who doesn’t have maxed hit points is likely to survive more than one round; and if you scale up the monsters so they can last any length of time, they’re almost as likely to one-punch any party member who isn’t a barbarian. I’ve observed in multiple games now that starting around 7th level combat feels less like a tactical skirmish and more like rocket tag. Which is fun sometimes, but for me at least it gets old fast.

So the “good part” of the game starts at 3rd level, starts creaking at 6th, and rare is the campaign that goes above 10th. That’s effectively a 7-level game, even if there are 20 levels in the book. If you like unusual character combos, say a burglar who’s also a martial artist a la the image at the top of this page, you probably won’t get there until the campaign’s half over—by which time the barbarian’s reckless rage, the paladin’s smite-nova, etc. are all going to be way more effective than anything you can pull off anyway. (Let’s not even get into the fact that such a character would be extremely cool in the Tier-1 or Tier-2 worlds of mortal adventure, but completely in the wrong world for Tier-3+. Spider-Man can go to space, sure, but he doesn’t BELONG there.) Which leads to the next issue…

Anti-Fun Abilities You Can’t Not Use

It’s against my nature to ban character abilities; given the “You Can’t Make That Character” issue already mentioned, I want more options instead of fewer. However, in practice, there start to be some things that show up over and over again, because they’re too good not to use, and I would argue, actually make the game less fun for me as a player, and definitely make the game less fun for me as the DM. For instance…

  • Stunning Strike. On paper, this seems like a fun little controller ability. Spend some of your class resource to make the enemy lose a turn, giving you advantage on hitting them on the next turn. Thematically it fits: has there been a martial arts movie fight where the hero didn’t ring an opponent’s bell, shove them through a pile of crates, or something else that took them out of the fight briefly? So it should be great. But what happens in practice? The monk spams stunning strike until the BBEG fails their saving through purely through the law of averages, and then the rest of the party surround-and-pounds, fight over one round. What cool things can the BBEG do? You’ll never know.
  • Spirit Guardians. Who even let this into the game? The cleric gets an aura that auto-kills enemies within 15′ of them without any effort or risk on their part… and 3/4 of the monsters in the game have no ranged options? The first time someone cast this in my game, I thought I had to be reading it wrong, but nope, that’s how it works. Instead of being afraid of an angry mob, the cleric runs towards them.
  • And More… Banishment ends entire fights with a single saving throw. Wild Shape gives you multiple hit point pools that you can just use and discard. With the right subclass and a single feat, a human barbarian could literally resist all damage of any kind at 3rd level. I used to think sneak attack was broken, until I saw a game get above 5th level, now I feel like rogues have kinda gotten the shaft.

“yOU JuSt Ne3D To bE crEATivE!”

Posting about any of these issues to just about any internet space will get you a bunch of Reply Guys telling you that they can be fixed through encounter design or somehow magically by “Just being creative!” So let me throw in a sidebar rant about that, while I’m ranting. I’m already the King of Reskinning; being a HERO System child teaches you that, as the entire system is literally nothing but reskinning. As for encounter design, does it really make sense that I should have to build all of my encounters around the fact that the paladin is going to go supernova on their smites on the first round, or the barbarian does 75 points of damage per turn unless they crit, or that the wizard will limit every creature to being able to move or attack but not both? What, pray tell, is the point of even having published adventures when I have to throw away all the written encounters and rebuild them from scratch because WotC foes are made of tissue paper? YES, D&D encounters work better if you have multiple foes rather than a single powerful monster, and YES it’s okay for the players to flex on the monsters sometimes, and YES I can just give every monster more hit points or have another wave come running around the corner, BUT these are not solutions to the systemic problems.

Sooo… Whatcha Gonna DO About It?

Honestly, I don’t know. I think that the core engine of 5E is fine, honestly, but it has too much “D&D Baggage” attached to it to really find a meaningful solution. You’d have to go through the whole system from top to bottom to pound out every proud nail, dry out every damp squib, and tune every sour note, at which point you’re basically playing a different system anyway. Pathfinder 2E seems tempting, with promises of robust 1st-level characters and repeated claims by various YouTube channels that it actually is and stays balanced for 20 levels, but I have my concerns.

Heck, HERO System still exists, even if it’s a giant wall-o-text mess these days, and so does Savage Worlds and any other number of alternate rules systems. But D&D is easily King of the Hill in terms of online/remote play support, with PF2E the only other one that even comes close. There are a few random people doing Foundry Mods or Roll20 plug-ins for games that aren’t D&D/PF2E, but they’re super-niche.

So… I don’t know. It might just be that I need a break.

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Apr 20 2022

More Rambling About 5E vs. Pathfinder 2E

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Brother Drang summons lightning against the cave leaper. It's SUPER EFFECTIVE.

Some follow-up to my last post on this topic, I’ve had a few things keep coming back to me from the things fans of PF2E have said. Specifically, “martials who don’t suck,” and “all levels matter.”

You’ve Been Bushwhacked, Martial!

Martials occupy a very weird space in 5E. In the grand tradition of “linear fighters and quadratic wizards,” martials are generally quite strong at low levels, but quickly become overshadowed by the casters at higher levels. This trend is not absolute and can be very muddy, as there is literally no completely non-magical class in 5E. (Sub-classes, yes. But every class has at least one and usually multiple magical variations.) And it has certain outliers that have to be accounted for. Every fight in my Tomb of Annihilation campaign has to be balanced around the barbarian, who does “every hit point in the Universe in damage” every round. A different barbarian in my upcoming Red Hand of Doom is literally resistant to every kind of damage, except psychic… effectively giving him a d24 hit die. Paladins go supernova. Monks stunlock boss monsters and turn apocalyptic encounters into trivial surround-and-pounds.

(Sorry, fighters and rogues. Being dependable over the course of 6-8 encounters per day is not the selling point 5E’s design seems to think it is.)

PF2E‘s approach to this, as far as I’ve gathered from my research, is to balance around encounters rather than days (which as I mentioned in my last post, has its dangers), and to hit casters with a nerfbat.

I am fine with hitting casters with a nerfbat.

I am very, very fine with hitting casters with a nerfbat.

So if that’s actually true, well… it does sound appealing.

But then I hear about PF’s classes have things like the Gunfighter holding a sword in front of the barrel of their gun so the bullet splits in two and hits two different targets, and I’m just like… “Really?”

So. I dunno.

Dirty Secret: 5E Only Has 7 Levels

It is a truism (and not without reason) that 5E kinda goes off the rails somewhere around 10th level. It’s not impossible to play by any stretch, but everything has to be extensively customized to the crazy abilities of your specific party, and you have to design enough flexibility into every fight that the monsters will last more than a round and a half, but can’t one-punch half the party. This is why published materials tend to stop here, the work-to-reward ratio of building those adventures doesn’t outweigh the fact that fewer campaigns actually get there… which turns into a downward spiral, since there are fewer adventures, so fewer people play, which causes them to make still fewer adventures…

But this is just half of the picture. 5E is designed with the idea that levels 1-2 are “trainer” levels, with characters who are extremely simplistic to play, and are also extremely fragile. More experienced groups are low-key expected to just always start new campaigns at 3rd level, when classes really “come online.” (And a lot of multiclass characters don’t really reach their intended “build” until 6th, 7th, or higher.)

So effectively, D&D campaigns are only expected to be levels 3-10.

In our group, we lobbied InkBlitz to only award 1/2 experience for the campaign Shade-Of-the-Candle is in, because we want it to last! But at the same time, we do kinda feel like we’re languishing in the 5th-7th range (and I think Blitzy’s getting bored there). Imagine how much better it would be all around if we could keep leveling up without being afraid that this level will be the one that kills the campaign because it becomes unmanageable?

Now, this is mostly theoretical, and the only evidence that Pathfinder is any better is, well, PF fans saying so. I can tell from just looking at the math that low-level PF characters are sturdier (my PF Shady build had 20 hp at 1st level), but low level monsters hit harder, too (a 1st level hobgoblin does roughly 8 points of damage per hit and has a good chance of hitting twice per round). But creating a 1st level PF character is a fairly lengthy process that involves choosing options for your background, your class, your ancestry, a personal feat (which can be mostly flavor) and any archetypes (how PF handles multiclassing, “half-” races, and other mix-and-match abilities). So there’s already a lot of customizing going on right out the gate.

Whether this extra mental investment translates into more fun, probably depends a lot on what you want out of the game. I love to build “exactly the character I want,” so there’s a lot for me to chew on there. Some of the other players are much happier with a pushbutton game where they don’t need to think about the rules—which is an understandable side effect of having to do a lot of adulting all the time, and just wanting your D&D night to be fun with friends.

And, well… do I really care about getting to play 20 whole levels of a game? I’m feeling a certain amount of fatigue from my Tomb of Annihilation game, but that’s also because it’s one long single narrative that has taken a year and a half to get through. My Storm King’s Thunder campaign was much more rambly and episodic (at least until the end), and I’m looking forward to going back to that.

It’s 11th level… we’ll see how playable it actually is. >.> It would certainly be comforting to have confidence in the system underneath it.

-TG

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Apr 01 2022

Finding My Path in #DnD

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You couldn't do this at 1st level.

Wow, has it really been August since I last posted here? Crazy. >.>

Anyway! We’re nearing the end of Tomb of Annihilation, so victory or defeat, we’ll soon be heading back to the characters from Storm King’s Thunder, all waiting patiently at 11th level for the story to roll back around to them. And, NGL, I’ve got cold feet. High level D&D and I have not had a smooth relationship over the years, in that kind of “our star signs don’t match” way that isn’t anybody’s fault but still gums things up.

Leaving out my philosophical/aesthetic problems wrapping my head around high level play, there’s also the fact that 5E’s rules just plain break. This was evidenced most dramatically at the end of Storm King’s Thunder when, after hearing about what a damp squib the fight against the campaign bigbad was, I buffed it like crazy and they still curbstomped her. This was an 11th level party going against a CR 23 monster, mind you, with big buffs on either side, yes, but at the end of the fight most of the support characters on either side were a wash.

It’s not so much the outcome of the fight that bugged me about it… I would have liked the baddie to last one more round, maybe? But she did get to do a few things. What bugged me was that this was a fight that, on paper, should have reduced the PCs to a thin yellow spray, and they knocked it out of the park. Good on them for knocking it out of the park, but that clearly means that I can’t trust the encounter building guidelines, period. This is a huge problem because, with so little high level content available, I’m gonna have to homebrew 85-90% of it, and I don’t have any tools to work with other than eyeballing everything and hoping for the best.

Just, ugh. :P I can do it, but the whole point of using The Popular Game™ is that I shouldn’t have to be building everything from scratch.

So earlier this week, I decided to give Pathfinder 2E a look. I keep hearing about how it has so much more robust math and so very many character options that we wouldn’t have to homebrew a new race for InkBlitz and SirFox every campaign, the rules would just cover it. When 5E came out I literally gave away almost all my Pathfinder 1E books because I was so burned out on the 3.x engine I knew I would never willingly run it again; when PF2E came out, I didn’t even give it a look, because I was quite comfy running my (at the time low-level) 5E game. By a weird quirk of synchronicity, I found a bunch of recent YouTube videos with titles like “Why Are So Many 5E DMs Switching to Pathfinder Lately?” which gave me a lot to chew on. By an even weirder quirk, Paizo just announced earlier this week that they are releasing a 5E conversion of one of their most popular PF2E adventure paths, which amused me.

So I dove into vids from prominent PF2E creators and I picked up a copy of the Pathfinder Beginner Box on Roll20 to give it a look. I built a PF2E adaptation of Shade-Of-the-Candle, and generally gave it as thorough a poke around as I could without starting a whole new trial campaign. These are the thoughts I had on the topic:

Running the Treadmill

5E and PF2E have fundamentally different philosophical underpinnings. Thanks to bounded accuracy, 5E is “static,” with the 10-30 DC range being pretty dependable across all levels. Even the advantage/disadvantage mechanic doesn’t change the range of numbers you can hit, just the probability that you’ll roll high. A completely cheesed-out high level character in 5E might make a check or attack roll with as much as +6 proficiency, +5 stat bonus, and a dizzying +3 gear/circumstance bonus, turning their average roll into a 25. But a skilled low-level character could also conceivably hit a 25 in something they’re good at! Since most creatures’ AC tops out around 20, the effect of this is that high level characters hit their target more often, but low level characters aren’t necessarily locked out of being effective at all.

PF2E, on the other hand, adds your level to every check with which you’re proficient—and to balance that, DCs and monster AC goes up by the same amount. As long as you only fight on-level stuff, this is a wash, but it means you will ROFLstomp anything just a few levels below you, or get ROFLstomped in return by anything just a few levels above you. This effect is magnified by the way PF2E handles critical successes and failures, and PF2E leans into that by having crits explode in effectiveness. High level creatures aren’t just hitting low level creatures more often, they’re pouring crit after crit into them. As a result, you get the MMO-style world that either quietly levels up around you based on your stats, or the challenges around you rapidly get trivialized as you level past them.

That’s something that used to bug me in 3.x/PF1, where it was less pronounced. In PF2E, you have to be all in on that design, or you won’t have a good time. Bring on the Level 15 stirges, baby!

Oh, and since it only effects things you’re proficient with, by the time you’re 5+ levels deep, the chances of succeeding a skill check you aren’t proficient with rapidly fades, leading characters to hyper-specialization in short order.

Razor’s-Edge Encounter Balance Cuts Both Ways

From all reports I could find, the encounter creation rules in PF2E have their rough spots but are mostly as accurate as described. And like D&D 4E, PF2E is balanced mostly around the encounter rather than the adventuring day. This makes story-based adventures (where there may only be one fight per day) work much better, as you don’t have a big imbalance between the casters/paladins/monks who can go nova, and the lowly “dependable martials” who can’t. On the other hand, it means that the only three encounter difficulties are “Trivial,” “Challenging,” and “OMG.” The best description I heard of it was “Every encounter in PF2E feels like a boss fight.”

As the DM, this can be super-freeing, because all you have to do is grab monsters that match the math and you can be confident you’ll get what you want out of the encounter. On the other hand, it can be super-limiting, because you can’t just toss whatever you feel like in there! You have to run the math for everything so you don’t accidentally put in the one owlbear too far that turns it from a good fight into a one-way trip to Boot Hill for your PCs. Where 5E is so loose as to be shapeless, PF2E is so tight that you run a regular risk of overtuning.

Swords and Spreadsheets

Pathfinder 2E is a game that is daunting to look at, period. Every character sheet or monster statblock is a sea of keywords that you have to either memorize or have quick reference for. Building your character requires choosing a Background, a Heritage, a Class, an Archetype, feats attached to all of those, and then any extra feats or proficiencies you still have left over at the end; then every time you level up, all of your proficient values change and you gain at least one new ability, whether that’s a class feature, a racial feat, a personal feat, etc. Running the game is an exercise in tracking “+2+1-4+2+2-2 = +1” calculations for everything you do, and because of the importance of critical success/failure, each one of those +1’s or -1’s is important. Now most of this calculation is just done up front (or when you level up), but if you have players with a short attention span—or you’re a DM who can’t hold more than three things in your head at once—there’s going to be a lot of “What was that modifier again? What does this condition do again? Wait, does {insert spell name here} apply?” going on, which is exactly the sort of thing that slows games and why 5E created the whole “advantage/disadvantage” system in the first place.

Basically, you’ve got to think about the mechanics a lot more often, and having a rule for EEEVERYTHING makes it a lot easier to “do it wrong.” The system gives you a solid framework to build custom creatures/items/character abilities on, but it’s like a giant erector set with a bunch of weird-looking little pieces. What do they all do? Why is this one at this weird angle? Why are there four different types of connectors??? I’m sure it works beautifully once you’ve got the hang of it, but from the outside it just makes my eyes swim.

My Fallacy Cost Sunk! (or, “Trading One Kind of System Pain For Another”)

Honestly, one reason I was considering PF2E was to bring back crunchy magic item rules for SirFox; 5E has worse-than-nothing systems on this topic and it’s caused us headaches in the past. But when I did a quick-and-dirty canvassing of opinions from group, he was the first one to argue against learning a new system so far into an established campaign. It surprised me, but other players said basically the same thing, and they’re not wrong. Jumping into Pathfinder at any level higher than 1 would probably be a disaster in terms of learning the system. But there’s also the fact that I’m just not convinced that it wouldn’t be just trading one set of problems for a different set.

I still have to come up with adventures that will work for these characters in this campaign. 5E is going to be mostly silent on this front, with me grabbing what third-party stuff I can find to use from the DM’s Guild, but mostly making it up as I go—with useless encounter building guidelines. Pathfinder has high-level content and great tools, but its adventures are as dense as the rule system they’re built for, and when I’ve run them in the past I usually end up throwing out large chunks and homebrewing the rest anyway. Even at higher levels, 5E is mostly-transparent at the table and fairly breezy in combat… the idea of going back to hour long fights does not appeal. O.o

So for the time being at least, I ended up deciding to stick with 5E. When we someday reach the end of the Storm King crew’s campaign, maybe I’ll look at running some PF2E just to see what it’s actually like… but I suspect by then we’ll either be at or near new editions for both. We’ll see.

-The Gneech

Aug 23 2021

On the Other Hand, Screw Omu :P

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Friggin' orcs, man.

Friggin’ orcs, man.

So I’ve been running an adaptation of Tomb of Annihilation for a while, and I have come to the unexpected conclusion that I don’t like running a hexcrawl as much as I thought I would, and also that I’m probably done with “big book campaigns” as a general thing any more once we’re finished with this. (Red Hand of Doom was amazing; every one I’ve tried since then, not so much.) I polled my players, and they’ve enjoyed the game fairly well, except for feeling the pressure of the Death Curse making them anxious about taking wrong turns or losing time to the jungle. ToA as written is kind of the worst of both worlds in that regard, in that you can’t just pfutz around and do what you want (which is the hexcrawl’s theoretical strength), but you also don’t have clear signposts showing you where the plot went (which is the strength of a linear plot).

Still, after only a few major detours, the characters found their way to the Forbidden City of Omu, home of the titular Tomb of Annihilation, except that before you can actually go into the tomb you have to get through… another hexcrawl! There are nine mini-dungeons scattered across the city, from which you are supposed to collect plot coupons, which in turn leads to another dungeon to get the last key, at which point you can start the first… level… of the last… dungeon… and collect… keys… for the… later…

Y’know what? No.

I spent the past few weeks prepping Omu while Plotline ran his game a while, and as we’re coming close the time when I’m actually supposed to run again? I just don’t want to. The stuff in Omu isn’t bad per se, but it feels like busywork, literally grinding for XP to get the characters high enough level to go through the main dungeon. And just… why? I guess it must have been written this way for a reason, but I ain’t running it.

I’ve got at least two weeks before I actually run; I have decided in that time to tear out all that “wander around the city as a whole ‘nother hex crawl” nonsense and instead create a semi-linear structure with a story the players can get into. There are existing and established factions for them to get involved with, a couple of subplots they are already connected to (including Inete’s crisis of faith and the Bag-of-Nails/Hooded Lantern/Copper Bell story), and so on. I’m also going to refactor the adventure as needed so they can tackle it at the level they are, instead of putting in a bunch of STUFF for them to level up with.

Realizing you want to skip to the end of your own adventure is not a good sign when you’re the DM. It’s time to do some fixing.

-TG

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Jul 23 2021

Bursty McThirsty

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Shade-Of-the-Candle runs into (or away from) danger!
During Shady’s most recent adventures in Inkblitz’s D&D game, I found her largely underperforming in combat. Some of this was my well-known dice curse, of course… +7 to hit and still couldn’t roll above a 12 even with advantage, that tracks. And some of it was that we’re in a party that’s bursty AF and generally goes nova in every battle because we rarely have more than one fight in a day. In a party that can fire off four fireballs in two rounds and not break a sweat, Shady’s 6d6 sneak attack “is also there.” Neither of these are things I can do anything about, so I’m looking for things I can do.

Besides the fact that the class is perfect thematically for Shady, I picked swashbuckler rogue for her because I was inspired by Sirfox’s Bugs Bunny antics with Nikki in my own Storm King’s Thunder campaign. A pain-in-the-ass who annoys his enemies to death as much as anything, under all that Nikki is actually a supreme duelist, who has dropped the finishing blow on many a boss fight. Not by himself generally–even with uncanny dodge he’s too squishy to one-on-one for long–but he’s still more often than not the one who lowers the boom.

All of that fits with what I pictured with Shady: she talks-talks-talks, tries to weasel and wiggle her way out of most fights to begin with, but once the fighting actually starts, her goal is to maneuver the baddie into position to just get straight-up murdered. Think Jack Sparrow dueling Barbossa to a standstill while Will and Elizabeth run around actually killing most of the pirates, that’s the kind of action Shady’s intended to engage in. It worked beautifully against the dragon Kresthianzé, but a lot of campaign has gone by since then! In most fights since then, Shady has been nearly one-punched before she got a turn, been flailing against mooks, or even better off staying out of the fight entirely and engaging in plot macguffins.

And to be fair, being the one chasing the plot macguffin while everybody else fights also tracks, think Jack Sparrow running around carrying a jar of dirt. And I don’t resent the other players getting cool moments–Leuco the tiny mouse obliterating demons with thunderballs is badass! I’d just like Shady to get some dueling action, so I need to figure out how to set that up.

In the most recent combat, she was hampered by her low Wisdom save, which left her charmed or feared for half of it; that’s not something I can mitigate any time soon other than by avoidance. After level 12 or so, Shady will have ASIs/feats coming out her ears and proficiency with Wisdom saves is on her shopping list, but before then she gets all of one ASI, three levels away from where she currently is, and that has to go to either Lucky or capping her Dexterity. (Darn you rogue 6, why couldn’t you have been an ASI instead of expertise?)

Numerically, capping her Dex has the most benefits, boosting her AC, attack rolls, and damage; on a meta level, Lucky would mitigate my dice curse and help prevent Wisdom-save-choking as long as I use it strategically. But as I say, it’s still three levels off.

One thing Nikki does that Shady doesn’t do as much, is to hide with cunning action every turn. Shady generally uses her bonus action to make an off-hand attack instead–since the first attack usually missed. ;P Hiding would give her advantage on her attack, but attacking twice is not that different mechanically (roll to-hit twice, crit chance is the same, and if the off-hand attack hits instead of the main-hand it’s 4 less points of damage) and fits Shady’s “in your face” psychology better. Hiding would make her a little more durable in the you-can’t-hit-what-you-can’t-see way, tho. Reflecting back on our recent battles, there hasn’t actually been much cover for her to hide behind, tho, so I’m not sure how viable a strategy that would be. I’ll have to look into it going forward.

Other than that? Well, Nikki has better stats than Shady (since I rather foolishly let players roll instead of going point-buy) and is higher level; he also has cloak and boots of elvenkind, giving him crazy Stealth checks. All of these things are factors, but again not ones I have much control over. Mostly I think I need to just keep looking for ways to boost Shady’s strengths and mitigate her weaknesses, without losing focus on the RP aspects that make Shady, Shady.

I’m just glad there’s no freakin’ paladins in the party. >.>

-TG

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Jul 21 2021

My Growing Suspicion Towards Skill Checks

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THIS JUST IN: I have opinions about D&D. I know, shocker, right? The latest that I’ve become aware of, is that I am growing increasingly reluctant? Distrustful? Resentful of? Skill checks. Both as the DM and as a player.

As a DM, it’s been kind of poking at me for a while; I don’t know when I first noticed, but somewhere along the line, “I make a _____ check” became group shorthand for “I skip to the end, what’s the result?” Talking to NPCs? “I make a Persuasion check to get them to do what I want.” or “Can I make an Insight check to see if I trust him?” Searching for clues? “I make an Investigation check, what do I find?” etc.

And I’m guilty of it too as a player—I think it’s just a habit we just sort of developed as a group—but it’s starting to grate at me. I’m not sure how or when it became a thing, and I don’t really care; but when I’m DMing, it’s something I’m moving away from. (The “Insight Check Lie Detector” is one that’s been a particular worry for me lately. My current campaign has had a lot of very dishonest NPCs, and more than once I’ve gone out of my way to wave red flags, only to have the players lean on their Insight check instead of just coming to the conclusion that the NPC is lying to them. If that Insight check is botched, well, the character believes and steps into the chipper/shredder, the player is frustrated, and so am I.)

As a player on the other hand, I’ve found it a severe handicap for years, because (as is well documented) I can’t roll dice for shit. Give me +15 to a check and advantage, and I’ll still find a way to botch the roll. My most famous incident was rolling 16 on 8d6 during the climactic battle of a CHAMPIONS session back in college, but I’ve had plenty of rangers who couldn’t damage their favored enemy, burly fighters who couldn’t knock down a door, cheesed-out skill monkeys who couldn’t pick a lock, and so on. To combat this, I’ve started being very meticulous in my descriptions about what my characters do and say, searching every nook and cranny of a room, drawing out every conversation with everybody, and so on, fishing for an auto-success so that I never hear that awful phrase, “make a skill check,” which translates to “you almost certainly fail.” I don’t want to have to pay a Feat tax of giving all of my characters Lucky just to get around my dice curse.

But philosophically, the more I think about it, the more it bugs me on principle as well as for any selfish reasons. It’s like the pay-for-shortcuts packages in MMOs, where you’re effectively paying to not have to play the game. The real mechanic of every TTRPG, what makes them a distinct and awesome activity, is the flow of the Game Master presenting a situation, the Player attempting to achieve something, and the Game Master adjudicating the result. That is the game, not your AC and hit points, not your 18 STR or your 8 WIS. “Roll Perception to search the room. (clatter) With a 10 you don’t find anything,” is just as boring as “Make your attack roll against the monster. (clatter) With a 14 you hit for three points of damage.”

As a player, there’s not much I can do other than make my best case to the DM and hope. As the DM, tho, I have started to change the way I handle skills. First and foremost was to institute a “please don’t roll dice unless I ask for it” policy at my table. And then, I try to set up my adventures such that I don’t have to ask for it. My policy for that is “ask for details, not dice rolls.” When players are being vague or evasive about what they’re doing, I come back and ask for specifics. I don’t demand that players who lack confidence in real life give speeches for their high-Charisma characters any more than I make players swing real swords in combat, but I do at least require them to tell me what it is they’re trying to communicate and/or get from the NPC, and what means by which they’ll try to get the NPC’s cooperation.

Now there are times when playing out every room search/enemy looting/secret door searching would get old, and particularly as we get into the back half of Tomb of Annihilation I expect that will be pushed to its limits. There has to be a certain allowance for the fact that it’s just not fun to detail the poking of every corner of every hallway. I generally get around this with my third policy, “assume the characters are competent.” And what I mean there is, if someone in the party is trained in Survival for example, assume they are good enough trackers to find trails and food/water unless there’s a particular reason why they might not. If they’re creeping through a dungeon, assume they’re watching the shadows and looking for traps, etc. In terms of game rules, this boils down to the “passive skill check” mechanic as a way to bypass “routine” things. The comedy of “Big Damn Hero Is a Stumblebum Because Fuck Dice” has long lost its appeal for me, if only because I keep building Big Damn Heroes and they keep stumbling instead.

-The Gneech