Tobold's Blog
Thursday, July 10, 2014
About the G in RPG

In the previous thread a number of people were in favor of a DM of a pen & paper RPG cheating to avoid unwanted results like random character death. The argument was that a RPG is role-playing, not roll-playing, and thus shouldn't be suffering from the randomness of dice-rolling. I don't agree. I think that argument totally ignores the G part of RPG, which stands for "game". Games generally become worse when somebody cheats. That is because games are a social contract, where the players agree for a limited time to adhere to certain rules. When you break that social contract, you destroy the very basis of the game.

That is not to say that dice are necessary for role-playing. There are quite a number of pen & paper role-playing game systems which are diceless. In that case the players agreed beforehand that they would prefer a system in which results are not randomly determined by dice. But if a group of players sits down to play Dungeons & Dragons instead of a diceless system, the social contract is a different one. The players agreed that they want a certain randomness in the game, because that can be fun. The DM cannot just opt out of that social contract, because ultimately he is a player too. His temporary god-like role in the pen & paper system are a consequence of the social contract, and do not reach beyond that agreement.

The DM in the video under discussion yesterday rolled his dice openly, and was chided for that by one commenter. But I think that the DM did the right thing, especially in the context of a training video for new DMs. Dungeons & Dragons, like all systems with a game master / dungeon master is asymmetrical, the DM has far more powers than the players. To a group of people playing a pen & paper RPG for the first time, that might well feel unusual. There can easily be a sneaking suspicion that the DM "isn't fair". Rolling dice in the open, at least at the start of a campaign, is a trust-building exercise. The DM shows that he is bound by the same set of rules as the players are. If something bad happens, it was bad luck with the dice, not the DM singling somebody out. If you have been role-playing for many years with the same people, you don't need that sort of trust-building. But this being a starter set for brand new players, trust-building is a necessary step. You don't want a first-time DM to cheat, because he probably doesn't even have the experience to know when fudging the dice would be a good idea. And you certainly don't want the first-time players to notice that their DM is cheating, because they would probably just quit at that point.

So what other options are there? Let's get back to the problem. While I did mention 1st level mages and arrows in my example, the problem of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons goes way beyond that. For example an orc (in the last playtest version, I haven't got the starter set yet and there are no monsters in the basic rules) hits for 1d12+2. Which means that if he rolls a critical hit, he can deal up to 26 points of damage. That kills any cleric, wizard, or rogue below 4th level, and any fighter below 3rd level. Furthermore if the orc has "advantage" in combat, his chance to roll a critical hit is 10%, not limited to 5% like in previous editions. Any hard-hitting monster in 5E with a large damage dice thus results in very unpredictable results, with the volatility of the results being large compared with the health pool of the characters.

The solution to that is not cheating. It is changing the rules in advance, in agreement with the players. There are various options, for example giving the players more health to start with, or letting them start at a higher level. Or, and that is even optionally supported in the rules as written, you don't roll dice for hit points and damage at all, but use always the average (rounded down). That means the orc always deals 8 points of damage on a normal hit, and 14 on a critical hit. And that most 2nd level characters can survive. But what I would really prefer is a system in which there is a better balance between the volatility of the damage rolls and the health pools of the players and monsters. Fudging dice rolls only gets you so far, for example you can't fudge your player's dice rolls. So cheating can't be the solution for a rules system in which the random numbers are too volatile.

I'm pretty sure 5th edition is "working as intended." The "luck" component is not something that makes an occasional appearance, from what I can tell the fights in 5E are more like 75% luck. There's no way they just didn't catch this in testing, clearly that's how they wanted it.

I just don't see how this system works if you understand probability. It appears that enemy crit = player death most of the time in the first few levels. So that's a 5-10% chance of player death every time an enemy takes a swing? Can you even make it through your first adventure without the DM fudging things?
I don't think the beginning hp totals are much of a problem if the DM is conscious of the fact that 1st and 2nd level player characters are fairly squishy and designs encounters accordingly. While I agree that crit damage can be pretty severe, at least Wotc changed it from the playtest version, in which you were guaranteed to do your max rolls, plus another dice. Sure, an orc might be able to do 26 damage in a swing, but that requires a crit attack roll plus two 12 damage rolls. The overall probability of that happening is 1/2880. Advantage can improve those odds, but that is a design or tactical issue in control of the DM and players. In addition, because of the way the death rule works, I think most of the time a player will merely fall unconscious. Even if the party all succumbs, that can just set up an "escape from capture" scenario for the next play session.
Agreed that most of the time the result of that randomness will be players being unconcious, not having to reroll their character. I still don't like it. An unconcious character, only able to roll death saves for the rest of the combat, is not a player having fun. And dropping to 0 hp goes from being a feedback of "you did something wrong" to a more or less random event.
It's easy to knock out a player, but that's not the same as killing them. You only get an outright kill if the player takes damage that puts them at negative their max HP in a single hit -- your orc example is correct, but a max-damage crit is not at all likely. An out-but-not-killed-outright pc gets 3-5 rounds of unconsciousness after which, if nobody stabilizes them in the meantime, they have a coinflip of either dying or stabilizing on their own. Plenty of chances to save a knocked-out guy.

A dead character can be saved by a 3rd level spell if you get to them within a minute, or a 5th if later, and though a low-level party won't have their own 5th-level spells, they will probably be in travel range of a major city with a major temple. No money? Well, that's a role-playing opportunity, isn't it? Perhaps you can convince the priest to raise your buddy in exchange for a favor, and there's your next plot hook (which btw is a situation mentioned expressly in the book).

The threat of death is a large part of what makes things exciting for a lot of players. Don't get me wrong, I fully understand if someone doesn't like that sort of game, but D&D has traditionally been deadly at low levels, and I think it's on the DM to house-rule it up if that's not the game they want. Like you say, you have plenty of options even if you don't want to fudge the dice. Making a house rule that monsters don't get critical hits is another possibility you don't mention.

Or, keep the fragility of the party in mind when designing encounters. A 1st-level party shouldn't be fighting orcs anyway; orcs have been the generic fantasy mook for so long that a lot of people forget they're kind of tough in D&D. The 1st-level goblinoid is a kobold.

(on preview, Joe Ursic has said much of that already and more succinctly, but I've already typed it out so.)
Clearly, following the guiding principles of the rule set is important. I think what others, including myself, were trying to say in the previous post is that the DM isn't the one playing the game. He's the framework for the game.

Here is an apt analogy -- if D&D were Golf, then the DM would be the Golf Course. He shouldn't change the rules of Golf, but it's entirely within his scope to make some holes shorter than others. Or maybe it's just a 9-hole executive course and not the full 18.

I'm somewhat surprised by your opinion on this. I mean, you are a strong supporter of making MMOs "accessible", even wrote "90% should complete content". But that's exactly what you shunned here: removing the "G". If you can't lose, there is no game.

You shun GM-s cheating, but you support MMOs nerfing the game, which is indeed GMs cheating to make unkillable monsters killable by the sub-par players.
Considering most of the anti-D&D sentiment I've heard players in my little corner of the world has centered on how they don't like "whittling" through large health pools, I think there's a market more spiky damage that can be lethal.

I'm rather torn on whether I approve or not, personally.
This comment has been removed by the author.
*edited for typos*
I wasn't going to sit through an hour+ video, but I'm curious -- did the "rules" not have a "save vs death" or "death saving throw" of a D20?

If not, then in the spirit of a DM taking liberties, then it seems to me that you could just let your players know you have 'house rules' that include a modified d20 roll vs death (with a chance to recover to 1 pt).

This could be as simple as roll every turn. If you roll a 20, you regain consciousness with 1 hit point. If you roll a 1, you die.
Here is an apt analogy -- if D&D were Golf, then the DM would be the Golf Course. He shouldn't change the rules of Golf, but it's entirely within his scope to make some holes shorter than others. Or maybe it's just a 9-hole executive course and not the full 18.

DMs always create the golf course. Fudging dice is moving the hole while the golf ball is in the air.

You shun GM-s cheating, but you support MMOs nerfing the game, which is indeed GMs cheating to make unkillable monsters killable by the sub-par players.

Same analogy. Making a dungeon easier is like making a golf course that is easier, and that is perfectly okay. There is no MMORPG equivalent for a DM fudging dice, because the game doesn't auto-adjust the dungeon for a bad pickup group after seeing their performance or makes it harder for a good group. A dungeon which would become harder if you played well or easier if you didn't would be rather bad game design, because it would punish you for playing well.
for example you can't fudge your player's dice rolls

I've played in many games where a player rolls terribly (for instance, multiple times in a row), and the DM says something to the effect of "you manage to muster out another swing!" and the player gets to roll again. In my groups that is always met with cheers. It's a fun and encouraging outcome, not a breaking of any 'contract'.

There is no MMORPG equivalent for a DM fudging dice, because the [video] game doesn't auto-adjust

Isn't that the point? We're playing table-top RPGs, not table-top video games. That the game itself is NOT set in stone* is the appeal and the thing that video games can never do. That's a positive thing.

*this can be the randomness of dice rolls all the way to the ability for the player or DM to do things outside the "rules", ie, a player swinging on the chandelier, which absolutely requires the DM to fudge the rules since there are no concrete 'chandelier swing' rules to begin with!

"the game doesn't auto-adjust the dungeon for a bad pickup group after seeing their performance or makes it harder for a good group. A dungeon which would become harder if you played well or easier if you didn't would be rather bad game design, because it would punish you for playing well."

WoW does EXACTLY this! You get a buff for wiping:

Also, you get a buff for playing with bad players:

But the main point is nerfing happens during the game. You can definitely create a new game with very easy content. Or new servers with different rules. But changing the content mid-play is cheating.
a player swinging on the chandelier, which absolutely requires the DM to fudge the rules since there are no concrete 'chandelier swing' rules to begin with!

To me that are very different things. If there is no rule, there is no "fudging" if the DM decides how to handle somebody swinging from the chandelier. But if there are rules that say that whether I hit or miss is determined by the roll of a d20, I cannot just ignore that just because I don't like the roll. Fudging dice is the easy way out for a DM who is too bad to be able to handle an unexpected outcome. If you don't like random outcomes, you need to play a diceless system.
I think where the fundamental disagreement here is that you can't "fudge" the dice as the DM.

You should have a reasoned and rationale approach that is transparent to the players, but the beauty of the role-playing game is that you aren't a slave to bad game design.

In some cases, the design flaw may be obvious up front and you have "house rules" that everyone in your group understands.

In other cases, the flaw isn't as apparent and the DM may need to make an adjustment as it evolves. A trap floor that is planned in your module that kills everyone in your party is going to be a pretty unrewarding experience.

Now that said, you raise a good point that a "novice" DM isn't going to have the experience to make those kinds of decisions. Which, IMO, is a different subject -- when should you begin to try your hand at DM?

Again, IMO, I wouldn't recommend it for anyone who hasn't at least had some significant time as a player first. The "novice" DMs should learn from other DMs.
I think most party wipes happen because of "unforeseen by the GM" aka "GM/design mistake" and some GMs tend adhere to rules in such situation instead of admitting a mistake or "on the fly modifying" a situation. And as it is a table top RPG, anything is modifyable ... even dice rolls.

Newer RPGs luckily provide "jokers" like fate/xp/hero points.
The "novice" DMs should learn from other DMs.

If you live in a place where that is possible, that would be a good idea. But face it, pen & paper RPG is by now such a niche activity that finding a DM to learn from is not obvious outside US urban environments. For me the WotC store locator shows zilch in a 50 miles radius from where I live.
Having GM'd these fun little games since the '70s, my stance on dice fudging has shifted over time. Back in the '80s, I was all for it, in order to smooth out bits of random badness. Usually it wasn't needed, since I could put forward bad tactics for my NPCs whenever needed, but I always rolled my dice behind a screen and fudged the rolls (cheated) whenever I felt I 'needed' to.

I just recently finished up a 4th edition game. My players included my teenaged kids. I generally rolled the dice right in front of them, lived with the results, and didn't hold back punches. Why? Game design. 4e is a more forgiving design, and doesn't punish players for taking risks. That meant I could avoid having to hide a dice roll in order to fake them winning when they didn't, by the rules. And *that* meant that they could relish the fact that they knew they did everything and got a result that they felt excited by.

4th edition fit a really interesting niche, a highly tactical, very fair, very well written fantasy combat sim. It handled the 'role play' side of things reasonably well with a well thought out skill list and a good balance of skills to stats. But clearly its identity was written in the powers and feats -- the idea of making a total non-combatant for 4e is silly, although you certainly can make it work and still be "encounter worthy" with builds like the Lazy Warlord. The niche for very tactical, powerful fantasy gaming is small and 4th did it wonderfully.

But if I don't want that, if I want a role-playing focused game, why oh why would I go with D&D 3.5, or Pathfinder, or D&D 5 when there are so very, very many alternatives out there? If I want to do drama, why wouldn't I take Dungeon World, or World of Darkness, or Savage Worlds? Other than the high pricetag and the WOTC logo, what does 5th edition bring to the table that isn't far better served by something else?

I moved away from D&D shortly after Argentina invaded the Falklands. I've tried a short campaign in every version since, but none of them stuck until 4th edition, because 4e had a *reason* to choose it over other alternatives in the market. 5th has no compelling reason for me to spend 150 USD on it. If I want to play a Game of Thrones setting and mood, my copy of Amber Diceless is sitting on the shelf, waiting.
I'm actually perfectly cool with open dice rolls, and I'm more than fine with the lethality in the game. Some game masters may want a lower lethality, but that's on them to introduce that to the players before the game starts.

For me, let the dice fall where they may. If you're able to run around and mow down monsters, they should be perfectly capable of mowing you down just as hard.
@jonreece raises an interesting question: how 'forgiving' of 'mistakes' or enthusiastic play are the various systems, including Pathfinder?

Two recent anecdotes from my recent play:

1. I was playing a Pathfinder Society game with a variety of players of various levels (PFS is like a group-finder dungeon that way). I was level 1. There were a number of other level 1's. We had a level 4 & level 3 too. We're up against a Level 4 boss in a theatre and had got 3 stealthies up in the balcony, when one of them (a level 1, incidentally) decides to open the fight by throwing an alchemists fire at the boss. He then misses (a 5 would have hit). No surprise round, 3 of the party miles away, the boss was a summoner, a healer that wouldn't heal (another story) and yet we still got the boss down. At various times, we had a total of 4 of 6 unconscious, but it was a lot of fun and we can now laugh about stealthy pyromaniacal idiots. That, to me, is a forgiving system.

2. Another party of 6 - 4 have stealth - the two that don't are the tank (me) and the healer. Got a 4-level tower - so send the stealthies in to do a recce. Long story short, they trigger a trap on the 4th floor which brings out the boss. Healer & I are three rounds away from the action. We get there just in time to see them deal with him and his summoned beast. My son (one of the rogues) managed to get into a flanking position and then dual wield critted with one and hit with the other. 2d6 + 1d6 + 4d6 (sneak attack) + 5 really took a chuck out of him. Not sure if the DM made that tactical error just to even out the game a little (possible, but I reckon not). Again, not without challenge, but also memorable. Forgiveness in design can be good.

Also, never trust people with stealth.
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