Monday, October 17, 2016

Some fun with the Sad DM (and other fun thoughts) - Part 3

Alright, that was a fun exercise. Mostly good comments and reader participation, people starting to discuss the problem I tried to illustrate. Good times. I'd still go and post all of it in one post the next time around and I really don't care how big it will end up when I post it. There is something unsatisfying with just pointing out (what I believe to be) problems without also hinting towards solutions in the end. Main problem I see is that people start running in all kind of directions (including myself) without taking the whole thing into account. Anyway, here is the end of it.

If you are new to the whole shebang, you might want to start with Part 1, work your way through Part 2 and then come back here (if you want to) for a more positive conclusion.

What's been established and what's been discussed

I am not the Sad DM, but I had moments close to that. Especially when I started DMing, 24 years ago, but every now and again until today, mostly regarding group politics and lack player dedication, with the occasional disruptive element to keep it interesting. Going by the feedback I got so far and what I hear from gamers all around me, I can say that I was not alone with those experiences and encounters and that those problems still strive, maybe even got worse. So what was that exactly:
  • The leading question, right there at the beginning, was if the common conception that the DM is something like a "service provider" is justified and/or fair. Every concept, idea and problem that came up afterwards, from the polemic ate the beginning, including the thoughts about consumerism and closing with the thoughts about personal freedom versus development, originated from that question ...
  • The position of the DM in the social structure of many groups is at odds with the workload necessary to keep the game afloat. Even the minimalist approaches some people claimed to be the "cure" for the Sad DM need rules ownership, knowledge and understanding if not years of experience to make them work. I agree, they make DMing easier (OSR-blog, after all), but they don't come easily and people seem to forget that ...
  • There is no "institutionalized" (for lack of a better word) gaming culture other than the corporate one and the corporate one sucks. No club or association, no public presence but a fractured (often fighting) patchwork of contradicting forces, leaving beginning gamers with what they can get by sheer luck or corporate advice, nothing else.
  • There's also an alarming tendency towards highly individualized, self contained content customization, meaning we are able nowadays to get what we want far more easily and readily than what we might need. This separation results in a "I don't care"-culture and people just taking sides instead of discussing problems to actually solve them (see your next flamewar for examples). That's taking it a bit easy, but think Immanuel Kant's theory of Enlightenment applied on our usage of technology and how the described nonage separates us ...
  • Our hobby has to compete with so many other hobbies/past-times that way more easily customized and less dependent on other people, that we actually need to do something to keep our hobby attractive to newcomers.
  • It is established that our hobby produced alternatives to the traditional approach, sharing the needed investment to make it work between all participants equally (namely Dungeon World/Apocalypse World, for instance) or allowing for very condensed versions of the experience (one shot/indie-games like My Life with Master or 44: A Game of Automated Fear). I'm not yet ready to accept that they are a natural development instead of an alternative and think traditional games should still be possible.
The photographer had been naked, btw ... [source]
What's left is to offer my opinion to some of the questions that arose in the last two posts. Given how the discussion was spread across 4 days and three posts, there're already lots of opinions and answers around. Not only in the comments (here on the blog and on g+), there are two other discussions about the Sad DM that I'm aware of:
And that's it so far. Many words, many thoughts and if you stayed with me to this point, I definitely owe you some closure. Before I do that, I'd like to state the following reservation up front: I offer those solutions to the best of my knowledge and I truly believe that they have merit, but I have neither the audience nor the pull to actually get this realized any other way than locally (maybe), so what follows could merely be considered propositions and food for thought. If this really is what our hobby needs is another matter open for debate ... Anyway, let's get on with it.

Organized play

The main reason for the lack of appeal (and thus the lack of participation) to participate in an epic role playing campaign is (at least with older players) the limitation to a very small group of people. An example: We all know of the appeal of talking with other, like-minded people about playing one of the TSR classics. They might have heard of it or even played a specific module themselves, so there is common grounds, something to share. The more fractured and unorganized our hobby grows, the more impossible it becomes to achieve that level of common ground.

That's what I meant with separated. It's no problem at all to find people that like what you like, but they are usually all over the continent. And while we are able to connect virtually, we have to disconnect in real life (to some degree). So when I became a fan of the OSR movement a couple of years back and nobody in Germany gave a wet fart about that (still, to some extent) a huge portion of what really meant something for me had nothing to do with my immediate surrounding ...

LAN-Parties: this isn't a new idea ... [source]
Anyway, organized play. The idea here is to produce something that has an appeal beyond playing in a group. Club-organized would be best, as it gets a bit more official and public with something like a club helming it. Think chess clubs with their work shops and tournaments and leagues. Something like that, but you'd have to provide an official gaming board of sorts, a campaign setting. Actually, make that a living and breathing sandbox, with a history, lots of toys and a potential fate.

Now you'd need approved Dungeon Masters to play games in the official setting. They are basically allowed to influence the settings history and future under the rules necessary to make something like this work for any number of groups (schedules where changes can take place and go public and so on). Fringe benefits are newsletters as the world changes all around the group and people talking at club meetings about where they went in the official setting, what they saw and what they changed ... like adventurers would when they meet (I hope you see the appeal in this!).

Next thing would be DM-Rankings and maybe player levels. I think a mentor program for beginning DMs might be a nice idea ... Done right, it just shows what I've seen lacking in many places: the social perception of the DM as service provider changes to that of a narrator. Somewhat of an official, so to say. You want to participate? Get in contact with the club and see how they handle it.

Organize this between several clubs, and you have connected realms that might influence each other. Even tournaments would be very possible in an scenario like that (although difficult, tournament play is a strange beast in role playing games). Either way, with enough people involved you'll have fan fiction, fan art, modules/adventures, a whole setting! And at that point, depending on size and popularity, you may end up getting sponsorship by publishers ...

And that's that, if a club where to take the lead, controlling (to a degree) what will be played and where, the market shifts from dictating what is played and bought (5e is fine, but we need a 6th edition in about two years ...) to support. With mutual benefits, I might add. Because once a publisher makes, say, a setting or module public, they'll make advertisement not for a system (as such a thing should mostly be system agnostic) but for the social aspect of the hobby!

... and you all know what happened. [source]
Where have I seen this?

I know this might not be for everyone, but some might even have doubts tat something like that could work for our hobby. Work in a way that gets publishers interested. Well, the most obvious contender, although a MMORPG and very much corporate, would be World of Warcraft. Huge setting, several groups and leagues, ever changing, events, all that noise. Sure it's a bigger scope than I intent to have in my original argument and brutally expensive to begin with. But think about using all those concepts and ideas just locally and you'd have a lot to go with before you'd be out of ideas.

The first German role playing game, 1977. [source]
Another example is a German game called Magira, the Neverending Game (I dare not call it a role playing game since they started playing it in 1966 ...). The Wikipedia-link only offers the German version, I'm afraid, but google translate will offer some great insights into a game about simulating a fantasy world that's organized by a club (FOLLOW, sorry, all German again) for 50 years now! They have several annual publications (500 pages plus per publication about history, events, art and so on), conventions where they rent a castle to have enough room for all the people ...

They are also publishers of the first role playing game in Germany: Empires of Magira (1977!) I'm sorry, this is some very obscure knowledge, but I just found out that the Hill Cantons had a post about it in 2011, so there you go. Empire had been the grandfather, so to say, of another great and old German role playing game: Midgard. And that's nowadays in it's fifth edition! Add book publications and all that and you get an idea what's possible.

There should be more examples and maybe somewhere out there is somebody with first hand experience about such a thing. What I'm saying here is that I think it's a good idea to do what we did in our hobby to begin with: organize as gamers and play the game to it's full potential. At least have that option for players, you know?

The Emancipated Gamer

This is a short one, but important nonetheless. Some of the discussions the last few days had been about how the Sad DM made many, many mistakes (which was the point, but anyway) and one that was pointed out very often, was that he'd planned too much ahead. It's difficult to assert where we actually start preparing our games, but learning the rules is definitely in there somewhere in the beginning. And that means, it almost always starts with some sort of product.

Sure, some are lucky enough to learn how it's done from a DM they know, but even something like that could go several directions, not all of them being positive. What I'm trying to say is that becoming a DM is difficult and that although we have now decades of experience around to share. But the hobby is too fractured and we lack proper definitions or a canon (remember that "Love letter for your favorite game"-community project? That was a brilliant idea close to what I'm talking about here!).

Something like this would be useful, maybe?
So you go with the products you use or what you can gather online. If you are lucky, you'll get it right fast enough. But I believe it'll go just as often the other way. In a way this is very close to the argument I'm making for organized play. DMing is not necessarily an occupation, but referees of all kinds of sports all over the world are able to get certified and learn what they have to do and how. What's missing for game masters is that it's publicly recognized occupation to begin with.

Is it so different from being an author or writer? Well, to solve this, we'd need to clarify if role playing is an art form or a sport, for instance. That's what I mean with a lack of definitions and why we need to organize apart from the industry. In short, we need a lobby. Or something like that. Why is it that we never get to discuss what role playing games actually are and what they could (or should?) be for society? I know there are uses for therapy (read somewhere it's already done, but can't find it ...) and we all know what we can learn from playing. But nobody cares? Why?

Anyway, part of that whole idea to work on something resembling a "gaming culture" (as we don't have that) is to collect and condense the experience of 4 decades of history into an easy accessible guide for DMs, a system agnostic breviary or pamphlet, of sorts ... I know there are several books that try to encompass this sort of thing, for instance (but none of them short or free or in any other language than English or easily accessible, btw), and advice is all over the place, some good, some bad, some debatable. But did we actually do any progress in any of that?

Alright, enough for today

Did I catch all loose ends? I'm not sure, but please consider checking out the forum discussion linked to above, as the discussion (from page two onward) actually covers several additional angles to what I wrote here (a book trade angle, for instance, how writers didn't get any kind of recognition only a couple of hundred years ago, or think about copyright ... stuff like that). And I'm really getting tired right now ...

The DM without a cause is happy now! [source]
So a bit more closure. Nothing of this is new, of course, TSR tried it at least up until 2e AD&D and I think this is to a good degree because of the hobby origin TSR had. All that changed with 3e and in a worse case scenario, the coast dwelling wizards will do to D&D what they did with Magic: a corporate controlled gaming environment that is perceived as the standard.

Well, I believe we can do better than this. And I know, all of this sounds like frecking politics and as I wrote above, I'm not even in a position to start a movement like this. But I'd really, really like to see that our hobby, with it's millions and millions of players all over the world should be recognized as socially relevant.

Just for comparison, WoW has around 2.5 million players right now (according to this source), is that really more than those playing table top role playing games? I don't think so (actually, this source here talks about 5 million alone playing D&D, and that's a couple of years back ...). So if something has that big of an cultural impact (also that last link, around 20 million people world wide are estimated to have played D&D at some point in the past and that's 8 years ago and not mentioning other role playing games), how is it that there is no unified effort to make it public?

I'm sorry, this ended up being more meandering than I intended. I don't even know where I'm supposed to end this right now. We have a great hobby, with some huge potential to be even more than that. Think about the possibilities in therapy or education, for instance, think about the possibilities to have this recognized as art or sport ... All of this is possible, nothing of it will happen if nobody starts working on it. And who else but us, those who played it for decades with dedication, would be most qualified to start that kind of dialogue.

Friday, October 14, 2016

More from the Unhappy DM (and other sad thoughts) - Part 2

As it happens every so often, it's the posts I hesitate to publish that get the most traction. Thanks for the lively response, guys! One problem with three-parters like this is that it's hard to follow up on the first one, especially if people already made up their mind what's it all about. So I'll go ahead and use parts of a post here I wrote and not only hesitated but didn't publish at all because I thought it's too bleak in its outlook. I'm glad that the response so far indicates that it will meet some understanding ...

If you haven't read Part 1, you might want to start here.


Technology has separated us. We all live in our individual little bubbles and our real life social circles overlap less and less with our digital ones. Some might say family and work will do that to you and that's life. And I would say, it is bullshit. Fact is that we are often forced to work irrational hours and times to earn enough money for the portions of entertainment we want to consume, paying extra for it being "flexible" or a "service" when, in the end, we are just milked and burned out and milked again ...

Pogo [source]**
But I digress. No, really, the current understanding of "work" is a big social problem and that's all fine and dandy, but it's the consequences that really get me riled up nowadays. Our use of technology (or how technology uses us?) may have started as a practical substitute for real life interaction, but with highly diversified life styles and the possibilities of customization, we are, well, fucked.

An individual won't need much more than internet access and some sort of device to use it with to be totally independent from everything else. Customized tv show schedules, enough games to play several lifespans, customized news and opinions. You'd never need anything else, you can just let go and ... drift. It's really that bad and getting worse*.

I could go on and tell you that this happens in cycles and hasn't changed the last 30-something years ... movies, music, cloth, trends, everything gets recycled relentlessly and we are not at a dead end in our development, we are in a brutal, advertise-fueled downward spiral to powerless uniformity. Gleichschaltung, as some bad Germans said in a dark time that should be well behind us, but is everywhere around us instead ...

As I said, I could go on, but this is about gaming and you might just as well see Demolition Man (1993) or Matrix (1999) or V for Vendetta (2006) for entertaining mainstream-ideas where we are heading and Fight Club (1999, based on a novel from 1996) to get an idea why (all four movies and ideas at least 10 years old, based on other ideas far off the mainstream way before that ...). Or go and read 1984.

Change begins with seeing the problem and communicating it. Realizing that we are, indeed and to some extent, slaves to consumerism out of the necessity to "work for a living" (and vice versa) means at least questioning this vicious cycle and maybe looking for an out ...

What's the problem again?

Alright, with that we have the second piece of the puzzle: people are separated. The third piece to understand the Sad DM is, paradoxically so, our need to relate. The smaller the special fragments are that make our life, the harder it gets to find others with the same interests. An easy fix here are mass phenomena. Be a Harry Potter fan and you'll find access easy enough. Dedicate yourself to it and you might end up having a voice, too!

Every niche has fandom like that, but the reason for mainstream being so popular is the low level of investment with relatively high pay-off. That's why we love to take sides. Pokemon GO, Game of Thrones, Star Wars ... you just need to consume to be with the crowd. And the beauty of it is, that the only thing you really need to do is just that: pay for it and invest very little brain capacity. In other words, dedicating your free time to do nothing at all.

On the spectrum now between Extreme Ironing and seeing Big Bang Theory to have something to talk about at work, I'd put role playing games more towards the ironing side of things. It's a niche and we know it. So the problem here is clear: a guy (or girl) dedicating enough time to learn a rule system and create some adventure, maybe even a campaign, maybe using a game that's not so popular (or just old), will more often than not come to a point where the effort doesn't generate the outside dedication it deserves ... And at that point it feels damn close to Extreme Ironing.

Extreme Ironing is a thing now ... [source]
Add people being people to this and every amount of time a campaign manages to gather is a small wonder indeed. But even then, players only prepare for games in the rarest cases and often only come to get entertained instead of contributing, group harmony is always a problem and the more people are estranged from each other (for the reasons stated above) the harder it gets to make gaming a unified effort. Every DM knows aspects of that story told in Part 1, I'm sure.

Now you add family or other social responsibilities and see what's left as soon as you are out of school or university. But it actually goes deeper. The whole SJW phenomenon is somehow connected to this, flame wars fit here as well, as people lose their ability (or decency, because internet) to communicate properly. You don't have to look far to read something stupid on the internet ... And all of that cooks down to:

Freedom is a problem

Yes, I said that. Especially if you are not free and believe everything is free choice. It is actually something like this: in getting told we are - within restrictions -  free to do as we please and do what we want, we are mislead to take the easy road. With telling us, we are perfect as we are and the possibility to keep this delusion alive by having our very own, highly individualized echo chambers, we are raised to ignore that truly interacting with others has the chance of discovering things about us we hadn't been aware of. We are taught into stagnation instead of development.
It's a problem ... [source]
At times I think every possibility for us to learn from the past or to evolve beyond a stage developed in the 1980s, is short-circuited like that to keep us, I don't know, unorganized and paralyzed? Doesn't matter, as those problems exist and we are free able to dedicate our time to do something against those problems (I wanted to add "until they come for us", but that'd sound outright paranoid, right?). Role playing games are, in my humble opinion, one tool to make such a difference.

So what can we do to make this actually work?

Dedication, recognition and ... more work?!

I'm trying something new here: shorter posts and closing with more questions than answers. Part 3 will take care of the rest and connect all the dots as far as I can see them. Humanity has a great gift of evolving through sharing experiences and I think we (or say: most of us) are losing our connection to that drive. That's what we get isolated for, that's why the Sad DM is sad more often than not, maybe it's even why role playing gamers got hunted down in the eighties as satanists or get ridiculed today by shows like Big Bang Theory, maybe it's also why the market would rather see us buying than talking, making and sharing ... I'll leave it at that for now for you to contemplate upon.

And I hope we can continue the lively discussion that started with Part 1. Comments are, as always, very welcome.

Some final thoughts about the Sad DM: It seemed like lots of people took the story about the Sad DM really to heart, but many added that the poor guy had been set up for heartbreak for planning his whole campaign in advance. The story isn't very clear about how he exactly prepared it, but that's not me being clever, it just allowed (in its unintentional vagueness) for some room to project our own ideas in there how he did it. The reactions show that many actually assume he did the very same mistakes so many of us did in their early DM years: going all-in with a super snowflake scenario, having non-player characters essential for the main plot (okay, that part is in there but a classic as far as rookie mistakes go) and putting so much work in there in general that he couldn't anything else but fail.

If I had written somewhere in the beginning that our Sad DM is, say, 16 years old, there'd been just some nodding and the consensus that he'll learn ... And that's a big part of the problem as I see it. There are better ways to prepare campaigns today. Those DMs needn't be alone, as we have decades of experience worth sharing***. Which leads to almost the same questions that came up at the end of Part 1: What do publishers actually do to make it easy on the new customer (or why don't they?)? Where is that recognition? Why isn't there a general platform (a lobby?) dedicated to support and spread our hobby from the very core, like you'd have for chess, for instance? Because, let's be honest, when all is said and done, it's bullshit to discuss what people should be playing and way more important to get dice into hands, right?

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself again and like to get back to what this post here had been about by closing with a reminder from Orwell's 1984 (the slogan of the fascists that control the world in the book):
That book doesn't have an happy ending. Think about that for a second ... And then, maybe read on in Part 3.

* Check out Her (2014), if you haven't already. That's what's coming for us in the very foreseeable future. And once this happens, the isolation will be complete.

** Special Thanks to +JD McDonnell for sharing this picture. The perfect fit for this post!

*** And I'd like to think we do that at least partially with blogs and forums and what-not. But is it really effective? Look around, use what I've written above: it's all echo chambers or vehicles for advertisements. There's no movement right now with enough punch to force a change. That's another strength of capitalist culture, actually: labeling trends to isolate them, then commercialize what swims to the top, building another monetary border where the logic of the market dictates instead of the human drive to evolve from experience. See the changes in the OSR as an example here, if you will.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Unhappy DM (and other sad thoughts) - Part 1

This is the first part of a long October post-series about Dungeon Masters being people too and why all that matters and how role playing games are more than a product. All are topics that come up every once in a while, here and irl. Since it's rare to read something about those aspects of our hobby, I thought I'd oblige ... So here are some thoughts questioning the common conception of the DM being a "service provider" and searching for some causes. It's all very connected, I think.

A very cruel story (the DM in a nut shell)

[the events here are staged to protect the innocent] So a guy shells out 150 bucks for the new D&D 5e core books, sits down for months to prepare a setting and a campaign about a fragile princess that needs protection, just like in The Neverending Story. There is maps and dungeons and non-player characters, a collection of pictures he likes and a sandbox full of hooks to keep the players busy while also doing some learning of the new rules, testing them on the side and working his problems through the forums. Months of preparation and transition, I tell you, while he has his regular game running as usual (of course).

The Neverending Story: All kinds of weird ... but in a good way! [source]
Somewhere towards the end of his preparations, he starts teasing the players with the new campaign. Maybe just mails and pictures, maybe a dedicated blog or a fb-page or forum. Interest is low (maybe a bit higher as it'd be usually, due to the fact that 5e is the new cool kid on the block ...) and he trucks along: sends around write-ups about the setting, possible character backgrounds and pictures.

Then the first player comes and says something like "Why not just play in the Forgotten Realms?! We have always been in the Forgotten Realms!". Others agree and the DM is forced to buy more books (because he needs the newest iteration, of course) ... let's say that's another 50 bucks. He's able to salvage most of his work so far and finds a place to put the new characters in. Just a little extra work, right?

The old campaign comes to an end and the new one needs some coordination. 2 players say they'd like to pause a bit (but actually want to play FATE instead) so new players are needed. It's easy enough to get replacements through the rest of the players and their connections ("my girlfriend always wanted to play ..." or "I know a guy who'd be game!") and all is well until it turns out that one of the regular players has a problem with one of the newcomers because of another game they played in together and things get all political and she leaves ...

In the end there's a completely new group constellation in a setting the DM doesn't particularly like or hasn't his heart in, anyway (and with the guy that made the original request been gone too, adding injury to insult) and with a bad taste of politics before the new game could even begin.

Next thing you know: scheduling the game is a bitch. People have other things to do. Festivals in the summer, other games they are more invested in, life in general, you name it. To keep them all happy the DM ends up playing board games with those players available, waiting for the moment when the stars are right and everyone has time.

Good thing is, he gets a feel for the new players. Bad thing is, he really doesn't get along with one of them. The reasons here are secondary, but he just thinks he doesn't want the guy in his game. There are implications, of course, as it's a good friend of one of the players who stayed for the new campaign and there's always the possibility of bad blood because of such a thing. So he leaves it as it is.

And then that day happens. All have time, all are there. The new campaign can begin!

Our DM wants a good start and goes all in with the preparation: miniatures, painted and paid for, dungeon tiles, background music ... he even practices how to play the NPCs to full effect! Character creation is the first hurdle, though. THAT GUY wants to play some class from one of the Forgotten Realms source-books and it doesn't fit. There's an argument and it's going on for so long that the DM just gives up to get the rest of the game set up properly. He can always ignore THAT GUY and his character ...

Anyway, characters are made, pizza was ordered and eaten, the game starts and the DM weaves his magic. People get into it, fun is had and as the characters meet that fragile princess so important for the whole campaign, one player destroys it all by saying: "Yeah, well, I stab her IN THE FACE!", high-fiving his neighbor and celebrating his little destructive impulse with stupid laughter.
Made a puppy cry, too ... [source 1 and source 2]
After all, it's just a game. Right?

A true story? No, not entirely.

The above is fiction in as far as it never happened to me as described there. But I have experienced parts of it, heard others and read about even more. So you could say it's a pastiche of things I know happened to people helming a role playing game. As a matter of fact, the list of small slights, impersonal carelessness, unsocial behavior or in-group politics doesn't end with what I illustrated in that little story above. It's merely scratching the surface, I'm afraid.

That's a problem.

There is something about role playing games that defies the very core of the society big parts of us live in: you just need some rules, some dice and some friends and you can play one and the same game ad infinitum and you are set for life. You can do all of this yourself and it's possible to play it completely without technical support. It's a capitalist's nightmare and all you need to do to make it happen is ... well, you only need to refrain from doing something else.

Isn't it strange how people get committed to something like a tv series or a movie franchise but have a hard time bringing the same enthusiasm into a pursuit where we actually could be part of very much the same instead of just, you know, consuming it? Well, there're phenomena like World of Warcraft where you come pretty close to participating in a way you'd as a player in a role playing game. But people still have to pay for it and do so very willingly. So what's that all about?

Consumerism, recognition in the hobby and all that ...

My ventures into consumerism grew into a massive post in its own right, so it will be in Part 2. The short of it is, we are so trained to getting everything - especially our entertainment! - packed in friendly little doses that it's getting harder and harder to step away from this and do something by ourselves. But why that is and how all that is connected to why we somehow on the one side expect a DM to do all the work and on the other hand don't get involved enough to invest our time because it doesn't cost a thing, well, all that is part of that next post.

It's bothering me a bit that I just described the problem in this post here and couldn't hint towards solutions or anything. But I hope some of it rang true with some of you. I hope this will help starting a discussion and maybe raise an awareness to some aspects of our hobby that get neglected far too often: the fact that DMs do all the work, inside and outside the game. We organize, we socialize, we do all that is necessary to make a group of people ... happy? For what exactly? Why isn't that appreciated enough? Where are the publishers actually supporting DMs for playing their games? Not just with free swag (which is nice, of course), but with ... I don't know, workshops, badges, recognition beyond what was paid for ...

Alright, I'll stop for now. This is all over the place and while I need to go far deeper down that particular rabbit hole, I'll also write a bit about what can be done and what has already been done. That'd be Part 3, though.

If you want to add to this, feel free to comment and tell us about your experiences and thoughts about being a DM and if it really is that thankless an endeavor to spend your time with.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Rethinking Armor Class and Damage for the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (DIY RPG Design)

Still no chimpanzee character class ... but soon, my friends. For today I have something else on my mind: just read a post over at Mesmerized by sirens about an obscure (and old) AD&D clone and the librarian showcased a little rule from that game. A rule that lets you hit the armor, too, on occasions and I like that. Already thought about using it, even. But then I read a comment that it became a bit cumbersome to use in the game. Well, I thought a bit about alternative takes on the problem and here we are ... writing an alternative combat system!

This is a test.

It's all about the dynamics of combat, right?

Just started to DM a bit D&D RC on the side the other day. Something light between play-testing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. Now back in the saddle, I realize, I still like most of my house rules. But there are those I need to replace and most of that is related to combat. I toyed a bit with Weapon Mastery and I think I won't do that anymore (fast and furious is what it should be right now). Initiative is still a problem and cooperation is not really supported by the rules ...

It's little problems and little adjustments here and there, as it has ever been. There is one thing I never got around integrating into the game and that is what happens when an attack misses but would have hit if the character didn't wear armor. It's just a little thing to add a bit color to a fight, but it helps emphasizing that armor actually saves lives. It should have an impact in the game other than being numbers you remember.

Anyway, I'll cut to the chase. We have four categories of armor in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia: none, light, medium and heavy. That's your unmodified Base Armor Class (BAC) and three ways to alter that with equipment. My proposal now is relatively simple: light armor reduces  the BAC by 1, medium armor reduces it by 2 and heavy armor reduces it by 3. So with a BAC of 9 you'll end up with 8 (light), 7 (medium) and 6 (heavy armor). That'll make them easier to hit, going with the combat matrix of D&D. The idea now is to compensate that by raising the damage dice up to 3 categories: from d6 Base Damage (BD) (normal damage) to d8 (against light armor) to d10 (against medium armor) to d12 (against heavy armor).

I have no words ...[source]
That means raising it by two points each, which has us ending up with the following connotation:
  • BD none 1d6 (-)
  • BD light 1d8 (2)
  • BD medium 1d10 (4)
  • BD heavy 1d12 (6)
So if you hit a target, you might end up hitting its armor instead (a result in the indicated range) and if you roll above, you deal damage (minus the indicated range). I'll use those lower results to reduce Endurance (all combatants have [4 + HD (+/- modifier)] Endurance] and lose 1 point or more per round*) ... the price of wearing armor.
Example: An attack with a sword hits against medium armor. Damage is rolled with a 1d10 and comes up with a 3. The cut is deflected by the armor (dealing 3 damage to Endurance, playing it my way). If that had been an 8, though, the hit would have dealt 4 damage (8 - 4 because BD medium 1d8 (4), thinking of it as "above 4" should also do the trick).
With that established, we can talk a bit more about damage now ...


Let's talk damage. Base Damage (BD) for medium sized creatures is 1d6. You use a small weapon, it's 2d6, take the lower result. You use big weapons (or both hands with a normal weapon), it's 2d6, take higher result.

If you go a size category higher, the die also gets a category higher. So huge creatures have a base d8 and giant creatures have a d10 (with the same rules as described above ... claws of a giant dragon, for instance, will use 2d10 and take the lower result) and gargantuan creatures will have 1d12.

I've known fights like that :D [source]
I'm hesitating to give small creatures the d4 ... Let's try that for melee, with the d6 for ranged combat (mirroring the halfling's ranged combat bonus) and a bonus when fighting armored enemies (see below). Rest is as above.

To avoid that characters with high STR continually circumvent those rules, I'd say that bonuses only apply if the result is over (armor class).

Armor and Damage

Now we'll find out what happens if we apply the armor rules above. The easy part is, you can't scale down. So an Ogre will deal 1d8 BD until he fights someone with medium armor or higher (which means: 1d8 (-), 1d8 (2), 1d10 (4) and 1d12 (6)).

The next thing is, you always scale up as written. That's the benefit I talked about when halflings fight someone wearing armor: they'd deal the indicated damage (so versus light armor, they actually get the d8 (2)).

Let's talk Weapons

Weapon size already has an impact, but I'd like to talk a bit about different types of weapons, too. There are basically 3 aspects a weapon can have: slashing, piercing and bludgeoning (the easy variant, of course ...**).

SLASHING - If you do more damage than you would need to dispatch an enemy, you are allowed to cut the next enemy with the rest damage if it is in reach of the weapon (no extra attack, just pass the damage). If that follow up enemy has armor, give the (armor class) as endurance damage and the rest as lethal damage. CRITICAL HITS: Apply modifiers against BD and double the damage (which means that STR might help overcoming (armor class) and that the result above (armor class) is doubled)!

PIERCING - If you roll maximum damage with a piercing weapon, the enemy will lose 1 hp every round from the next round on (either because of bleeding or because something is sticking in him, dealing internal damage). If that damage was dealt with a melee weapon, the attacker can decide to push it further in, which would count as an automatic hit every round he does so but would also take away his mobility (effectively reducing his BD by half). CRITICAL HITS: Maximum Damage, ignore armor, keep the die (you'll do 12 hp unmodified damage, then, against heavy armor)!

BLUDGEONING - If a damage roll against armor only does Endurance damage, an attacker is allowed to add his STR bonus to the Endurance damage (it's that special Umph of blunt weapons ...). If the resulting Endurance Damage succeeds the (armor class), the enemy also needs to make a saving throw versus paralysis or fall down. CRITICAL HITS: Deal damage to Endurance and HP, destroy piece of armor (magic items get a save ...)!

Weapon restrictions for characters still apply as written.

Loose Ends

As it is with complex systems like D&D combat, there'll be some strays that need taking care of:

AIMED HITS - Attacker may take penalty to attack roll as additional damage to BD roll (actually to overcome (armor class), if necessary).
Example (aimed hit with sword against heavy armor): Goes for the head, takes a -8 penalty on attack roll, so it's 1d12 (+8 - 6) damage in the end (unmodified maximum of 14 with a sword ...).
SNEAK ATTACKS - Double damage, reduced by (armor class).
Example (dagger against medium armor): 2d10, take lowest - double result - reduce result by 4 (16 points unmodified damage are possible).
ECHO (old house rule) - Rolling the unmodified maximum on a die allow to add another roll, but one die category lower (d20 - d12 - d10 - d8 - d6 - d4). This still applies for damage rolls, but all follow up dice also need to overcome (armor class) or they'll only deal Endurance damage. Follow up dice are always single dice. This will change some of the results above, but not by much.
Example (two-handed sword versus light armored foe): Successful attack allows for 2d8, take higher result - an 8 comes up (6 damage) and another d6 (single) is allowed - result of 1 or 2 means additional Endurance damage/result of 3 to 5 means 1 to 3 points additional damage/result of 6 means 4 points additional damage and adding another d4 working with the same principles (maximum damage that way would be 12 hp).
MAGICAL BONUSES - Magical bonuses on weapons should apply to the to-hit (as usual) and to overcome (armor class), which means it counts for the original roll and not (like STR-modifiers) after lethal damage is established. Magical armor will reduce the Base Armor Class.
Example (Club +1 versus heavy armor +3): To hit a Heavy Armor +3 means hitting a Base Armor Class of 3, so a normal human would need a result of 17 or more to hit that AC - if that normal human would use a Club +1, he'd only need a 16 to hit the target and he'd only need to roll over 5 with the d12 to deal hp damage (or, alternatively, roll 1d12+1(6)).
SHIELDS - Nothing changes.

The last point I can think of. And a tricky one at that. The Rules Cyclopedia is not necessarily famous for being detailed about how different armor class ratings come to pass other than stating that it is a mix of DEX-modifier and thick skin/scales and maybe armor. That's the moment where you have to decide a few things, the first among them would be what kind of armor the monster is wearing (or what the skin/scales/etc. should count for). According to this you'll have to reduce the given AC by either 2 (light armor), 4 (medium armor) or 6 (heavy armor).

That's a jousting cat armor ... enough said. [source]
The result is the Base Armor Class the characters need to hit and the Base Damage you get (reduced by 2 would mean the BD is 1d8 (2) and so on). In extreme cases you could go and decide that natural armor should account for more than 1d12 (6). In those cases it should be okay to raise the (6) to something higher (but not higher than 12 and that only if you use ECHO described above).

Last Thoughts

This turned out to be quite complete, but also more complicated than I had hoped. I still think that it'll be easier to use at the table (as in: I just need to know those basics to improvise every encounter just based on a description) and also offers some tactical choices and fun results along the way (people getting stabbed or thrown to the ground or slashing all over the place is always fun!).

The only thing I have to give up here would be a more detailed approach to armor (as in: when it says you wear light armor, then that's what you are wearing ... there are no 3 different kinds light anymore). But for that you get to know when armor is hit and to what effect. I'm tempted to tinker with initiative and maneuvers, too. But that's for another post.

We'll test in on Friday and see if it flows :) Comments are, as always, very welcome. Is it an alternative or is it by itself again too baroque to really make the effort worth it?

* If Endurance is reduced to zero it needs a INT-check to cast spells and every point below that reduces AC and to-hit by 1. This goes on until a negative value equal to the original Endurance is reached, at which point fighting becomes impossible and a save versus paralysis is necessary to keep consciousness ... 

** It's easy enough to go the Weapon Mastery way with this, expanding it with very specific abilities for some weapons. I'm still resisting the urge ...