On Why You Have Bad Players

Why did I write this post?

How do I know they are bad players?

Incorrect Purposes of Play!

They spend their time in the game arguing instead of playing. In modern systems, it's about the rules. In older systems, it's about "what would really would happen here".

What do I mean by arguing?
This game continuously is put to the task of being a broad representation of fictional events. At the table I've represented everything from a massive attack action against a troglodyte village, to a literal witch hunt, to a heated battle in a beholder space craft both going to and escaping from the hive.

It is very flexible. In this situation, when do arguments occur?

It does NOT happens when a thing is described and somebody disagrees about the thing being described. There are reasons why people disagree; it may conflict with their real world experience;  the thing described is not meeting their current needs; or when they have confusion over the situation. What happens in those cases is communication.*

Arguments occur when cognitive dissonance is created because of conflicting "Purposes of Play".  Arguments are defined as disruptive communication that derails the engagement in play. Cognitive dissonance is defined as the feeling in your brain that drives these arguments. Purposes of Play are defined as 'What sitting in this room playing this game is about'.

Why is this happening?

When I say 'what playing this game is about' I'm not talking about playing styles, like combat as war versus combat as sport. I'm not talking about narrative games versus board games. I'm not talking about cooperative games versus competitive games. All these are stylistic differences. All of these are activities anyone can enjoy.

What I am talking about is the Purpose of Play.**

Purpose of play is the reason you choose to engage in the role playing game. Not the experience you hope to achieve in play, but the reason you choose to stand up, get in your car, and drive to go play D&D.

Unlike Creative Agenda, Unlike Playing Styles, this is NOT a situation where "I say to-may-to, you say to-mat-o". This is a situation where you can have a fucked reason for bothering. I will stand in judgment of the purpose of your play, like the Norse judged the ice giants unfit for life. Getting hit by a hammer for unacceptable Purposes of Play is an option on the table where the fornication of mothers occurs.

Here are some acceptable Purposes of Play
  • You want the game to be about having some fun with your friends
  • You want the game to be about spending some time laughing
  • You want the game to be about escaping to a fantasy realm for a bit, from children, work, or other stressors
Here are some unacceptable Purposes of Play
  • You want the game to be about catharsis for you at the expense of other players
    • You decide in the middle of scene to have your character urinate on another PC
    • In a cooperative fantasy RPG, you have your character destroy the magic item of another character
  • You have the expectation the game (any game) to be absent consequence and rejection. 
    • You behave inappropriately (threaten, intimidate, use inappropriate language for your peer group) when negative events happen to your character.
    • You act in those inappropriate ways and others (manipulation, bribery) to intimidate people from having negative things happen to you
  • You want the game to be about engaging people (not characters) in power struggles so that you can 'win'. 
    • You take the game pieces from the other players and refuse to give them back
    • You sit in the chair of the DM and refuse to give it up when he returns
  • You want the game to be about you and demand constant gratification, being disruptive when activities take place that you don't enjoy or that don't focus on you.
  • You want the game to be about winning to the point that you cheat.
  • You want the game to be about an opportunity to exert non-consensual masochistic tendencies. You wish to minimize, exploit, diminish, debase or degrade the players.
    • Verbally abusing, sexually harassing, or having inappropriate boundaries with other players.
Note that the above list is about the behavior of the players not their character. This article is about tabletop games. Clearly physical contact is acceptable in a sport. I am using a general definition of a tabletop games. I mentioned Creative Agenda and Playing Styles above, because it is assumed that the players all agreed to play the game and the expectation of what the game consists of has been discussed. See footnote * for clarification. If this is not done, you are likely to have disagreements which are primary based around communication issues. Are there games where character's backstabbing other characters is acceptable? Sure! That's cathartic, but not at the expense of other players. That's just the game you're playing.

Most damming, I'm not talking about joking around or the occasional odd event - this is about players who engage the game with the examples above as the reason they left their house to play.

So, why did I write this post? Because the problem with 'old school, skill light' play, the problem with 'tactic heavy character build play' isn't the rules and it isn't the game.

As my experience of having actual discussions with people about disagreements regarding gaming, I've realized that the disagreements aren't in the text - they're in the baggage the person brings with them.

It's games people have played in where these things have occurred where they are attributed to the game instead of the person.

I'm going to be writing a series of articles about my style of play, attempting to address some of the constant misunderstandings that occur on this blog.

Every post will be written under the assumption that you are playing with people who have an acceptable Purpose of Play and not a negative one. If you are playing in a game with a negative Purpose of Play, leave, or eject the player that is the problem.

*It can of course devolve in an argument if there is a poor communicator involved, or if someone is not paying attention to signals being given out, or if there is personal friction there to begin with. But in those cases, they aren't arguing in the sense we're concerned with. They are either communicating or communicating poorly. There isn't an argument, there is a misunderstanding.
**This is different then Creative Agenda. I have run a table with tons of people who had different creative agendas. I've had some players sit though games where their creative agenda is not being met where it was fine and they were well behaved. It's a super-complicated way of saying 'what am I interested in doing in this game' and hell, we all bend over backwards for each other to make that happen. Eventually the game spins back around to what you like to be doing and you get your turn.

 *** By the definition above, I am a terrible player. I am guilty, not of the cause but the effect of each thing listed above. I declare unintentionally! . . . It's a good thing I'm such a good DM.

On Combat and Value

Just wanted to take a second and talk about this post over on How to Start a Revolution in 21 Days or Less by Oddysey.

It's one of those important summary articles that takes years of experience with a design and distils it down into useable information that improves the play of the game at the table.

Why D&D Has Lots of Rules for Combat: A General Theory Encompassing All Editions


On Combat as Sport Versus Combat as War Examples

Combat as War Examples:

Combat as Sport Examples:

On Combat as Sport Versus Combat as War

In a similar vein, here is a post made on EN world that brilliantly summarizes the difference between playstyles of old and new school play. It's important enough that I thought it deserved a permanent home. The original article is here. The author is Daztur. The following text is written by him.

"[Very Long] Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War: a Key Difference in D&D Play Styles...

…and how to reconcile them in 5ed.

On another forum I’ve been running in circles with fans of other editions about different D&D play styles and how different editions support them, but I think I’ve finally nailed a key difference that sheds an enormous amount of light about so many disagreements about 5ed development.

Without quite realizing it, people are having the exact same debate that constantly flares up on MMORPG blogs about PvP: should combat resemble sport (as in World of Tanks PvP or arena combat in any game) or should it resemble war (as in Eve PvP or open world combat in any game).

People who want Combat as Sport want fun fights between two (at least roughly) evenly matched sides. They hate “ganking” in which one side has such an enormous advantage (because of superior numbers, levels, strategic surprise, etc.) that the fight itself is a fait accompli. They value combat tactics that could be used to overcome the enemy and fair rules adhered to by both sides rather than looking for loopholes in the rules. Terrain and the specific situation should provide spice to the combat but never turn it into a turkey shoot. They tend to prefer arena combat in which there would be a pre-set fight with (roughly) equal sides and in which no greater strategic issues impinge on the fight or unbalance it.

The other side of the debate is the Combat as War side. They like Eve-style combat in which in a lot of fights, you know who was going to win before the fight even starts and a lot of the fun comes in from using strategy and logistics to ensure that the playing field is heavily unbalanced in your favor. The greatest coup for these players isn’t to win a fair fight but to make sure that the fight never happens (the classic example would be inserting a spy or turning a traitor within the enemy’s administration and crippling their infrastructure so they can’t field a fleet) or is a complete turkey shoot. The Combat as Sport side hates this sort of thing with a passion since the actual fights are often one-sided massacres or stand-offs that take hours.

I think that these same differences hold true in D&D, let me give you an example of a specific situation to illustrate the differences: the PCs want to kill some giant bees and take their honey because magic bee honey is worth a lot of money. Different groups approach the problem in different ways.

Combat as Sport: the PCs approach the bees and engage them in combat using the terrain to their advantage, using their abilities intelligently and having good teamwork. The fighter chooses the right position to be able to cleave into the bees while staying outside the radius of the wizard’s area effect spell, the cleric keeps the wizard from going down to bee venom and the rogue sneaks up and kills the bee queen. These good tactics lead to the PCs prevailing against the bees and getting the honey. The DM congratulates them on a well-fought fight.

Combat as War: the PCs approach the bees but there’s BEES EVERYWHERE! GIANT BEES! With nasty poison saves! The PCs run for their lives since they don’t stand a chance against the bees in a fair fight. But the bees are too fast! So the party Wizard uses magic to set part of the forest on fire in order to provide enough smoke (bees hate smoke, right?) to cover their escape. Then the PCs regroup and swear bloody vengeance against the damn bees. They think about just burning everything as usual, but decide that that might destroy the value of the honey. So they make a plan: the bulk of the party will hide out in trees at the edge of the bee’s territory and set up piles of oil soaked brush to light if the bees some after them and some buckets of mud. Meanwhile, the party monk will put on a couple layers of clothing, go to the owl bear den and throw rocks at it until it chases him. He’ll then run, owl bear chasing him, back to where the party is waiting where they’ll dump fresh mud on him (thick mud on thick clothes keeps bees off, right?) and the cleric will cast an anti-poison spell on him. As soon as the owl bear engages the bees (bears love honey right?) the monk will run like hell out of the area. Hopefully the owl bear and the bees will kill each other or the owl bear will flee and lead the bees away from their nest, leaving the PCs able to easily mop up any remaining bees, take the honey and get the hell out of there. They declare that nothing could possibly go wrong as the DM grins ghoulishly.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Some D&D players love the tactical elements of the game and well-fought evenly matched combat within it while other players prefer the logistical and strategic elements and if only end up in evenly matched fights if something has gone horribly wrong. These two kinds of play styles also emulate different kinds of fantasy literature with Combat as Sport hewing to heroic fantasy tropes while the Combat as War side prefer D&D to feel like a chapter of The Black Company. This was really driven home by one comment from a Combat as Sport partisan talking about how ridiculous and comedic it would be PCs to smuggle in all kinds of stuff in a bag of holding so they could use cheap tactics like “Sneak attack with a ballista!” However, sneak attacking with a ballista is exactly what happens in Chapter Forty-Eight of Shadows Linger (the second Black Company book) and the Combat as War side think that’s exactly the sort of thing that D&D should be all about.

While either form of D&D can be played with any edition, it works better with some editions than others. A lot of people have played TSR editions from more of a Combat as Sport Mindset and a lot of later TSR products seem to consist of trying to frog march poor Croaker into heroic fantasy, but TSR-D&D mostly sucks at Combat as Sport. It’s not easy to gauge what would be a good fair fun fight for a given party and the same fight could end up as a cakewalk or a
TPK, melee combat is repetitive, there’s one-hit kills etc. Also a lot of elements of TSR-D&D design that drive Combat as Sport people crazy, really tie into the Combat as War mindset. Things like tracking rations, torch usage, rolling for wandering monsters, etc. are important for this kind of gameplay since they make time a scarce resource, which is vital for strategic and logistical gameplay since if the players have all the time in the world so many strategic and logistical constraints get removed and without those constraints you get all kinds of problems cropping up (most notably the 15 minute adventuring day). As Gygax says, in all caps no less “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT” (DMG page 37), which sounds like crazy moon logic for people who like Combat as Sport gameplay but is a central factor in making Combat as War gameplay work.

With 3ed the game shifted a bit towards Combat as Sport and then shifted a good bit more with 4ed (although you can still certainly run 4ed as a Combat as War game with heavy use of things like rituals, but the main thrust of the game is towards Combat as Sport). In 4ed it’s easy to tell what’s a good fair fight for a given party and combat rarely goes in a direction that the DM completely didn’t expect and there’s tons of fun combat variety. However, the 4ed focus on balancing combat at the encounter level rather than the adventure level (or just not balancing it at all and running a sandbox) runs directly counter to Combat as War gameplay. In order for a combat encounter to be well-balanced nothing that happens outside of that encounter can matter too much. This means that in order to get proper encounter balance, the impact of strategic and logistical gameplay must be muted as if having stuff that happens outside of the combat make a huge difference in the difficulty of the encounter, then there’s no way to guarantee fun balanced fights. Hence Encounter Powers, hence Healing Surges (sure starting combat with half of your healing surges sucks but not as much as starting it with half of you hit points), hence not having any classes that are designed to be below par at tactical combat, hence a lack of abilities that are useless in some fights but “I win” buttons in other fights, hence a lot of Sports and War dislike for the few bits of 4ed design that don’t fit well with balancing combat at the encounter level (notably Daily Powers). Of course 4ed is not doesn’t do this 100%, but it comes a lot closer than any other edition. However, the whole line of thinking runs counter to Combat as War thinking, the whole POINT of Combat as War gameplay is to make the playing field as unbalanced as possible in the favor of the party, so mechanics that are built around balancing combat at the encounter level just get in the way. In addition, 4ed removes a lot of items from the Combat as War gamer’s bag of tricks and it’s much harder to rat
the opposition with 4ed powers than 1ed spells, since they’re specifically written to be resistant to be used for rating and the lack of specific information about specifically how 4ed powers work in real-world terms make it hard for Combat as War players to use them to screw over the opposition instead of beating them in a fair sportsmanlike match since it’s hard to figure out exactly how to use 4ed powers for off-label purposes.

But probably most importantly, 4ed combat just takes too damn long for Combat as War players. If you’re going to spend your time doing sneaky rat bastard Black Company stuff before combat starts, then having combat take a long time is just taking time away from the fun bits of play. Also if combat takes a long time you just can’t have the sort of attrition-based gameplay since there just isn’t time to have 5 combats in five hours with plenty of time for other stuff aside from combat and a break for pizza as well. 4ed thrives on big flashy set piece battles and that doesn’t work well with Combat as War gameplay since the best kind of combat for those players is having the enemy die like a chump in the first round (with a good admixture of the PCs running and screaming in terror in the first round).

OK, now how can we reconcile these two different play styles in 5ed. Having the tactical rules be an add-on module for the Combat as Sport people is an important first step, this lets the people who like that have fun with it while the Combat as War people can use the simpler combat rules to get combat over quickly. But I think that the Combat as War people could use a DM-side add-on module as well with ideas to emphasize strategic and logistical thinking (the “Fantasy
ing Vietnam” Module basically). How monsters are written up also matters a lot. In the getting the honey from the bees adventure, specifics of monster ecology and biology don’t matter that much for the Combat as Sport side, but just look at how much they matter in the Combat as War side (does smoke keep giant bees away? how much territory will one hive of giant bees patrol? what time of day is the owl bear at home in its cave? do owl bears love honey? will thick clothes and mud help against the bees? will the owl bear fight the bees or run away? how far will the bees chase the bear if it runs). Of course the DM will have to answer a lot of these questions, but monster write-ups can help a lot. Finally, the spells that appeal to each side are different with the Combat as Sport side’s favorite spells being boring to the Combat as War side and the Combat as War side’s favorite spells being far too quirky, situational and unbalancing for the Combat as Sport side. Hopefully some ways will be found to reconcile the two sides.


Combat as Sport: valuing the separate roles of the quarterback, linebacker and wide receiver and what plays you can use to win a competitive game.

Combat as War: being too busy laying your end zone with caltrops, dousing the midfield with lamp oil, blackmailing the ref, spiking the other team’s water and bribing key members of the other team to throw the game to worry about all of those damn squiggles on the blackboard.


Combat as Sport:

Combat as War:

Which one you like makes a massive difference in how you play D&D and what sort of rules you want for 5ed. How to deal with this?
I think two main ideas have emerged from this thread: how to DM a CaW game and how suitable 4ed is for running a CaW game. Let’s hit those two points, sorry about the length but people made a lot of points I’d like to respond to. Apologies for not responding to people in detail by name, but if I did that I think I might crash the server...

How to DM Combat as War

Run a Sandbox

One comment upthread talks about how CaW often requires a DM to completely throw out whatever plans he has for the encounter and that CaS is much more “consistent.” Exactly! CaW tends to work better for sandbox campaigns in which the DM has no set plan for any encounter. The best way to kick start these games is often to start off with a standard railroad plan and then make no effort whatsoever to keep the PCs on the rails, the railroad gets the PCs going and then their own momentum sustains them. How I’m planning to start my next campaign is to have the PCs hired as henchmen by NPC adventurers. The PCs and their bosses march through the forest and then the NPCs leave the PCs outside the dungeon to watch their horses while they delve. Then the NPCs never come back. What do the PCs do? Night’s coming on and strange sounds are coming out of the woods and my wandering monster dice start looking tempting…Having time constraints in a sandbox/CaW game is VITAL (especially in the easy stages) as otherwise the PCs tend to faff about.

Recycle Content

In the 1ed campaign I’ve been playing in, it’s taken us about 12 sessions (about 5 hours each with breaks for pizza in the middle) to clear the 36-page B5 module (and we didn’t even kill most of the kobolds). As far as I can tell, the DM has never done any prep at all, so this kind of gaming isn’t necessarily prep heavy, you just need content that the players can interact with for multiple sessions.


Information is gold in CaW games, monster ecology write-ups could answer a lot of the questions about giant bee and owl bear behavior that that scenario depends on and 1ed-style spell write-ups give a lot of information so that judging if a rat bastard dirty trick works often isn’t a DM judgment call. And as the person who mentioned Ravenloft points out, having good information makes these scenarios tick (the PCs should come across things like big scratches on the trees, giant owl pellets and the sound of buzzing in the distance). This is a great way of getting the PCs engaged with the world, since instead of information being about herding the PCs towards the plot, information is about not getting their PCs killed in horrible ways. Information also helps keep the PCs in the sweet spot between cakewalk and TPK by giving them the information they need to seek out the right kinds of challenges and avoid getting slaughtered.

An Uncaring God

As a lot of people have mentioned, DM fiat can play a much bigger role in CaW than CaS games and it can often come down to playing the DM instead of playing the game. That’s bad. For a CaW game to work, the DM should be an impartial and uncaring god, but how to do that when so much depends on DM judgment calls?

Well that’s what all of the random tables are for (and morale rules and, morale rules are worth their weight in gold)! There’s a reason there are random rolls for wandering monsters, reactions, surprise, encounter distance, weather, terrain, prostitutes, treasure! That’s why the DMG specifies that there’s a 20% chance that a harlot is or is working for a thief! Using all of these rules all of the time will drive a DM insane, but they’re there so that when the DM doesn’t want to use DM fiat there’s an alternative. For example my 1ed party ran into a group of 2 ogres and eight hobgoblins when all but the thief were still first level. In most campaigns my reaction would be “WTF?!? Why did the DM plan such hard encounters?! What a bastard!” but in this campaign we cursed our bad luck and set about slaughtering the lot of them. Giving the DM these kinds of tools makes what happens to the PCs a result of luck, game rules and PC cleverness rather than DM whim.

Google “Westmarches” for more information about the DM as an uncaring god, those blog posts are some of the best I’ve ever read.

Oregon Trail

A lot of people on this thread have talked about how CaW play flows from adversity and how this can be done by amping up the difficulty of encounters. This is certainly one way to do that, but it tends to favor the nova classes and results in a lot of TPKs. Often a better way of putting in adversity is through attrition, or what I like to call Oregon Trail D&D, which makes difficulty depend a lot more on the PCs than on the DM.

What I mean by this is hitting the PCs with constant easy fights, environmental obstacles, tracking supplies, actually using encumbrance (the Lamentations of the Flame Princess version, not the 1ed version, dear god not the 1ed version) and, yes, rolling for dysentery if the PCs drink dirty water. This slow wearing down of the PCs really keeps them on their toes and makes them be proper cunning rat bastards even when faced with fights they could easily win. What’s vital to support this style of play is to not let the players be able to easily hole up and get back to full health, limited healing (no second or third level cleric healing spells in 1ed!) and making it difficult for Wizards to get their spells back in the field (look at the specific 1ed rules for memorizing spells, they might surprise you). By wearing the players down with attrition when they’re in the field you make time a precious resource (Gygax used all-caps for talking about time tracking for a damn good reason) and avoids boring like players spending an hour searching every ten feet of hallway. You can’t do that when you’re playing Oregon Trail D&D!

Of course a lot of people don’t want to play Dungeons and Dysentery, but it’s a big part of what makes CaW games tick. Rules that make it easy for the PCs to recover from attrition like ing Rope Trick and readily-available CLW wands (I swear, the damn things have killed more campaigns than the Deck of Many Things) hurt CaW gaming badly.
In Which I Try to Avoid Edition Warring

Some people have mentioned that 4ed can be used to support CaW play and while it can certainly be used to do that (see the awesome hut of doom example) and Rituals do a great job of helping with that, I think that 4ed is less suited to that kind of play, just as TSR-D&D is less suited to CaS-play. This doesn’t mean that TSR-D&D can’t do CaS, I played a 2ed campaign as a kid in which half of the campaign was gladiator fights and the other half was going out into the wilderness to capture monsters to use in gladiator fights (my character was famous as the best Blink Dog trainer in the city and this was before Pokemon dammit), which is about as CaS as you can get. It was a great campaign, but if I were to run something like that today I’d use 4ed over 2ed in a heartbeat.

Note: if I get anything wrong about 4ed please correct me and don’t assume any ill-will on my part. I really don’t want to be one of the people who say, “hur hur, marking is just the same as taunting, 4ed is a sucky WoW rip-off.” I LIKE marking (at least in its most basic form), I just haven’t played all that much 4ed.

Here’re some reasons why I wouldn’t use 4ed for a CaW campaign:

Combat Takes Too Long

Combat takes a long time in 4ed, which means that there’s less time for everything else. The everything else is very important to CaW gameplay. Of course, you can reduce that number of combats but if you do that, it’s hard to make Oregon Trail gameplay work, which brings me to my next point…

Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail gameplay is based on wearing the PCs down with attrition. You can’t do this if you don’t have time to play out a lot of mini-encounters in one session. Also (correct me if I’m wrong), there are various ways in 4ed to heal a character without spending a Healing Surge, which means that if you have that available then anything that doesn’t make the PCs spend a Healing Surge or use a Daily Power doesn’t cause attrition. Also it’s much easier for a 4ed party to bounce back from attribution with an Extended Rest than it is for a TSR-D&D party to bounce back from attribution with eight hours of sleep.

Sandbox Play

CaW works better with sandbox play and while you can do a 4ed sandbox (see the Angry DM’s blog post about how to run a 4ed sandbox) it seems like a lot of work for me. 4ed fans always tell me that the same critter should have different stats depending on the party’s level. I read one post by a 4ed fan that said that at low levels a dragon would be a Solo monster, if the PCs gain a few levels it becomes an Elite monster, then a Standard monster and finally (when the PCs are sufficiently badass) a Minion. Does that mean I have to restat all of the monsters in the sandbox whenever the PCs gain a few levels? I’m far too lazy to do that.

Missing Rules

Look through the various rules and other game book text that I talked about as being stuff that supports CaW play in my previous post. A lot of it just doesn’t exist in 4ed (or at least not in the first three books, I know that Dark Sun added in rules for dehydration and there’s probably lots of other examples that I don’t know about) but do exist in even the thinnest TSR-D&D intro box booklets.

Less Weird

CaW often involves the weird, quirky and situational powers that TSR-D&D is chock full of but that are hard to balance for CaS. How the hell do you balance a spell that is useless in most situations but which is massively powerful in a few for CaS play? You can’t. That’s why you won’t find a lot of CaW staples in the 4ed PHB I (although a few remain like the ever-awesome Unseen Servant/Mage Hand). A lot of them have been moved off to Rituals (which are damn cool and great for CaW, but their cost means they don’t get used as often as normal powers).

For example, let’s take a look through 4ed Wondrous Items list, the traditional place for Cool Weird . The stuff on the list that would be more helpful in a CaW game than a CaS game are let you:
-Get more food.
-Carry more stuff (although it seems to say that you can’t pick up a portable hole if there’s stuff in it and no effect of putting a bag of holding in a portable hole noted).
-Keep people from warping away.
-Change what you look like.
-Portable boat.
-Flying carpet.
-Do rituals better.
-Climb better.
-Have a walkie-talkie.

Not bad, but that barely scratches the surface of the Cool Weird that the miscellaneous magic items in the 1ed DMG can do.

Process vs. Effect

Although there are plenty of exceptions, 4ed write-ups generally tell you the effect of the power, not the process that causes that effect. This is great for CaS play and for role playing (you can role play how your power has that effect any way you want!) but I don’t like it for CaW play. One of the biggest elements of CaW play is looking at what a power/ability/spell/item/whatever says on the tin and then figuring out how to make it do something completely different or how to make their character immune to it. That’s harder to do in 4ed (although there are many exceptions to this rule, especially when you get to Rituals) since the write-ups don’t give a CaW player as much to work with.

Just look at the write-up for the Warden’s marking ability. I know what effect it has, but what process happens that makes that effect take place? I have not a clue. I can use the anger of nature? Any time I want? Awesome! Now what can I do with it except for marking people? No idea. What can I do to make my character immune to it? If I fight in an unnatural area or in the vacuum of space, does that render the Warden incapable of drawing on the power of nature’s wrath? I have no idea. Those sorts of questions aren’t very relevant to a CaS player since they can come up with cool fluff that fits the situation and role play it out, but they’re very relevant indeed to a CaW player.

For another example let’s look at monsters. One of the abilities of a Succubus is Dominate: Ranged 5; +12 vs. Will; the target is dominated until the end of the succubus’s next turn. OK, that makes sense, the Succubus is vamping people and it’s a “Charm” ability. But how does it work? Is it her voice? Can I protect myself from it if I put wax in my ears? It is her sexy appearance? Does it still work if my character is dragonborn? Heterosexual female? Gay male? Is it direct mental magic attacking my mind? No idea.

Looking at the 1ed Monster Manual for the Succubus, I can see that it can vamp people with a level-draining kiss (so that won’t work if she can’t kiss me, now I just need the right mask…) and with a spell like ability that works just like the spell Suggestion. Let’s look up Suggestion. Yes! It doesn’t work unless the target can understand what the caster is saying. So, we’ll need proper wax for our ears. One problem down, now what else can we do to kill the damn Succubus…

See the difference? Sure the 4ed DM could rule that the 4ed Succubus’ Dominate ability doesn’t work if the PCs puts wax in their ears, but then the DM is put on the spot and has to decide if the PC’s plan works or not according to DM fiat. The 1ed DM can just look it up and know that, yes, the wax-in-the-ears plan works just fine (at least for THAT ability) without having to resort to DM fiat, which can amount to the DM choosing (without any information to go on) if the PC will win or lose.

There are a hundred other examples like that (although 4ed does get better about that in later books, noting that pan pipes don’t work on deaf PCs for example). That sort of thing isn’t too relevant to CaS, but the 4ed power format cuts out a lot of stuff that supports CaW play or puts a lot more stuff on the shoulders of the DM to decide.

No XP for GP

If XP is awarded for overcoming challenges then PCs will try to overcome challenges (CaS), if XP is awarded for detouring around all of the challenges and grabbing the gold then PCs will try to detour around all of the challenges and grab the gold (CaW).

The Rule Zero Fallacy

Of course a lot of the stuff I’m talking about 4ed missing can be added back in (and a good bit might be present in a lot of supplements that I don’t know about, my 4ed-fu is weak), but that line of argument comes perilously close to the Rule Zero Fallacy (it’s not broken if I can fix it with house rules) and, in any case, the difference between the support for CaW in different sets of the three core books is pretty stark (at least in my opinion).
Addendum: I Love Healing Surges

Healing Surges are such a great mechanic. Losing Healing Surges is a great way of modeling all of the little joys of Oregon Trail D&D and they fix the Fistful of CLW Wands problem (die readily available CLW wands! die! die! die!). Just declare all-out war on the 15-Minute Adventuring Day by making time a precious resource, make them be fewer, make them provide fewer HPs, make them harder to get back and easier to lose and completely eliminate all forms of healing that don’t involve spending a Healing Surge and they’d be one of the best CaW mechanics I can imagine.

On The Pause Before Papers and Pencils

What I really love about role-playing is that it is a cooperative game, not a competitive one. I like competitive games, perhaps too much and therein lies the problem.

Like tabletop gaming, blogging is a cooperative endeavor, not a competitive one. Sharing a good post doesn't reduce your blog traffic, it increases awareness and readership. It might even inspire someone to start their own blog. Also, you can't keep a good idea down, not a composite of the best blog posts, nor a search engine of the OSR.

One of our erudite contemporaries has moved his blog from it's old address at Comma, Blank_ to his new website:

Papers & Pencils

If you aren't a reader of LS's site, you should check it out. He runs Pathfinder and provides NPC's other game resources, and theory! Check out his Succubi in Succubus Town article! Or his Disscussion on Gygax and the Jeweled Man, one of the unsolved mysteries of Greyhawk! And his post on Agency, a topic dear to my heart.

Visit, check it out, and subscribe! I look forward to his posts every day, and really so will a lot of other people once they find the blog.

On the Failure of Tactical Combat

It's bad to tell other people that they are having badwrongfun.

They can play however they like.

But there's a problem with throwing around the term "Edition Warring" and somehow conflating some legitimate concern with a concrete quantifiable issue with a desire to dictate how other people should play. I have no idea, nor do I particularly care what you do at your table. (Although I do have a vested interest in making my own opinions clear and understandable).

However, If I point to the naked emperor and say that he has no clothes, then perhaps he should just get dressed, instead of having his subjects tell me why it's ok to make us look at his glory.

And before I get into this, I want to take a moment and give props to the fourth edition design team for making a game that's quick to DM - taking NPC and monster creation and making it easy. Props for giving good tools to estimate the difficulty of numeral comparisons of monsters.

Why disassociated mechanics are a serious problem.

There's a lot of talk over what dissociated mechanics are, but I can tell you why they are such a problem. Associated mechanics have an effect with a result - disassociated mechanics have a result caused by an affect!

What does this mean? Let's look at fireball.

An associated mechanic says "We are going to create a ball of fire! What are the effects of a giant ball of fire?" and then it describes a list of things that occur when a ball of fire is exploded!

A disassociated mechanic says we're going to do X damage to an area Y large, and it has fire traits and arcane traits.

Associated Mechanic: Effect => Result
Dissociated Mechanic: Result => Effect
Why is this a problem? The disassociated mechanic is only useful for it's effect - which is causing damage in combat.

Now I don't know if this is true for you, But when I game for six hours, players will fight maybe 5 different times, and only spend about 90 minutes in combat. Can we see the problem?

The associated mechanic is useful as a tool for 6 hours of play. The dissociated mechanic is useful for only about 2 hours of play.

This is a serious real problem with every power in 4th edition. People defend the elegant math, but my math equation using real actual numbers comes out much differently then whatever math is being talked about when they talk about elegance. One common response is "Most of these are magic effects! Warriors don't have access to them!". That comment is made by people who don't have fighters with armies, or charismatic characters with followers, or magic items like they used to be - filled with strange and unique effects.

One way to make this work is to only spend the time fighting battles so that the the powers are useful more often.

What a terrible thing to do.

I say this because I have never seen any argument, discussion, or statement that address this issue in a quantifiable way. It is a serious concern for me as a player and the fundamental issue with nearly every single one of the endless arguments I had while trying to play 4e. I kept asking what was actually happening, and kept being told that it wasn't important.

In the spirit of this, I'll be archiving the excellent theory written by Daztur recently tomorrow and the next day here at Hack & Slash. His article led me to understand why this was so difficult for me and what those players were looking for.

They wanted an arena battle, two equal forces facing off. A game of chess. A game of equal (or nearly equal) starting conditions - even if those conditions were geared against the players.

It was not what I was looking for. I only hope that the recognize that even under a rules system that might be NEXT that I still won't be looking for those things. And the players that are, well, I probably won't be gaming with them. Do the makers of NEXT understand that? The only question I have left is will they sell anything I can use for my LL, ACKS, OSRIC, or DCC game?

On Alchemical Items, Oil of Shadows

Oil of Shadows
BSC:15%(R)gp:500 gp
DC:25TTC:1 days
CC:9CGP::250 gp
NWP:-6XP:125 xp
D100:-10%Weight:- / 20
D6:1 in 6 / YDifficulty:Very Difficulty

Materials: Powdered Gold (1 dram), Powdered Silver (1 dram), Powdered Platinum (1 dram), Rare Earths (4 drams), Almonds (10 drams), Grape Seed (10 drams), Sunflower (10 drams), Olive Oil (8 drams), Kobold Claw/Agility Essence (2 drams), Powdered Sapphire (2 carats), Powdered Copper (10 drams)

Description: When this oil is used, it coats the user like a shadow, absorbing light. This gives a bonus of 20-50% on her ability to hide in shadows (+4-+10 ranks in Stealth). If the user has no ability to hide in shadows, then this oil grants that ability. Note that armor penalties still apply.

Rules are here.

On Interesting Treasure: The Wooden Brain Mask

This mask is made of wood. Dried hide of some unknown creature is stretched over and covering the face and neck, which is decorated with several black grooves. The hide has a painted line on the forehead, and then there are the five tentacle-horn projections extending above the head.

Anyone is welcome to wear this mask, the Dungeon Master is responsible for determining what heinous event occurs next. The use of a random table is suggested.

The mask sells as a curiosity ("Will you look at that thing!?") for 800 gold.

On The Thursday Trick, White Phosphorus

White Phosphorus (Category: Special)

Trigger: Other: Player Greed Effects:Onset Delay
Multiple Targets
Alchemical Device
Save: Rod/Staff/WandDuration: Special
Resets: NoneBypass: None (Avoid)

Description: Do you like your players very much? I hope not, because this one is a killer.

So there is some body of water - either a pool, or a waterfall, cascading down over a beautiful white-yellow statues with exquisite manufacture. Or perhaps a yellow-white necklace rests at the bottom of the pool. Perhaps these items are studded with gems (or what I like to call shrapnel)

What a wonderful use for magic aura!

Detection/Disarming: The thing about phosphorus is that it is extremely reactive upon contact with air. It will very quickly after being removed from the water dry off and begin to smoke. Shortly after that it will produce thick clouds of smoke only seconds before self igniting in the air, flinging large chunks of burning phosphorus everywhere. Conveniently once contacting flesh, it continues to burn!

Something small like a necklace or jewelry will do 3d8, minus 1d8 per round in a 10' radius, save for half, unless you are wearing it, in which case the funeral will be closed casket. Something large like a statue would do 7d8, minus 1d8 per round in a 40' radius, save for half.

Have fun!

(The Phosphorus Necklace is the classic implementation of this idea from  Grimtooth's traps, a trademark of Flying Buffalo Inc. games)

On the Lost Forgotten Past

Research is a melancholy experience.

Often you find what you seek, but it is the nature of the new world, the new mental space we share in this 'blogosphere' to be littered with houses half built.

For I post today, shall I post tomorrow?

Blogs have narrow focuses, and human lives are complex many storied things. We drift in and out of our interests throughout our lives and blogs that have too narrow a focus don't get updated when our focus changes. You see a blog that hasn't posted in a year, their blogroll filled with similarly failed blogs, all the hip popular blogs of the day having fallen by the wayside.

Also, here in America we are in the death throes of an empire. This isn't fear-mongering, America as a culture is having to adapt and change to a change in our infrastructure as we come to terms with the end of our political and national dominance and return to being a member on the world stage.

This type of change can be distracting, and cause a bit of a delay in updating your blog.

For now these sites remain, but I'm concerned - will the thought and value in them one day disappear? How can it be preserved?

Is there some way to comb through the blogs and weed out all the entitlement ("My blog isn't popular enough, and someone else's is so I'm going to quit."), negativity ("So and so's blog is filled with slander against very important historical figures - how dare they denigrate something that happened where they weren't.") and navel gazing ("I have such a hard time picking a game, and it's really hard to find players. ") and take the core articles and preserve them for prosperity?

What if the Rod of Lordly Might disappears? What if Sickly Purple Death Ray goes the way of the dead?

What if Kellri never updates again, and the documents disappear?

We've made strides and have many tools that help us find useful tools and rules that didn't exist before. There's the OSR search and the Links to Wisdom to help us organize what's out there.

But what about sites that are left for dead? What will happen to them if during some pogrom they all disappear? Or projects headed by just one person like megadungeon.net that languish forgotten once the original impetus has left for their existence.

I bemoan the loss of the past, and fear a future that has lost that connection.

I am open to suggestions.

On Skill Deconstruction: A Summary

So, let's review the status of the various skill articles, before we discuss any conclusions. You can check out the original assessment if you wish.

Acrobatics: Other than the combat use of tumbling, the use of this skill encourages 'roll or don't get to act in combat' functions which is un-fun and not necessary.

Appraise: Eliminate this skill entirely. Any use of this skill results in the consumption of time and a non-fun game situation.

Bluff: It is functional for it's basic purpose, but too much focus is put on this skill to be a social combat mechanic when it is not.

Climb: This is an extremely complicated skill that boils down to one of two options, climb at half speed or climb at a quarter of your speed. Like acrobatics this can boil down to 'lose your turn'.

Craft: It's a skill that produces gold or some basic items. As a crafting system, it's woefully inadequate with a lot of problems.

Diplomacy: This turns into a skill tax because of the frequency of it's use and the broad applications. We do need a system for determining monster and NPC reactions. Making it a player skill is a bad idea.

Disable Device & Slight of Hand: These are minor and both functional, however Disable Device is better served using player skill. Both are reasonable.

Disguise: It hardly ever occurs, and when it does the skill roll eliminates game play.

Escape Artist: Of simply utility, better to have it be an option in the subsystem for grapples. As far as bindings go, this is better handled by player skill rather than contested use rope/escape artist checks.

Fly & Ride: Flying basically uses ranks to represent the old style maneuverability classes. I don't see the added roll and option to do slightly better or worse then flying doing much to make combat more exciting. Same with ride, being that there are three thresholds for it, unskilled, skilled and master. Taking the time to roll can really slow down combat without adding anything.

Handle Animal: This skill is fine, though I think it is rarely used in play, though the comment from the person who used it said it caused a lot of arguments. Basically it might cut down on the power level of the animal companion classes if used RAW.

Heal: If you already give up your turn, only to fail to bandage your companion as they die is that improving the game? I say no.

Intimidation: This skill does a poor job of allowing the PC's to be intimidating. It is a good candidate for inclusion in a social conflict resolution system.

Perception and Stealth: Stealth - even contested stealth is fine. Surprise is crucial and necessary. Perception can die in a hot fire.

Knowledge: Useless, even by people who use it.

Perform & Profession: You roll to get gold. The end.

Sense Motive: Two options with this, either you are allowing the players to fail to get necessary information or it's part of social conflict.

Survival and Swim: Swim is another roll to move at half speed skills. Useless. Tracking has been around for a long time and there is some utility in it.

Use Magic Device: Is a classic as good as gold.

Most of these line up with my original comparisons, and I've gotten a bunch of comments from people who echo these sentiments.  What skills do these deconstructions leave us with? I.e which of these skills actually have utility in play?

Tumbling Past an enemy.
Disable Device
Slight of Hand
Handle Animal
Use Magic Device
1st Edition Thief Skills for Comparison.
Picking Pockets
Open Locks
Find/Remove Traps
Move Silently
Hide in Shadows
Hear Noise
Climb Walls
Read Languages/Scrolls
You need a Monster and NPC reaction system, as well as a mechanic for social conflict.

Why are the lists above so similar?

Because they weren't trying to create a unified skill system. They were only using skills for things they couldn't resolve at the table.

For our next and last post, we're going to conclude and tidy everything up in a nice little package.

On Skill Deconstruction: Fudge

Fudge used to stand for Free Universal Do-it-yourself Gaming Engine, though now it just stands for Fudge. It's a user-designed role playing game.

Yeah, it's that kind of cool.

One of the most interesting role playing game products I ever remember reading was the FUDGE guide. It goes something like. . .

"These are attributes. Attributes are something everyone in the game world has. Here is a big honking list of any attribute you can think of. Pick the ones that are relevant to your game".

But we aren't here to talk about attributes. We're here to talk about skills.

Skills are not related to attributes in Fudge, they are left up to the game master and players to maintain a reasonable consistency. "Players are encouraged to design their characters logically" Fudge Rulebook. So if your character has high physical attributes, they should take a lot of physical skills.

This is in opposition to every skill system we've looked at so far. D20 skills are modified by attributes, Hackmaster skills advanced based on the advancement die, but their starting values are attributed to skills. You attributes play a role in your skills in Rolemaster also.

The second thing that is important is that Fudge is a skill based game. The GM decides the level of skill depth, such as "Social skills," or more specific skills like "Inspiration, Oratory, and Mercantile" or very specific skills, such as "Barter, Seduce, Fast-talk, Persuade, etc.".

Then there is a large list of skills (that is described as brief), with a caveat to change what you want.

There are several things that are nice about this. Since skills are how you resolve actions, it forces you to think about what sort of actions you want skills around to resolve. It allows a great deal of player customization, because any skill the player can think of can be added. You receive experience points to raise individual skills and attributes since Fudge is not a level based system allow you to improve skills independently of artificial thresholds.

The other thing to note is that skills are rolled using Fudge dice. You roll 4 dice, each are essentially d3's. One result is positive, one negative, and one neutral. You total up the values and get a result between -4 and +4.  These dice produce a nice bell curve, meaning that for the majority of the time, you will perform at or around your skill level.

It has a fairly broad granularity, and skills are ranked to one of seven levels: Superb, Great, Good, Fair, Mediocre, Poor, and Terrible. Difficulties are either set or rolls are opposed. When rolls are opposed the important information is the relative difference in the rolls.

Fudge is a great game, and this may be the most important part of the post, the first RPG I ever played where you can have characters that don't have superpowers.

The skills system is simple, straightforward due to the word titles, and produces results consistent with the stated skill level of the player.

Oh, and it's free, so worth checking out.

On Alchemical Spells, Burning Blood

Burning Blood
Necromancy (Alchemy)
Range: 6”/level Duration: 3 rounds
Components: V, S, M Area of Effect: 1 creature
Casting Time: 4 segments Saving Throw: Negates

Description: This spell allows the alchemist to turn the blood of the target into burning acid.
The alchemist selects one living creature. That creature must have exposed wounds. This means that they must have taken damage from an edged or piercing weapon. If this is the case the exposed blood of the target is turned into burning acid.
The target may make a save versus Spells each round at -4. Any success indicates that they resist the damage for that round.
The burning blood does 2d4 points of damage +1 per level of the alchemist. The alchemist does not need to touch or see the target, they simply must be within range.
The material component for this spell is a pinch of salt and sal petrae.

On Alchemical Items, Dust of Dispelling

Dust of Dispelling
BSC:20%(R)gp:3000 gp
DC:24TTC:1 days
CC:8CGP::1200 gp
NWP:-5XP:250 xp
D100:-5%Weight:- / 20
D6:1 in 6 / 6Difficulty:Very Difficult

Materials: Rare Earth (4 drams), Sulphur (4 drams), Powdered Silver (1 dram), Powdered Gold (1 dram), Powdered Platinum (1 dram), Rust Monster Scales/Entropy Essence (2 drams), Angel’s or Dragon’s Heart/Magic Essence (1 drams), Powdered Amethyst (20 carats), Powdered Silver (50 drams)

Description: Spreading this dust breaks all magical effects that are occurring where the dust is spread.  All magical effects are dispelled as if affected by a Dispel Magic cast by a level 15 caster. It can be dusted over the caster, a magical trap, or over an item. If dusted over an item it simply suppresses the magic for a short while.

Rules are here.

On Interesting Treasure: The Simple Copper Helm

This is a simple old copper helm, notable for two things.

Its age makes it appear to be worthless, and may be discarded by a callous delver. However, any armorsmith will note the repousse  from the peak, and the bands around the base.

Extremely observant characters will note that the helm has been damaged and then later repaired.

Scholars will note that this style of helm design is from the legendary Godforge (Goddtaalomar) dwarf clan, said to have descended from Moradin himself.

Sold as a damaged rusted helm: 1 copper piece
Sold as an ancient dwarven helm: 10 gold pieces
Sold as a representation of forging techniques from the Godforge clan: 6,000 gold to an interested smith.
Sold as an ancient dwarven artifact to a dwarven smith after a long discussion about how you are sure you didn't steal it and are just trying to return it to their rightful owners: A favor from the dwarves.
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