Category Archives: Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

Grids Again

Getting Griddy With It

So, it’s interesting. The bulk of what this site contains is actually useful content — monsters, spells, items, rules variants, settings, and so on. That stuff gets hardly any comments. Stuff that’s basically useless, namely, my personal opinions about things, which are of no possible worth to anyone, gets lots of comments.

This is why I’m a misanthrope. Well, one reason why.

Anyway, I was at ConGlomeration this weekend, and I spent most of Saturday afternoon playing a Savage Worlds game run by Carinn Seabolt. I had a really great time; it’s always fun to play with a new system, especially one with the reputation of Savage Worlds, and it was a cool adventure and I got to do cool things, which is what gaming is all about. It also gave me an opportunity to think about gridded vs. non-gridded combat in a system other than D&D, which means I can separate out the utility of a grid in itself from the melange of D&D rules, versions, and editions.

The bulk of the game involved a mix of combat, investigation, and roleplaying at a museum and an attendant warehouse complex. Savage Worlds is a fairly rules-light system (by my standards; I’m sure by the standards of the My Life With Master crowd it’s practically Advanced Squad Leader), and there’s not a lot of very complex rules for facing, position, and so on. (As a point of comparison, GURPS offers the following postures, with each coming with specific rules modifiers and conditions: standing, sitting, kneeling, crawling, lying prone (face down), and lying face up). So, it would probably work fine with an abstract, “Theater Of The Mind” system.

I doubt, at least for me, it would work better, though, and it’s a good example of why I prefer a grid even for games that do not need one or are built assuming there’s isn’t one, such as World of Darkness.

It also got me to thinking about what people mean when they say that removing the grid makes people more creative, or adds immersion. I think that when pro-grid and anti-grid partisans use those words, they mean completely different things by them (but neither one is “incorrect”, just as it’s correct to spell the word that means “in between black and white” as either “gray” or “grey”, or a computer storage device as either “disc” or “disk”.)

182 Possible Intersections, No Waiting

We had, I think, eight players, and, at various points, the enemies consisted of up to six active combatants. In addition, the room had many features, such as statues, columns, and so on, and was designed with a number of niches, side corridors, and areas of variable width. To run this without a grid would require each player, and the GM, maintain, in their minds, from round to round, a minimum of 182 values, namely, the relative positions of each character relative to 13 others, plus the positions of the static objects (columns, statues, etc, as to whether they blocked line of sight to any of the other 13 objects in the room), all of this on a mental map of a room with many features that could impact movement or visibility, such as someone ducking into an alcove, or racing down a corridor from the outside.)

Simple maintaining a mental map of all the combatants and their relative positions would be a strain, especially since many of those values could change during anyone’s turn. If you missed someone’s action (in a gridless game) because you were studying your character sheet, or momentarily distracted by a woman wearing a corset that transformed her upper torso into a platform fit to land an F-17 on (Yes, folks, there are in fact lots of women who attend SF cons, and many of them are hot, and also smart, which increases hotness by a factor of 10), or the like, you’d be woefully out of sync with the world. Very, very, few people can play mental chess; demanding that of everyone who sits at a gaming table is ridiculous. (And, again, I wish to note, this doesn’t even take into account the complexity of the room and the issues of line of sight when there were many objects that could block you (or protect you) if you stood here but not if you stood there, and likewise, would block you from A and B, but not from C, and so on. I will not claim it’s impossible for any theoretical human being to maintain all of that mentally, but it’s an extreme edge of the bell curve ability.)

Yeah, I Thought Of That Objection

Of course, someone is likely to jump up now and claim “But you don’t play gridless combat by trying to imagine a grid and everyone’s exact position on it! Straw man! I call shenanigans!”

Such a claim is, of course, correct. And that’s the point, and it’s why I think the difference between gridless and gridded combat systems is much more than a mere mechanic, and profoundly impacts play decisions in ways that are rarely consciously noticed.


At anything beyond the simplest level of “There’s a 10 by 10 room. You see an orc guarding a pie.”, gridless combat relies on abstract notions of positioning and distance, even if the game system has explicit rules for movement. That is, you may have a speed of 30 feet/round in a gridless game, but, in terms of actual play, the distance between you and any other entity is one of the following: “adjacent”, “yes, you can get there in one round”, and “no, you can’t get there in one round”. Except in relatively unusual cases where distances at a point in time are stated explicitly, you rarely see individual speed differences coming into play: It’s a fairly rare case where a DM, in a gridless game, will say, “The elf can reach the orc in one round, the dwarf can’t”, except perhaps very early in combat when exact positions are easy to establish, or in a combat with very few combatants. Once you get beyond a small number of entities, you cannot keep track of distances between all of them with any kind of consistency (especially when each player is maintaining their own visualization of events). For all practical purposes, distances don’t even exist until a player explicitly asks about the relationship between specific entities:”Can I charge the ogre?” “How many orcs can I hit with my fireball?” The hundreds of possible relative positions (Orc 1 is 5 feet from Orc 2, ten feet from Orc 3, ten feet from Fred, fifteen feet from Charlie, 5 feet from Fineous but he doesn’t know it, etc) are in a state of quantum indeterminacy. Orc 1 isn’t any of those distances until someone asks “How far is Orc 1 from Fred?”. Further, there’s no mandate that distances be consistent with each other; no one starts trying to figure out if it’s even possible for Orc 1 to be 10 feet from Fred and 15 feet from Charlie if Fred and Charlie, when they ask on their own turns, are both told they’re 10 feet from Orc 1. It’s unlikely anyone remembers from round to round as long as there’s general agreement on general position among the three categories I noted above.

In Which I Use Words Like ‘Quantum’ In Ways That Make Physicists Cry

This applies to the world in general. In the game I was in, if the combat were mapless, no matter how detailed the original description of the setting (“The wall runs 20 feet, then forms an alcove 10 feet deep and 10 feet wide, and in the center of that alcove is a pillar which is 5 feet wide, and then the wall…”), in the actual play, the space would be a sort of virtual essence of the room, with features concretizing as needed and vanishing again. I do not mean this as a criticism. It’s a style of play that makes the world revolve very much around the players and their actions, which is what many people consider the best way to play. By this I mean, rather than trying to maintain a perfect mental image of exactly where each statue and column and other object is, in relation to every other entity, a player asks “Is there a column near me I can hide behind?” and the GM, who has a general sense of how many columns there are, and if the character is likely to be near one or not, can usually answer quickly, “Sure, there’s one near you” or “Yes, but you’ll need to run across open space to get there” or “No, you’re at the north end, where there’s no columns”, or whatever. The character isn’t at location 7,8 on the map; the character is now “behind a column”. That column stops existing the moment the character stops hiding behind it or otherwise relating to it, and because its position is abstract, it doesn’t exist, really, for another character, who isn’t hiding behind it. That is, if Fred hides behind the column, and then someone shoots Charlie, it’s unlikely Charlie will ask if the column Fred’s hiding behind protects him, too. Charlie never said anything about “also hiding with Fred” or anything else to explicitly place the column in his path; it doesn’t exist for him unless there’s been something established earlier which would make it so. Charlie’s position is “somewhere near Fred, but not behind the column”, unless he explicitly makes it so.

This sort of thing is handled completely intuitively and transparently in gridless play; you rarely, if ever, think about it. It’s very much akin to how most fight scenes play out in books. You hardly ever see “Fred carefully studied the terrain. He realized if he walked ten feet forward, then five feet diagonally, then another 10 feet forward, he could reach the orc raider with his axe, which had a five foot reach, and avoid the difficult terrain that would apply a five foot penalty to his movement rate.” No, it’s, “Fred’s well-honed battle instincts guided his feet as he charged the enemy.” The exact details not only don’t matter, they don’t exist. A book which described, second-by-second, the position of everyone on a battlefield, even those no one cared about, would be hideously tedious. The only things that matter, the only things that exist, are those affecting the currently active characters. The distance between B and C only matter to A if he needs to somehow interfere with their interactions.

Gridded combat shifts the focus from the characters to the world. The world exists; the characters live in it. When you look down at the grid, you, the player, are seeing everything, even things the character you’re playing doesn’t/can’t see. (And this is important, because a good roleplayer knows not to respond to anything his character hasn’t noticed. A sure sign of a bad roleplayer is if they start moving to place on the map where the GM has put something interesting, when the character has no reason to go there.)

In gridded combat, the player doesn’t ask “Is there a column near me?” — he looks. There is, or there isn’t. He can see the path to get there, and decide if it’s safe. He can pick from multiple possible hiding spots, based on what kind of advantages they might give him, and, very importantly, the relative positions of all his enemies and allies. In gridded combat, he sees that while two columns give him equal cover, the first puts him in range of Fred, so he can use hand Fred a gun or a potion or whatever. In gridless combat, he might ask “Is there a column near Fred?”, which means he has to think of that possibility in the first place.

Everyone differs, but, for me, I’d have felt much less involved in the world and the game if it was a floating cloud of abstractions. Having a map which showed everyone’s position served as a solid platform on which my imagination could build the action sequences that evolved with each die roll. It is much easier for me to add motion, action, wounds, a dive for cover, explosions, etc to the movie unfolding frame-by-frame in my mind when the raw outlines of the set, at least, are visible and well-defined.

That Word Means What You Think It Means, But It’s Not What I Think It Means

And that, in turn, is what led me to thinking about what “creativity” might mean when discussing combat, and why some people say they find the grid is “limiting”. On a grid, I do not need to think to ask if there’s a column near Fred that I can reach: I can see if there is or not. All I need to do is recognize “It might be a good idea to be near Fred”, and then move there. Without a grid, the positions of me, Fred, and the column are indeterminate; I need to first originate the idea of both hiding and moving near Fred, and then ask if it’s possible. With a grid, I might see it’s not possible — or instantly see a better option — or do a lot of other things, without asking. Without a grid, the GM and all the players perceive my interaction with the imagined space through the questions I ask aloud — they have to be aware in case they need to resolve a conflict between my imaginations and theirs, they need to say, “Hey, no, I thought I was further away than that”. They might take note a column has materialized from possibility to actuality, and it now has a momentarily fixed relative position (as it were) of “near Charlie, who is also now near Fred”, and use that. To those who prefer gridless play, this is what is meant by creativity: Instantiating objects within the quantum cloud that is the shared, imagined, space.

Grid advocates tends to define creativity as much more a matter of seeing “this is the world as it is; this is where everything is within it; what’s the best/most interesting/etc thing I can do?” Other players, and the GM, don’t see a lot of my thought process because the grid answers many questions. “Can I reach this guy?”, “Is this guy in range of my gun?”, “Do I see the monster which just walked in that door?” Questions tend to be either a matter of resolving a rules edge case (“Is this statue big enough to block line of sight from this square to that square?”), or asking for more detail on things not obvious on the map (“Can I tip the statue over, or is it braced?”)

A Momentary Diversion Into Borderline Pseudoscience Personality Quizzes

It’s interesting that both grid and non-grid players tend to value the same things –creativity and immersion– and yet come to them from differing angles. While there’s a big grey area, and few people are 100% one or the other, it reminds me of the differences between what Meyers-Briggs calls “Extroverts” and “Introverts”. Extroverts, in this scheme, are charged up and energized by being with people. Crowds, noise, everyone screaming — they get caught up in the energy and feed on it. It makes them happier, more alive. Introverts find people draining. It doesn’t mean they don’t like or need social contact; it’s just that it’s a tiring thing, and they need alone time, afterwards, to recover. The extrovert leaves a party thinking, “Damn, I’m wired! Let’s go do something!”; the introvert leaves (much earlier) thinking, “Well, that was fun. I need to go home and sleep.” Because these differences are so innate and so hard-wired, it’s very hard for either to understand the other on an intuitive level; tolerance requires a conscious acceptance and understanding of the fact there’s a different underlying nature that can’t be changed and isn’t chosen.

Creatively Redefining Creativity

To someone who prefers grid combat, creativity often means finding unique, interesting, or original ways to use the tools you’re provided. If you see a hammer, turn a dagger into a nail. If you see a nail, use your mace as a hammer. He is likely to look at the map as a puzzle of sorts, waiting for the “Aha!” moment where the pattern comes together and he has an inspired solution. To someone who prefers gridless combat, creativity comes from instantiating the universe, asking if something exists, and, by doing so, often making it exist, or setting its position in relative space to where it’s most useful. (Again, these are not absolutes. Many things are simply not shown on a grid, and come into existence when the players asks about them and if the GM agrees that, yes, it makes sense for that to be there. The difference is that if, to use a real example from the game I was in, a player asks about a fire alarm, the GM points to a spot on the map and says “The fire alarm is there“, and the player can then see if he can reach it, if someone’s blocking it, and so on, and other players all now know where it is and can react as needed. In a gridless system, the GM is more likely to say, “Yes, there’s one you can reach” or “Yes, but it’s on the other side of the room”, or the like, and it’s not clear (until they ask) which of the other players might be near it, can reach it, etc. Its position, like all things in gridless combat, is partially relative: It’s “on the north wall” or “near to Fred”, but the exact distance between it and everyone else, what might block it, etc, are all vague generalities until someone asks for specifics.)

To the gridless player, creativity mostly means coming up with the idea of something; to the gridded player, creativity mostly means coming up with ideas about how to interact with the things that already exist.

Immerse Until Done

This goes to the next thing, immersion. To the gridless player, the grid is unimmersive, because it provides a top-down, tactical, overview that the character doesn’t have. Without a grid, the player asks “Can I see this?” or “What do I see?”, creating a more first-person view. The player isn’t an omniscient god who must carefully segregate his knowledge of the battlefield from this character; the player sees only what the character sees, as narrated by the GM. Inconsistencies or minor changes are part of the immersion; in the chaos and confusion of battle, no one is tape-measuring to see if the stairs are 30 feet away or 35.

To the grid player, the grid is immersive because it provides far more information than could reasonably be asked by the player, and because it provides this information consistently to all players in real time. If Fred moves five feet north, he is now twenty feet from Charlie and ten feet from Fineous, and Charlie and Fineous both see the exact position of Fred relative to themselves. The grid player sees that the ogre can’t get through the five foot door, or that the steps are too far to reach in a single turn. Objects have exact positions in space and changes are only in response to some action. Even if the character, in the world, doesn’t know a precise measurement in feet, he is a skilled combatant who is trained to gauge distances, to know how far he can throw a dagger or if he can move before someone else can react. He is constantly keeping an eye on any enemies or allies he can perceive, even subconsciously. A world where most of this information is unknown and/or inconsistent is one that is, to him, unimmersive. In both cases, the players find immersion comes from “being able to see the world as their character does”, but, what that means in terms of game mechanics, and what information is conveyed, and how, are different.

A Rambling And Redundant Discourse On The Interrelations Of Rules

Because of these differences, the difference between a grid system and a non-grid system is more than just making it an option or changing a few combat rules. These preferences reverberate through everything, including how encounters are designed. It is not surprising that the growth of detailed monster stat blocks in D&D came with the implementation of a grid system. If you’re fighting “10 orcs”, it’s not much of a big deal which specific, individual, orc is where. If you’re fighting “three orc archers, two orc swordsmen, one orc shaman, two trained wolves, and a turncoat human wizard”, specific relationships in space become much more important. Even if you strip out things like 1.5 squares to move diagonally, attacks of opportunity, etc, the number of possible interactions that might depend on range and positioning become important, and it matters a lot if the orc next to you is an archer or a swordsman. Likewise, with relatively low hit point totals, and a general tendency of encounters to be “lots of basically identical low level monsters” or “one big ass powerful monster”, it’s easy to handwave which creature you’re hitting (especially if there’s only one), less so if one orc has 40 hit points and one has 20 and one has a +4 AC due to a spell the other one cast on him and… There’s a strong feedback effect. There weren’t a lot of forced movement effects in pre 3.0 D&D; they tended to be the province of DM calls and their impact varied based on how the DM viewed the issues. With 3.x and 4e, you had bull rushes, charges, overruns, pulls, pushes, slides — all much harder to do (effectively) without a grid, but, with a grid, people were more inclined to use them, especially since the shared visual space meant a change from asking “Can I try to knock the orc off the cliff?” or “Can I shove the orc away from the wizard?” to “What do I need to roll to knock the orc off the cliff?” (This gets back to the issue of defining “creativity”; to some players and DMs, judging from things I’ve read over the years, the fact the player instantly sees if there’s even a chance to knock orc off the cliff, or not (the orc is 10 feet from the cliff; the player knows he can’t bull rush more than 5 feet) is a “barrier to creativity”; they prefer the idea that the orc might be “near to the cliff”, and a player can say “I try to knock him off”, with few or no rules that render the decision moot before it’s tried. Other players, such as myself, tend to view this as an impediment to creativity, because if the orc’s position is undefined, it’s pretty much up to the DM if it’s “possible” in the first place, as he has to decide just how “near” the orc is. I find “creativity” more in, “Hmm, I can’t knock the orc back ten feet… that’s a given… but I could use this crumble earth spell to remove 5 feet of cliff, and that will let Fred knock him off on his turn.” Because the grid tends to say “Yes” or “No” to a vast range of options, without the player needing to ask, as I note above, this creates a sense of “loss of creativity” for some groups, because a huge range of things that would be “maybes” if you had to ask the DM become either, “I can do this, but do I want to?” or “I can’t do this, no sense pursuing that thought further.”, with no way for other players, or the DM, to know about these rejected ideas.)

This is where the issue of differing expectations, and differing ideas of what’s “fun” or “immersive” or whatever, come into play. One player might look at the above example and say, “See, that’s why grids and detailed combat rules suck. You should be able to do something cool like knock an orc off a cliff, or at least roll for it, without being told ‘Oh, you can’t, he’s five feet too far away.’ That frustrates people and takes them out of the game.” This is certainly a common point of view, and it’s valid. The other point of view, equally valid, is that having an action be impossible due to the momentary arrangement of combatants is part of the world unfolding, and that it’s more fun or challenging to have to deal with limits and boundaries and accept that sometimes, things just won’t line up the way you might want them to. Should success or failure be based entirely on the inputs (skills, attributes, rules) to the equation, or should the desirability of the outcome (Would it be cool if it worked? Would it end the game if it failed?) also be an input? The answer is “Depends on what you like.”

Acid Reflex Saves

Or, consider the terrain of the battlefield itself. In a grid system, obstacles occupy fixed areas, and you can look at the map to see how you get around them. A map might have many squares of rubble and ruin, but a few clear spots, and using those tactically can be important.

In a gridless system, you won’t have “There’s a 10 by 15 area of acid exactly 20 feet east of the north wall, and 10 feet west of that, there’s 5 by 5 area of acid, and…”. You have “The floor is covered with pools of acid of varying size, with some spaces between them to maneuver, if you’re careful.” In a grid system, you might move to be near one particular pool and then jump over it; in a gridless system, you’d just say “I’m trying to jump over the pools” or “I look for an area where there’s a space to jump across”. Once again, we see how this feeds into the rest of the game design: If distances are abstracted, then things become less valuable or even unnecessary. Prior to 3e, pretty much only thieves and monks had detailed rules for movement such as jumping or climbing; everyone else, depending on their DM, was either told “No, you can’t” or “Sure, you can” or “I dunno, roll Strength or something.” (It occurs to me, writing this, that one of the differences between a highly detailed rules system and an abstract one is where the DM needs to make decisions. In a detailed system, the DM’s authority to rule the universe tends to be invoked in edge cases, places where rules designed for most situations run into unusual conditions or effects. In a less detailed system, it’s often intuitive if there’s an “Absolutely yes” or “Absolutely not” answer, and the DM needs to decide what the odds are for all the cases that fall into “I dunno, maybe.”)

Modules, And We Don’t Mean “S-1, Tomb of Horrors”

Reading some of the essays from the 5e design team, one gets the impression they seem to think that you can isolate combat design from other aspects of game design with few issues, and that each group should decide “grid” or “no grid” on case by case basis, and just go on from there with trivial rules changes. I hope they don’t actually think this, but it does make it hard to imagine how they’re going to deal with it. Things as basic as a “how many monsters per encounter”, “how many different monsters per encounter”, and “how complex should each monster be” all are heavily influenced by how tactical combat is and how much a DM and the players are going to be expected to track in their heads — and how important or unimportant human error is. How many things can people get wrong or misremember — how far away is this, which orc was I attacking, etc — before it becomes an issue in play? If positioning is relatively arbitrary or inexact, does this make investing character resources in forced movement or battlefield control (spells, martial powers, being able to sneak to an advantageous spot) more or less valuable, and how is this balanced? There aren’t easy answers to these questions. (“Such things are more valuable, because the DM will be likely to permit them more often than the rules will.” “Such things are less valuable, because it’s harder to use them if the positions of all combatants relative to each other is vague.”) A lot of the “answers” vary based on the individual groups — but there aren’t custom rulebooks for each group. The rules have to work reasonably well for all the players who buy them. House rules can fill in a few gaps and adjust where the edge cases lie, but they can’t replace core systems, or you’re playing another game entirely.

How do you design an adventure whose encounters work without regard to what kinds of combat options different groups are using? I’m not discussing simple things like scaling damage or AC, but complex things like terrain layout or monster mix (see above).

How do you produce rulebooks that offer value to people using many different modules (presumably, requiring more stats and details) and not annoy people using only a small percentage of the rules? Why are they paying for things they won’t use?

If 90% (made up number) of your survey respondents say they value “immersion” — but half of them find grids non-immersive, and half of them find the lack of grids non-immersive, how do you appease both of them?

Perfect Isn’t An Option, but “Perfect Isn’t An Option” Isn’t An Excuse

Anyone who expects WOTC to deliver a game absolutely perfect for their personal playstyle is a moron, and anyone who complains, when D&D 5e comes out, that it’s not absolutely perfect will be roundly mocked. The challenge, though, isn’t to be perfect, but to be good enough that people currently playing Castles & Crusades, OSRIC, Legends & Lore, Pathfinder, and D&D 4e all find one, single, set of core rules appealing enough that they’ll buy and use them, not their current game. This is only even possible because the D&D brand and iconic classes, monsters, and so on, have enough appeal that they can bridge a small gap in general appeal. (i.e, if we say that Pathfinder rates an “8” for a given group, and the D&D brand, et al, is worth a “+2”, then the D&D 5e system in itself can be as low as 6.1 and still “win”. But it has to be a 6.1 for the Pathfinder players, and the OSRIC players, and the 4e players, and the 0E players, etc., and I honestly do not know how they can hope to pull that off. I am mostly concerned that they’ll make a game that’s fun, playable, and interesting — but which isn’t sufficiently superior to the existing systems to pull away a majority of players, so they’ll just be creating another market fragment instead of “uniting the tribes”. (Really, the smartest thing they can do is OGL the thing — you can’t take back the existing OGL, but if you open up the new game, you make it much more possible for people playing Pathfinder and retro-clones to have a use for your gamebooks due to the likelihood of conversion systems and ways to integrate them.)

Comments on 5e: The Grid

Again, this is simply a repost of an off-the-cuff rant to a blog entry at WOTC. Read it first, or this replay makes no sense.

An interesting fantasy, and I don’t mean the kind with elves. Now, let’s discuss how gridless combat really works, based on 34 years of actual play experience.

DM: The orcs charge around the corner! One attacks you, the others charge by to get the wizard!

Fighter: Like hell, I’m going to stop one with my axe!

DM: You can’t, they’re too far from you.

Fighter: You said this was a 10 foot corridor. My axe is five feet long. There’s no way I can’t get a swing at one of them!

DM: Sigh, fine. Uhm… the one on the right or on the left?

Fighter: I dunno, does it matter? Right. I roll a 19, I’m going to guess that hits, and, crap, 4 damage.

DM: OK, one of the orcs is wounded, they attack the wizard now.

Wizard: Can I cast a spell before they get here?

DM: Uhm… let’s see… they have a move of 6.. and you said you were “hanging back”… how far back, exactly, were you hanging?

Wizard (after doing some quick math in his head): Uhm… forty feet.

DM (eying him suspiciously): Well, then I guess you can get off a spell…

Wizard: Cool, I cast magic missile!

DM: At which orc?

Wizard: Uh… the wounded one. I roll…a 2. Smeg.

DM: OK, he’s still up.

Thief: I backstab him!

DM: You can’t.

Thief: Why?

DM: Because the wounded one is on the left and you’re sneaking in the shadows on the right.

Thief: Nuh-uh! I crossed over behind the wizard while he was casting. So I’m on the right.

DM: But the you’re in front of him, not behind him. You can’t backstab from the front. That’s why it’s a backstab.

Thief: Wait, wouldn’t he have to turn to look at the wizard who just magic missiled him?

Fighter: Hey, do I get a turn here? I’m going to charge the one that’s wounded. Death to the orcs!

DM: OK, as you turn to charge, the other orc, the one you’ve all been ignoring, attacks you from behind. +4 to attack! He hits, 12 damage!

Fighter: No way, I’d have backed away carefully and not let him do that!

DM: You’re going to back away carefully AND charge?

Fighter: I’m fourth level! Now, where’s the orc I’m trying to kill?

DM: He’s on the right… no… wait… I marked down the damage on two different orcs… uhm… which one was hit by the magic missile again?

And so it goes, in the REAL world. This is why I try to avoid any RPG without a tactical map (My systems of choice are GURPS, Hero, and D&D 3.x/PF/4e), and why when my group plays WOD or M&M, we *add* a tactical map, just so we always know where everyone is.

To elaborate: If there’s any possibility of conflict, confusion, or questions about “Can X do Y before A can do B?”, I really want the positions of characters marked as clearly as possible. The fact is, people imagine scenes differently, and fill in details based on their own expectations and assumptions which might not be shared by the entire group. Even something as simple as a barroom conversation turning into a barroom brawl can drag the game to a crawl when you try to establish where everyone was when the gameplay shifted from “roleplaying general milling around the area” to “Get to drawing, Screen Monkey!” (In other words, “We are about to engage in combat, oh respected Game Master. Please, draw us a tactical map of the region, so we may best engage in the enemy with full knowledge of our surroundings and his position.”)

“Theater Of The Mind” (Isn’t that White Wolf’s trademarked line of “Stand around in black clothes playing rock-paper-scissors” games?) works best if you’re into “telling a story”. It’s much less useful if you want to “find out what happens”, which is my preferred style of play. Contrary to what a lot of people like to assume or imply, disputes between the DM and players over the positioning of monsters, the relationship of various entities in space and time (and relative dimensions in space), whether or not you were standing in the area of the fireball, etc, are not necessarily due to immaturity, munchkinism, or competitiveness, but simply that people all have their own unique internal maps of the world, and in a complex conflict — anything worth playing out by the rules, as opposed to just saying, “Look, these guys aren’t remotely a threat, you have them at your mercy inside of 5 seconds” — you will have far too many factors to easily keep straight. It’s very easy for one player to not have heard another player say he’s moving across the room, thus placing him in the path of the first player’s lightning bolt, shotgun blast, or grenade. If one hobgoblin is knocked prone, it’s easy to say, “I attack the one on the ground”, but if there’s two of them, you need some other qualifier (“Uhm… the one on the ground who looks more wounded…”) and it quickly scales up from there. Within a player’s mind, often consumed with trying to juggle awareness of what everyone else is doing (pretty much the same, in a major battle, as trying to play mental chess), the distinction between “I plan to walk over there” and “I told the DM I walked over there” is easy to blur; likewise, “I run next to the orc” might imply a completely different orc to the DM and to you, and so on. The potential for conflict and confusion is high. I mean, as my players will be happy to attest, even with the aid of miniatures and a grid, I often mix up which figure has the Ongoing 5 (save ends) and which is Dazed Until The End Of The Next Turn. Now, you might reply, “Well, that’s what happens when you’ve got all those rules and conditions and powers. Keep things simple!” Just one problem — simple is boring. Calling one sack of hit point an “orc” and another sack of hit points with exactly the same combat abilities, except one spot higher on the attack chart, a “hobgoblin” is boring, boring, boring. I like my monsters and NPCs to have the same array of potential abilities as the PCs.

Obviously, if 5e is going to try to make the “one hour adventure” a design goal — and they are — they’re going to default to very simple monsters and very basic fights and tactics, leaving anything more complex than “I swing!” up to the judgment of the DM, which basically means pixelbitching until you find out what he expects you to do. I hope that the initial rules include grid based combat as a “core module”, though. If I have to wait six months or a year to get a combat system that is more than “Hey, everyone, let’s make up a fun story about how we killed some orcs”, that’s six months to a year I won’t be playing D&D, which kind of makes the idea of “unifying the base” an abject failure. So, here’s hoping they don’t do that.


Beginning: Comments On 5E

Race, Class, Theme, Background

Well, since a lot of my writing time (i.e, time when code is compiling, tests are running, etc) is being taken up with occasional rants on the 5e boards, it seems to me that I could kill two birds with one stone (I took Weapons Focus (Sling), Weapon Specialization (Sling), Improved Critical (Sling), Manyshot, Avian Hunter, Improved Avian Hunter, and have a +2 Birdbane Sling and Bracers of Archery…er…Slingery…Slinging…whatever) and copy and paste some of them here, thus adding to illusion that this site has “updates” and “content”, which, in turn, helps create the illusion there are also “readers”. I feel a lot like Jeremy in Yellow Submarine, creating my own world for my own consumption. Solipsists of the world, unite!

OK, Background on Backgrounds

First, you need to read this post. ( )Really. Nothing below is going to make sense without you doing so. “Who’s Pete?” you’ll ask. “Who’s Laura?”

So, having read that, here’s my initial reply to, as copied when I wrote it, meaning, even more typos than usual. (Hm… if over 50% of my posts are prefaced with “more typos than usual”, and it sometimes seems as if they are, doesn’t that de facto make them contain “the usual number of typos”, and my “edited” posts have “fewer typos than usual”?)

So… basically, all you’re doing is providing a set of pre-chosen selections of skills/feats/powers from a larger set, and calling them “themes” and “backgrounds”? The reason this couldn’t be done in 3e, 3.5, and 4e was… ? (Hell, it WAS done, in all of them, it just didn’t get beyond first level in most cases.)

I am not seeing a whole lot of advantage here. Someone who picks a “theme” still had to read through all the feat descriptions to learn what they do, comparing one theme to another theme and so on. As characters level up, they’re going to discover they don’t like the way some part of their background/theme works and want to change it, so, really, you’re basically saying, “Here, pick this pre-defined list of stuff that goes to 20th level, except that, by third level, you’ll be ignoring it completely.”

The only reason “Pick race, pick class, boom, done” worked in the pre-3e days was that there were no other options; people who wanted detailed characters who changed as they grew played Rolemaster, GURPS, Hero, etc. If you have a game that has enough feats and options to satisfy the “Lauras” of the world, “Pete” is going to realize he’s getting the shaft. He won’t be happy with the boredom of not having any choices to make as he levels up, because the designer made them for him. On the other hand, if themes/backgrounds are the only way to get certain options (“You can’t have Thieves’ Cant unless you take the Thief theme, period.”), then people will be rightfully pissed, because that basically makes it impossible to mix-and-match, so you’re left waiting for WOTC to release the “Sort of a fighter but he can speak Thieves’ Cant” theme.

Try to remember that the 1980s didn’t happen in a vacuum, that everything occurs in a context. Just because people paid 400.00 for a machine that only played “Pong” in 1975, and it was a lot of fun THEN, doesn’t mean you can market that same machine today and say “Hey! It was fun in 1975, right? So it’s still going to be fun now!”

3e finally caught D&D up to the rest of the gaming world. 4e had some genuine innovations and actually advanced the state of the art in many ways. Both had strengths and weaknesses that are well documented. Build on their strengths and correct their weaknesses. Prior to 3e, though, D&D hobbled through the 1980s and 1990s with a design philosophy stuck in 1975. 5e needs to be a game for 2012, 2013, and beyond, not a nostalgia trip.

In Which We Explain Further

So. Here’s a longer explanation. Basically, I think what WOTC wants is for D&D to be a beer& pretzels pick up game. They envision this:

Bob: Hey, gang! We’ve got about three hours. Do we want to play Settlers of Cataan or D&D?

Gang: D&D!

Bob: Great! Everyone, pick a race card, a class card, a theme card, and a background card, and fill in your character’s name. All done? Great! Here’s the adventure, “The Cryptic Crypt Of The Crypt King”. The box set comes with 10 adventures, and there’s lots more for sale for only 5.99! I’ll be the DM!

Gang: Whee! Let’s play!

And, I ought to be clear: This isn’t a bad concept for a game. Indeed, it’s a good concept. So good, it’s been done by lots of successful games: Heroquest, for example. Talisman. Heroscape, to some extent. Dungeon. Descent. Loads I probably haven’t heard of.

It’s probably a great idea to use iconic D&D characters, monsters, settings, and terms, too. There’s tremendous value tied up in the D&D IP. Games of this type have a large market and pursuing that market is something any smart company should do, if they think they have a niche and it won’t be seen as a “me too” product hastily rushed to market (cough Spellfire cough).

But it’s not D&D the RPG, and 5e is supposed to be the “unite the tribes” edition of D&D.

So, What’s Wrong With Themes, Etc?

Absolutely nothing. I love them in 4e; they should have been part of the core. I love Pathfinders “archetypes”, which serve a similar role, changing aspects of how the character acts, removing some abilities and granting others. Backgrounds, which help better shape a character’s origin, and give them greater ties to the world and/or minor skills from their upbringing which either enhance their primary role or give them useful tricks you might not expect, are also good. On the surface, making these things core in 5e is undeniably a good thing.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that WOTC seems to see think that the main problem with D&D is that it takes too long to make a character, that there’s too many choices, and that if you could just “start playing”, it would be great. What’s wrong with that?

First, you don’t have an awful lot of choices at first level, even in modern editions, unless a DM stupidly hands someone every supplement ever made and says “Pick a class”. For a first timer, the core classes and races ought to be enough.

Second, if one of the goals of “themes” is to collect useful choices that work together well into a bundle, this has been done since 3e; there’s always been “starting packages”.

Third, and this is really the issue here, D&D isn’t about making a character to start the game. It’s about advancing a character. It’s about playing his journey from “zero to hero”. It’s about taking him in unexpected directions as the game unfolds, both in terms of personality and game mechanics. Each level up is a chance to learn some new skills, choose new powers or spells, pick a feat, swap out old abilities, and so on, reflecting what’s happened to the character in the past couple of games.

Saying “Here’s your race, here’s your class, here’s your theme, boom, done!” works if you want a pickup game and just want to jump in. However, it’s contrary to the absolute heart of D&D, and that is the character’s ongoing story. D&D’s revolutionary idea, the concept that created the entire genre of role playing games, wasn’t “one figure equals one man”, or the integration of magic and monsters into tabletop wargaming, it was the idea of a continuing character who exists from one game to the next, growing in power and ability, trailing a story behind him. (And, importantly, not following a story laid out in front of him!)

Rules concepts like background (social skills, job skills, training, initial position in the world, cultural traits, minor bonuses and penalties from one’s upbringing and schooling and childhood and family), and themes (specializations, unique abilities, variant talents, unusual paths, esoteric powers) are great. They add tremendously to the class-based system, and help avoid the problem of drawing all character options from a single resource pool. However, and this is crucial, they must be bolt-ons to a core class system that is itself extremely flexible and capable of expressing a wide variety of character concepts and ideas within a single class. The game design, as a whole, needs to be centered around the campaign, around the ongoing adventures of the characters and their growth and progression — not on isolated adventures designed to be begun and finished in a single evening, with no continuity from one to the next, and no character growth.

But That’s Not What They’re Saying!

At this point, someone’s getting ready to point out that WOTC isn’t saying “No more campaigns” and that they’re talking about long term play, with themes offering pre-selected choices at each level, yadda yadda. Ah, but here’s the thing. The only time “too many choices” ever matter is at the moment of character creation, and then, only for very new players. If a player is intrigued enough to stay beyond a game or two, he’ll learn the rules, and want to make his own choices. The utility value of a theme, as a means of simplifying the game, diminishes rapidly with level. (This is not the same as the utility value of a theme as something which offers “out of the box” abilities or unique specializations or skills.) So, there’s a problem here. The “theme” player, if he just lets the theme run its course, is less involved in his character, and in the game, than the player who actively selects their abilities each level. He is disenfranchised, cut off from most of the game’s options, and each mechanic that allows him to ignore a theme pick and choose a non-theme pick undercuts the concept of the theme itself. Why bother with  20 level theme, if no one’s going to pay too much attention to it past fifth level? Of course, there’s nothing that says a theme has to make every choice; a theme could only come into play every four levels, or whatever, but, again, this goes against the idea of “simplifying” choices.

Of course, we’re at a very early design stage in 5e. It’s hard to say what the final form of “themes” or “backgrounds” will be. WOTC is doing 5e right, in the sense that we (the customers) are being shown the design in progress, along with the reasoning for it, instead of being told “Our professional funologists have determined that you’re not having fun. Our new game increases your fun by 78.6%. Play our new game. Have fun, Citizens. Serve the Computer. The Computer is your friend, unless you’re a commie mutant traitor.”, which was basically the 4e marketing pitch. The main test balloon WOTC is floating now, across several different columns/blogs, is “We’re thinking D&D ought to be a casual pickup game, not a long-term campaign game.” It’s time to start tossing some +5 flaming keen javelins at that balloon.