Posts tagged D&D
Using a micro-RPG to "ramp up" new players into D&D

TL;DR: I wrote a simplified version of D&D that evokes the feel of the game, without the nitty-gritty. It’s great for new or hesitant players, gets up and running in five minutes, and is free to download here.

Choosing whether or not to play Dungeons & Dragons in 2018 (soon to be 2019) is an interesting dilemma. Independent games are on the rise across the Internet and local game stores, and offer fresh, exciting, and arguably more “fun” takes on the tabletop role-playing game genre. Meanwhile, despite several attempts to streamline Dungeons & Dragons for new audiences, the game requires books with hundreds of pages, and a minimum investment of $180 USD for a new group to get started. Not to mention the hours on hours of reading, explaining, and re-reading those rules to get started. For many groups, the first session of D&D involves one player walking the rest through character creation for three or four hours, while trying their best to convince them that it will be more fun once they actually start playing. The current creative director of the D&D franchise has even gone on record on Twitter stating that the Dungeon Master (the player who “runs” the game by putting forth obstacles and playing many of the characters in the shared imaginary world) shouldn’t have fun while playing the game.

And yet, we continue to want to play Dungeons & Dragons.

For those of us who played through the days of Satanic Panic (which I was fortunate enough to only see the tail-end of, and is high on my list of “Things to Write About” in 2019), continuing to play D&D might be a show of loyalty. Many, in more ways that one, have earned the right to continue playing the game that has been accused of summoning demons (or worse), and don’t want to let those days go to waste.

It’s also a matter of investment. While packing up to move to the UK, I realized that I had conservatively $800 worth of Dungeons & Dragons material, which now sits in a storage space back in Oregon. This is a low number for a lot of people, too, as I’m not including many of the 3.5e books that were given away (or ruined), and I didn’t buy anything for 4th edition. Lauren and I have collectively spent something like $400 on 5th edition alone, just for the core rules and a selection of campaign reference books. This also doesn’t count the time and emotional investment that goes into preparing for Dungeons & Dragons, especially if you are creating any content (adventures, maps, character races or classes) for yourself. The homebrew community for Dungeons & Dragons represents its own kind of investment in the hobby, and transmogrify it from the game that you read about on the back of the box, into something else entirely. For players who have invested anything above and beyond the norm, be it financial or otherwise, continuing to play D&D reflects a sort of “making good” on those payments.

Lastly, thanks to its years of market domination, media references (like some great episodes of Community), and the recent rise in “actual play” podcast and live streams, Dungeons & Dragons is what new players have actually heard of. Unless they’re already in the role-playing game community in some way, it’s likely that most people will know the Dungeons & Dragons brand, and not much else. For the most part, new players don’t ask, “How do I get into role-playing games?” Instead, they’ll express interest specifically in “learning Dungeons & Dragons”, because so far as they know that’s the only game in the genre. And, to me at least, it feels disingenuous to give them anything else.

The trouble for me is that, when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure that I want to be playing D&D over other games these days. I also worry that new players will be repelled by the text, or the hours of character creation, or the maths that may not come easily to everyone. It’s a big ask to get someone who has never played a TTRPG before to come in and play “real” D&D in their precious free time. At the same time, I don’t want to be the person keeping new players from that experience, if it turns out that is what they want. I also don’t want to disregard the legacy of D&D, and its importance in the larger games space. The real trouble, then, is finding an easy way to bring new players into the world of Dungeons & Dragons that gives them a real idea of what the game is like and do it fast enough that they feel like they’re actually playing a game. If they leave the table not knowing what D&D is, or like they spent the whole time solving some word problem, then I’ve failed them.

In past games, introducing new players to the game has looked like doing the majority of the prep work for them. Lauren and I will typically roll up new character sheets, or print the pre-made sheets from the WOTC website (the existence of which prove the necessity of what I’m talking about), and present the new players with a selection between two or three options, rather than twenty-plus. We then attempt to introduce the rules of the game to the players as we play, so that they don’t have to stress about reading or prep beforehand, and can leap more-or-less directly into the game. While this meets the “actually play the game” criteria, it fails in a couple of important respects:

First, part of the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons is making your character in a tangible, hands-on way. The mechanics of rolling for stats, selecting race and class, and debating the various pros and cons of equipment choices helps the player build a more concrete understanding of who their character is, and how they operate in the fictional world.

Second, while teaching rules as they come up keeps the paperwork at a minimum, we’ve seen it limit the options that players feel they have at the table. While the rule of thumb given to them is always, “Just say whatever you feel like your character would do,” many players don’t assume that anything is an option, unless a word on their character sheet prompts them. For some classes, such as Paladin or Barbarian, this isn’t an issue, as most everything the character would do is there in the text. For other classes, such as any of the spellcasters, the choices aren’t so clear. When the choices are unclear, often new players will default to inaction.

When friends approached us recently with a desire to learn how to play D&D, the opportunity presented itself to try and resolve these two issues. Once we had figured out schedules, it would be myself as the DM, along with Lauren (who’s been playing for as long as I have), two people who had never played, and a fourth who had played before, but felt that they “weren’t good” at D&D, and were a little hesitant to get back into it.

This became the brief: develop an experience that would show new players what D&D felt like, a player who had less than ideal past experiences that the point isn’t to “be good” at D&D, and still be entertaining and interesting for an experienced player. You can download the finished product here:

While I initially only wanted to create a simplified character sheet, the end result here is a sort of micro-RPG that uses the terminology of D&D, gives off the feel of D&D, but relieves the pain points of getting a new player into the game.

Character creation is done by selecting one “look”, and “training”, which replace race and class. The names give a better idea of what they mean for the character, and each come with a selection of what the character is “great”, “good”, or “bad” at. This gives a new player a one-line synopsis of what they’re getting themselves into with their selection. They also pick two pieces of equipment that are more-or-less exact replicas of their D&D 5e counterparts— they do the same damage and damage types, though we’ve gotten rid of cost or weight, for sake of simplicity. Finally, they select between “Great”, “Good”, “Okay”, or “Bad” for each of the classic D&D attributes (one great, two good, two okay, one bad).

Notice that we’ve completely gotten rid of numbers in our attributes. I’ll be honest, this is 75% because I’m tired of explaining the difference between attribute numbers and modifiers. The other 25% is because this let me right an explanation of what to roll right there on the sheet: if your attribute or skill is “great”, you roll three times, and use the highest result. If it’s “good”, roll twice and use the highest. “Okay”, roll the once and take what you get. Lastly, if it’s “bad”, roll twice and take the lowest.

Those with experience in D&D 5th edition will recognize this as a modified take on the advantage/disadvantage system. What it allows us to do is keep challenge difficulties the same, monster AC the same, and players are given agency in determining how likely they are to accomplish certain actions. I’ve also listed the relevant skills underneath each attribute, which (at least in play-testing) helps alleviate the issue where players don’t know what actions to attempt.

Spellcasting has had a revision since the last test, as initially it had a more PbtA-style fluid vibe. Originally, you could choose what effect you wanted the magic to have, and that would affect the roll’s difficulty. In this version, I’ve created a pared-down spell list, with basic instructions for casting each spell. This further helps give players the “feeling” of playing D&D by bringing in classic spell names, the proper spell terminology (like “saving throws” and “spell slots”), and at least a bit of distinction between different kinds of training.

Finally, the advancement table is listed directly on the character sheet. The rolling system lets us keep all of the same difficulty classes, so we can keep the same XP goals for each level, which helps DMs a bit. Because all of the classes are on the same sheet, the advancement is an approximation of what all classes have in common. At level 3, they may select another training to act as the “specialization” offered by traditional D&D classes, At level 4, they can improve an attribute (maybe someday I’ll feel like writing up a list of feats to choose from instead), and at level 5 they gain an extra attack. While this isn’t 100% accurate for all classes, it provides a close enough representation of what it feels like to advance to level 5. By that point, hopefully the player has a good enough idea of whether they want to play “real D&D” or move on to something else.

So far, this has been pretty successful, especially with new or hesitant players. Character creation is typically done in about five minutes, and we’re able to play fairly intricate one-offs, with the players driving a lot of the action (which is fun for me as a DM). I’ve used monsters straight out of the book with minor editing, and the “feel” of play is very similar to real D&D on both sides of the screen. Up next, the goal is to use these sheets along with official campaign books, editing as little as possible from the text. Something like “Dragon Heist” should play quite well, though if I have players who are into the idea, I may try for “Curse of Strahd” to see how it translates.

The "The Fast & The Furious" franchise is a D&D narrative and I will fight you if you say otherwise.

Following my recent move to the UK, I was struck with a bout of unemployment. What else could fill this sudden influx of free time but nearly the entire run of The Fast & The Furious series on Netflix. Indeed, my streaming service of choice now boasts all but the last two installments of Vin Diesel & Co’s epic tale of living life one quarter-mile at a time.

Over the course of a few afternoons, I would idly watch through the parts of the series that my memory had lapsed a bit (2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift), or that I’d only seen in five-minute chunks on TV (Fast Five). In a haze, somewhere between ranking Dom Toretto’s one-liners to remembering that a The Rock-centric spin-off is in the works, something struck me:

The Fast & The Furious franchise, for all its flaws, is the ideal framework for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

I will prove it to you by recounting the entire series in the fashion of a group of real people playing Dungeons & Dragons. Also, yes, this will absolutely contain spoilers.

The Fast & The Furious

In our first film (or “adventure”), we introduce two of the main protagonists for the series. These are those players that stick with you, through thick and thin, and make a real effort to show up to every session.

First, you’ve got Dominic Toretto, human fighter, chaotic good. It was probably this player that suggested you start playing D&D in the first place. His goal as both player and character is to keep the group— the family— together, and will stop at nothing to achieve those ends. For a time, between 2009 and 2011, he goes through a baking phase, and brings some pretty alright cookies to your sessions.

As a character, Dom is introduced as having a fairly ordinary life. He’s got his own shop, a steady gig, a family that he cares about, and he only engages in illegal sports every so often. Well okay, quite a bit. He’s really good at them. Besides, they’re only illegal if you get caught, right?

Dom brings his partner, who’s playing Letty Ortiz: human rogue, chaotic neutral. Letty and Dom have a good thing going, both in and out of game. Together, they coordinate heists specific to Dom’s illicit extracurriculars. If anyone crosses Letty, Dom makes sure they never walk again. If anyone crosses Dom, Letty makes sure they stop breathing.

Enter Brian O’Conner, half-elf paladin, lawful good. Why half-elf, you ask? Just look at those baby blue eyes. You’ve played previous games with Brian, and helped roll this character sometime last week. Together, you’ve decided that Brian’s deity Tyr, god of law and order, has instructed him to infiltrate Dom’s illicit sports, and take them down from the inside.

Now, because it’s D&D and because the character sheets are right there on the table, Letty and Dom know right out the gate that Brian’s playing a lawful good paladin, which is bad news bears for their established backstory. Dom, ever the good host, convinces Letty to roll with it anyway, because it wouldn’t be much fun to shun a third of their table right away. They introduce Brian to the world they’ve built together: the shop, the crew, Dom’s NPC little sister. They tell Brian happily that they race… well, let’s say they race horses. That’s in D&D, right?

Brian says, “Great! I happen to have a holy steed right here. I mean, did I say ‘holy’? Just a steed! A normal steed!”

Dom, again the good host, challenges Brian to a race, “to prove himself.” Once Brian has been accepted into the group in-character after a few races, Dom and Letty reveal that they not only race horses, they steal them. And, the Dungeon Master reminds them, the next big shipment of horses is tonight. Dom and Letty invite Brian to the heist, and at this point Brian is reminded of the moral struggle he should be having. The DM prompts a vision of Tyr, which tells Brian to locate the shipment, then call for the forces of good to arrest Dom and his gang of thieves.

The heist plays out, and the DM throws in one more guard than Letty’s investigation rolls revealed, taking Dom by surprise. Brian, beset by his own moral compass, uses his paladin abilities to save Dom’s life, allowing the gang to successfully steal the new batch of horses. The sudden appearance of Brian’s holy powers well and truly blow his cover, however, and now Dom has to fully commit to the bit of being an anti-lawful character. The game quickly becomes a swift bout of player-versus-player roles, each riding their horses faster into the night as Brian chases Dom across Faerun.

Suddenly, Dom rolls a natural 1. He is flung from his horse, and lies on the desert ground, immobile. Brian sees another flash from his vision of Tyr, another reminder that this is what he came here for. Brian informs the DM and the other players that he will now read the Scroll of Summoning, and bring forth the other servants of Tyr, who will be able to properly incarcerate Dom for his horse-thievery.

Then the doorbell rings, and the pizza’s here. “It was getting late,” Dom’s player says sheepishly, “I figured we could all use some pizza. No, no, it’s cool. I can cover it, I just got a bonus at work. You can spot me next time.” Damn, what a good guy. Brian can’t just let his character get shuffled off like this!

Play resumes, and as the Dungeon Master describes the lights and sounds of the oncoming holy servants, Brian interrupts. “Actually, I’m gonna help Dom to his feet. He can take my horse.”

Brian and the DM describe helping Dom up to the horse, and watching him ride off into the sunset as the other servants of Tyr arrive to the scene, just moments too late. Brian has to pass a pretty tough Deception check to keep them from arresting him instead, convincing them that it was in fact he who had the accident.

“You still owe me a ten-second horse!” shouts Dom from the distance, referencing a joke made earlier. Everyone laughs.

2 Fast 2 Furious

A few weeks have gone by, and Brian is itching to play again. He’s had some time to think about his character, what he really wants, and how he can play a paladin that’s not “lawful dumb.” He calls up the DM and schedules a good time for a game, but it turns out that Dom and Letty can’t make it that night. “Go on and play without us,” they say, “We’ll catch up in the next one.” The DM encourages Brian to bring whoever he wants, to help fill the gap. Maybe they’ll just run a one-shot or something.

Enter Tej Parker, true neutral bard, and Roman Pearce, chaotic evil barbarian. Brian, who has decided to break his paladin oath and live as an anti-paladin, is being called by Tyr for “one last job.” If he wants, he can complete the job, and regain his paladin status. Brian enlists the help of his friends to complete the job, taking down an evil wizard by infiltrating his fleet of specialized delivery people, much to the chagrin of Roman’s barbarian nature.

There’s some intrigue, some double-agent action, a race or two. Everything played mechanically more or less by-the-book. Then, following a couple failed Deception rolls on Roman’s part, the group decides to lean into the chaotic nature of the group, and screw over the Church of Tyr while they’re at it. Combining Roman’s raw strength with Tej’s innate ability to gather a crowd, they manage to lose the church in a massive horse race, and still take down the evil wizard. As this double-cross means that Brian’s paladin status isn’t restored, Tej spends the last hour or so of the session flipping through the rules on multi-classing, shoving the more interesting bits in Brian’s direction.

It’s a quick game, and arguably the group spent more time making jokes than they should have, but fun was had by all. They agree to get this group back together soon.

Tokyo Drift

The DM hasn’t heard from anyone in months.

This happens occasionally, and no one really knows why. Maybe something to do with the holidays? But then, why is the DM available? Does everyone else take different holidays? Damn.

While at their day job, we’ll say they’re flipping burgers, the DM relays this feeling to their coworkers. Two of them chime in, “Well, we’ve never played D&D before, but we’ll play with you, if you want!” The DM wants very much. They spend days planning. They roll up characters for the new players, so they can leap straight into the action: Sean Boswell, chaotic neutral rogue, and Han Lue, lawful good monk. The DM introduces them into this world they created with the other players, filled with government intrigue, dramatic heists and horse racing. They set it in a time years into the future from their previous games, and describe the rumors of the events of sessions past. A rich tapestry of lore and mystery is woven.

The game goes horribly.

Han’s character has to spend the majority of the session teaching Sean’s character how to ride a horse, while the DM had to repeatedly remind them both which die the d20 was. Nobody seemed to have much fun at all. When they were supposed to finally get to the rich tapestry of intrigue and mystery, all they really had time for was a semi-climactic race scene. Then, in a series of poor decisions and worse rolls, Han dies!

The session ends. The DM is defeated. Sean says, “Thanks for inviting us over, I just… don’t think this is for me.”

It’s understandable. It’s no one’s fault, either. Sometimes it just doesn’t go to plan.

As Han is about to leave, there’s a knock at the door. It’s Dom and Letty! And they have… sandwiches? Letty got the DM’s text message, it turns out, but they mixed up the times! Is it too late to play?

Fast & Furious

With Dom and Letty on board, the DM convinces Han to give it one more go. “You can keep the same character, even. It’ll be like a flashback for you,” they say, “Now you get this great tragic hero story!” Which, to Han, sounds pretty good.

“But, look.” says the DM, “I wrote a lot of shit for this session that we never got to. If we’re gonna play, I want to do this right. I want this to be epic. We need more players.”

Dom sets the sandwiches down, “I was born for this.”

A few minutes later, Brian’s at the door. Dom then convinces his sister to join in, and play as his in-character sister that was an NPC in the first adventure: Mia Toretto, neutral good cleric. Mia agrees to join in only if she can bring her friend, Gisele Yashar, chaotic neutral ranger.

As the six players take their seats around the table, the DM describes the jobs that Dom and Letty have undertaken in the in-game years since their last adventure. Together they tell the tale of daring heists in far-off lands. But, the DM explains, the group drew too much heat, and had to disband for a time.

“Dom and Letty,” says the DM, “Tell me what you’ve been doing in the five years since then.”

Dom stutters, “Uh… I guess I’ve just been laying low, with my earnings from the heist?”

“Sure, sounds great. Letty?”

A phone buzzes. Letty picks it up, “It’s a work call, you guys, I’m sorry. I have to run. Just say that, uh… Say I was murdered! Yep, totally dead now. See you next week?” And suddenly the table has one fewer player.

This wasn’t what the DM had planned, but it was worth rolling with. “Dom, you awaken suddenly in the middle of the night to a phone call: Letty’s been murdered.”

The group swirls around and comes together via the investigation of this murder. As the night winds on, they find themselves racing illegal potions across national borders in an attempt to take down the alchemist who’s been brewing them, who may have connections to Letty’s killer.

As they get closer to the alchemist, it’s revealed that one of his henchmen killed Letty. Dom attacks him, demanding reasons. The DM falters, trying to keep up the charade that this had been the plan the whole time. Brian picks up on this, and steps in, “It was my fault. I was trying to become a paladin again, and to get into the church’s good graces, I had Letty working undercover for me.”

In the wee hours of the morning, heads aflutter with the revelations of the day, Dom leads the group to take down the nefarious alchemist. As the others get away, Dom and Brian are left in the desert, the Church of Tyr swooping in to take the credit for their work, as usual. Brian knows that they’ll arrest Dom if they catch him, and attempts to stall while the group spitballs ideas to get him out of this predicament.

Dom checks the time. It’s late. “I’m tired of running,” he says, and allows himself to be captured. The group calls it there, and tries to get some sleep for the night.

Fast Five

A couple weeks later, Brian and Dom are discussing the course of the game.

“I don’t know, man. Letty’s been real busy with work still, maybe we should just take it a different path. I’ve been rolling up a new character, even. How’s this sound to you for a name? ‘Vin Diesel.’”

“It sounds like you’re trying too hard,” says Brian. “I have a better idea: let’s break Dom out of jail.”

Brian pitches the idea to the DM, and they gather everyone they can from the previous games: Brian, Mia, Tej, Roman, Han, Gisele, and Dom meet up for the next session. They play fast and loose, racing to catch up with the caravan of Tyr that’s taking Dom to their castle-turned-prison. In a series of rolls with advantage (for good planning), they break Dom free, and arrange to meet him in the next country over.

“Now, Brian,” says the DM, “Originally we said that you could get back into the church if you wanted to be a paladin again. This makes that a lot more difficult, is that cool with you?”

Brian agrees, and the DM lets them know that a paladin breaking their oath this badly would only incur more wrath from the church. In response, they’ve sent another paladin to chase after the team, and he’s hell-bent on tracking each and every one of them down. Enter the group’s new primary antagonist: Luke Hobbs, lawful good paladin.

In a way, Hobbs represents a sort of creative outlet for the DM. A bulky pressure valve, if you will. By this point in the campaign, most of the players are around level 12 or 13, and their plans are getting more ridiculous. Hobbs is a happy accident that lets the DM crank the pressure up a bit on them. Plus, I mean, no one’s gonna check his character sheet. He can totally have hill giant stats if the DM wants him to.

As the players take steps to regroup after breaking Dom free, the DM has Hobbs and his team inch closer to their hideout. Meanwhile, in the shadows, the cartels that the players have wronged do the same. Hobbs gets to them first, and thanks to a few poor rolls on the players’ side, he and his team capture them all. Despite their best efforts, Hobbs alone takes out most of the party single-handedly. They place the team in a well-guarded caravan headed towards the most remote hideout the church can muster.

En route, the cartels attack, set on turning the players from captured criminals to dead ones. In the ensuing cross-fire, the players are released, and Hobbs’ team is wiped out. Now on his own, Hobbs strikes a deal with the players: help him exact righteous vengeance against the criminals that killed his crew, and he’ll let them walk. The job? Steal a vault, out from the middle of a stronghold held by the cartel. It’s filled with all of the gold they’ve collected over the last decade, either running their illicit potions racket, or outright stealing it from the church.

In true level-13-ish fashion, Roman, Tej, Han, and Gisele come up with the worst plan the DM had heard yet. They get their hands on some magical rope, drug their horses with super speed, and rip the vault right out of the fortress, dragging it tumbling through the streets of Neverwinter. In exchange, Hobbs gives them a head start to get away. As he opens the vault, he finds it completely empty. One of them had used a scroll of Dimension Door to port the stash straight back to the team’s hideout.

Fast & Furious 6

By the end of the last adventure, most of the players have reached levels 15 or 16. The DM knows that in order to up the ante, there’s got to be something that genuinely scares them, if not multiple things.

The DM finds a time when everyone can sit down together, and describes to them an epic heist. Something only people with their exact skill-set and ingenuity can muster. They get away with millions of pounds of gold.

“I don’t remember running this adventure,” says Tej.

“You didn’t,” replies the DM, producing a stack of character sheets. “They did.”

The players pass the sheets around: evil, twisted versions of themselves. Their exact level, classes, all built to be mirror images of the party.

“Wait a second,” says Dom, flipping through the sheets, “The hell is this?”

He reads the name on the character sheet aloud: “Letty Ortiz.” And there’s a knock at the door. Letty appears, lets herself in. She sits down next to the DM, opposite the players.

“I got the night off,” she says, “And we rolled a whole new sheet. Letty didn’t die, but she doesn’t remember any of you. So, watch out.”

What ensues is the most difficult battle the players have faced yet: against themselves, and one of their own. The mission costs the group both Gisele and Han, who decides that this is the point the team’s adventures catch up with his first, ill-fated adventure. The team eliminates the gang of doppelgangers and their nefarious leader. After many hours of back and forth and a few slices of pizza, Dom convinces Letty to come over to their side, and the team completes the job as a family yet again.

Furious 7

Still trying to one-up the players at every turn, the DM messages the group to let them know that the gang leader they killed had a brother. A really, incredibly, impossibly evil brother. Worse still: he’s the guy that killed Han. And he’s out for revenge.

The players reconvene, going over the details of what would become Han’s funeral. Out of the corner of his eye, Dom spots a black horse pull up. Riding it is the man that matches the description the DM provided earlier: Deckard Shaw. He prepares for combat.

Before fighting can ensue, a flock of elves swoop in, scaring off Shaw. The leader of the elven unit, the creatively-named Mr. Nobody, offers to help the party stop Shaw in exchange for retrieving an item for him. The item, known as “The Eye of Vecna”, is equal parts evil and vague, but the team needs to rescue its creator, who’s being tracked by a mercenary. It’s all very complicated.

The artifact is being carried as part of a convoy in a faraway country, and the elves offer their flying ship to get there. Tej, attached to his horses, arranges to have them shipped along on the ship. As the ship hovers over their target, the DM reveals that the ship can’t actually land. So they cast Feather Fall on the horses and parachute them in. This happened in the real movie and it cannot be unseen.

Using a combination of their raw talents, magic spells, and the variety of magical items they’ve picked up on their many adventures (but we somehow haven’t really talked about), the party easily retrieves the Eye of Vecna. After fiddling around with it for a bit, they use the artifact to track down Shaw, and trap him in a final confrontation.

In a depressingly quick bout of combat, the group decides to hand over Shaw to their new friend Hobbs, who places him in the same high-security stronghold that the players would have wound up in two adventures ago.

As the adventure winds down, it’s revealed that, for reasons that no one likes, Brian can’t continue playing with the group. This hits everyone pretty hard, but Dom especially. This is one of the few times that he can’t keep the group together through sheer force of will, and is unfamiliar territory for him. It’s unclear whether the group will continue playing at all.

The Fate of the Furious

To my great shame, I still have not seen this film. Partially this is because it came out at a time where I wasn’t able to frequent the theater, and partially because I have real trouble with media properties coming to an end. This may not be the end, who knows? When the next movie comes out, then I’ll see this one. It took me three years to watch the last season of How I Met Your Mother, and still haven’t played the third Mass Effect (yes I know the ending is problematic please don’t talk to me about it or spoil it or mention this ever again).

That said, based on the information that Wikipedia and the movie trailers have provided to me, what follows is my understanding of the latest film in the franchise, as it occurs in my fictional Dungeons & Dragons group setting.

Brian leaving the group was a blow to Dom’s confidence. They had started the game together, and he didn’t like the idea of playing without him. Although, the others still seemed to want to keep going, in one fashion or another. The community that Dom and Brian had built had turned into a pretty solid group, which is hard to come by these days. To try and satisfy both of these feelings, Dom reached out to the DM with an idea:

”Let me run this one.”

It didn’t take much convincing, as the DM had expended a lot of energy in the last seven adventures that the group had run together. It would be nice to be on the other side of the screen for a change.

So, the two trade places. The DM takes the (now level-appropriate) Luke Hobbs on as their player character, and Dom sits down rather awkwardly in the DM’s usual chair.

Play begins like many of the usual DM’s missions: a criminal is looking to steal an important artifact, and Hobbs recruits the team to steal it first. Dom even has his character stay with the team as an NPC, to help give them a leg up. The characters are now nearing epic levels, easily 19 or 20, and things can truly go off the rails.

Using their array of powerful abilities, the team locates the artifact in question quite easily: a wand that can disable all magic within several miles. Before they can grab it, however, Dom has his character swipe it first, and disappear along with a mysterious newcomer.

“Oh yeah,” he says to the group, “I’m not the good guy anymore.”

The players reel in the realization, and learn over time that Dom’s character has been caught up with a mysterious woman named Cipher, who has the ability to control horses remotely. They learn the scope of her power when she sends hundreds of horses hurtling off a building onto them, as they get close to Dom’s new secret hideout. What follows is an epic chase across the nation, Cipher and Dom just barely staying ahead of the group, who are using every tool at their disposal. The players pull out all the stops, summoning elementals, flying ships, and at one point Dom and Cipher have to steal a dwarven submarine to try and get away.

Dom proves to be a dangerous foe for the party. He knows their every move, predicts every step, and— arguably most importantly— doesn’t order pizza for this game. The hungry, bedraggled crew tries desperately to retrieve the artifact from Dom, and free him from whatever grasp this Cipher has on him.

Sensing the frustration, Dom introduces what seems like a new obstacle for the players: Deckard Shaw, and his gang leader brother, suddenly appear! But instead of fighting the players, they explain that Cipher had kidnapped Dom’s illegitimate son, and was holding him hostage. Though they may be criminals, even the Shaw brothers understood that family comes first. The crew takes the exposition dump as an opportunity to finally, finally!, lay down the hurt on Cipher, and Dom’s character joins in. “After all, we’re a family.”

Cipher uses her powers to deflect the team’s horses just long enough to summon a flying ship of her own, and barely escapes on the wind. Months later, the group would hear rumor of her exploits in Waterdeep…

What the future holds…

Apparently, it’s been confirmed that there should be two more movies in the series! And maybe an animated TV show? And then there’s the whole Hobbs/Shaw spin-off movie, which will probably be at least a trilogy. There’s so much room to go from here, which is why leaving the last adventure at a cliffhanger is such a great choice at this point.

Anyway,

that’s my argument for how Fast & Furious is actually the story of a typical D&D group. They start with enthusiasm, hit some bumps along the way, and eventually settle into a groove. Within that groove, they make friendships that will last a lifetime, tell stories that can be told and re-told ad infinitum, and experiment playfully with the rules of the game. Sure, it’s not perfect, but family doesn’t have to be.

If nothing else, maybe this will convince you to go watch the movies. Maybe, just maybe, it will convince me to finish the series. Who knows? I’m just living life one quarter-mile at a time.

Tyler RobertsonD&DComment
Adventurers between Adventures: Merchants and Customers

Accustomed to a certain lifestyle

While thinking about commerce in Dungeons & Dragons, I keep coming back to the question of how the average person affords the lifestyle they live. As the books are primarily written for the players, many of the rules regarding buying goods and services are built around abstracted costs of living between adventures. These costs are shown first in a high-level abstraction called Lifestyle Expenses, which represent the average daily costs of living in certain levels of comfort. This covers food and lodging, and determines the social strata that your character might interact with during their periods of downtime. The fresher the food or more comfortable the bed, the more expensive the daily costs.

I happen to like the online version of these rules a bit better than the printed copy, and the Basic Rules on expenses can be found here: https://www.dndbeyond.com/compendium/rules/basic-rules/equipment#Expenses

The prices are then broken down into food and lodging of various comfort levels, also on a daily basis, and then food is broken down into individual items that one might order off a standard tavern menu. You know-- meat hunks, loaves of bread, gallons of ale and the like. This is my personal preferred view, though I might honestly prefer a more in-depth table based on the level of preparation, craftsmanship, and cost to import certain ingredients, but we'll get to that later.

The mile-high view of Lifestyle Expenses is interesting to me because its brevity indicates that there is an expectations for players to not pay it much mind. It creates a simple metric by which players can roughly estimate the cost of their lifestyle, and brush it aside as simply "the time until the next real thing." In truth, I have yet to see a player or dungeon master even reference these rules during play, to the point where for a time I didn't believe they existed. This is just as well, though, because even low-level adventures tend to ensure that players can quickly afford the Modest or Comfortable strati within the first dungeon delve. More, if they're crafty.

For example, a character who survives the introductory adventure The Lost Mines of Phandelver (or Here There Be Gerblins, for fans of The Adventure Zone) can expect to come away with anywhere from 10 to 50gp, plus a magical item or two, if they play their cards right. While this isn't enough to jump straight into the glamorous life of wealth and fame, it's more than enough to live comfortably until heading off into the next adventure. 

That's all well and good for the adventuring type-- the stoic Paladin or fearsome Barbarian who might throw themselves headlong into certain doom, with naught but a prayer to see them safely to the other side. They can use the spoils of their small wars to fund a certain lifestyle until the next evil emerges from its respective pit, and that'll be fine for them. What I wonder about consistently when reviewing these rules is how we are treating player- and non-player-characters who don't want that life for themselves? Even the smallest village is likely to have a humble carpenter, blacksmith, or shepherd. How do they earn enough to live? 

Let's take an example laid out in the Dungeon Master's Guide, and say that my Human Ranger "Karrson" has inherited a smithy. 

Thanks to his inheritance, Karrson doesn't have to shell out the cash to build "Karrson & Sons Smithy" from the ground up, so that's one expense out of the way. All Karsson needs to worry about here are the expenses for daily upkeep. The Player's Handbook and DMG provide some useful tables for average daily costs of a business, such as an inn, but smithy isn't on the list, so we get to improvise a little here. 

Running a smithy "by the book"

To begin running Karrson's smithy according to the books, we need to figure out what the average daily cost of business is. This includes paying staff, and purchasing basic supplies to keep the place running. For the average smithy, you might need 1 "Skilled" hireling to do the bulk of the blacksmithing, and 2 or 3 "Untrained" hirelings to be assistants, or clean the shop at the end of the day. Per the Player's Handbook, that comes to 2gp and 6sp per day, which we'll round up to 3gp for accounting's sake. Then we'll need raw materials to turn into our product, which we'll say is swords and axes. We'll estimate that we need about 10 pounds of iron per day, on average, depending on the work being done. That gives us enough to make a decent longsword or a big war axe, plus some extra for smaller orders (nails and the like). I will admit to not being a professional blacksmith, so one might argue for a smaller or larger number of pounds, that's fine. I'm saying 10 pounds solely so that we can say that our average daily cost for supplies is 1 gold piece. 

That brings us to 4 gold pieces per day to run the Karsson & Sons Smithy, which sounds fair! According to the Dungeon Master's Guide, that places us somewhere between running a shop and a guildhall, which feels appropriate for the concept. 

According to the DMG rules for running a business, whenever a player spends their downtime minding their business, as it were, they roll a percentile die. They add the number of days spent on this activity to their roll, with a maximum of 30 days, and subtract 10 from the roll for any missed payments. The result of the roll determines how the times goes for the business in a general sense, with higher numbers being generally better. For example, a roll of 41-60 reads "The business covers its own maintenance cost for each of the days", while a roll of 81-90 reads "The business covers its own cost for each of the days. It earns a profit of 2d8 x 5 gp." Lower rolls require the player to pay for office maintenance costs out of their own pocket, which may lead to the aforementioned missed payments. 

As you may have expected, I have a few problems with it. Why? Because, dear reader, I -- *pushes up glasses* -- am a loser

The book isn't what I need, and that's okay

I want to be really careful here: the book is not wrong. I have only found that in the particular kind of game that I want to play, these rules do not fit the mechanics or narrative that I want. In the spirit of Unearthed Arcana and years of D&D modules before me, all I want to do here is explore an alternative that I find interesting. 

The book doesn't provide what I'm looking for because of a few simple reasons: 

First, the rules only come into effect while the player is actively spending time on the business. This implies that while the player is not actively there, everything goes pretty much according to plan, and the business stays afloat. This incentivizes the player into never spending time on their business, for fear of losing money. 

Second, the rules specifically list a maximum of 30 days per roll. While this is most definitely included to prevent rolls consistently over 100+ (I can just see myself saying "I spend 100 days on my business lol"), it encourages players and Dungeon Masters to move swiftly between adventures, while sweeping the in-between stuff under the proverbial rug. This is fine if you want to focus primarily on going from dungeon to dungeon and dragon to dragon, but.... I don't? I know, it's the name of the game, it's fine.

Last and most importantly to me, it reduces the entirety of your downtime, up to thirty days' worth of hard work and interactions, to a single roll. Yes, this can be filled in (and done well!) with role-play and narration, but it presents a stark mechanical imbalance when compared to things like combat. Could you imagine reducing an entire dungeon crawl to a single percentile roll? No, of course not, don’t be ridiculous. And why is that? Because the player character, as an entity, is written for combat. The rules for combat in Dungeons & Dragons are more complex, more fleshed out, and more interesting to play.

The argument that I would like to present is that the player character is equally constructed for trade and social interaction, and with the proper implementation of rules that respect that fact, we can make running a shop as mechanically interesting as raiding a dungeon.

Below is a first draft of how those rules may look. Admittedly, I've written these down in spare moments over a number of days, so some thoughts may be incomplete or inconsistent. The intention is to use this as a starting point on the road towards making and play-testing something more "real".


Going into Business

Whether you are inheriting a business or starting something from the ground up, there are many factors that you'll want to keep track of as you get started. It's recommended that you do this on a separate sheet, or in the "Additional Notes" of your character sheet if possible. At the top of the page, outline the general description of your business: name, rough outline of what the business provides, and the primary operating location. Especially if you're building your business from scratch, you'll want to work with the Dungeon Master to figure out the cost of building (or buying) a location to use as your primary operating location.

Below the general description, create three columns: Assets, Expenses, and Extra.

Assets are anything that you can, will, or are actively making money from. This can be physical items that you want to sell, services that you can provide, space that you can rent, and so on. Really, it's anything that you can convince the Dungeon Master that someone else may want to pay an amount of money for at some point. These will be the things that you sell to customers when they come to your primary place of business, which we'll get to later. For example, if you run a small inn, your assets may be a small number of rooms to let, a small breakfast served in the morning, and a warm dinner at night. 

Expenses are everything that you have to pay money for to keep your business running. This includes the cost of crafting or maintaining the things in your Assets column. For example, if you are running a smithy (as in our example earlier), one of your Assets may be "Longswords". A corresponding expense may be the iron needed to craft new longswords, or hiring a blacksmith or assistant to do the actual crafting. Expenses for an inn may include the food to prepare for meals, and a hireling or two to help keep the rooms clean.

Players and Dungeon Masters should work together to determine the prices and costs of both Assets and Expenses, starting with the examples provided by the book (we'll consider those "market value" for most items). Players may freely opt to mark up or down the prices of the Assets, though that may affect a customer's willingness to purchase something later on. One of the additional projects that I'm laying out for myself currently is writing up lists of example Assets and Expenses, to create a sample set for your businesses. This may turn into something resembling a separate character sheet for shopkeepers, but we'll keep things loosey-goosey for the time being.

Creating Customers

While a character owns a business, the business sees a number of customers per day equal to the character's Charisma modifier (minimum 0, though perhaps we could make a case for having an negative number of customers). This number can be increased through Marketing, which we'll talk about some time later on. Customers, from the Dungeon Master's perspective, should be treated like monsters. They have lives, react to other customers, and can intersect with the character's lives at the worst possible moments. 

When a customer enters the shop, give them a Goal, an Expectation, and a Demeanor. These can be selected from the list below or chosen randomly by rolling the corresponding dice. Goal and Expectation are to be kept secret by the Dungeon Master, while the Demeanor should be made known to the players immediately.

The Demeanor reflects both how the character behaves while in the shop, and the mechanical challenges that the player may face while they remain there. The Demeanor can be changed through successful skill checks, outlined in Making the Sale below.

The Goal reflects the initial desires of the customer (which they may or may not be honest about), and affects every roll made involving them. 

The Expectation reflects what is likely to catch the customer off-guard, and give the player the advantage. The first time a player character performs an action that proves the customer's expectation wrong, they gain advantage on their next roll. 

Goals (1d6)

  1. To purchase the most expensive item or service available at a 50% discount. (+2 DC against rolls to improve Demeanor)

  2. To haggle with the merchant as much as possible. (Failed Making the Sale rolls reduce the Demeanor by 2, to a minimum Demeanor of 1)

  3. To purchase a specific item or service at 80% market value. (+1 DC against rolls to improve Demeanor)

  4. To purchase something at an acceptable price. (+2 DC against rolls to improve Demeanor beyond 4)

  5. To spend money freely in exchange for premium service. (-2 DC against rolls to improve Demeanor. If another customer's needs are given priority, Demeanor is instantly reduced to 2)

  6. To purchase the desired item or without causing too much trouble.

Expectations (1d6)

  1. That service will be slow.

  2. That this store will not have the specific item/service that I need.

  3. To have to haggle to receive a fair price.

  4. That assumptions will be made about me based on appearance.

  5. That the merchant will know nothing about their product.

  6. That the quality of the item/service that I receive will be lacking.

Demeanor (1d6)

  1. Upset. Will pay 50% of market price. DC 18 to improve.

  2. Irked. Will pay 60% of market price. DC 16 to improve.

  3. Unsure. Will pay 80% of market price. DC 14 to improve.

  4. Reasonable. Will pay market price. DC 14 to improve.

  5. Gleeful. Will pay 125% market price. DC 12 to improve.

  6. Ecstatic. Will pay 150% market price. Cannot be improved.

When asked, a customer should be specific about the kind of item or service they intend to purchase. If a customer enters the store with a Gleeful or Ecstatic Demeanor, they may not even wait to be asked. The item or service should always be within the realm of what the business has to offer-- though it would be "more realistic" in some cases, we don't want customers coming into our smithy looking for the bed and breakfast. Additionally, the customer enters the store with the intention of purchasing something. If the Dungeon Master wants to bring in characters that are "window shopping", that's fine, but they should be treated separately from Customers.

As I mentioned about, when creating the business, Dungeon Masters and players should work together to create a short list of the kinds of items and services that the business is likely to have on-hand, and use the prices outlined in the books to create a sort of "menu" that can be referenced. Customers who may have doubts about the availability of a product or the shop's ability to produce it are likely looking at the more expensive products on the "menu", while most other customers are likely looking for something towards the middle. 

Making the Sale

When you interact with a customer with the intention of changing their demeanor, describe what action you take, and make a check according to the relevant skill. For example, lying to the customer about a product's value would require a Deception check, while extolling the virtues of a service may require a Performance check. If you are unsure what skill your action requires, defer to the Dungeon Master's judgement, or simply add your Charisma modifier to your roll. If your roll meets or exceeds the DC listed on the customer's current Demeanor, their Demeanor increases by 1 point, to a maximum of 6. Otherwise, the Demeanor decreases by 1. If the player's action is focused on a target on than the customer, their Demeanor decreases by 1 per action. 

If a customer's Demeanor reaches 0, or if the item or service they require is not offered for some reason, they will leave the establishment without purchasing anything. 

At any point while interacting with the customer, the player may opt to Make the Sale. At this point, they expend the item or service from their inventory, in exchange for the agreed upon amount. The customer then leaves the business. In the case that the item or service requires the customer remain at the place of business, such as renting a room in an inn, no further rolls are required for Making the Sale, and this has no impact on the number of customers seen per day.

While not required, I highly recommend creating names and quick descriptions for each customer. This can be something the player and Dungeon Master come up with together, or something pulled from a random generator for sake of ease. This is important to me, because it opens up the possibility to have recurring customers, adding further depth to the world and creating connections that may not have otherwise been made. Recurring customers could turn out to be the captain of the town guard, or a passing noble, or even the campaign's main villain. These characters can be played however the Dungeon Master prefers, and their goals, expectations, and demeanor may change freely.

Marketing and Advancement

While I enjoy the idea of a player character’s Charisma modifier dictating the number of customers a store sees each day, as it represents a sort of abstract word of mouth, I want there to be room for improvement in all things. We can’t leave out low-charisma characters, after all, and we should reward players who want to take the time and strategize well. There are a couple ways that I can think to do this, both of which I’ll look to detail further in later posts (because I believe I’ve written enough here, don’t you think?).  

The first method would be to give each store a separate character sheet, complete with attributes and skills and everything. Initially, the store’s sheet would match the character running the shop, but as the store earns capital, it can exchange it for experience points. This is similar to more “old-school” games like Labyrinth Lord or Dungeon Crawl Classics (though you can check my memory on that one). We’d have to do a bit of conversion math, but at a glance I feel that a 1 to 3 gold-to-XP ratio sounds fair.

What this allows us to do is separate the store’s progression from the character. If the store does well, it advances well, and at certain levels it can take advantage of an attribute point increase, then begin to use its own charisma modifier to bring in customers, rather than the player’s. We could conceivably translate a good number of feats to relate to commerce instead of combat, as well. 

The alternative, which I might like even better, is to take advantage of the existing hireling rules that I mentioned earlier. Only, instead of hiring someone to carry your things or help make new items, you hire town criers and advertisers to go around promoting your business. The conversion on this is fairly easy as well, if we think of a purely monetary value: skilled hirelings bring in one more customer per day, and unskilled hirelings bring in one new customer every 1d4 days. This is roughly equivalent to the kinds of daily value you can get from hirelings performing other tasks, and gives players a decent chance of breaking even on their investments rather quickly. 

 

Next Steps

I’d like to work on creating some fillable character sheets for stores, and perhaps coming up with a few commercial archetypes— weapon shops, taverns, inns, etc. It would be fun to treat these like classes in the PHB, with unique perks as they level up and everything. 

What I’ll write on next, though, is the idea of politics and public works. We’ll explore ways that players can, through their actions and investments, indirectly influence the events in a location, and how a Dungeon Master can help draw the lines between actions and outcomes on a large scale. 

A More Comprehensive Ruleset for Adventurers Between Adventures: Introduction

A Question of Loot

While running a game of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition recently, as the adventure wound to a close, and the adventurers made their way out of the Sunless Citadel, and the telling signs of late-night exhaustion made their way 'round my players' faces, I was struck with an urge to remind everyone of what loot they find on their way out. This wasn't something that we had much paid attention to (I'm lucky to play with people whose first instinct isn't always to loot the bodies), but the adventure's end triggered something in my lizardfolk-DM brain, saying that they might need these small treasures later on. 

Now, in the cold light of day, I don't think that they do. 

Of the combined 640+ pages of the 5e Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide, less than ten pages are dedicated to things that you can reasonably purchase on the daily. There's a chapter on Magical Items in the DMG, yes, but it's difficult to justify the average shop having anything more than a few Potions of Healing available on any given Tyr's Day. I'm strictly thinking of items that you can walk into a store and buy between adventures. 

While providing dense tables of trinkets and adventuring gear, replete with weight and cost and flavor, the latest edition of D&D is content with letting the mechanics of these tables play out "off-screen." I have yet to play in or watch a session in which the purchasing of equipment or "mundane" items is not hand-waved away with a "Sure, we'll say you got that while in town. Anyway, on to the combat..." Spending gold just is not the most interesting thing to do in this game. Neither is haggling for a better price, or determine an object's true value. A single successfully Deception or Persuasion check can get an NPC to do what you want, for the most part, while a single successful Insight or Investigation check will let you know what they're hiding. Why waste time on the <10 pages of paying for things and talking to people, when we can focus on the 20+ pages of combat rules, status conditions, and debates over the definitions of "grapple" and "invisibility"? Not to even mention the scores upon scores of spells and incantations to prepare each day. 

Why, indeed. Most people-- commonly referred to as "normal people"-- will agree that the exploration and combat elements of D&D are the most interesting, and provide the most mechanically interesting elements for a role-playing session. "The tables on buying land and paying upkeep are serviceable, and the rules for social interaction pillar were clearly intended to be fluid and allow for in-character improvisation and fun," the voices in my head tell me. Why would we fix what isn't broken? 


Let's be Barons

Of every campaign I've been a part of, the one I talk about most was the first one. You never forget your first, as they say. It was a fairly modified version of Decipher's The Lord of the Rings, which had been crudely printed out and shoved into a three-ring binder. Our group, which had consisted of mostly the same characters for the whole run, had been playing for four years in real-time, and nearly a decade in-game. This meant that, in addition to wielding mythical weapons of power, one of the three Elvish Rings of Power, and (not to brag) enough magical aptitude to take down a dragon in a single blow, we were also filthy rich

My father, a telecom engineer and the group's de facto banker, realized somewhat suddenly one day that his character (a ranger of the north), had been carrying roughly 900 pounds of gold, jewels, and knick-knacks on his person. Encumbrance issues aside, we hadn't the faintest what to spend it on. By that point, we had become heroes of the land, and were welcome with food and lodging wherever we traveled. We wanted for naught but the cool breeze of adventure in our faces and the warmth of victory at our backs. 

When our game master, a history teacher, presented us with a down-on-its-luck stronghold in need of proper management, there was only one true solution: we bought it, and became barons of the land.

Over the course of several months, spreadsheets were drawn up, detailing the intricate daily plans of the keep. Everything from transporting stones from the quarry to bringing in farmers and cattle to occupy the surrounding hills was detailed with an approximate cost in gold coins. We would hold small council meetings before and after each adventure, voting on which endeavors to fund and which to put on the back burner, slowly building a village around our new castle. With our spreadsheets, we could see the real-time impact of each decision, prompting us to develop investment schemes, saving plans, and plan adventures around how much gold we could bring back to continue our pet projects. I was more enthusiastic and responsible regarding this imaginary money than I have ever been, and potentially ever will be, about the small amount of money I possess in real life. 

So while the social and commercial interactions in D&D aren't broken, by any means, I miss that level of exuberant obsession in tabletop games. The kind ridiculed on TV and in movies, where nerds sit around a table for weeks on end, drowning in their own filth as they calculate the odds of a single arrow sparking a cultural revolution in the east. It was a sort of pure joy that people who liked math and stories could enjoy together, getting lost in not only the fantasy of being a knight in shining armor, but the mystical realities of being a capable accountant, shrewd lawyer, and wise ruler. 


New Adventures in Old Mundanity

Using Dungeons & Dragons as a framework, my intention is to write a small series of rules for adding a welcome complexity to the hum-drum everyday life of an adventurer between missions. Hopefully not too much complexity, but enough to make interaction, rolls, and a player's time valuable. The intent is to make it fun and interesting for players to haggle on prices, set up shops, compete with NPCs for market share, throw parties, and take time enjoying the finer things in life.

Each set of rules will become a new post here, and they'll eventually compiled in a small bundle called "A More Comprehensive Ruleset for Adventurers Between Adventures". I won't write them quickly, I'm sure, but that's the goal.

Topics I'll be covering include the following:

  • Spending Money
  • Property Management
  • Business Management
  • Marketing and Propaganda
  • Laws and Lawyers
  • Friends, Family, and Romantic Interests
  • Holidays, Festivals, and Other Events

With the introduction out of the way-- have you played games like this before? Would you play them again? What topics am I missing, or am I reinventing well-greased wheels?

Fixing Low-Level Combat in D&D

The 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons is very up-front about what it is. The game rests, as it states in the first chapter of the Player’s Handbook, on three pillars of gameplay: Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat. This simplicity helps keep the game and its players focused, aligned, and (for the most part) friendly. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that one of the pillars— Combat— is terrible.

I say this fully recognizing that it may be an unpopular opinion, so let me qualify it a bit: combat beyond 5th level, or Combat between player characters, can be incredibly rewarding. It’s at those points in the game where you can most accurately weigh the pros and cons of each action, and there is enough variety of available actions to provide actual depth and choice to each round. It’s the getting to that point that I can’t stand.

For example: most new parties of first or first-ish level will likely be introduced to fifth edition through a pre-written campaign like Hoard of the Dragon Queen. This is a perfectly fine set of adventures, and was my own introduction into the new rule set. The first set of combat encounters here primarily involve kobolds, which players will recognize as the bread and butter of the dungeon crawl.

For the uninitiated: kobolds are small, lizard-like creatures, famous for their cowardice and lack of combat prowess. Dungeon masters throw them at players like pretzels on the route from first to third level.

In the fiction, kobolds make a great choice for the start of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. They create an interesting plot that leads players on the path towards a cult of Tiamat-worshippers and a veritable sample platter of tasks that are typical for an adventuring party. I’m not here to complain specifically about kobolds.

But, since you insisted, I will.

Brief tangent warning!

Kobolds are the prime example of low-level combat that sets a false expectation for players and Dungeon Masters alike, specifically for maths reasons. This is supremely uninteresting to anyone but me. To begin, traditional kobolds have an Armor Class of 12, and their winged cousins have 13. For the standard first-level adventurer with a Strength or Dexterity modifier between 1 and 3, they need to roll an average of 10 or better to land a hit. On a 20-sided die, this gives players a 50/50 chance to hit one kobolds per round. Then consider the basic attacks given to kobolds in the current Monster Manual: unless the DM decides to change something, they are given a dagger that does 1d4 + 2 damage, with a +4 bonus to hit. +4! Unless a DM hands out the more expensive armor at first level, the average player’s Armor Class sits at around 14. This puts the odds of a kobold hitting a player dead even with the odds of being hit themselves. While this may sound completely fair at first, let’s move finally to the kobold’s Challenge Rating. A challenge rating tells the Dungeon Master how difficult a particular monster is, and typically you’ll want to match the CR to the average level of the party (the book assumes four players in a party). The kobold has a CR of 1/8, meaning that an appropriate number of kobolds to throw at a party of first-level adventurers is EIGHT.

From that, let’s build a scenario: a first-level fighter, rogue, wizard, and cleric, walk into a tavern. For some inexplicable reason, the only other occupants of the tavern are eight hungry kobolds. Everyone rolls for initiative, and each adventurer squares off against two kobolds.

The fighter goes first, and thanks to the 50/50 chance I mentioned earlier, they all but flips a coin to see if they can hit one of their two opponents. For the sake of argument (and as a demonstration of how my luck goes), let’s assume they miss. The two kobolds then each take a swing at the fighter, again with the coin flip’s odds. The kobolds now have twice as many chances to hit the fighter as the fighter did to hit them. It doesn’t even matter at this point whether they hit or not, because until one of them is eliminated, the statistical imbalance remains.

This pattern continues with the rest of the party, though the others may not fair as well. The wizard, while she may be able to keep a distance at first and fire off a Magic Missile, will suffer from a lower AC than the fighter, further tipping the odds in the kobolds’ favor. 

Of all of the players in this scenario, the cleric may actually fair the best, having access to decent AC, average strength, and healing spells. However, having only one action per turn, they would have to completely sacrifice their chance at hitting a kobold in order to heal members of their party. Even incredibly kind DMs wouldn’t pass up that opportunity to have the kobolds gang up on a party member (remember kids, always kill the healer first).

Finally, after all of the players and their respective kobolds have taken a turn, we circle back around to the fighter, who has not yet done anything useful in this combat. For anyone who has twiddled their thumbs for fifteen minutes while seven characters take their sweet time failing to hit each other, you know this feeling. This brings me out of my first point (kobolds suck) and into my second:

Missing in combat feels bad, and it shouldn’t.

As it stands, missing in combat is essentially your queue to get up, get a snack, maybe use the restroom, and browse twitter for a bit. When you roll to swing your sword, preparing for the ecstasy of seeing a monster cleft in twain, missing that roll completely ceases the flow of combat. It is literally saying, “nothing happens, and your turn is now over.” If you got into D&D to experience the escapist fantasy of being a capable adventurer in a high-fantasy world, this mechanic quickly whittles away at that ideal. I already have a hard enough time liking myself despite my stupid mistakes, I certainly don’t want to find myself feeling that way about a half-orc barbarian pirate that I’m trying to personify. Remember, Dungeons and Dragons is supposed to be a fun activity. I don’t know about you, but i would rather try and avoid that kind of existential dilemma of at all possible.

My main issue with missing attacks in low-level combat is that it fully breaks the illusion, and feels neither fair to the player, or true to the fiction. This is not to say that missing an attack does not happen in combat— it certainly does! However the context of that miss is important.

In high school, I was part of a fencing club. I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t terrible either. At one point, I was 125th in the nation (out of 130 ranked fencers at the time). Largely, I attribute that to being left-handed, which gives you a sort of built-in advantage unless your opponent has a lot of experience fencing lefties, or is also left-handed, creating a sort of reverse-Princess Bride scenario. My level of actual skill with the sword was fairly median, and once you figured out the one or two tricks I had in my back pocket, I became a middling opponent. Experienced fencers could not only pick up on this tricks, but had significantly more of their own. While they still fence within the rules of of the sport, the patterns that they followed varied such that it became harder and harder to predict their line of attack, making each one more difficult to avoid.

At higher levels of D&D, combat can be very well suited to match that feeling, and missing a roll can play an important part in that: though your aim may be true, your opponent is able to parry it away at the last second. Though you have prepared for the worst, they outsmarted you for a moment, but you can get them next time. It can feel very much like a real sword fight, with a back-and-forth leading to a worthwhile conclusion.

By contrast, Kobolds don’t even know what a parry is, much less how to perform one consistently.

So how do we fix this?

Using my narrow scope of frustration, one might be tempted to say “let’s just nerf kobolds”. But the problem extends beyond a singular monster. The root of this issue, the reason why missing an attack roll feels bad, is this:

What are we meant to gain from combat?

At early levels, the goal of combat against low-level creatures (such as kobolds, but also goblins or simple beasts) is simply to gain experience. With experience, you’ll level up, and eventually this will get interesting. The trouble with this is that it takes time for experience to accumulate, and early levels may not give you the benefits necessary to ease the pain of missing an attack roll in combat. At best, you have something like the Fighter, which gains Action Surge at second level. This gives you one extra attack, once per rest, which... kind of helps? It feels like a waste to spend that move on a kobold, and waiting for a rest can feel like forever. Plus, second level requires 300 experience points. That’s twelve kobolds that a character would have to take down all by themselves, unless the DM gives out lots of non-combat experience. That would be like flipping a coin once every fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, until twelve of them come up heads. All for a reward that lets you flip twice one of those times.

What we want here is a way to reward the intelligence, experience, and dynamics of the player, relative to that of the monster they are fighting. While it’s appropriate for a fighter to square of against a bandit or lizard folk of similar intelligence, it just doesn’t make sense for them to have the same experience when facing off against a kobold or a goblin, at least after the first encounter or two.

My proposal to fix this requires a bit of dedication, and is best started at first level. If you’ve made it this far, I think you’ll be okay.


Combat Intelligence

On the back of your character sheet, write down your intelligence score. Below that, make a simple two-column table. Label the left column “name” and the right column “experience”.

When you encounter a creature in combat, add its name to the “name” column, if it’s not there already. When you declare an attack against that creature— regardless of the attack’s success— mark a tally in the “experience” column next the the creature’s name. The represents what you have learned about this creature’s fighting style, strengths and weaknesses, and general patterns.

If your intelligence score plus your experience with a creature exceeds that creature’s intelligence score, you do not need to roll when declaring an attack. Thanks to your experience and careful study of the creature, you have learned how to consistently defeat it in fair combat.

Using this mechanic, every attack, even a miss, represents a tiny bit of progress. Even for that fighter who missed the first attack, and now has to wait twenty minutes for their turn again, that miss didn’t make them completely useless, and they’ll come back stronger for it.

While for some players and some creatures, this means that after one attack (even a miss!) you will be able to land hits each time, for some players that makes sense in the fiction. Are you a highly intelligent rogue or ranger who has spent time studying the combat styles of a particular creature? It makes sense that you would quickly find a way to counter that style. Conversely, if you’re a big dumb barbarian who has intelligence as your dump stat, it may take you a bit longer to really get the feel for fighting some monsters, but your brute strength will get you there eventually.

Additionally, as your face higher level monsters with higher intelligence scores, this will become a steadily more difficult feat to accomplish. While you may learn a little about how a vampire fights in a couple rounds of combat, it’s a safe bet that they won’t stick around long enough for you to learn all of their tricks in one fight.

As your characters advance in levels, the combat experience stays with them. When they return to fighting kobolds and goblins on the way to the next adventure not only because they are stronger and have magical weapons, but because in true Sun Tzu fashion, they have come to know their enemy.

 

 

What do you think? Will you use this mechanic in your next game? Would you make any changes? Let me know!