Category: Game Theory

Faster 5e Turn Order / Initiative system

For the last three weeks, I have been playing 5e at a local game store. My 8-year old son wanted to try the game, so I joined it for him. Now instead of DM, I play with him.

In the gaming group, there are several other kids. I have to say, I am quite proud of my son’s behavior. He pays attention to the action and story. While he does little role-playing, his focus is the battles.

I feel the current Initiative system bogs down the game.

The more I play 5e, the more I don’t like the Initiative system. Although it does have some positive attributes, overall, it breaks the game flow when going into combat. It feels like the game has shifted from one game to another.

I have also noticed that 5e has made the players’ turns more complex. In general, too much of 5e is waiting around to do something. And since I do not optimize my turn, my turns go fast while others go slow.

It seems to me that since it takes much longer to get to a players’ turn, lots of players working hard just to do stuff. The spotlight in on them and they know it is going to be a while before it returns to them. So they scramble to come up with something to do.

Age of Swords System

In play testing Age of Swords, I have been playing around with simultaneous rounds. With the monsters and the players all attacking at the same time, I have found it really speeds up the game. Often I resolve all the monster actions and then let the players go. But it is all happening at the same time in the game. Turn order is no longer important.

5e System Idea

If I was to make a change to 5e, I would shift it more towards this style of Initiative. Here is what I am thinking. I am interested in what people think of this hybrid-system.

At the start of combat, I would have everyone make an Initiative DC check against the enemies Initiative score. The default being DC 12. In this way, I would never take away from a good roll by a player. The results of the roll would be labeled as either Fast (Success) and Slow (Fail).

While this is almost the same as the current system (everyone stopping to roll) there is no accounting involved. The characters are now grouped into those that go before the monsters and those that go after.

Turn Order

  • Fast
  • Monsters
  • Slow

Then I would add the following, simple mechanic. As an Action, at the start of your turn end your turn. You change your Turn Order group.

It is my hope to play test this simple system in the near future. While I don’t think it would solve all the problems, I think it could help to speed things up a bit. And without the DM having to micro-manager the Turn Order.

With using this system, the people in the different groups then take their turn in whatever order they choose. If there is a conflict, the GM can choose to let those with the faster Initiative bonus go first. One of the first things people have said when they hear of this system is they think the players will always be challenging Turn Order, but in my play-testing it hasn’t happened.

Please let me know your thought or if you even try this system. At my son’s gaming group, I might be DMing soon. If it happens, I will test it out for myself.

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As GM, you don’t need to dice out every encounter.

Continuing with my controversial advice for GMs to summarize more, I want to talk about battles.

Not all fights are a threat to the Adventures. Nor should they be. In these cases, end them ASAP. Even go so far as to not roll it out, but summarize it.

I am a big fan of offering at least two threats to the Heroes each night. I think I got this idea from the old TV show Kung Fu. I read that the networks insisted each episode had  two martial arts fights. They demanded a minimum amount of action each week.

Players like to roll dice and resolve combat. RPGs, for the most part, are built on the foundation of Wargames. I believe that players like the excitement of battle and the risk of losing. So when I plot out a story, I put in at least two opportunities for threatening combat each session.

So back to my point, not all battles need to be a real threat to the party. If the enemy is not a threat, be quick to end it. The fastest way is to summarize it.

A drunkard commoner gets upset with the Adventures and punches one of them, no need to roll initiative and get all into it. He is not a real threat. Sure he might do 1d4 damage to one of them, but so what. If the Hero says he punches back, then he does it. No need to roll to hit, or damage, or to turn it into an encounter. If he wants to beat the crap out of the drunk, it happens. Or at least the drunk cannot stop it.

The same is true with many enemies. The Party is 8th and encounter some wolves in the woods, they kill and skin them. No dice are needed. No time is required.

Now I can imagine hearing the crowd through the internet screaming: What about rolling it out? Perhaps the wolf will roll 20, 20, 20 and kill the Hero. Sure. But do I want  an Adventure to die in some meaningless random encounter? No.

But wait a minute, are you not the GM that says death has to be in the game to have it have story tension. Yes! But meaningless death doesn’t add much in that department.
It is one thing for a Hero to die fighting a dragon, scaling a mountainside, or saving the kingdom. It is another to have him slip and die in the bathtub, battling cancer, or battling a giant rat. Not all character death is equal in weight or value from a story point of view.

If you think meaningless death have value, then I suggest you add a chart to your game and roll each week. Roll 01 and you die of an aneurysm. The end. Fun times.

What about XP? Do you award XP for encounters you don’t roll out?

I think games like 5e have experience points wrong. When you only award killing monsters, then you end up with players that force fights with anything they encounter for XP.

I use a different XP system, so I don’t have this problem. But if I did use a 5e style XP system then yes. The rewards for fighting low-level encounters are small and mostly meaningless. If I felt the players were abusing this system by having non-threatening fights purely for XP, then I would stop awarding it.

Once again, as GM you are under no obligation to role play out the meaningless or mundane. This advice includes combat.

It doesn’t mean you ignore what happens. You do not deny it. You summarize it.

If six 8th level Adventurers enter a chamber with five basic skeletons, instead of rolling initiative and fighting it out, as GM I would say, “They are no threat to you, and you easily destroy them.” Then I would move on to something more interesting.

Next, the Adventures come across three mummies. I think this will be a fight. We start the battle, but I quickly see the mummies are no match for the Adventures. Okay, you kill them. Move on.

Now I am guilty of running these fights to the conclusion, but more and more I am ending them early. They are not attractive to the players or me.

I try hard to offer at least two opportunities for hard and engaging battles each night. Sometimes there are more. And sometimes the other fights that come up I don’t roll them out to the end. In my mind, the worst thing that can happen is spending all evening in some meaningless battles and not have time for the interesting ones to arrive. Same is true in role playing encounters.

Recently, I had joined a gaming group at one of the local comic book stores. I went to two sessions then quit the group.

The GM was decent, and I would have enjoyed playing with him. Unfortunately, it was a wargaming group, and they didn’t want any role-playing to happen. Perhaps a bit of hyperbole, it is far to say it wasn’t my style of game.

One of the encounters made a point of this post crystal clear to me. We came upon four priests of a cult in the middle of a ritual. We rolled initiative and immediately attacked. I had already learned that any asking of questions, talking to the NPCs, or any other interaction would be frown upon by the group. I think the GM did have a story with the cultist but the other players showed no interested in it. And all my attempts to learn about it had been a point of contention with some members of the group.

After the savage first round of attacks by the party, the villains turned into Gaseous Form. They were trying to escape. For three rounds, the Adventures dropped every bomb they had on these guys to kill them. The Bad Guys just moved away. It was a good ten minutes of real-life time of players attacking, casting spells, and maneuvering on the map to kill these priests. The priest never attacked. They all died.

Nothing about the encounter was interesting. We got their XP, looted them, and then went on to the next room. The GM then said, “This next room has a big fight in it, and I don’t think we have enough time. I am going to call it early this week.”

We spent all of our Clock on an uninteresting encounter.

Teleportation No More.

A decade ago, I decided to remove teleportation and gates from my world.

Plane shifting still exists but is rare and is fixed to locations. For example, under a mountain range known as the Echo, some of the caverns there lead to Hell. These caves are one of the few means of traveling to the realm of Hell.

By making this adjustment to what the Heroes can do, I have made my homebrew world feel remarkably larger. By forcing Heroes to travel, often by ship, it has made the subject matters of my stories more local.

I know this style of local story based campaigns is not what all GMs want. I have played in good D&D games where Heroes feels like jet-setters “flying” all over the world. We would have sessions where the party teleport from city-to-city solving global problems. There is no doubt this can be fun.

However, I feel something gets lost in those types of global stories. Counties become abstract ideas. Often, the party never steps foot outside of the palaces. Whole countries get reduced to a few buildings and NPCs who the Heroes repeatedly visit.

My taste is the local stories. When the Heroes are helping a village, a city, or a nation. Often they begin the campaign in a region and never end up stray too far from it. My stories are designed so that the Heroes never have to travel the world to take part in them.

Even when I am running a Sandbox style game, because they need to travel by sea to get anywhere far, they often explore where that start. It isn’t always guaranteed. But even when the Heroes do travel, they often find someplace to build their roots.

One day, I decided to create a new world. While doing so, I thought I would try something different. My new world would be base on naval power. But then I was thinking about teleportation. After all, at some point, all travel becomes pointless in standard campaigns. The party teleports everywhere. Then I had a thought, remove teleportation. So I gave it a try.

Removing Teleportation and Gates have been the best world design decision I have ever made.

When I look at many of my favorite novels: LOTR and the Belgariad, they did not have teleportation in them. In fact, numerous books I love there is no teleportation. I enjoyed books that also have teleportation in them, just as I have liked some D&D campaigns with it.

But after playing my world for nearly a decade, I have concluded that removing teleportation is the way to go. If you are making your world, I would suggest you remove it. You will find your world will suddenly become so much larger.

Note: One minor adjustment I have made is to add a few additional powerful Blink type spells. At the highest levels, these can travel a few miles. So the Villain and Heroes can still Blink away if need be. I recognize that is something I still want to have in the game.

Restrictions During Hero Creation

As a GM, it’s hard to build a compelling story around a group of selfish, murder hobos with nine different alignments.

These groups have the attack, loot, and then find someone new to attack mentality. When they meet NPCs if they do not have the information they want it is “kill them.” And while it is not impossible to have some throughline, it is like building on sand.

On the other side, there is a new breed of actor-players. Influenced by Critical Role, they want a “roleplaying” style of campaign. Unfortunately, their idea of roleplaying is to act out every mundane event. It is hours of performing what they eat for lunch, flirting with barmaids, and throwing pinecones at each other. It is like pulling teeth to get them to leave the tavern. Also, not exciting stuff.

I think an RPG is at its best when the players are performing Heroic deeds while making tough in character choices. For me, that is roleplaying. The best adventures are when there are rising stakes, difficult crossroads to navigate, and conflicting goals. The story is best when the Hero’s actions are steering it. Toss in some occasional character acting, and I have the perfect game.

The above isn’t easy to pull off, but it should be the goal. And it is good to have goals as it is always easier to get someplace if you are trying to get there.

Whatever your vision of the perfect type of game, I would think we can all agree an RPG story works best when the Heroes are onboard. Too many GM try to force the issue, Railroading the story onto the players.

The best way I have found to get players to go along with a story is by restricting who and what they can play during Hero creation.

While some players and GM will be reluctant, the reality is the restrictions create freedom. I find the limitations the most critical aspect of starting a new campaign.

The idea behind the limitations is there so the players make Heroes who would willingly take part in the story. It doesn’t matter what type of story; war, religious, save the world, or local hero. Whatever it is, the restriction makes each Hero have an alliance with the overall theme.

In the last several years, here are some examples of the restraints I placed during Hero creation.

  • The Heroes comes from an economic depression area and are seeking to reach the city of Pea’dock in hopes of a better life.
  • The Heroes survived the Orc stacking of Kansas City. They lost friends and family and are looking for retribution.
  • The Heroes were members of an oppressive regime devoted to the god Anubis who in their banishment plot their return to power.
  • The Heroes comes from the Mayway Valley region. You have strong ties to your community, no desire to leave, and wish to protect it.

In this way, everyone knows what the story needs from them. But these restraints are not so binding as to prevent Hero diversity.

In the journey to Pea’dock, I would expect by the second or third session they would reach there. On the road, they will have some encounters and an adventure waiting for them. When that planned adventure finishes, if they wish to continue as a sandbox style game then that is great. By then, the party will have taken shape, have some bonds, and be better as a collective. So this restriction is mild and only serves to start the Heroes off on equal footing and a shared destination.

In the Orc survival story, this story arc lasted six months of gaming. The Heroes started in the military until the restriction of that organization was delaying their plans. The whole campaign was them dealing with the Orc War. It has a wide range of adventures, locations, and plot line. They fought Orc Champions, Giants, and some mutant horrors. It eventually morphed into a more political running towards the end. At no time, was their problem with party coherence or motivations.

In the Anubite running, we were playing the surviving members of the fallen ruling class of a civil war. We were an evil party, devoted to the death god Anubis. As outcasts, we were plotting our return to power. And while we never did return, we were united in our hate of the new pharaoh, religion, and our desire to rule again.

In the Mayway Valley, it was about the rise of occults who summon a demon to terrorize the community. At no point was the party, “let’s just leave.” With their motivation set, it was easy to allow them to sandbox their solutions on how to destroy this more powerful foe.

My next running might be about an Elf War.

If I were to run this campaign, I would right away say, “No Elves, play a Hero that hates the elves.” Then I might pick an area of the world and ask the players to have bonds to that region. Unless I decided this was a global war, then I wouldn’t place that limitation on the party.

There is no doubt that some people will suddenly want to play an elf. As GM it is better to put your foot down. Elves are the enemies of this campaign. There is no need to have someone with ambivalent motivations in the party. Where we are going, those guys will get left behind.

Now as GM, I can write up all sorts of stories and encounters involving the war with the elves. In no way do I need to railroad the party. It can be a sandbox style running within the confines of this world event. The restrictions allow me the GM to better prepare and it gives the Heroes the ability to build a story.

Basically, I am saying to the players; you can do whatever you want as long as it is about the Elf Wars. Let’s see where this takes us.

If you are not putting restrictions on your players during Hero creation, consider it. Doing so will improve your gaming experience.

I want my +1!

Once again I find myself responding to a D&D question that keeps showing up on Facebook. This one is about the idea of a Called Shots. This question is for 5e, but my advice applies to all editions.

As a GM, I consider the Called Shot to be a narrative tool.

By making a Called Shot, the player is giving me more to work with for the story. Then, I let the damage dice decide. In this way, the Called Shot works without changing the game mechanics, but it will affect the narrative.

Before I get into a long tangent, what the player is looking for with the Called Shot is a bonus. Instead of giving them a bonus, I have high damage mean the Called Shot happened narratively.

Imagine being in a game and the party is fighting some Orcs. One of the players, Todd says he wants to hit the Orc in the neck with his spear. Some GM has a penalty and bonus mechanism for the roll. This GM gives the attack Disadvantage but provides a bonus with 1d6 to damage. So he makes the attack, hits the neck, and then he rolls the worst: 2 damage.

Meanwhile, player Nick makes a normal attack, hits, and then rolls max damage of 10!

Well, where did Nick hit? It seems strange that he did 10 damage hitting some random part of the body while the Called Shot did 2 damage? Afterall, a hit to the neck should be severe. It asks, what is the point of hitting the neck?

It comes down to that D&D has never been a Called Shot system. The damage die system was always there to regulate the hits. A low damage roll is a poorly placed attack while the high rolls are hitting vials. Adding a Called Shot on top of the damage die system makes it worst.

Okay, so on to the real reason I want to talk about Called Shots. There is a tendency for players always to be looking for power. They cannot help themselves. They’re drawn to it like gnats. And the system award this mentality. There are levels to get, gold to claim, and magic items to find. Power, and power, and more power.

As a GM, your default view should be to limit power.

Players will always be asking for more power. I am suspicious of these requests. I feel I should not give them unless there is an incredibly compelling case to do so. In this area, I find myself saying “No” all the time.

On the flip side, I seek to say “Yes” to Heroic Deeds. If the Player wants to do something bold and brave, I look at it through the lens of how-to-allow-it. I also say “Yes” to competence. My default position is to view the Heroes as skilled and talented. It annoys me when a GM treats my Hero as an incompetent fool.

But back to request for more power. My advice falls in a tricky area. Ultimately, the Heroes needs to advance in power. They need to level, they need gold, and they need items. And the system itself recognizes these needs.

The Heroes get more powerful as they level. As GM, I do have gold and item for them to find. So in his way, they will be getting power.

However, the power I plan is never enough. The players are always going to be looking for more. They are going to search places I had not considered. They will take things I was not expecting. And like the murderous raccoons they are, they will steal power any chance they get.

The power I am talking about mostly manifests itself in the shape of little bonuses. They are a +1 here and a +1 there. For example, a +1 to AC, a +1 to hit, a +1 to damage, a +1, +1, +1. And all these little +1 add up. Soon they have +3 to hit and +6 to damage with all these little +1 running around.

And here is the crucial part to realize, all of these +1 do not come in the shape of items.

The players are also looking for bonuses in the narrative and rules ruling. Even within metagame areas, the players are pushing for another +1.

It is for this reason they are making the Called Shot. It is nothing more than another obvious ploy to get more power. They are hoping I will give a bonus to hit or to damage. Whatever shape the +1 comes, they will take it. And once I do give it, that is now in their pocket to use again in the future. In this campaign and the next one.

It is all over the game. It is all over the FB posts I read. Daily there are posts. My player wants to dip his claws in metal; he wants a bonus. My player killed this enemy and skinned it;  she wants a +1 AC. My player did xyz… and they are asking for a reward.

The players are relentless. Again, I cannot blame them?

Many GM gives in. They are like Ophra handing out cars, “You get a +1! You get a +1. Everyone gets a +1!!!”

These GMs feel they are encouraging their players to roleplay and be creative. They are not.

All they are encouraging is the push for more +1s. For more greed. Asking for an advantage is not roleplaying but the endless pursuit of power.

My advice is to deny this bonuses. Your default should be, “No.” Because, on occasion, you will say “Yes.” There will be times it makes sense. The player asks, and you think, “Yeah a +1 here does make sense.”

The GM is his worst enemy. We want them to have fun. But the reality is limitations, challenges, and denying is the pathway to having fun. If you always give the players what they want, they will stop having fun. It is human nature.

As an afterthought, once I do give out the +1, I then go back and think about the impact it has on the world. For a perfect example, was when I made the Basilisk monster give +1 leather armor. It changed my world.

So I am happy to hear my players make Called Shots. It helps with the narration for big hits, but I generally do not award them with a bonus. Because on the rare occasion, I do.