Category: Roleplaying

5e D&D Don’t steal from Classes: Adding Flavor and Special Effects.

A theme of questions I keep seeing DMs ask is about adding mechanics to a character. Often this comes because of the Hero’s in-game choices. Many times, not having any idea of how to balance these mechanics, they end up stealing them from another classes. Time and time again, I feel the same answers applies to each situation.

Here is an example from my own gaming at a local store. A new player to the group created a Bard. He asked me the following question:

Player: “Because of my Bard’s backstory I was hoping he could fight with two weapons.”

I said, “Sure of course. You can do that.”

He then asked, “Great. What is the mechanic I use?”

I said, “None. But you can fight with two weapons.”

He was confused, “But I should get a bonus otherwise what is the point?”

Me: “I thought it was about role-playing?”

What is the point? Much of this goes back to a post a while back about Wanting +1s. But I want to expand on this a little more.

First off, not everything we do in life is optimized. Not every skill we have is at the best.

His Bard can “fight” with two weapons. His Bard can feel like it gives him an advantage. To him, fighting “twin” could be what he thinks is the best way to fight. But many of our beliefs are really false assumptions. Sometimes they are even a liability or limitation. If he really wants to fight with two weapons because of a role-playing choice, then why does he need a mechanical bonus?

I get these questions all the time. So my answer to most of these questions is “Yes you can!”

Can my wizard wear chainmail? “Yes!”

Can my Rogue I have a pet wolf that fights with me? “Yes!

Can my Barbarian use an axe with two different axe heads? “Yes!”

Then it is always, “What is the advantage?”

Me: “None.”

Game Design

The classes, feats, items, skills, abilities, spells, etc… are nothing but a series of Flavor and Mechanics. If you start to give mechanics from one class to another, you are creating imbalances in the game.

A recent post I read was about a Barbarian with a trained wolf and a Ranger with their Animal Companion. By allowing the Barbarian an Animal Companion (he called it an NPC wolf), he is taking away from the Ranger class. In the design of the classes, they assigned a value to the Animal Companion. And while this value might not be perfect, it is apart of their balancing equation. Better not to mess with it.

Note: If you think the Ranger or Barbarian class is too weak and you are making a homebrew choice to fix it then this is another issues. I say more power to you. But making a balancing choice is not what I am talking about here.

The Fighter has a two weapon option. It is apart of their class balance. If I give it to a Bard, I am taking away from the Fighter. The Fighter become less special and less effective compared to both the Bard and other classes.

But if the bard gets gain nothing for using two weapons, then all the Fighter loses is some Flavor. The Fighter is a bad-ass with two weapons and the Bard thinks he is a bad-ass with two weapons. This is a great place for some role playing fun and no imbalance is created.

The last key to all of this is the narrative. While I personally rarely give narrative for minor attack results, when I do give the flavor I take into account their flavor choices. So if the twin weapon fighting Bard hits and does 2 damage, then it can be with his off-weapon. When he does a critical hit, he can hit with both weapons doing massive damage.

A lot of times characters want to train and pick up skills for the other characters and NPCs they meet. Great! If the Rogue has been training with the Monk and now wants to punch with his off-hand attack; sounds great. In narration, when the damage roll low I can say his attack was a punch.

The Wizard in Chainmail, does not get any improvements to his Armor Class. He isn’t wearing it effectively. It is uncomfortable, gets in the way, and the enemy finds it easy to get around it. But sure, he can wear it for role-playing reasons. It can make him feel safer.

Lessons from Champions!

Hero Systems Champions the Super Hero Game introduced me to the concept of Special Effects. In that game, you buy an Energy Blast as your attack. Say you bought a 8d6 Energy Blast attack. Then when you hit, you would do 8d6 damage. That was the game mechanics.

Then there was the Flavor of the attack. You got to choose that yourself. It could have a fireball, ice blast, wind attack, summoning a giant fist, sonic, etc. These special effects on occasion could come into play. If you said it was ice attack and the villain is immune to ice damage, then you are out of luck. But in most cases, the flavor was just the flavor.

I believe Savage World is built on the same general concept.

I apply the concept of Flavor to Dungeon and Dragons. I try to leave the mechanics alone and let the flavor be the flavor.

So next time they want to have their Bards fight with two weapons, say “Cool! Sounds good to me.” Then wait for the next question that always follows…

Update: Several people pointed out that 5e does have a mechanic for 2 weapon fighting outside of Fighters and Rogues. So I do have that to use. However, this was not the point. They player knew these rules. He was hoping for something extra. They are always looking for those +1 and other bonuses. Solve a lot of these issues by treating them as flavor is my point.


RPG: Expanding on Last Minute Rolls in 5e D&D.

More on Last Minute Rolls!

A while ago, I wrote a post on my style of waiting till the Last Minute on skill rolls. It was one of my more popular posts, so I thought I would give more examples of how I use it in game play.

Last week, I GMed two different groups in 5e D&D. Both were 1-shots with the hope of starting a new campaign. Both of the stories were in the same area, using the same themes, and involved a lot of Gnolls.

During play, they would often need to make SURVIVAL rolls. While on occasion, I would have a roll made by the Ranger just to see how well they were navigating the wilderness, most of the rolls I waited until something was going to happen. One failed roll told them they were lost and had traveled a day on the wrong trail.

Another roll was to avoid an encounter while they were taking a long rest. I didn’t have them roll to find a good camping spot, that was a given. But in the middle of the long rest, they rolled to dodge a Gnoll patrol.

The best example of the Last Minute roll that jumps out to me was a STEALTH check one of the players needed to make. They were at the base of some ruins where a Gnoll Shaman had made her hideout. The Paladin wanted to climb up from the dry moat and do some scouting.

Since they had debated in Real Time for a while on this plan, I wanted the Paladin to succeed in getting the information. Seriously, sometimes PCs are so timid it gets tiring. Anyhow, he wanted to see what was in the ruin’s courtyard before traveling up the road.

So I just allowed it. It was a win-win as player and GM. Since I view the PCs as Heroes and not Clowns, I let a lot of actions happen. He climbed up some stones and peeked around the fallen tower to get a look into the courtyard. There he saw the Shaman and some Kolbolts. He got the information he needed and then wanted to return to the party.

Now for the rolls!

See before, if I had him roll to climb and sneak about failure would have stopped the story. And there would have been no good consequences. If he had failed either the ATHLETICISM or STEALTH rolls it would have been a lose-lose. They still would have been stuck on what to do, and nothing interesting would have happened from a failed roll. Sure I could always go for some cheap laugh and have him fall or split his pants like some GM, but that is not my style. That is the PCs are Clowns style.

But now, while he is trying to stealth away, a roll is all sorts of win. In this case, he failed his stealth roll. I had several of the Kolbolts run at him.

He now had to hurry down the rocks, making for a more interesting ATHLETICISM roll. He did well on this roll, so escaped. I let the Kolbolts throw rocks. In the end, he took 2 damage from a stone. But now there was some tension. Dice were rolling. He was concern. There could have been dire consequences for him.

Now that they knew what was going on, they decided to go for a frontal attack. This strategy meant they would have to go up the raised road. Halfway up, the Kolbolts had their battleground picked.

The Paladin asked to check for traps. I told him it was all clear. I later told him that “checking for traps” was a meaningless statement in my game.

He then charged forward to attack. Guess what, it was a trap! I had him make an INVESTIGATION roll as he closed the distance. He made the roll, so I gave him Advantage to dodge the boulders the Kolbolts push down on him.

At one point in the story, they found some fishing traps left by some Barbarian Elves. The elves had decided to attack them. Instead of making rolls to see if they saw them sneaking up, I waited until the last moment. Then I gave PERCEPTION roll to prevent surprise. This type of Last Minute roll is normal by GM everywhere. But often they will add an earlier roll to spot them sneaking up in the first place. I often remove this rollout because it will often create meta.

As I plan out the next session, I look at how I am going to handle expected rolls.

Obviously, nothing goes as planned. But even so, I all the time am looking at the framing to get the roll at the Last Minute.

They will need to make a sacrifice to an angry god. I will just assume they will have an idea of how to do it without a Religion roll. But once they make the sacrifice, then have a RELIGION roll to see if it was correct. The first roll a lot of GMs give, prevents the roll with consequences. Allow the characters to make assumptions!

They are going to find some mirrors that give some knowledge. Instead of having rolls to understand it, I am going to tell them they do so. But then while using it, then comes the ARCANE roll. But on a bad roll, it will go directly to Death Saves. I will give Advantage to the Death Saves so the chance of dying will be slim to none. Sounds harsh, right! Story tension. Three Death Saves with Advantage is less than 2% of death.

They will come upon a puzzle trap. Once of the Hero has already found some clues in an old scrolls to disarm it. I will tell him that once he read the scrolls, disarming is easy. But after disarming it, and then opening the seal, I will have him roll to succeed on the Disarm roll (with Advantage). Not a roll before he opens to see if he succeeds, but after opening. See the different?

I plan for them to take a raft across a short waterway, only to have it become a dangerous trip in the middle. I will skip all rolls until it becomes dangerous. On a bad roll, they will have to jump to some stones. I plan to have these jumps not need a roll. But later they will have to jump off the stones to safety. These will require rolls.

Lastly, they will get into a fight with a living and dangerous statue. I plan for only then will they make the PERSUASION roll. I think I will wait until the creature is at half damage. So they will say, I try to Persuade it. I will get how, some role-playing, then it attacks. Once they do 25 damage to it, I will then have the Persuasion roll made. If successful, it will stop fighting. I do not do this with all NPCs, but in this case, I already know how it will go down.

I guess, one thing I do different that many GMs is I assume competence and the belief of competence in the Heroes.

Power Gamers in 5e and Pathfinder! What to Do about them?

The Power Gamer: I read about them all the time. For most of my life, I have been lucky to avoid them. The last two store games I have joined, I have encountered them. Now, it feels like they are everywhere.

In both encounters, they had these insane builds making their characters powerful beyond their level. They both had unique custom magic items that were broken. More importantly, both these two young men had the same air about them.

They played the same way. They wanted to kill everything, never take damage, and argue DM rulings. Their idea of role-playing was to boast how powerful they were. Every role-playing moment was short lived as they started combat almost immediately.

And in both cases, I had the same response.

I turned my characters into a coward. I refused to help in battle. My time was spent trying to make every encounter into a role-playing one.

Even in combat, I would role play. My turns were used by running around trying to talk the monsters into surrendering or retreating. In some cases, I would be apologizing for the attack on the other party members. I would be responding to the horrors that I saw. I never made an attack.

Perhaps my position is the immature one. After all, I am the outsider joining “their” games. In both occasions, the DM found my activities refreshing. The other players started to get involved with my role-playing. And in both cases, the Power Gamer tried hard to turn it back into a wargame.

And I want to point out, with the Power Gamer entirely in charge of the party my lack of participation changed nothing. Every fight was easy for them. My involvement would have meant nothing. Perhaps they would have taken 5 less damage. To me, whatever. But to them, it pissed them off. It feels like 5 HP loss is losing to them.

As an experienced GM, I feel I just put a stop to them right away.

One way is I remove multi-classing and feats from the game. Both of these are the primary source of their power increase. They are looking for micro-imbalances in the game to exploit. In combination, these imbalances can become monstrous. One of them was making the two hand-crossbow attacks. While most of the other characters were +6 to hit with 1 attack, he was +8 with 2 strikes. I am not sure how, but he was rolling 4 dice for damage.

Another way I limited them is to make everyone use a point buy. Both of these Power Gamers had 1 in a million stats. It’s amazing how half of all characters out there are a 1 in a million shot on stats. I have made a few of these characters in my youth. Now it is all point buys.

Lastly, I don’t argue the rules during play. I make my rulings, I will hear a moment of a case against it, and them tell them to talk to me afterward. In one of the games, I played there was at least a 10-minute argument over a ruling. The GM changed his verdict even after more than half the table said he was right (me including). It was clear the Power Gamer wasn’t going to stop until he got his ruling.

One thing I have always done when I GM is to put in the occasional suicidal encounter. I try to make it evident. The purpose is that it forces them to run away or find another way out. In this way, in the back of their minds, they are always looking and judging if they can take a fight.

I had players complain about this idea.

He asked, “Why would you ever have a fight we couldn’t win?”

To which I asked, “Why did you think that was a fight?”

One time, I described basically Godzilla attacking and everyone running away. A 3rd level character ran up and struck it. Godzilla stomped on him, and he was dead. The player was shocked.

This might be a bit off topic, but I notice that in RPG there is little role-playing the epic escape. Almost all action movies, there are times the Hero is trying to flee from overwhelming odds. There is this mentality that every encounter should be a fight, and the Adventurers should win it.

I think removing the Heroic escape from the game is denying another exciting way to interact with the world as a player and GM. And it is a perfect trap for the Power Gamer placed in the story.

As a Player, my goal with Power Gamers is to show the other players at the table that there is another way to play. I doubt anything I do or will change the Power Gamer’s minds. To me, the battle is to reach the rest of the table. If the other players become more interested in playing the full game, and not just combat, then I think the Power Gamer will leave.

What I am not interested in is trying to compete with them. I have no interest in playing the Power Gamer’s game. In my years, I have played some powerful characters. But I never got there by power gaming.

I know I am not alone in how much I find the Power Gamer destructive to playing an RPG. I would really like more input and advice on how to deal with them as both a GM and player. Anyone with some ideas, please commit or email.
I plan to update this in the future!

The RPG problem of Newbie Narcissism

A role-playing game like 5e D&D is at its core a game of turns.

Invited by a co-worker, I was one of two new players introduced to his weekly game. Instead of making new characters both Hank and I picked a pre-rolled Hero.

Being a player with thirty plus years of experience, I was ready to go! In a quick reading of the sheet, even though I haven’t played this version before, I was okay. I figured any mechanical questions I had during play would get answered as they come up.

It turns out the Hank was new gaming. I have played with many new players over the years. However, it didn’t take too long to realize that Hank was different. Sure he had lots of questions about the game and his character. Immediately he had issues with what I find as unimportant notes on the character sheet. Hank said that “The sheet says his eyes are green, but I want to have blue eyes.” He had lots of these points.

“Fine, not a problem,” the GM kept responding wanting to play.

After an explaining of the story and setting, we were finally playing. Our mission, to track down the thieves of a rare scroll. We were on the case!

After our Heroes ran around town for a bit, we discovered the scrounges. There is a chase, and it is a trap! Roll initiative. The thieves attack. Dices are being rolled. It is now my turn to act. Before I can speak, Hank asks, “Hey what is more powerful a Sword or a Mace? My sheet here says I have a Sword but I am thinking I want a Mace. So which is more powerful?”

Hank’s problem is typical of some new players. These players lose their social norms and start blurting out every random thought they have. They are not really listening to the GM or other players. They are involve with themselves. I call this Newbie Narcissism.

Although it isn’t that common, I have seen it several times to different degrees. It is my hope that once we as a community recognize this issue, we can work together to find ways to help address it.

Unlike true Narcissism, Newbie Narcissism often goes away with time. But it can be unpleasant. I am hoping to find strategies on how to help them out of this tunnel vision on themselves. In this way they can quickly adapt to the game without causing too many issues.

The following tale gives my suggestion. But I am open to other’s observation on how to address this issue.

Later that evening, when Hank’s Hero was unconscious, he kept telling us what he would do in each situation if he weren’t unconscious. When it was other player’s turns, before we could speak, Hank would be telling us what his character would want to do if he wasn’t unconscious. Every moment had to be about him.

Hank had issues to say the least. But there is something about the format of D&D that brings these issue out in some newer gamers. It is a recurring theme I have seen as a GM that has introduced a lot of players to the game.

Here is my theory.

At the heart of this problem is not recognizing that an RPG is a turn-based game. While we are free to talk and tell the GM our actions, we are taking informal turns. And we need to respect other people’s turns. When it is our turn, we need to be considerate and not linger.

In combat, the turn base design of the game is apparent. Unlike when problem-solving, exploration, or doing dialogue.

If you wouldn’t interrupt your boss at work, why would you interrupt your game mates? In life, we have social norms of not talking over each other and interruptions. These do not go away in the game. We take turns in real life speaking.

These social norms of communication do not go away in the game. For some reason, a lot of new players need to be reminded of this fact. In reality, even some experienced players could use this to be pointed out to them.

Another issue Hank had was a desire to make everything about himself. While we all have some narcissistic tendencies, I think the nature of new players getting “lost” in the game brings this issue to bear.

When I say lost in the game, I believe that experience players take for granted that they can visualize the story the GM paints for them. When the GM describes a setting, an NPC, or situation, we forget that for the new players it isn’t as easy for them to understand what is happening.

Since the new player has a harder time following the story, they focus on their character instead. For them, they have a more unobstructed view of their Hero. So this brings their thoughts always to themselves.

As a GM, a player like Hank will ruin the game for everyone. Unless Hank is a Narcissus in real life, it will destroy the game for himself as well. Everyone will lose.

In my case, I never found out how good of a GM my co-worker. I was not patience with Hank. His case was so extreme it is what started me to notice these tendencies. By the second session, I dropped out. Hank was too much for me.

Since that night, I have come to the conclusion that as GM this behavior needs to be immediately addressed. Right away, point out how they are ignoring social norms of taking turns. Once I have explained it as directly and clearly as possible, I would make sure they understood the correct time to ask me these questions.

I will work on getting them to focus on the story, by recapping recent events when it is their turn. I would ask how they are reacting to what is happening now.

Now it is possible that they will clam up, get offended, or leave. It could come to Hank getting defensive or even lashing out. Regardless, I would directly confront this behavior.

I do not think this gets resolved immediately or in one session. I do believe the outburst will become less frequent. Especially once Hank starts to follow the story better, has a better idea where others are in relationship to them, and has a better idea of how the game mechanics work.

But I still expect the occasional statement from Hank. If in the middle of the fight he blurts out, “I am thinking of changing alignment, (He did this while the GM was describing the effects of a spell)” I would not let that pass. I would address it by pointing out how it is appropriate at this time.

But if this continues, I would uninvite him to the game. A guy like Hank is going to ruin the game. Other players will not be having fun. They will lose interest. Hank will lose interest. The GM will lose interest. Newbie Narcissism kills games.

Finding players can be hard. I want to encourage more playing into the RPG world. But there is a sliver of society that doesn’t get it. Work with them, try to help them, but ultimately do not let them bring down your game. Kick them out if they cannot get it.

It is better to have a good game that brings in more players into the community that let a Narcissist ruin it.

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.