The Ravenloft setting uses “Powers Checks” to reflect the gifts and curses imposed by the mysterious Dark Powers upon those who transgress moral laws. This gives some structure for great stories of corruption and redemption, but the exact game mechanics of these checks have always been open to questions by fans. It’s even worse when the player supports their character’s decisions, and enforcement of the rules spirals into an argument about who has the correct moral compass. If you want to include temptation in your game, here are 4 optional rules to keep Powers Checks from going the route of politics and religion.
1) Whispering Shadows
Assign each player the “dark side” of another PC. During gameplay, these “shadows” entice their target to commit acts that are worthy of a Powers Check, and can actually offer specific boons that will come from giving in--the DM decides the corresponding penalty. If the controlling player accepts the offer, the player that offered it gets a token they can trade in at any time to turn one die roll into a natural 20. This is a great opportunity for players to roleplay temptation, as well as get to know other characters better.
2) The Burden Of Time
Ravenloft PC’s study tomes of forbidden lore, brave sinkholes of evil, steal cursed objects, and worse. Reflect that general attrition of the soul by having players roll percentile dice when they level up, 1% cumulative for every 1000 XP they earn (10K for higher level groups). When someone fails, go through their most recent actions and find an appropriate offense. If nothing works, consider foreshadowing (see below), or change the powers check result to a failed horror check.
If a player argues that their offense wasn’t that big a deal and shouldn’t be punished, let them look for a better opportunity. The failed roll becomes foreshadowing of what the PC is about to do, rather than what they have done. Of course, while the Dark Powers are interested in little things done for good reasons, such as white lies and grave robbing, it’s best to only share the results of these rolls with the DM in case the player is eyeing that “Betrayal, Major” column in the rulebook.
Some players look at roleplaying as a chance to behave however they want without any consequences. While powers checks can help discourage this, the system is not designed as a teaching curve. If one of your players is playing Chaotic Stupid, consider a probationary result. When they fail the roll, they don’t suffer the consequences immediately. Instead, the PC is on probation: anything additional within the next (in-game) week that warrants a check will cause them to fail.
So depending on whether you need some more structure or flexibility, one of these rules may give you what you need or inspire you to create your own tweak. Just remember that whatever rules you use should be applied consistently, so that the Dark Powers feel like an omnipresent moral hazard instead of the whims of the DM.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement.
Picture Reference: http://thecampaign20xx.blogspot.com/2016/03/dungeons-dragons-guide-to-curse-of.html
Story is the main objective of a tabletop RPG. You sit down with a bunch of friends, play pretend, and make an awesome narrative while doing it. Some are better than others at this, and some only come to the table to mess around with math. The industry has started to adapt to this by incorporating rules into games that help the group collaboratively tell the story. They thrust power and agency into the hands of players, giving the GM more dough to knead before sticking it all in the oven for the final moments of a campaign. Since story is inherently system, and platform, agnostic, you can drag and drop some stuff to create a Frankenstein game! Here are some story mechanics that you could borrow from other games to make yours more cinematic, regardless of what RPG you play.
1) Skill Challenge (D&D 4e)
I wanted to get this one out of the way, just so I can stop hearing the moaning and groaning that comes with the territory. The fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons had a plethora of problems, but the product itself had a few shining gems. This was honestly one of my favorite parts of that game. The basic outline of this mechanic is to mimic the passage of time; traveling from one place to another, performing a ritual, climbing a cliff while a battle rages below you, etc. In my opinion, it does that exceedingly well and is easy enough to translate to other games. The way it functions is that the GM determines a number of successful skill checks needed to complete the challenge before a certain number of failures. That scale can be tipped either way, depending on how difficult you want it to be. A house rule that my gaming group used when we played this game was that you couldn’t use the same skill twice in a row or the skill the player before you used, even if you failed. It helps force players (and characters) out of their comfort zone and into a creative one. Cleverly done, WotC.
The DMG one and two explain how to do this specifically for 4e, but the Rules Compendium is definitely the better route to look at. They all give you some example DCs, but if you’re putting this in another RPG, obviously those DCs probably aren’t worth much. The concept overall is easy to adapt, as most all games have some manner of a skill check system. Amp up the creativity and tension with this one.
2) Finding Clues (GUMSHOE)
Investigative campaigns can sometimes be the hardest to implement, especially if you depend on character stats to find clues. Look no more for the fix, because the GUMSHOE system has a way to make investigating easy and effective. GUMSHOE isn’t a specific game, but an engine that runs a few games (Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, etc.). The basic philosophy of this rule is that characters automatically find the important clue. Of course, you have to make them work for it through the narrative, but they ultimately find it. This eliminates the problem of characters bumbling around trying to progress through the story but not having the skill checks work in their favor.
In the GUMSHOE system, you would have to make what’s called a “spend” to get more information than the clue itself at face value. For example, you automatically find the candlestick, but you would have to make a spend to make the connection that it’s sitting on top of the book that Colonel Mustard reads every night before bed. Replace this spend concept with a skill check and voila, you can put it in any game. It helps keep things moving, prevents the players (and GM) from becoming frustrated, and keeps the players engaged. What’s there to lose here?
3) One Unique Thing (13th Age)
I talk about this game all the time, I know. I just can’t help it, I love it so much, and this rule is testament to that fact. Every character in Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age RPG has a trait called a One Unique Thing. Basically, it’s something that is unique to your character that nobody else in the narrative is allowed to have. It can’t affect stats, it can’t give you an unreasonable edge. So, no, your one unique thing can’t be that you can fly faster than a speeding bullet. It can, however, be that you’re the child of the story’s big villain who ran away at a young age.
It doesn’t always have to be that drastic, but I find that the more drastic and rooted the OUT is, the more fun it is to play with. This mechanic serves as a springboard and idea cache in my home game. I’m always adding story elements to my campaign based off of my players’ OUTs. Never before have I seen someone so invested in the main story of a game. Obviously, since this legitimately has no mechanical benefit, this one is incredibly easy to bring to other systems.
4) Character Questionnaire (Dread)
You don’t have any stats, just the deftness of your steady hand to remove that block from the tower. Dread is a fantastic game on its own, but the way player characters are created can most definitely be put into other games. The character questionnaire is all you have; the answers to those questions are the foundation of who your character is and what burdens they carry. It’s awesome to see a situation be presented, a player look down at their sheet, look back up at the tower, and make a nervous gulp when you ask them how they react to a situation.
The character questionnaire usually helps identify flaws in a character’s… well… character! The questions can help players think of traumatic experiences their character has been through, their pet peeves, their relationship with the rest of the party, and even some random personal quirks like a drug habit or a stutter. A perfect tool for a session zero, if you ask me.
5) Character Death (7th Sea)
This one caused the pot to boil a bit in the RPG community, mainly because it seems that most people like gritty, mechanical games. John Wick’s train of thought with this one seemed to be, “Let’s make a movie into a game!” Let me tell you, based off of what I’ve read in the book, he did it exceedingly well. In movies, you very rarely see an important character killed by a random environmental hazard, trap, or crummy happenstance. 7th Sea’s take on character death definitely mirrors that.
Player characters can only be killed by a villain or hero. That means if a building comes down on your head, the GM (or players, I suppose) has to think of a way to explain how this wasn’t the end for the heroes. It makes things incredibly cinematic, though some people would probably whine calling this idea “plot armor.” I disagree. It just makes death more rewarding when it comes to claim you!
I’m a little biased towards all of these, as I’m a GM that’s overly focused on story. These ideas help make a game more robust and fun; far more fun than rocks fall, everyone dies, methinks. Explore around games that you haven’t read before, as almost every single one has something fun to take from it. Maybe it’ll even inspire you to create a game of your own!
Sean is the Heavy Metal GM. He’s an aspiring freelance writer and blogger that loves the hobby more than life itself. Always up for a good discussion, his blog covers general gaming advice as well as specialized advice/homebrew rules for 13th Age RPG. You can find his website at www.heavymetalgm.com, join the conversation.
Artwork by Jeshields, whose work can be found and supported at https://www.patreon.com/jestockart .
I did not see that one coming! – My favourite D&D creatures, and why I think some of them are underused.
The first moment when I got hooked on D&D was, oddly, when I opened the Monster Manual for the first time. I was thinking in purely narrative terms, and a book filled with physical prompts to the story felt like Cthulhu had smiled upon me.
Since then, I’ve fought with many of these creatures, and although I love the sameness of some (I’m ok with Dungeon = skeletons), I do feel some creatures don’t get enough time in the limelight. So these are some of my choices, random, and in no particular order.
1) Aarakokra (Humanoid Eagles/Hawks)
The Aaarakokra were one of the first things to get me into D&D, and this is no exaggeration. I opened the Monster Manual (MM) and there they were, first entry. Oddly, it wasn’t as a creature that I saw them, but NPC’s. I saw a major avian civilisation, living in sprawling towers and cliffs. I saw a people like humans, with good guys and bad guys, but that could fly. I ended up using one as an apothecary in my first adventure, and ‘caw caw’’d her voice throughout. I then lost my voice for 3 days.
2) Were-things (Polymorphs Human/Animal)
I love werewolves, always have. The MM opens up other possibilities, were-tigers, etc, but lycanthropy is a favourite. I think it could work well as a cursed character, revealing him/herself as a were-creature at the worse possible moment. Also, their ability to infect others makes them a much bigger threat than usual.
3) Doppelgangers/Mimics (Shapeshifters)
Perhaps in the same way as the previous entry, I find doppelgangers and mimics inherently interesting. Anything and anyone could be something or someone else. The possibilities are endless. I simultaneously like the tragic aspect that a creature with all faces and shapes might lack one of its own.
I am ambivalent about dragons. I mean, is there any creature more iconic in this game? It’s in the name! I’ve come across dragons on many games I’ve played, and they were usually used as the uber-boss. One game, they were the brains behind the operation, and were the ones hiring the party, which was a nice variation. I don’t know, I just feel they’re played just as Smaug (From The Hobbit fame), stuck in a cave shouting threats. I think Shadowrun might have ruined dragons for me. Dragons should be pulling the strings behind the curtains, they are certainly powerful enough, and old enough, to do it. And if you meet it in a cave, it’s because a) it wished for it to be so or b) the players were so amazingly cunning they surprised it (yeah, right….).
5) Drow (Subterranean Elves, Dark-skinned, White Hair)
The Drow were originally presented as ‘cave elves’, and as the Aarakokra, they have a deep and intricate backstory that usually gets ignored. Now I’m not saying you need to know everything ever written about them (I certainly don’t!), but the moment a drow appears, people immediacy assume he or she is evil, which I think is a serious reduction in the potential of the race. I once had a Drow selling sausages and kebabs out of a cart in the middle of town, during the day. He had a massive cloak to protect him from the sun, and the origin of the sausage’s meat was dubious at best, but it was good to see my players waiting for him to do something evil/treacherous. He didn’t. He was a seller of kebabs. Even the change was correct.
Another creature I consider underused. Maybe it’s attacking the party because it has a purpose? Maybe it would actually help the party if someone took the time to figure out WHY it is haunting or attacking the party at that point?
7) Gnolls (Humanoid Hienas)
I *love* gnolls. They’ve got a face only a mother would love and an aggressiveness to match. I think they work well in packs, but for me, their value lies as the stupid minions of the mid-level baddie. You know what I’m talking about. The jailer that falls asleep with his back to the cell? The guard that is busy smoking, and ignores the moving shrub? I can easily see them as a threat AND as comedy relief.
8) Merfolk (Mermaids/Mermen)
I’d use these guys every near-water adventure I could think of. Maybe there’s a parallel adventure to the party’s happening in the depths, and then suddenly both collide? They’re bound to a civilisation down there at least as advanced as ours. So why wouldn’t their duke get a party together to research what the heck the surface-dwellers are up to? Boom, now you have two parties in the half-sunken temple trying to get the artefact at the same time. Good luck with that.
9) Mind Flayer (Octopus-headed Humanoid)
The Ilithids are Cthulhu-looking interdimensional brain-suckers, and this is pretty much everything anyone needs to know about them. They are properly dangerous, but I’m fascinated about running an adventure in one of their lairs (maybe with the party pretending to be some of their slaves), with the party constantly exposed to technology WAY beyond their ken. And when you meet an Ilithid every other room…. How’re those persuasion rolls going for you?
10) Minotaur (Bull-headed Very Large Humanoid)
Massive creature that is fine as opposition, but I believe works equally well as an NPC (See above). I had a minotaur cloth merchant in one of my adventures. I had to create him in a second, I opened the MM and there he was. He had a string between his horns, with a number of ribbons of fabric floating in the breeze. He was his own billboard.
And these are my first 10 underused creatures. What are yours?
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after ten years doing strange things in labs, decided to become a teacher. Then, two years ago, like he was bit by a radioactive D20, RPG’s came into his life, and he’s now juggling teaching, playing and GMing quite happily. He lives in the UK with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants, 4 to 5 RPG’s at various stages of completion (and across as many rule systems), and maps, cursed idols, evil necklaces, and any other props he can get his hands on. He’s been writing for HLG for a few months, and is one of the resident vloggers. He can be reached at @Atomic_RPG.
Picture Reference: http://menaceminis.blogspot.com/2014/07/walloping-krong-and-low-life-miniatures.html
It was kind of you to contact me. I always appreciate the chance to offer my assistance to a fellow adventurer, even one as experienced as yourself. The mysterious circumstances you describe: clergy found in their own shrines and cathedrals (which had subsequently been defaced), their throats torn open, left me quite puzzled until I noticed an additional detail in the sketches you provided. The vandalism and the destruction of holy iconography does not extend above chest height: the perpetrator is quite short in stature.
I believe you are dealing with a child vampire. Able to put on the act of a starving, freezing orphan, they are usually welcomed into the place of worship by a merciful clergy member, who is in turn killed for their trouble.
Child undead are a terrible tragedy, but are all too common. All manner of undead can come in a childish form, and in some cases can be even more deadly than an adult version of the same creature. Fortunately, there is a sharp divide in the psychology of undead children, and understanding where any specific creature falls in that spectrum could mean the difference between life and death for the prospective monster hunter.
Type One: The Innocent
Don’t mistake my hyperbole: these creatures are far from innocent. However, the first type of child undead does share a certain lack of development common to small children. They act the way children act, because as far as they know, they are still children. They respond mentally and emotionally to problems as adolescents do, and can often be confounded due to this limitation. (Although sometimes this limitation is more of a burden to an adventurer trying to parley or outwit such a creature.) Undead of this variety may believe they have the same needs as a living child, and often come into conflict with the living while seeking food, shelter, playmates, or the protection of adult authority figures. A child like this often has a protector that provides for their unholy needs and shields them from any direct challenges to their deluded worldview. Aukagaak and her child mummies are an example of such a relationship.
Ghosts are far and away the type of child undead most likely to fall into this category. Any type of undead which can both largely pass as human and create spawn without conscious effort (vampires, most commonly) are also likely candidates. More than one adventurer has confronted a vampire parent-child bond hoping to destroy what they believed to be an abomination turning children into undead only to discover that it is the child who is the master and their ‘adoptive parent’ the spawn!
One final word to the wise: if such children as these teach us anything, it is the true folly in believing that childhood equates to innocence. Empathy develops during childhood, sometimes later in some children than others. A child turned to undeath before this process is complete can be capable of horrifying acts of cruelty, made even more horrifying by the cherubic countenance that conceived of them.
Type Two: The Grown-up
Eternity is a long time. For many children cursed with undeath, their mental and emotional development is not hindered by the stunted physical maturation. Indeed, one vampire I interviewed indicated that he’d seen a child vampire whose physical condition made her even more motivated to increase her intellect and experience, to avoid being treated like a child. Undead of this stripe have the psychological maturity of their actual age, not their apparent age. They are often erudite and well-spoken, and capable of laying plans of great cunning. Such creatures may play the role of a child in specific circumstances, usually while feeding or preparing a trap, but when dealing with those who know what they are, tend to revert to speaking and acting like an adult. Merilee Markuza, the child vampiress from Lamordia, is one of the best examples of this type.
Creatures that cannot ignore their undead nature, either due to horrific deformity, a feeding compulsion, or a required intent to have become undead, are the most common children in this category. Child liches are not terribly common, but not so uncommon as to never be encountered. Child mummies are frightfully common, unfortunately, and tend to function identically to their older counterparts, especially those that have been placed as sentinels over long forgotten tombs.
Fortunately, undead of this stripe often suffer from insecurity. They act as adults because they desire to be adults; a privilege which has forever been stolen from them. Dealing with them amicably requires one to treat them at all times as though the child is a peer. Patronizing or ridiculing them for their physical age is a certain way to enrage them, a tactic that more than one adventurer has used to deceive creatures of this ilk.
Type Three: The Changeling
The most insidious type of undead child is one that has the full knowledge and experience of an adult, but still chooses to act in the manner of a child consistently. Such monsters enjoy occupying the social position of a child. People go out of their way to protect children, children have few to no obligations or expectations, children can break social morays or go ignored if they wish to: the advantages are endless. Like Innocent undead, they often have families or adopted protectors to shield them from harm.
Undead that live in clusters can frequently give rise to these abominations; vampires, ghouls, and lebentods are the most common examples. The horrific nature of their existence makes the self-delusion of the Innocents difficult, but the communal nature of their kind makes it easy to slip into a child’s role. The diminutive undead receives the protection and special treatment they so desire, while the older undead assuage their own psychological trauma by going through the motions of living relationships, helping them to ‘normalize’ their own existence. It’s not uncommon for community members to be just as surprised as adventurers to discover the ‘child’ in their midst is not nearly so naïve as they had believed.
Adventurers faced with this type of undead would do well to never forget that its childlike appearance is its primary defense mechanism. By keeping its façade going at all times, the creature is often able to convince heroes to treat it as though it were a child even though they most certainly know it is not. Many times this proves to be a fatal mistake.
In Conclusion: Growing Up
The attacks you described in your letters seem almost certainly vampiric in nature. Confronting such creatures is often even more dangerous than confronting more mature specimens. Their supernatural strength ensures that they do not suffer the weakness that a human child would, and their undead abilities are under no inhibition whatsoever. Complicating this is your own empathy: heroes are invariably compassionate and helpful at their core, and nothing compels compassion like the plight of a child. Undead youths rely on this, and you can go into your investigation assured that your empathy is their greatest weapon.
Safe travels and happy hunting,
Frankie Drakeson, Lord Mayor of Carinford-Halldon.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter, or listen to Don, Jon, & Dragons, his podcast.
Image Reference: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/06/birgitte-hjort-sorenson-game-of-thrones-wildling-undead
Suddenly Talesian froze, still kneeling over the dismantled sculpture, his eyes snapped shut in the middle of lifting out the handful of enchanted cloth at the heart of the explosive device hidden within. We all wanted to ask what was the matter, but after three minutes holding our breath, we remained silent by force of habit.
“Sheth...could you...help me up?” Talesian said slowly, softly. I looked at the others. Lorne and Lydia stirred. They were both closer, surely they could help him without setting anything off.
“Only Sheth!” his quiet vehemence drew them up short, his eyes still shut. “Plainsman,” he said to me, “your time has come. The last layer of the weapon is protected by explosive runes; the trap will still kill us all--and everyone upstairs--if anyone reads but a single word.”
I helped him to his feet as the others turned their backs, and he patted me on the shoulder with confidence I did not share. “Describe what you see, and I will guide you. Your illiteracy is our best protection now.”
Most good roleplaying games have elements of mystery, suspense and thriller, after all, as these are plot based and can apply to any setting. But sometimes you want to push things further and create something that combines genres. Even if you’re not a fan of Smash Up, there’s a lot of fun to be had when you mix the tropes of one genre with the setting and elements of another. If your players are pining for Secrets and Spies while playing Dungeons and Dragons, here are some ways to give them the feel for what they want without changing settings.
1) Secret Whispers
The message cantrip can give the feel of modern spy thrillers with agents whispering to each other through hidden earpieces. A social venue the PC’s have crashed allows for lots of whispering back and forth as they distract the mark, case his room, etc. Note that message can work through a scrying sensor, allowing for the “handler” to call shots from a vantage point on the roof, nearby apartment, or getaway vehicle. If the PC’s are too low level to have message work reliably through a scrying sensor (5% chance per level for a scrying spell) perhaps their patron provides the targets of the spell with a some minor magic that “boosts the signal.”
2) Codes and Riddles
Codes and ciphers are perhaps the easiest element of spy thrillers to import into fantasy, at least for the party rogue. To kick it up a notch toward spycraft, emphasize the use of regular code books, rotating keywords, and other trappings of old-school cryptography. If your group is into props, making your own code grille for them to decode messages with is a surefire winner. And speaking of codes, the locking wards on doors and chests in fantasy games and settings doesn’t make most people think of computer passwords, but it could. To make the party rogue feel more like a computer hacker, have them focus on the individuality of the person who made the wards for their own personal use. That evil high priest they are investigating...what’s his favorite scripture?
3) Magical Message Drop
But what if the secret message isn’t written at all? Have PC’s discover that an enemy agent gets instructions via magic mouth spells when they arrive in a particular public place. Suddenly all those ranks in disguise (or equivalent spells or items) have yet another purpose, as they try to impersonate the agent and get the magic mouth to speak to them instead. But what if someone mistakes them for the real bad guy? Having to stay in character during an impersonation gone wrong is a tried and true staple of the spy genre, and a great opportunity to play “double or nothing” with the information they are after.
More than any other genre, spy thrillers are driven by small but powerful items prized by the superpowers on both sides. The fantasy genre tends to use maguffins that are powerful for their own sake--the One Ring, the Sword of Shannara, Hand of Vecna, etc. To make a fantasy adventure feel more like Her Majesty’s Secret Service, consider having the PC’s quest for powerful, portable things that they can’t use themselves, such as command words to a powerful golem; rare ingredient for epic spells; the remains of a powerful artifact that can be re-enchanted. Have rival teams of adventurers hired by the other side, both groups fighting to deliver the goods to those who can actually use it.
5) Gunpowder Plots, Minus The Gunpowder
The rare gunpowder in fantasy settings is probably better suited for firearms than for a weapon of mass destruction. For a bomb threat, consider instead a necklace or wand of fireballs rigged to break, so that all the charges are released at once (if players aren’t sweating, feel free to count out the d6’s you’d roll for a fully charged device). Explosive runes might be activated at a distance using a spyglass or scrying device, and could set off other effects. The shrink item spell can be used to shrink a bonfire and its fuel to a piece of inert cloth 1/16th the original size, making for an interesting “time bomb” as the duration runs out, or the spell can end early by a collision with a solid surface. This spell lends itself to sabotage; even a simple block of wood could do devastating damage expanding to full size in the right space.
6) Set Pieces And Chase Scenes
Finally, good spy thrillers keep a sense of urgency using breakneck chases and treacherous set pieces for the fights. It’s easy enough to import this into a fantasy setting using carriages, carts, and caravels for transportation, but be ready to take it to the extremes. Players are used to fast movement in the middle of combat, with spells and monk abilities to fly around. Don’t let them use these mobility options. Force them to fight bare-knuckled with the baddies in a small space that’s moving swiftly toward oblivion...and then crank up the Mission Impossible theme to eleven.
So there you have it: six ways to cross the genres and mix some spy thriller into your D&D fantasy setting for a change of pace. Who knows? If your players like it, you could build an entire campaign around these kinds of intrigues, with them as agents in a shadow war between secret societies.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for gaming for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He ran an extended spy thriller campaign in Ravenloft called “Kara’s Daughters.”
These days when we talk about roleplaying games, most people will think immediately of Dungeons and Dragons, the godfather of them all. We all love D&D, and its enduring legacy shows that even with a few missteps (anyone remember 4th edition? I wish I didn’t), it’s still the most popular RPG – a gateway drug for most of the new wave of geeks. Among the plethora of games popping up everywhere, it’s the Marlon Brando to all these fancy new Johnny Depp types.
But our favourite hobby should not be above scrutiny. As always with the old guard, we tend to overlook some elements that really need discussing. If there’s one thing to take away from the next gen of tabletop RPGs it’s that the cornerstone of roleplaying games – the actual “role playing” – has been neglected far too long. Which is why I would argue that D&D at its core, is more of a skirmish wargame than a roleplaying game.
I think it’s worth looking into what that means, what the alternatives are and in what ways D&D can change. After all, it still has to live up to its historic title of daddy of all RPGs.
1) Mathematics Over Story
What is a roleplaying game? It’s a game where we play roles. Pack up, people, we’re done here. Or, well, to give it more detail, it’s a game – in this case we’ll be referring to the tabletop variety as opposed to video games – where a group of people (usually referred to as the “party”) play certain characters in a fictional universe. Often, it’s to fulfil an objective (or a “quest”), or a series thereof strung together into a “campaign”. Now if those inverted commas made you feel like you’re at the world’s most pedantic TED Talk, bear with me, we’ve got to get some definitions out of the way.
The basic premise of the roleplaying game has changed a lot over the years. Where once the “role” in question was simply one’s part in the overall squad dynamics (what youngsters these days call the “meta”), through the power of imagination it has taken a much greater significance and these days characters have grand backstories that fit a role in the greater fictional Universe. Party dynamics are about more than just synergy of abilities. These are people who live in our imagination, who have relationships, hopes and expectations – and a reason to exist in this world, something that drives them towards achieving their goals.
Conversely, a wargame can have a pretty broad definition, but at its core it is a simulation of conflict – usually some form of combat – that pits two or more opposing forces on a battlefield, whereupon they smack the relentless crap out of each other with the power of MATHS! It’s a numbers game.
Now tell me if this sounds familiar. “Ok, so Jenny is on the opposite side of the golem, so that means I’m flanking. So that’s 3d6 sneak attack damage, +1 from my dagger of Awesomeness, another 1 because constructs are my favoured enemy from multiclassing to plumber, so that’s a total of… let’s see, carry over the 1, and multiply the dice because critical, add another die for inspiration and… what do you mean it doesn’t have any discernible anatomy?!”
In its basic form, D&D is a numbers game. You can take away the names, the plot, and the setting; what you’re left with is a squad-based skirmish wargame not unlike Age of the Sigmarines – which also has its (ridiculously complicated) backstory with established characters and all that. If you watch popular D&D shows on Twitch like Critical Role, you’ll notice that there are three basic types of episode: role-play episodes where people talk a lot, shopping episodes (everyone’s favourites), and fight episodes where more than half the runtime is one or more (but usually just one) scenes of prolonged kerfuffle. It takes three hours to play out less than a minute of real-time fisticuffs.
And that’s 5th edition; can you imagine if this were Pathfinder? Speaking of which…
2) Over-Emphasis On Combat
Let’s face it. D&D is about fighting. If you look at the Player’s Handbook, most of it is dedicated to showing you how your character can bring the pain. And sweet mercy, can you deliver. While you get all these details on all your characters abilities, and feats and spells and equipment, you get all of 4 pages dedicated to personality and background. And that ends up being just another tool to help in fighting in most cases too.
And 5th edition isn’t as bad as previous versions of the formula, either. In fact, one of the things I liked the most about the latest incarnation of my favourite game was that it made your characters feel more like people, encouraging you to create actual believable persona, rather than just killing machines. I mean, they’re still XP-generating homicide homunculi, but it’s generally frowned upon these days if you only play a murder-hobo.
You do possess a set of skills that function outside of the smackdown arena, but they’re over-simplified to the point where most of the time it’s just a roll of the die, add some numbers… woop, I guess diplomacy has failed us this day. And then everyone draws their weapons.
While we’re on the topic, can we just talk about…
Crikey, remember the ones in 4th edition? I wish I didn’t.
If the hallmark of a wargame is that it needs tables to quantify and explain everything (looking at you, GW), then this should cement D&D’s reputation as a wargame. We're looking at a system where even one’s morality is relegated to one of nine options on a board.
Introducing Sigmund, Archmage of the Order of Freudian slips. He pays his taxes on time, so he’s Lawful Stupid. His nemesis is his former apprentice, the sorcerer Carl “Forever” Jung, who had a dream about a vision wrapped in an enigma, so he’s Chaotic Millennial and just wants to watch the world burn.
What does it all mean? I have no idea, but I just know I don’t want to have to fill in a form to tell me what I’m supposed to be. While I understand that it creates a framework to help some people inform their character decisions, I’d really rather be allowed to make decisions that fit my character without worrying if my GM wants to switch my alignment because I nicked a broom from a necromancer.
You might as well start every game with a Myers-Briggs test. Dibs on the INTP Warlock.
How does this help defeat the dragon in the titular dungeon? It doesn’t, because…
4) It’s All About That Base (Attack Bonus)
Congratulations! You’ve levelled up. You’ve shish-kebabbed enough kobolds to make a bridge over troubled waters, you’ve got so many goblin teeth stuck to your boot that Nike wants to have a word. You’ve gained some hitpoints and you feel better. And you are better... at killing things. Especially if you took one of the melee classes. Sharks gotta swim, bats gotta fly, fighters gonna fight forever till they die. The rogues get a little better at thievin’ but they mostly get better at stabbin’. Heck, even the bards get better combat spells as they progress.
D&D is about the power fantasy. And the easiest way to achieve that is to physically overpower your enemies in the tried and true test of combat. And the more the story progresses, the better you get at it. But there are other ways to drive a story, other stories to be told and other ways to do it.
The idea of progression in a roleplaying game is meant to drive the narrative forward. To progress with the plot. Uncover new characters, new villains, allies, new areas to explore, developments to unravel. Most games do this through interacting with the world and overcoming challenges. World of Darkness focuses on “story beats” where your character’s progression can be tied to them overcoming their own flaws, or fulfilling personal ambitions. FATE rewards story points for actively failing – if you indulge in your character’s shortcomings, or actually choose to fail an otherwise guaranteed success, your game master will reward you for making the game and story more interesting. It’s called failing forward, and it’s one tool that storytelling uses to drive the narrative.
Narrative in D&D is often driven by hacking and slashing your way through opposition, because…
5) At Its Heart, It’s A Dungeon Crawler
D&D has come a long way. But at its inception it was what we do today when we’re too tired of the social intrigue, the personal drama and the complicated plots. You get a crew, crawl through a dungeon, murder some monsters, kill the dragon and steal its shinies. It’s adventure capitalism at its finest. D&D came out of the wargaming scene. It had ridiculous tables and – my gods, do you people even remember ThAC0? (Yes, and we liked it, damned kids. Strength had percentages, AC dropped, and it was still called "Back-stab" and that was good enough for us! -VP Quinn) I wish I didn’t.
It still has a long way to go. And it has changed a lot already, in good ways too. 5th edition is a blessing. It’s a lot of fun and it is very inviting to new players. And we need those. Our geek culture is spreading and more and more people are joining us in our favourite hobby. But pretending it’s above reproach won’t help anyone. While it’s a good tool for experienced GMs to create absolutely amazing stories in fantastic settings (see the previously mentioned Critical Role, Maze Arcana in Eberron, and many more), in its bare-bones incarnation, what you’ve got is a manual for a wargaming experience. GMs often have to improvise and think outside the confines of the book to create the actual roleplaying. There’s supplements and hundreds of blogs to help house rule your way to a complete adventure, but often times a GM might struggle to accommodate their players’ desires – and ultimately that’s what drives the immersion that helps people really get in their characters’ shoes.
Even in combat – the activity deemed most important by the restrictive ruleset – often times a player will get an idea that sounds cinematic and cool and they’d love their character to be able to pull it off. But if it ain’t in the rules, it ain’t happenin’, ranger. When you have too many rules – and far too many feats (looking at you, Pathfinder) – what you get isn’t a roleplaying experience, but an invitation to a litigious session where rules lawyers fight over whose interpretation of the Magna Carta that is the handbook (and all its supplements) fits the scenario better. At this point, you’re not playing characters, you’re playing dress-up with stats.
At its best, D&D can accommodate all. You want to just slay the dragon and get the loot? Can do. You want an epic fantasy campaign with Game of Thrones level of deception and backstabbing? That’s possible too. In the end, it all depends on your DM. And I learned from my Dungeon Master, who learned from his Dungeon Master, in an unbroken line all the way to the Gygax that started it all. It’s safe to say that this renaissance we’re enjoying now might not have happened without the tabletop dungeon crawler. Hopefully, by shining a light on the things it still needs to improve and the mechanics we may or may not enjoy we can learn from the experience. If the backlash to 4th edition taught us anything it’s that people want more roleplaying and not just another mathematics-driven wargame. 5th was a step in the right direction. Let’s hope we see this game move in more nuanced and open directions in the future and keep pushing the boundaries of our tabletop experience so that we may all level up our gaming.
I’m off to play that INTP Warlock now.
Something of a modern day caveman, Ian fell down the rabbit hole of roleplaying games ages ago and has refused to emerge ever since. In his daily life, he wears many hats. When he’s not wearing the hat of the dungeon master, he studies cultural anthropology, writes short stories and occasionally posts on his own blog.
You can find more of his stuff at https://cavemanblues.wordpress.com/
Image reference: http://cardweb.info/20170616010436_tabletop-world-medieval/
I know, I know; D&D 4e is arguably one of the least popular tabletop RPGs ever spawned. For me, it’ll always have a special place in my heart as it was my first table-top RPG. As I branched out, I learned to laugh at some of the silliness within those tomes with everyone else. Yet, I still find myself wanting to pick it up every now and again. Whether you hated the insane amounts of conditional modifiers or the lack of diversity within any given character class, there are definitely some fine things we have learned from 4e.
Somebody is bound to complain that this point is a cop-out, but let’s take a second to analyze how important it is to this game’s identity. Especially when put it next to the art from 3.5 or even 5e, the art style of 4e is pretty much a cartoon. The ultra-realism of 3.5 had taken a backseat for some reason, and though I love the 3.5 art, there was something immensely appealing about 4th editions style. One every page are vibrant colors, smooth lines, and dramatic scenes. Everyone and everything is doing something, not just standing around like we see Tordek doing. However, I’m not saying that the 4e art doesn’t have detail. It’s just different, in its own special way. What is truly amazing, though, is how it mirrors the gameplay experience. The art reminds me of something you’d see for a video game and, let’s be honest, that’s basically what 4e is: a video game translated to a tabletop. Weapons are proportioned to an unreasonable degree in some instances, the stunts being depicted are high-flying and somewhat silly. I still love thumbing through those books, simply to gaze upon the glory of the creative minds behind the art.
2) Solo Monsters
Many game systems struggle when you have one big, bad guy fighting an adventuring party. The action economy doesn’t line up, sometimes dice luck botches it, or maybe your players just have abilities that debilitate the creature. This edition had rock solid rules to make your baddies last and put up a fight that’s remembered. Sure, it might take you four nights of play to kill the paragon tier boss, but at least you know the math all lines up. Solo monsters were only bolstered by the rigid combat ruleset of the game, even though it was ultimately its biggest failure.
3) Skill Challenges
The first delve into making traveling interesting! Skill challenges were a mechanic used to overcome abstract or complicated obstacles that your adventurers could come across. It was tremendously effective at training your group to think outside the box and maybe even use those skills that are based off a stat with a negative modifier. It wasn’t perfect, but it did serve as a springboard for many similar mechanics that exist in RPGs today. Hell, sometimes I even use the skill challenge as it originally existed! Sometimes players just can’t solve a puzzle, and using skills to abstractly narrate how the characters figure it out is damn useful.
4) Bridging The Gap
To tell it true and fair, 4e was a little ahead of its time. Nowadays, we have this big shift from video gaming to tabletop gaming. What game bridges that gap better? 4e is rigid enough to give a video gamer a level of comfort while still teaching them how to role play. Counting squares, managing skills, strategic positioning, attack cards/powers, you name it, they’re all things that video gamers can grab a hold of and process. It’s the purpose the game has served for me, and it should continue to do so.
Sean is the Heavy Metal GM. He’s an aspiring freelance writer and blogger that loves the hobby more than life itself. Always up for a good discussion, his blog covers general gaming advice as well as specialized advice/homebrew rules for 13th Age RPG. You can find his website at www.heavymetalgm.com, join the conversation.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.