Finding a way into D&D 5e

My partner is curious about RPGs but didn’t reliably click with D&D when we played online over the first year of the pandemic. Some of this is no doubt an artifact of that group and its dynamics, and my partner only knowing one other player in that group. Some of it came from their struggles to find the sweet spot for playing their character and engaging with the story. We spoke about that a good deal.

But I think it was also due to D&D simply being… not simple. It’s not straightforward, or intuitive, or streamlined, or… any of that. My impression of 5e as an “easy” system is grounded in decades of playing RPGs, starting with 2nd ed. AD&D before I could reliably read or write. And while a different system wouldn’t have removed any of the hurdles posed by story, character, or group dynamics, I can’t help but wonder whether it would have made the other issues feel more approachable or less insurmountable.

There are plenty of other RPGs to play. The very narrative-focused systems which have grown from the indie RPG scene would offer games more focused on the character and story. Any number of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) systems would have given my partner a more mechanically streamlined introduction to gaming. Hell, I love Monsterhearts and would happily play that all the time, and my partner enjoyed playing that for a little while too (though that group fell apart due to COVID).

We could have gone with Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies, for the straightforward percentile-rated skill-based gameplay with no (or very few) special abilities. I even could have used an extremely simplified GURPS—presumably with plenty of help during character creation, because that system feels like it’s intended to train future CPAs, and navigating all the possibilities of GURPS is a headache in its own right. What I’m trying to say is, I have a laundry list of RPGs that I’ve played and run before. At last count, most of a decade ago, I’d run more than a dozen systems and played close to thirty… and a lot of them were easier to engage with than D&D. That isn’t necessarily true for every step of playing them, but many have a lower mandatory cognitive load for “effective” play. Unlike with D&D, you don’t always have to keep track of an ever-growing collection of powers and abilities with hyper-specific uses.

But none of those other games are D&D. And that’s the problem. In so many other contexts, in pop culture, with other groups, or just playing with me and my sibs, my partner knows they’re going to run into D&D. And they’re abundantly aware that, for that to be accessible to them in the future, they need to pick up the basics at some point.

Which brings me back to the issue at hand. What other game might I run for them first, to give them a better feel for RPGs before they try D&D again? How might I run D&D differently to better engage them, and to help them feel their way into familiarity with the system?

I have some ideas.

We can talk through what genres my partner is excited to play, and choose a system with mechanics which fit. We can try some solo-play, to give my partner experience with a system without the distraction of larger group dynamics. And we can try a couple different one-shots or brief stories, to let us more-quickly sample the many different flavors available. Just jumping in and trying different systems and genres is probably our best bet.

D&D 5e doesn’t work equally well for everything, I’m very aware. But hopefully we can find ways to play that my partner enjoys, and give them the background to feel comfortable with D&D even if it’s not their game of choice. Wish us luck.

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Using 3 Pillar XP in D&D as 5 Questions

I posted in February last year about using XP awards to train your players, and the problems of various methods of XP accounting. I mentioned in that post that I would experiment with rewarding players for telling me more explicitly where they wanted to go in their next session. It turns out, that particular group of players never developed the habit of telling me explicitly what their characters’ goals were despite my repeated encouragement.

I also mentioned the reddit thread about Improved 3 Pillar XP, and said that I didn’t want to use it. I didn’t want to use it because it seemed like it would require more accounting than I was interested in doing. But since Covid-19 has moved all my gaming online and I’ve made more quick reference materials for myself in google docs, I decided that I’d try building a spreadsheet to run the Improved 3 Pillar XP calculations for me.

I think the golden moment for me—the moment that convinced me to throw together the basics of the Improved 3 Pillar XP categories in a spreadsheet—was seeing that I could simplify all XP gain into a series of questions at the end of a session. Those questions:

  • Did the PCs recover any notable treasure?
  • Did the PCs explore, defend (suggested by my sibs), or takeover an important location?
  • Did the PCs ally an important NPC, or align them towards PC’s causes / away from foes’?
  • Did the players interact with each other in character?
  • Did the PCs circumvent or defeat any foes?

When I shared my quick and dirty first notes with my sibs, they rapidly made a separate interface that I’m actually quite happy with.

Now I have a spreadsheet that will take direct input from me about how much I want to reward my PCs as a proportion of their next level, with input categories spread across exploration, social interaction, and combat. The best part, as far as I’m concerned, is that this is also flexible and easy to expand.

If I want to try adding other categories of behavior that I wish to reward, I can either include those as expanded qualifying cases for the above questions (by changing an existing question) or I can add another question and reward category. As someone who enjoys tinkering with spreadsheets, that isn’t a scary prospect… though I can understand it not being your cup of tea. Ideally, I’ll have all this put together in a good-looking easily-read format at some point. For now though, I’m trying it out and seeing how well it works. Do it bad quickly first, etc.

The first idea I had about expanding this was to try rewarding players for telling me about their characters’ plans and then having the PCs act on those. I realize that this doesn’t necessarily work with PCs who are too in-the-moment to plan ahead, nor does it work as well when the PCs are too busy reacting to every new garbage fire to forge their own path… but I think it could be useful in a more sandbox game, especially one with a more relaxed pace.

If you want to try building your own, I suggest copying all the various tables in the Improved 3 Pillar XP post into a spreadsheet first so that you know what you’re working with. If you’d like to try using what I’ve got so far, tell me so and I’ll look into sharing something that you might be able to use.

Blending Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots with D&D

Call of Cthulhu—for all it’s other Lovecraft-inherited flaws—has traditionally done a good job of building expectations of death and insanity into the core of the game. Furthermore, it has done this in a way that builds tension for longer campaigns without (usually) compromising the characters central to those campaigns. CoC does this best by blending one-shots with longer campaigns.

D&D can make use of this! I plan to do this in a game I’m starting soon.

The way that Call of Cthulhu usually handles this is by using a one-shot to set the scene and tone of a longer campaign. Characters in those one-shots are sacrificial, and their survival is a surprise rather than a given.

While similar assumptions of character death underlie old school B/X D&D, those assumptions are less present in most 5th edition D&D games that I’ve been in (or run) recently. Many players have more heroic narrative expectations of their characters. But I want to use Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots in a longer D&D game to give the players a better sense of the tensions and threats that await them.

My hope is to let players experience the fates of other characters (who are not their primary campaign ones). By uncovering the setting’s past, through magical archaeology or some other information gathering, I would let them play one-shots as characters other than their PCs. The players would know beforehand some of the conclusions to be reached in the scenes they played out, but they would otherwise be free to play those snapshots however they saw fit, and could have a chance to learn more about the setting in ways that fed into their main PCs’ decision making and views of the world.

Given that I expect to have some inexperienced players, my hopes with this are manifold; I wish to create spaces within the game for my players to come to terms with character death, to give them information about the setting which would otherwise require hefty info dumps, and to let them cut loose and experiment with decision making that doesn’t hamper their narrative goals or visions for their main characters. We’ll see how I do.

Tidbits from The Hacker’s Guide to D&D

One panel I was on, The Hacker’s Guide to D&D, offered up several good nuggets that I’d like to share.

These are mostly not elaborate system hacks; the focus, rather, is on Continue reading

Binary Success and Failure in RPGs, Quick Thoughts

Many popular RPG systems measure success (or failure) as a simple binary. For example, by a strict reading of D&D 5e’s rules, either your character is successfully sneaky or they’re not: there’s no middle ground. There’s no benefit for being exceptionally stealthy, and there’s no real penalty for being exceptionally not-stealthy. Thus, there’re no degrees of success or failure. Every test is pass or fail.

This streamlines resolution of tests, and has the benefit of being fast and simple. But it also misses Continue reading

Killing PCs, a quick reflection

Years ago I wrote a piece called “And Then You Die: A Good (Character) Death.” I’ve been thinking more about it recently, because two of my players’ characters died in the last session of D&D that I ran.

Did I actually follow my own advice? Continue reading

Milestones, XP Rewards, & Training Your Players, Longer Thoughts

MurderHoboRPG_flowchart

The flowchart of the “murder hobo.”

Game systems, role-playing game systems, are a set of constraints on cooperative imaginative play that are designed to facilitate making up stories together. The constraints they impose create boundaries around the kinds of stories that you can tell within those game systems. This doesn’t make “resistant play” impossible (using resistant play as one might use the term resistant reading), but any system will tend to make a particular kind of play or story experience easier to support than others.

I’ve discussed related thoughts previously, in the context of “flavor.”

But what about experience points, or character advancement?

What about the game’s systems for rewarding players?

Continue reading

Character Connections & Motivations, Longer Thoughts

I recently ran an impromptu game of D&D 5e for some friends. While I was asking the players for their character’s connections to the other players and the world around them, one person said (I paraphrase) “I don’t have any connections. I live alone in the woods and don’t know or care about these people.”

I was a bit short with the player in response, and pushed them to come up with some connections, even if they didn’t feel like close ones. The player did.

Reflecting on that moment…  Continue reading

Hiding your Rolls, Quick Thoughts

This will be another quick one, I’m still with family. These thoughts are brought to you by an excellent post on hexcrawls I read a while ago… one I’ve unfortunately forgotten and thus cannot cite here.

In RPG systems where the storyteller must roll dice, there’s a long tradition of storytellers hiding the results of their rolls. There are plenty of reasons for this (fostering tension, keeping secrets, the fact that sometimes characters don’t know whether they’ve succeeded, etc.), and some of them are useful. But it’s worth noting that not every roll needs to be hidden. This especially applies to combat in D&D.

I’d argue that—whenever possible—not hiding your rolls is the better course. There’s more to this: when you don’t hide rolls, it’s okay to not hide foes’ stats. You needn’t reveal them immediately, but as PCs spend a while fighting an NPC they will slowly get a feel for the NPC’s capabilities, and that is perfectly natural. This also speeds up play, as you needn’t try to reference material while keeping it secret from players.

With this approach, there are still times when hiding your rolls is better for the feel of the story. For example, hiding your rolls works well when the PCs are surprised or don’t know what they face. This experience of information asymmetry matches the experience of the PCs. In fact, when players are used to getting information about their foes, the sudden lack of information might completely change their assessment of a situation (likely for the worse).

Note that when you’re not hiding your rolls, you aren’t able to fudge them for or against the PCs. Some players love this, some hate it… and it’s definitely more dangerous to the PCs, as dice are random and capricious. Simply put, when not hiding rolls it’s harder for you to protect your PCs from your own mistakes in creating challenges without foreshadowing them sufficiently.

When you’re not hiding rolls, I would suggest playing more openly in all ways; talk with players about what the PCs are able to see, what they might guess based on their previous experience, and what capabilities they know their opponents have (thus far). Be generous with that information! Nobody likes to be “gotcha’d,” and there’s no need for you to trick players in that way. Save that cleverness for creating exciting and tricky encounters, puzzles, or what-have-you.

Of course, all these suggestions cultivate a particular flavor of game. You needn’t use them if you don’t like them. But I’ve had good experience with them, and I think my players felt more rewarded by their victories when they knew that I hadn’t coddled them by fudging die rolls in their favor. I hope you find them useful.

Forbidden Spells & Summonings, Quick Thoughts

My family is waiting for me to run a game, so this will be short.

My brainworm of the day was wondering why wizards in D&D 5e have so few summoning spells. That’s morphed into thinking about what kinds of summon spells wizards would have.

Traditionally, at least in my brain, wizards have a long history of calling on powers they cannot control and meddling with things they do not understand. It’s part of why wizards have a bad rap in some places. It’s also part of why the ones that survive end up so powerful. Drinking from the firehose and all that.

In the 5e Player’s Handbook (and the other official 5e spell collections I’ve seen), wizards are able to safely summon elementals and a few spirits (Unseen Servant, etc). And if you think of the official 5e spell collections as the “mostly safe and authorized” spells, these limits make sense.

But there’s a model for unsafe summoning spells, via Contact Other Plane. So what if PC wizards researched their own forbidden spells, to let them summon dangerous entities without any guarantee of control? These summoning spells might take the shape of an encounter table, with one entry being the entity the PC was aiming for while the other entries are unknown to the PC.

If clerics can summon celestials, and druids can summon the fey, perhaps wizards dabble in the unsafe arts of everything else. If they manage to make bargains with the things they summon up, they might become warlocks. If they fail to contain the dangerous things they call on, they might become dead—along with most other people around them.

There’s probably some correlation between the level of the spell and the power of the creatures it could reliably control. A PC wizard might begin their spell research by learning about what to expect, with early missteps possibly leading to greater danger down the road.

Clearly, the more ambitious the wizard, the more dangerous the spell.

I’ll explore this more later. Right now, some eager adventurers are calling for me.