I came so close to a perfect moment in a recent D&D session. A giant roc (are there any other size) had attacked the party and grabbed me with its claws. As the other party members chopped away at its HP, the Roc prepared to fly off. I was all ready to cast feather fall when it inevitably would drop me, but another party member finished it off before it left the ground. The DM confirmed that the Roc would have dropped me after getting far enough off the ground to kill me. He had forgotten about my feather fall spell.
uh, wait. I had almost this exact scenario play out in my regular campaign where the rogue was being brash, climbed on the roof, and tried to solo fight a Roc in the city of Cara's Valle where the issues caused by a pending incursion by Zuggtmoy were being investigated by the party. The Roc (one of three) grappled him, took off, and dropped him the next round only for the player to grin and remind me that the party had decided he should take the ring of feather fall they'd discovered four months before. I admit, I felt a bit cheated as the Roc's defense seemed deserved. But again, it's very D&D to pull that kind of stunt and I had to respect it.
Definitely. When a player legitimately pulled a fast one on me, I'd generally play up my disappointment (even if I was secretly taking my hat off to them) -- my players loved retelling stories in which they outsmarted me. Come to think of it: one of the players at our game is the son of one of the old group from decades ago -- shortly before our game he had talked to his dad and mentioned we had a game scheduled, and his dad treated him to a story of a time he got the better of me (it had to do with a magic item he had either crafted or commissioned). The story seemed to grow a bit over time (or I'm just misremembering), but those stories seem to have staying power.
It's too bad Res Ipsa was robbed of his moment -- I vote we retcon the feather fall spell into the story.
A couple of sessions back I took a chance and used the new Warriors of Krynn boardgame in my regular campaign to run a bigger battle between hobgoblins and sahuagin. Overall, I was very happy with it. I don't know what possessed me to do it since I'd never played it as written. But I spent a good month working out the rules, play testing a scenario from the game, and then homebrewing the battle scenario for my game. But I'm glad I did. I'm definitely using it going forward for big war/battle scenarios. Wizards has done almost nothing to support learning it to my knowledge. It took finding an actual play on YouTube with 100 views or so to see someone legitimately play it which helped figure out the mechanics. And almost every review I've read suggested it would be difficult to customize to a campaign outside of the Dragonlance book it supports. In my limited experience, I think after learning the rules and figuring out the mechanics it was about on par with building a big boss encounter in terms of planning.
I'll have to check out Warriors of Krynn. Large-scale combat has always been a pain to deal with, and I mostly steered clear of it due to the intimidation factor. On the very few occasions where the story and circumstances demanded participation in army-scale combat, I scripted in broad strokes anything happening outside of what was happening with the players themselves (when and where cavalry would charge and to what effect -- that sort of thing) and tried to avoid getting caught up spending too much game time on things that didn't directly involve the players. Rolling for things that don't necessary affect the players directly can definitely be good, though -- "the city gate will be breached on roll of 16 or higher" kind of thing can be used to ratchet up the drama.
But having a D&D compatible board game that involves the players to handle large battles -- sounds intriguing!
Hey Bret, sorry for the slow replies. It's been a busy week, but what week isn't, right?
I had similar experiences in trying to use narrative to describe big events, zoom in to a combat at the scale of the PCs, then use the results to influence what happened when we zoomed back out...but it didn't ever really feel good. I really enjoyed how this worked. I should point out the game isn't out yet in a stand-alone format. Instead I had to buy it in a deluxe release of the Dragon lance campaign book in December. I believe it is coming out as a standalone product later this spring/summer. And I think it is supposed to be about the same cost as a big box board game with miniatures. I enjoy it and am working out how to use it for other large battles looming on the horizon that the PCs may be involved in or hear about depending on their choices.
But I also am looking forward to a different approach that is coming out in a kickstarter by Ghostfire Gaming that involves raid mechanics. It's part of their current kickstarter and they put out a live play example which I thought showed a ton of promise for being a way to run a larger combat in a D&D game. As an aside, the Eldritch Lorecast is another of my more favorite YouTube channels that includes game writers including Shawn Merwin who has been involved in game design and writing going back to 3e. And James Haeck who is a younger but prolific writer involved in a lot of products including for Wizards of the Coast and Critical Role. The podcast has a unique voice.
Last edited by honorentheos on Sun Mar 12, 2023 5:37 am, edited 1 time in total.
I was also thinking today how diverse my tables are. My long running campaign includes my daughter and her chinese-american best friend, a guy with Mexican heritage, a dual citizen Norwegian-American, and a transgender dude who I knew when they were a high school freshman friend of my daughter and identified as female.
My work group includes two white women, two Hispanic women, two Hispanic gents, and the finance who just joined is African American.
It's come a long ways from the stereotype of white dudes with neck beards.
That is awesome. It seems that D&D culture has become much more inclusive, and that is definitely for the best. I mostly stopped paying attention to D&D after 2e; with that for a frame of reference, I think just about everything about 5e is so much better.
Remember the old gender-based stat caps? Dudes with neck beards was apparently the target demographic. I ... don't miss it.
Oh yeah...and varied XP leveling for each class with race restrictions on classes and...yeah. I suspect the game looks like it did because Gygax looked like he did and of a time. It's much more rich now for sure. If you go into the books and read the Journey Through the Radiant Citadel that brought in writers from a variety of cultural backgrounds/perspectives. I've picked through a couple to pull things into my game.
The "feather fall" scenario reminded me of something that always seemed awkward about D&D as a game. Many of the spells—maybe even most of them—were only useful in quite specific scenarios, but players had to select a limited set of spells to memorise before knowing what scenarios were going to occur. So there were oodles of cool-sounding spells but in practice magic consistent predominantly of spamming a handful of go-to attacks.
Maybe that changed in later rule sets? I only ever really used the first set of AD&D hardcover books—whichever edition that was. At the time it seemed like the only edition, because the really original no-A D&D was out of print or something.
There was a "Basic Edition" that came in a nice box but was so radically stripped down in its ruleset that all weapons did the same 1d6 damage. This universal 1d6 damage rule was so obviously oversimplified that its only plausible purpose was to nudge players to upgrade to the AD&D hardcover books.
By the time I was thinking about how the rules could be better than Gygax's frequently mysterious whims, I was happily just making up my own new rules and not really in the market for a new set of books. This came more easily to me because my original introduction to RPGs was an entirely homebrew game run by an older family friend, which I then attempted to reproduce from memory with my younger brother, before our parents bought us the D&D Basic Set for Christmas. So I never really thought of D&D as a game like chess, that had to be played by any particular rules. Some kind of new official D&D rules did start coming out while I was still DMing, but we just ignored them. I'm not sure what edition those were.
Little details like race and gender restrictions and bonuses were easy to just discard. It was also easy to hot-swap the whole XP and levelling system by nixing the 1XP-per-GP-of-treasure rule and instead awarding large blocks of XP for campaign achievements. It seemed to me that there were really just two core D&D mechanics that would be hard to replace without making it an utterly different game.
The first was the two-step combat system with a "roll-to-hit" that was randomly all or nothing, hit or miss, followed (if there was a hit) by a hit point reduction that was random within a limited range. As a simulation of combat this was weird, but it worked as a game because nobody just suddenly died. They took damage and got low on hit points, at a rate to which the player could react by trying to heal or escape or change tactics in some way. If every attack was guaranteed to have some effect, the game would be a permanent grind of attrition management, but if every attack had a chance to kill, it would be too depressing to lose beloved characters to bad luck. The two-tier system of armour class and hit points was a simple compromise. It made for a better game than alternatives I tried, and with a bit of suspension of disbelief you could invent a sort of justification for it.
The second basic feature of D&D, for me, was making magic work as limited sets of particular spells that could each be cast once before having to be re-memorised in a prohibitively time-consuming process. Gygax referred to this system as "Vancian", because there are a few descriptions of magic working that way in the old fantasy novels of Jack Vance. Somewhere or other Gygax argued in print that a Vancian magic system was necessary for D&D because anything else was either going to be too complicated, or else make magic underpowered or overpowered.
I would have liked to have found an alternative system for magic, because it always was kind of a pain in my campaigns that magic spells seemed to dominate player strategy. The magic-users (as wizards were called then) would get things done while everyone else tanked and buffed, then the party would run out of magical ammo and go home, or hole up, to recharge. It was just kind of lopsided and felt like a fundamental flaw in the game, but I never figured out a good alternative. Maybe Gygax was right.
Did later editions of D&D ever modify these two basic rule concepts?
What if fire is only the first of a million such things?
My first played games of D&D were from the red box Basic set which I enjoyed...as an 11 year old kid. Used the so-called Expert Set, too, but yeah eventually the move to AD&D was inevitable to keep the game interesting. I drifted away during the move to 2e, in part because of an ever increasing list of hobbies/sports/interests that made long campaigns unlikely, and novelty played it's part, too. Games like Paranoia were better for one shots when we felt like playing an RPG on a whim, and we also found ShadowRun which captured the imagination of our pre-internet early teen years. Playing wargames like Battletech and Renegade Legion were also less burdensome in that we could take a scenario and play without someone having to preparation a session. So it wasn't long in the days of 2e that I stopped playing D&D.
So I really didn't play 3e or 4e.
Vancian magic still permeates the game though it is different from AD&D and there are movements pushing for a mana system.
Later editions moved from true Vancian magic where every casting of a spell had to be chosen at the start of the day. More recent D&D moved to having PCs prepare spells from the larger selection they know or have access to otherwise, and then being able to cast any of the prepared spells using the limited number of leveled spell slots. So instead of having three instances of level 1 magic missile prepared, the PC can prepare Magic Missile along with say, Shield, Detect Magic, or whatever other spells they have access to, and choose to cast them as needed with the constraints being spell slots only, not the number of slots they filled with that specific spell.
They also really advanced the idea of cantrips, or very low level spells that can be cast as often as wanted without using a spell slot. I don't recall them in AD&D and think they were new to 2e but I could be misremembering. But they now are core to a PC build.
The push to go to a mana system I mentioned comes from other games where the idea is PCs have a mana pool and known spells. Instead of using spell slots to limit a PC from casting high level spells too often the idea is the PC has more control over a tighter mana economy. On normal days a PC may never need to cast a 6th level spell so they could instead have deeper mana pockets to cast more instances of low level spells. Then when they need to cast a big chonky spell it drains their mana pool and affects their ability to access lower level spells. It's an interesting thought. But the current play tests for what will be 6e coming out in 2024 give zero indication Wizards will make that drastic of a change.
As for to hit/hp, 5e implemented what they call bounded accuracy.
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS LORE WIKI
Bounded accuracy is a design principle in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition which limits the numeric bonuses to d20-based rolls which accrue with character level. While such bonuses were significant in earlier editions of the rules, the designers of D&D 5th edition aimed to achieve various gameplay improvements by limiting their extent.
In Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, player characters and monsters add a number known as a proficiency bonus to certain rolls, such as attacks with weapons they are proficient with and ability checks using skills they are proficient with. That number starts at +2 at first level, and increases to a maximum of +6 at 17th (or for monsters, up to +9 at challenge rating).
In earlier editions of the D&D rules, the equivalent bonuses were much higher, such as +20 at 20th level, and bonuses from feats and items were much higher and easily come by. The decision to limit proficiency bonus in 5th edition was intentional on the part of the designers, and fulfilled several design purposes.
Particular bounded accuracy features in D&D 5th edition include limiting the level-based bonus to attacks, saving throws and skills to +6; limiting magic weapons and other items to +3; limiting player character ability scores to 20 in most instances; removing feats which grant a bonus to attacks; and giving advantage in beneficial circumstances rather than numeric circumstance bonuses.
Monsters likewise have limited statistics. For example, in D&D 5e, the challenge rating 30 tarrasque has only an armor class of 25, compared to AC 35 in D&D 3.5 (where it is only CR 20), AC 43 in D&D 4e, and AC 54 in Pathfinder 2nd edition.
In 2012, during the development of D&D 5th edition, designer Rodney Thompson cited several intended benefits of bounded accuracy.
In D&D 4th edition, level-based bonuses were often matched by equivalent increase in target number; for example, as a character's attack bonus increased, so did the armor class of level-appropriate monsters. Characters did not succeed more frequently at higher levels, but merely kept pace with level-appropriate challenges. Bounded accuracy was intended to resolve this by removing the assumption that target numbers would scale with level, allowing players to see tangible benefit from numeric increases.
Bounded accuracy would decrease the difference between proficient and non-proficient characters. A d20 roll which is easy for a specialized character (e.g. a rogue using Stealth) would still be within the range of achievable results by a non-specialized character, even at high level.
Low-level monsters would continue to be usable at higher level, as their attack bonus and AC would allow them to remain meaningful threats to player characters. In designing D&D 4th edition, James Wyatt noticed that large groups of low-level monsters were ineffective due their low AC and attack bonuses, which posed little threat to higher-level PCs. 4e's solution to this had been the minion, a monster type with level-appropriate statistics but which would be killed by a single hit. Bounded accuracy allowed D&D 5e to do away with the minion type, allowing large groups of standard enemies (such as a horde of orcs) to pose a meaningful threat to a high-level party. Conversely, large groups of low-level NPCs could now plausibly threaten a higher-level opponent, such as a group of peasants fighting a dragon.
Target numbers for rolls such as skill checks could now remain fairly constant. This adds realism and verisimilitude, such that the DC to achieve a given outcome is consistant and easily understood by both DMs and players. If breaking down a door requires a DC 15 check, this will remain true even at high level; it is no longer necessary to challenge high-level PCs with adamantine doors.
In Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition (2000), characters gained numeric bonuses to attack rolls, saving throws, and skill points which increased significantly with character level. For example, a fighter added a bonus equal their full character level to attack rolls, while a wizard added half their level to attack rolls; similarly, a character can have 3 plus their level from ranks in a skill, while a character without ranks this skill has zero.
In addition, characters often gained new magic items which added numeric bonuses, and rules allowed players to buy or craft magic items. D&D third edition's character customization rules also allowed numerous options such as feats and prestige classes which could further increase numeric bonuses.
The result is that, at high level, a challenge appropriate for a trained character may be completely impossible for an untrained one. For example, Bastion of Broken Souls (2002) has a DC 35 Knowledge (the planes) check to reveal certain lore, which would be completely impossible if the party does not contain a member specializing in that skill.
Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition (2008) had a similar feature. The numbers were more constrained than in third edition, with player characters adding a value equal to half their character level to many rolls and statistics, including armor class, initiative, skills, defenses, and attack rolls. However, the difference at high level can still be significant, with level bonus giving a difference of +15 at level 30.
Additionally, rolls tended to scale with character level to provide a balanced encounter. For example, in Dungeon Master's Guide 2 (4e) (2009), p.63, rules are given for a boulder which requires an Athletics check to push. At first level, the difficulty class is 15. At 30th level, the difficulty class is 33, meaning that a character of godlike power still has an equally difficult time pushing boulders; they just tend to encounter more challenging boulders. The result is that D&D 4th edition characters often do not become more capable with level; they just keep pace with the numbers.
The observation that Dungeons & Dragons was better balanced at lower numbers was previously made in E6, a fan variant of D&D 3.5 which caps all character classes at level 6 in order to better explore the "gritty fantasy" tier of play. That variant effectively caps attack bonuses at +6 and magic weapons to +2. Benefits include that the DM can continue to use low-level monsters, characters never become invulnerable, and DMs retain a better sense of the numbers.
The term "bounded accuracy" first appeared in an article on the Wizards of the Coast website, posted in the Legends and Lore column by Rodney Thompson on June 4, 2012.
Bounded accuracy would subsequently appear as a core feature of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. Conversely, D&D's competitor Pathfinder 2nd edition (2019) did not adopt this change.
Bounded Accuracy. Rodney Thompson, Wizards.com, June 4, 2012.
Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters (2008), p.10.
E6: The Game Inside D&D. ENWorld forums, Sep 4, 2007.
Along those lines, I was reflecting on how most combats rarely end in disaster and how brilliantly the system relies on averages that slightly favor the players. D&D requires a lot more rolls than many systems out there so combats don't hang on the results of one or two rolls. It can make combat time intensive but it also means even though it can seem like the PCs are rolling bad and a combat isn't going their way, it's likely they will come out on top if all else is equal. They are the house in the casino that is a game of D&D.
Thanks for the history and information. I'm not sure I like the bounded accuracy approach. It was true that difficulty tended to remain constant, with actual game mechanical challenge scaling up steadily to the point where only the skins really changed. The skins changing did seem to mean something, however. Same rolls, maybe, but now it was a vampire instead of a goblin; that's what all your levelling bought you, the right to fight cooler names. The world reflected that, too, though. Fighting goblins might let you save a small village, but fighting vampires could let you save a large town, or something like that. I think my players would have been disgusted to find that after all those adventures they were still missing goblins.
Now that I think about it, I did back off a bit from pure Gygax-Vance spell casting in my home rules. I allowed casters to keep some fraction of their spell slots, I think 1 in 3 rounded down, as wild cards that could be any spell of that level that they had in their books. The remaining ones still had to be pre-selected. As I recall now, this kludgy solution actually worked pretty well in livening up spellcasting while keeping the selection of the pre-memorised majority of spells as an important strategic decision. Unfortunately that only made melee even less exciting by comparison with spell casting. I was trying to invent more things for fighters to do, sort of Jedi-power-ish stuff, but I don't think I got far with that project.
I agree that the drawn-out nature of D&D combat is a solid feature of the game, even though it seems perverse to slow down the exciting parts. The fact that every combat is a war of attrition tends to make battles unfold as played-out stories, with situations developing and the players reacting, rather than having bad things happen before anyone even realizes they could happen. That may be realistic but it doesn't make a good game.
You can take that too far, though. At one point I tried switching from round-by-round combat with initiative rolls to a second-by-second resolution, with players who were supposed to get one action per ten-second round instead rolling a d10 every second to see whether they would be able to act in that second. That was probably bad in several ways but the worst was just unanticipated statistics: the average number of actions was still one per ten seconds in my system, but occasional lucky bursts of multiple actions within just a few seconds were balanced out by frequent long lulls in which a heroic fighter would just stand around, not even able to try to hit anything, for many more than ten seconds. Thinking I would make melee more exciting and vivid, I had effectively doubled the roll-to-hit phase by adding a roll-to-try-to-roll phase before it. At first I didn't understand why it wasn't working, but after one really miserable battle I thought through the probabilities, realised the problem of frequent long lulls, and abandoned the horrible system.
What if fire is only the first of a million such things?
I don't think I've ever met anyone who like the AD&D magic system ... certainly no group I was ever a part of ever used the rules as written. If I recall correctly we followed used the number of spells per spell level based on character level, but parted ways with the rules after that. MUs could use any of their available spells without prior memorization, and while that had the potential to make MUs more powerful this was "balanced" by two things: the spells that were acquired were selected semi-randomly, and the fact that MUs didn't tend to survive for very long.
We were mostly poor students back then, so our books tended to be second-hand, and modules were considered an unnecessary extravagance. Many of the rules we followed were "table rules" and all the content was homebrewed. There wasn't even a gaming store anywhere near where I lived -- heh, I remember at one point programming my Texas Instruments calculator to use as a random number generator because I didn't have any dice that weren't 6-sided. I guess the homebrew aspect of my earliest D&D experiences stayed with me when I eventually began DMing -- I only ever purchased one "module": a campaign setting based on the city of Lankhmar in the world of Nehwon, the setting of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. (Warning: if anyone dares suggest that "Ill Met in Lankhmar" is not a literary classic, we shall have words.)
Thinking about those old days brought to mind the first time I tried my hand at DMing; to call it a train wreck would be to under-appreciate the level of interest an observer may find in a train wreck. It was a one-off (mercifully) that took place in a sparse dungeon that included a clearly insane NPC that I naively expected the players to follow, a ridiculous "Pit Fall Harry" type puzzle, one extremely obvious trap, an architectural impossibility, and one big bad giant spider -- I don't remember if we even made it to the spider. It was a dull, tedious experience for everyone involved; one of the players went so far as to tell me to my face that he'd never play a game I was running again. He kept his word, and I can't blame him for it. It was a few years before I tried my hand at DMing again, and that was a much better experience. But Lord, how that first game sucked.