Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fiddly Bits - Old and New

An early illustration of a Medieval Elephant Drop?

Fiddly bits have been on my mind lately.Between running my Shattered World 5e-ish D&D game (as discussed here), running World of Dungeons 1979 with Planarch Codex for my non-D&D games and playing in Thomas' Church of Al-Qadim Sun-AD&D 2e game, I've been noticing more and more about the fiddly bits that make play more difficult, are easy to sweep aside when needed, easy to create and add in or just weird little things that make the game more enjoyable or at least more interesting. Then on this last Saturday I ran a last-minute-ish Birthday D&D game for a friend that brought a lot of the fiddliness into focus for me.


Running pretty much by the book 5e D&D (the only house rule I announced I was using and was conscious of incorporating is the GM Intrusion for Inspiration) highlighted a lot of the fiddliness of 5e for me, both bad and good.

First the bad... with busy schedules and a limited playing time, I decided to have the players choose from some pre-made characters. I found a site (that I won't name and shame, but if you're looking for pre-made 5e characters let me know and I'll offer my advice) that offered pre-made characters for all the sub-classes in the Player's Handbook for levels 1-20 and on casual examination they seemed good. They had equipment, spells, class and race features all in a single 3pg PDF. At first I was considering having all the PCs choose "sneaky" characters and doing some stealth based stuff, so I concentrated on trying to pick out sheets that would work for that. I ditched the sneaky idea after recalling how sneaky games can quickly get bogged down into minute and detailed planning and decided to just let players choose from any of the 40ish options, at which point I stopped looking at the pre-made sheets unfortunately. As the players looked over their sheets we then discovered just how fiddly 5e PCs can be and how this can cause trouble if you're not paying attention when putting together a character or picking a pre-made.

  • The Barbarian had 62 HP when a barbarian with the same CON using the average HP roll per level would end up with 65 HP. Not as fiddly as the other stuff, but a bit baffling why you'd make a pre-made character sheet and not give them at least the minimum end of average. For a little perspective, the max HPs for the barbarian with that level and CON was 90, so there was quite a bit of room.
  • Not everything on the sheet was calculated... For the Barbarian the AC on the sheet included the Unarmored Defense feature, but the barbarian movement speed right next to it did not include the Fast Movement feature. The player asked about her AC, and I double-checked the math quick but did not notice the movement discrepancy (bad GM), but then I think the player figured that she only had 30' of movement because I had verified that other things on the sheet were correctly calculated. 
  • The Bard with the College of Valor option did not have any melee weapon, but did have a shield, which they could not have used when attack with the long bow that was the only weapon on the sheet. Nor did the Bard have any melee cantrip (not that Bards have one on their list, but still). So during the first combat I did a little GM hand-waving and told the Bard to add a rapier to his sheet, because, seriously? That's D&D 101, every PC has a melee attack and a ranged attack.
  • The Necromancer Wizard had only a single Necromantic attack spell of 1st level or higher (3rd level Vampiric Touch) severely limiting the utility of the Grim Harvest School of Necromancy feature that rewards Necromantic attack spells adding to the HPs regained when an enemy is reduced to 0hp. Especially baffling since there are Ray of Sickness for a 1st level option and Ray of Enfeeblement for a 2nd level option. Fortunately the player realized this and adjusted his spell list before we started, but if a less attentive player picked up that sheet and went with it as written they would have missed out on using one of the defining features of their sub-class.
Moral of that story, as a GM you should audit all the pre-made sheets you hand out. Obviously, this was impractical for last Saturday as the players didn't choose final sheets before we got to the table, but I wish I would have at least given them a close look once the final choices were made because I would have definitely had the players re-roll HP and take the better of the sheet or roll if I had realized the HP weren't at the minimum of average and would have pointed out places where calculations weren't done correctly. I think I was spoiled by the very excellent 13th Age pre-gen sheets that are out on the net, that have pretty much everything you need for the character and are well thought out. But running into those issues reminded me that a lot of the fiddly bits are on the player to make sure they're paying attention to all the clauses, calculations and conditions in their race and class features. I apologize for the rantiness, but I was disappointed after thinking I'd found another good D&D 5e resource and as every child can tell you, disappointment is worse than anger.

Other Fiddly 5e PC bits I figured out.
  • Chill Touch is a ranged spell with no melee or close option... Maybe I haven't played enough 5e, but I had not realized this and... just kinda assumed that ya know, Chill Touch, touch attack, but apparently not? So that means there's one melee range attack cantrip, Shocking Grasp and 7 ranged attack cantrips in the PHB. If you add in the Elemental Evil Player's companion you get Thunderclap as a close attack cantrip but looking at that spell, it's not ideal since it calls out that it can be heard 100' away and affects every creature within 5', meaning the fighter who just came up to help your sorcerer out of a jam could also get hit. I mean, as a GM I'd be good with a PC re-flavoring some of the ranged attack cantrips to a touch attack, but it'd be nice to have another option in the "official" material.
  • Spells that have attack rolls vs. spells that let things save. So, there came a point in the night where the PCs were fighting the Adult Black Dragon boss fight and they managed to hit the dragon with Faerie Fire and since I rolled a nat '1' on the save I decided the dragon couldn't use its Legendary Resistance to succeed on a failed save. This meant that all attacks, including the spell attacks, more likely to hit than for the dragon to fail a saving throw with massive bonuses. Perhaps because it was a bit fiddly, perhaps because beverages of an alcoholic nature were imbibed, but I kept reminding players that attack rolls had advantage but the dragon was making normal saving throws, but they still shot off spells with saving throws. Perhaps it's just that casting Lightning Bolt for 8d6 damage sounds awesomer than casting Scorching Ray as a 3rd level spell for 4 attacks that could do 2d6 each, but even if you only hit with 2 of the 4 rays, you're doing 4d6 damage, while that Black dragon has a +7 to its DEX save so you're probably only doing have damage with that Lightning Bolt anyway... So do you chance it on 1 roll, or do you roll 4 attacks with advantage? I guess I'd take the attack rolls, but then I don't have this pathological feeling that my dice hate me and want me to fail the way many of my players seem to...
Now the good fiddly bits. First, probably will help to know what I was running. Back when Thomas and I were roommates, in the bad old days of 3.5 (I kid...mostly...), we'd often decide to host impromptu Satur-D&Ds where one of us would run, writing an adventure from scratch the morning/afternoon of game, while the other and our friends would make up one shot characters. The most memorable of these was, as I recall, one Thomas ran where the PCs were caravan guards, we got into a fight with Hobgoblins(?) and during the fight the elephant laden with caravan goods fell below ground into a dragon's lair. It was genuinely surprising to us players, in the way that the best moments in D&D often are and was made more memorable by an incredibly lucky roll that saved the PC's bacon and killed the dragon as we were about to be slaughtered. Since then, "dropping an elephant" has entered our RPG lexicon as short-hand for attempting an unexpected and slightly audacious surprise. I basically stole the premise, elephant drop and dragon boss, just as I recently stole his Onion Witch NPC voice... 

I started things off with a Gnoll ambush with the PCs guarding two treasure laden elephants, which went much more poorly for the PCs than I was expecting. Near the end of the battle, I let the front elephant drop and after the battle the players decided to take a Long Rest instead of going down into the dragon lair, so instead of finding a half-eaten elephant corpse at the bottom of the whole with a few healing potions, they got all the Long Rest stuff. Now, I'm used to planning encounters for my Shattered World group, where I regularly ad HP to monsters as they're slaughtered. By the book, the Gnoll Encounter should have been medium, but probably ended up being hard. By contrast, the next combat encounter, with 8 winged kobolds and 8 troglodytes was also a medium encounter, but they breezed through that, though with the help of several zombies.  In between the dragon visited in the night, carrying away the second elephant, the PCs got their long rest in, recovering spells and HP, went back to the cave entrance and answered the riddle of a Dao. 

This provided a dilemma as my original plan was as follows, with the PCs maybe taking a short rest after 1 or 3 but no long rests:
  1. Easy-ish battle with Gnolls
  2. Non-combat encounter with Dao, with possibility of a quick combat if they needed a clue for the riddle (the didn't, the Birthday Man, figured it out much quicker than I expected, and even with several beers in him.
  3. Easy-ish battle with Winged Kobolds and Troglodytes (to be swapped out/trimmed down if they had to battle Otyughs for a Dao riddle clue)
  4. Nearly deadly battle with Adult Black Dragon (rated as "Deadly"), swapping in a Young Black Dragon (Medium Challenge) with the HP of an adult to make it tougher if the PCs were struggling.
Instead, leading up to the final battle I had this:
  1. Hard battle with Gnolls
  2. PCs take long rest, recover all spells and HP
  3. Non-combat encounter with Dao
  4. Easy battle with Kobolds and Troglodytes
So I went with the Adult Black dragon. Now, the Adult Black dragon has a bunch of fiddly bits, lair actions, legendary actions, multiattack, frightful presence, acid breath, legendary resistance that turns 3 failed saves into successes. Unlike the player facing fiddly bits, which were mostly an annoyance and detrimental, I found all the fiddly bits of the dragon useful. I could use them to adjust the difficulty on the fly. I could drop the lair actions and legendary actions once the PCs were on the ropes or bring them back in when needed.  

But the fiddliness of 5e pales in comparison to the fiddliness of 2e, as we're (re)discovering in Al-Qadim Church. With 5e (and other recent editions) you have more or less a unified mechanism and sense of mechanical balance, even if you don't enforce a strict encounter balance in 5e the way 3 and 4 often did, and one of the joys and frustrations of 2e is the absence of this. Classes aren't equal in power, different rules have wildly different mechanics. Fortunately, with 3 sessions under our belt, the frustrations are beginning to give way, as we create macros to get around some unfortunate and unfinished seeming macros built into the Roll20 2e character sheet and ditch some complications for simpler mechanics, like dropping individual initiative for group initiative. Bafflingly, in the 2e Roll20 sheet there was a built-in macro for rolling individual initiative, but you had to click on your token on the virtual tabletop in order to have it automatically show on the turn tracker, despite the fact that you were clicking it from your character sheet that was linked to that token (at least that's what I can tell from the player side of things). But now that we've got most of the Roll20 interface and mechanical issues more under control the remaining fiddliness is charming. I'm playing a single-class human Priestess with a high wisdom, so I've zoomed to 3rd level already, while the other players all chose demi-human multi-class characters, which caused a little friction when the topic of individual experience awards came up, but I think that's because the trade-off wasn't clearly communicated. We're so used to characters all advancing at the same pace with the last few editions that the idea that the one PC, my human priestess might hit 5th level before the others get to 2nd in both their classes seems a little off-putting, but for me, playing the single class, I can easily see how the multi-class characters are more versatile. Most of my heavy hitting now as a 3rd level priest is due to my access to the Animal Friendship spell (a definitely fiddly 1st level spell which is not at all balanced with other first level spells, as we have realized is not a design concern in 2e) which is currently letting me have a Leopard and Wild Dog that can fight for me as I still have that 20 THAC0 and proficiency with sickles and light crossbows only. Eventually I'll write more about my 2e experience, but getting to see an extreme amount of fiddliness lets me appreciate both the value of fiddly bits and the ease of play when there are less fiddly bits.

Then we have World of Dungeons 1979 which is both extremely bare of fiddly bits, with all the rules fitting on less than 3 pages and a very unified Powered by the Apocalypse 2d6 mechanic, with 6 or less is a failure, 7-9 is a success with complication or cost and 10+ is a success. But World of Dungeons 1979 has plenty of room for fiddly bits to be added on during play, as suggested by this excellent thread at Story-games.com (seriously, if you're considering running WoD79, take a look at it). Due to some things beyond my control, illnesses and scheduling issues, my regular Sunday gaming group as run out of steam so I'll be switching to running my Planarch Codex pickup game in it's place. One of the things I'm looking forward to most as I switch over to that, and as I run more of the aR&PL actual play is adding more Custom Moves. It's not been something I've been able to really incorporate when I've run Dungeon World or Apocalypse World in the past, creating moves as the situation calls and codifying them on the spot, noting them down for later (or, really my players should note them down and then they'll be able to say "Well, last time I made this move and you said it worked like this"). For example, one of the few custom moves I whipped out for Dungeon World previously...

I think my big frustration with 5e D&D is that the fiddly bits that are the most trouble are the fiddly bits with the player facing stuff, the races and class features and spells. With Dungeon World or World of Dungeons 1979 or even 13th Age I feel I can hand a new player a character playbook, character sheet or pre-made character and maybe a few pages of stuff to read and they've got everything they need. Which makes a one-shot or pick-up game easy. With 5e, on the other hand, there are some easy builds, yes, but it feels like there's still a lot where you have to go back and double-check things, like for this Necromancy School feature, did I take the right spells to make it useful? Can I get players to figure out when it will be better to use spells that make attack rolls vs. spells that have saving throws? Like I said previously, my players are playing 5e characters but I'm mostly running other stuff wearing 5e's ragged skin. It works because the easier stuff to change/ditch, the easiest fiddly stuff to adjust and reconfigure in 5e is the DM facing stuff. For fiddly player mechanics, like skills, that's much harder to play around with, as I've discovered. That leaves my players using the 5e mechanics and features as written much more than I am. I can largely plug in 13th Age monster mechanics in a way that a player would be unable to try and do the same with 13th Age fighter mechanics for a 5e fighter. But where things become an issue is where the fiddly bits get in the way of playing the game, and I ran into that a little running the Saturday Birthday D&D, where because neither I nor the players made the characters and I didn't do a great job selecting/vetting pre-made characters we ran into issues that we wouldn't have if a player was running the PC and leveling it up themselves. And from running some 5e Planescape one-shots in the past, I'm coming to realize that for PCs of levels as low as 5 (of the 20 maximum) that giving players a pre-made PC in 5e is tough because of all the inter-locking fiddly bits of class and race features and spell options that you have to explain to let them have a good chance of getting to make good use of their characters. If you don't then you have players realize half-way into the second battle that their 5th level monk should have been making two attacks each round and other things that can dramatically affect play and are hard to retcon or hand-wave. For me, at least, 5e is becoming less the game I'd go to for one-shots and more a game I'd only consider when we have time for a few sessions.

1 comment:

  1. I think its definitely true that 5e has more nonsense for the PCs than the DM. There's actually quite a few choices at low levels, so for any type of one-shot I'd be reluctant to do it higher than 3rd-5th level, even with people making their own characters. I forget the level I used for the Githzerai game, but there's just so many options for spellcasters and such that its even a little mean to ask them to pick 3 levels of spells for their characters for a one-shot. So in that respect, I think something like Dungeonworld can be a heck of a lot nicer than 5e or even 13th Age. But as players get more experience, they'll have seen some of those choices before, so you can start to rely on that eventually, and constrain things (just basic rules?) and limit or avoid some of decision-heavy classes (8 spells for a bard vs choosing from all the spells a Cleric or Druid has access to?).

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