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What Encourages or Discourages Avoiding Combat?

Due to changes in my schedule, I’ve decided to move my “new post day” from Saturday to Wednesday. This should result in a much more reliable weekly posting schedule from now on.

The RPG Blog Carnival topic for the month of April was “Combat Avoidance” and was hosted by Exchange of Realities. Yeah, I know it’s May now, but it is a topic that I really want to talk about.

Combat has always been the heart of role-playing games. After all, Dungeons & Dragons evolved from miniatures wargaming where there is nothing but combat! I’d estimate that 95% of the role-playing games out there have some sort of rules about how to handle fighting and combat (with the remaining 5% being either aimed at kids or deliberately made so as to avoid combat). Although the GM has a lot of say into how much combat there is in a game, I think that there are definitely some external factors that encourage or discourage avoiding combat during gameplay. I would say that the big ones are the expectations of the setting, the expectations of the system, and the danger level to characters.

Expectations of the Setting

Here are the first lines in the “Makin’ Heroes” chapter of Deadlands Reloaded:

Strap on your six-guns and saddle up, amigo. It’s time to make your salty gunslinger, mysterious huckster, or savage brave.

And here is an excerpt from the “Characters” chapter of The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild:

Whatever their motivation or purpose, most characters created for The One Ring are individuals who have chosen to abandon their day-to-day activities and become adventurers. They are not soldiers or captains following the commands of a lord, nor are they subtle wizards trying to weave the threads spun by fate: they are bold souls putting themselves in peril by their own free will, sometimes simply for the love of adventure itself.

Notice something? They each describe the characters in their games very differently. The quote from Deadlands provides three archetypical characters, all of which are typically combat-oriented (even though you can play one that is not). The preceding sentence even makes pretty broad statement about Deadlands characters having six-guns. The One Ring however describes characters in terms of their love of adventure and specifically says that they are not soldiers (even though there is a “soldier” career). It’s quite conceivable that characters in this system would not be combat oriented, and indeed many of the characters in the source material, like Bilbo and Frodo, are not.

So which is more likely to avoid a typical combat, the “salty gunslinger” or the “adventurer.” Probably the adventurer. Why? Because that’s what the setting expects them to do. The setting also creates an expectation for what the characters’ default behavior will be when coming up against something hostile. In Dungeons & Dragons, the default behavior when confronted with a dragon is probably to fight it, not talk to it, and to only run if the fight is unwinnable. But in The One Ring, the default behavior would probably be to riddle with the dragon or run, but to fight it as a last resort (like if it’s burning Lake Town to the ground).

Expectations of the System

There’s a pretty easy litmus test for how much combat is expected in the system: how much of a character sheet is devoted to combat? Here’s a Dungeons & Dragons 4e 5th Level Dragonborn Rogue I found online using the standard D&D 4e character sheet. Aside from the sections on skills, senses, character info, gear, and arguably ability scores, the entire character sheet is devoted to combat (including 2 out of 4 pages devoted specifically to cards describing combat maneuvers). I estimate that about 85% of the character sheet is for describing stuff about combat. You might extrapolate then that 85% of D&D 4e is about combat, which in my experience (especially considering the official Wizards of the Coast convention games) is about right.

In fact, one of the big criticisms from D&D 3.x fans when D&D 4e first came out was that it was too focused on combat and not enough on role-playing. Often times they cited the fact that there weren’t profession skills or other non-combat character options. I won’t take either side on this, but I do wonder if part of the reason was that the D&D 3.5 character sheet from the PHB had about 60% of it devoted to combat, implying that combat only featured in 60% of the time.

So what does that mean for combat avoidance? With more space on the character sheet for non-combat related items, it would make sense that characters have more things to do to avoid combat. In D&D 3.x, you might have the means to avoid 40% of combats whereas in D&D 4e, you only have the means to avoid 15% of them. Now I’ll be the first to say that this is not a definitive measure and there are no doubt many factors, like GM play-style, that have a greater influence. But the fact remains that in a system where the important parts of your character are what they can do in combat, then it is less likely that it will be avoided.

Danger Level

On a more practical level, combat is typically avoided if there is a lot of danger of a character suffering ill consequences because of it. In Call of Cthulhu, investigators almost always avoid combat because there is a very good chance that they will die if they fight (or they will go insane, or both). Contrast that with a system like Hollow Earth Expedition where there is little danger of getting into a fight with Nazis, even if they have guns and you are using your fists. If combat is the most direct means of achieving your goals (as it would be if there are Nazis in the way of claiming the lost treasure) and there is little danger, then combat avoidance is very unlikely. The risk is small compared to the reward. But if there is a lot of risk, you might try some safer alternatives to avoid combat altogether.

I’ll reiterate once again that at the end of the day, the GM probably has more influence than these factors in determining how much combat there is. For instance, I’ve seen sessions of D&D 4e run without combat. But you might want to think about these external factors if you are wanting to encourage or discourage combat in your game session.

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Creating Urban Arcana for D&D 4e

Urban Arcana Cover ArtAt WittCon last weekend, I ran a Dungeons & Dragons 4e game using the Urban Arcana campaign setting (the game is further described here). There were a few comments about the setting last time I posted about it, so I figured I would talk more about it.

Setting-wise, Urban Arcana is a lot of fun. During the mission at WittCon, the players were investigating the strange happenings at the Astral Sea Casino run by the Corsone Syndicate. They saw a lot of fun sights like a Githzerai in a white suit who the party suspected may have been using some psionic powers to rig a roulette game. The second group also wound up meeting Oliver, a burly Dragonborn in a tuxedo who was a high roller at blackjack.

One compliment I got from both sessions I ran was that the characters I gave the group were really memorable and exciting. I found this kind of surprising because I didn’t give the characters backstories. But I think what worked was that I made the characters iconic enough that the players were able to easily build them into whatever they wanted. The group consisted of:

  • Leonard, the Bugbear Street Warrior (Fighter). He’s a surprisingly civil bugbear who wears a three piece suit, but he can lay down the pain when necessary.
  • Darren Turner, the Gnome Technomage (Wizard). Rather than relying a spell tome, Darren prefers to use an iPad to generate his magical spells. And for all his cantrip-related needs, there’s an app for that.
  • Maddie Webber, the Drow Rogue. Although her punk nature sometimes clashes with Department 7’s leaders, her street knowledge has helped more than a few times. She wields a katana in her right hand and a modified pistol in her left.
  • Mixmaster C, the Halfling DJ (Bard). The Bard with a Boombox, he’s able to feel the funk to play just the right song to affect those who are listening. He especially loves the 80s.

By the way, everyone’s pictures are taken from the art in the Urban Arcana book, which is available online here. The exception was Mixmaster C’s picture, which surprisingly was taken from The Book of Wondrous Inventions, by TSR in 1987. Who knew that magic boomboxes were treasure loot in the AD&D era?

If you look at their character sheets (click on their names above), you’ll notice that I made some substantial changes to the D&D 4e mechanics. Most of the information on the first page is the same, but there are a few changes to Skills. I changed “Dungeoneering” to “Urban Awareness” to represent knowing general facts about a city or how to get around (e.g. where’s the nearest pizza place and are there any shortcuts to get there). Because Urban Arcana is a modern game, I also added Driving (Agility) and Computer Use (Intelligence) to the game. These small changes definitely helped the gameplay and were very easy to houserule in. The only issue I had was that I originally made the characters in the D&D Character Builder online and they don’t let you houserule new skills.

On page two, I only listed feats and racial features that would actually have an impact for the one-hour one-shot that I ran. I included basic melee attacks and everyone could use a pistol as a basic ranged attack (I just reskinned a hand crossbow to be a pistol).

But the biggest change was with powers. In D&D 4e, all characters have powers to represent combat maneuvers, spells, or other special actions that they could perform. Especially because this was a one-hour one-shot, I got rid of most of them, especially the ones that were basically “you attack with your weapon.” So Maddie Webber and Leonard in particular just use basic attacks, although Leonard has a “common tactics” section of his character sheet to indicate the special combat powers that I left in. Darren the Technomage still has several apps, including a “Burning Hands” app, but not nearly as many spells as he’d have as a standard D&D 4e wizard. And finally Mixmaster C has four songs he primarily uses (most of which are only once per encounter because playing it a second time just isn’t cool anymore) although I told the players that if they wanted they could play some other appropriate song.

I also did this all without miniatures. They were either in melee or some ranged distance away. And to my surprise, the players didn’t even seem to notice.

The result was that combat was a lot faster and players were more interested in describing their own complex maneuvers. For instance, we had Leonard leaping over a balcony and doing a drop attack on one of the Kuzzer Brothers. He didn’t have a powercard for that, the player just decided to do it. Since nobody was looking through their powercards or counting squares, it all wound up going a whole lot more quickly.

What did I learn from this heavily modified version of D&D 4e? The descriptions you give things are much more powerful than the mechanics that drive them. It was a simplified D&D, but I think it was the setting that made the game so much fun for everyone!

I’ve also learned that D&D doesn’t need all the powers and mechanics to still be fun and playable. Having them are still nice in small quantities, but I think this game has led me to the conclusion that standard D&D 4e has too many of them. I’m betting that D&D Next will be largely eliminating them like I have done. I’ll be looking forward to trying a D&D Next version of Urban Arcana as soon as it becomes available.

Mandatory WittCon IX Plug


Two weeks from the time of this writing, the Wittenberg Role-playing Guild will be hosting WittCon IX: The Wrath of Con! It’s a full day of gaming at Wittenberg University in Springfield, OH from 11:15am-Midnight with over 40 events scheduled to run, including a Magic: The Gathering tournament and a live action version of Orc and Pie with real pie!

I’m going to be running a Savage Worlds Elder Scrolls game set in Summerset Isle (using my conversion that I released last week). Here’s the description:

Summerset Isle, the land of the Altmer (High Elves), has never been particularly fond of the Empire and now it seems their unrest has reached a new level with syndicates of wizards leading boycots of Imperial goods. Although the Emperor is concerned about this, he is more troubled by the fact that a member of the Blades who was investivating rumors of increased Daedra worship, but has gone missing since.

The Emperor is now sending a group of trusted Blades from across Tamriel to Summerset Isle’s capitol, Alinor, in order to determine what happened to the last person he sent and eliminate any threats to the Empire. Taking place three weeks before the Oblivion crisis, this adventure will allow fans of the epic video game series to journey into a never before seen land that is as extensive as your imagination!

This will be an investigative game which I’m hoping will lead to a suitably epic climax for a one-shot adventure. My plan is to have one pregen from each of the races available as a choice for the characters.

Later I’m running two one-hour sessions of Urban Arcana, my favorite D&D setting, using D&D 4e. I think the cover art for the original book (a d20 Modern setting) and the adventure description speaks for itself:
Urban Arcana Cover Art

In the world of Urban Arcana, dragons rule the boardrooms and bugbears rule the streets. It is a world where monsters and magic exist, yet the human psyche cannot fathom them and imagines that such supernatural events simply do not exist. some break that barrier and become aware of the strange world around them. And some are just trying to make sense of this new world that is now their home.

In this mission, Department 7 has assigned a group of agents to investigate some strange occurrences going on at the Astral Sea Casino in downtown Las Vegas, which is rumored to be run by the notorious Corsone Syndicate. But like everything in Urban Arcana, things are a bit stranger than they seem.

There’s a lot of stuff to be excited for in this con. If you’re in the Dayton/Columbus area on March 24th and would like to have an awesome-packed day of gaming, come to WittCon! More details and a full schedule can be found here!

The Next Iteration of D&D

In October I made predictions about D&D 5e. Not two weeks ago I predicted that Dungeons & Dragons 5e would be announced sometime soon. Honestly, I didn’t imagine that it would be this soon. If you’ve read other gaming blogs, you no doubt already know that Wizards of the Coast made an announcement that they are indeed “developing the next iteration of D&D, and will be looking to the legions of D&D fans to help shape the future of the game along with us.”

Before I give my opinion, I’d like to say that there are two things that strike me about this. One is that they are calling it “the next iteration of D&D,” rather than “D&D 5th Edition.” This suggests to me that it will have some new name. Later in the press release, Mike Mearls states:

We want a game that rises above differences of play styles, campaign settings, and editions, one that takes the fundamental essence of D&D and brings it to the forefront of the game…We seek to reach as many people as possible, from the gamer who just started with D&D last week to the gaming group that has been together since the early-1970s. For this process to work, we want to give a voice to all D&D fans and players of all previous editions of the game.

Given this goal, it makes sense that they would be hesitant to name it D&D 5e, since it would imply that it is next in a serial line of progression that’s one more step removed from your favorite edition. From a psychology standpoint, I think this makes sense because it’s dissociating this next iteration from that serial progression. The only trouble is that we don’t have a definitive name for it yet, although “D&D Next” seems to be the predominant term. The Platinum Warlock has predicted that it will wind up being “D&D Anniversary Edition” because 2014 is the 40th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons, but I suppose time will tell.

The second thing is that Wizards of the Coast is getting feedback from the players about the new edition and you can even sign up to get prerelease materials this spring for your home campaign. Moreover, they’re trying to get feedback from players of all editions. I see this as a double-edge sword. It’ll be a good thing because Wizards will get a lot of feedback and be able to fix a lot of issues and complaints before the final product is released. They did this with the hybrid classes that appeared in D&D 4e’s Player’s Handbook 3 and I think that process worked out well.

The trouble is that there are going to be a lot of passionate players with a lot of strong opinions about the best rules for Dungeons & Dragons. There will no doubt be long and heated discussions and rants on the internet. Heck, there already are just based on the initial announcement alone! Still, it’s my sincere hope that the majority of players will be civil about the process and will able to constructively give suggestions.

So what do I think about it all? I’m optimistic. I think that this “best of D&D” mentality combined with crowd feedback will result in a product that will appeal to the majority of D&D players. And let’s not forget that a successful version of D&D and a united D&D playerbase benefits the role-playing game industry as a whole. After all, more D&D players encourages more people to get into the hobby itself, after which many will try different systems. So here’s to an improved next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons!

Complexity & Level

Game designer Monte Cook has been writing a column for Wizards of the Coast called Legends and Lore, in which he provides in-depth analyses of Dungeons & Dragons game mechanics (lending credence to the rumor that he’s working on D&D 5e). His most recent one, A Different Way to Slice the Pie, suggests that complexity ought to grow when the players reach higher levels. The example he provides is ignoring Opportunity Attack rules for Level 1 adventures, but introducing them later on.

I’m not sure I like this approach. I have no problem having a simplified set of rules, but to have them tied with character advancement seems somewhat problematic. I think the idea is that a new player who is unfamiliar with the rules would start at Level 1, and as they continue to play and their character gains levels, the player would be ready to learn new rules.

The problem is that it assumes character experience is tied to player experience. So what happens when an experienced D&D player starts a new campaign at Level 1? All those advanced rules they learned, and perhaps liked, are arbitrarily ignored because they are playing a Level 1 character rather than a higher level character. To me, that just doesn’t make any sense.

What I would prefer is for the rules to be like when I run a one-shot at a convention with inexperienced players. Before we start, I tell the players the rules of the system that they have to know, like how to make skill checks and such. After that I get them started and when a situation comes up that would require knowing a different rule, I teach it to them. For instance, when I run Savage Worlds, I tell them how to make skill checks and that Bennies can be used to reroll dice rolls, but I leave the “soaking” rules until someone takes damage. Some rules I completely ignore in one-shots with inexperienced players, like Armor Piercing, because I feel that a simpler game is better for a one-shot. I’ve run both 0 XP (Novice) games up to 60 XP (Heroic) games using this approach and I haven’t had any issues whatsoever.

Sometimes I want the players to be high XP characters, but I don’t think they should have to learn a dozen additional rules in order to play them. Having simplified rules sets is fine, but I really don’t think the right way to go about it is to have the rules tied to a character’s level.

What do you all think?

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