Bad luck with dice?

Sly Flourish, one of my favorite gaming bloggers, tweeted the following today:

The many replies seem to fit one of these three ideas:

  1. adjusting difficulty: fudge things on the fly, behind the GM screen
  2. breaking the rules: give their character bonus options and actions
  3. doing nothing at all: tell the players to get over it and be tougher

None of those answers felt satisfying to me.

  1. Adjusting difficulty on the fly feels like the wrong solution. It comes across as condescending or patronizing. From my experience, I hated it when the GM ignored a failure or backtracked the narrative on my behalf. I can’t really explain why I felt this way.
  2. Breaking the rules means more management and record-keeping of house rules. If a ruling was made for one player, then it should be for anyone else in the same situation, right? This could lead to inconsistencies and even perceived unfairness.
  3. Doing nothing at all and macho posturing about gamers getting “tougher” or more “macho” is completely ludicrous to me so I won’t even address it.

So how can we fix it?

Well, here are some ideas:

Bonus experience points on a failed dice roll

This is from Apocalypse World-derived games, such as Dungeon World. It softens the blow a lot! I’ve seen it first hand with many different groups. You could even be consistent about it: give them some base amount multiplied by their level. Example: 10 x level. So 10xp at level 1, 100 at level 10, etc…

Let them expend “effort”

This is from the Cypher System. Basically, after a failed dice roll, let the character spend some kind of in-game resource to nudge that failure into a success. This could be:

  • A point of inspiration
  • One or more hit dice
  • Or a number of hit points equal to the difference (if the character failed their roll by 3, let them spend 3 hit points to succeed)

Each player gets their own “escalation” die

This is inspired by 13th Age. The idea is that each player gets a special d6 called an escalation die. When they fail a dice roll, they set their escalation die to “2” and places it on their character sheet. Their next dice roll gets a bonus of 2 to it.

If they fail their next dice roll too, then their escalation die goes up to 3, granting a bonus of +3 to their next dice roll.

For each successive failure, the die goes up, granting the bonus on its top face to the next roll. Up to a maximum of +6.

Once they actually succeed at a task, then their escalation die “resets” to 1 and gets removed from their character sheet.

Why not grant a bonus of +1? Because a 5% increase of chance is so minimal that I wouldn’t even bother. +2 is 10% and it “feels” more substantial.

imaginary player character gives the player the middle finger because their action failed on the result of a 1, again.
source: Penny Arcade

So what do you think? Have you ever tried something like this? Do any of these options appeal to you?

Please check out Sly Flourish’s website

Grid vs no-grid

This morning I read an article from one of my favourite gaming blogs, SlyFlourish. It is called The Tyranny of the Grid. Basically the author explains how a dependence on using a grid and miniatures can seriously limit the fun of RPGs. Specifically, it argues that an over reliance on grids can inhibit creativity and excitement.

It’s worth reading, but I wanted to address a few of the author’s points:

  • Antagonism: I also agree that using a grid can increase the feeling of antagonism between the players and the GM. I’ve experienced this first hand, actually. It’s as if moving miniatures around a few dungeon tiles taps into a primordial memory of war games. It’s weird
  • Cost: it’s very true that once you start buying things to support grid play, you can get really carried away. I followed Sly Flourish’s advice to get a Paizo flip-mat (they’re really great, actually), but once I finally acquired one I suddenly “needed” others for more varied colours/textures. The same with miniatures/tokens. I got one box set on Kijiji and then I found myself scouring the web for other packs of Pathfinder Pawns. It was harder than I thought to stop!
  • Scope: grids can also limit the scope of battle scenes. It’s as if once the GM draws out the exact dimensions of the cave or room, it can appear a lot smaller or less impressive to the players. They also feel more limited by what is drawn (or not drawn), reducing their perception of what is possible. That’s why I think you need to keep it partially abstract.
  • Railroading: this is a big one. If the GM has already drawn out, or acquired a set of miniatures and buildings to represent a special encounter, odds are that this GM will really want the players to go there. They are more likely to railroad the players. I’ve witnessed this as well (and I’ve been guilty of it!). So don’t spend too much time or resources on planning out an encounter because the players might not even go there!

On the other hand, a roughly drawn out scene with a few pawns to generally represent the  locations of various characters and objects can really help players visualise what is going on. I’d argue that it can make scenes more memorable and immersive.

So I will explain how I do a bit of both: a mix of theatre of the mind and gridding:

  • I use Paizo flip maps, which allow wet or dry erase markers. I only draw out a location if it is required in the game, never in advance (that’s what my GM notes are for). If the players engage a situation leading to a conflict (or straight out battle), I can whip up something quickly.
  • I use Pathfinder Pawns to show where everyone is in relation to each other. I don’t bother measuring 5-foot increments, though. They’re more for general guidance, not strict adherence.
  • I’ll use 4×6 note cards to represent special “zones” or objects of interest by writing things down on them (eg.: “fire”, “cart”).

I’ve found that this flexible use of physical elements at the table helps players visualise, strategize and focus on the encounter. Sly Flourish makes some great points, but I argue that some visual representation of encounter details has more benefits than drawbacks.

NOTE: the featured image includes photos that are not mine; I just hastily Photoshopped them together.

Useful links:

Some simple D&D 5e house rules

Most of these I came up with while running a successful year-long campaign:

Average Damage

Instead of rolling damage dice, I just use the average value listed in the Monster Manual. This has a few benefits: it’s faster, still within the rules and players don’t usually care at all. Critical hit? Use average damage plus a die roll. Or just double that average damage value.

Adjusting Monster HP

To make a monster easier to kill (eg: to make a band of mooks, portray a wounded or weakened foe, to speed up a lagging encounter or to lower the difficulty setting if the PCs are having lots of bad luck), give the monster its minimum possible HP. To make a tougher monster, go maximum (or close to it).

Diversify monsters by re-skinning

Use the stats of something simulating the effects that you like and change the descriptions. Change fire breath to death ray or cold resistance to poison resistance. I’ve re-skinned a giant aquatic psychic sea monster into a sentient evil tree and no one noticed.

Players reward Inspiration

Takes some extra work away from the GM who usually has enough to worry about already. Also, the GM gets to avoid giving the appearance of playing “favorites”.

Critical hit damage

Try this: apply maximum damage of that weapon plus another dice roll. So, for example, a short sword would deal 6 + d6 damage (not counting ability score bonuses). Makes each critical hit feel rewarding.

Extra effort

Player fails a skill check. Let them take a level of exhaustion to get a solid pass to represent tremendous effort or strain.

Featured image: Pillars of Pentegram by Larry Elmore