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October 20, 2017

Players Self-Assigning Rolls

Get your players to stop making die rolls you didn't call for.  

It does more harm than you think.

I get most of my inspiration for blog posts from RPG forums, where I read and help answer questions from DMs.  When a problem comes up a lot, I see a lot of good solutions from talented DMs.  I also get to refine my answer by writing it out for different people with the same problem.  Eventually, I write a post about it here so I can link back to it for them.  In this article, I'm using 5th edition D&D for my examples, because the most recent iteration of this question I saw was in a 5e D&D group on Facebook, but the problem happens in just about every RPG out there.

The problem I see all the time on that Facebook group is players self-assigning die rolls.  Self-assigning die rolls is trouble for reasons I'll explain below.  It happens when you describe the situation, and then the players describe their actions, assign themselves die rolls, and then roll them, all without the GM's involvement.  It looks like this:

"The mural depicts sorcerers of ancient Netheril forging some powerful magic rod, consisting of seven segments each four to six inches long."
"Arcana 19.  What do I know about the sorcerers of Netheril?"

"The hallway ends in a twelve foot square room with candelabras mounted on the walls, a carpet in the center, and no other features.
"Perception 24 - are there any traps or secret doors in this room?"

"Pleased to meet you, master Underhill. Rooms here are one gold piece per night each, double occupancy, and that includes all your meals. Ale, too. Wine and spirits are extra."
"Insight - I got a 17 - is the innkeeper planning to betray us?"

The player jumps in and rolls the dice, then you, as the GM, simply react as if you had framed the challenge and assigned the die roll.  Only, you didn't.

It may seem like the players are doing you a favor and handling some of the system for you, quickly getting it out of the way so you can get on with the roleplaying.  It's not.  Self-assigning causes a lot of problems.

First Problem: Bias
Players will consciously or unconsciously choose to frame the die roll in the most favorable way for their character.  Even players who have no intention of gaming the system are more likely to remember the skills and sub-systems they invested in for their character before ones that they didn't.  The Warlock knows all about the Arcana skill, so she rolls Arcana.  Netheril is ancient history, and the mural depicts an historic event; so this should have been a History check.  Similarly, the Perception check maybe should be Investigation.

The GM calls for the roll, not the player.  However, players might suggest a skill.  For instance, if the GM calls for a History check to understand the mural and the player fails, the player might say "I failed the History check.  Can I discern anything about the magic rod using Arcana?"  The GM still gets to decide, and the GM should still frame the check.

Second Problem: Framing
Players don't frame the die roll stakes -- you do.  Take a look at the Perception example, above.  This has to be the #1 most common way players self-assign die rolls.  They take it upon themselves to roll Perception checks without the DM telling them to.  The reason they feel so comfortable throwing Perception checks around is that even DMs rarely assign failure stakes to Perception checks, and when there are no failure stakes, the rest of the party can try the check if the first player fails.  But remember GM 101:  Every die roll should have interesting stakes for both success and failure!

The Perception check in the example above is poorly framed - the player needs to say what they're doing -- how they're looking for traps and secret doors.  If that action happens to come across a trap or secret door, the DM can call for the appropriate skill check at that point. You can't just stand outside the door and look around the room and see all the traps and secret doors.  They're better hidden than that!  Failing to find a trap should always cause a problem (usually the problem is triggering the trap).  More on trap framing, below.

Every roll should have both success and failure stakes.  It's the GM's job to make the world react to the PCs' actions.  When a GM says, "nothing happens," the GM is derelict in their duty, in my opinion.

Third Problem:  The Inevitable Success Shuffle
When there are no failure stakes, or nothing happens on failure, the players do the inevitable success shuffle.  That's what happens when player 1 fails the check, and player 2 says "OK, I try too."  If player 2 fails, player 3 tries.  Repeat ad nauseum.  It's a huge waste of table time.  Player-assigned die rolls almost never have failure stakes.  That means there's no cost or risk to them.  That's why players are so quick to throw the die and call for their own checks.  They can't fail!  Literally!  Rolling a 2 just preserves the status quo.  To actually fail, something bad would have to happen.

But it's worse than that.  The inevitable success shuffle makes success almost inevitable.  See, even if every PC has a 0 in their skill, odds are one of the die rolls will come up lucky.  I'm dropping some science here:  If five people roll 1d20 each, there's a 98% chance one of them will roll a 10+, there's an 83% chance one of them will roll a 15+, and there's a whopping 23% chance one of them will roll a natural 20.  Put another way, if the chances are only 30% that any individual party member will pass the check, if all five roll, the chances are 83% that one of them will succeed.  The players aren't trying to cheat, and none of this is illegal according to the rules; but it's an "exploit" to use a video game term. 

Not only does this effectively "game the system," it's a huge waste of table time.  After going through the work of evaluating and responding to the first die roll, the second player announces that they're going to try.  And so on.

Fourth Problem: Too Many Rolls
If they're doing them at all, the players are probably making self-assigned skill checks as a sort of "minesweeper" in your game.  They're making Perception checks to avoid landmine traps or missing out on treasure and secrets.  They're making Insight checks to avoid being tricked or set up.  They're making Intelligence checks to avoid missing critical information.  They're making Stealth checks to avoid being caught by sentries.  The problem is, they're doing it preemptively.

When the players get to self-assign minesweeper checks, they'll always self-assign minesweeper checks.  There's no cost to doing so (see the second problem), the best PC always uses their best skill (see the first problem), and they almost can't fail (see the third problem).  If you're not giving them hints when there might be a trap, they only fall in a trap when they fail to make minesweeper checks.  All that adds up to a huge incentive to keep doing it. 

Fifth Problem:  Perverse Incentive
What's more, odds are you've rewarded the players for doing it or punished them for failing to.
"The hallway is 10' wide and 50' long with a thick wooden door at the end."
"I check for traps.  Perception 24."
"You spot a pit trap with spikes five feet into the hallway."
You just rewarded self-assigned minesweeper checks.
"The hallway is 10' wide and 50' long with a thick wooden door at the end."
"I walk up to the door."
"Five feet into the hallway, you fall into a pit trap with spikes.  Make a Dexterity save, DC 20 to avoid falling and taking 21 points of piercing and bludgeoning damage."
You just punished the players for failing to self-assign a minesweeper check by hiding a landmine and blowing them up with it.

Now, let's work on fixing the problem.

Fixing the Problem 1:  Fixing Traps

"But Jon!" You protest, "how do I use landmine traps if I don't conceal them from the players!?"

Landmine traps are the worst.

Don't use landmine traps.  I could go on a big rant about landmine traps in D&D, why we use them, where they came from, and why they suck...  But I already did.  Read it here if you're interested. They're only potentially interesting in combat.

"But realistically monsters would hide their traps!"

Sure!  Monsters lay landmine traps all the time, but they're boring and stupid unless there's also some opportunity to spot and avoid them.  Realistically, monsters aren't perfect.  There's always some clue. 

If you use landmine traps with no hints, a trap is just a random HP tax, and the only mistake the players made was not self-assigning enough Perception checks.  Yuck.  I guarantee if you use landmine traps with no hints, your players will become paranoid minesweepers, and your fun dungeon exploration will become a grinding slog full of mechanical crunch and little else.

Real quick, here's how you do that hallway trap:
"The hallway is 10' wide and 50' long with a thick wooden door at the end.  You spot a few kobold tracks in the dirt and grime."
If the player doesn't use a minesweeper at all:
"I walk up to the door."
"As you walk down the hallway, something catches your eye.  Roll Perception."
"You see lots of concealed kobold tracks on the floor.  Through their obfuscation, you can see that the creatures' tracks veer sharply off to the right side of the hallway for no apparent reason, then stray back to the middle.  What do you do?"
See?  This is how to use Perception well.  It's best to call for Perception checks only when success spots the danger in time and failure triggers the danger.  Only call for a Perception check when the player declares an action that takes them through the relevant area.  And by "through" I mean where the trap would be triggered, or away from the hidden treasure, or past the secret door (not getting treasure or not getting a tactical advantage - those are great failure stakes).

What if the player fails their Perception check?  That's when the landmine goes off.  But you gave them a hint.  They missed it.  Then you gave them a Perception roll.  They failed that.  Now they get a saving throw.  How much more generous can you be?  Right?

Fixing the Problem 2:  Assume Competency, Build Trust

What we're doing here is assuming competency.  You build trust in your players when you show them that you assume that their characters are competent.  That way they don't feel like the base assumption is that they're bumbling idiots who forget to tie their shoes unless a player says so.  When you assume that the PC would open their eyes and look around before stepping on a trap, the player doesn't feel the need to call for their own Perception check once every five feet of hallway.  The player knows you know that their character isn't a rube who's never been in a dangerous situation before.  The player can trust you.
"Oops.  9."
"You see some kobold tracks on the floor.  By the time you realize the tracks veer sharply of to the right, it's too late, and you've already stepped on the false floor.  Make a Dexterity save, DC 20."
What if the player becomes suspicious (f'ing kobolds) and takes a minesweeper action?
"Does the pattern of tracks hint at a trap or something?" (Alternately, "I follow the tracks in case there's a trap they're avoiding.")
"They've made some attempt to conceal their tracks.  Roll Investigation, DC 15."  (or Survival DC 15, for the tracking version)
"18.  Success."
"You deduce that there's a spiked pit trap five feet into the hallway.  There's a safe path to the right, which you deduce from their tracks.  Though they've tried to conceal it, they always avoid that one section of hallway.  Once you know exactly where to look, you have no trouble spotting the plaster-covered wood of the trap door, prying it open, and seeing the nasty spikes 20 feet below." (The Survival version would just take them safely past the trap, without revealing it; but that's usually good enough)
And if the minesweeper action fails?  None of that "nothing happens" crap.
"13.  Failure."
"Though they've tried to hide their tracks, you notice that they avoid one area of the hallway.  There's something there.  You prod at the suspicious section of floor, and there's a loud crack, crash, crunch! as you dislodge the trapdoor, dropping it 20 feet into a pit full of spikes.  Whatever's behind that wood door up ahead heard the sound.  What do you do?"
I used a different failure condition than the obvious one in this example.  See this post for more ideas on advanced failure stakes.  For the obvious "you fall in the trap" failure stakes, see the failed Perception check example, above.

If you run it right, where there is no trap, the players won't feel any need to make a minesweeper check.  Where there is a trap, you drop a hint that they'll probably catch on to.  If the players are smart, and they are, they'll investigate.  In the unlikely event that they miss the hint, see above - they might fall for the trap.  But here's the key:  If they fall for the trap, it's not because of the failed die roll.  It's because they missed your hint (and then failed a die roll).  In other words, it's a fun game, not a landmine.  

Fixing the Problem 3:  Fixing Insight

This "assume competency, drop hints, make it a fun game" strategy applies to every kind of hidden information and hidden danger!  Consider the shifty innkeeper situation. 

Let's use a strategy of assumed competency to correct a player's misinterpretation: 
"Pleased to meet you, master Underhill. Rooms here are one gold piece per night each, double occupancy, and that includes all your meals. Ale, too. Wine and spirits are extra."
"I think the innkeeper might be working for the Zhentarim and plans to betray us. I want to know if he recognizes us or knows we're Harpers."
"Based on his innocent look and jovial greeting, the innkeeper doesn't recognize or suspect you. He's honest."
The player misinterpreted your description, seeing something sinister where you didn't intend it.  No roll is needed. You can treat the player's request as an automatic success. 

But if you want to, you can make them roll. 
"I think the innkeeper might be working for the Zhentarim and plans to betray us. I want to know if he recognizes us or knows we're Harpers."
"OK, let's see how subtle you are in your suspicion.  Make an Insight check, DC 15."
"12.  Shoot."
"The innkeeper looks like he was going to say something else, but when he sees your steel-eyed look, he shuts up and won't make eye contact.  You're pretty sure you have nothing to worry about from the innkeeper, but now the innkeeper is worried about you."
I'm applying stakes other than "you learn nothing" again.  By being suspicious and then mishandling the situation (with the bad roll), the PC has added a little color to the situation.  Maybe nothing will come of it, or maybe we'll improvise this into a real conflict later.  A successful Insight roll represents a much less impulsive approach.
"I got a 22."
"You're real subtle, leading the innkeeper through some seemingly innocent small talk that would make a Zhentarim spy sweat, but he doesn't pick up on any of it, and seems to enjoy shooting the breeze with you.  It's getting close to dinner time.  What do you do?"
But that's about a player being paranoid, seeing a hint of treason where there was none intended. 

What if the innkeeper really is a threat?  What if you really did drop a hint?

If there's no difference between your shady Zhentarim innkeeper and your upright innocent innkeeper, the players have to be paranoid -- especially if you once used a shady innkeeper to betray the PCs once and didn't telegraph it. One bad innkeeper, and they're going to suspect every innkeeper from then on, forever.

Always give them hints when they should be suspicious, and then make the challenge figuring out what they should be suspicious of.  That's a tricky concept, but I can explain better it if you've ever heard of this series of movies called Star Wars

One of the most famous "betrayal by a host" scenes in media history is the Cloud City sequence on Bespin in Empire Strikes Back.  Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO flee to Cloud City to stay with Lando Calrissian, Han's old partner in crime.  Lando has betrayed them, and they all get suspicious pretty quickly.  If this were an RPG, what happened is that they got to Cloud City and met Lando, and the GM dropped some hints that Lando had an ulterior motive, but not what the motive is.
Leia: "Something's wrong here - no one has seen or knows anything about 3PO. He's been gone too long to have gotten lost! ...I don't trust Lando."
Han:  "I don't trust him either, but he is my friend." 
Immediately after that bit of expository dialog, Chewbacca finds C-3PO in pieces, waiting to be recycled, brings the parts back to Han, and then they get really worried. The stakes get higher and the tension rises. Lando arrives and invites them for drinks; and unaware exactly what is going on, Leia, Han, and Chewy go with him and walk right into the trap.

That's an example of how it works: "We saw the clues, we got suspicious, but we didn't realize the nature of the trap." Cite that sequence to players who don't understand that alert, suspicious people can still be surprised.  It's the difference between being suspicious and knowing what to be suspicious of.

Here's how you signal to them that they need to use Insight.  If the innkeeper was shady, you'd make that clear with your dialog:
"Pleased to meet you, master... Underhill you said? Is that right... Hmm... Anyway... Rooms here are one gold piece per night each, double occupancy, and that includes all your meals. Ale, too. Wine and spirits are extra. You, uh, look tired. You'll be wanting to get out of that armor. Can I take your things up to your rooms while my daughter gets you something to drink?"
See, there are enough clues in there to make the players suspicious, and even if they miss them, you can point back to them later.  But let's assume your players pick up on your hints.
"Good sir, we'll keep the armor on for a while. Why are you so eager to take our bags?"
"'I... I just saw you were weary and was offering to save you the effort, sir... I meant no harm.' Go ahead and make a group Insight check. DC 12. If more than half of you fail, you'll be caught when the trap springs."
[Most of them succeed.]
"You're sure the innkeeper has something planned, so you watch his eyes while you challenge him. They keep darting to the door - the only exit from the inn that you can see. He's waiting for reinforcements, and they're probably going to be here soon. What do you do?"
Now let's look under the hood of that example.

GM Hints - Player Investigates - GM Frames a Check
The GM calls for the Insight check as soon as the player challenges the NPC or takes any action to investigate. This is just another minesweeper check, but the player had a hint, so it's not just routine.  But it's the GM who frames the check. Not the player!

The Heart of the Problem: It's Just No Fun

The difference between "Hint - Investigation - Check" and routine minesweeper checks has a massive, practical impact on your game.  Review the fun formula for RPGs before we get into it.

If minesweeper checks are routine, then there's no tension.  You make an Insight check with every single NPC you meet, or at least anyone who could legitimately pose a direct or indirect threat.  Sometimes the NPC is a traitor.  Sometimes they're honest.  Sometimes you succeed at the minesweeper check.  Sometimes you fail.  None of the outcomes are caused by your decision as a player.  All of the outcomes are caused by the GM and the dice.

So back to the fun formula.

Story -> Problems -> Tension -> Excitement -> Fun

When you don't hint at a problem in the fiction, there's no story, no story problem, no tension, no excitement, no fun.  It's just a routine check, and it has one of four outcomes (see the diagram below).  Only one of those outcomes introduces a story problem -- the yellow circle.  Everything else is either no problem or no problem detected.*  

The "we failed a check to detect trouble" outcome (marked *) represents dramatic irony:  The players know there might be trouble but the players have to pretend they don't know about it.  With mature players, dramatic irony can create tension (excitement, fun), but because they self-assigned the check, they don't know for sure (OOC) if there is trouble.  That weakens the dramatic irony tension, so it's not as fun.

* dramatic irony
On the other hand, when you drop a hint, you've created a story:  The innkeeper is acting fishy.  When your fishy innkeeper could spell trouble for the PCs, it's a story problem.  When that story problem's outcome is uncertain, there's tension.  Tension is exciting.  Getting excited over an RPG is fun.

Failure Stakes
The example Insight group check is framed with failure stakes. The success stakes are the implied inverse of the failure stakes. "Go ahead and make a group Insight check. DC 12. If more than half of you fail, you'll be caught when the trap springs." See how the player doesn't know exactly what the trap is or what the Insight check will reveal?

The players have to trust that a good roll will have a good outcome and a bad roll will have a bad outcome and they will be treated fairly by the GM. Trust is a big deal in player/GM relationships.  If you don't have that, stop reading and go be more generous to your players until you fix the trust problem.

No Self-Assigning Means no Inevitable Success Shuffle
The GM framed it as a group check instead of a single check.  If the player had self-assigned an Insight check and failed, without any failure stakes, nothing happens, right? Then what? You know what!  Inevitable success shuffle. 

There's a reason group checks exist. In fiction, if your friends all trust the innkeeper, they're going to think you're just being paranoid when you're like "Guys! He's trying to ambush us!" "No, man, he just sees we've been on the road all day. Why would an innkeeper be ambushing us? We've got magic great-swords and he's got a rolling pin. You need a drink, dude."

Tactical Advantage
The roll stakes set up a tactical advantage that's relevant in every kind of RPG from Pathfinder to Fate Accelerated.  If the PCs are prepared for the reinforcements, they can choose where the conflict takes place.  They can take the fight out in public, where the reinforcements are likely to hesitate; they can barricade themselves in; they can run away before the reinforcements arrive; they can lay an ambush; etc.

Failing the check starts the encounter. The players can't even object: They had their chance to spot the ambush, and they failed the roll. Their characters may have been suspicious, but suspicious is not the same as informed and prepared. Like Han and Leia, they knew something was up, but they didn't know what it was.  They missed that telltale glance at the door.

By the way, if your innkeeper's trap is more distant, frame it this way:

"Make a group Insight check, DC 12. Either way, you're suspicious. On a failed check, you are eating dinner in armor, weapons at the ready, when the attack comes. On a success, I'll tell you the nature of the attack before dinner."
See?  I'm setting up an Empire Strikes Back situation where the players might know to be suspicious, but without getting more information, they will still fall for the trap.  Let's assume the group check fails.  Now we have tension coming from two directions:  The hints the GM dropped about the innkeeper add tension, but now the dramatic irony of the players knowing they failed the group check.  They know that there's an attack coming at dinnertime and they don't know its nature!
"OK, so things go fine all afternoon. There's a fire and the innkeeper tells some good jokes, though you keep your armor on and guard up. Dinner is beef stew with bread and ale. You're all worried about an attack, so I assume you're not getting drunk. Where are you in the room while eating dinner?"
"I'm eating by the door, standing up, pacing. I pretend to drink the ale, but just nurse it slowly. Maybe pouring it out in a potted plant or something to look like I'm drinking more than I really am."
"I'm back by the hearth, away from the window. Acting casual.  I have hot tea with my dinner, in case I need to throw it in someone's face."
"I'm eating at the table in the middle where I can see anyone approaching through the window.  Is that right?"
"Right. You've got a good view, but anyone approaching can see you, too."
"That's fine.  I try to act casual." 
"I'm eating at the bar, on my third helping of stew, fourth helping of ale."
"Stay sharp Ragnar!"
"Sure, sure, I can handle my ale! (Nope! My Flaw is I like to drink to excess. So I do!)"
"Cool.  Take Inspiration for acting out your flaw."
"OK, everyone make a DC 20 Con save vs poison or fall unconscious. Ragnar, you have Disadvantage on the check."
"Aw $%i#!"

Other Self-Assigned Rolls

Though information checks like Perception and Insight are the most common rolls players self-assign, there are other situations players self-assign rolls.  This article is already pretty long, but I would be remiss if I didn't at least touch on them.

Sometimes they roll initiative before the GM calls for it, assuming the GM is going to use the tactical combat system to resolve a fight (hint: you don't have to use the combat system for every fight).  That's easy to deal with.  Just say "hold your horses!"

Sometimes they self-assign Stealth checks to hide, which can actually be helpful in a D&D or Pathfinder combat if they're playing characters who need to hide in combat a lot.  Outside of combat, and outside those RPGs, make the player back up and then frame the check before they roll.  Stealth failure stakes are some of the most fun situations in any RPG.

Sometimes players make assumptions about how you want to handle something and just throw some dice, thinking they're saving you time.  They'll walk up to a locked door and make a Dexterity (Thieves' Tools) check or leap over a chasm and roll Athletics before you call for the roll.  These players are often over-eager.  Maybe they've got a little bit of the rules lawyer in them.  Ask them "don't you want to know what the DC and stakes for failing that check are before you tell me your roll?"

You see self-assigning all the time with social skills.  it's a special case of the "players make assumptions" situation, above.  The PC will walk up to an NPC, tell a lie, and then the player will announce "22 Deception!" or whatever system equivalent your game uses.  In my experience, this impertinence causes PCs way more trouble than it's worth, because in social scenes, GMs hate being interrupted by system unless they're the one doing the interruption.  And GMs are happy to push the situation and call for yet another check. Once the Rogue with +10 Deception has committed to a bluff, the NPC will turn to the +0 Deception Fighter and say "the guard looks at Ragnar and says, 'are you here to deliver something, too?'  Your reaction might give you away.  Give me Deception, DC 10 or else the guard gets suspicious."  I think GMs generally have good instincts to push back on players who thrust their stats into conversational scenes before they're called on.

Exception: Player Character Special Abilities
There's one situation where the player knows more about the framing of a die roll than the GM does, and that's exceptions to the rules caused by player character special abilities.  PC special abilities often frame the stakes of the die rolls they require very specifically, to limit how broadly they can be used.  Because the die roll is already framed up, the player can usually use the ability and throw the dice without the GM prompting them without causing any trouble.  The GM isn't really free to frame up the die roll in many cases.  It doesn't really matter, then, if the GM called for the roll or not - the system says the roll is required, the system says what to roll, and the system says the stakes are. 

Player Agency

The last thing I want to talk about is the concern some readers might have that denying players the opportunity to self-assign die rolls takes away their player agency.

Player agency is the ability of the players to control the shared imagined space of the game.  When we deny players the ability to have their characters take an action or have that action be meaningful, we deny their agency.  

Putting a stop to self-assigned checks does not deny the characters' actions, and it only makes their actions more meaningful by giving them more opportunities to make meaningful decisions.  

When a player becomes suspicious about a 5' square of dungeon tile and rolls a Perception check, there is no action - just system access.  The action would have been "I lean over and look closely at the tile, prodding and prying at it with the tip of my dagger.  I'm worried that it's a pressure plate."  The GM isn't stopping the player from taking that action.  The GM is simply insisting on making the system decisions related to that action. 

Further, because a lot of self-assigned checks come up around hidden information, a GM who follows my advice and gives a lot of hints is giving the players more agency by pointing out opportunities where their actions can make a big difference in the events of the game world.  Without hints, hidden information is more likely to be like a landmine (whether it's a treasonous NPC or a hidden trap).  It's almost entirely out of the players' control other than choosing to sweep for mines or not with no reason other than an abundance of caution.  That's not a lot of player agency.

September 8, 2017

Fate Magic

Fate is a fantastic game.  I don't want to go into all the things that make it great right now, because if you came here looking for a good, balanced, fair, high quality magic system for Fate, you probably already like the game.  It's biggest flaw is that you have to custom-build a magic system for each campaign you want to run.  Well today, I'm going to solve that for you.

The Two-Type Magic System

This is a simple magic system for Fate that works for both Core and Accelerated games.  It's called Two-Type Magic because there are two types of magic in the system, differentiated by how "unrealistic" they are.  It's inspired by Mage: the Ascension's distinction between Coincidental and Vulgar Magick, which was ideal because when I created it, I did so to replicate an old World of Darkness style game.  But it works for everything from twenty sided fantasy to starfaring psionics.   I've spent most of a year playtesting it, and I think it works real darn well.

The basic nature of the system is that anyone with the appropriate Aspect can use magic that fits with that Aspect.  That is, in an urban horror game, "Vampire with a soft heart" gives you the ability to use the magic powers vampires have (turn into mist, disappear from mortal eyes, turn into a bat, control minds, etc.).  In a twenty sided fantasy game, "Gnomish sorcerer with an incendiary personality" gives you the ability to use D&D-style "arcane magic" (fireball, phantasmal force, fly, dispel magic), and in a space opera game, "Crafty betazoid smuggler" would give your trekking n'er-do-well the ability to use empathic and telepathic powers.

"Churlish dwarven fighters" and "Vengeful vampire hunters" would be much more limited.  They could still do some magic, though.  If the dwarf fighter has a "Sentient magic axe of my ancestors," the dwarf might be able to divine information about drwavish ruins, have the axe fly through the air as if possessed, and summon ghosts of the dwarf's ancestors.  Similarly, the vampire hunter's "True Faith" aspect might be able to repel supernatural creatures by brandishing a cross, ward a room against vampires with garlic, and identify supernatural creatures disguised as regular people.  In short, as long as you can justify it with an aspect, you can do magic.

The system is fair because magic typically doesn't work too differently from regular skills and approaches.  Only rarely can you use magic that truly transcends human capabilities.  So the other PCs who don't have magic powers won't feel like they missed out by not having magic.

Here's how it works.  Whenever you use magic (however your setting defines it), you are either using Type A magic or Type B magic.

Type A Magic

Any time you want to do magic that a character in the setting could achieve with regular skills and tools, the magic uses the exact same skills.  It also uses the same amount of time.  And finally, it uses magical tools of equivalent cost and complexity to the mundane ones.

That is, using a "Knock" spell to quietly pick a lock would call for a Sneaky / Burglary Overcome roll.  It would still take about a minute, and it would require a "material focus" that's as easy to get hold of as lockpicks are, such as a silver key or a live mouse.

If the die roll is the same, the skill/approach is the same, it takes the same amoung of time, and the tools are equivalent, why would you use magic?  Three reasons:

  1. The first is for characterization: Your character is a "Gnomish sorcerer with an incendiary personality" of course.  Sorcerers don't kneel down and pick locks.  They cast spells!  
  2. The second is for the cool factor.  You can use a Forceful threat or an Intimidation check to make some threats and chase off a neonate vampire who's been tailing you half the night.  Or you can raise your crucifix and show your True Faith.  Sure, it's the same mechanic, but it's way cooler!  
  3. Third, if magic is secret or rare in the setting, it can go undetected by the uninformed.  They won't let your character bring a revolver into the courthouse, but a blasting rod like Harry Dresden uses just looks like a carved, ornamental length of wood, not even long enough to be useful as a truncheon.

Type B Magic

Type B magic is any magic not covered by Type A.  That is, if you want to do something that normal skills can do, using equivalent tools, but much faster, it's Type B.  If you want to do something physically impossible in the setting, like teleport from Manhattan to Brooklyn in an instant, it's Type B.

Any time you want to work magic that's not possible to do with mundane skills and tools in the setting, you're doing Type B magic.  Serious stuff.  Every use of Type B magic requires you to spend a Fate point and an action (in an exchange during a Conflict) just to try it.  That Fate point confers no bonuses.  The point is expended whether the magic succeeds or fails, and often (but not always) you still have to attempt a roll.

One Fate point is actually a pretty low cost.  That's because it's the bare minimum.  The GM can also call for a die roll, and set the difficulty of that roll as high as they want.

For instance, if you want to cast a spell that incinerates a vampire, and you don't have a magical molotov cocktail, that's pretty simple.  You'll have to spend a Fate point and make a Flashy / Shoot Attack roll opposed by the vampire's Quick / Agility Defend roll.  If you want to cast a spell that cures a vampire of vampirism, in a setting where that is unheard of, that's more intense.  The GM might make you spend a Fate point and make a Legendary (+8) or harder Overcome roll with Lore.  As with everything in Fate, this is negotiated.  The GM might say "it's impossible to cure a vampire of their curse."  Or they might make it easier, taking the story in a weird direction with the PC as a hated/beloved miracle worker.  Or they might make the spell temporary, or require rare and specific components to keep the person from reverting back to vampirism.  The point is, just because you can spend a Fate point and attempt Type B Magic doesn't mean you can do literally anything - unless that's part of the setting premise (ahem, Mage: the Ascension, ahem).

One action in a Conflict is the minimum time Type B magic takes.  Type B Magic always requires an action in a Conflict unless the character has a stunt for that specific use.  Stunts can allow a specific use of Type B magic without an action in a specific circumstance, and should be used to model supernatural powers, such as werewolf transformation (you may spend a Fate point to turn into a deadly wolf-man hybrid crinos monster and gain huge Weapon 2 claws and fangs before taking your action in any Conflict), or vampires escaping in mist form (you may spend a Fate point to turn into mist and shadows just before you Concede in any conflict, preventing your foes from following you after you escape), or alien weirdness (when you make eye contact with someone, you may use a Fate point to instantly learn one of their Aspects).

Considerations for the Action Economy

Fate's action economy in Conflicts is pretty well balanced.  Type B magic has a subtle implication that you need to consider:  By spending Fate points and using Type B Magic, a player can effectively take two or more actions on their turn in a conflict.  That's because Type B magic allows you to do something better or faster than skills and technology in the setting allow, and might have widespread effects.  As the GM, you should counter this by engaging the Fate point economy to help you or by splitting the spell apart.

For instance, a spell that gives you a glowing shield made of a whirlwind of flames (like the D&D spell Fire Shield) might give you Armor 2 against cold magic and also attack everyone standing close to you when you cast it.  Donning armor attacking all the enemies in a zone is more than one action.  You should lean toward allowing these kinds of actions, but make them expensive.  Make the fire shield divide shifts on its Flashy / Fight attack among the enemies around you, and let them each oppose those shifts individually, forcing the gnomish sorcerer to spend even more Fate points on the spell.  That'll keep the gnome from upending the action economy, and it'll make them desperate to get a compel!  Alternately, the GM might declare that each part of the spell is a separate spell.  Building the anti-cold wall of flames is one Type B spell, then using it to attack people around you is a Type A spell or just a standard Attack action (after all, if you're on fire, you can certainly burn people nearby).

Healing: The Delicate Stress/Consequences System

The Fate stress/consequence system is finely honed to offer tiers of threat to characters.  It's the core of the game in many ways.  Changing it with a magic system would be a bad idea.  While they have clear stress boxes, PCs are mostly safe from consequences unless an opponent gets a really high roll.  While their stress is full, they're at risk for consequences, but not really at much risk of being Taken Out.  As their consequences fill, the chance of taking an Extreme (permanent) consequence grows.  Eventually the risk is that they'll be forever Taken Out.  That system is great for building tension.  Don't mess with it!

Using an action to heal damage in a conflict not only reduces the tension caused by this carefully balanced system, it slows the game down because it doesn't move the scene toward a resolution for the PCs (win or lose).  So we've got to restrict healing magic, even with Type B magic.

As you might have guessed, using Type A magic to heal other characters is no different than using an Overcome roll to rename a consequence to begin the healing process.  That's not problematic at all.  It rarely happens in a conflict, and it's almost perfunctory (though it often highlights how tough it is to make a high difficulty Overcome roll after a major Conflict when everyone's tapped out of Fate points!).

Type B magic is another matter.  Closing wounds is the sort of impossible thing that Type B magic is supposed to allow, but the consequence system in Fate shouldn't be undercut by a single Fate point.

Instead, here's what you can do:  Type B magic can substitute a consequence for another consequence of the same level, even if they're totally unrelated.  For instance, "Moderate: Stabbed in the Leg" can be substituted for "Moderate: Very Hangry" (for instance in the Wheel of Time setting where that's how healing works).  If an opponent has a free invoke on that consequence, the spell would require an Overcome roll against the opponent, and it would take away that free invoke.

In addition, Type B magic can clear a single stress box.  There are already stunts that allow the exchange of a Fate point for clearing a stress box, so this doesn't break the stress/consequence system too much.  I would not recommend players use Type B magic for this, though:  Using an action in a conflict and a Fate point to remedy a single stress box is a waste of your action.  It's one step forward and two steps back.  Still, it fits that D&D style of tactical teamwork where one character "tanks" for the party and gets healing to keep it up, while the rest focus on offense and support.  If you're not trying to run that style of game, though, feel free to take this option off the table.

Unless you want to modify Two Type Magic, a single use of Type B magic cannot outright remove consequences or clear more than one stress box at a time.

Fantasy Option:  Rote or Vance-ish Casting

If you want your magic to model D&D, you're mostly out of luck.  Fate doesn't have character levels or a spell list, so gaining "spell slots" and "spell levels" as you grow in power has to be modeled with another custom system that you and your players will have to develop.  However, we can borrow mechanics from Dungeon World and Mage: the Ascension to create a magic system similar to D&D.

Instead of being able to do literally anything, your magic is limited to spells or rotes.  Choose four spells - magic abilities your character has.  Feel free to choose D&D spells if you want.  Pop over to the D&D SRD and choose a few or make some up, then model them with Fate approaches or skills.  Write down what they do, what roll they require, and whether they require a Fate point.  Type A magic spells are your low level spells or cantrips - ones you probably won't run out of.  Type B spells that require Fate points are your higher level spells.  The Fate points are the "spell slots" for your Type B magic.  As you gain levels, you might gain more spells, and each Major Milestone gives you another Fate point / spell slot.

In addition, if you fail a roll when attempting to cast a spell, the GM can offer you a choice:  The spell fails... or the spell succeeds, but you forget it until you have 8 hours of uninterrupted rest.

Any magic you want to perform outside of the rotes/spells you know is either not allowed, or else requires you to spend at least ten minutes casting a ritual spell, and the GM will tell you what is required to make the magic work.

Playtest Results

Having used this system for about a year, I've found it works smoothly.  Everyone remembers how it works.  There's really just the one line you draw between Type A and Type B magic and a little extra for the GM to be mindful of (i.e. protecting the action economy and the stress/consequences system)  My players got it pretty quickly, and they've been good about sticking to what their characters can actually do.

For instance, we've had a player leave the game, and that player had the ability to do Earth magic.  It was established early that the other characters didn't have that sort of magic, and so whenever the PCs need to tunnel into a basement or search under the earth, they regret that their former ally isn't around instead of trying to be cheesy and use magic they didn't have before.

The occasional powerful Type B spell has turned the tide of a scenario, but occasional high rolls fueled with Fate points on Contacts and Lore and Provoke have done so as well.  And all the characters have some kind of magic, and even though the breadth of their magic varies considerably, they haven't complained of any kind of power disparity because of it.

July 11, 2017

Shopping and Haggling

Buying off the rack goods is an artifact of the industrial and post-industrial era.  In medieval and renaissance society, even when a shop kept a stock of goods, there was rarely a "sticker price."  Haggling was the norm.

Haggling is also an interesting opportunity for roleplay, but it takes a long time, and can be frustrating for GMs -- and players -- who aren't any good at haggling.  On the other hand, using a simple die roll for haggling opens up problems of system mastery and waives the opportunity for roleplay.

Haggling can be used to show a character's reputation in town:  In Casablanca, a lace seller is trying to rip off foreign newcomer Ilsa, who is clearly jaded to this kind of chicanery.  Then Rick arrives, at which point, he drops the price to less than half and keeps dropping it as he discovers that Rick cares for her.  It highlights the relationship between Casablanca and newcomers (profiting at their expense); Casablanca and Rick (Rick's reputation is golden); Rick and Ilsa (fraught, at that moment); and Ilsa and foreign cities (she's no bumpkin).

So we need a system that's quick, not overly-detailed, and has story inputs and outputs.  And because there are several great fantasy RPGs, it should be mostly system neutral.  Finally, it should be something that doesn't require changing any existing rules.  In this sort of situation, I like to very carefully frame a simple skill check, and then use it over and over.

A Shopping Rule

If your system uses modifiers or varying difficulties, set the difficulty based on the character's reputation in town and the experience and exclusivity of the shopkeeper.

  • A reputation of "desperate" or "despised"; or an exclusive, appointments-only shopkeeper should make the negotiation very hard.
  • A reputation of "distrusted" or "newcomer"; or a high-end, veteran, or bespoke shopkeeper should make it hard.  
  • A reputation of "familiar" and "neutral"; or a moderately experienced merchant would be moderate difficulty.  
  • A reputation of "well-liked" or "hero"; or a naive yokel would make it easy.   

What skill do you roll?
  • Old school D&D (2e and before, or most OSR stuff):  Charisma
  • Pathfinder, most d20 spin-offs, or 3e: Diplomacy
  • D&D 4e or 5e:  Persuasion
  • 13th Age:  An appropriate background
  • Dungeon World: +Cha (and there are no difficulty modifiers in Dungeon World)

Note that you can use this haggling rule any time the PCs go shopping, even if they don't intend to haggle, because it generate some good story outcomes.

Shopping Stakes Frame

Name the seller(s) or buyer(s) and make the die roll.  On a success, let the player choose two.  On a failure, let the player choose one.

  • You get an extra 10% discount/profit or they throw in something (of the DM's choice) for free.
  • The interaction doesn't attract attention.
  • The process doesn't take a lot of time.

Guidance for GMs

The options above follow the old corporate axiom: "Good, fast, or cheap:  Pick one.  If you're lucky, pick two."  That also makes it really easy to remember at the table.  Most people can remember the good/fast/cheap thing in a pinch.

The 10% discount is not going to break your game.  You'll notice that no matter how the PC rolls, they can choose to get a 10% discount.  Choosing the 10% discount is guaranteed to lead to some kind of plot outcome.

The PCs might decide it's more fun to get a random item thrown in for free instead of a simple 10% discount.  This gives you an opportunity!  You have three choices:  First, you can just give them something generally useful, to reward them for picking this option.  Second, you can give them something that you know will be very useful to them soon, even though they don't know that ("I got the alchemist to throw in this vial of antitoxin for free when I bought all these healing potions.  I hope we don't wind up needing it...").  Third, you can give them something that advances the story or starts a new story - stolen goods, a mysterious trinket (from the table in the 5e PHB, from a web trinket generator, or of your own invention), or an item that communicates story information ("This other mysterious traveler was in here just two days ago and sold me this silver goblet, but you can have it for being such a good customer."  "Wait, was she an elf, about this tall, with a scar on his cheek?"  "Yeah, stranger, do you know her?").

If the interaction attracts attention, make sure to have this come up later.  This means the interaction is notable, and makes a good story.  It's not every day a mysterious elf with a longbow comes into the village and buys one of the shepherd's mastiffs.  Maybe the PC had to impress the village wise woman to get her to sell them some healing potions.  If the PCs have enemies (and they really should!), their enemies can track their movements by following a trail of stories told by the common folk.  Also, if the PCs are trying to keep a low profile, attracting attention is obviously bad.  The attention attracted could also come from the seller or buyer regretting the deal.  Did the PCs buy the farmer's last sausages, and now they wish they hadn't sold them?  Did the PCs cajole the blacksmith into selling them chain mail too cheaply?  Did the PCs buy a diamond the jeweler had reserved for another client, and now they want it back?  The PCs' reputation might suffer, or their allies could start to get antsy.

If the process takes a lot of time, the PC might miss important details in town that could cause them trouble later.  It could also allow enemies to catch up, or coming dangers to get closer.  The most popular fantasy RPGs -- 13th Age, Pathfinder, and D&D -- rely on time pressure, so wasting a few hours shopping could cost the PCs, if they're up against the clock.

Don't Roll for Every Purchase

Save yourself the aggravation and only call for at most one roll, per PC, per session.  This system generates story outcomes with every roll, so it starts to get overwhelming if you have a lot of story outcomes generated one after the other.  If the players don't split the party, you can take care of it all with one or two shopping rolls.  

That is, if the PCs stop into Neverwinter and the wizard buys rubies, an arcane focus, fine robes, and ten days of rations, don't roll at each of the jeweler, the tailor, and the outfitter's shops - just roll once for the whole trip.  If the wizard gets a discount, apply it to all the items.  If they choose a freebie, you can give them one or more - your choice.  If they attract attention, at least one of their interactions draws attention, or something else they do while shopping is what draws attention.  If they take a long time, it's at least one of the purchases, and probably most of them, that cause the delay.

Don't use the Shopping Roll for Cons and Robbery

Some games (e.g. D&D, Pathfinder) have skills like Bluff, Deception, and Intimidation.  Using these skills is not bargaining.  It's cheating, conning, or robbing.  Using Deception or Intimidation to get a good price is a different system, with different outcomes (such as being wanted for a crime!).

Why should I use this?

The shopping roll achieves a lot of great things for you:
  1. It takes care of the players' desire to haggle to get a discount, for the mechanical or procedural benefit of saving money.
  2. It takes care of the players' desire to haggle for the story benefit of interacting with shopkeepers.  No matter how it goes, it forces the table to add some details to the interaction.
  3. It generates story outcomes that you can turn into story hooks, to drive the plot forward.  It's the PCs' actions that generate the momentum, and players like that sense of agency:  Things happen in the world because of them (for better or worse).
  4. It's great for pacing.  It happens right when the pace tends to slow down (coming back to town, doing some shopping), so you can use the die roll outcome to accelerate out of the usually-slow-paced shopping session.
  5. It does all this quickly so you can get back to the action.

July 7, 2017

Magic Item Shops

Where did the idea of "magic item shops" come from?  That's the question we're going to explore today on Run a Game.  The answer is pretty simple:  Japan.  But it has a convoluted history worth exploring!

Art by Zeke Nelsons, used with permission

In the early editions of D&D, the idea of buying and selling magic items was absurd.  Magic items were wonderful things you discovered in the dungeon that either made your Fighter more powerful or did cool, odd things.

2nd Edition let spellcasters craft magic items, but it didn't let you buy them.  Crafting magic items wasn't a formulaic system like Pathfinder or even the fairly simple "spend some gold and cast a ritual" method of 4e.  You had to go on quests, designed by the DM, to get the required components to make them.

Random magic item tables made their discovery a surprise to everyone at the table, and early edition D&D fighters (original, 1e, BECMI) did not specialize in any particular weapon or weapon type like they came to do in the post-millennial editions.  (With the exception of BECMI weapon mastery, but you didn't choose a weapon to master until after you had found a magic weapon, typically.)

2nd Edition came out in 1989, and it was the last edition before we started seeing magic item shops.  What happened between 1989 and 2000, when 3rd edition came out and put price tags on every magic item?

Magic Items in Shops in JRPGs

To find the answer, we need to look at the history of another, parallel, emergence of magic item shops: JRPGs (Japanese RPG video games).

JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior have shops where you could buy progressively better weapons and armor.  In the mid-80s, the weapons and armor you could buy from the shops in these games were not magical - they would start off shoddy, like "wooden" or "copper" or "iron" and then advance to special materials like "elven" or "silver" or "golden" or "mithral."  The magic weapons and armor like a fire sword were only found in treasure chests in dungeons.

These early JRPGs were inspired by D&D, which was coming over from the US.  Naturally, mundane items could be bought in town, and magic items could be found in dungeons.  It made sense.

But something happened in the "black box" that is Japan.  Since I can't read Japanese, I can't go read old Japanese RPGs from the early 90s, but between Final Fantasy / Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy II (US numbering) / Dragon Warrior IV, the idea of selling magic items in shops became acceptable in Japanese fantasy RPGs.  It's possible the evolution happened within the video games themselves, or perhaps a Japanese tabletop RPG introduced the idea first.  Regardless, after the release of 2nd edition D&D, we experienced a full decade of video games based on D&D that incorporated buying and selling magic items into their idiom.

The 1990s-era JRPGs evolved more and more magic items for sale, starting with a few, and evolving rapidly.  By Final Fantasy IX (2000, same year as D&D 3rd edition's release), you could go to a store in a town and buy swords with ice and fire spirits bound to them, angels inside them, and swords inscribed with magic runes.  Not to mention any number of magic rods, bangles, flutes, etc.

From "golden swords" to "diamond swords," the items for sale got more and more fantastical from the mid-80s through the mid-90s.  Eventually there were magic items in shops, and then there were entire magic item shops.

Ultima Online (1997) and Everquest (1999), released just before and during the development of 3rd edition D&D, also had magic item shops.  (They also had magic item creation, like 2nd edition AD&D, but much simpler.)

Magic Item Shops in Tabletop RPGs

The idea of magic item shops is so unique to video games that it only ever crops up in fantasy fiction as a tropey, lampshaded in-joke.

Magic item shops are not part of most official D&D settings -- even the post-3e settings.  In 2nd edition, in the Forgotten Realms, there was one magic shop -- in Hilsfar (thanks to POCGamer for pointing this out!).  The magic-flush Eberron setting of 3rd edition, for another, doesn't have magic item shops so much as Dragonmarked Houses (essentially dungeonpunk megacorporations) that produce and sell them mostly to high-class clientele (e.g. other Dragonmarked Houses, nobles, etc.).  A growing middle class in cities like Sharn can get hold of minor trinkets - healing potions, feather fall tokens, flying skiffs, and (for the richest) elemental-powered ships.  But these are arranged through appointment with an artificer of the appropriate dragonmarked house.  There aren't flying skiff dealerships you can walk into with a down payment and walk out of with a slick, new model-year air-skiff.  In other words, the idea of a store you can walk into and buy magic items off the rack doesn't even exist in the most magic-rich D&D campaign setting.

Magic item shops are in Pathfinder (mentioned in both the Settlement rules and Magic Item rules), and though they aren't typically found in Pathfinder's Golarion campaign setting, settlements often have magic items for sale, somehow.  It seems that the idea is so odious that it gets hand-waved.

In 4th Edition D&D, where magic item buying and selling peaked, you took a ritual to make magic items, so the party Wizard was typically the party's magic item shop.  You could also take a ritual to break magic items down into residuum, which was just "store credit" for the party wizard's ritual.  In a way, this harks back to 2nd edition, where spellcasters could make magic items, only with gold piece price tags and without the cool quests.


Between the late 90s and the 'teens, D&D and JRPGs diverged considerably.  Final Fantasy now has motorcycles and gun-blades and rock 'n roll music.  JRPGs have largely left D&D behind in the realm of pseudo-European pseudo-medieval fantasy while they've gone off in different creative directions.

5th edition takes us back to the style of 2nd edition.  Gone is the "video gamey" nature of 3rd and 4th edition (and Pathfinder).  Though there are optional rules for magic item price tags, I don't think most DMs use them.

Is D&D its own genre?

It's clear that magic item shops aren't core to D&D's idiom, which is evidence of the idea that D&D is its own fantasy sub-genre.  Briefly, JRPGs tried to emulate D&D's style, but they diverged.  D&D spent two editions and a decade and a half following JRPGs before breaking off and returning to its roots.

Personally, I've always felt D&D carries its own subgenre of fantasy.  Trying to run other kinds of fantasy in D&D can be difficult - the odd monsters, the way magic works, the idea of levels, party dynamics, the commonality of magic items (even in relatively stingy 5e)...

All that goes to support the idea that D&D is not just an RPG to tell sword and sorcery fantasy stories in, but specific kinds of sword and sorcery stories where there are lots of bizarre monsters to fight in remote, isolated dungeon-like locations; where there is treasure in the form of magic weapons, armor, and wondrous items; where there are spell scrolls and potions; where there are Rogues and Paladins and Clerics.  It grew out of tabletop wargames, and the roleplaying part slowly grew on top of the game part, giving us the feel of players moving game pieces, trying to accrue more powerful items and abilities to take on still stronger and more bizarre monsters and get still more powerful and wondrous items and abilities.  Even if you don't play D&D that way, it's baked into D&D's system and idiom.  No matter how you try to play D&D, you can't help fighting bizarre monsters and accruing powers and magic items that allow you to fight tougher and weirder monsters that reward you with more and better powers and more and better magic items.

Personally, I revel in it when I run or play D&D.  To me, Out of the Abyss -- the most "D&D" of the published 5e modules to date -- is the ultimate expression of the subgenre.  It's especially egoistic. The first half of the module is all about gaining power and experience (in order to escape the underdark).  It's full of dungeons and bizarre monsters.  You find odd items.  Magic is everywhere.  It's weird often to the point of being playfully silly.  It's fantastic.

June 5, 2017

Called Shots in D&D

Dungeons and Dragons uses hit points to represent something other than body integrity.

"Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. Creatures with more hit points are more difficult to kill."

Similarly, damage isn't a measure of how much physical trauma a person suffers or how much kinetic force their body experiences.

"Describing the Effects of Damage
"Dungeon Masters describe hit point loss in different ways. When your current hit point total is half or more of your hit point maximum, you typically show no signs of injury. When you drop below half your hit point maximum, you show signs of wear, such as cuts and bruises. An attack that reduces you to 0 hit points strikes you directly, leaving a bleeding injury or other trauma, or it simply knocks you unconscious."
From "D&D Basic Rules for Players," p. 75

In other words, we have good guidance on how to describe damage and health.  Characters with 50% or more of their hit points left "typically show no signs of injury" because their lost hit points represent "durability" and "luck" and other ephemeral, heroic things.  Characters with 49% or fewer hit points show cuts and bruises, but not major traumatic injury.  Their physical durability has been worn down, but not exhausted.  The creature is not struck directly until it is reduced to 0 hit points.

Now, naturally, as a DM, you can play fast and loose with this.  These are just tips - advice you can ignore if it suits you.  Some monsters are more... ablative... than others.  A black pudding can have bits hacked off of it without really lessening its threat.  A zombie can take an arrow through the heart, even if it still has 10hp left.  But for most living creatures, you should follow the guidelines in the rules.

What are the called shot rules in 5th Edition D&D?

Short answer:  There are no official called shot rules in 5e.  There are some class abilities that work like called shots, though.

If the players want game effects from their called shots, they should play a Battle Master Fighter (Trip Attack, Disarming Attack, Pushing Attack, and Distracting Strike make sense as called shots) or a Rogue (Sneak Attack is a called shot to a vital area that deals more damage and often kills enemies).  They can take the Martial Adept feat to gain Disarming Strike and Trip Attack if they want to make called shots to the arms and legs and see game effects of those attacks..

image from

How do you handle called shots in core D&D rules?

Remember, how effective an attack is in D&D is based on both the attack roll and the damage roll.  A natural 20 critical hit that deals 18 damage to a 120hp dragon is still just a close call.  Similarly, if the player declares that they're shooting the orc in the heart, you have to judge what happens based on the attack roll and the damage roll.

Called shots intended to deal more damage do not deal more damage.  The PCs are trying to do the most damage possible with every attack.  "Called shots" in this case are just narrative details.  Here's an example of how you should run it.

An orc has 15 hit points.  

Miss:  The attack is a clear miss.  Tip:  Always describe failures and misses by having the target be super cool, or use them as an opportunity to add visual context to the scene.  Never make a monster or a PC look like a bumbling idiot.
  • The orc swats the arrow from the air with its greataxe.  
  • You have to pull your shot at the last second to avoid hitting your ally.

1-7 damage:  The attack doesn't really harm the orc.  I like to describe incidental damage - scratches and bruises - at this point.  I find it hard to narrate reduced "will to live" or depleted "luck."
  • The arrow doesn't penetrate the the orc's hide armor, but the force of impact left a bruise.  
  • The orc turns unexpectedly in her struggle to hit Ragnar, and the arrow grazes her side.

8-14 damage:  The attack injures, but has no other effect.  Damage that reduces the orc to less than half their health always results in an injury in my games, but it never disables the creature.  Also, if possible, I like to make the creature get panicked, enraged, or concerned at this point, indicating if and how the PCs can end the fight without killing.  An enraged orc isn't going to quit, but a panicky-looking ogre can probably be chased off.
  • The arrow sinks into the orc's chest, mere inches from the aorta.  He staggers, then screams in pain and fury.
  • The arrow passes clean through the orc's body, puncturing his lung.  Pink foamy blood aspirates from the gory hole.

15-29 damage:  The attack takes the creature out.  I usually just let my monsters die when their hit points reach 0, but some DMs let them make Death Saves and all that.  Unless a blow deals enough damage to outright kill the monster, it's got a few seconds to bleed out.
  • The arrow strikes the orc's chest and she falls down senseless.  
  • The shot knocks him flat.  He ain't movin'.

30+ damage:  The attack is a one-shot kill.  If the damage is so severe that there is no way the monster can survive without breaking the rules, I like to narrate a grisly, certain death:
  • The arrow blows through the orc's chest, straight through the heart.  A gush of blood like a burst water baloon erupts from the orc's back, and she drops to her knees, then falls face first to the ground, dead. 
  • The arrow hits him in the heart, and the orc's eyes glaze over as he topples backward, dead before he hits the ground.  

What if you like what the PC wants to try?

I love RPGs because you can do all kinds of crazy stuff.  And there's this thing called the Rule of Cool.  I'm a big proponent of the Rule of Cool in my games.  So I let my players try all kinds of crazy stuff.  This means twisting spells, crazy athletic moves, and... the occasional called shot!

Here's what you do:  Check for official rules first and use them or modify them to suit; otherwise use optional rules or invent an ad hoc system; then remind the players this is a spot ruling that only applies here and now, and you plan to revisit it later.

First, check to see if there are already official rules for this action, or rules that can be used for this action, with a little modification.  If so, use those rules or modify them slightly as needed.

Example:  The rogue wants to wait in hiding, readying an action for when the ogre charges toward the fighter.  When the ogre runs by, the rogue will stick out her leg and trip the ogre.  The DM sees there's a Shove action that knocks enemies prone, but it uses an opposed Athletics test.  This seems more like a surprise trip, so the DM rules that the Rogue will roll Athletics (because tripping the massive ogre is still a matter of force and leverage) opposed by the ogre's Perception instead (because the ogre's ability to resist has more to do with not being taken by surprise).

Second, consider if the player is trying to do something another character in the party can do (or will be able to do at a later level) with a special ability.  If that's the case, either don't allow it, or make sure you make it harder or less effective than the special ability in question.  You don't want to cheapen the other PC's special ability.  To make an ad hoc system for an action, either use an optional rule or use an attack roll, ability check, saving throw, skill check, or an opposed skill check - whatever makes the most sense.

Example:  The Sorcerer wants to use Ray of Frost to freeze a puddle of water to make a section of ground difficult terrain to slow the enemy.  The DM likes this, but requires the Sorcerer to make an Arcana check, DC 15, to hit the puddle without making the ice crack and shatter, or cause other problems that could undermine his attempt.  Failing the check wastes the Sorcerer's action.

Third, remind the players that any spot ruling applies only to this specific action, not to future actions.  Always reflect on your rulings after the session - sometimes you allow players to do things once that would unbalance the game if you let them do them all the time.

Example:  The prince becomes furious when he catches the Rogue lying to him, and he attempts to beat the Rogue senseless with his scepter.  The Rogue wants to disarm the angry prince.  The DM decides on the spot to use the optional Disarming rule from the DMG (page 271).  The DM says, "That's an optional rule.  I'm not sure I want to use it every time, but it makes sense to use it right now.  We'll discuss it over email after game."

Why doesn't D&D have called shots in the core rules?

D&D cannot work that way.  Unlike RPGs like Night's Black Agents, where combat can be resolved in one or two attacks (with a few notable exceptions) and called shots can be very interesting (read: stake to the heart), D&D PCs will make 15 attacks before a fight is over.  If every attack has the option to be a called shot, the game will slow to a crawl.  What adds five minutes to a Night's Black Agents fight would add half an hour to a D&D combat.  That would suck.  As it's designed, even D&D classes that have the ability to make something like called shots have systems that either limit how often they can do it (Battle Master Fighter / Martial Adept feat) or streamline it into a regular attack (Rogue sneak attack).

Where is this desire for called shots coming from?

Players are always looking for a gamble.  Some RPGs allow players to make a called shot by reducing their chances to hit to increase the effect of the attack.

The problem is, when RPGs allow this kind of decision, it's always the best choice:  It increases your odds of winning glory if you hit by causing some impressive special effect.  It's rare that the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.  And that's OK!  Because in these games, the called shot adds detail to the world or is a necessary part of the genre the game is emulating.  

Besides, some classes don't have a lot of good options.  Champion fighters, Barbarians, and even some Rogues have pretty repetitive turns.  Turn starts, make sure you can hit the monster from where you are, roll to attack, roll damage, repeat.  In some battles, especially against monsters with a lot of HP, it can get dull.  So they want to try exciting things.  I can't blame them.

March 30, 2017

D&D Moves

DM:  “The mine ends in a room constructed of chiseled stone blocks, thirty feet square, with a floor of stone slabs.  There’s a 25 foot wall around the chamber, but it doesn’t go all the way to the ceiling of the cavern.  What do you do?”PC:  “Can I climb over the wall?”DM:  “Sure, make a DC 15 Athletics check.”PC:  “Oops.  I got a 12.”
This is the worst part of D&D.  If all you’ve ever played was D&D, you might not even realize it.  Here’s the relevant section from the official rules:  “...[a failure] means the character or monster makes no progress toward the objective or makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.”  

That’s not very good guidance for DMs.  There are just two options given to DMs.  One of them is good (progress combined with a setback), and the other is terrible (makes no progress).  Not progressing is boring.  The player will just try again, effectively wasting table time.  There needs to be more meat to the failure guidelines.  That’s what this article gives you.

Inspiration from Other Games

Apocalypse World and the other Powered By the Apocalypse games (such as Dungeon World) have a unique mechanic that really should not be unique.  They force the GM to apply stakes to every outcome of every single die roll.  Once I tried Dungeon World, I never went back.  I apply stakes to every outcome of every single die roll now, and it's improved my GM game considerably.

(If you use the link below to get a copy of Dungeon World, you'll give me like twenty cents, so that's neat, I guess?)

The way the Powered By the Apocalypse games do it is simple:  The GM has a list of Moves.  When the players look to the GM to see what happens or when they're sitting around doing nothing exciting, or when they fail a roll, the GM uses a Move.  The moves are the "failure" stakes for their rolls.  Every player move has success stakes, and the failure stakes are just that the GM will make a move, though sometimes they describe a bad outcome and also note that the GM will make a move.  

It's simple in concept, but taxing on your creativity to frame every roll so that there are stakes for every outcome. It requires frequent improvisation, even within published modules.  The Powered by the Apocalypse games help GMs out with that by giving them a list of moves; so every time the GM has to improvise, they can just scan the list and choose the one that seems most interesting at the time.  The list of moves helps you stay creative, even when you don't know what you should do. It's not limiting -- just about everything a GM would want to insert into play is covered by a Move. It just provides inspiration and advice.

The list of moves is a list of things that make the situation the characters are in more exciting.  Even when a move is subtle or off-screen, it should raise the tension.  Most of the moves add complications, conflicts, or cause problems.

So I said to myself, why not do that for D&D?

Below is a Moves "system" for Dungeons & Dragons DMs called DM Moves.  You make a DM move when a player character fails a roll or looks to you to see what happens.  The move should always follow a PC's actions, but it doesn't have to be something that happens to the PC directly.  There are examples under all the DM Moves, below, that show how the DM Moves work.

Like most of my writing about how to improve your D&D game, these DM Moves don’t modify any existing rules.  They just guide DMs toward what works best to engage players and generate fun.

When to Make a DM Move

When a character fails a check
PC: "I want to climb over this wall to see what's on the other side."  DM: "OK, make an Athletics check, DC 15."  PC: "I got a 7."  Make a DM Move.

When a the characters get new information
PC: "I want to look for information about the Red Wizards of Thay in the library."  DM: "Make a History check, DC 15." PC: "I got a 19."  Give the player the information they earned and make a DM Move.

When the players look to the DM to see what happens
PC: "I want to shoot my Fire Bolt cantrip at the cask of oil, hoping to cause an explosion."  Make a DM Move.

Unlike a Powered by the Apocalypse game such as Dungeon World, you won't need to use DM Moves in combat very often.  D&D Combat is a tactical game in and of itself.  It uses its own, separate, system.  Attack rolls, spells, class abilities, and saving throws have their own “within the combat system” stakes built in for failed rolls.  However, sometimes in combat, the players get new information or do something creative and look to the DM to see what happens.  Make a DM move then.

Failed Checks aren't Failed Actions

In the Powered by the Apocalypse games, failing a roll doesn't necessarily mean the player fails to do their intended action.  Remember, even the D&D rules allow two different possibilities:  The character “makes no progress toward the objective” or the character “makes progress combined with a setback determined by the GM.”  That can mean...

There's a Problem
The character fails to do their intended action because of the problem described by the DM Move you made.  A character doesn’t just fail to progress because of the tumbling of a mystic icosahedron in alternate dimension.  They fail because of a problem in the shared imagined space of the game world.   Because of the DM Move, the character has to try some other approach; or they have to deal with the complication the DM Move introduced before they can try again.  

Important note:  If you’re using an ability check to get past an obstacle preventing the PCs from getting to more interesting parts of the adventure, use “Another Door Opens” or “Success with Consequences” instead.

Another Door Opens
The character fails to do their intended action, but your DM Move gives them an opportunity to achieve their goal another way.  Sometimes it's an opportunity that draws them into doing something more exciting, dangerous, interesting, or dramatic.  Sometimes the opportunity has a cost.  Sometimes it just helps develop the fiction, explore more of the setting, or draw the characters deeper into the adventure.  

You might wonder why giving a PC a new opportunity is a good sanction for a failed check, rather than the reward for a successful one.  Consider it from the player’s perspective:  They wanted their character to do something, but the dice say they can’t.  Instead, if they want to achieve their goal, they have no choice but to do it a different way - a way they wouldn’t have chosen.  To the player, offering them an opportunity will feel like a sanction.

Success with Consequences
In the rules, this is called “progress combined with a setback.”  In RPG theory circles, it is called “fail forward.”  On Run a Game (and in the Fate RPG), it is called “success with consequences.”  The character succeeds at their intended action, but triggers the problem caused by the DM Move you chose.  If you used a "hard" move (something immediate and irrevocable), the consequence happens right now, and the players have to deal with it.  If you used a "soft" move (something distant, off-screen, or vague), it sets up more danger down the road and raises the tension level, but doesn't make an immediate demand on the characters.

Never Use “No Progress”
When there’s no reason not to repeat the attempt, and the attempt doesn’t cost anything,, don’t use a “makes no progress toward the objective” outcome.  That’s boring.  The player will just keep rolling until they succeed.  The only time a PC should be allowed to try again on a failed check is if every failed check comes with a cost or consequence.  Even that can turn an exciting scene into a frustrating one, so use it sparingly.

The DM Moves

Here are the D&D DM Moves.  Remember, when a player fails an ability check, gets information, or looks to the DM for the results, you should make a DM Move.  Moves that do not directly harm the characters or change the conflict are called "soft moves."  Moves that harm the characters or change the conflict are "hard moves."  (Click the list to download a printable PDF page of the moves to bring to the table.)

  1. Have the dungeon interfere
  2. Leverage an opportunity or drawback of someone's class, race, or equipment
  3. Highlight a conflict using their Alignment, Trait, Ideal, Bond, or Flaw
  4. Take away their stuff
  5. Make something deal damage 
  6. Name the price, and ask
  7. Put someone in a spot
  8. Split the party
  9. Reveal an unwelcome truth or signal an approaching threat
  10. Increase the time pressure

How to Use the Moves

1. Have the dungeon interfere
This is an "A Problem Arose" move, but it can also be a "Success with Consequences" move.  The dungeon is full of dangers including monsters, traps, curses, shifting walls, spells, crumbling architecture, water, gas, fire, and so much more.  Failing to do something is not just "no progress" -- something has to stop the adventurer from trying again.  And in this case, what stops them is one of the dungeon's many hazards.  Even outside a dungeon, you can think of a cool “fantasy hazard” to interfere.  This is the best move for pushing the fantasy exploration elements of D&D.
Example:  With difficulty, you climb over the wall... and hear the sound of crossbows firing rapidly!  Arrows are flying toward you.  What do you do?

2. Leverage an opportunity or drawback of someone's class, race, or equipment
Failing to do something can come along with an opportunity.  In this case, use an opportunity that fits the class' abilities.  The idea is to show off a character's class.  It doesn't have to be the character who failed the roll.  You can also have a problem arise that fits a class, race, or equipment in the party.  The Baron can’t be persuaded because you brought a stinking dwarf.  This is the best move for shifting the spotlight and showing off a character’s outward traits.
Example:  There are no handholds where you can reach, but if you could stand on a magical Floating Disc, you could reach the handholds higher up the wall..
Example:  You can't get over the wall because your armor is too heavy.  If you take it off, you can heave it over, then climb over yourself, unarmored.  What do you do?

3. Highlight a conflict using their Alignment, Trait, Ideal, Bond, or Flaw
The move represents an opportunity that opens up, but it creates a conflict with one or more characters' alignments, personality traits, ideals, bonds, or flaws.  The conflict can be an opportunity or a setback.  An opportunity can start a discussion between characters who have different perspectives.  For instance, the opportunity to kill a slumbering orc is expedient for a Chaotic character and dishonorable for a Lawful one.  The trait you're highlighting doesn't have to reside in the character who failed the check.  This is the best move for shifting the spotlight and showing off a character’s internal motives and drives.
Example:  You just can't get up the wall.  Only Sir Marley is strong enough to get over the wall.  Remember Marley, your Flaw is "I secretly believe that everyone is beneath me."  What do you do?

4. Take away their stuff
“...the Lord will come like a thief...” (2 Peter 3:10).  This move is different from "name a price and ask" (below), because in this case, you don’t ask.  The player doesn't have a choice.  Make sure the loss of the item is more than a minor inconvenience.  The character should be worried about the loss.  However, the loss doesn’t have to be permanent - it just has to be interesting, exciting, or push the PCs toward some danger.  Because magic items are very rare treasures in 5th edition D&D, don't just destroy them.  You can take them away without taking them away forever.  This is the best move for highlighting the value of equipment and emphasizing the resource management aspects of D&D.  It can also draw the PCs into greater danger, chasing after or replacing lost or stolen gear.
Example:  You get over the wall, but you lost your balance and almost fell at the top, and your bow slipped off your back, clattering down the other side.  What do you do?

5. Make something deal damage
Things in D&D deal damage all the time, and failed checks are an ideal time to do it.  Damage is part of the combat system stakes, but you can deal damage outside of combat, too.  This makes the PCs more vulnerable if a combat starts.  They might take the time to heal the damage you dealt, so don't bother dealing damage unless you're dealing at least twice the party's level in total damage to a single character, or an amount equal to the party level to every character.  You can deal more damage than that, if you want.  Five times the party's level is a heck of a lot of damage.  Ten times the party's level is likely to drop or kill someone.  This is the best hard move when the PCs know there’s a battle looming, enemies chasing them, or they’re on a short timer and have to hurry.  It combines well with “Have the dungeon interfere” because dungeon hazards from Kobold archers to pits of fire often deal damage.
Example:  You get over the wall, exhausted and scraped up.  Take 1d6 damage.  What do you do?  (The example character could be Level 2, so 1d6 damage hurts enough to be worth it).

6. Name the price, and ask
Describe how the character will fail unless they pay a price.  The price has to be a resource that the characters care about.  If the party is not racing against the clock, wasting an hour of time isn't a big deal.  If the party has ten thousand gold pieces, twenty silver pieces isn't a big deal.  You can also name the price in terms of story - “give us the child and you can walk away” or “I’ll tell you, but you’ll owe me.”  Like “Take away their stuff,” this move can highlight the resource management aspect of D&D pretty well, but it introduces a hard bargain, so it’s even better for highlighting strategic decision making or adding complications to their well laid plans.  It’s also a natural hard move in social conflicts, to make NPCs demand proof, bribes, compromises, or concessions.
Example:  You'll need to use all your pitons if you want to climb over this wall.  You won't be able to get them back from the other side, so you’ll have to mark them off your sheet.  What do you do?

7. Put someone in a spot
The character's failure puts them in a sudden, unexpected, dangerous situation.  They need to take immediate and decisive action or get help from their allies to get out of it.  You can also put a character in a vulnerable position.  This is a hard move that changes the situation dramatically, but still gives the character a chance to get away.  Unlike “Make something deal damage,” you’re giving the PCs a chance to avoid the danger.  The character in the tight spot can be the one who failed the roll, or the failure can put someone else in a spot. This is the best move for raising the stakes fast.
Example:  You get to the top of the wall, using the vines as handholds.  Just as you're about to grab the top edge, the vines start to tear away.  You fall five feet immediately before the vines catch.  You're dangling twenty feet off the ground, and the vines are about to tear the rest of the way free.  What do you do?

8. Split the party
The old advice "don't split the party" is there for a reason.  Players want to avoid splitting the party because it really puts the characters in a tight spot.  So if you want to raise the stakes quickly, split the party.  This move is dramatic in a dungeon or wilderness, where the characters can’t get back together before they have to face another monster, hazard, or obstacle before they can reconnect.  You can split the party on the small scale, too.  Open a simple ten foot wide chasm between them as they march single-file down a five foot wide hallway, or have the monsters attack right in the middle of the group.  It’s also interesting to split the characters up across a larger scale like a city or even continent.  There are drawbacks to the GM for running a split party for a long time, so most of the time, you should create a split that the players can resolve within a few hours of play at most.  This is the best move to make when the characters are in dangerous, unfamiliar territory and already feel a little lost.
Example:  Near the top of the wall, there's only one handhold.  You have to perch on this one tiny ledge and lunge for the top.  It's a heck of a reach, but you make it -- barely.  Unfortunately, as you lunge, the ledge cracks and falls free.  There's no way for anyone else to get up here.  What do you do?

9. Reveal an unwelcome truth or signal an approaching threat
This is a great "soft move" that moves the story along and raises the tension without making the players deal with a new complication.  Unwelcome truths are facts that are true in the game world, that the player characters will not like.  "...[S]ignal an approaching threat" means give the players a hint that things are about to get worse.  You can signal an approaching threat by hinting that some distant creature has become aware of the characters, even vaguely.  It’s the best move to make when the PCs are feeling safe or when they don’t know what’s going on or what kinds of dangers await them. It's the best move to make to introduce the stakes of the situation the PCs are in.  It can also hint at distant happenings in the larger story or reveal dark truths about the campaign setting.  Magic is dying.  The plague has come to Neverwinter.  The cult is close to freeing the Bound God.  It’s fun on the small scale, too.  See the example.
Example:  You get to the top of the wall with a lot of effort.  When you pull yourself over, your armor makes a loud CLANG! that reverberates down the dark hallway ahead of you.  If there's anything down there, it knows you're here now.  What do you do?

10. Increase the time pressure
D&D works best as a race against the clock, because it has a tight resource management system where every PC resource refreshes after a certain amount of time.  If there’s no hurry, the PCs are much, much stronger.  Consequently, DMs almost always create some reason to hurry.  When you make this move, you introduce a new timer, use up valuable time, or shorten the fuse.  Introduce a new timer by describing a new race against the clock.  For instance, a sentry runs off to warn their boss, or the characters learn that something bad happens in this dungeon when night falls.  Run down the clock by making actions take a lot longer than planned.  Shorten the fuse by revealing an unwelcome truth:  That the characters have a lot less time than they thought.  Be aware of the rest mechanics in 5e and how they create time pressure.  Here are some ways to increase the time pressure:
  • Create new time pressure where there was none
  • Put some new event on the clock (e.g. rival adventurers arriving in an hour)
  • Deny them the chance to take a rest before the next battle
  • Remind them how many hours are left on the clock (if they’re nearly out of time)
  • Take a day off the clock (where there are fewer than ten days left)
  • Take an hour off the clock (where there are fewer than ten hours left)
  • Take fifteen minutes off the clock (where there are fewer than 3 hours left)
  • Take a round off the clock (where there are fewer than 20 rounds or 2 minutes left)
This is the best move to make when you want to push the PCs to take hasty, exciting, risky, bold, heroic action. It's the best move to stop them from being too cautious.
Example:  You approach the wall, but quickly realize there are no handholds.  It's flat brick.  But there is some scrap wood here, and you could build a sturdy ladder long enough to get to the top.  It will take about an hour.  What do you do? (In the example situation, using up an hour is only interesting if there are fewer than ten hours on the clock.)

Ask, "What do you do?"

Traditionally, according to Vincent Baker, when the GM makes a Move, they should follow it by asking a player or all the players, “What do you do?’  This passes the "talking stick" back to them and makes everything you say into a prompt for them -- requiring their input. You can use this question to focus closer on the acting character, broaden the focus to let anyone else jump in, or refocus the spotlight on a different character.  Use body language and character names to shift the focus of the action around.  Here’s an example where the DM makes a move that leverages an opportunity for someone's class and then uses "What do you do?" to shift the spotlight.

Example:  OK, Barbarian, near the top of the wall, there's only one handhold.  You have to perch your toes on this one tiny ledge and lunge for the top.  It's a heck of a reach, but you get to the top -- barely.  Unfortunately, as you lunged, the ledge cracked and fell free.  There's no way for anyone else to get up here without magic.  Wizard, Cleric:  What do you do?