Is D&D Too Focused on Combat?
  • Is D&D Too Focused on Combat?


    Dungeons & Dragons' wargame roots are well-known, but what is sometimes forgotten is how much its origins influenced role-playing games. Although D&D has been a platform to tell many different kinds of stories, its mechanics focus on a few core themes and one of them is combat -- but it's not the only one.

    The Three Modes

    Jon Peterson in Playing at the World explained that there are three modes of D&D play, in which dramatic pacing is achieved by transitioning between the three:

    ...a mode of exploration, a mode of combat and a mode of logistics. Time flows differently in each of these modes, and by rationing the modes carefully a referee guides the players through satisfying cycles of tension, catharsis and banality that mimic the ebb and flow of powerful events.

    These modes are interrelated in important ways, and modern role-players tolerance for all three has changed over time. Exploration has experienced a resurgence with sandbox-style play. Combat has been de-emphasized, particularly in story-telling games. And logistics are back in vogue thanks to the Old School Renaissance. Let's take a look at each in turn.

    The First Mode: Exploration

    In the original boxed set of D&D, exploration was important, but beyond the scope of the rules. It was a key part of emergent play -- using basic guidelines to encourage creative strategies -- but it wasn't actually part of D&D itself. Instead, D&D encouraged players to buy Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival board game, as Peterson explains:

    The object of Outdoor Survival is to navigate a wilderness, though there are five scenarios providing distinct justifications for doing so: for example, lost players returning to civilization at the edges of the map or racing to find the object of a search party. Given that the board itself is not a secret from the players (Outdoor Survival has no referee), some other means is required to simulate being lost in the woods, since the players necessarily command a birdís-eye view of the environment. Dice therefore determine whether or not players are lost, and if so, in which direction they will wander. The board is overlain with a hexagonal grid, segmenting the board into hexagons about 1.5 centimeters across; as there are six possible directions on a hexagonal board to move, a six-sided die can easily dictate the orientation of lost players. Each hex contains a particular terrain type, in much the manner of Hellwig: there are mountains, swamps, rivers, deserts, plains and even roads (well, trails).

    Evidence of D&D's interest in hexcrawling is strongly represented in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, which was published after the original set but before the rest of the AD&D line. Each monster has a few noteworthy statistics, particularly: frequency, number appearing, and % in lair. Much of these stats do not make sense in a typical dungeon context, where the rooms are planned out; DMs would likely know the monsters that were to appear in their dungeons, and in fact author Gary Gygax states, "...It is not generally recommended for use in establishing the population of Dungeon Levels." But when used in hexcrawling they're useful in describing the encounters there, beginning with frequency, then determining if the monster encountered is in its lair, and then concluding with number of appearing (which could sometimes be in the hundreds, befitting a camp but not a dungeon room).

    For a time, hexcrawling and emergent play were out of favor as more scripted adventures came into vogue. The OSR has reinvigorated sandbox-style play, in which the players generate the world as they adventure, one roll at a time.

    The Second Mode: Combat

    D&D's second mode is the one most gamers are familiar with: killing things. D&D grew out of Chainmail, itself a product of wargaming, so combat's relevance to D&D goes all the way back to its first iteration. Additionally, it mimics the style of the fiction that influenced it, including the violent Conan among other swords and sorcery novels. What's changed is how D&D scales combats. The emphasis on leveling up was treasure, as explained in a previous article, "The Original End Goal of Dungeons & Dragons." Kiva Maginn (Battletech design lead) on Twitter explains how this changes the style of play:

    As a player, you could gain experience by fighting monsters or claiming treasure. You could lose it by dying in battle with monsters. You could encounter monsters without treasure, and you could encounter treasure without monsters. So there was an obvious 'best' path. Get in, get the treasure, get out. Do as little fighting as possible, because fighting risks XP loss. Avoid encounters when you can, and subvert them with clever tricks if possible. Money you find without a fight is free XP.

    This changed with Third Edition, in which experience points were rewarded for defeating a monster:

    Consider 3rd Edition D&D, by contrast. Gold provides no inherent advancement. At a certain point, you simply don't need it anymore. You have so much of it that it's absurd to bother picking up any more. So there's a new obvious 'best' path. Ignore tricks and clever solutions. Never avoid fights. Kill every single monster in the dungeon, with 'it's in the dungeon!' as your justification for doing so. Seek out harder fights with bigger monsters. Don't stop killing.

    Ironically, D&D became MORE about killing than less, as PCs were no longer incentivized to just accumulate gold to advance. Third Edition also did away with name levels and retainers as being an end gold, so the purpose of spending gold had shifted from building strongholds and hiring mercenaries to personally enriching the character through acquisition of magic items. This change was a recognition that players were less interested in leading armies and transitioning back to a life of perpetual adventuring, and the game shifted gears to reflect that.

    Of course, role-playing has since moved beyond combat -- relying more heavily on the narrativist style of play -- even if it started with the primarily tactical dungeon and overland exploration of D&D.

    The Third Mode: Logistics

    Logistics have largely fallen out of favor today due to onerous nature of keeping track of encumberance, equipment, and gold. These factors were all intentional controls on player greed, ensuring that PCs couldn't just cart out mountains of gold (and thus experience points) without some challenges. You can read a more detailed discussion of inventory management and encumbrance in a previous article, "The Lost Art of Packing it All In."

    Third Edition's shift towards combat meant that the nature of logistics changed to be less about accumulating gold and more about personal advancement, exemplified by Pathfinder which spins out even more options than Third Edition for character development.

    D&D Today

    So where does that leave us with D&D today? Kiva points out that the combat biases are still there, but now D&D has expanded to encompass other styles of play -- it just doesn't emphasize it equally:

    The flaw in later D&D was that it was a game that was good at modeling killing, and spent a decade trying to be anything *other* than a game about killing.

    Inspiration, Personal Characteristics, and Background were added to incentivize players to role-play but as the AngryDM points out, many players forget all about it because of the way it's implemented:

    Itís just this thing thatís easy to forget and sits in the game not really doing anything. It feels tacked on. Vestigial. An afterthought. It certainly doesnít seem to have a clear purpose, as evidenced by the fact that the DM and the players get different advice about it and how it is weirdly disconnected from the mechanics that it seems to be connected to. It seems thrown in. ďPeople like Bonds in Dungeon World and Aspects in Fate, we should probably slap something like that in there.Ē

    Fifth Edition D&D has also changed how experience points are gained, providing an option to level up through milestones instead. This shifts the incentives yet again away from combat.

    Is combat overemphasized in D&D? Maybe, but that's at least partially due to the other two modes of exploration and logistics falling out of favor. If the eight pages detailing combat are any indication in the Basic D&D Rules, combat is still an integral part of the game, and many players are just fine with that.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 228 Comments
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      if the system allows players to cop out of the roleplaying, or just skip over it, and simply say "I roll a [diplomacy/persuasion/whatever] check" then sure as shootin' some of them are going to do so.
      None of the systems that are being promoted in this thread permits this, except perhaps DUel of Wits from BW (and even that is much more complex than what you are descriibing here).

      No one in this thread has promoted 3E's Diplomacy mechanic.

      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      DM: [has just narrated that the PCs have been allowed an audience with the town official]
      Player: "I use my Diplomacy skill* to convince the town official to give us access to the records we need."
      DM: "What are you saying to her?"
      Player: "Whatever seems best. Can I roll now?"

      * - or replace with the system-appropriate mechanic for the game/edition being played

      Without social mechanics the above player-DM interaction simply can't occur. With them, it's a common thing.
      Only if they're bad. What you describe can't happen in any of the systems that I GM.

      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      As for your examples, while there's some fine role-play in there there's also a fair amount of "here's what I want to do, let's see if the dice let it happen".

      And in this one the game system itself allows for so many mechanics to interfere (a He's-Not-Too-Bad-After-All complication? A d8 Drunk complication? Never mind the insertion of Plot Points to shift the goalposts within the RP) that it becomes impossible to ignore them...which doesn't suit free-form roleplaying at all as in these instances one ideally wants the mechanics to completely get out of the way and stay there.

      They do, though in the Marvel example most of those unexpected twists and turns seem forced by mechanics rather than arising out of the actual roleplay.

      That sais, you also seem to have players who are willing to let the mechanics drive the direction of what they roleplay as their characters and roll with it. We don't all have this.
      Mechanics are how we represent the state of the fiction.

      D&D combat produces outcomes like the orc has lost 3 of its 5 hit points. Marvel Herioc RP produces outcomes like Diamondback is subject to a d8 He's Not To Bad After All complication. In D&D, if a NPC is plying a PC with drink, how do we determine if the PC gets drunk? Presumably by way of a Poison saving throw or similar. In MHRP we do it via the mechanics for inflicting complications.

      The rating of the complication is a mechanical state of affairs (analogous to a damage roll in D&D). The descriptor of the complication is determined by the player (if it is a PC inflicting the complication) or the GM (if it is a NPC) - of course the fictional positioning must support the description (James Rhodes can become subject to a Drunk complication becuse he's drinking in a bar), and the complication affects the suffering character's resolution when the fictional positioning makes it relevant (so James Rhodes's Drunk complication will affect his attempts to pull of tight aerial manoeuvres, but not his attempts to avoid being enraged or scared).

      And yes, we roll the dice to see what happens (does James Rhodes get drunk? does Bobby successfully woo any of the women? etc). That's generally how a roleplaying game works. The alternative is for the GM to just let the player get what s/he wants - that's find for peripheral things but boring for the main action; or for the GM to just block what the player wants - but that sounds a bit railroad-y to me.

      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      There's a third option that falls between these two: that the DM gets in character as the town official - gives it a personality, etc. - and responds naturally as the town official would to what's being said by the PC(s). If needed, the DM can bang off a few quick rolls to give herself an idea of what makes this person tick (ethics? level of adherence to law or policy? right-now mood? overall mood? etc.) and then just play the character.
      Suppose the GM decides that the official is Greedy. How much bribe money do the PCs have to offer?

      Suppose the GM decides that the official is scrupulous? How extremely do the PCs have to threaten his/her loved ones before s/he gives in?

      Etc. This is one purpose of dice rolls in a social resolution system.

      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      in the end it comes down to if PCs want to be persuasive in character it requires the players to be persuasive at the table - this is kind of the point.
      What is persuasive to one person is probably not persuasive to another. To go back to the bar scene - a person at a bar might try to befriend, or to pick, up another patron and 9 times in 10 be rebuffed - but that tenth patron enjoys the joke, or likes the twinkle in the person's eye, or whatever.

      The same is true for reaching consensus on a committee - the compromises and approaches required, and what counts as persuasive, differ from person to person and context to context.

      The idea that there is such a thing as being persuasive, which the referee will know when s/he sees it, strikes me as leading to unverisimilitudinous outcomes.

      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      from what I've seen - with a few exceptions - the years between about 1996 (nadir of TSR) and 2016 (5e) didn't provide much of any worth at all; with the exception of 3e/PF which at least gave us a few good things and ideas to chew on if we were patient enough to dig 'em out.

      Sure lots of experimental games came out in that time, and lots of little niches were created and-or filled...but that's all.
      That pretty much says it all, I guess.
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      To the wargamers, the extreme story-telling games arenít even games, let alone D&D.
      Okay, wargamers are close-minded, narrow thinkers...got it.

      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      And most wargamers want to feel in control of what happens to their characters, as much as possible,
      Okay, so...um...seems not too objectionable.

      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      so they donít want to be told a story, they want to write their own story.
      ...and now we're off the rails.

      There is very little in (especially Old-school) traditional RPG-structure that allows a player to ensure he can "write his own story" outside the narrow confines of the combat mechanics, and a few tables here and there (many of which are routinely ignored by lots of DMs). Without social skills, interaction rules, or non-combat conflict resolution...its all just literally playing "let's pretend" with the GM, except that the GM has the trump-card at every single turn via Rule 0. Yup, you may want to Capt. Picard-level diplomat or Capt. Kirk-level womanizer, but nope, if the DM ain't havin' it, it doesn't happen... even if you have that kind of talent, IRL.

      The failure of old-school games to consistently enable players to meaningfully participate in the creation of the story at table (i.e. the big lie in all those "What is a Role Playing Game?" introductory pages) was the very motivation for the creation and exploration of all the Forge discussion and story games that the OSR seems to despise so much. To pretend otherwise beggars belief and denies a forest of dead-trees and oceans of electrons devoted to the problems of a "Bad DM" and/or "railroading".
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      And in this one the game system itself allows for so many mechanics to interfere (a He's-Not-Too-Bad-After-All complication? A d8 Drunk complication? Never mind the insertion of Plot Points to shift the goalposts within the RP) that it becomes impossible to ignore them...which doesn't suit free-form roleplaying at all as in these instances one ideally wants the mechanics to completely get out of the way and stay there.
      I'm not sure that "free-form roleplaying" is the actual goal of those interested in a story game (or the storytelling aspects of an rpg.) I doubt that those who seek engaging combat/tactical rules would feel satisfied with a "free-form combat" game.

      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      They do, though in the Marvel example most of those unexpected twists and turns seem forced by mechanics rather than arising out of the actual roleplay.
      Could you please expand upon the difference between "arising out of the actual roleplay" and "declared at the arbitrary whimsy of the DM"? The rest of your post seemed to me to be just really fluffing up the latter. It's not that I haven't experienced what you've described, but whether it even occurs or not is ...well, up to the arbitrary whimsy of the DM. I've bumped into far too many adversarial DMs back in the day to accept that this was the universal norm for social interaction in old-school D&D.
    1. Lanefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ratskinner View Post
      I'm not sure that "free-form roleplaying" is the actual goal of those interested in a story game (or the storytelling aspects of an rpg.) I doubt that those who seek engaging combat/tactical rules would feel satisfied with a "free-form combat" game.
      Very likely they wouldn't...but there really isn't such a thing as "tactical socializing" (activities in pick-up bars notwithstanding) and thus trying to shoehorn social interaction into a hard-coded ruleset is a fool's errand.

      Social interaction, exploration, and combat: three different things, best off handled three completely different ways by the rules.

      Could you please expand upon the difference between "arising out of the actual roleplay" and "declared at the arbitrary whimsy of the DM"? The rest of your post seemed to me to be just really fluffing up the latter. It's not that I haven't experienced what you've described, but whether it even occurs or not is ...well, up to the arbitrary whimsy of the DM. I've bumped into far too many adversarial DMs back in the day to accept that this was the universal norm for social interaction in old-school D&D.
      There's a difference between an adversarial DM who wants to win all the time (and thus inevitably does, which is bad) and an adversarial DM who knows that sometimes she'll win, sometimes it'll be a sawoff, but sometimes - maybe even most of the time - she's going to lose. As long as she's good about conceding the win (e.g. the guard allows the PCs in to see the Duke) when it's deserved, all is good.

      Put another way, if the DM plays her NPCs halfway well and usually has them react as someone normally would to what the PCs say and-or do, she's doing fine. And if there's a hidden reason - e.g. charm, strict orders, hidden agenda, etc. - for an NPC to not react in an expected or logical way now and then, so be it; except the charm example this again mirrors how real life works sometimes.

      Lanefan
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      Very likely they wouldn't...but there really isn't such a thing as "tactical socializing" (activities in pick-up bars notwithstanding) and thus trying to shoehorn social interaction into a hard-coded ruleset is a fool's errand.
      Except that there are several(many?) games that successfully do manage to hard-code a method (if not the exact specifics) for resolving such things. In Fate, you can even pick between or combine two methods, depending on your goal; and they are the same methods that you can use for physical combat! Similarly with @pemerton's example with MHRP. Conditions, Complications, and Stress can be applied to NPCs in ways that are reliable from the player's perspective, and thus useful in a tactical way. Just like positioning, HP, and AC for combat. We just saw an example upthread of a PC using "tactical socializing" to remove a threat before the fighting starts.

      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      Social interaction, exploration, and combat: three different things, best off handled three completely different ways by the rules.
      erm...citation needed? especially since "The DM will make up and/or respond however he feels like without clear direction from the rules." doesn't exactly impress me as "handled by the rules."

      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      There's a difference between an adversarial DM who wants to win all the time (and thus inevitably does, which is bad) and an adversarial DM who knows that sometimes she'll win, sometimes it'll be a sawoff, but sometimes - maybe even most of the time - she's going to lose. As long as she's good about conceding the win (e.g. the guard allows the PCs in to see the Duke) when it's deserved, all is good.

      Put another way, if the DM plays her NPCs halfway well and usually has them react as someone normally would to what the PCs say and-or do, she's doing fine. And if there's a hidden reason - e.g. charm, strict orders, hidden agenda, etc. - for an NPC to not react in an expected or logical way now and then, so be it; except the charm example this again mirrors how real life works sometimes.
      So our DMs should sit in judgement of our acting/improv abilities like a Drama Teacher at auditions for the High School Play? Will a DM be able to distinguish between my character's social skills and mine? Or is it somehow okay for physically unfit and martially-unskilled player to use the rules to establish his character's heroism of muscle and prowess, but not okay for a socially-unskilled player to do the same with charm and cleverness? Or how about the reverse? Why does the silver-tongued player's character have access to resources in social interactions that the black-belt player's character doesn't have in combat resolution?

      I'm also curious as to this concept of reacting "as someone normally would", especially if we're talking a 13 year-old male DM trying to evaluate a world-weary middle-aged barmaid!

      This only makes sense to me under the "skilled play" paradigm, where we start from the premise that we are, as players, using as much of our wits and cleverness to overcome this deadly and often absurd or nonsensical dungeon with our hopelessly limited characters. But that kind of play should just about start and end at the Dungeon Entrance. If that's your play goal, there's no reason for the townsfolk to have names, let alone backstory, etc. The town is basically the equipment list and training cost table. Trying to seduce the barmaid doesn't enter into "skilled play". The Interaction pillar is reduced to rolling on the "rumors" table. This is the realm of characters with names like "Fighter IV" and "Draziw".

      To be clear, there's nothing wrong with this kind of play. I've run and enjoyed it many times. (I'm odd, apparently I can even enjoy wargames and storygames.) But it doesn't work well for a group that concerns itself more with an epic heroic storyline, or with cooperative narrative depth. (Which seems to be the kind of play that this thread has drifted to address.)

      ...and I'm up too late to rant further.
    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      You mean characters Except in most such cases neither the characters nor the players know whether anything's at stake, meaning you'd still go through the motions of rolling anyway (otherwise you're giving away info they shouldn't have yet).
      Would I? (Also, that is what passive perception is for, at least in the context of 5E.)

      I disagree with Fate, then; in that if dice are only rolled when something's at stake it far too soon becomes obvious in the metagame when something's at stake vs. when it isn't even though the in-game situation is the same; and players will pick up on this and metagame it.

      "Hey, why are we rolling to sneak down this hallway when we didn't have to roll for the last three? There must be something here. On guard, everyone!"
      I don't think assuming the worst of players or treating them inherently as cheaters is the healthy approach to take. The GM is still present to curtail metagaming. I don't think that every sneak attempt needs a roll, because sometimes it really isn't interesting other than deceiving the players into thinking that there is something. I prefer players knowing that things are at stake then having them roll needlessly for the sake of juking the players. And as the focus is on what characters should know versus what players should know, then if they are actually roleplaying then there is little harm in giving the players a sense of dramatic irony in recognizing things their characters would not. Sometimes I have achieved the best roleplaying results with a bit of transparency. For example, again with Fate, I created a character who hired them, and I showed them his aspects:
      Name: Taishun
      Portrayal: Ambitious Aristocrat
      Need: The Power to Rule
      Secret: Imposter!
      I was very forthright with that. It got the players wheels turning about who this might be, but never did the characters actually act on this or begin openly metagaming this. Player knowledge of this also forced them into a position of honesty about potentially metagaming on the part of their characters.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      @Ratskinner, @Lanefan

      Picking up on the "tacitcal socialising" aspect - Duel of Wits encourages very tactical socialising. At the table, this is a player who knows how to work the different action declaration options to maximise successes while minimising risks (I have a player who is very good at this). In the fiction, this corresponds to a character who knows when to speak, when to listen, when to push hard, when to pull back a bit, in order to get what s/he wants.

      And a bit more generally - I posted an example of play where the main focus of the action was a bar and the downstream consequences of a pick-up attempt. It wasn't a "side quest" or "downtime" - the PC heroes encountered three mercenaries trying to steal a piece of equipment from the Smithsonian, and were able to stop them from doing so because one was trapped in ice in the Washington Monument after Bobby Drake took her there for some romantic late-night skating; another was seduced and then abandoned on the top of the Capitol by a (somewhat cruel) Nightcrawler; and the third was, in the end, literally swept off her feet by (again, and who would have thought it) Bobby Drake.

      I find it hard to envisage that happening in a system with no social resolution mechanics.

      And it doesn't have to be Cortex+ Heroic. Stuff similar to that has happened in my Rolemaster games (sometimes also involving Seduction attempts), but the social skills in RM are a bit wonkier, and rely more heavily on the GM to adjudicate finality. (In many ways, so does combat in RM - because it is a crit-type system rather than an "ablate to zero" system, often the GM has to decide when injured NPCs surrender.) Robust finality of resolution is definitely a plus in my book, and I think it's something that more contemporary social resolution mechanics offer.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      in most such cases neither the characters nor the players know whether anything's at stake



      if dice are only rolled when something's at stake it far too soon becomes obvious in the metagame when something's at stake vs. when it isn't even though the in-game situation is the same; and players will pick up on this and metagame it.
      I just noticed this because of @Aldarc's post.

      I want the players to know that something is at stake. If nothing's at stake, why are we spending time on it at the table?

      I get that sometimes narrative connections need to be established - how did we get from A to B? - but that's what some quick narration, or "OK, everyone mark of your training regimen for 6 weeks and work out what that gets you" is for. I'm not going to pretend that some bit of fiction matters if it doesn't.
    1. Arilyn's Avatar
      Arilyn -
      As Ratskinner mentioned FATE uses the same mechanics for social situations as for combat. The consequences for success or failure are just different. Losing a debate before the court, for example, could make you the laughing stock of the nobles and the target of a bard's cutting wit. Having rude songs about a player character circulating throughout the city is probably not something that should happen without some dice rolls involved...

      And of course, there is role playing involved. And yes, some players might just want to scoop up dice, but the GM is there to say,"Sorry..."

      Having said all this, I'm not sure if adding these kinds of mechanics is worth it in DnD. The skill challenges in 4e always felt like just dicing your way through role playing, so I think if the social pillar were to be built up in DnD, it would have to be better explained.

      Maybe an urban intrigue supplement with all new classes like, courtier, playwright, duelist, investigator, cat burglar, spy, etc. "New robust social rules! Use it as stand alone game or combine it with your core 5e books!" Maybe?
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Arilyn View Post
      I'm not sure if adding these kinds of mechanics is worth it in DnD. The skill challenges in 4e always felt like just dicing your way through role playing, so I think if the social pillar were to be built up in DnD, it would have to be better explained.
      I think the explanation, while perhaps not perfect, was not too bad:

      * GM frames situation;

      * player declares action;

      * GM and player together make sure it's clear what exactly player wants his/her PC to achieve, in relation to the circumstances, by way of the declared action;

      * player makes check;

      * GM narrates outcome of check (as success or failure), thereby reframing the situation for the next check.

      To the extent that 4e player experienced the skill challenge as a "dice rolling exercise", I think it's because they were not being clear on the intention behind the action, and the GM was not reframing the situation in response to the outcome of the check.

      For some reason, there seems to be a real issue, in mainstream D&D play, with the GM framing vibrant and challenging social situations. (Hence we get nonsense like PC persuading the king by showing off with cartwheels, rather than strongly framed situations where the PC actually responds in some interesting and engaged way to the situation as it has been presented.)
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by jmucchiello View Post
      In an effort to simplify things, they over did it. There's no reason why the detailed skill descriptions found in 3.x could not have found their way into 5E. Replacing "ranks" with advantage is sufficient simplification. But losing all of the specifics found in a full skill description is not sufficient.
      Yeah, I agree. I'm not sure I needed a ton of outcome labels and examples, but some would really have been nice.


      I would even like to have seen the skill descriptions say "normal ability score" and "alternative ability score" to decouple skills from abilities a bit more, especially for Intimidation.
      Yes, this is implied but it sounds like WotC assumes people do this. Again, more examples would have been VERY helpful. You could even really integrate it to the player's description. Big hulking barbarian starts growling and smacking his fist into his hand? Sounds like a Strength-modified Intimidation check. Need to deal with a long, stressful march? Constitution-modified Survival check might be reasonable depending on the description of the task or how the character handles it.

      Again, this is totally within the realm of the DM and a clever DM will adapt, but it would be extraordinarily useful to have some worked-through examples.
    1. Lanefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      I don't think that every sneak attempt needs a roll, because sometimes it really isn't interesting other than deceiving the players into thinking that there is something.
      As the PCs in character don't know whether something's at stake until hindsight says it wasn't, the obvious default would be that something might be at stake - and as "might be" is enough to trigger a roll, then roll. Even if it's fake.
      I prefer players knowing that things are at stake then having them roll needlessly for the sake of juking the players. And as the focus is on what characters should know versus what players should know, then if they are actually roleplaying then there is little harm in giving the players a sense of dramatic irony in recognizing things their characters would not. Sometimes I have achieved the best roleplaying results with a bit of transparency. For example, again with Fate, I created a character who hired them, and I showed them his aspects:
      I was very forthright with that. It got the players wheels turning about who this might be, but never did the characters actually act on this or begin openly metagaming this. Player knowledge of this also forced them into a position of honesty about potentially metagaming on the part of their characters.
      Good on your players!

      Not all would take this approach.

      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      I want the players to know that something is at stake. If nothing's at stake, why are we spending time on it at the table?
      Because whether or not something is at stake is often an unknown variable until sometime after the fact.

      Take the example of someone sneaking down a passage in a hostile castle. You-as-DM might know there's no danger, no traps, no monsters, and nothing at stake because the foes are all at dinner in the great hall on the other side of the castle - but the character doesn't know that and thus the player doesn't know that. From the player-and-character perspective there's doubt - so you can either DM-narrate an auto-success or you can go through the motions of rolling. Either way, I think the player (and the game) is being shortchanged if this is just handwaved or skipped over.

      Even in your system, if they roll and fail that'll bring about some complication e.g. an unexpected guard walks around the corner ahead of the PC.

      I guess that points to a rather nasty tradeoff in a system where dice can introduce complications - you can either roll for everything that really should be rolled for (i.e. anytime there's reasonable doubt as to whether something's at stake or not, along of course with when something really is at stake) and risk a series of failures bogging the game down; or you can skip these rolls at cost of realism and dramatic tension.

      So, the sneak in the passage could be handwaved straight through to where she's searching the Duke's chambers while he's at dinner; or she can be made to roll for her sneaking (likely more than once, depending how far she has to go), her navigation (how quickly she finds the Duke's chambers), her care in hiding signs of her passage, and so forth...each of which could fail and introduce complications that'll slow her down or even prevent her from achieving her goal. To me this second option would be far more interesting and engaging.

      Hell, if things go badly it might take half a session to sort out what becomes of her (so probably best done in a separate one-off session if there's any warning this is coming) and-or how many hornet's nests she stirs up that the rest of the party might have to deal with later.

      Lanefan
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      Would I? (Also, that is what passive perception is for, at least in the context of 5E.)
      Passives are very useful as a way to help the DM adjudicate roleplaying without dice hitting the table. I like relying on them for other skills besides Perception. I generally prefer to use the passive score as a DC than having opposed rolls, which are inherently more uncertain than one roll due to the fact that two dice are rolled, not just one. If you know the PCs' passive values on relevant skills, just tailor answers accordingly and only require rolls when absolutely necessary.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Arilyn View Post
      As Ratskinner mentioned FATE uses the same mechanics for social situations as for combat. The consequences for success or failure are just different. Losing a debate before the court, for example, could make you the laughing stock of the nobles and the target of a bard's cutting wit. Having rude songs about a player character circulating throughout the city is probably not something that should happen without some dice rolls involved...
      100%.

      Having said all this, I'm not sure if adding these kinds of mechanics is worth it in DnD. The skill challenges in 4e always felt like just dicing your way through role playing, so I think if the social pillar were to be built up in DnD, it would have to be better explained.
      4E skill challenges were often poorly implemented IME, but that didn't make the basic idea a bad one. Long before 4E I used something vaguely similar and still use the X successes before Y failures. One thing I found that made them effective was not to tell the players they were in one. That helped keep it away from being "roll-playing". Someone I used to play with tended towards the mechanical side because he felt it ensured that no character could hide behind poor skills, but I was dubious of that viewpoint. I mean, why would this always apply? I mean, why would the dwarf fighter with a crappy Charisma do much talking anyway?


      Maybe an urban intrigue supplement with all new classes like, courtier, playwright, duelist, investigator, cat burglar, spy, etc. "New robust social rules! Use it as stand alone game or combine it with your core 5e books!" Maybe?
      These kinds of archetypes already exist in the books and there are several relevant feats. You could easily run a campaign with this kind of orientation, although the DM would have to do a lot of work at present given the lack of official support. Still, it could be done. I play in one where my character (a bard/warlock) is usually the "face". We end up in social situations fairly often due to being based in a large city so these skills prove to be useful.

      4E had some useful spells that I wish WotC had kept in 5E. For instance, most charm type spells have the massive drawback of the person pretty rapidly figuring out they got gulled. This makes them pretty useless. I really wish they'd made Friends an actual spell that burned a resource and not a cantrip that ends up being only corner-case useful due to the fact that a mere one minute later the target knows magic was used. That would help the caster PC who suddenly needs to be socially strong be able to do it, but only at cost.
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      Quote Originally Posted by Arilyn View Post
      Having said all this, I'm not sure if adding these kinds of mechanics is worth it in DnD. The skill challenges in 4e always felt like just dicing your way through role playing, so I think if the social pillar were to be built up in DnD, it would have to be better explained.

      Maybe an urban intrigue supplement with all new classes like, courtier, playwright, duelist, investigator, cat burglar, spy, etc. "New robust social rules! Use it as stand alone game or combine it with your core 5e books!" Maybe?
      I've sadly come to a similar conclusion and felt the same way about 4e. I twitch a little bit whenever somebody calls D&D a story game or quotes that "its about telling a story together with your friends". I just don't think the rest of the D&D chassis supports the idea very well. The "Hitpoints are meat" crowd would absolutely tear their hair out if you could do 3d8 psychic damage to a fighter by consuming him with self-doubt just by talking. The game would have to re-address the entire nature of conflict resolution (in the Forge sense), since it can currently only handle one type. By the time you're done working up all those special separate rules you'll basically be playing two games side-by-side...you might as well just play Fate or MHRP or some other game that set out to do story justice in the first place.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ratskinner View Post
      I've sadly come to a similar conclusion and felt the same way about 4e. I twitch a little bit whenever somebody calls D&D a story game or quotes that "its about telling a story together with your friends". I just don't think the rest of the D&D chassis supports the idea very well.
      D&D certainly shows its wargame roots fairly clearly. But...


      The "Hitpoints are meat" crowd would absolutely tear their hair out if you could do 3d8 psychic damage to a fighter by consuming him with self-doubt just by talking.
      Vicious Mockery is a cantrip, though it never quite achieves that much damage and inflicts a somewhat meh status.... There are numerous other spells that do similar things, presumably by playing on the target's self-doubt: Dissonant Whispers and Phantasmal Killer both come to mind.
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      I think the explanation, while perhaps not perfect, was not too bad:
      I think the relative numbers of people who understood and used the 4e skill challenge stuff as well as you do/did, and those that gave up in confusion and frustration would argue otherwise. I mean, I consider myself fairly proficient at this sort of thing and I gave up on it. ....just saying.

      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      To the extent that 4e player experienced the skill challenge as a "dice rolling exercise", I think it's because they were not being clear on the intention behind the action, and the GM was not reframing the situation in response to the outcome of the check.
      In all honesty, compared to games like Fate or Cortex+, where the player can actually create mechanical artifacts in play.... I don't see a whole lot of mechanical difference between a 4e skill challenge and a sequence of 3e rolls towards a goal. There's a little bit of fluff in the rules, but to my eye its just telling the DM to be a little more upfront about how many rolls he expects to see before he lets the PCs succeed. AFAICT, and I know we disagree on this, its a minor fence around rule 0. After all, all this "interaction" stuff was just delay in the designers eyes, who wanted you to skip past the guards and get "straight to the action" or whatever that slogan was. ::shrug:: Water under the bridge.

      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      For some reason, there seems to be a real issue, in mainstream D&D play, with the GM framing vibrant and challenging social situations. (Hence we get nonsense like PC persuading the king by showing off with cartwheels, rather than strongly framed situations where the PC actually responds in some interesting and engaged way to the situation as it has been presented.)
      I think it has to do with D&D's basic deficiency in defining any "tactical" out-of-combat conflict resolution mechanics (as mentioned above.) To bring it back around to the OP, its really not that D&D is too focused on combat...its that its only focused on combat. Its the only sphere of play with strong, clear conflict resolution mechanics to cover almost every possible in-game situation. Until people start talking, then we drop into DM fiat, always have, and I see no signs that it will change.

      In the end, mainstream D&D is rather like porn. Whatever "plot" there is really just dressing around the "real action" and carries about as much weight and depth. I've given up pretending otherwise, but hold out hope that maybe, just maybe, someday that might change.

      ...also, didn't that "Use acrobatics to impress the king" thing come originally from a WOTC employee talking about how to justify a skill use in a challenge?"
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      Vicious Mockery is a cantrip, though it never quite achieves that much damage and inflicts a somewhat meh status.... There are numerous other spells that do similar things, presumably by playing on the target's self-doubt: Dissonant Whispers and Phantasmal Killer both come to mind.
      Sure, but those are MAGIC!...at least so goes the usual argument. You just can't do it by reminding the fighter about that awkward encounter from summer camp when he was 13, or hitting on his girlfriend.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ratskinner View Post
      Sure, but those are MAGIC!...at least so goes the usual argument. You just can't do it by reminding the fighter about that awkward encounter from summer camp when he was 13, or hitting on his girlfriend.
      Not generally, no, but I presume that's what Vicious Mockery and its ilk are doing. Somehow the bard knows about the person's weaknesses and mocks them, doing damage and a debuff. If damage for something non-magical is offensive, you can presumably apply conditions such as Frightened via use of the Intimidation skill and I could see using other skills such as Deception or Persuasion being used in combat in various ways. I'd seriously consider requiring that someone Helping make use of a skill of some sort so it's not just a generic "I helped, have Advantage."

      Yeah there are some cro magnon players who will get offended but... whatever.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ratskinner View Post
      I think it has to do with D&D's basic deficiency in defining any "tactical" out-of-combat conflict resolution mechanics (as mentioned above.) To bring it back around to the OP, its really not that D&D is too focused on combat...its that its only focused on combat. Its the only sphere of play with strong, clear conflict resolution mechanics to cover almost every possible in-game situation. Until people start talking, then we drop into DM fiat, always have, and I see no signs that it will change.
      Even back in 2E I would run things that had a skill challenge feel to them. I would have proficiency checks resolve things like contests, like a horse race, betting, or even a bardic face-off. I'd just have the racers make a sequence of checks, allowing some potential cheating if it seemed to fit and I got a good rationale for it, and then tally up successful rolls in N tries or first to N successful rolls.

      This introduced some opportunities for there to be structured interactions that involved checks that weren't combat, although depending on how things went they might well lead to combat.

      In the end, mainstream D&D is rather like porn. Whatever "plot" there is really just dressing around the "real action" and carries about as much weight and depth.


      I guess it depends on what you mean by "mainstream D&D". I've played some really deep games in D&D and still do. IMO the shallowest, most gamist/dice-a-rolling games I played, at least past childhood, was with 4E. All the defined powers and "player/DM proofing" (analogy to "user proofing" in IT) pushed it towards being a minis game. I did have a good time with 4E sometimes, mind you, so a lot of it depended on the players and DM, but even so, it really felt like a miniatures game a lot more than any other version I've played.


      ...also, didn't that "Use acrobatics to impress the king" thing come originally from a WOTC employee talking about how to justify a skill use in a challenge?"
      Not sure. In small doses this is fine and clever. However, all too often it ended up with the barbarian doing pushups while everyone else tried to figure out what skills checked the boxes on the skill challenge rubric.
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