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. billd91's Avatar
      billd91 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ratskinner View Post
      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.
      As described in the 4e DMG, it should have been given up on. The mathematics behind the rule ultimately made any task being resolved via the skill challenge harder than a single trial. The coverage in Star Wars Saga Edition's Galaxy of Intrigue was generally much better.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ratskinner View Post
      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?"
      Possibly. I think that WotC lost the courage of its convictions when it came to "everyone has something to contribute". And so they were happy to advocate pseudo-contributions ahead of actual engagement with some meaningful fiction.

      Quote Originally Posted by Ratskinner View Post
      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.
      The difference from 3E is that skill challenges clearly contemplate narration of consequences and fictions that aren't just read off the causal consequences of whatever it is that the PC did in the fiction. I think that is one issue that caused problems with uptake - many D&D players won't come at that in relation to checks, other than perhaps saving throws.

      The other issue, I think, is finality in the fiction. There is a very strong idea in some parts of the D&D play culture that, except perhaps where combat is concerned, the GM is the sole arbiter of finality. There is a great deal of hesitation in allowing finality to be settled mechanically, let alone as a result of a player-side mechnanic like a skill check.

      The two points I've made relate, in this way: for a skill challenge to work, the GM has to accept player successes - ie the fiction really does change as the player wanted it to - but also keep the challenge alive (until the last die is rolled) by introducing new complications or developing the existing ones. I think that's just as clear as the diret mechanical consequences that are inflicted in Cortex+ - the players know what they've done, and can see what still needs to be done - but it requires treating the fiction as constrained by something other than the will of the GM.

      I think that Cortex+ Heroic social conflict is more colourful than skill challenge resolution. But I've never seen it generate situations as deep as I've seen in skill challenges, precisely because the player can hide behind an "I do this to step up that complicatoin" action declaration, rather than requiring the player to directly engage the fiction as a skill challenge does.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      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.
      What do you see as the difference between "narrating an auto-success" and "handwaving"?

      If nothing is going on, I'm not going to spend much time on it at the table.

      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      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.
      Rolling dice is neither realistic nor unreaslistic - it's a way of playing the game.

      As I said, if there is no one there for the PC to meet, then I don't need to spend time on it at the table.
    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      I know that some of this is addressed towards @pemerton, but as there is a similar discussion transpiring, I hope you don't mind me including some of your reply to them in my response to you.
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      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.

      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.
      Let us take the given example here regarding PCs sneaking down the hall.

      In your example, the PCs "in character" have no knowledge of what dangers are in store down the passage in a hostile castle. (A scenario that seems to presume that they are not looking out for danger while traversing the passage.) If I am understanding your position correctly, either the player says they want to roll for Stealth (when there is nothing) and you let them do so or you call for them to make a Stealth roll despite knowing there is nothing. If there are no actual dangers or stakes, then the player is essentially, as you say, going through the motions of rolling. This strikes me as handwaving success and adjudicating wind. This sort of action also comes across, to me at least, as the equivalent of tensionless subpar cinematic filler that just provides padding for stories. It makes the tone of the roll preemptive rather than active. And I also think that it is precisely these sort of "fake rolls" that train PCs to "roll if you like Jesus." That is to say, they are being subconsciously trained to constantly roll for every thing, which is definitely a problem that I have experienced when it comes to some checks in D&D, such as Perception and Stealth. It's almost Pavlovian. There may be nothing, but the players salivate to roll for the vain hope of something. IME, that sort of conditioning does foster rollplaying more than resolution mechanics in social situations.

      In contrast, I would prefer that players know (or at least have foreshadowed) what's at stake when they roll. It's about rolling when necessary, and it places dramatic tension on the die roll. They are not making a Stealth check just to go down a passage in a hostile castle. As they are competent adventurers, I assume that they aren't being blasť about it and reserve die rolls for interesting Stealth actions with actual consequences for failure. They are making a Stealth check once there is something particular at stake. They are making a Stealth check to sneak past the guards on the ramparts. They are making a Stealth check to slip past the sleeping ogres. It's about tying the roll to a particular action rather than a general one. It's the dramatic difference between, (1) "I roll to Stealth down the hall" and (2) "I roll Stealth to sneak past the two guards who are between me and my exit." There is a greater narrative sense of the challenge and stakes with the latter than the former. From the perspective of player-outcome satisfaction, the player gains a greater sense of accomplishment from something when the stakes are known. These particular moments of success or failure are also more memorable for the player than "I sneak down the hall."

      I don't think that it shortchanges anything when GMing to refrain from asking players for a Stealth check or refrain from acquiesing to a Stealth check from the player when there is nothing at stake. Spending time rolling dice on a fake sense of doing something for nothing is time wasted at the table. There is no tension created in an artificial roll that provides no actual player payoff for "success."
    1. billd91's Avatar
      billd91 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      Let us take the given example here regarding PCs sneaking down the hall.

      In your example, the PCs "in character" have no knowledge of what dangers are in store down the passage in a hostile castle. (A scenario that seems to presume that they are not looking out for danger while traversing the passage.)
      Why would it presume that? On the contrary, if they're trying to be stealthy, I'd absolutely presume they are looking out for danger. If they have no in-character knowledge of what dangers are in store down the passage, it simply means they haven't yet found out what might be (or might not be) the penalty of failing to be stealthy and wary.


      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      If I am understanding your position correctly, either the player says they want to roll for Stealth (when there is nothing) and you let them do so or you call for them to make a Stealth roll despite knowing there is nothing. If there are no actual dangers or stakes, then the player is essentially, as you say, going through the motions of rolling. This strikes me as handwaving success and adjudicating wind.
      It's rather the opposite of handwaving. By letting them (or having them) roll for being stealthy, even if there's nothing there to hear them, you're not indicating it's not necessary. It keeps them on their toes and tension high since they don't know if there's an immediate threat or not.

      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      This sort of action also comes across, to me at least, as the equivalent of tensionless subpar cinematic filler that just provides padding for stories. It makes the tone of the roll preemptive rather than active. And I also think that it is precisely these sort of "fake rolls" that train PCs to "roll if you like Jesus." That is to say, they are being subconsciously trained to constantly roll for every thing, which is definitely a problem that I have experienced when it comes to some checks in D&D, such as Perception and Stealth. It's almost Pavlovian. There may be nothing, but the players salivate to roll for the vain hope of something. IME, that sort of conditioning does foster rollplaying more than resolution mechanics in social situations.

      In contrast, I would prefer that players know (or at least have foreshadowed) what's at stake when they roll. It's about rolling when necessary, and it places dramatic tension on the die roll. They are not making a Stealth check just to go down a passage in a hostile castle. As they are competent adventurers, I assume that they aren't being blasť about it and reserve die rolls for interesting Stealth actions with actual consequences for failure.
      Definitely metagaming, if you ask me. If you're handwaving any need for them to make a stealth check when there's nothing there and approaching this as if the players are reserving their rolls (as if they're a finite resource) for situations where they need them, you're teaching them to metagame.


      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      They are making a Stealth check once there is something particular at stake. They are making a Stealth check to sneak past the guards on the ramparts. They are making a Stealth check to slip past the sleeping ogres. It's about tying the roll to a particular action rather than a general one. It's the dramatic difference between, (1) "I roll to Stealth down the hall" and (2) "I roll Stealth to sneak past the two guards who are between me and my exit." There is a greater narrative sense of the challenge and stakes with the latter than the former. From the perspective of player-outcome satisfaction, the player gains a greater sense of accomplishment from something when the stakes are known. These particular moments of success or failure are also more memorable for the player than "I sneak down the hall."
      The only dramatic difference I see is you're rolling to avoid something you know about vs rolling to avoid the nameless unknown that could be lurking out there around the corner. I don't know about you, but I find the latter as suspenseful as the former.

      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      I don't think that it shortchanges anything when GMing to refrain from asking players for a Stealth check or refrain from acquiesing to a Stealth check from the player when there is nothing at stake. Spending time rolling dice on a fake sense of doing something for nothing is time wasted at the table. There is no tension created in an artificial roll that provides no actual player payoff for "success."
      On that, we will have to disagree.
    1. Manbearcat's Avatar
      Manbearcat -
      @Ratskinner and @pemerton

      I donít want to rehash the history of the 4e Skill Challenge or our own history in discussing it! However...

      Can we at least agree that the fundamental components of noncombat conflict resolution machinery are:

      - mechanical substrate/framework

      - procedures to move from framing to locked-in resolution

      - techniques that being about dynamic, coherent fiction and interesting decision-points

      A nice bonus would be to have a resolution procedure where tactical depth meets a tight feedback loop with resources/PC machinery that augments PC habitation in the unfolding situation (eg creates urgency or a sense of risk or a sense of emotional investment) for a player. But that isnít fundamentally mandatory (but contemporary game design should include it as understanding has matured significantly). Now, whether one feels 4eís instruction (establish a goal, go to the action, change the situation, success with complications, fail forward, failure is not an endpoint) is sufficient to the task is immaterial to whether or not you agree with the three required components above (myself and pemerton obviously do, Ratskinner does not).

      So, in the spirit of this thread, do we agree that the above is the litmus test for even the barest attempt at functional conflict resolution mechanics?
    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      Quote Originally Posted by billd91 View Post
      Why would it presume that? On the contrary, if they're trying to be stealthy, I'd absolutely presume they are looking out for danger. If they have no in-character knowledge of what dangers are in store down the passage, it simply means they haven't yet found out what might be (or might not be) the penalty of failing to be stealthy and wary.
      I would assume that the PCs are doing other actions, but the scenario in question seems to presume Stealth as an isolated action/roll, and so I subsequently treat it as such. I also thought that talking about the everything else would then shift the conversation further away from the case in question of stealthing down the hallway to the everything else. We can talk about that, and I did write about that in my original draft, before deciding that it might be extraneous.

      It's rather the opposite of handwaving. By letting them (or having them) roll for being stealthy, even if there's nothing there to hear them, you're not indicating it's not necessary. It keeps them on their toes and tension high since they don't know if there's an immediate threat or not.
      To me this is handwaving a roll that is meaningless. You are making a roll about nothing while pretending that it is something. It's handwaving, if not sugarcoating, an action with a fixed result. If there is nothing there, as per Lanefan's scenario, then there is no consequence for failing that roll. If there is no real consequence, then what is gained by a "failed" roll where there is no actual failure or consequences? It's like the dice rolling equivalent of a participation trophy. You "won" it, but so what?

      Also, IME, the high tension you describe is rarely, if ever, the case, either from the player-side of things or as a GM. It always feels artificial and forgettable, as it does not actually emulate tension or successfully overcoming a challenge. We can, for example, expand this case beyond Stealth and look at most skill checks. A PC is talking to an NPC. They request to make a Perusasion check even though you know that is unnecessary. They do so. But nothing is actually achieved apart from wasting everyone's time with a meaningless roll. You think that the character should know something based upon their background and skills. They choose to roll, even though you could just tell them that they know. They roll. And now you get players trained to roll for stuff their characters should know.

      Definitely metagaming, if you ask me. If you're handwaving any need for them to make a stealth check when there's nothing there and approaching this as if the players are reserving their rolls (as if they're a finite resource) for situations where they need them, you're teaching them to metagame.
      I am not sure how that case that I described constitutes metagaming, but I am sure that you know my table, my games, and my players better than I do. They know a particular case, such as knowing that they have two guards they can see that they must sneak past. What about that is metagaming? Is a character seeing and assessing a threat metagaming in your games? If they are not rolling then it means that nothing of particular noteworthiness or challenge has transpired yet that requires a roll. That's not metagaming either nor does it teach metagaming in my experience. It teaches my sense for what a die roll is about: an action with dramatic outcomes. Metagaming, again IME, tends to follow what Angry DM describes in his blog post. It more often than not represents a breach of the social contract at the table or players attempting to fix a player/GM "problem" within gameplay.

      Indeed, I have found that this sort of forthrightness about when to roll engenders better roleplaying and less metagaming from my players. If you think that they are being taught metagaming, then they sure as hell aren't showing it. There is less deception and more transparency. It allows for more roleplaying of what the characters are doing rather than what the players are rolling. As I said before, the PCs are competent and players generally want, on the whole, for their PCs represent competent heroes. I will ask them to describe what their players are doing. They will describe what their characters are doing, and in the case of the unknown hallway, they would likely 10 out of 10 times describe their characters as sneaking down the hallway. (And that is partially part of the meta-gaming culture of how one plays RPGs: players know that your characters should sneak down halls so their characters will often do that.) So there is not much gained there from a Stealth, even if there is a character in heavy armor, if there are no real consequences from failure or success. The tension and suspense happens, IME, when the sneaking needs to matter.

      The only dramatic difference I see is you're rolling to avoid something you know about vs rolling to avoid the nameless unknown that could be lurking out there around the corner. I don't know about you, but I find the latter as suspenseful as the former.
      There are better ways, IMHO, to handle the former and create suspense without requiring/approving a player roll over virtually nothing. You're a GM. You have the power of narration at your fingertips. You control what you can describe, and what you leave out of that description. I don't think that rolling to avoid the nameless unknown in a hallway does much to create actual suspense for players, especially if there is no real sense of what they are avoiding or the consequences of failure. Rolling to avoid the nameless unknown is simply rollplaying against a "Smarter-Than-Thou-Art" DM. Suspense, thriller, and horror is less about the in-universe characters and more about the audience. Your players are the audience, and your players care about their characters. You can exploit that by actually informing your players of a potential threat that their characters don't know. "Your character failed their Perception check." Clocks start ticking. The player thinks to herself "What did my character fail to notice?" Or even the GM flat out saying, "Your character failed their Stealth roll, but they don't know that yet, so what does your character do." There is now a more imminent threat of the unknown introduced to the character through the player. You are welcome to call that metagaming, though I disagree, but a lot of suspense and tension comes from manipulating the dramatic and emotional boundaries between the player and their character rather than falsely pretending that these boundaries are virtually indistinguishable. This was actually some of the best advice I received about running a Call of Cthulhu or other horror game. The best way to a character's heart is through their player.

      On that, we will have to disagree.
      That's fine so long as you don't falsely accuse me of teaching my players how to metagame.
    1. Ravensworth's Avatar
      Ravensworth -
      This discussion has gone from is D&D too combat focused to how to run an adventure.
      When do you need to roll dice?

      One of the things I love about 5th edition is that it returns to the roots of roleplaying. It allows the DM to decide when a roll is necessary. The DM makes the call. This allows for a combat heavy situation/Roll playing or a Role playing type of game. I prefer as a DM to choose which type of session I am going to run without having a mountain of rules tomes thrown at me by players or the company making the game.

      Let's take the above example of "moving down a passage where there is no danger". Now I know this. But I want my players to never make an assumption unless they have in character knowledge. So I let them make a stealth check. If they fail I let them "Fail Forward" as John Wick would say. Perhaps breaking a vase that will have complications later but does not have them be discovered now.

      I think our creativity depending on the group we are playing with can make the game worthwhile as long as we are not bogged down with too many rules. Many have their favorite edition. Favorite parts from those edition. Nothing prevents you from adding those to your own home game if you have a group of players who agree. Print them out and hand them out.

      My two cents for what they are worth.
    1. billd91's Avatar
      billd91 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ravensworth View Post
      Let's take the above example of "moving down a passage where there is no danger". Now I know this. But I want my players to never make an assumption unless they have in character knowledge. So I let them make a stealth check. If they fail I let them "Fail Forward" as John Wick would say. Perhaps breaking a vase that will have complications later but does not have them be discovered now.
      I suppose if the PCs are clever enough with a jury-rig, the castle denizens might not realize they have intruders. They might think it was just Peter playing ball in the house again...
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      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.
      Sure. Me too. However IME, it takes a group and DM committed to it. In the end, the D&D rules are mostly irrelevant to the deep story parts.
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      Possibly. I think that WotC lost the courage of its convictions when it came to "everyone has something to contribute". And so they were happy to advocate pseudo-contributions ahead of actual engagement with some meaningful fiction.
      Possibly. I just think they couldn't get away from the background baggage of D&D's history.

      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      The other issue, I think, is finality in the fiction. There is a very strong idea in some parts of the D&D play culture that, except perhaps where combat is concerned, the GM is the sole arbiter of finality. There is a great deal of hesitation in allowing finality to be settled mechanically, let alone as a result of a player-side mechnanic like a skill check.
      I don't disagree about the culture, but I also don't see how the skill challenge is magically all in the players hands. (Then again, I only ever worried about the initial system from the 4e first edition prints.) Does not the DM still set complexities and difficulties (or whatever they were called)? Is there some invisible-to-me mechanism by which these decisions are less arbitrary than any other DM decisions? IIRC (which I may not, especially being unfamiliar with the updates.)

      TBH, other than an intellectual exercise, I don't really care about the 4e skill challenge mechanics at all, anymore. Its water under the bridge and beyond hope of resurrection at this point. The Cortex+ and Fate style methods suit me well. I'm onboard with @Manbearcat, its not really worth re-hashing.
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      Quote Originally Posted by Manbearcat View Post
      @Ratskinner and @pemerton

      I donít want to rehash the history of the 4e Skill Challenge or our own history in discussing it! However...

      Can we at least agree that the fundamental components of noncombat conflict resolution machinery are:

      - mechanical substrate/framework

      - procedures to move from framing to locked-in resolution

      - techniques that bring about dynamic, coherent fiction and interesting decision-points
      I think that seems reasonable. I might argue for some particulars about what "mechanical substrate/framework" mean. In particular, I would like persistent mechanical artifacts, not just abstract declarations about fictional positioning, etc. I feel its a necessary analog to position, HPs, conditions, etc. in the combat realm.

      Quote Originally Posted by Manbearcat View Post
      A nice bonus would be to have a resolution procedure where tactical depth meets a tight feedback loop with resources/PC machinery that augments PC habitation in the unfolding situation (eg creates urgency or a sense of risk or a sense of emotional investment) for a player. But that isnít fundamentally mandatory (but contemporary game design should include it as understanding has matured significantly). Now, whether one feels 4eís instruction (establish a goal, go to the action, change the situation, success with complications, fail forward, failure is not an endpoint) is sufficient to the task is immaterial to whether or not you agree with the three required components above (myself and pemerton obviously do, Ratskinner does not).

      So, in the spirit of this thread, do we agree that the above is the litmus test for even the barest attempt at functional conflict resolution mechanics?
      Yup.
    1. Lanefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      What do you see as the difference between "narrating an auto-success" and "handwaving"?
      Narrating an auto-success, in somehting like the sneaking example, comes after I've rolled some dice. The players know I'm narrating a success; but they don't know it was automatic.

      If nothing is going on, I'm not going to spend much time on it at the table.
      Except, again in the sneaking example, the players and PCs don't know nothing is going on until after the fact.

      As I said, if there is no one there for the PC to meet, then I don't need to spend time on it at the table.
      Hmmm...doesn't this fly in the face of your preferred approach, in which you wouldn't know if there was anyone there to meet until the players succeeding on some Stealth rolls had determined such?

      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      If I am understanding your position correctly, either the player says they want to roll for Stealth (when there is nothing) and you let them do so or you call for them to make a Stealth roll despite knowing there is nothing. If there are no actual dangers or stakes, then the player is essentially, as you say, going through the motions of rolling. This strikes me as handwaving success and adjudicating wind. This sort of action also comes across, to me at least, as the equivalent of tensionless subpar cinematic filler that just provides padding for stories. It makes the tone of the roll preemptive rather than active. And I also think that it is precisely these sort of "fake rolls" that train PCs to "roll if you like Jesus." That is to say, they are being subconsciously trained to constantly roll for every thing, which is definitely a problem that I have experienced when it comes to some checks in D&D, such as Perception and Stealth. It's almost Pavlovian. There may be nothing, but the players salivate to roll for the vain hope of something. IME, that sort of conditioning does foster rollplaying more than resolution mechanics in social situations.
      Well, for one thing I as DM make all such rolls in secret.

      Why?

      As I've explained to others, it prevents the release of unwarranted meta-information to the players that their PCs in character wouldn't have. In this case the meta-information is why did you succeed?: did you succeed because you're good (i.e. you rolled well), or did you succeed because there was nothing there that could make you fail?

      So I'm not training my players to do anything other than what they'd already be doing anyway, which is to tell me what their PCs are doing.

      Lanefan
    1. Lanefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aldarc View Post
      I am not sure how that case that I described constitutes metagaming, but I am sure that you know my table, my games, and my players better than I do. They know a particular case, such as knowing that they have two guards they can see that they must sneak past. What about that is metagaming? Is a character seeing and assessing a threat metagaming in your games? If they are not rolling then it means that nothing of particular noteworthiness or challenge has transpired yet that requires a roll.
      Assessing and reacting to known threats are not the issue here. It's the unknown, or potential for unknown, threats that lie behind what's being discussed.

      Say in your example they don't see any guards because the guards are concealed behind some curtains. There's no visible threat - no known threat. For all the PCs know the place might be unguarded.

      If you make them roll here that's a fairly obvious (and highly unnecessary) metagame tip-off to the existence of a threat, unless you've previously established a precedent of using "dummy" rolls. Instead, better to just react to how the players/PCs decide to approach things, and do the rolling yourself whether needed or not.

      That's not metagaming either nor does it teach metagaming in my experience.
      "She's making us roll, there must be something here!" is pure metagame, particularly when before the roll is made the PCs immediately take actions (e.g. draw wapons, prepare spells, etc.) they wouldn't have otherwise done.

      Indeed, I have found that this sort of forthrightness about when to roll engenders better roleplaying and less metagaming from my players. If you think that they are being taught metagaming, then they sure as hell aren't showing it. There is less deception and more transparency. It allows for more roleplaying of what the characters are doing rather than what the players are rolling. As I said before, the PCs are competent and players generally want, on the whole, for their PCs represent competent heroes. I will ask them to describe what their players are doing. They will describe what their characters are doing, and in the case of the unknown hallway, they would likely 10 out of 10 times describe their characters as sneaking down the hallway. (And that is partially part of the meta-gaming culture of how one plays RPGs: players know that your characters should sneak down halls so their characters will often do that.) So there is not much gained there from a Stealth, even if there is a character in heavy armor, if there are no real consequences from failure or success. The tension and suspense happens, IME, when the sneaking needs to matter.
      Which comes right back to the same sticking point: how do the PCs in character (and players at the table) know that this particular hallway is the one that matters, as opposed to the previous three which didn't or the next two they haven't got to yet?

      That's right: they can't and shouldn't know; and thus both the mechanical and narrative approach to all six passages really should be exactly the same.

      There are better ways, IMHO, to handle the former and create suspense without requiring/approving a player roll over virtually nothing. You're a GM. You have the power of narration at your fingertips. You control what you can describe, and what you leave out of that description. I don't think that rolling to avoid the nameless unknown in a hallway does much to create actual suspense for players, especially if there is no real sense of what they are avoiding or the consequences of failure.
      Again - and I seem to keep coming back to this - you can't apply hindsight to the here-and-now, which is what's happening here. Neither players nor PCs know there is no nameless horror until after they've done enough exploration to determine there's nothing there; and thus while they're engaged in that exploration process you have to go through the motions as if there is somethng there.

      You can exploit that by actually informing your players of a potential threat that their characters don't know. "Your character failed their Perception check." Clocks start ticking. The player thinks to herself "What did my character fail to notice?"
      I do this all the time.

      Lanefan
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      If nothing is going on, I'm not going to spend much time on it at the table.
      Except, again in the sneaking example, the players and PCs don't know nothing is going on until after the fact.
      There's no except.

      To stick with the sneaking example: I could spend time at the table making/adjudicating pointless dice rolls to leave my players in suspense as to whether or not something intresting is going on; or we could all move on to a situation in which something is actually going on, and resolve that.

      To me, the latter is more fun.

      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      doesn't this fly in the face of your preferred approach, in which you wouldn't know if there was anyone there to meet until the players succeeding on some Stealth rolls had determined such?
      My preferred approach is "say 'yes' or roll the dice". If a PC is sneaking along an empty corridor, that seems the right time to say "yes".
    1. Lanefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      My preferred approach is "say 'yes' or roll the dice". If a PC is sneaking along an empty corridor, that seems the right time to say "yes".
      But...er...how do you know the corridor is empty, when a failed roll could very easily introduce a complication such as someone unexpectedly coming around the corner?

      Or did you determine in advance that this corridor is empty but the next one holds danger? Again, doesn't seem like your style...
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      But...er...how do you know the corridor is empty, when a failed roll could very easily introduce a complication such as someone unexpectedly coming around the corner?

      Or did you determine in advance that this corridor is empty but the next one holds danger? Again, doesn't seem like your style...
      Well, the example was described as an empty corridor, so that's what I'm talking about.

      There's any number of ways that might have been established: a player succeeded at a check to obtain reliable intelligence; a PC sent his/her familiar to scout the corridor; it's clear from the play that no one is interested in the corridor and so I narrate it as empty; etc.
    1. Sadras's Avatar
      Sadras -
      @Lanefan's approach (and I'm sure he is not alone in this and I know I have used this technique as well) of rolling is a method utilised to keep the players on edge and unsure on the danger which may or may not exist. I imagine this can also be done via DM narration which is probably what @pemerton leans to.
    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      As I've explained to others, it prevents the release of unwarranted meta-information to the players that their PCs in character wouldn't have. In this case the meta-information is why did you succeed?: did you succeed because you're good (i.e. you rolled well), or did you succeed because there was nothing there that could make you fail?

      So I'm not training my players to do anything other than what they'd already be doing anyway, which is to tell me what their PCs are doing.
      Why did you succeed? How about why did you need to roll to begin with? Just narrate that you are sneaking down the hall. When appropriate for when you encounter a particular known or particular unknown, then have the player roll. If the player is tense about having to roll a Stealth check for the unknown (again, assuming they failed to notice the threat), then that communicates a fear of being caught for the player that the character should have had to begin with. In these cases, you ask the player what their character would do or is doing. Perhaps they succeed, but the unknown remains unknown, then that, again, helps instill a sense of dread in the character via the player. It's really only as metagaming as the phrase "roll for initiative."

      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      If you make them roll here that's a fairly obvious (and highly unnecessary) metagame tip-off to the existence of a threat, unless you've previously established a precedent of using "dummy" rolls. Instead, better to just react to how the players/PCs decide to approach things, and do the rolling yourself whether needed or not.

      "She's making us roll, there must be something here!" is pure metagame, particularly when before the roll is made the PCs immediately take actions (e.g. draw wapons, prepare spells, etc.) they wouldn't have otherwise done.
      Again, you appear to begging the question of metagaming so to speak by presuming prescribed player reactions to the dice roll when that has not been the case in my experience. But maybe this scenario speaks about how you and your players would react and metagame.

      Which comes right back to the same sticking point: how do the PCs in character (and players at the table) know that this particular hallway is the one that matters, as opposed to the previous three which didn't or the next two they haven't got to yet?

      That's right: they can't and shouldn't know; and thus both the mechanical and narrative approach to all six passages really should be exactly the same.
      My approach to all six passages would be exactly the same. The difference lies in where along each passage they encounter points of interest, action, and consequence. The PCs describe what their characters are doing. When they encounter something of note, as they go along the passage, then I would require the roll. The players may be tipped-off, but the characters are not. These are cinematic/dramatic cues of dramatic irony. And despite how the expected reaction would be that it creates a recognized distinction between player and character, I have found that these are the moments where my players become immersed in their character. If my players aren't rolling, then the players/characters are often left wondering, "Why have I not encountered anything yet?" It's a player question, but this is also a natural in-character question, and this would certainly be the case if there was an unknown horror lurking nearby. This may spur further questions or exploration: "Where are the monsters/foes, if they are not here?" They may proceed with whatever their objective may be or this lack of rolls may spur them to investigate their location: i.e., the dining hall where they are all gathered to eat and celebrate.

      If you assume the worst of your players, treat them like idiots, or maintain a hostile/adversarial relationship with the players, then I assume they would metagame, but if you have this sort of antagonistic relation to your players they would likely metagame no matter what. And this, again, brings us back to the Angry DM article on metagaming as a symptom that I linked earlier. But at my gaming tables, my approach has resulted in considerably less metagamed play among my players and not more, and it might be interesting to speculate the reasons why that has been the case.

      Again - and I seem to keep coming back to this - you can't apply hindsight to the here-and-now, which is what's happening here. Neither players nor PCs know there is no nameless horror until after they've done enough exploration to determine there's nothing there; and thus while they're engaged in that exploration process you have to go through the motions as if there is somethng there.
      What you are not getting is that is not inherently true. Nor do you have to use dice to do that. That is rollplaying. That is metagaming the mechanics. By no means are you required to roll the dice as part of the exploration any more than you are required to roll dice for the social situations you described much earlier.

      I do this all the time.
      But isn't that revealing knowledge to the players that the characters don't have? But isn't that metagaming?
    1. billd91's Avatar
      billd91 -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      Well, the example was described as an empty corridor, so that's what I'm talking about.

      There's any number of ways that might have been established: a player succeeded at a check to obtain reliable intelligence; a PC sent his/her familiar to scout the corridor; it's clear from the play that no one is interested in the corridor and so I narrate it as empty; etc.
      Question - if they sent the familiar down the corridor to scout it, wouldn't that define them as interested in it? Or at least indicate they were as interested as they would have been if they had not had a familiar available and had to scout it themselves? Would the familiar get a stealth check?
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