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D&D General On Skilled Play: D&D as a Game


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Voadam

Legend
@Voadam

I don’t wish to turn this thread into a deep dive analysis into Forge Incoherency Hypothesis (where I agree...where I disagree), but to address your thoughts above would take a VERY high word count (and derail the thread hard). My inquiry was basically to ask folks who already have a deep grasp of the hypothesis and developed opinions around it to let me know if there was an unrealized proxy war happening here.

But if you want to discuss Forge Incoherency Hypothesis and how it does or does not apply to 5e, I’ll gladly entertain that conversation if you want to PM me about it or start a new thread specifically about it (that conversation will be intense and volatile and overwhelm anything else)!
That's fine, I don't have enough interest in the Forge stuff to dive into researching the Forge or to start my own thread about it, just enough to react and think critically about specific propositions like what you posted. :)
 

This is a very interesting and unexpected take.

In a singular move you have a limited resource that entails a decision-point between 4 powerful effects:

* Damage (that will reliably kill a mook or remove a substantial chunk of most creatures HP at mid level)

* Control (dictating enemy attacks to a tank is a huge control effect)

* Buff (+1 forward is powerful in DW)

* Mitigation (halve damage + armor turns most attacks into nothingburgers)

This is a move that allows a decision-point to toggle between Leader/Striker/Defender Stance or aspects of all 3. Do you think a 4e Fighter that had that kind of multivariate punishment (which you could build towards but not get to how powerful/versatile Defend is) for Mark violation would yield a less cognitively demanding/potentially skillfully deployed PC (again, across a hefty population of decision-points with this Mark usage)? It seems your answer is “<nuanced> yes.” I wonder if the player-base and the designers who felt that 4e was/is a more tactically robust and cognitively intensive game (and those that decried the game because it didn’t have “a simple Fighter”) would agree with you.

EDIT - Is your take a version of “5e Wizards with all of their choices/capability at low level (say, level 3) are less cognitively demanding/less potentially skillful (they’re EZMode) in application than their AD&D/Basic Wizards counterparts?”
As a player I am a singularly 'focused on getting results', in a narrative sense, vs worried about which mechanics are invoked. So, when I see a super effective move that I can make, which then FOLLOWS UP with "and you now get to pick from all these cool effects the exact one you want" my answer is "hey, this meets all my needs." When I played a fighter in DW I just spammed Defend Another all over the place. It is easy to reliably invoke and is amazingly effective. Now, if I played the same fighter with YOUR wimpier version of DA, I'd have to work harder to leverage my high hit points and lots of DR, etc. into keeping the rest of the party in one piece. It probably would require more thought and more energy to do it.

5e wizards are certainly easy mode compared to 1e wizards. Now, low level... Eh, maybe you spend more time on analysis and choosing when to spend slots in 5e. OTOH spell selection is vastly easier. HIGH level play, the 1e wizard (Magic User) is quite a bit trickier to play. You have to do a LOT of prep. Questioner of All Things layers his prep. He's got Staff of Power to deal with a lot of minor utility stuff, and then a couple other items which cover other basic needs, as well as certain contingencies. So then there's the fun question of picking the right mix of potions, scrolls, and memorized spells so as to provide additional contingency options, backups for things that might get expended etc. OTOH my 5e Transmuter could rely much more on simply having the ability to use go-to spells multiple times and that a number of utilities can be left to rituals. He found far less need to plan out exactly how each spell selection fit into the whole kit.
 



Big N. Medium (or just north or south of the equator, depending upon the session) G.
OK, no disagreement there, but it is very much simulating B/X at a narrative level too, though I suppose GNS doesn't really talk about simulationism in terms of one game simulating the narrative of another... Pity, it could be more convolved! lol. I guess, like you, I never really bought some of the tenets of GNS, though it seems to have mostly been born and died during a time when I was oblivious to what was going on with RPGs...
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
@Voadam

I don’t wish to turn this thread into a deep dive analysis into Forge Incoherency Hypothesis (where I agree...where I disagree), but to address your thoughts above would take a VERY high word count (and derail the thread hard). My inquiry was basically to ask folks who already have a deep grasp of the hypothesis and developed opinions around it to let me know if there was an unrealized proxy war happening here.

But if you want to discuss Forge Incoherency Hypothesis and how it does or does not apply to 5e, I’ll gladly entertain that conversation if you want to PM me about it or start a new thread specifically about it (that conversation will be intense and volatile and overwhelm anything else)!
EDIT I believe the hypothesis that the agendas or modes are necessarily incoherent doesn't drive reliable intuitions, and might lead to resisting important alternatives. So that there is unlikely to be an unrealised proxy war happening here such as might be thought to arise if the hypothesis amounted to a robust statement about our gaming reality.
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
Big N. Medium (or just north or south of the equator, depending upon the session) G.
You don't think with the fronts and such, some S?

EDIT This is where the word agendas can be quite helpful. Often one reads a post suggesting RPG X is unsuitable for Y and someone turns around and says, well we are doing Y with it. When I read DW, I think about the pithy expression of a game world that can be done using its concepts. So I might feel less committed by the DW rules to N and get right onto some S even if the DW designers had N as their big agenda (using the language of GNS).
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
You're good. There is nothing actionable in it, so you're just missing some theory crafting and self indulgent pontificating.
There's some kind of dissonance here. I have been leaving each round of discussion on this thread with new or better formed ideas, and new points of reference, that I have been actively using as I develop my next 5e (via FG), multi-DM campaign.

For example, this morning I was able to finally state in a simple way an important cohering principle for the campaign - working from ideas around simulationist agendas (albeit I find "simulationist" obstructive as a label). Yesterday, thinking about fronts, I was able to pithily state our... well I guess you could just call them "fronts" (in the DW sense). Albeit using my own motives and means framing.

Thus if a reader is finding nothing actionable I guess it means they know all the theory already, or they can't grasp the theory, or maybe they grasp the theory, but don't know how to translate that into action. If you are interested, I'm happy to talk over how I approach that last part.
 

You don't think with the fronts and such, some S?

EDIT This is where the word agendas can be quite helpful. Often one reads a post suggesting RPG X is unsuitable for Y and someone turns around and says, well we are doing Y with it. When I read DW, I think about the pithy expression of a game world that can be done using its concepts. So I might feel less committed by the DW rules to N and get right onto some S even if the DW designers had N as their big agenda (using the language of GNS).
The 'S' in GNS refers to simulating SOME GENRE (or maybe more specific material, I mean you can go as specific as you want there). I think you could make a case that DW has an agenda to simulate classic dungeon crawl narratives. I really am not knowledgeable enough about it to make any statement as to whether or not that qualifies in 'GNS Theory'.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
The 'S' in GNS refers to simulating SOME GENRE (or maybe more specific material, I mean you can go as specific as you want there). I think you could make a case that DW has an agenda to simulate classic dungeon crawl narratives. I really am not knowledgeable enough about it to make any statement as to whether or not that qualifies in 'GNS Theory'.
The S is misleading. It's less about simulating, and more about exploring to understand. Immersion, abetted by, but not necessitating, any mechanical simulation. In particular, in my view there is no need to be simulating some genre. That's a red herring.

EDIT But you can use DW to serve any agenda, and it some concepts in DW are very suitable for a sim agenda IMO.
 
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The S is misleading. It's less about simulating, and more about exploring to understand. Immersion, abetted by, but not necessitating, any mechanical simulation. In particular, in my view there is no need to be simulating some genre. That's a red herring.

EDIT But you can use DW to serve any agenda, and it some concepts in DW are very suitable for a sim agenda IMO.
I'm just saying, that is why it is called 'simulation' as in faithfully adopting the elements of a particular genre and reflecting them in your game. I understand that 99% of the world completely misconstrues this term. I merely was pointing out that DW actually DOES go out of its way to adopt and cloak itself in D&D genre elements (IE the classes are pretty much stock D&D classes, equipment, armor, crawling in dungeons, kitchen sink fantasy of a certain sort, specific types of monsters, etc.).

Of course 'D&D' doesn't happen to be a super nailed-down thing. I guess you could imagine DW taking B/X as a 'canon', but I think DW is still, at the very least, as its developers have stated "a love letter to Basic D&D." I think it would be possible to noodle endlessly on exactly what the force and consequence of that homage really IS. I simply choose to largely dismiss 'GNS' as being an overly rigid formulation which is sort of equivalent to the 'phlogiston theory' of fire. It kinda worked when we didn't know squat. In all honesty, given that none of its originators have the slightest interest in it anymore, from what I can see, that is enough for me :). Still the terms have a lot of 'gravity', much like Freud's psychoanalytical terminology is hard for psychology to shake.
 

pemerton

Legend
In any game you have a conceptual maximum permissible number of moves that are constrained by the ruleset.

<snip>

At its most primordial level, playing skillfully is sorting through possible permutations of the move-space

<snip>

Do we at least agree with the above conception of skilled play? If not, can I get some clarification on disagreement?
For me, it is too abstract and doesn't capture the real variety of games very well. I'll try and explain why (there may be some reiteration of earlier posts).

First I'll start with a non-RPG example. I think that chess 100% admits of skilled play as you have characterised it. But I don't think that backgammon does. The threshold for "maximum skill" in backgammon (basically, intuitive familiarity with the variety of game positions plus doing simple two-dice probability calculations) is low enough that anyone who plays the game more than merely casually can be expected to reach it, or to get close enough to it that the randomness of dice rolls will wash out most of the differences of skill between various players.

In card games, I'll put five hundred vs bridge in the same contrasting space - five hundred has two features (the "kitty" allowing the winner of the bid to shape his/her hand, and the "bower + joker" rules that lengthen trumps compared to other suits) that mean it simply does not require as much skill, nor admit of as much skill, as bridge. (Limited exception: "no trumps" in five hundred gets much closer to bridge, which is why mediocre five hundred players really suck at playing no trumps.)

To bring this back to RPGs, there are some RPGs that just don't have enough room to move to create significant scope for this sort of technical skill differential.

Second, and now focusing strictly on RPGs, some RPGs are designed so that the sort of technical/logical/mathematical skill that is important for winning games and solving puzzles is not super-important. More important is engaging emotionally and sympathetically with the fiction. As I've already posted, I think that Burning Wheel can be played like this (it's how I approach it as a player), and I think mechanically less intricate systems like Prince Valiant or Cthulhu Dark are like this too.

To contradict the opening sentence of the above para, there are some board/parlour games that are more like this - Pictionary, Codenames, charades, telephone. Sticking to non-RPGs, I had a friend who failed first year uni because he spent all his time getting the max scores on the Gauntlet machine in the basement of the union building. That is a domain of skilled play. It just makes no sense to think about cultivating that degree of skill in Codenames: you get better at Codenames by reading more novels and poems!

I don't know if anyone else in this thread experiences the domains of human cognitive endeavour as I've described in this post. But for me I'm drawing some pretty salient contrasts, which are important to me for my engagement with games, both RPGs and others.
 

pemerton

Legend
If only we had some other pithy phrase to discuss games where the point of play is to prove you are skilled by overcoming challenge. One might call it something like Step On Up. That would be crazy though.
By way of general agreement:

On this measure I don't see that there is much RPGing (other than maybe pretty railroad-y play) that doesn't permit of skilled play.

But then "skilled play" uses loses its utility as a label for a particular agenda and approach. And I at least want a label for that agenda and approach so I can keep clear of it! ("Gamism" won't do the job because (i) on ENworld that word is normally used quite differently from its Forge usage and (ii) gamism in the Forge sense includes gambling as well skilled play.)

EDIT: My typing is suffering with older age.
 

pemerton

Legend
Here's a further thought: this weekend I ran the same RPG and scenario, The Green Knight, two days in a row.

On Saturday, the two players - my kids - were very inexperienced in RPGing in general. They got hosed.

Today, the three players - from my usual group - handled the pressures of the game quite well. Having three rather than two players gives a slight mathematical benefit, but their superior performance rested on more than that. They approached the tropes, and the (pretty light) mechanical play, with more knowledge and more skill. And there's certainly a step-on-up/gamist element to the system.

So skill made a difference. But I would still maintain that it's not a "skilled play" game in anything like the mode of Gygax.
 

pemerton

Legend
Approaching play from the perspective of what would Ragnar do is something I consider different in character to Jon what are you going to have Ragnar do to defeat this challenge. This often gets lost in many of these discussions.
I had more thoughts about this.

When I play Burning Wheel (with my spreadsheet optimiser friend GMing), of the two perspectives you identify I am much closer to the first. My inclination would be to characterise it as what would I do, where the "I" refers to the PC (not the player) but I the player am in some fashion imaginatively projecting myself into the PC so as to render the PC an object of first-person reference. I am not an actor (either in practical ability or in training) but I think this is what some RPGers sometimes describe as the "method acting" approach.

When my spreadsheet optimiser friend plays Burning Wheel (with me GMing), I think that he perhaps toggles between perspectives but much more often adopts a perspective a little closer to your second: what should I have Jobe do here so as to accrue checks that will allow him to improve? Sometimes that question will be asked inside a broader context that has been established in something like the first perspective - eg in playing Jobe as Jobe he has commenced a Fight!; but now he decides what move Jobe will make within the conflict because he's conscious of what Jobe needs to do in order to accrue those checks - so Jobe practices his judo throws in challenging circumstances not because that's what Jobe would do but because that's how Jobe can open up Martial Arts skill.

In our session of The Green Knight today, I think the default perspective for all three players was what are you going to have your character do to resolve this situation without blowing the Dishonour budget? But because of the PC build and action resolution frameworks, answering that question - when compared to Gygaxian skilled play - produced actions that were a bit more trope-and-theme laden. Some of that, compared to Gygax, was degree and not kind (just as in Gygaxaian play the fighters moreso than the MUs will shove the boulders out of the way and force open the doors, so in our game today it was the buff knight who dove to the bottom of the lake like Beowulf hunting Grendel's mother); but I think some of it really does go to kind and not just degree (there was not a hint of Gygaxian nitty-grittyness, and we had single action resolution rolls covering hours of interaction, producing conversions of miscreants, conjuring up previously uncodified magical effects, etc).

And in the final, climactic moment it was interesting to see the perspectives - particularly of two players, including the spreadsheet optimiser - shift to what would my character do? The jolly bard, Jeremiah of Jerusalem, knelt in prayer in the Green Chapel; the valorous but wrathful sorcerer Mendicus went full wrath, as was somewhat forecast by his backstory and build but had somewhat been kept under wraps in his patient and compliant play in the lead-up to that moment. At one point Jeremiah took an action that deliberately made Mendicus's approach less feasible; and likewise refrained from using an ability that would have helped Mendicus out. Because of the direct impact on the scenario win conditions for each PC, this had much more teeth than would (say) some back-and-forth alignment banter between the dwarven fighter and the half-elven ranger in classic D&D.

Does making deliberate mechanical choices, within a system that requires some skill to master (see my post not far upthread contrasting the regulars to inexperienced kids) but it overall pretty simple and transparent, to impose one's own thematic/moral vision of the situation on another player and that player's PC, at the cost of that PC's victory on his/her own terms, count as skilled play? I don't want to assert any sort of ownership over the key phrase here; but I do feel we've moved well out of Gygax/Moldvay-esque territory (and also well out of Trad/neo-Trad territory) into the sort of territory where I personally feel much more at home as a RPGer.

Let me ask you a few things:

1) You have a moveset consisting of a possible 10 moves (let us just say 10 to keep things manageable) in a given situation where the configuration of the shared imagined space is thus (vs this or that or any other arrangement of elements of the fictional positioning...if it was this or that configuration, there would not only be a different number of permissible moves but there would also be, at least in part, variance within the subset of moves).

a) If you then include a thematic coefficient to each of those 10 moves (ranging from thematically degenerate to thematically coherent to thematically potent sufficient to trigger mechanical effect), would that make the cognitive workspace of managing that moveset and navigating that singular decision-point less or more demanding/intensive (cognitively)?

b) Then, would it be correct or incorrect or not applicable to make the claim "as it pertains to skill, managing the cognitive workspace of that decision-point has increased?"
I've snipped your second question, about the parameters of the DW "defend" move, because I can't add anything useful to the discussion about that between you and @AbdulAlhazred.

But on the question you've quoted, I do have a view: while conceding that details of design matter, and it's probably possible to think of designs (and maybe they exist in the world) which would make my answer different, my default answer is that including a thematic coefficient makes the cognitive workspace easier. That answer is influenced by my own experience as a player, and as a human being, as well as by my (limited) knowledge of philosophical work on the cognitive function of emotions.

To explain the answer: the basic function of a thematic coefficient is to make a subset of the 10 possible moves highly salient, while putting some other (often larger) subset off the table straight away without having to think through any details of how their use would affect the "technical"/"procedural" aspects of the situation. In other words, it narrows the field of choice and the field of acceptable outcomes, making it easier to consider the options and settle on one.

A practical example: when my Burning Wheel PC was confronted by a demon outside Evard's tower, in principle the space of possible moves was very great, from fighting to fleeing to who knows what else. If something like this happened in The Green Knight (my go-to example game at present!), there would be additional considerations like how does dealing with the demon factor into the Judgement of Honour/Dishonour at the resolution of the scene? If it happened in classic D&D I might have to start thinking through more technical questions like what is the demon's magic resistance and immunity or vulnerability to my various attack forms.

But in the BW context I was able to be guided by my character's Beliefs, including that I am a Knight of the Iron Tower: by devotion and example I will lead the righteous to glorious victory; and further, because my PC was all that was standing between the demon and my wizard companion, that Aramina will need my protection. That second Belief also intersected, on this occasion, with my Instinct If an innocent is threatened, interpose myself. And so it was very easy to decide to confront the demon, hoping that my multiple dice of armour would provide some protection against its attacks!

Now I reckon there are other BW players, including my friend, who might approach this decision-space in a different fashion. And for them the thematic coefficient, by introducing another parameter of consequence for the decision, might make things harder. To relate this back to @Campbell's post and my reply to it earlier in this post, they are not "method acting": they are treating the game as a game even at this thematic level. I think that alternative approach produces less inhabitation of character: because an actual human being who treats emotional parameters as further points of optimisation, rather than as markers of salience that narrow the decision-space, is probably a sociopath, and I'm very confident that most RPGers are not sociopaths, and I'm superconfident that my dear friend whom I've know for nearly 30 years is not a sociopath. He just really enjoys optimisation in game play, and is really good at it!

But there are some RPGs where, if you adopt my own preferred approach, you will be hosed for it. Gygaxian skilled play is one. I don't know if I'll ever get to play The Green Knight; but I think it might be a game where I could play pretty closely to my preferred approach and get by. Burning Wheel certainly is, because of the principles that govern action resolution and consequence narration, and that feed those outcomes back into scene framing. When Thurgon attacked the demon he got his arse handed to him, but didn't die (the summoning ended and the demon departed) and he accrued an infamous reptuation in the Hells of +1D as intransigent demon foe.
 

pemerton

Legend
5e wizards are certainly easy mode compared to 1e wizards. Now, low level... Eh, maybe you spend more time on analysis and choosing when to spend slots in 5e. OTOH spell selection is vastly easier. HIGH level play, the 1e wizard (Magic User) is quite a bit trickier to play. You have to do a LOT of prep. Questioner of All Things layers his prep. He's got Staff of Power to deal with a lot of minor utility stuff, and then a couple other items which cover other basic needs, as well as certain contingencies. So then there's the fun question of picking the right mix of potions, scrolls, and memorized spells so as to provide additional contingency options, backups for things that might get expended etc. OTOH my 5e Transmuter could rely much more on simply having the ability to use go-to spells multiple times and that a number of utilities can be left to rituals. He found far less need to plan out exactly how each spell selection fit into the whole kit.
I've finally caught up on this thread; and I'll finish my battery of replies with this one.

First, prelude: Rolemaster (by default, at least) uses spell points rather than spell memorisation, and so allows use of "go to" spells multiple times. But it uses a "list" system for spell acquisition (lists are things like Fire Law, Detecting Ways, etc which have spells of various levels thematically connected as indicated by the name of the list). So casters have both more and less flexibility than a classic D&D caster. Optimising spell point usage, and getting bang for your buck out of the range of effects you have available, is a real thing.

Second, anecdote: I mentioned upthread that one of the regulars in my group (no longer a regular since he moved to the UK circa a decade ago) was an Australasian MtG champion. This group started over 30 years ago as a RM group. About a year into the group's life (and so about 30 years ago) a guy that I had played a lot of D&D with in the 80s was able to join one of our RM sessions, in which the now-in-the-UK regular was playing a spell caster. I remember, after the session, that my D&D friend commented about the regular, "A_________ is really good at playing a magic-user". Now my D&D friend wasn't a theorist, nor a spreadsheet-wielding optimiser; at that time his work was as a casual labourer and bouncer. He was just a guy who'd played a fair bit of D&D, and who - even in the changed mechanical environment of Rolemaster - could recognise skilful play when he saw it.

Third, conclusion: I readily accept your proposition that 5e D&D doesn't open up the same sort of scope for skilled play in this respect as does classic D&D or (as observed by my D&D friend 30 years ago) Rolemaster. I don't know where Dungeon World would fall into this matrix of evaluation. I think that Burning Wheel retains, from its FRPG heritage, some elements of "clever use of spells" but not under the same sorts of constraints or optimisation parameters as classic D&D or RM.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
From what you write I think you get my point though, right? That although you can roleplay your character and engage in "skilled play", "skilled play" doesn't care if you roleplay your character. That is orthogonal to it.
If the goal is 'overcome this NPC by any means available' then skilled play entails using any means necessary.
If the goal is 'overcome this NPC without lying' then skilled play entails that lying should be avoided.

This is how RP choices can constrain play while still allowing for skilled play - by shifting the 'goals of play' such that the new goal becomes 'overcome the obstacle while maintaining Roleplay Constraints'.

So I think roleplaying the character does matter in General Skilled play even if it didn't matter in Gygaxian Skilled play, due to the subtle differences in goals.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
If the goal is 'overcome this NPC by any means available' then skilled play entails using any means necessary.
If the goal is 'overcome this NPC without lying' then skilled play entails that lying should be avoided.

This is how RP choices can constrain play while still allowing for skilled play - by shifting the 'goals of play' such that the new goal becomes 'overcome the obstacle while maintaining Roleplay Constraints'.

So I think roleplaying the character does matter in General Skilled play even if it didn't matter in Gygaxian Skilled play, due to the subtle differences in goals.
I liked your post, but also it leads me to a conundrum. @pemerton suggests that

5e D&D doesn't open up the same sort of scope for skilled play in this respect as does classic D&D or (as observed by my D&D friend 30 years ago) Rolemaster.

If "skilled play" orients toward goals, and we set ourselves goals that skillful use of 5e can achieve, are we then doing "skilled play" perfectly well in 5e?
 

Third, conclusion: I readily accept your proposition that 5e D&D doesn't open up the same sort of scope for skilled play in this respect as does classic D&D or (as observed by my D&D friend 30 years ago) Rolemaster. I don't know where Dungeon World would fall into this matrix of evaluation. I think that Burning Wheel retains, from its FRPG heritage, some elements of "clever use of spells" but not under the same sorts of constraints or optimisation parameters as classic D&D or RM.
Yeah, 1e certainly makes playing a magic user hard. I mean, the cognitively difficult part at low level is probably more figuring out "How can I make my 3 marginally useful spells (because that's all I randomly got in my book) do some useful work? Should I take 'Affect Normal Fires' or 'Mending' because I'm definitely taking 'Shield' as my first spell! How do I make my only 2nd level spell, 'Fools Gold' useful? Of course there is huge variation, if the DM let you capture some fat spellbook from a bad guy, then it is more a question of 'when do I unleash web?' and that's not so hard... So maybe 5e's 3rd level Wizard is a bit more involved, he's got more options DURING PLAY, but it could be easier to decide what spells to memorize.

And that is the problem with all RPG analysis. RPGs are extraordinarily malleable. 2 people can run the same game and get completely different, or at least qualitatively different, experiences pretty consistently. Either by deploying the rules differently, or emphasizing different parts of the play process and agenda.

I cannot really say what the difficulty level is of playing the DW Wizard. I mean, you are faced with a lot of instances of "what consequence do I suffer for my Cast A Spell move?" on top of picking spells to begin with. I suspect it could go various ways depending on the GM and whatnot. Given that lack of any sort of 'turn sequence' you will also find that there's a big question in 'combat situations' with DW of just exactly how much do you lean on a specific character? There's some significant skill there too! It often turns out it might be a good idea to just let the dwarf take care of the orc, but the wizard might be a better choice to deal with the scarecrow...
 

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