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RPG Theory- The Limits of My Language are the Limits of My World

I feel like 5e could be GMed with a more story now approach. I don't think it's strongly suited for it. I think the adventuring day "budget" and the short rest/long rest recharges are where the strongest opposition would be.

But I don't think it's something that can't be done. I feel like I've GMed with this general goal in mind in a campaign my group was playing that went on hold at the start of the pandemic. I'm sure if I could look back over a transcript of play, there would be points that clearly failed the sniff test, but I don't think it might be as many as would be typical in 5e.

I think if the GM and the players are approaching play with this mindset, then it's possible.

I wonder if there are types of campaigns or even types of individual sessions that might lend themselves more to this approach. For example, urban campaigns where combat is deemphasized (because of the context of the city). The problem of how to "crawl" a city is complex enough that it can lead to a more scene-based approach. For example, this product is interesting in providing encounters for PCs as they wander through the city. Ostensibly, they have a destination in mind (as related in the Waterdeep AP), but I can imagine a session that just introduces an encounter, keeping in mind the fronts/factions at play in the city, and letting things snowball from there. (This take is somewhat inspired by this podcast episode).

But, dnd being games not one game, it might be the case that style of play various from session to session, or even within a session, and so things become blurred.
 

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I wonder if there are types of campaigns or even types of individual sessions that might lend themselves more to this approach. For example, urban campaigns where combat is deemphasized (because of the context of the city). The problem of how to "crawl" a city is complex enough that it can lead to a more scene-based approach. For example, this product is interesting in providing encounters for PCs as they wander through the city. Ostensibly, they have a destination in mind (as related in the Waterdeep AP), but I can imagine a session that just introduces an encounter, keeping in mind the fronts/factions at play in the city, and letting things snowball from there. (This take is somewhat inspired by this podcast episode).

But, dnd being games not one game, it might be the case that style of play various from session to session, or even within a session, and so things become blurred.

In discussing this today, I've been thinking back to my 5e campaign. It's largely based in Sigil. I give the players a lot of leeway with establishing what they know of the city and the kinds of resources they can find there. There are factions that are in play, some of the classic factions of Sigil and others as well. A large part of the game is how the PC group deals with these factions. That element does feel to me very similar to how I GM Blades in the Dark.

But, there absolutely is a kind of GM plot in place that lends context to a lot of these elements...and that's much less suited to Story Now, though I don't think it's used in a way to establish a linear progression of any kind. And the plot in this case is one drawn from character hooks and player requests, so again, it's not a classic Dragonlance-esque type of linear sequence. Usually, play could roughly be described as the players deciding some goal for the characters (based on previously established play, etc.) and then we figure out a way for them to achieve that goal.

It's hard to say for sure. It's been nearly two years at this point since we played, and I wasn't GMing with a mind to later analysis, so it's a bit blurry at times. I was largely trying new things based on games other than 5e, but exactly how effective that was or exactly how any given session would hold up to scrutiny is hard to say.

If/when we resume that campaign, I'll have to make sure to keep all this in mind so I can look at it after the fact.
 

I think that I agree. For me, this was really brought out in the discussions of 4e D&D. But as was mentioned upthread, I think by you, we see it in other places too: eg the AW thread. I'm also reminded of a thread a while ago now where I asked What is Worldbuilding For?

Articulating the sorts of approaches to play that you describe often seems to be treated as "improper" or even "insulting" per se. As when, in the other thread, I posted that I think 5e D&D could be approached in such a fashion. No one seemed very interested in discussing further how that might be done. But it did seem to be considered overly forward to even make the suggestion!
Right, there's a definite overtone of "why are you attacking my sacred cows!" that happens. I mean, it varies a lot and I don't mean to bin everyone that posts here too much. Still, you get certain types of reactions, and then endless attempts to logic chop that amount to claiming that story games are just the same as trad D&D, etc. If you do some analysis and it doesn't support that contention, then either the specific analysis, or analysis in general, is at fault. lol.

In the end I know that there's a considerable and real difference between the game 5e, taken at face value and played as generally depicted by its developers and most of the people who run it, vs "Heroes of Myth and Legend" which is my even more story-game hack of, basically, 4e. There IS a real substantive difference. Analyze it any way you want, I don't care, you cannot possibly paper over that difference. Same if you substitute Dungeon World. Yes, they are all RPGs, and you can converge styles of play to a significant degree across games, but system matters. As you say, you can certainly play a much more player-focused game where the players decide many of the things more traditionally reserved for GMs using 5e. That doesn't make it HoML. You literally cannot play HoML like 5e, not really, not without effectively rewriting large parts of it and actually breaking some of its mechanics in substantive ways!

Obviously nobody can claim the authority to judge anyone else's game play, but we can certainly critique games, techniques, theories, and assertions.
 

This post feels eerily similar to one of my early posts in the 5e concept test back in late ‘12 or perhaps ‘13!

The thrust of that post was that balancing a game around the zoomed out Adventuring Day rather than the site of the Encounter was begging for a fraught combat engine where (a) GM intervention and exceptional cognitive load was going to be a profound feature of play (given the intricate features of modern D&D combat), (b) therefore play would progressively (as levels piled and Long Rest classes through-put and spike capability on recharge became increasingly significant) feature an arms race over the Long Rest recharge (that GMs who wish to control pacing can trivially do at their discretion by deploying offscreen assets or unrevealed backstory), (c) and therefore it’s going to pose problems to surmount (via more GM intervention) for both Story Now play (where everyone, including the GM, can play aggressively, just let things unfold, and can play to find out what happens) and also challenge-based Gamist play (where the engine does its work seemlessly and predictably, for the GM, at the encounter-level…without intervention…eg x difficulty is reliably x difficulty fight-in and fight-out…so both sides can play accelerator to the floor and feel good with the competitive integrity of play).

And my second critique was that class resource scheduling not being unified is going to obviously exacerbate this (requiring more GM intervention in tailoring, pacing, and the temptation of fudging…and increased related cognitive burden on the GM). But that ship had set sail so that critique was just an aside.

EDIT - As you might imagine, that offering was not received well back then!
Yeah, sigh, I remember making EXACTLY the same comments. I even wrote it all up in detail and handed it to the developers (I assume they basically didn't read any of their email/comments, they just pretended to want them). There were quite a few of us doing that on the WotC boards, with varying details, but generally in the same vein. There is a real REASON why something A/E/D/U-like is desirable! Honestly I've broken with that paradigm in my own design at this point, but the key details remain, there are substantial enconter-based resources that are held pretty much equally by all classes and builds of character. You all go into every fight, or other situation, with resources at the ready and roughly in the same quantity as everyone else (there are also daily resources, again everyone has the same).

There are certainly some things to tweak in a system like 4e, like how swingy combats are, and the exact ratios of daily vs encounter resources. I think the daily ones are actually a useful tool, if you reduce them too much then you lose some ways to easily model stress on the party. Many sorts of games don't need that, but IMHO it actually works pretty well for FRPGs of the D&D ilk. Too much and the GM gets burdened with certain pressures (trying to subvert a tendency to stop and rest all the time for example). Too little and basically every fight has only plot significance, or else pure hazard value on its own.

This is a major part of the reasoning for my own design decisions. HoML has, basically, ONE resource, power points, that underlies all the others (you can invoke riders using them, emulating daily/encounter powers, and they also work as both HS and AP effectively). Tweaking pacing becomes silly easy. How many of these points do you start with after a complete reset (Recovery) and how many do you get back after every (short) rest. The more you go with the later, the further you move towards pure encounter resources, so its pretty darn easy to tweak! Honestly, I currently have the limits set at you start with 8 points and get one back after every rest. Presumably you're going to use 2-4 points in an average fight and the day can then go from 2 to 5 or 6 combats depending on difficulty, etc. and you can then throw in your challenges and such to arrive at whatever the total encounters per day expectation should be. Tweaking the starting number changes the expected day length, and tweaking the recovery number shifts you more into pure encounter mode (and presumably you then cut the starting number a bit, perhaps).

You can also do fun stuff with that design. Like Consumables are 'frozen power', you can spend a point, carry out a ritual, and 'embody' its effect in a consumable. That lowers your available power points by one until its used or discarded. Planning is now fun and interesting! It is pretty thematic too, the Alchemist is pretty serious when he says "and I'll need a vial of your blood..." lol.
 

I feel like 5e could be GMed with a more story now approach. I don't think it's strongly suited for it. I think the adventuring day "budget" and the short rest/long rest recharges are where the strongest opposition would be.

But I don't think it's something that can't be done. I feel like I've GMed with this general goal in mind in a campaign my group was playing that went on hold at the start of the pandemic. I'm sure if I could look back over a transcript of play, there would be points that clearly failed the sniff test, but I don't think it might be as many as would be typical in 5e.

I think if the GM and the players are approaching play with this mindset, then it's possible.
I would just lard tons of consumables into my game. So basically after every encounter you guzzle some heals and the wizard has plenty of scrolls to whip out if he runs out of slots. It pretty much works, though obviously you will need to have sturdier encounters since the PCs will now be tanked up going into every fight.
 

I think another important part of this is the actual make-up of the party. The amount of magic and the potentially competing rest mechanics change the picture a lot. I also think this is much more doable at lower adventuring tiers when the party as a whole has less on-tap resources.
Yeah, that or you simply elide the daily resource classes like wizard. I mean, there's still a good bit of variety. Heck, you can have just basically fighters, thieves, and warlocks or sorcerers or whatever (I'm a bit rusty on some of these classes details, never played either of them). I'm sure there are a couple other builds that would work fine too. Half-casters might or might not work, probably well enough but maybe not as much at high levels.
 


gorice

Explorer
Honestly, the disparity between short and long rest classes is one of those design decisions in 5e that has me scratching my head. There are plenty of things in the game that I might not like, but do understand; but that one seems to serve no purpose other than to create problems.

I really wonder what kind of game 5e was 'supposed' to be. I know opinion here leans towards trad, and I can see that, but you'd think that sort of game would be poorly served by the balance problems that occur with the attrition-based, short rest/long rest system they went with. On the other hand, the playtests had some honest-to-God 'old school' exploration procedures, and even a version of Keep on the Borderlands, but that all got ripped out in favour of DM fiat and linear adventures.

Maybe if I'd actually played any 3rd Edition (or any official adventures for second), I'd see more of a family resemblance.
 

Honestly, the disparity between short and long rest classes is one of those design decisions in 5e that has me scratching my head. There are plenty of things in the game that I might not like, but do understand; but that one seems to serve no purpose other than to create problems.

I really wonder what kind of game 5e was 'supposed' to be. I know opinion here leans towards trad, and I can see that, but you'd think that sort of game would be poorly served by the balance problems that occur with the attrition-based, short rest/long rest system they went with. On the other hand, the playtests had some honest-to-God 'old school' exploration procedures, and even a version of Keep on the Borderlands, but that all got ripped out in favour of DM fiat and linear adventures.

Maybe if I'd actually played any 3rd Edition (or any official adventures for second), I'd see more of a family resemblance.
That because putting all classes on the same resource recovery system would make them too samey; something people did not approve of in 4E.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
If you actually stick to 2 shorts and a long per day it balances out ok and the differences feel neat instead of a pain in the arse. Sticking to that exact rest formula isn't always easy though.
 

Honestly, the disparity between short and long rest classes is one of those design decisions in 5e that has me scratching my head. There are plenty of things in the game that I might not like, but do understand; but that one seems to serve no purpose other than to create problems.

I really wonder what kind of game 5e was 'supposed' to be. I know opinion here leans towards trad, and I can see that, but you'd think that sort of game would be poorly served by the balance problems that occur with the attrition-based, short rest/long rest system they went with. On the other hand, the playtests had some honest-to-God 'old school' exploration procedures, and even a version of Keep on the Borderlands, but that all got ripped out in favour of DM fiat and linear adventures.

Maybe if I'd actually played any 3rd Edition (or any official adventures for second), I'd see more of a family resemblance.
Yeah, I don't know what the reasoning was with not including the exploration stuff, they talked about it as a 'pillar' during the much-vaunted design process, but then just basically ignored it. AFAICT 5e is aimed squarely at reproducing 2e's game play. 2e did the same thing, it took 1e and ripped out all the exploration stuff, made it much harder to do things like create magic items, and then subverted the old GP for XP mode of advancement.

I guess you could say that the play of 2e is well-known to a lot of older players, and is the last TSR version of D&D, the last one that is really seriously mechanically a child of Gary's own handiwork. So, evoking it may have been a sort of mandate, a way of insuring fan loyalty. I mean, 5e REALLY is sort of 2e reborn in a more robust set of rules. That also explains the whole resource thing, its not intended to be a clean sheet design of a resource system, it is exactly delivering all the quirks and foibles of good old vancian wizards and TSR fighters, though with a reasonably decent job of filing off some of the rough edges. Certainly a 5e fighter is a bit less vanilla than core 2e ones, though once you add available kits and such they seem fairly comparable (sort of depends on which 2e books you would consider reasonably usable, like NOT 'weapons and tactics', lol).
 


pemerton

Legend
Thanks @hawkeyefan, @Ovinomancer, @Malmuria and @Manbearcat for your reflections in response to my post.

My own experiences with "situation first" AD&D (back in the days of yore) are what make me think that it must in some sense be feasible in 5e - are the differences that great? (Ovinomancer makes the strongest case that they are) - but I agree that compared to a gold standard like Burning Wheel it's all a bit shaky. @hawkeyefan's account of what he's done make sense to me. And I think the idea of urban environments - or at least socially rich environments - as better suited to this are correct. Also that it makes more sense at lower levels. (I think @Fenris-77 said that - I agree.)

The question of whether Game A could be run with Playstyle X seems a bit off. I think the more fundamental question is whether running Game A with Playstyle X actually plays to the strengths of Game A in a way that does justice to the game experience for everyone involved.
Yes and no.

There's something to be said for working with what you know. For a vanilla narrativist system with vibrantly-painted characters and a basic stat-and-skill system, 5e D&D seems as workable as AD&D. So if someone were inclined to drift it in a more "situation first" direction, or was interested in "story now" but didn't want to learn a new suite of mechanic, I think it makes sense to talk about how 5e D&D might be used in such a fashion.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I wonder if there are types of campaigns or even types of individual sessions that might lend themselves more to this approach. For example, urban campaigns where combat is deemphasized (because of the context of the city). The problem of how to "crawl" a city is complex enough that it can lead to a more scene-based approach. For example, this product is interesting in providing encounters for PCs as they wander through the city. Ostensibly, they have a destination in mind (as related in the Waterdeep AP), but I can imagine a session that just introduces an encounter, keeping in mind the fronts/factions at play in the city, and letting things snowball from there. (This take is somewhat inspired by this podcast episode).

But, dnd being games not one game, it might be the case that style of play various from session to session, or even within a session, and so things become blurred.
Using prepped encounters that aren't built around the PC's stated drives and motivations is kinda opposite of what a story now approach would be doing.

I don't think there's a kind of campaign or session, but you can use story now techniques in certain cases -- like the skill challenge example I posted. Even there, the structure is something you have to add to 5e, because 5e doesn't support skill challenges of any kind out of the box.
 

Thanks @hawkeyefan, @Ovinomancer, @Malmuria and @Manbearcat for your reflections in response to my post.

My own experiences with "situation first" AD&D (back in the days of yore) are what make me think that it must in some sense be feasible in 5e - are the differences that great? (Ovinomancer makes the strongest case that they are) - but I agree that compared to a gold standard like Burning Wheel it's all a bit shaky. @hawkeyefan's account of what he's done make sense to me. And I think the idea of urban environments - or at least socially rich environments - as better suited to this are correct. Also that it makes more sense at lower levels. (I think @Fenris-77 said that - I agree.)

Yes and no.

There's something to be said for working with what you know. For a vanilla narrativist system with vibrantly-painted characters and a basic stat-and-skill system, 5e D&D seems as workable as AD&D. So if someone were inclined to drift it in a more "situation first" direction, or was interested in "story now" but didn't want to learn a new suite of mechanic, I think it makes sense to talk about how 5e D&D might be used in such a fashion.
But can you ever really get good results? I don't think so, personally. I mean, I've PLAYED in 5e campaigns twice that were run by a GM who is fully versed in and capable of running story games. It STILL wasn't much of a story game. Nobody knows what their character can DO, that's the main problem. I have stats, but they are essentially just hints. Even if the GM is operating in totally good faith, I still don't know how situations could play out, and there's no driving principles or deep nested 'onion structure' of process and principles such as exists in a PbtA-based game.

WORSE there's no real process, outside of the most basic elements of combat, so I don't know what the VALUE of any action is. I can say I want to do X but I have only my notion of what the unrevealed story might be and what the GM's judgment of how to deploy checks is to gauge the impact of my character's actions. I mean, there's genre logic, right? But in the D&D milieu that seems pretty weak, unless its a pretty cut-and-dried situation. Ironically 5e doesn't even cater to those (IE dungeon crawling exploration stuff) very well!

I mean, a lot of the time it kind of worked, but things kind of 'derailed' quite often. Then we would have to go back out of character and negotiate what everyone meant and how their intentions mapped onto what was happening in a very explicit way. And then something like the pressures on the GM to manage situations to make the resource game work out come along and meh, it isn't that pretty.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
But can you ever really get good results? I don't think so, personally. I mean, I've PLAYED in 5e campaigns twice that were run by a GM who is fully versed in and capable of running story games. It STILL wasn't much of a story game. Nobody knows what their character can DO, that's the main problem. I have stats, but they are essentially just hints. Even if the GM is operating in totally good faith, I still don't know how situations could play out, and there's no driving principles or deep nested 'onion structure' of process and principles such as exists in a PbtA-based game.

WORSE there's no real process, outside of the most basic elements of combat, so I don't know what the VALUE of any action is. I can say I want to do X but I have only my notion of what the unrevealed story might be and what the GM's judgment of how to deploy checks is to gauge the impact of my character's actions. I mean, there's genre logic, right? But in the D&D milieu that seems pretty weak, unless its a pretty cut-and-dried situation. Ironically 5e doesn't even cater to those (IE dungeon crawling exploration stuff) very well!

I mean, a lot of the time it kind of worked, but things kind of 'derailed' quite often. Then we would have to go back out of character and negotiate what everyone meant and how their intentions mapped onto what was happening in a very explicit way. And then something like the pressures on the GM to manage situations to make the resource game work out come along and meh, it isn't that pretty.
Yup. This describes the general problem. You have to import structure, either like introducing formal frameworks like skill challenges or by establishing how DCs will be set transparently (like @loverdrive's suggestion that a 17+ is a success, 12+ success with complication (or whatever the numbers were)). These are modifications to the 5e rules, though. Just using the system as is it fights against story now.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
Even traditional games that are well suited to scene based play like Exalted Third Edition, Legend of the Five Rings Fifth Edition, or Pathfinder Second Edition benefit more from an approach like Ron Edwards' accounts of his own Champions games. Basically you prep for the session based on player character motivations, but inside the session you pretty much run it like a sandbox game. These games have abilities that assume a much richer view of the situation than most scene framed games expect. I think it behooves GMs to work towards that somewhat.
 

Yup. This describes the general problem. You have to import structure, either like introducing formal frameworks like skill challenges or by establishing how DCs will be set transparently (like @loverdrive's suggestion that a 17+ is a success, 12+ success with complication (or whatever the numbers were)). These are modifications to the 5e rules, though. Just using the system as is it fights against story now.
Right, but I would say that even @loverdrive's suggestion isn't going to get you all the way there. I mean, its going to tend to result in a more consistent application, perhaps. I guess really there are a couple ways to go here. One is in the DW/PbtA direction where you simply stop modeling 'the world' AT ALL (PbtA doesn't, not even a little bit). Tossing dice in a PbtA game is a way of bringing randomness into the PLOT! The bonuses you can get for various things "hold" and such, are simply exercises in players directing the game. 4e OTOH is the other direction, which is one where the mechanics still relate to the game world and arbitrating it, but you have that structured system that tells you what each check is 'worth'.

So, the problem with 5e in the PbtA-like approach is then what about combat? I mean, I used a 4e-like approach in HoML, because I was having fun getting engaged with tactically interesting story play, and just wanted to do that. So, combat is coherent with the rest of the design, checks actually DO have some relation to fiction, its just 'meta' enough to let you tell the story around it/with it that you want, or at least for the players to say "this is interesting, I try this interpretation of things!" That always gets me in @pemerton's examples of play in 4e, someone is always doing some crazy thing combining 4 different game elements and drawing on keywords and whatnot to concoct how the world might work to bring about their crazy plan, or not lets roll dice and find out... lol.

The DW and 4e end results are pretty similar, but they definitely take different paths. Not sure how 5e goes down the DW-like path.
 

pemerton

Legend
@Ovinomancer, @AbdulAlhazred

I can absolutely follow your posts and understand your reasoning. All I can say in response is that I think you're getting close to treating the gold standard of a system like BW or AW as the floor!

In AD&D played vanilla narrativist, it's closer to AW than BW in the following sense: there's less of a sense of "scene stakes" and more of a sense of the "local" (for lack of a better word) stakes of a particular check. (This also fits with there being nothing like a skill challenge.)

But the GM can set a difficulty for checks, and honour success. And there can be a practice of allowing retries on a miss of (say) 4 or less (on d20), with the cost of a retry being some sort of fictional escalation like the passage of time or having to increase the offer to a NPC or similar.

That's a bit different from the approach that @Campbell has described. It can be done in AD&D. I can see that 5e has more moving parts. It might work better in 5e for a rogue, a fighter and a warlock than (say) a paladin and two full casters.
 

loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff (She/Her)
Yup. This describes the general problem. You have to import structure, either like introducing formal frameworks like skill challenges or by establishing how DCs will be set transparently (like @loverdrive's suggestion that a 17+ is a success, 12+ success with complication (or whatever the numbers were)). These are modifications to the 5e rules, though. Just using the system as is it fights against story now.
I don't think it makes D&D 5E a story now game, and the result table wasn't an attempt to do so. I used PbtA-like static DCs because I can't be bothered to assign DC for each and every task.

I don't think there is a way to turn 5E into a story now game without tearing it down and rebuilding it anew.
 

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