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D&D General Story Now, Skilled Play, and Elephants

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
Recently I have noticed an interest in OSR and "skilled play" and story-now on these forums. I feel there is a significance to these matters, and it might be due to an elephant in the room: computer RPGs.

Game Developers are better at Story-Before
If we think about story-before - a pre-scripted story - then teams of game developers can out-build lone-DMs. For one thing, we can hire professional writers. We can give them voice-actors, sound effects, and visuals. The story can be tested - is this the right pace, does this tension work here?

What we cannot do so easily (yet) is have the story author itself on the fly. Yes, we can think of a few branches, but we can't accommodate simply whatever the players think of. PnP RPG can still fill this niche - free from natural predators - by pursuing story-now.

Computers are better at Mechanics
If we think about rules, computers can both enforce them and take care of them - do any bookkeeping - far more reliably than a DM. There are videogame mechanics that would be senseless to even attempt in a PnP RPG. And simple, oft-repeated mechanics can be enhanced with visual and audio effects. One could write a book on great, good and bad implementations of mechanics in videogames! The thing is, these mechanics are increasingly gathered into libraries, so that as we go along, more and more game developers can just use the great ones, in their best instantiation. For example via Unity or Unreal.

What games cannot do is on-the-fly arbitration of anything players might think of. This isn't cut and dried. Within a defined physics system, computers are increasingly coping with anything players can think of to do within that system. Valheim is an example. Minecraft, obviously.

So the idea of detailed moves in the fiction as a preferred mode - "skilled play" - arbitrated on-the-fly by a DM, is something PnP RPG still owns. If you can't win the accurately implemented elegant mechanics race, you still can win the do-whatever-we-can-think-of race. For now.

Thus a Hypothesis
So that's the hypothesis: that the unremarked pressure guiding PnP RPGers toward story-now and "skilled play" is survival instinct. Fear. Or a better way to put it, group-think toward our viable niches. Does that belittle those concepts? For me, not at all. Rather they might point to what I see as crucial questions for PnP RPG - what burning problems do we uniquely solve for players? Or put another way - what differentiable experiences can we offer players (differentiated from computer RPGs, of course)?

And 6e?
Potentially - 5e design is conflicted. The designers wanted to support that which is unique to PnP RPG, which they had a sense for. While we players still wanted - and want - good rules for expressing and navigating our worlds. A secondary hypothesis - more personal than popular - is that the future for games will be immersion (or simulation, in GNS parlance) all the way down.

The game rules that most need to be advanced in 6e, under this view, are ability use and skills. 3e and 5e rules have both been clunky in dealing with simple and common exploration moves, such as climbing a mountain. You can "skilled play" it (smooth talk your DM into concessions, to put it controversially), but what would be great would be just enough support in the rules that player choices - as interpreted by a DM - translated smoothly and convincingly into mechanical game flows and resolutions.

4e looked at this, but didn't hit the nail quite on the head. One needs to ask - is an exploration turn structure needed - and question of that ilk. If the future for PnP RPG must be about what we as small groups of humans can do, then we need better rules in 6e. And those are not combat rules - 5e combat rules are strong - 6e needs to offer more in the exploration and social pillars. Parts of play that 5e shied away from, and then returned to rather reluctantly, when what was needed was vigorous and sincere design attention from the start.
 

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While I feel the exploration tier was given only lip surface in 5E, I feel the concept of the ability check system is exactly how it's meant to be. Unlike the last two editions, where the rules were very detailed and often got in the way of immersion, 5E has a very simplified system that appeals to the majority. Unless trends radically change in gaming, I doubt 6E will return to a more detailed system.

What they need to do (IMO) is to give a few example DCs of common activities with certain skills, giving new DMs a baseline to work from when determining DCs. If climbing a 10 ft high, rough wooden fence is a DC:10, then you might extrapolate that a smooth wooden palisade is a DC:15, a wet wooden wall is a DC: 20, and an oiled wooden wall is a DC: 25. Anything the players do for skilled play would grant advantage if the DM feels it appropriate, unless their plan negates the check entirely (e.g. flying).
 



MarkB

Legend
Game Developers are better at Story-Before
If we think about story-before - a pre-scripted story - then teams of game developers can out-build lone-DMs.
In some respects yes, but they still lack a factor that most lone DMs will have going for them: Knowing their audience.

Game developers can create a generic story that will work for variations on an average player or group of players - but DMs usually know the players that are going to be sitting down at their table, and can tailor the story to best match those who will be participating in it.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
I'm of the opinion that no attempts to "fix" any of these systems in D&D will work so long as the game maintains its huge disparate leveling system and hit point allocation.

You can't build an effective or universal "mechanical system" for climbing a mountain when the negatives results of that need to punish players the same way even if one has 8 hit points and another has 160 hit points. The only way to do that is via "story"... the narrative decisions on what happens during the event, and then throw in the occasional bone to game mechanics (a DEX check here, an Athletics check there) to give the illusion that mechanics can impact this particular story beat.

What else can you do? If you want mechanical systems to make non-combat as hefty as combat is... you pretty much need a "Skills Manual" that includes the hundreds of different things D&D character will run into just like we do for monsters, while also making them viable "opponents" for when PCs are 1st level or 20th. All of them needing a baseline mechanical heft, and then layered onto it all the "special attacks" that the event would need for it to be specific to that one particular type of encounter. "Climbing a mountain" would have to be its own "monster" with all the mechanics listed for the special attacks and defenses required to make "climbing a mountain" its own thing. "Brewing a potion" would have to be its own monster. "Foraging for food", "browbeating a prisoner", "researching ancient texts", "travelling cross-country by horseback" all their own monsters etc. etc. etc. Otherwise... without including the specific mechanics for those specific events, you just end up essentially with nothing more than your standard Skill Challenge-- where at the end of the day the generic mechanics basically devolve down to "make 6 successful checks before missing 3".

D&D is built mechanically to be a combat simulator. That's all. That's why 75% of the character sheet is nothing but numbers and mechanics aimed towards combat, and why an entire book of the base three is nothing but specific combat challenges for every single level range in the game. It's what D&D is. And to think you can make it more than that without creating additional systems for all the types of non-combat activity just as mechanically hefty as combat is I think a fool's errand.

This is why D&D for anything outside of combat is merely narrative improvisation and agreement. The DM improvises narrative events... the players improvise narrative actions that agree with those events and then add to them with what they choose to do... then the DM agrees with those narrative actions and colors the results by having a die or two rolled for a "skill check" to vary up the results positively or negatively. Those rolls then impact how the DM chooses to improvise the next step of the narrative event. And then the cycle continues until both DM and players all improvise a conclusion together. That's really the only way D&D handles non-combat action and activities. Improvised story between DM and players, and the occasional mechanic thrown in merely to avoid requiring the DM to unilaterally decide which narrative actions had positive results or negative results. Let the fickle finger of fate decide and all the players agreeing to go along with it.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
While I feel the exploration tier was given only lip surface in 5E, I feel the concept of the ability check system is exactly how it's meant to be. Unlike the last two editions, where the rules were very detailed and often got in the way of immersion, 5E has a very simplified system that appeals to the majority. Unless trends radically change in gaming, I doubt 6E will return to a more detailed system.

What they need to do (IMO) is to give a few example DCs of common activities with certain skills, giving new DMs a baseline to work from when determining DCs. If climbing a 10 ft high, rough wooden fence is a DC:10, then you might extrapolate that a smooth wooden palisade is a DC:15, a wet wooden wall is a DC: 20, and an oiled wooden wall is a DC: 25. Anything the players do for skilled play would grant advantage if the DM feels it appropriate, unless their plan negates the check entirely (e.g. flying).
It does feel like the translation into specificity could use work. What I mean is that the basic arrangement works well as a foundation -
  • ability modifier
  • + proficiency bonus (if skilled)
  • + proficiency bonus (if expert)
  • * advantage (situationally)
but could use more framing to bridge both that specificity - which I see as players skillfully describing character actions - and time and cost management. Other opportunities for development might include -
  • passive scores (this is useful, but needs a design rev)
  • group checks (broken as printed)
  • collaboration or help (clunky and sometimes irrelevant in current form)
  • process and result support for hazards
  • complex skill checks (4e failed to solve this, but showed some options)
  • common situations (much as you suggest) and more detail on time and cost for these
  • nuanced outcomes that can propel the emergent narrative (success at a cost, degrees of failure, etc)
  • contests
  • perhaps some sort of exertion resource (fatigue, hold, whatever)
What else can you do? If you want mechanical systems to make non-combat as hefty as combat is... you pretty much need a "Skills Manual" that includes the hundreds of different things D&D character will run into just like we do for monsters, while also making them viable "opponents" for when PCs are 1st level or 20th. All of them needing a baseline mechanical heft, and then layered onto it all the "special attacks" that the event would need for it to be specific to that one particular type of encounter. "Climbing a mountain" would have to be its own "monster" with all the mechanics listed for the special attacks and defenses required to make "climbing a mountain" its own thing. "Brewing a potion" would have to be its own monster. "Foraging for food", "browbeating a prisoner", "researching ancient texts", "travelling cross-country by horseback" all their own monsters etc. etc. etc. Otherwise... without including the specific mechanics for those specific events, you just end up essentially with nothing more than your standard Skill Challenge-- where at the end of the day the generic mechanics basically devolve down to "make 6 successful checks before missing 3".

D&D is built mechanically to be a combat simulator. That's all. That's why 75% of the character sheet is nothing but numbers and mechanics aimed towards combat, and why an entire book of the base three is nothing but specific combat challenges for every single level range in the game. It's what D&D is. And to think you can make it more than that without creating additional systems for all the types of non-combat activity just as mechanically hefty as combat is I think a fool's errand.
Yes, the out-of-combat is as important as combat, and needs at least the same rules weight.

This is why D&D for anything outside of combat is merely narrative improvisation and agreement. The DM improvises narrative events... the players improvise narrative actions that agree with those events and then add to them with what they choose to do... then the DM agrees with those narrative actions and colors the results by having a die or two rolled for a "skill check" to vary up the results positively or negatively. Those rolls then impact how the DM chooses to improvise the next step of the narrative event. And then the cycle continues until both DM and players all improvise a conclusion together. That's really the only way D&D handles non-combat action and activities. Improvised story between DM and players, and the occasional mechanic thrown in merely to avoid requiring the DM to unilaterally decide which narrative actions had positive results or negative results. Let the fickle finger of fate decide and all the players agreeing to go along with it.
The aim would certainly not be to replace the narrative improvisation and agreement, but support it more robustly. The current skills system nearly does that. If it were better featured, the game would be far stronger in play. The fact is that there are many common situations that come up again and again, and that the rules handle clunkily.

An example is crossing a pit, current rules offers quite a bit of possible support
  • jump - if the intent is Strength-feet is automatic, and say DC 2/foot past that, then this nearly works and clicks well with Step of the Wind and Otherworldly Leap/jump spell
  • climb - athletics (what on Earth is acrobatics for?!), but
    • what if players want to belay (sleight of hand per XGE?)
    • what if someone falls and someone else wants to react? how is particular time even dealt with out of combat? feather fall suggests it is possible
The mechanics framework is nearly there - and note that I'm not at all advocating removal of detailed actions in the fiction - it just needs to be taken on as a central design objective, not a concession to community voices.
 

MarkB

Legend
I'm of the opinion that no attempts to "fix" any of these systems in D&D will work so long as the game maintains its huge disparate leveling system and hit point allocation.

You can't build an effective or universal "mechanical system" for climbing a mountain when the negatives results of that need to punish players the same way even if one has 8 hit points and another has 160 hit points.
To be fair, there are some systems in play to mitigate that. For your Mountain example, a reasonable penalty for failure would be a level of exhaustion, and that's equally debilitating to a 1st-level character or a 10th-level one.

So it's not impossible to make such challenges at least partially divorced from character level, we maybe just need a few more systems in place along similar lines.
 

Aging Bard

Mac-Fuirmidh
DEFCON 1's points are mostly solid, but I'll add some clarifications:

1) 5e combat is also nothing but a series of decisions, die rolls to resolve those decisions, and referral to the rules to interpret the die rolls. So combat has a "Skills Manual" we all agree to use. The question is why do other subsystems not have such rules.

2) In older editions of D&D like 1e, we DID have such subsystems: outdoor hexcrawls, mounted travel and combat, aerial travel and combat, shipboard travel and combat, etc. By the end of 1e you had the Dungeoneer's and Wilderness Survival Guides which WERE big "Skills Manuals" of things you could do in the dungeon or wilderness. The verdict of history is that lots of players did not enjoy those subsystems the way they enjoyed combat.

So the only remaining question is why does combat work but not other subsystems, and there is no one answer. Perhaps combat is well-designed and the other subsystems weren't. I suspect a big part of the answer is that players want a cinematic experience: eliminate those parts of the game that would not show up in a movie. So we don't watch people travel, eat, answer nature's call, or sleep in most cases, except in short scenes where some other aspect of the adventure is advanced.

As a 1e player and wargamer, I'm a simulationist, and am happy to play all those other parts of the game and learn the rules. But history says I'm in the minority, and that's OK. I know I'm not alone (Level Up is coming, after all), but our views are niche today.
 




Voadam

Legend
I don't think RPGs focus on or try to focus on solely the parts that CRPGs don't do well.

You want the best whole play experience you can get so TRPGs should not ignore the things that CRPGs do well like combat mechanics and such. I think D&D combat should try to be a fun easy to use system with some dynamic parts and interesting choices to accommodate as best it can player tactical desires as well as beer and pretzel just want to roll some dice desires and character story actor desires who just want to not have their characters die.
 

  • passive scores (this is useful, but needs a design rev)
Please note that JC is full of crap on this. Nothing in the rules actually says how to use Passive skills, except 1 example of using Stealth against Passive Perception. I use Mike Mearls system, where the DM rolls against the Passive score, rather than just comparing static numbers. This system works really well, while still rewarding players for having a high score.
  • group checks (broken as printed)
How so? I use group checks all the time as a replacement for skill challenges.
  • collaboration or help (clunky and sometimes irrelevant in current form)
This is the one I usually have an issue with, granting advantage excessively. Perhaps you have these two confused.
  • complex skill checks (4e failed to solve this, but showed some options)
Complex skill checks are like complex traps; some people like them while others don't. I'm personally happy that skill challenges are dead.
Contested checks are already a thing, and I don't feel they need to be made any more complicated.
  • perhaps some sort of exertion resource (fatigue, hold, whatever)
Like wounds, this is something that hasn't been part of D&D, and probably won't be. It adds an extra level of complication for minimal payoff.
  • process and result support for hazards
  • nuanced outcomes that can propel the emergent narrative (success at a cost, degrees of failure, etc)
  • common situations (much as you suggest) and more detail on time and cost for these
The problem is that most of these are going to be situation specific. As I said, a few examples to extrapolate from is really the best that can be provided.
 

I don't think its really an interest in "Story Now" specifically, so much as a skirmish over understandings of it produced by that recent blog post, and emerging from other threads where people who like it argue with people who don't about whether or not it can do the thing the thread is discussing. You'll notice they always dissolve into arguments about terminology and whether detractors have an adequate understanding of the Story Now movement and whether their understanding arises from 'doing it wrong' and whether its proponents see any differences between their game play and the thing being discussed in the thread.

Like, it came up in the Skilled Play thread because someone brought up their opinion that they don't see a difference between juggling agendas in DW while the characters attempt to solve problems, and Skill-based play in RPGs that aren't a part of the Story Now tradition.

It came up in the bespoke genre RPG thread because DND players were expressing irritation with other people poo-pooing their use of the DND system for different things, and pushing them to adopt other games in a fairly narrow interpretation of the consequences of the truth that 'System Matters'

It came up in the players establishing facts about the world thread because Story Now games have a reputation for it and some posters wanted to police the discussion of the ramifications player establishment of facts could have on the game, according with the beliefs of that movement.

It came up in the GM's notes thread because the systems discourage the kind of GM prep found in other games (with extensive 'Story Before' lore write ups) so it was one of the strongly held positions on the idea of GM notes.

Generally speaking, its mostly come up lately in a context where its benefits are being evangelized and pushed as a new normative viewpoint in threads tangentially related to it, putting aside the thread about discussing it founded directly after the six cultures of play thread, and that thread itself, gradually taking it over by insisting the other posters simply don't understand them and that its actually an all-encompassing philosophy.

Honestly, I want more neo-trad threads, a lot of its 'problems' seem to result from underdevelopment so I think it would benefit more from the theory crafting than yet another lecture on how Story Now is actually a perfect fit for every gamer and game, and how anyone who thinks otherwise must be misguided.
 




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