I’m not sure if I believe in critical failures anymore.

When I was a wee lad (you know, in college), I strongly believed in critical failures.  It made sense.  But now that I think about it, isn’t failure itself enough of a “critical failure”?  I don’t see the value (aside from humor) in fumbles or critical failures.  It certainly doesn’t add realism; the odds of a critical failure happening to a trained professional are exceedingly low.  Take the d20 roll.  Let’s say you critically fail on a 1 (a not-uncommon house rule).  That means there is a 5% chance for the thief to fall on his face, for the fighter to stab himself, for the bard to make a faux pas.

The solution to this problem is to diminish the probability of a critical failure on exceptionally skilled characters.  This usually involves some additional rolling or confirmation mechanic.  Rather than doing this, why not make failure a failure?  When the thief fails to sneak past the guards, his failure is that the guards spot him and attack.  When the fighter fails to stab the dragon, his failure is that the dragon is about to breathe fire at him.  When the bard fails to talk his way out of trouble, the trouble persists.

Each of those things is essentially a critical failure because the situation worsens for the characters involved as they fail.  Does it matter if the rogue falls on face when he tries to sneak?  I don’t think so.

What makes a fearsome foe?

It is more than his numbers, I think.

Gamers have a tendency to think in numbers for determining how powerful an enemy is.  A dragon has hundreds of HP and his fire breath does 10d6 damage and he has a -10 AC.  All that is a part of what makes a dragon dangerous, but let’s talk about why a dragon is powerful from a non-mechanical perspective.

Dragons are huge.  Bigger than an elephant, it towers over humans.  Its head is the size of a wagon and can swallow a cow whole, and this size presents a challenge all its own.  Aside from having scales thick as steel, the dragon’s size makes it a worthy opponent on its own.  How can you reasonably hurt a dragon?  A knight who tries to stand toe-to-toe with it will find himself chopping feebly at the dragon’s limbs.  An archer will find that his arrows won’t penetrate deeply enough to hit any vital organs.  A knight may strike at the neck and an archer may shoot at the eyes, but that presents its own difficulties–good luck doing any of that against a flying tank.

In addition to this, there’s the dragon’s armaments.  Rending claws, gnashing jaws, a lashing tail, and fiery breath.  Imagine the dragon not as a collection of individual weapons, but as a creature fully roused to fury.  A twitch of its tail can send a dozen men flying, and its flames can cook a dozen more.  With a swipe of its claws, the dragon can eviscerate any challenger foolish enough to get near, and it’ll have gobbled down a few more in the interim.

In mechanical terms, the dragon has lots of HP, a high (or low) Armor Class, damage reduction, multiple attacks each round, and fire breath.  But that doesn’t seem to do the dragon justice.  Trying to fit a dragon into a statblock just seems wrong, y’know?  A fearsome foe is fearsome because of what it does, not because it has lots of HP.

D&D Sucks (part 3): The d20 is a cruel mistress.

I’m a big fan of Savage Worlds.  It’s a lightweight, easy-to-use system that does what the designers set out to do: provide fast, furious fun.  There are a few kinks that need working out here and there, but overall, the system provides a play experience where the novice and the veteran are on roughly equal footing.  (Much better than 3e, 4e, or Pathfinder.)  One of the best innovations of the Savage Worlds system is the use of the wild die.

For those of you who haven’t played Savage Worlds–and you should definitely try it immediately because it’s just that good–the basic system is that you roll one die and a wild die.  The first die generally ranges from a d4 to a d12, and it’s usually a skill (Shooting, Fighter, Driving, etc.).  Then your wild die is for your wild cards.  It’s a d6.  When you roll the dice, your wild cards will roll their skill die and their wild die, and they can take the better of the two.  (Example: A rogue with a d8 in picking locks would roll 1d8 and 1d6.  His d8 comes up as a 3, his d6 comes up as a 5, so he takes the 5.)  This provides a base level of proficiency for all characters by providing a sort-of bell curve for probability.  (It’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)

Now, because of this normalization of values, I roll dice confidently in Savage Worlds.  When I have a character who is good at doing something, I know he’s good, and I haughtily cast the dice before the DM.  I dare him to challenge my character.  It’s not quite the same in the d20 system.  I positively dread picking up the d20 to roll.  The d20 has a uniform distribution of numbers, which means that I’m just as likely to roll a 1 as I am to roll a 20.  It also has no method of normalizing the rolls.  In other systems, you might roll 3d6 or have a method that provides the opportunity to reroll failures.  Not so in D&D.  With D&D, you have only the brutal, unforgiving spread of twenty numbers.  When you roll the d20, your fate is in the hand of the Random Number God.

Therein lies the problem.  When I play D&D, I feel obligated to minmax my character to circumvent the d20 roll.  Even if I have a +10 bonus on a roll, there’s still a fair chance I’m going to roll so poorly it doesn’t matter.  Rolling abysmally once or twice can be fun.  Failure is part of the fun of RPGs.  However, we’ve all had the experience where one player (or even the whole group) has a terrible rolling streak, and it sucks the fun out of the game.  It’s particularly negative in combat, where a slew of bad rolls can slow the game to a crawl.  There’s nothing less fun than slogging through a fight in which characters whiff every round.  Miss, miss, miss, hit, miss is not interesting.  It’s boring and it’s not fun, which are two game-killers.

This leads me to a conundrum with D&D: I must minmax to succeed (something I don’t really like), and no matter how hard I try, I’m still likely to do poorly.  I am thus left fighting the system to derive enjoyment from it.

Anyway, that’s why D&D sucks.

D&D Sucks (part 2): The rogue class exists.

Modern D&D has too many classes.  There are too many “things” to play as.  In 3e, you have a slew of base classes and prestige classes, while 4e has core classes, paragon classes, epic destinies, and class builds.  It’s too much, it’s too complicated, and it takes the focus off of what matters: playing the game.  And you know whose fault this is?  The rogue’s.  The rogue ruined D&D.

Let’s step back a minute.  When it was first published, D&D had three classes: the fighting man, the magic-user, and the cleric. As combatants and dungeon explorers, their rules are fairly simple.  (The rules were something of a mystery nonetheless, but I blame poor editing and that D&D existed as a homebrew project without the benefit of Kickstarter donations.)  Each of the three classes was assumed to be a competent adventurer.  Interacting with the game environment was a matter of DM discretion, but the method of play (or what I’ve heard about it) was generally freeform.  The players would narrate their actions and the DM would provide feedback.  Anyone could sneak, anyone could pick locks, and anyone could pick pockets.

Then along came the rogue/thief class to throw a fat wrench in the works. Suddenly, there were specific rules for things like sneaking, listening at doors, picking pockets, and climbing walls. The unstated implication of these specific rules is that those who lack these them can’t do them, and the rules offered little clarification.  This created a difficult situation for DMs.  If the rogue has a 35% chance of hearing noises, how should I adjudicate it when the wizard wants to listen at a door?  Can the fighter sneak, or is only the rogue allowed to move quietly?  Without clear guidelines, such was left to the GM.  Thus, your character’s competency could vary wildly from group to group.  In one group, the rogue might be useless because everyone could use “his” skills, while another group might find their adventurers foiled by a wall they couldn’t climb.  (You don’t have the Scale Sheer Surfaces ability?  Tough luck, bub.)

In an attempt to solve this conundrum, 3e attempted to codify the mechanics.  The authors turned everything under the sun into a skill (is Use Rope really necessary?) but made some classes better at them than others (class skills and cross-class skills) and added in synergies for a touch of “realism.”  This exacerbated the problem.  Now, instead of leaving the bad rules up to DMs to adjudicate (which had the possibility of a positive turn-out), the bad rules became a core part of the game system.  Now, as a rogue, you could most definitely sneak very well, and no one else could ever.  The numbers bloat of 3e made opposed rolls a joke if you weren’t trained in a skill.  The fighter, who could have once been a decent skulker (depending on the whims of the DM), was now relegated to permanent failure against anything after a few levels.  4e sought to rectify this by broadening the skill system and turning everything into a simple ability score check with a bonus if you were trained in a skill, but I don’t think they moved the system in the right direction.

But let’s move back to the rogue a moment and the design principles that literally destroyed D&D and brought about Armageddon.  Here come the paragraphs with bold text.

First, the designers created exclusionary rules for mundane tasks.  I can see an argument for how picking pockets and locks are both specialized skills that require training to attempt, but climbing walls, listening at doors, and general skulduggery are not.  At the very least, the designers should have added in rules for how the specific rules interacted with the general game.  I might say that a rogue using the Hear Noises skill has a free attempt to learn information when listening to faint sounds.  He might be able to tell what kind of armor a creature is wearing, how many enemies are approaching, what is happening behind a closed door, and so on.

Secondly, the rogue is an unnecessary class.  Whereas the magic-user, fighting man, and cleric describe character archetypes, the thief is a niche profession.  By creating a class for the thief, the authors create a situation in which other classes cannot be thieves.  Is there any reason a fighter or wizard can’t pick pockets?  Is there any particular reason why knowing how to pick locks precludes you from beating someone up in a fight?  (Conan has now been erased from existence, good job.)  No, it certainly doesn’t seem that way.

Thirdly, the rogue is a muddled class.  What is the rogue, exactly?  According to early editions of D&D, he’s a dungeon delver.  According to 3e, he’s a trap expert and sort-of assassin.  According to 4e, he’s a swashbuckling blademaster with a side of thievery.    The rogue/thief is thus a blend of concepts that has mutated over the years.  On the other hand, look at the solid constancy of the fighter class: armor, hit points, and a sword.  The wizard and cleric, too, have remained relatively unchanged.  The rogue has no strong identity, no archetype to follow.  The creation of the rogue as a muddled class set a bad precedent that later spawned other classes that suffered from similar problems.  (The ranger, paladin, druid, sorcerer, and barbarian are all examples of unnecessary classes in 3e.  There are a host of others in 4e, such as the avenger, invoker, shaman, and runepriest.)

Overall, the rogue class doesn’t function properly because it shouldn’t exist.  “Thief” is a background profession, not a class.

D&D Sucks (part 1): Your numbers are too big.

This is my first post, and I’m going to dive right in by telling you how much I hate D&D.  When you love something, you want it not to suck, and so you hate it when the things you love suck.  D&D sucks, so I hate the it, but only inasmuch as hating it is an expression of my affection for it.

Let’s talk about why D&D sucks.  Today, I’ll discuss the the unnecessarily large numbers (aka “numbers bloat”).

One of the things I despise about D&D is how the math works–or, more precisely, doesn’t.  You know what’s stupid?  Rolling 1d20 + 37.  This is obscene.  Why am I generating values that range from 38 to 57?  It clutters up the game and slows everything down.  THAC0 in 2e was the same way.  Aside from being counter-intuitive (lower is usually worse, not better), subtraction slows the progress of the game with an unnecessary process.  It’s faster and easier to perform addition, so it was only natural to replace the cumbersome THAC0 system with ascending Armor Class in later editions of D&D.  In the same way, creating a system of large numbers retards the progress of the game.

Some people will argue and say that the higher numbers serve a purpose within the game.  I’ll make a bold claim using bold text and reiterate my original claim: D&D has unnecessarily large numbers.  Bigger numbers are not necessary to the game.  This itself is counter-intuitive.  As noted above, people think bigger is better, so a bigger number means you’re better at what you do…right?

Wrong.  Well, it’s technically right, but it doesn’t have to be.  See, most RPGs take the position that getting better at something means you have a better chance of success.  This makes perfect sense, except when it doesn’t.  D&D starts your newbie thief off with a dick chance of doing thievery.  You can pick locks…sort of.  In Pathfinder, the DC to pick a simple lock is 20.  At first level, your rogue will likely have one rank in his Disable Device skill (+4 bonus) and a +2 Intelligence modifier (assuming he doesn’t pump Dexterity at the expense of his mental stats).  That gives him a whopping +6 bonus to disarm a simple lock.  When he’s in a safe environment, he can pick that lock 100% of the time, but he must take 20 to do so.  He can’t even take 10 and do it in the normal timeframe–he has to go about it slow and methodically.  When he’s under duress, the rogue must roll, and he’s only going to beat the DC on a roll of 14+, which translates to a meager 30% chance of success.

Pretty lame.  Now, I’m meandering back to my point, so keep reading: D&D presupposes that the rogue needs to have bigger numbers for picking locks.  Again, this is intuitive.  Rogues who level up get better at picking locks, and so they should have a higher chance of success, so the numbers get bigger.  That’s reasonable, isn’t it?

False.  While the increased ability to pick locks represents an improvement in the rogue’s abilities, it is not necessary to simulate such.  (The Office is still relevant enough that I can post this.  I think.)

For instance, let us suppose an entirely different model of D&D, in which the competency of the rogue is measured not by embiggened numbers but a cromulent capacity.  (Ugh, that Simpsons reference was horrible and forced.  I apologize but I wanted to fit “embiggened” into this post.)

Untrained: For those who wish to pick locks without any formal training,  If a person has a set of lockpicks, he can attempt to pick a lock.  He must roll 1d20 + Dexterity vs. DC 15.  Success lets him open the lock, but failure jams the lock, breaks his lockpicks, or potentially triggers a trap (DM’s chocie).

Novice: The thief’s basic level of training.  With a set of lockpicks and a few minutes of time, he can pick mundane locks.  That’s right, he doesn’t even need to roll.  If the thief wishes to force a lock open quickly, he must roll 1d20 + Dexterity vs. DC 15.  Success lets him open the lock, but failure jams the lock, breaks his lockpicks, or potentially triggers a trap (DM’s chocie).

Adept: The thief can improvise when missing his lockpicks.  As long as he can provide a reasonable facsimile (even something as rudimentary as a sewing needle), he can pick locks as normal.

Expert: The thief can open locks quickly.  No matter the situation, he can pick a lock within seconds.

Master: The thief can bypass any magical protections on a lock to pick it.  He ignores any wards or enchantments on the lock.

Paragon: The thief’s abilities transcend mortal ken.  The thief no longer needs no tools or significant time spent on it.  He must merely touch the lock and it yields.

The abilities of the thief thus move from what one might expect from John Q. Commoner to a supernatural thief, all without giving the thief bigger numbers, which brings me back around to my original point: game designers need to ask themselves why they need such large numbers.  Chances are that they don’t.

Now, let’s turn this principle to the meat-and-potatoes of D&D: combat.  D&D is and has always been a wargame at heart, so it’s no surprise that the focus of the rules has been on combat.  How does the design principle of small vs. big numbers play out in terms of combat?

This, I think, is more difficult to pin down, but there are ways to do it.  Dungeon World does a reasonable job, although the system is a bit freeform for my taste.  See this post about the 16 HP dragon as a starting point.  Point being: you don’t need big numbers to be a high-level character, you need big effects.

Fireball is not an awesome spell because it does tons of damage.  Fireball is an awesome spell because it’s an hand grenade the wizard stores in his brain.  Now, the damage is a nice side effect, but let’s scale everything back for a minute.  In D&D 3e, fireball does 5d6 damage when you first get it.  Enemies can make a Reflex save for half damage.  This means that fireball is not very powerful, and its use is limited to swarms of weak monsters.  This is an unfortunate side effect of the idea that more power is represented by larger numbers.

Step back and look at the power of fireball a moment.  It has a long range and large area, it’s undetectable prior to casting, it doesn’t need to be aimed, and it is hot enough to start things on fire and melt metal.  Step back from the numbers a moment and consider this.  The wizard has within his mind the capacity to destroy a small building, kill dozens of people all at once, scatter a military formation, and otherwise be very disruptive.  When the wizard casts this spell, it needs to have the aforementioned big effects: people running and screaming, horses panicking, fire spreading out of control, walls and roofs collapsing inward.  But it doesn’t, because D&D where numbers translate to power.  Thus, we run into the aforementioned problem of big numbers.

And that’s why D&D sucks.