Wednesday, October 8, 2014

[D&D 5E] Passive Investigate, and Investigate as "Deduction and Memory"

I've been having a tough time conceptualizing what Investigate is for in 5E, and thinking of it as "Deduction and Memory" has finally made me feel better about it. Here are some outside-the-book applications I've thought up:
The first and cleanest use of Investigate is as the proficiency that applies when the player goes "dammit, what was that merchant's name again?" and the DM says, "roll int to see if you can remember."

What is passive Investigate for?
Your DM can cater descriptions to fit your party's passive investigate scores, and your party can use investigate actively to piece together particularly puzzling pieces of the story. As DM I sometimes wonder how generously to describe a scene, and passive investigate scores solve this.
The difference between low and high passive investigates is something like this:
[low]There's a man lying dead on the ground in the northeast corner; the door to the west is broken down.
[high]The man was trying to hold the door shut, but something burst it in, killed him, and tossed him across the room. Based on the wounds, it looks like it was probably one of the trolls you've been hearing about. Also, you realize the man matches the description on a wanted poster you saw back in Waterdeep.
Without investigate, if the players don't think to ask about the man's identity or circumstances, they miss out on information. But characters who are trained investigators (or just intellectually sharp) can pick up on these details automatically. Things like NPC motives or story connections that only make sense if you've been paying close attention can be given as freebies if somebody at the table is role playing Sherlock.
That's what passive investigate is for, and that's the other half of the Observant feat, which I know has been causing a lot of internet head scratching.

Investigate vs Perception
Finally, Investigate, by the rules, can be used to find hidden doors and treasures, which overlaps with perception. In my mind, investigate determines what a character can deduce about their surroundings, while perception determines whether they notice obscure details. Perception could tell you that there are two candlesticks on the mantle, and maybe even that the left one looks cleaner than the other; Investigate could tell you that the candlesticks aren't symmetrically placed and that the left one could, based on its position, possibly be attached to a latch lever inside the wall. You could find the secret door with either skill, passively or actively.
Based on these realizations, I'm going to start using a lot more skills passively too, especially Arcana, Nature, and Religion.

Monday, February 10, 2014

GM's Journal: Kingmaker - Pre-Game Character Building

Every group approaches character building differently. Even the same group going into a new campaign can merit a different approach. Going into Kingmaker, I knew that a large portion of the campaign would be open-world sandbox type exploration with a significant portion of the PCs wealth and xp would come from random encounters and the like. What this told me was that there would be plenty of room for me to add in personal quest hooks and introduce NPCs to further engage my players.

So when laying down the requirements for character building for this AP, I tried something new. Beyond the standard race, class, and sourcebook considerations I asked my players to write up a background for their characters. Specifically I wanted them to address the following: Who are you? Why are you an adventurer? What are you doing in the River Kingdoms?

As an added incentive, I allowed my players an additional 1 gp per word of their background write up (to a maximum of 500 gp). I've never tried offering such an obvious bribe to players to get them to give me more than just a stat block for their characters. And to be honest I've never really felt like I've need to. But for this I was hoping that my players would help me seed the adventure with NPCs or personal goals of their own devising that their characters would already have a vested interest in.

My players didn't disappoint. After reading their backgrounds I have side quests and plot hooks enough to take us well into mid-level adventuring. I feel like I have a solid idea what will and won't engage my players' characters, what will stir them to action, what will make the shy away. And all before a single die has been rolled.

So who do we have to fill our roster?

Adem Margrave - a young nobleman from a middling Brevic family. Adem found his true calling in lyric and song. An academy trained minstrel, he journeys with his friend Garren and the knight's peculiar wards.

Balas and Calidrel Orron - half elf brothers and twins at that! Balas is a brutish type while Calidrel's blood is further muddled with all kinds of sorcerous mischief.

Garren Stewardsson - a human knight and equine aficionado. Though he's now well into middle age, Garren has sworn to protect the Orron twins with his life.

Marius Ranicot - another human knight. Marius armors himself in steel and bluster, projecting the very essence of a brash cavalier. But perhaps there's more to him than bravado.

Sergey Popovitch - a human scholar who's spent most of his life dedicated equally to both arcane and divine pursuits. After decades of empirical study he's finally decided that some fieldwork might be in order.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


So we're back, after a ridiculously long hiatus. Let's clear out cobwebs and liven this place up again.

I'll be brief. I want to talk about one-shots.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, one-shots refer to roleplaying game scenarios that take only one session to complete. They usually, but not always, have an entirely self-contained story. Published examples of this type of game include Pathfinder Society Scenarios or D&D Dungeon Delves. Other RPG Systems, like Dread or Mythender are pretty much entirely built around the idea of a one-shot.


- Brevity. Obviously, one-shots are short. They can be begun and finished in the amount of time it would take for a few boardgames. Players can be left with a sense of closure or completion at the end of the session, instead of needing to wait weeks or potentially months for a campaign's story arc to end.

- No commitment. One-shots require very little commitment from players compared to an extended campaign. You don't need to worry about scheduling addition sessions beyond the first.

- Spontaneity. Because of the brief nature of the game, one-shots don't usually require much work before the beginning of the session. So players can start and end a game with a minimum amount of prep.


- Brevity. The lack of an over arching storyline can leave you feeling unfulfilled if you're  itching for a grand heroic adventure.

- Lack of Attachment. Because of their brief nature, there's less time to cultivate interest in a storyline or NPC background in a one-shot. It can lead to a lack of attachment to said storyline and give the entire session more of a crunchy-grindy feel that harkens to the halcyon days of MMORPG raids.

- Too long. Sometimes you haven't set aside enough time, for whatever reason, to fit all the adventure material you'd like into your single session. So your would-be-one-shot turns into a two-part adventure that's separated by a week (or more).

I personally enjoy one-shots as a sometimes food. 90% of my RPG gaming comes from ongoing campaigns and I like it that way. The remaining 10% are pickup games that happen from time to time. Too many one-shots in my schedule and I start to feel like I'm less roleplaying my characters and more that I'm piloting statblocks. If I wanted to do that I'd be playing MMO's.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Roleplaying Systems & Storytelling

I'm going to start off this post by making some broad generalizations about people in the roleplaying game community.

1) We like telling collaborative stories with our friends.
2) We like playing boardgames with our friends.
3) We often want to do both 1) and 2) at the same time with the same people.

Fortunately, roleplaying game systems allow us to do just that. But not every story is equally well told by every RPG system. If your group is anything like ours you've run into what we've come to call the "limits of a system." As Jeremy mentions in his last post, it can be difficult to play Captain Malcolm Reynolds in a team of specialists using a game system like Pathfinder. The d20 System and its descendants all have a "roll-high" mechanic that determine outcomes based on whether or not a player can surpass a target number (Difficulty Class or DC). This encourages players to build specialized characters with a high single stat in order to bypass that DC so that they can feel like they're more successful.

The concept of a generalist character is limited by the fact that the d20 system, mechanically, heavily favors specialists builds. But my argument is that this is not a inherent flaw with the game system itself. I think that this is a problem that results from the dissonance created when a game system doesn't align with the type of story trying to be told. For example, if I want to tell a gritty, super lethal, cyberpunk intrigue set in a dystopian future I wouldn't use the Pathfinder or d20 Systems. HP and AC are great abstractions but don't perfectly capture the feeling of intense laser gun shoot outs or seat-of-the-pants hover car chases. I'd probably use Shadowrun or Paranoia (depending on how much hilarious backstabbing I wanted) because those game systems were designed with that setting and story structure in mind.

A roleplaying game system really shines when it is used to tell the stories that it was originally designed for. Dread is a great example. It's an incredibly effective storytelling system for how simple the rules are. 95% of the mechanics revolve around a Jenga tower. In order for your character to accomplish difficult tasks, your player pulls a block out of the tower. If the tower falls down, your character dies (or is otherwise removed from the game). You can also elect to intentionally knock down the tower which represents your character going out in a blaze of glory. That's pretty much it. Dread is a great system to tell a horror and suspense themed story because the mechanics support the slow building of tension that is so critical to the telling of a compelling suspense thriller. With each successful act there is an increasingly likelihood that the next act will result in both failure and lethality because the tower becomes more and more unstable. When the tower falls and someone dies, tension is released and the tower is rebuilt, only to come crashing down again at another dramatic peak.

As great as Dread is for horror, it's terrible for a pulpy, sword-and-sorcery type game. Dread assumes that most of the protagonists die by the end of the story. There's very little chance for epic greatness when your character is literally one action away from death at all times. If I want to tell a story about Conan the Barbarian, I want a system that assumes that the players win, forgives mistakes, and allows recovery from streaks of bad luck. I also don't want a system that has too many rules for elements outside the scope of the story I want to tell. I don't need to know how to handle acceleration and vector based turns or how much damage my character would take from orbital bombardment. What I do need is a system that allows me to tell a story where my character cuts the head off of a dragon and wears its skin for a cloak.

Now there are exceptions to this, of course. James Jacobs' Unspeakable Futures and  F. Wesley Schneider's Mass Effect/Pathfinder mashup are a couple of examples of how the Pathfinder/d20 system can be adapted to genres beyond Sword and Sorcery. The key word there is adapt. Game rules will never perfectly capture what it's actually like to do the things we talk about in stories. It's all about verisimilitude. And ultimately it's a matter of group consensus that will determine which RPG system you end up using. Whatever is the most fun.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Stat numbers and the nature of a hero, or, Do You Really Need That 18?

Most of the gamers I've ever met have tried, at some point, to stat up their favorite heroes and villains from books, tv, or other games. The problem with this is that heroes, in fiction, are generally pretty good at everything. Protagonists tend to be strong, fast, healthy, smart, perceptive, and charismatic. That's why reading about their adventures makes for good escapist fantasy. But it's easy to throw up your hands and say “you can't make [that hero] in D&D, the point buy numbers are too low.”

But are we setting the bar too high?

I'm going out on a limb and guessing that anyone reading a blog called “Kill it with Dice” is probably fairly familiar with the Firefly universe.

On the Serenity, it's easy to pick out who has the highest intelligence (Simon), charisma (Inara), dexterity (River), wisdom (Shepard Book) or strength (Jayne) but it's not so easy to stat up Malcolm Reynolds or Zoe Washburn, the leaders. They're good at everything. But the important thing to recognize is that they are not as good at anything as the crew's resident specialists (that's why the specialists are hired in the first place).

Mal and Zoe are the kind of people who, in an rpg, have a 13 or 14 in most of their stats. They won't hit with every bullet or succeed on every check, but that's part of what makes watching them so much fun.

Now consider the kind of people who have 18s. Since we're already discussing the Firefly universe, consider Mr. Universe (maxed int), or River (maxed dex). Or how about this guy? Who's more interesting to watch in that clip? The guy with 18 str and 16 con, or the guy with a 14 in both of those, but with some int to boot?

People with 18s are some dysfunctional, odd people. When I see a character with an 18 in a stat, I wonder what other stats and personality factors they're giving up for that level of specialization. I'm always interested to see whether the player will use the idea that their character is better in their chosen field than 99% of the human population in their role-playing.

It's generally accepted in tabletop rpgs that the PCs are heroic specialists, people who are amazingly good at what they do. Most parties are built with an eye toward “balance” and an assumption that each character will be remarkable at what they do and pretty terrible at everything else. When someone brings a charismatic fighter or a strong sorcerer to the table, eyebrows are raised. Mechanically, there's no reason to put any points into those stats.

But I'd like to throw this out there: maybe characters don't need to be specialists, and maybe specialists don't need to be the pinnacle of human possibility. Unless your game is the kind of party vs GM stat-fest where you really do need to squeeze every last +1 out of every line on your character sheet, it's probably worth it to build the character that you want to play. I've often found myself making a character and thinking “it's too bad the build doesn't have room for a positive int modifier... it would be fun if this guy was kind of smart.”

It's interesting to remember that a lot of the heroes that we love to watch or read about aren't the smartest, fastest, or strongest out there.

What do you think? Is it viable to play Malcolm Reynolds in your game? Is there room is modern fantasy role-playing for a generalist with a primary stat less than 16?