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One of the things I noted when looking over materials from the shiny new edition of Dungeons and Dragons is the return of the Passive Perception box on the character sheet. I’ve always thought this was a strange character sheet inclusion for a game known for basic math skills and character information overflowing onto 2, 3, 4+ sheets of paper. It seems adding 10 to the skill bonus shouldn’t be THAT difficult to remember, freeing the space for more important information.
What struck me as interesting about D&D’s newest incarnation is the return of passive perception, but the omission of passive insight.
But really are passive checks necessary? I’ll save you some time by plainly stating no. The reverse of course being you can easily argue perception is always a passive check. Given the perception skill as we know it is an extension of the old spot check. You might argue as soon as you start looking for something you are no longer noticing a difference but actively searching for one, which could easily fall under the investigation skill.
But let’s assume we play with passive perception. Passive perception is a tool, and tools are useful so long as they have a use. So what is passive perception’s use? First let’s look at how it’s commonly applied:
The party walks down a hallway, there are traps in the hallway, no one actively checks for traps. The DM calls for/secretly checks passive perception versus the traps’ spot DC. On a success the DM informs the players of the trap in one of those stopped just before walking into the tripwire moments. On a failure the DM stops the party once someone triggers the trap and informs them of the traps’ effects.
The use of passive perception is to protect players from their own ignorance. Is that Roll Play vs. Role Play, a situation of your character being more knowledgeable than you, the player? Maybe, but I assume the design choice was to obviate player stupidity from getting the PC killed. It’s insurance, a safety net.
But it’s more than a simple safety net in the above example. It’s go beyond insurance and into advocacy. The passive check does what the player wouldn’t do for himself. It’s the same when Google auto searches for something it believes (rightly so in my case) you misspelled.
So let’s roll it back to its original intent, the safety net. A successful passive perception is not equal to a successful active check, instead it offers the helpful hint: you should make a perception check now.
Passive perception is spidey sense. It’s the gut feeling something isn’t right: “it’s TOO quiet,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” “there’s something but I just can’t put my finger on it.”
The nice thing about doing this is the party can still screw the pooch. Let’s return to the original example this this idea in mind.
The party walks down a hallway, there are traps in the hallway, no one actively checks for traps. The DM calls for/secretly checks passive perception versus the traps’ spot DC. On a success the DM informs the players they feel a sense of trepidation about the hallway. On a failure the DM stops the party once someone triggers the trap and informs them of the traps’ effects.
As any DM/GM knows, the moment you state a PC is getting a feeling or sense people will ask to make checks. Congratulations, they party will now make active perception checks against the trapped hallway! Now they can screw it up of their own accord. On a success they find the traps, on a failure you get a brand new situation rife with role playing opportunity as the party stares down a hallway no one feels comfortable walking down.
Just remember to make players tell you explicitly what they are looking for, no general use ‘can I make a perception check.‘ If they want to check the floor for pressure plates make them say so.
This idea of a safety net can transfer easily to passive insight. Passive insight is getting bad vibes from someone, active insight will be checks such as ‘do I believe he is lying about X?‘ or ‘do I feel like I can negotiate more money out of him?‘
Follow this simple principle and you’ll never have to worry about passive skill checks getting in the way of your game.
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Lots of people are talking about 5th Edition, D&D Next, or just simply “Dungeons & Dragons” per WoTC, which is utterly confusing for a brand that has put out different editions and variations of the same product. Anyway, if you were somehow unaware, the newest iteration of Dungeons and Dragons is live. The free basic rules are available as a PDF from Wizards of the Coast. The Starter Set is also available for purchase ($20). The perennial triumvirate of core rule books will not start their staggered release until August (PHB).
So I wanted to do the summary first and then speak about the specifics from the free basic rules.
It’s vanilla ice cream. It’s a solid rules system, but that’s about it. The newest edition will allow you to play enjoyable sessions. It does nothing poorly thus far, but conversely it does nothing great either. In the end I’ll play it, but I’m always going to listen to the full list of rules system alternatives before deciding on it.
Trying to describe the new rules I would say it fits somewhere between 2nd & 3rd edition with some retooling of the mechanics with smart RPG design from the last two decades, D&D and otherwise.
What Once Was Will Be Again
It’s interesting to see the cyclical nature of D&D development reach arguably full circle. The development of third edition was greatly tied to the fan base wanting a more specialized, more intricate game. Enter feats, a robust skill system, and a big jump in rules minutiae. It allowed its players to cover almost any situation that came up. It was also a candy land for power gamers.
I think two major points spurred the development for 4e.
Aging fan base: New blood was absent from the hobby, video games and especially MMOs were/are stealing the young demographic
Time: People did not like how long it took to play a lot of third edition. Fans complained about how long it took to do combat, and that’s without difficult rules quandaries like grappling.
Streamlined: faster to play and lowered the barrier of entry by using mechanics more similar to video games. The classes were also similar so fighters were as interesting to play at level 10 as wizards. In addition the system was designed with DM’s in mind. Often a thankless job, 4e even with all its problems, is a breeze to run behind the screen.
Problems arose with 4e of course and a lot of valid finger pointing can be done to a lot of different responsible parties. Upper tier game play was an absolute mess most easily summed up as option and feature overload.
So 5th edition, D&D Next. Two plus years of R&D, extensive play testing from the public, and now it’s live. It’s a return to roots, a prodigal design that scours through the life of the brand to distil the quintessential when people think of D&D. Unfortunately I think this is an idea borne of the edition wars, that a rules system either can or cannot be D&D enough. But there’s no measuring board and D&D has mutated, changed subjectively for better and worse over four decades. It’s like saying Cherry Coke isn’t Coca-Cola enough. Of course this is the same thinking that upsets people when Final Fantasy games aren’t Final Fantasy enough.
But from the development history of D&D I find myself wondering if there’s not a reason to return to the D&D Basic and AD&D framework. There are two polarizing factions. One faction of the target audience wants simpler rules and fast play. The success of things like Savage Worlds, FATE, OSR, Fate, and others show that pretty clearly. On the other end of the spectrum you still have a significant audience who loves the complexity and ‘crunch’ of 3.X, Pathfinder, and other systems. So why not do that, support two separate lines? Right out of the box you almost double your supplements and thus revenue opportunities as a developer. I think it also may be able to save some of the vitriol that’s so pervasive in the hobby’s community.
But for anything like that to happen WoTC needs to make some changes. First and foremost I feel like they need to find someone with a plan to actually run the brand. Let’s look at their management history real quick:
1997 – Purchases D&D brand
2000 – Releases D&D 3rd Edition w/ OGL
2003 – Releases D&D 3.5
2005 – Begins development of 4e
2008 – Releases 4e, Drops support of all prior editions, no OGL (thanks Pathfinder)
2010 – Releases D&D Essentials
2012 – Begins D&D Next development, Re-releases prior D&D edition materials from the Disney Vault back catalog, Kills all 4e/Essentials future supplements
2014 – Releases D&D (D&D Next, and I believe no OGL)
WoTC does an about-face with the D&D Brand every 2-3 years, hard ones. Like doing a jibe when sailing and not telling your friend and laughing as the boom swings around and violently hits him in the head and knocks him out of the boat. Hard not to be a disgruntled consumer considering the treatment we’ve collectively received.
Particulars of Dungeons & Dragons (seriously, it needs some sort of identifier)
Things I Like:
Things I Dislike:
So yeah, it’s good; not great, but good. I think there are better options depending on the specifics of the campaign you’re trying to evoke, but it’s a solid entry for the brand and should be pretty easy for new players and veterans alike to pick up and enjoy.
Enjoy it now, you may only have 2-3 years before WoTC completely ruins it.
Four and a quarter years it took me to get a magic sword in a play by post (PBP) game. I keep looking at that number and try to make sense of it but it refuses to seem real. It took as long for me to get a make believe sword in a make believe RPG game as it takes the average person to acquire an undergraduate degree from a university. The journey took a number of specific ‘adventures’ and required a trio of game masters to complete.
So what could I possibly learn from such an experience? Perseverance, dedication, patience, and how to take initiative. Worthy qualities surely and some that are by many accounts lacking in our modern age. As a society we’re all about the instant gratification. Don’t think that’s true? All you need to do is look at the rampant success of Free-to-Play games. These games are structured to make the player wait to play for free or pay to play now. Streaming television on demand, public wifi, texting, the world is all about the now.
But you know what’s not now? Table top games.
The resurgence of social, “face time” gaming shouldn’t really be all that surprising. In a world that continues to grow smaller but isolates our interactions more through technology people, especially younger generations, are starving for human companionship. Table top games thus are having a resurgence as are things like bowling and shuffleboard. Yes, shuffleboard, the game old ladies play on cruise ships. Who knows, Bridge clubs may be next.
So why are these things becoming popular again?
Well, I think we’re still too close to the now of the event to objectively examine. But, I think the popularity is due to a few, specific factors as far as I can tell
Time & Duration
Individual games have a short duration. You can have a fulfilling afternoon or evening of fun by completing 2 – 10 games. As long as people spend more time doing than it takes for them to travel to and from the location, it’s a win. Even better if the time can be spent completing multiple games/sessions. More completions = better use of time, we ‘accomplished’ more with our time.
Social & Attendance
As I touched on earlier, we crave human interaction. Humans are social animals, no man is an island… yada yada yada. The nice thing about table top games and social games like bowling is they rarely require more than three people to play, and many require only two players. We don’t feel bad if we’re not able to meet up with a group because they are still able to play and enjoy their evening. Likewise I miss nothing but a good time by skipping, there is no penalty for missing. There are also a good number of cooperative games for those people who dislike being competitive with friends and loved ones.
Low Barrier to entrance, Minimal learning curve
These games are simple to learn. They generally have few rules and can be taught in just a few minutes to someone with no prior experience. Scoring is usually straightforward and easy to understand. Of course there are stupidly complex games, but generally these aren’t the sort of games that only take 20-60 minutes to play anyhow.
Requires attention but not concentration
These games do require attention, but they almost exclusively turn-based. Unless you are playing an in-depth game or a game that has liberal use of interrupt mechanics there is nothing for you to do between individual turns. For a modern world where most people have a tech device on-hand people are checking email, social media, texts, Youtube, news, and everything else in the world, this meshes nicely with the games.
You know what isn’t getting a real resurgence though? Pen and Paper RPGs.
Wait, I imagine you say. There was an uptick in interest in analog RPGs over the past few years. Things like 4e, and Acquisition Incorporated podcasts and video plays of RPGs by some celebrities opened the hobby up to some new audiences, garnered some new interest. But a seven year run was all the tenure 4e received, mix that with multiple brand managers going in different directions, unbalanced power creep and options, Pathfinder being born, and the excessive vitriol of edition wars that something can or cannot be D&D, as though its some binary criteria. Some R&D people leaving WoTC and the creation of things like 13th Age and Numenera. Not to mention WoTC refused OGL for 4e and refused to support prior editions of D&D.
TL:DR version: Because a sequence of crappy decisions and poor attitudes by developers/publishers and the community at large.
Why mess with all that when I can go back to Steam and load up Child of Light, Paper Sorcerer, Legend of Grimrock, or Skyrim, to get my RPG fix?
But specifically the reasons social gaming is getting bigger are the exact reasons RPGs are not.
Time & Duration
It takes time to play RPGs, like a lot of time. Sessions I’ve played have been anywhere from 2 – 12+ hours. Personally I find the sweet spot clocks in at about six hours. Nonetheless each session of an RPG is a segment, of a chapter, of a larger adventure path. You have to meet regularly. How often have you sat down at a table with friends after missing a game session or two and people have a difficult time remembering where the game left off? Full adventures often take years to complete.
Social & Attendance
RPGs are definitely social games, they’re cooperative games after all. But they require taking on a role, a persona. Adventures generally require problem solving and teamwork towards some specific end. You can’t just interrupt the process to tell a ten minute anecdote about your cat because it came to your mind. Attendance is also mandatory. If you have a party of four PCs and a Gamemaster, every one is critical to what is going on. If one person has a scheduling conflict everyone misses a session. In the cluttered schedules of the modern world, finding a time for everyone to play at all can be difficult.
Low barrier to entrance, Minimal learning curve
This is a mixed bag. There are some pretty simple to learn and play rules systems out there. But sticking with the two biggest names in the hobby? The free barebones basic rules for the newest edition of D&D has over 100 pages. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook? 576 pages. Someone shows interest in RPGs and you hand them a novel to read before they can play? I know what Sweet Brown has to say about that. And with a community who showed plenty of hate for how the previous edition of D&D ‘dumbed it down’ for the video game/MMO crowd we really shouldn’t be surprised the younger demographics aren’t filling the hobby’s ranks and publishers’ coffers.
Requires attention but not concentration
One of the most aggravating aspects of RPGs is choice. If you can imagine it you can try to do it in an RPG. That’s part of the big selling point but also one of its most aggravating aspects in the microcosm of individual sessions and encounters. It’s someone’s turn and they have no clue what they are going to do, worse yet they ask you what’s happening because they spent the last 5-10 minutes flipping through the newsfeed on their phone. Now you get to wait 5-10 minutes to figure out what this person is going to do, meanwhile the others at the table begin looking at their technology devices and that’s really why it seems to take forever to get through most combat encounters in a game like 4e.
People complain about how boring fighters and clerics can be because every turn is heal or hit the monster with your weapon, but abolishing that simplicity doesn’t help the person playing the game who probably has ADD, because everyone has ADD these days, and can’t sit still for five minutes without being actively entertained.
This I think is the unfortunate state of affairs of the hobby. An old guard filled with grognards who need something to be dissatisfied with, publishers who don’t seem to be confident in their target audience and their ability to make money with an iconic product lines.
Am I critical? Yes, but not because I’m bitter, because I know the hobby can be really popular and great. I know these games can create memories we will cherish for years. Perhaps I am overly critical of modern society, but in a world where people have to be told to take ‘tech sabbaths’ it would be difficult not to be.
I should be getting back to a more regular blog schedule. In the future I should have a supplement review and I’ll speak a little about the new D&D rules… which will likely be different than what most people are focusing.
If you’re running a game occasionally a PC may stop and speak with an NPC (insert pause for audience reactions of shock and laughter). You may have one of those players who wants to talk with NPCs rather than immediately cutting their throats and rolling their dead bodies. People as a broadcloth statement are generally helpful. If you stop to ask a random person for directions they are generally going to at least attempt to help.
Players, being exploitative, bourgeois pig-dogs, will take a poor NPC for all he’s worth. So I developed a little guideline for running helpful PCs. When the party asks for some sort of aid roll a d10.
– 1, 2, 3, 4: The NPC is willing to provide minor aid in the way of instructions, a bit of gear, borrowed item/manpower, or a map. (Superior)
– 5, 6, 7: The NPC is willing to guide the party or supervise an expedition. (Manager/Specialist)
– 8, 9: The NPC is willing to share the trials and troubles of the task equally with the party in a partner role. (Partner)
– 10: The NPC is willing to do minor tasks and errands on the party’s behalf or place himself between the party and danger. (Subservient)
This table even works for NPCs who are hiring the party for a task. Now use some common sense, if the king hires the party and you roll a 6, the king is not going to hop off his throne and go chasing around the countryside in mortal peril. But he will likely send a representative such as a captain, trusted nobleman, cousin, or non-heir son to oversee the task as an agent of the crown.
Likewise an NPC in the Partner role expects to be treated as such. This NPC is not going to be OK with being a human shield or sacrificial lamb. This NPC may also expect a partner share in any reward for the task.
Using NPCs that have their own values and sense of self-preservation help enrich your games. These are also great characters to have recurring roles in the party’s travels. Grooming a rapport between the PCs and NPCs really helps to enmesh the players’ characters into the world. Some of the most rewarding RP experiences are the exchanging of favors, deals, and insights between the PCs and recurring NPCs.