City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities Review

City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities by Michael J. Varhola, Jim Clunie, and the Skirmisher Game Development Group

City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities by Michael J. Varhola, Jim Clunie, and the Skirmisher Game Development Group

I really wanted to like this book. I really enjoy the details of making a fantasy world feel lived in; breathing, functioning. So when I found City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities, I jumped at the opportunity to add such a resource to my library. But there was a singular problem I noticed within the first few pages of the book. The book did not deliver on the title’s promise. It does not guide in the creation of communities or cities. So then, what was the aim? I flipped to the Introduction:

“…the intent behind this book is to provide Game Masters with a resource for making the communities in their worlds more plausible, memorable, and exciting.”
Well it did that… I suppose. And that’s not to say there isn’t some good information in the book, there is. But that information is hindered by its banality, compartmentalization, and its presentation. Some of the sections are so surface level, the information presented so basic, I began to glide over the lines without reading. Like the stonemason entry, for example. There are eight paragraphs describing stonemasons. But truthfully, unless you are really new to the whole RPG, worldbuilding, history, fantasy premise you know what a stonemason is. Even if not, you would probably figure it out from the context. More damning is the stonemason has a one sentence line about quarries, but no mention of what type of stones might be common use.
There are nuggets of important info to be found though. There’s a sentence about the pitch of roof’s depending on climate, more severe to keep snow accumulations from collapsing the roof. It’s something I knew but could useful as a detail one might easily skip over. I don’t rememeber where the sentence is in the book but I CAN tell you it’s not under the Regional Influences under Features of Communities that speaks about geographical influences on a community.
The presentation is a mess. It becomes readily apparent when reading the book that it is a cobbled together short run printing of episodic ebooks (which it is conveniently). The writing suffers from a lack of editing. The grammar and punctuation are fine, but the content needs significant trimming. At 171 pages the book has zero lists, 1 sidebar, and a measly 7 pages of random generation lists focused on specifics likes guilds and taverns, not generating communities. The book would be both better as a reference and guide if it was not drowning in its own insulated content. In all seriousness judicious content editing and the formatting of lists and sidebars could reduce to book to almost half its size.
Take this first sentence under Rooming House:
“Rooming houses are accommodations intended mainly for members of the lower tier of the mid-dle class and the upper tier of the lower class and serve the needs of travelers who will be staying for a week or more in a particular area.”
And no, that’s not a typo. The book was previously 11 ebooks and there is the occasional hanging line break that shows up in the middle of a line now that the content has been formatted for print. The writing is long and obtuse. That is my largest problem with the book. It just isn’t formatted in such a way to be a useful resource. No granule of information is easy to find. The book forces you to sift through its poor language. Someone should have cracked open a proper RPG reference book, or at least an old science textbook to look at how to block the information to make it most useful to the reader. It’s the simple things like the Special Purpose Communities section not featuring communes, nomad camps, and boom towns. Why? Because they were already documented a few sections prior under Other Sorts of Small Communities.
That is the last, great failing of City Builder. It does so very little to actually help me put the pieces together and the bits that are there are buried in corners of random paragraphs. There are also a number of adventure hooks for each entry. I appreciate the ideas but would rather they be omitted and that effort better focused on making the meat of the product more usable. But even in the adventure hooks there is no consistency. Some entries have one hook and others have multiple hooks. All I wanted was a reference that would help me city build and guide me in designing communities. Unfortunately City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities is not that reference.
Really the greatest use of the book is it’s table of contents in conjunction with a few well-placed Google searches and Wikipedia skimming. Following the link trails of Wikipedia entries will better help you integrate the pieces into a living, breathing community. I would suggest picking up this book only if you are absolutely new to worldbuilding and need basic historical information. Even then it will not be long before your knowledge outpaces the book.
Favorite Entry: Pawn Shop
Why? I learned some new information about their operation, usefulness, and how lenient some of the establishments can be. From blatant usury and loan sharking to allowing a person multiple years, interest free pawning. I can easily imagine pawn shops getting heavy use thanks to their versatility in operation.
Least Favorite: General Store
Why? The book makes the distinction between Armory, Arsenal, and Blacksmithy (even mentioning the distinction of farrier) but then gives one shop for picking up all simple items. General stores were incredibly uncommon. Those few that existed were border wilderness trading posts (there’s a separate entry for it). The entries should have been combined under an ‘Outfitter’ entry. Both the general store and marketplace entries are infuriatingly underwhelming.
Table of Contents
Craftsman Places
Entertainment Places
Professional Places
Tradesman Places
Mercantile Places
Service Places
Scholarly Places
Religious Places
Governmental Places
Underworld Places
Appendix I: Guilds
Appendix II: Inn & Tavern Generation
Final Verdict
I wouldn’t make the purchase again, especially not the physical book given how difficult it is to use as a reference. But there is some OK information here. Pick up the individual ebooks that make up the 11 chapters if you’re looking for something specific or wait for a big sale on DriveThruRPG to pick up the ebook. At its ebook standard price $20 I can’t in good faith recommend City Builder: A Guide to Communities
If somehow you haven’t heard of Medieval Demographics Made Easy and its derivative websites and random generators, check it out. I think it will serve you a lot better as a guide to designing communities. Bonus: It’s free!

Advanced Adventuring & Questing

Welcome Back! I’m going to continue on from the last blog so if you haven’t given that a read I suggest you read through it first.

We’ve gone over the basic quest types, so how do you make your own quests in a simple way? There’s a handy dandy list of questions that you need to run through. These questions are first answered by the DM and then answered by the players.

Who? The persons and parties involved
What? The quest’s objective
When? A sense of time, urgency or expiration
Where? What are the locations involved?
Why? The ‘so what’ part.
Why not you? Your players will ask why the quest giver or some other relevant party isn’t taking care of the issue; have a plausible answer.
What’s the reward? This is what hooks the players into the quest. Get fancy, add some secondary objectives, conditionals, and utilize intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Does your group haggle? Low ball the initial reward and keep a reward ceiling in mind.
Consequences? What happens if the quest isn’t completed?

Ex. Reggie Needs 10 Wolf Hides
Who: Reggie
What: Needs 10 wolf hides delivered
When: Tuesday EoB
Where: Reggie’s Discount Hide Shack, Nearby over-populated wolf forest
Why: Reggie’s behind on his orders
Why not Reggie: Reggie isn’t a hunter, he’s a tanner. Reggie’s usual guy (his brother) is laid up with an injury.
Reward: 2 gp per hide and good relations with Reggie
Consequences: Reggie falls further behind in his orders, loses money. Someone comes and breaks his legs and he dies penniless in the gutter.

Simple enough to quickly see everything that pertains to a quest. The DM should always be able to answer these questions and the players should be able to answer all or nearly all the questions by the end of the quest. It’s important with this information as a DM to be translucent, not transparent. Give them the dots, but let your players connect them so they fel agency by putting the pieces together.

Speaking of player agency there’s one glaring omission on the question list: How. The players determine how they complete the objective. In the example above the players might want to see if there’s an over supply of wolf hides that can be bought for cheap and delivered to Reggie. Also, take what your players give you. A scrupulous player may want to know how Reggie’s brother got injured. Maybe it was a simple accident or something more deadly awaits the party as they go hunting wolves. It’s always a nice change when a group wants to find a solution not involving indiscriminate bloodshed, so reward that.

Now with the simple things settled you can make some tweaks, changes, and complications. Get inventive. Quest givers don’t have to be people with glowing symbols over their heads. The Mines of Phandelver kicks off its first quest with two dead horses prickled with crudely made arrows barring the road. Environmental quest triggers work really well, because players want to solve puzzles. They will often start theorizing what happened before searching the area. Also, really lean on the intrinsic rewards. Like the real world it’s all about who you know, not what you know. If you want your players to treat your NPCs with respect, give them a reason for it. Letters of introduction, referrals, and social friends trump their weight in gold. Favors and reputation are often more valuable than cold hard GP. You can also transform the objective, Bethesda’s Elder Scroll and Fallout games are good examples. NPCs aren’t omniscient, especially quest givers. They likely only know a facet of the larger issue. PCs can often make matters worse before making them better.

Make connections. Bridge different quests by sharing assets like NPCs, monsters, and rewards. This creates continuity and makes your world feel like it’s connected and alive, not simply a string of episodic adventures.

Then create complications. You can always make a simple thing more convoluted so it’s important your quests start off simple. Then you can drop in problems, roadblocks, and hiccups to make the party’s life difficult. Done badly it ends up feeling like an item trading quest: boring, repetitive, and usually it’s unnecessary to the larger plot. Done well: Bioshock. The original quest of Bioshock is a simple delivery quest to reach Atlas and escape Rapture. But the environment and society is crumbling around you. Passages get blocked and you either have to find a way around or through the roadblock. People with murderous intent keep getting in your way, indicative of the much larger issues plaguing the Randian paradise.

Let’s look at another example.

Ex. Lord of the Rings
Who: Council of Elrond, Sauron, The Fellowship
What: Take ring to mountain, drop in lava to destroy
When: ASAP, before Sauron’s domination of Middle Earth
Where: Middle Earth from The Shire to Mt. Doom
Why: To stop Sauron’s world domination
Why not Council of Elrond: Temptation of the ring and being too conspicuous
Reward: Not living/dying under Sauron’s move for world domination, destruction of The Shire, Fame
Consequences: Sauron’s world domination, destruction of The Shire, being driven mad by The Ring

Pretty simple idea, then you just add complication after complication. The first big obstacle being the blocked pass making the characters go into the Mines of Moria. Really everything from there on is an added complication, mini-quests within the bigger quest.

I could spend a lot of time and words going into the gritty details of this massive subject but I think these two entries give enough of a springboard to get you thinking and planning better adventures. Leave a question or comment if you like what I’m doing. you can also find me on Google+ and Twitter @Redraggedfiend

10 Degrees of Helpful NPCs

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, bourgeoishireling-major-817x1024 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.

Funnin’ Around

Quick Breakdown:

I have been absent and I will continue to be so for the next few months. I will resume regular posting later this summer but right now I have other demands on my time and energy. And considering what I do here does not pay me in cold hard cash it falls towards the bottom of my to-do pile. But I will return, it has not fallen off my radar.

Also, March marks the one year anniversary of this blog. So go me, and thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read my articles and found enough substance to subscribe. I promise more content will be coming in the future, just hang on a bit. I have to say a year passed almost in the blink of an eye. As I think back to what March 2013 looked like a year has shown a considerable improvement in almost every facet of my life. Hopefully my karma holds for the next year -fingers crossed-.

So again to all the supporters and followers of this blog, a hearty thank you, now on to the article. 

Is it the GM’s job to make sure players have fun in his game?

This seems to be a well-debated subject. I wish I had some stellar insight into it but I really, probably, don’t. I do find the whole concept a bit strange. Why do publishers even feel compelled to add to their products a reminder that RPGs should be utilized for fun? I’ve played my share of board games, video games, card games, even tag, and hide-and-go seek. I don’t recall ever needing to be reminded in any of these activities/games that I should have fun while doing so. The only other example I can think of this creeping up is in something like organized sports.

But is that really the GM’s job? Conventional wisdom states the GM has 3 primary functions when running the game. He is interpreter of the rules, he assumes the role of any and all NPCs, and he is responsible for describing the imaginary world and the PC’s interactions in it. None of the three core functions insinuate fun.

Is it OK to not have fun?

So I don’t always have fun when I play RPGs. It’s a full gamut of emotions and thought processes, not just fun. When my PC takes a crit, or has his mind invaded by deep sea, psionic squids, that’s not fun. Is it the game master’s fault that bad stuff happened to my PC, which my mood soured? No, barring any extreme and obvious malice. In fact a case can be made by, fudging a crit to a normal hit or miss the GM has failed in his role to arbitrate the rules. A judge exists to interpret the grey area, not override the system’s rules because enforcing it would make someone have not… Happy Happy, Joy Joy fun. happy-happy-1

Let me put this another way, this is the list of AFI’s top 5 movies: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Casablanca, Raging Bull, and Singin’ in the Rain. I would describe only number five as fun. Entertainment can be good without being fun. If you enjoy good movies you have probably sat through all of these movies, probably more than once without having ‘fun’. I think probably a better interpretation is a GM’s game should be enjoyable, and worth playing.

 So then, is it a GM’s job to make sure his game is enjoyable?

Absolutely. Notice I said the game is enjoyable, not that the player’s enjoy is game. Enjoyment is derived by different things for different people. If I as a GM spend all my time juggling the different ways the players derive enjoyment I’m not really focusing on the game itself; forest for the trees and such. Focus on providing a good story and fulfilling your three primary roles to the utmost and good things will follow.

The Player’s Role

A movie’s job is to entertain its audience. It is a passive medium, audience participant cannot change the fabric of the narrative. Thus all the responsibility of entertainment falls to the film. RPGs however are active, and are either plot or character driven. This is not a passive medium. The responsibility for your enjoyment as a player rests on the table and its dynamic. I don’t think I can say I’ve ever played in a campaign that I did not enjoy. But I have played in campaigns I did not particularly like. What’s the difference? I refuse to spend hours at a gaming table being actively miserable. That sort of attitude is selfish, silly, and ultimately petulant. Find a way to have fun. Is your PC little better than a pincushion for baddies? Well, focus your efforts on something else. The game is comprised of combat, exploration, and social encounters so choose one of the other spots to derive your fun. Conversely you can derive your fun from combat.

I suck at FPS video games. I do play them on occasion however; even online multiplayer matches where I struggle to keep an even K/D ratio. One of my favorite memories was playing a match that the opposing team needed to bazooka a pair of tanks to win the round. I was actually able to jump in front of an incoming rocket to save a tank. Stupid, yes; hilarious, definitely. More importantly it provided enjoyment and a memory that stuck with me.

Here are the Dragon Age directions for GMs. It was actually important enough for them to stick right on the center of the GM screen.

Dragon Age GM Advice

Focus On The Characters

As stated RPGs are an active media, it takes cooperation and that means putting the PCs at the forefront. They either need to be primary agents in moving the plot, or the game is campaign on their own personal struggles.

Where this can get sticky for a lot of GM’s is their personal game world. Crafted year by year, almost entirely in sterile isolation, they can spend more time telling you about their world and what’s going on in it than letting the players interact with what’s going on and driving the plot. The big important things are what the players hear about but not generally don’t engage the things during the campaign.

Work with your players to stitch their characters into being organic pieces of the game world. Mutually developed backstory is key. Some players however are wholly unconcerned with this bit of immersive gameplay. Encourage heartily, but don’t demand it of the players.

Push The Heroes To Make Tough Moral Choices

Sometimes things go sideways, there’s no absolute right way to go about things or correct decision. There are some situations not even the greatest string of crit rolls will allow the characters to come out unscathed.

It’s OK to beat up the PCs a little, make the players sweat, even maim and kill the PCs. The important thing is to make those tough situations meaningful. Tough choices are meaningful choices. This isn’t the Coke vs. Pepsi taste test it’s do you take the red pill or the blue pill. The best way to use this is to place the players in a sacrifice situation, where one PC must sacrifice something incredibly important for the benefit of the group. If your players are being proactive for their fun they will only momentarily pout over the situation before running with it.

Paint The World With 5 Senses

Remember one of the main roles of the GM is to be the players’ window into the game world. It is also the role that is most likely to fall to the wayside as the other two roles flex. When we think of imagery we assume image, so sight. Vision is our most acute sense, but it is only one. If you struggle with this try creating an area without sight. Most recently I was able to paint a character investigating a cave in the pitch black. The sound of echoing water, cold and stagnant air, wet stone under touch and poor footing all became far more important.

Maybe you’re not so good with the descriptions. Augment what you’re doing with a map, an image to show the table, pick up a scented candle, change the room lighting, or add a low volume background track. For a ship voyage consider a labeled cross section diagram of the ship, a seaside scented candle, and find a white noise track featuring repetitive waves. You can easily transmit the imagery of the setting without actually saying a word.

Be Flexible

Like I stated under the first point, the idea of actually letting players interact with your creation is what allows the game to move. The truth is that players are rarely going to follow the trail you’ve dutifully laid out for them with single file Reese’s Pieces. They are going to be odd and different and difficult. It’s not a bad thing, but it is a thing. Improvisation is a highly regarded skill for GMs and it is difficult to hone without, well… improvising.

You’re going to screw up, get your facts mixed up, and probably do/not do something in a humongous blunder. It happens to everyone and that’s part of what makes going off-script work so well. Unfortunately there’s not a lot you can do to prepare for it other than just do it over and over again. Give the PCs the opportunity to be at the forefront and to drive what happens, even if it means not doing exactly what you planned out. A sneaky GM secret is to use these offshoot tangents as the plot hooks by improvising a way to curve it naturally right back into your script.

Be Exciting

Now at first you might think this means to always be doing combat, but that’s not really it. Exciting is probably less appropriate than enthralling. No matter the situation you should have the player’s attention focused in on you. Especially in 4e this where solo monsters fall short. At a certain point you tip the scales in the encounter and it becomes very obvious which side will win. Unfortunately 4e solo monsters have a truckload of HP, so it becomes a very boring waiting game until the creature dies. Unless there is some reason to do this, like whittling down HP resources or rolling for potential reinforcements to arrive and angle the combat back to being open-ended you may as well kill the encounter early.

Not everything has to fight to the death. Rarely do real fights end with one side at not least attempting to escape or surrender. However this tactic does make sense for things like automatons, and undead. Unthinking creatures not concerned with self-preservation, just following commands, will fight until they cannot or their task is accomplished.

Speed is not everything. If your players are engaged, and you’re holding their attention with a social scene that you know leads nowhere, don’t cut it short. As long as the PCs are at least attempting to be on task, be flexible and entertaining. Think of this time as a chance for your players to develop a rapport between the PCs. In one of my regular games it is standard for the party to split into pairs or go solo while in town to talk to different people and gather supplies. At first this seems the exact opposite of what you should do to hold everybody’s attention, dealing with one player at a time. But really it allows for a few short vignettes where every player gets to be center stage and be productive. This is a great way to build PC/NPC relationships. Maybe some NPCs like some PCs more than others so it’s more productive to keep PC/NPCs who don’t get along away from each other.

I think if you keep these five ideas present in mind you will run enjoyable games. If you run enjoyable games you can be guaranteed at least one point everyone at the table will have fun. The games that leave me with longstanding memories are the ones I value the most.

Gotta Give Him Upside!

One of the most difficult things to do when running a campaign is getting your players to ‘buy-in’, leap the invisible gap that separates a player’s character as dictated by its character sheet and the creator’s bubble of imagination to one that is somehow tied to the campaign setting and the places and people that comprise it.
So one question that comes to mind is why does this disconnect, this gap, exist between player and his/her PC and the setting. I think it’s a surprisingly deep question with a lot layers of answers that form the reality. I think there are psychological, sociological, creative parties at silent war in that gap. But, I’m not really here to get into what the gap really is or why, and I’m nothing of an expert on the why persons and people do the things they do.
So instead I would examine my own experience. If you run a game there’s a very high chance you also enjoy RPGs as a player. When I think about a new campaign and adding a new character there is some hesitation. For one the character generation process has become a far more intensive and personal effort as RPGs have evolved. You can roll up an early D&D character in a few minutes, at the table, after Olaf the VII died. In a few rooms the party is likely to find Olaf the VIII. Compare something like 4e, a rules set that is generally regarded as being streamlined. Drafting a new PC in 4e can easily take the better part of an hour, and certainly longer if you’re really tweaking a power gamer build. Time = investment, it’s really that simple. If you’ve played RPGs for any amount of time you have problem had a character die a random, meaningless death from the odd trap or wandering monster.
What else? That’s only one facet another is trust between a player and the game master. If you decide to throw in your lot with the GM and help him tell his story you don’t want to be rewarded with only negative benefits. But the same goes for the other way, I don’t want a GM to heap rewards on my PC simply for playing along, to be made a continuous example to the rest of the group why they should play along.
Playing along also comes to the division point of where the GM thinks your PC should act one way because of some in-game relationship/reason and you feel differently. This can be either because the former is so obviously flawed that you can’t help but metagame or because you know, it’s your PC and you think you should be able to dictate Olaf the VIII’s beliefs and actions all by yourself.
So what to do?
This is one of the things I think the Fate System really nails. Offer the player something tangible and immediate for playing along. Fate Points, they let players do extra special things or mitigate potentially dreadful disasters. You can offer one of these Points to a player in exchange for activating one of their PC’s characteristics. Better yet the player can decline the offer unless they have no fate points in his possession. An empty-handed PC is basically at the mercy of the GM to compel them to act on the PC’s character aspects. But as soon as you fork over a Point to the player they are able to decline as necessary. Fate Points in this way are a fluid currency used in the struggle between player and GM for how characters act and react.
There are a lot of people out there who have toyed with the concept of adding Fate Points to other systems. Next time I’ll chart out my own mod but until then I encourage you to scour the web looking for the many numerous fate point modifications.

The Secret Path

“Man I really wish I could play this game!”

If you’ve played pen and paper RPGs for a while you’ve probably heard this exact phrase from a DM/GM, uttered it yourself while running a campaign, or at least thought it. It’s a common sentiment and it makes sense given the way we create games. Behind the screen when we decide plot, fights, NPCs, BBEGs, setting, and nearly every other minuscule detail of a campaign we base it on what interests us, what we like. It’s thus natural during or after a play session to ruminate on how you would rather be playing the scenario rather than running it.

Beyond pen & paper RPGs to nerd/geek culture in a larger scale everyone has their niches. What genre or specific piece of entertainment you probably enjoy but others do not and vice versa. For me personally that’s comicbook super heroes. The rest of my weekly gaming group enjoys them while their omission from the current timeline would leave my life relatively unaffected.

Because of outside influences I decided to run a short game, mainly to try out Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE). So why not play superheroes? Well, because I don’t really enjoy superheroes.

Then I decided we should play full on superheroes.

Why make that decision? Well for one I’ll still get the opportunity to test drive FAE, which was the whole point. The second is it’s a scenario I can run from behind the screen without wishing I was playing instead. The flipside is all the people who enjoy superheroes will get to, you know, play superheroes.

It also means from behind the screen I have to throw some good stuff in the game. Because if I’m going to run it I should at least enjoy it. And since the subject matter isn’t my cup o’ tea I can turn my laser focus on the other aspects of the game and draw my enjoyment from there. Enrich the game experience by bettering the actual experience through combats, situations, relationships, and plots rather than costumed capers. My players will take care of the flair and style, I just need to make the game run like a finely-tuned engine.

So it’s something to consider. If you’re going to run a game try a genre or setting you’re patently uninterested. Let it be the vanilla ice cream base for your sundae. At worst the rest of the group will get to experience something they might not otherwise without running themselves (and I won’t have to phone-in playing a super hero) and at worst you might gain an appreciation for the source material. The point here is to highlight aspects of the games you run which is usually pushed to the side by stuffing things we would personally like to see into the game. It’s also a great carrot to get people to try out a new rules system.

Double Damage

Potentially one of D&D’s greatest shortcomings is its health system. Now that’s not to say I don’t like HP, I like HP just fine. I think I made that clear when talking about hit points back in the last blog I expounded on health systems.

The shortcoming, the specific failure in this instance is the lack of longterm consequences to poor decisions and/or flubbed actions. When it comes to a scale measure of how much punishment a creature can take in combat before it simply dies hit points are difficult to beat. Hit points have a maximum, a minimum (you are dead at X/-X HP), and it is easily measurable being, you know, uniform points and all.

So what’s the big deal? In theory that sounds pretty great for gauging how much punishment a creature can take in a fight. Hell, in practice it works pretty great and that’s why we’ve been using hit points since pen and paper RPGs have been a thing. Better yet we can empirically tell the difference between a hard hit and a grazing strike just by the data. The DM/GM rolls some dice, calls out a number for damage, and the whole table reacts. Physical wincing, the sucking of teeth, the chortle of inappropriate laughter, and a litany of offhand comments are the reaction of such an event. It’s visceral and it’s a phenomenon that cultivates a true reaction from the participants. That’s a good thing for RPGs.

The difficulty comes with what happens right after the combat ends. The healing process allows creatures to get hit points back by resting, using medical supplies, or by means of magic. They just get better, a 15-minute rest is equivalent of a soft reset after going three rounds with a prizefighter. It unfortunately doesn’t make much good sense. For how good the system is at measuring a creature’s ability to continue fighting while in said fight, it is equally as bad at portraying the fatigue and grinding effect of wounds to a person’s overall health. But perhaps that’s implicit in the name, hit points is a term we regard as an encapsulated idea rather than what the words actually say. Hit points, well it measures how many hits a creature can take. Viewed in that way HP is designed and functions perfectly to suit that specific purpose.

Hit points in this function are limited though. What about all the stuff that happens outside of combat: traps, hazards, accidents, poisons, disease, even falling. As I ran down in a previous post on traps the problems inherent with the system is that if these out of combat problems don’t outright kill a creature they’re of little to no consequence. Sure we can talk about the meta of chipping away at things like healing surges and the bookkeeping aspect of screwing with resource management. I like that stuff, it’s interesting and it adds a deeper, more strategic level to games. Where I see the problem is I shouldn’t have to up to my elbows in the system mechanics to make a trap meaningful. A common bear trap is not going to kill a player character, it just shouldn’t. So why put it in if my only recourse to apply consequences to a creature is take away some of its HP just so it can heal it back arbitrarily?

And that’s likely the exact reason some systems like D&D 4e are almost entirely combat-based and really tone down the dungeon crawl exploration bits with traps and hazards. These things supplement combat, but rarely are notable as obstacles in their own right and often play instead more as a flat-uninspired event at the table and PC resource depletion. One of the options I went over in the trap article was simply making the traps deadly. Traps become a very real threat when (like most traps in the real world) the intent is death for the victim and that is a real possibility. Another possibility is to make the effects of these non-combat engagements and even some combat encounters be something other than straight HP-related damage.

alumni_20100729_1So let’s circle back to the bear trap. This is one of those traps not looking to immediately kill its victim. Because our adventurers possess powerful tools such as articulated, opposable thumbs and the ability to figure out trap mechanics they won’t die of exposure or starvation. Well with HP as is the creature would take X damage and move on to the next scene. But what if there was something other than just some slight damage. Still want to keep that resource management aspect deal the straight damage to HP but let’s add some flair to this trap. Well it’s a bear trap and I think it’s safe to assume the PC tripping it would do so with his leg. So why not add a reduction of the character’s speed. In something like D&D 4e this would be the Slowed condition. Continuing with 4e, this condition should not be an immediate save but should last at least one adventuring day. Why not try having the bear trap impart the Slowed condition with a save at the end of each extended rest. Functionally each day the PC has a chance to recover from his leg injury without it affecting his ability to take hits in combat.

Pro-Tip: Want to make your game feel a little extra gritty? Make critical failure results on initial checks/saves permanent injuries. Maybe the only way to get poor Dave out of the bear trap was to hack off his foot. This can turn your green adventurers into scarred veterans in short order. And no one said Dave couldn’t get a snazzy wooden foot to remove the Slowed condition.

Now I can already hear some of you out there grumbling that this sort of thing is already built into D&D and its kin with the idea of ability damage. I don’t really like ability damage, I think it’s cumbersome and too much long-term bookkeeping. Besides ability damage is regularly imparted by an attack, regardless of the attack’s severity. An attack might only deal one point of HP damage but deals a point of strength damage. A glancing blow hinders a character as much as a critical hit? That seems strange to me. I like my way better as it is variable enough to be tailored to the situation and can be easily explained within the scene’s theatrics.

So, something to think about adding to your games. Try adding it to a standalone trap or other non-combat situation and see if you get better results than you’re used to getting from your games.