D&D And Me

So I am starting this blog for two main reasons.

Firstly, I need to write more, and I figure this may be a way to consistently do it.

Secondly, I often read posts on topics I’m interested in online, but the threads are old and closed or I don’t have an account, yet I still want to comment and express my opinion.  So I am probably gonna do that here.

So my intent at the moment is to use this blog as a way to share my thoughts on the intricacies of D&D.  But I’m not sure that that is where it will ultimately end up.  I will do my best to let it grow organically.

I currently do not have a structured plan for when I will post things, but hopefully it can be quasi regular.

Also, as a side note, I do not believe I am the best GM (or DM) out there by any stretch.  But I am fairly good at math and at reasoning through things, and, importantly, I own all the books and HAVE DM’d, so I hope to be able to provide some nice discussion on various D&D topics.  I also frequently sit down to go over rules that I’m a little hazy on, so I would say I know them fairly well, even though I have only been a DM for a few years now.

Also, and perhaps importantly, I have only ever DM’ed fifth edition, and only played 3.5, 5 and a teeny tiny bit of Pathfinder, so I do not have a lot of baggage to bring with me from past editions.  You may find I see things in a different light, or maybe not.  How would I know?  I only know I will do my best to look at things thoroughly.

Well, that’s it for the introduction.  Hope you find something useful, or at least interesting!

The Blog Post, Remembering Names

I have found in my life that oftentimes when I am telling a story to a coworker or a friend that involves someone the listener doesn’t know that I try to avoid confusion and a break in the story by referring to them by their relationship with me rather than their name.  For example, “my friend”, or “my brother”.  This is mostly to stop the inevitable “Who is that?” question that follows and leads to a pause in the story if I simply refer to them by name.  By calling out my relationship to them I provide some minor context for the story.

But this eventually leads to other problems, and in the long term removes context.  You see, I have more than one friend.  If I refer to them all as “my friend” and I tell enough stories, then eventually using the term “my friend” turns out to be just as confusing and context-robbing as using the name was.  After all, if stories about my one friend are all tales of his clumsiness, and stories about my other friend are all about her wisdom, and I never bother to separate the two, every time I tell a story about “my friend” the listener may have all or none of the above stories associated with “my friend”.  And who can ever remember which stories I even told them?  We’ve all accidentally told the same story to the same person twice (at least, I know I have).

The solution (I think, this is actually pure speculation, but it makes sense to me, and I can always come back and edit this if when I apply it it fails) is to always tell a story and use both the name and the relationship, at least the first few times you mention the person to the listener.  After that, you can probably get away with just the name.  By saying “my friend, Frank..” you establish their relationship right away, giving that minor context and also avoiding the question “Who is Frank?”, while at the same time enabling long-term context.  The next time you talk about Frank the listener will be able to piece the two stories together, and begin to get a feeling for who Frank is (at least from your point of view).

In addition to this benefit, you allow the listener to participate more actively.  If you tell a story about how Frank ended up in the hospital three weeks ago and broke his leg, then later tell a story about how you went skiing with Frank yesterday, the listener has the ability to ask how the heck Frank was able to ski after the incident with his leg, thus opening up further lines of communication.  Also, the listener can just ask about Frank in general.  “What’s Frank doing for the holidays?” Without his name, that question becomes harder to ask and may not lead anywhere, depending on how much either of you remembers. “What’s your friend doing for the holidays?” “Uhh, which one?” “Um… the one that went skiing with you that one time?  After he broke his leg?”  “Oh, yeah, Frank.  He’s staying with his cousin Marley.” You get the idea.

Now all of this is fine and dandy, but who cares?  That’s a lot of thought to save you what will amount to mere seconds of confusion and time.

Well, I figure this may be a good approach to take when introducing new characters in a D&D session.  If you always provide a title and a name it may help your players remember who the person was when you name drop them later.  In the case of D&D I would overdo this.  And keep in mind that the title doesn’t mean a Title.  It can just be a short descriptor.

The farmer, Henry, walks you to the barn where he shows you the giant claw marks in its side.  Then he takes around behind the house where the bloody pieces of ten or so cows are scattered around his field.”

And as I said, I would overdo it.  Every time you need to say “the farmer” or “Henry” say “the farmer, Henry” instead.

Worst come to worst your players will still only remember “that farmer”.  But at least you tried.

Owning the Character Creation Rules

When my players make characters I feel they tend to think in terms of race and class, or even other small things, like trade or background.  And those can all be a good starting point, as long as you don’t stop there.

But I’d like to talk about making a character outside of mechanics altogether, then fitting those mechanics to your ideas.  And how you can make a very unique character without needing to give your DM a headache (or without giving yourself one, if you’re a DM).

Each of the classes has a core set of assumptions and rules associated with them.  Often times people link the two together.  The wizard casts spells with their spell book and are lovers of knowledge (that’s how they learned their spells, after all, right?).  The fighter is a tough guy who knows the nitty gritty ins and outs of fighting, and the barbarian is a large strong humanoid with a flaring temper.

But lets say I want to play a character who has the unique ability to call upon the spirits and knowledge of my ancestors to grant me prowess in battle.  I reach out to them, draw them into me, and let them take over the minutia of my actions in combat, so that I might reign triumphant! Sounds cool right?  So you could tell your DM that this is the character you’d like to play and is there any way this could happen?

As a DM this kind of thing might make you cringe.  Because to make up a new class for this one person is a daunting process.  But for this character concept, you don’t have to make up a class at all!  In fact, you wouldn’t even have to tweak one.  This person is a barbarian.

All it takes is reworking the flavor of the class.  The barbarian’s rage is no longer a rage but a summoning of ancestral spirits, which provides prowess on the battlefield!  It even speaks to why the character may not be able to do things like cast spells.  They are already channeling the spirits of their ancestors.  As a player, this is something you can readily do without needing to discuss much with the DM.

The key here is that you have simply put a new face to the mechanical effects associated with a class.  This ensures that your character is still balanced and yet empowers you to play a lot of different characters.

Want to play someone who’s fighting style relies on very specific moves with somewhat defining animal names (I’m thinking of Rand in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time Series), like Dive of the Swan?  You could play a monk, and just add lots of descriptors.  But if you want to have mechanical consequences to using different maneuvers, play a Battle Master!  No reason you can’t call a sweeping attack the Dive of the Swan.  Then simply allow your feats and ability scores (and fighting style) to augment the flavor of your character.

I realize this simple concept isn’t a huge breakthrough or anything.  Its essentially just re-skinning.  But this simple concept, of viewing each portion of the character creation process as just a set of mechanical details, can really open up the number of interesting characters you can make.

Here’s a character I’ve made that I may play if the setting is right for it, and if I’m actually a player.

I decide that I want to play a man of simple faith, much like Father Forthill in The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.  My reasons for adventuring are fairly simple, I simply am doing what I can to make the world a better place, and will take whatever path I feel allows me to do the most good.  I have a set of simple values and am unwavering in my faith.  The Great Dragon (a deity that I have made up) is a benevolent god, and will protect me, for I am his follower.

By now, you probably think its quite obvious that I am playing a cleric.  I just described a cleric to you, after all.  But I would disagree.  I just described a priest.  And that’s really where I want the focus to be.  A humble man, protected and empowered by his faith, doing his best to better the world as best he can, and aiding those who are willing to work towards the greater good, as defined by his faith.

The mechanics offered by the cleric class provide a lot of support for this.  They provide a lot of faith-based spells, and spells that are reflective of things a priest might be able to do.  And he would also be fairly protected, due to the armor proficiencies granted by the cleric class.

But I want him to be an older, humbler man.  I don’t want him to be wearing armor, I want him to just wear a plain old single-color robe.  And I want him to be older.  If he’s not wearing armor it won’t really make sense for him to have a high dexterity either.  It wouldn’t fit the flavor I’m going for.

I can’t be an easy target.  The goal is to be protecting others and myself through my faith alone, right?

Here’s where using mechanical details comes in.  The monk gets a feature at first level, Unarmored Defense, that allows them to have a high AC without the need for armor.  Better yet, it scales off Wisdom!  With a little re-skinning this is perfect.  Why do I add my Wisdom to my AC?  Mechanically because I’ve got a level of Monk.  But as for my reasoning?  My faith itself helps keep me from harm.

Of course, level one monk comes with some other benefits.  But while none of them are befitting of the character I have made, none of them detract from it either.  So all in all I think my character will have a level of monk and then any number of levels in Cleric, whichever path I choose.

So when making a character from now on, don’t let class restrict your ideas.  That isn’t to say you can’t work backwards and make an interesting character that is inspired by your class choice, and honestly a character is so much more than the mechanics it embodies.  But by owning the character creation rules and bending the mechanics to your will, you can make pretty much any kind of character you’d like, without the added workload of making a bunch of custom content.


Perception vs. Investigation

I was recently reading through a bunch of forum posts here on Enworld in which people were ranking the 5th edition skill list by which skills them felt were the better skills, usually basing their answers off the usefulness of the skill, which is itself most strongly correlated with the frequency of its use and the impact of its use.  At least, that is how most people on the forum chose to rank them.

I’m not about to rank skills, as I feel their usefulness varies widely based on both the DM and the players, but one thing that caught my eye was that Perception made the top of just about every list, and Investigation was found near the bottom of most lists, given that it “overlapped with Perception, which was better”.  I am not in agreement with that statement but it seemed to be a fairly large consensus among most people.  There were very few exceptions. The end result was that nearly all agreed Perception was a must have for every PC in a party, for it always comes up and it stops you from being surprised.

I didn’t find it all that surprising that Perception was one of the top-rated skills.  What I found surprising was how little people seemed to value Investigation.  After reading, I believe it to be tied to the other comment that kept bouncing around, and to which I alluded earlier.

People feel it is just a weaker Perception.

But it really isn’t.  And I think that’s why a lot of people feel Perception is totally necessary for every PC to have and also why they find Investigation underwhelming.

Perception is a Wisdom skill.  Wisdom is all about intuition, awareness, and being in touch with that around you.  Investigation is an Intelligence skill.  Intelligence is about reasoning, logic, memory, and methodical thinking.

Perception a general awareness of the ones surroundings, and the effectiveness of one’s senses.  Keeping this definition in mind, the rules surrounding it in the game make a lot of sense, and help explain some of the ambiguities.  It also helps when it comes to adjudicating uses of Perception vs. Investigation on the fly.

First, the stealth rules.  Perception is the skill that counters stealth, one of the reasons it was rated so high by the Enworlders, but what exactly does this mean?  Does your character spot the ambush in advance, seeing the goblins hiding in the bushes and thus being able to avoid being surprised?  If so, can they yell to their teammates to be alert and thus prevent everyone from being surprised?  After all, if I saw the goblins in the bushes I wouldn’t even walk close enough for them to hit me until everyone was aware.

I would say you do not spot the goblins hiding in the bush. And therefore can’t yell to your teammates, and therefore cannot prevent everyone from being surprised.  And here’s why:

The use of Perception to counter Stealth is almost always Passive.  The Passive perception of those being ambushed or sneaked upon acts as a DC for the Stealth roll (or rolls, if its a group check).  As I stated previously, Perception is about general awareness and senses.

So if some goblins are hiding in bushes along the path and a group of PC’s blunders into them, the goblins roll Wisdom(Stealth), and the check is compared to the Passive Perception of the group.  Anyone who’s Passive Perception exceeds the roll of the goblins is aware when the goblins enter the fray.  This simply means that as the goblins come charging out of the bushes they immediately notice what’s happening and are prepared.  They are not surprised, and join combat immediately.  Those who fail don’t immediately catch on, and are slow to ready themselves for the incoming battle.  Mechanically, this means they are surprised, and don’t come into the initiative order until the second round of combat.

Notice that regardless of the Passive Perception’s in the group, the goblins are still able to pull off their ambush.  The PC’s don’t get to all ready themselves ahead of time.  Even if they shout warnings the second the goblins burst forth, combat has already begun.  The goblins still get the first round.  Why?  Because those with low Passive Perception simply aren’t as aware of their surroundings.  No one saw the goblins hiding.  Some people just weren’t caught flat footed (not the 3.5 mechanical meaning, the vernacular meaning), while others were.

This is important because its the sole mechanical benefit a high Passive Perception provides.  And I do not feel it outweighs that of other skills.  Chances are not every fight is going to be an ambush, so sometimes having a high Passive Perception carries no benefit.

Its also important to note that this makes sense in a real way, not just a mechanical one.  There are some people who are way more aware of what is going on around them then others.  It’s not hard to imagine the wizard who is studying a new scroll he’s obtained, or reading up on his Elvish history as the party makes their way through the forest, looking up at the shouting just in time to see a goblin swinging an long dagger at him.  Its also very clear he’s in no position to counterattack, as he is probably still trying to figure out what’s going on.

Active Perception might allow you to spot those goblins.  On top of general awareness, Perception is about the strength of your senses.  This is the active component of the skill.  And if I described to my players how the road wound its way into a forest with a dense underbrush and one of them told me they were keeping an eye on the brush, looking for hidden foes I would allow them a roll to see hints of the goblins ahead of time, and thus warn the party.  But while they are doing this, they can’t be using (or making) a map of the area.  They can’t be tracking using Survival.  And of course, they also may just fail.

Investigation is all about reasoning, logic, memory and methodical  thinking.  And its this last piece that can be the key to finding things.  Searching an area should be done with Investigation.  Its about looking at everything, determining whether it is important or not, then moving on.  This requires methodical thinking (looking at everything), and reasoning (whether it is important or not).

If someone has as much time as they need Passive Investigation should apply.  This is one of the two uses of Passive checks.  They will either find it or they won’t.  There is no reason you couldn’t ask for an active check here, of course, but a Passive check would be appropriate.

Active Investigation should be used if there is a time constraint.  The suspect comes home in twenty minutes, can you find what you are looking for before then?  The searcher doesn’t have a lot of time to look, only a limited window.

As an example, lets imagine a room with three hidden objects.  The first is a trap designed to go off when a trip wire is broken or pulled.  The second is a secret passage behind a bookshelf.  The third is a key hidden in a secret compartment in a desk drawer.

When the characters enter the room a perception check might be called, and someone with a good enough roll and perception might notice the trip wire.  Or their Passive Perception might tell them if the GM decides not to call for the check.  If someone notices and the trap’s mechanism is not obvious, a GM might call for an Investigation check to figure out how it works. One book is out of order in an otherwise perfectly ordered room, which an Medium DC Investigation check of the room reveals, or an Easy check if the searcher specifies the bookshelf.  One may be tempted to allow a Perception check to see the out-of place book, but this shouldn’t be allowed.  It’s a book.  There’s nothing odd about the book itself.  Only through reasoning and logic could one make the conclusion that it is out of place.

Finally, the key hidden in the drawer could only be found with Investigation.  There is nothing to perceive unless you are looking methodically and then it involves realizing that the drawer has less space inside than it should.