Discovery versus design

In a discussion over in the D&D Next community on G+, I wrote:

 Drying scaffoldPlayers should understand that the creation of an interesting character happens primarily through gameplay, not backstory. They should write just enough backstory to give them a scaffold upon which they can build. Everything else should come during the campaign . Otherwise they risk having the most interesting part of a character’s story happen offscreen, which defeats the purpose of the game.

I know this insight isn’t unique or even particularly new. But a lot of us tend to forget from time to time. The Backgrounds in D&D 5e only provide handles for the characters before they start adventuring. Nothing that happened in their lives before the game should outshine what they do once it starts. Back when I played Star Wars Galaxies, I thought of this as a question of discovering or designing characters.

The most interesting things their characters do should happen in the world during play. By the same light, the most interesting things that happen in the world should involve the characters. Note that “world” here refers to the campaign itself. The players may or may not alter the course of civilization. In a city-based campaign, the campaign events should be the most dramatic events in the city during that period.

The entrance to the castle, main square, Camelot Theme ParkDon’t fall into the trap of creating a theme park for your campaign. Players should do more than get on some rides and see some shows. They deserve the opportunity to make meaningful choices. Otherwise they can just read a book or see a movie. The pre-eminent virtue of tabletop roleplaying is that the characters can try to do anything. And if their attempts don’t even matter, then why bother?

Rolls for role-playing

"The White King Learning to Conduct a Kitchen Burgkmair"I don’t like the way D&D Fifth Edition and lots of other “modern” games handle skills. As a player, I don’t like spending time deciding which skill should cover a particular task. More than that, however, I intensely dislike using Charisma rolls to cover role-playing. In 5e, for example, Charisma skills include Deception, Intimidation, Performance, and Persuasion. When these situations come up, I prefer to act them out.

I want to convince the guard that we have arrived at the court as ambassadors from a faraway land. I have proficiency in Deception so my modifier is +5. And I rolled a 12, so that gives me a 17. That should do it, right?

If that works for your group, fantastic, but it just bores me to death. Instead, I want a player to tell me what their character says. They don’t have to use flowery, exaggerated medieval language. They don’t even have to fake an accent.

Sir, I come to you in the name of the sovereign nation of Breouria. As the ambassador of my land, I would bid your lord welcome and discuss matters of great import. My entourage and I must pass at once!

To follow the spirit and letter of the rules as written, we have to roll sometimes for fairness to the players. If the skill scores never come into use, after all, we have forced the players to “waste” some of their potential power due to opportunity cost. For example, the personal guards of a paranoid tyrant might require a DC 20 check, or DC 10 for a commerce-minded noble in a peaceful land). If the player put everything into it, I give them advantage on the roll. Still, they could roll a 1 and fail. Perhaps the guard did not sleep well and doesn’t want to deal with unknown travelers with a carrying a letter written in some foreign language.

The new Dungeon Master’s Guide contains a lot of variant rules. (I didn’t take part in the play test of D&D Next but others have said that some of these came directly from that.) For social interaction and role-playing, we can tweak two different systems: reactions and skills.

Reaction Rolls

On page 244, the DMG explicitly outlines two different ways to handle these. In the first method, the DM determines the starting attitude of the NPC: friendly, indifferent, or hostile. The conversation plays out, possibly changing the creature’s attitude. The text emphasizes the use of ideals, bonds, and flaws. The player then “can attempt a Wisdom (Insight) check to uncover one of the creature’s characteristics.” At some point, the DM calls for a Charisma check, including any relevant skill proficiency. Based on the NPC’s attitude at that point, the DM interprets the roll on the Conversation Reaction table. Except for using the Insight skill to determine a characteristic, this describes what we already do. The reaction roll system in Basic D&D could almost function as a drop-in replacement.

The next section discusses role-playing. Voicing a character can provide some of the most fun moments in a game. For example, I had a wonderful time playing the “fat, pompous old fool” of the town master of Phandalin in Lost Mine of Phandelver. I dropped my voice an octave, puffed up my cheeks, and blustered like the mayor of a small town in some old movie my mom would watch. The players loved it!

In these circumstances, I just decide how a character would react based on the interaction. Creating the most fun in the story also becomes a factor. In the above example, the guard might let them through with a stern advisory or he might have them thrown into the stockade.

That still raises the issue of opportunity cost for the players. Worse, it penalizes players who like RP. They are the most likely ones to choose social type skills for their characters, reflecting their interests and preferred play style. 

An apothecary publically preparing the drug theriac, under the supervision of a physician. Woodcut.

Skill Variants

Among the other rule variants, we have several options to handle abilities and skills. These start on page 263. All the skill variants replace the skill system with something else. This section also provides for the replacement of a flat proficiency bonus with an appropriate die roll. As an example, low level characters can roll a d4 instead of the normal +2.

The first variant, Ability Check Proficiency, replaces all skills with the base abilities. A player chooses one based on their class and another based on their background. Expertise counts as one ability rather than two skills. Background and Personality Trait Proficiencies both rely on deep histories and concepts for characters. With these variants, the DM decides that a character can apply their proficiency bonus when their background or traits apply to the situation.

These all feel “old school” to me. In fact, they remind me of the systems in Microlite20 OSS (Old School Style).

Application in my future games

Taking all this together, I would use both Background and Personality Trait Proficiencies rather than build a skill profile. That will speed up character creation! I would only have a player roll for the success of a social interaction in unusual circumstances. They would then get to apply their Charisma modifier and proficiency bonus. If they played it really well or clearly appealed to something they’d discerned about the NPC, I would give them Advantage.

In these ways, 5e can feel a little more old school.

Race as a trope in role-playing games

The Pigmies as compared with English Officers, Soudanese, and Zanzibaris

An image from the D&D Sixth Edition PHB

I have real difficulty putting down any sort of hard boundaries around role-playing games. Like other things, I know it when I see it. But “race” as a trope seems as core to most RPGs as “classes” and some sort of individual characteristic statistics.

The vast majority of fantasy uses this trope as a crutch – and badly at that. Fantastic Racism is a product of its time, certainly, but that doesn’t make it “good” any more than chainmail bikinis are “good”. An exceptional writer can take almost any trope and turn it into something worthwhile as a commentary and building-block of their world. However, most of us are not G.R.R. Martin and shouldn’t fool ourselves.

Now the whole idea of assigning morality on a per-race basis is ugly when you deconstruct it even a tiny bit. Assigning personality attributes to a race, whether that’s “hill dwarves” or “Latin women” descends into uncomfortable territory almost immediately. Often, we don’t think about this because the traditional RPGer is a white person in Western society. Many of us have said in the past that we “don’t see color” or consider ourselves “color-blind”, but that also raises of privilege and awareness. After all, we may never have had significant issues in our lives because of our skin color or accent or traditional family dress.

I’d prefer to play in worlds where all humanoids should basically be treated as actual races, not species. In this world, human(oid)s just have even more variety than we do in ours. Dwarves and elves aren’t “separate” any more than “Black” and “White” in ours. In our world, race has its origins primarily in sociology rather than genetics. Instead, I’d allow players to choose from a menu of customization options (e.g. “you can add 2 to any single ability and 1 to any other two abilities, plus choose from these features for your character”). We don’t see mechanics associated with gender and sexuality in many games anymore. The reasons for that should apply just as well to race.

As an alternative to that, maybe treat racism in your world as we often do in our. It exists, but that is the world as it is rather than the world as it should be. So call it out in some way, or perhaps make it a theme for character development.

After all, if we can imagine worlds in which someone can personally invoke the power of the cosmos and transition between planes of existence, maybe we can imagine a world where your “race” doesn’t define your identity.

NB: This post was written for the November 2014 Blog Carnival.

Update: Some really thoughtful discussion has resulted on Google+.