That Cloak & Dagger Stuff

It’s fair to say that D&D 5th edition is not my personal dream game. But it’s a system that I feel confident I can work with and that has a lot of things going for it, and there are several reasons why I want to pick it up again after the fantastic campaign I ran a year ago. But one of the main areas where my feelings about it are the most ambivalent are the skills, particularly the skills typical for thieves. I already wrote a bit about opening locks and disarming traps in my last post, before I was so suddenly and rudely interrupted by getting a job offer, starting immediately.

Another skill that didn’t sit quite right with me the first time I worked myself through the rules was Stealth. Not because the rules seemed outright nonsensical, but because they contain some implications I found odd, and don’t elaborate any further on it. The main oddity is that using Stealth to hide is specifically given as one of the actions you can do on your turn in combat. Not taking an action to use a skill. Specifically hiding, and only hiding. What does that even mean to hide in combat, as your action for the round?

Even though I would personally make the rules of D&D quite different than they are in many places, I try to at least stick to the letters of the Player’s Handbook, to accomodate players coming to the campaign familiar with the rules. Especially when running open table campaigns where strangers are invited to join in without much required preparation. But even then, the “No Stupid” Rule takes precedent in my campaigns. Any application of the rules that would result in a clearly nonsensical outcome for the situation and context is invalid and gets overriden by common sense. And as GM, I’m gonna be the judge on what is reasonably fantastical or straight up nonsensical.

Using your Stealth skill do disappear from an enemy’s perception in the place where you stand would of course be nonsensical. Hiding behind the curtain while an enemy sees you getting behind the curtain would also be nonsensical. So would be running behind a stack of crates and enemies losing track of where you are. The rules spell out that you can’t hide from an enemy that can see you. This rules out the first example. But the other two examples both break line of sight, and so you’re no longer “seen” specifically. But if an enemy sees you move into your hiding place, and you’re stuck in the place where you were seen disappearing, getting the status of being hidden still seems nonsensical. And what are you actually doing with your action if moving to a position that breaks line of sight is already covered by your movement, which is separete from your action in each round?

Now after a long preamble, here’s my approach to how hiding in combat shpuld work: To hide from enemy combatants, you first need to break line of sight. All it takes for that is to move to a space where you can not be seen by the enemies. This can be running into another room, around a corner, or a large stack of crates, for example. At this point, you’re not being seen, but you’re not hidden. As soon as an enemy moves around the obstacle that breaks line of sight, you’re being seen again. But for the duration while you are not being seen, you can move into a specific hiding place and conceal yourself as an action. Pulling away a curtain and draping it over you could be an action. Crawling under a bad could be an action. Jumping into a pile of leaves and covering up your parts that stick out could be an action. That’s where you make your hiding check. Or your Dexterity (Stealth) check. If now an enemy comes into the room after seeing you run through the door, you are now hidden and the enemy has to start searching the room. And while the enemy is leaning down to check under the bed first, you can jump out from behind the curtain to strike.

Now what does that mean for combat? With this ruling, the tactic of disappearing every round by hiding and rejoining the fight with advantage and sneak attack damage simply does not work. Some players might expect it to, but that’s where I’d put my foot down as the GM and enforce No Stupid! Which in 5th edition isn’t even a big deal, as all you need to sneak attack is to target an enemy that is in combat with one of your allies. And how often is a PC fighting alone anyway. (Though admittedly, rogues are the most likely to end up in that situation.)

Which also brings up the question of how you can make a Sneak Attack from hiding if you can’t be hidden while you’re visible? As soon as you step out of your hiding place, you’re no longer hidden and don’t gain the advantage you need to Sneak Attack. Strictly speaking that limits the options to making ranged attacks while remaining concealed, but that seems to be quite unlikely to be the writers’ intention. My ruling on this would be that you gain the benefits from attacking from hiding for any attacks you make on the same turn as you come out of hiding. If you can close the distance between your hoding spot and your target and make an attack as part of the same turn, I count this as attacking from hiding. The target may see you as you make the attack, but it comes so suddenly that there’s no time to properly react to it before the target’s turn. (Unless the target has a special ability that grants it a reaction, like Parry.)

Does this make rogues weaker than many players would expect? Probably. But it’s also not overriding any actual spelled out rule. It only fills in the gaps left by the rules with interpreatatons that prioritize common sense over tactical skirmish gaming.

Thieves’ Tools and Fast Hands

Fast Hands

Starting at 3rd level, you can use the bonus action granted by your Cunning Action to make a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check, use your thieves’ tools to disarm a trap or open a lock, or take the Use an Object action.

This main feature of the rogue class’ Thief specialization is frankly ridiculous. I’ve seen some good lockpickers open locks incredibly fast. Yes, it is possible to open a lock in one second. If it’s a modern lock with standardized parts and fixed tolerances, that has a certain design flaw, you already identified the lock as having that design flaw, and you are in position to start, with your tool in hand. Then it might work in a second on first try. Might also take a couple of tries. But in the middle of a chase or a fight? When you first have to get out your tools from your pack and take a moment to examine the lock that is custom made, one in a kind, prone to rusting and getting dirt in? Yeah, no. Not gonna happen.

However, Fast Hands is the main ability of the Thief, and simply scrapping half of its effects seems overly drastic. I think the idea to make a Slight of Hand skill check or the Use an Object action without stopping in what you’re currently doing is actually really cool. But not that lockpicking and trap disarming thing. That is just silly.

Here is my proposed fix for the campaign I am currently planning:

By default, using Thieves’ Tools to pick a lock or disarm a trap takes 1 minute. (Or one exploration turn, if you’re using the old B/X 10-minute turns to track time in dungeons, as I plan to.) The Fast Hand ability allows a thief to attempt the skill check as a regular action in one round, but that check is made at a disadvantage.

This should result in events that are much more sane. But it also makes this aspect of Fast Hand continue to be very useful and a big boost to thieves over other characters who are proficient with Thieves’ Tools. It makes retreating from a fight through a locked door, or getting a door open before an approaching patrol comes around the corner an option that the party otherwise would not have. (Other than just trying to smash the door.) And it also means that it can be preferable for the thief to make the attempt properly and not rushed if there are consequences for failure.

That’s a lot heavier than I thought…

A comment on yesterday’s post about my rules modifications ideas for 5th edition had me think about possible expenses for PCs other than the Upkeep cost for ongoing expenses. And as I have shown some years ago, in the B/X rules, the amount of gold that you need to transport from the wilderness back to town results in a huge logistical undertaking.

Now in 5th edition, the amount of XP that are required to reach higher level are much smaller. As an overall generalization, you only need about a tenth of the XP required in B/X, and accordingly the amount of treasure that you’ll have to transport. I was wondering if that might make that aspect of the XP for treasure system negligible, and as such negate the need for pack animals, servants to tend to the animals, and mercenaries to guard them. But a quick glance at the math proved that assumption wrong.

Let’s assume that a treasure worth 100 XP consists of 80 gold pieces and 200 silver pieces. That is close to 1 part gold and 2 parts silver for treasure in the form of coins, ingots, goblets, figures, and other precious metal objects. I think that strikes a good balance between gold being rare, special, and  exciting and actual economies running mostly on the much more practical silver, and not inflating the weight that needs to be hauled too much.

To get from 1st level to 2nd  every PC needs to make 300 XP. As I stated yesterday, I want to get things dialed in so that about 20% will come from hostile encounters, which leaves a rest of 240 XP to be made from treasure hauls. Applying the above split into gold and silver, that would be 192 gold pieces and 480 silver pieces, or 672 coins in total. Using the encumbrance value of 100 coins  counting as 1 item, that is 7 items worth of inventory space. Adventurers being above average, let’s assume an average Strength score of 12, which allows carrying 24 items encumbered and 36 items heavily encumbered. That seems quite doable, especially after the characters have gone through half of their supplies they brought on the adventure.

But to get from 2nd level to 3rd, you need double the amount, which means 1344 coins, or 14 items of inventory space. This starts to be a problem if you want to do it in a single haul. To get from 3rd to 4th level, you need double that again. 2688 coins, or 27 items of inventory space. You’re not going to move that in one go without a full bagage train.

And as I mentioned before, it’s not just the pack animals you need, but also animal handlers, plus guards to defend them while the PCs go inside dungeon. And they will want all of their supplies for two or more weeks to be carried by the animals as well, which increases capacity demands even further. As you get to higher levels, you can have the players find more jewels and other stuff with much higher value per weight than gold, to keep things from going too out of hand. But if you continue the above treasure composition, getting from 9th to 10th level would take 360 items of inventory space. Ten maximum loads for a Strength 12 character. High level treasure hunting will become a major opperation quite different from four dudes tracking through the forest. With considerable costs involved.

This should be fun. And since it will be an issue that gradually grows on the PCs as they go through 2nd and into 3rd level, I think this is something that the player’s don’t need a special reminder of at the start of the campaign. :P

Shattered Empire D&D 5th edition modifications (untested)

Taking my lessons from the Inixon campaign a year ago, I’ve put together a list of all the changes that I want to make to the default D&D 5th edition rules. I thought this was a pretty extensive rebuild of the system, but apparently having less than a page in total is really rather modest.

Character Rules
  • Ability scores are 4d6, keep best three, arrange in any order.
  • Character races are limited to human, high elf, half-elf, goliath, and tabaxi.
  • Character classes are limited to barbarian, bard, druid, fighter, monk, rogue, and warlock.
  • Only PHB class specializations, excluding moon druid, eldritch knight, shadow monk, four elements monk, and arcane trickster.
    • Druids’ circle of the land is defined by their homeland; one type of terrain for each of the Six Lands.
    • Rogues have access to the scout specialization.
  • Hard level cap for PCs and NPCs is 10th level. Spells of 6th level or higher do not exist in the setting.
  • Short rest is one night. Long rest is “a few days” in a town, castle, or other secured and hospitable place.
  • Exhaustion is reduced by 1 level every short rest instead of every long rest.
  • Cantrips use level-0 spell slots equal to the number of known cantrips, which are fully recovered on a short rest.
  • Warlocks can use either Intelligence or Charisma as their spellcasting attribute. (Intelligence default for the setting, but players’ choice.)
  • Encumbrance is tracked by items instead of weight:
    • Unencumbered: Items up to the character’s Strength score.
    • Encumbered: Items up to two times the character’s Strength score.
    • Heavily Encumbered: Items up to three times the character’s Strength score.
    • Goliath characters add their Strength bonus to their Strength score for encumbrance levels instead of having double the normal carrying capacity.
    • Items below 1 pound are not counted towards encumbrance. Items above 10 pounds count as multiple items. (Weight divided by 10, round up.)
    • Coins count as 1 item for every 100 coins (round up).
  • Food and water will be tracked.
  • Ammunition and light sources will be tracked.
  • Upkeep costs are used to cover common expenses.
  • Reduced weapons and armor lists to reflect the technology of the setting.
Adventure Rules
  • Encounter XP are reduced to 10% their default value.
  • Milestone XP are awarded for returning from the wilderness with treasure. The XP amount is equal to the gp value of the treasure. (Expect 1/5 of total XP to be from encounters, and 4/5 from treasure.)
  • Wandering Monster checks are made in the wilderness four times per day. Three during the day and one during the night. By default, the chance is 1 in 6. (That means on average 2 encounters for every 3 days.) Players make the roll to eliminate GM bias.
  • Wandering Monster encounters make a 2d6 reaction roll, unless the context of the encounter makes the reaction obvious:
    • 2: attack at first opportunity
    • 3-5: threaten the party to leave their turf
    • 6-8: observe the party, repeat roll with advantage or disadvantage depending on the party’s behavior
    • 9-11: retreat from confrontation, but might talk if able to speak
    • 12: friendly, offering aid and cooperation
  • All PCs and enemy factions act as groups on the same initiative count. Turns get resolved in order of players being ready to take their actions. Other players can continue to consider their turn at the same time as other characters resolve their actions, significantly speeding up encounters.
  • Morale Wisdom save are always made for opponents and hired mercenaries when applicable.
  • All effects with a duration of 1 minute or 10 minutes become “1 turn”, a time tracking unit of roughly 10 minutes on average, and equating “one scene” or “one area” in practice.
  • Searching a room takes 1 turn. Searching as a group counts as working together, and the character with the highest Intelligence (Investigation) modifier makes the check with advantage. Only one check can be made per area and it can only produce one discovery. The roll is best made after the players exhausted their ideas for what they want to look at specifically, wich doesn’t require any checks.
  • Lockpicking and disarming traps takes is 1 turn by default. Thieves’ Fast Hands ability allows doing it as a main action with disadvantage.
  • Wilderness travel is tracked in 6 mile hexes. Travel speed per day depends on both encumbrance and terrain:
    • Unencumbered: 6 hexes (normal) / 3 hexes (difficult)
    • Encumbered: 4 hexes (normal) / 2 hexes (difficult)
    • Heavily Encumbered: 2 hexes (normal) / 1 hex (difficult)
    • Cautious Pace: -1 hex per day, Stealthy movement.
    • Hurried  Pace: +1 hex per day, -5 to passive Perception

This is the current state of affairs. I might be updating it in the future as I run into more things that I feel need adjusting.

Why do I never see links to All Dead Generations?

Looking back, the prime days of OSR lie now a decade behind us, and while a number of people are still around, occasionally sharing some new thought or insight every couple of months, very little of any meaningful significance is added to the discourse of B/X and AD&D that hasn’t been thoroughly examined years ago.

But one thing still does stand out that really brings something new (back) to the table that has significant value to help understanding how those old games tick and how you can make them really work without existing experience going back to the 80s. Which is Gus L’s “new” site All Dead Generations. This is an excellent resource I never really see mentioned anywhere.

When I finished my D&D 5th edition campaign a year ago, one of the realizations that I gained from it was that I just didn’t get the concept of dungeons. What a dungeon is is obvious, but I never understood how going from room to room filled with monsters and random crack-wizard puzzle-devices was supposed to be fun for anyone involved. As someone who got into D&D in the last days of 2nd edition, when the 90s Metaplot craze was still in full swing, fighting monsters in rooms never seemed like something that contributes to the plot of an adventure or a campaign. And it doesn’t. That’s one of the key things to take away from the many long pages of All Dead Generations. Thinking about a plot when going into a dungeon to explore is already the completely wrong approach. I never figured out how to make it work in 20 years, because that’s never how it was supposed to work. Dungeons & Dragons under WotC has been a cargo cult game, that emulates mechanics from the 70s and early 80s because they’ve seen these things being a major part of D&D, but with no apparent understanding of what they are for and how they work.

All Dead Generations has been a massive eye opener for me and got me super excited about an all dungeon crawl campaign just after I had given up on using dungeons in my games entirely. It’s a fantastic read for anyone who wants to understand how B/X is actually supposed to be played. And yet, nobody seems to be talking about it. I guess partly because there are few people still around who could talk about it, but to do so they’d also need to hear about it in the first place.

So here’s a big shout out to Gus. Which is a bit weird from a marginal nobody like me to one of the well known big guys of oldschool RPGs, but it is what it is. Go check out All Dead Generations.

Something always happens on a 1!

I mentioned this idea in another post last summer in regards to wandering monster checks, but I think it’s actually a rally nice principle that can be applied to all dice rolls without a defined die size and target number.

I’ve talked about accessibility of RPG rules in the past, both here and in several other places, and my personal experience as a GM with ADD has always been that my brain very easily becomes overloaded when juggling numbers at the same time as I am trying to follow a conversation. The trivial task of putting the initiative counts of six to eight participants in an encounter into a descending list has always been the single most challenging thing and greatest struggle to me about running games. (Now I always use group initiative to skip the whole issue.) But another thing that isn’t always easy for me in the heat of the action is probabilities like “2 in 6”. I rolled a 4, is that a success or not? Do we count the lowest two numbers or the highest two? This can be really easy stuff, but for my brain that’s something that takes up completely disproportional amounts of processing power. Not a good situation.

My solution is to make any such rolls a probability of “1 in 4”, “1 in 6”, “1 in 8”, and so on. If I’m using material that uses other odds, I translate them into whichever “1 in N” probability gets closest and write that in my notes. The result of this is that even when my mind is getting overloaded with input from the players and I am trying to establish what happens next, I only have to look at the die in front of me and remember “Something always happens on a 1!”

If it’s not a 1, then nothing happens. Proceed as normal. If it’s a 1, that always means the answer to “does X happen?” is always a yes. I’ve adopted this method as a solution to my specific personal problem, but I think it’s a really neat way to handle a wide range of rolls in general. It’s also helpful for new players who are still trying to figure out what’s actually going on all the time. On top of that, there’s a dozen different ways of how you can roll a die to determine the outcome of an action. Sometimes they have to roll higher than a number on their character sheet. Sometimes they have to roll lower. Sometimes they roll a die and add a number from their character sheet and the GM tells them if it’s a success or not. Sometimes they roll d6 and a 1 is a success, other times they roll a d8 and 7 is a success. Any time you can simply tell a player “just roll that die, when it’s a 1 something happens” is a moment where that player has a lot less new information to process.

I also think it helps with speeding along play and creating additional excitement by simply having a player roll a dice in the middle of the table, and since they’ve seen the same thing a dozen times before now, they already know “something always happens on a 1!”, without you having to explain to them how the odds for this specific roll are working. And by having established that something always happens on a 1, there is no ambiguity on whether that roll really mattered or you arbitrarily decided the outcome in disregard of the die. When the players see a 1, they can jeer in excitement or despair without even having to look at you. In my perception, this is a very useful tool to make players realize that the fates of their characters are entirely in the hands of themselves and random luck, and that trying to figure out what the GM wants or expects doesn’t make any difference.

You could of course switch it around and say “something always happens on the highest number of the die”. But that requires one additional mental step to get to the actual result, which is identifying what type of die has just been rolled. I think everyone who’s played with new players know that it takes them a good amount of time to look for the die in front of them that has the same amount of numbers that you just told them to roll. It may not be immediately obvious if a die sitting in the middle of the table and showing a 10 is a d10 or a d12. And in my personal situation, when I am trying to run an encounter with lots of players chattering in excitement, staring at a die in front of me and trying to remember what meaning there was behind the die I just roll can take me two or three seconds. Figuring out if that 10 on the die before me means something or nothing is an additional step I just don’t need if it doesn’t add any additional value to the game. And ADD is not an uncommon condition, anecdotally even less so among RPG players. I would hazard to guess that more groups have one than not, and wouldn’t be surprised if a good number of them is affected by similar forms of mental overload as me. Even if this seems to trivial to be pointless to you, there might very well be a player in your group who’d really benefit from it. So “something always happens on a 1!”.