My continuing exploration of the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook. As you know from Part One, I’m a fan. I really enjoyed what I saw in Character Creation with the variety of options, the balance of simple choices against more fiddly choices to appeal to a broader range of players and the addition of the backgrounds which add without creating weird pigeonholes. Now I want to look at Part Two of the book.
Anyone familiar with Fantasy Flight RPGs knows that while they are pretty good at making good games… the Force is not particularly strong with their editorial teams. The more I run my Age of Rebellion game (and my experiences with Edge of the Empire added on) I realize that while many things about the system are very well done, the core rulebooks have some… quirks. I thought I’d touch on a few of these today and see how others are addressing these things in their games or what suggestions those familiar with the system might have.
Today, I wanted to write about the 5e D&D Player’s Handbook. But something else has a hold of me and I need to start getting it out of my system.
I’m still thinking about player skill vs. character skill but I want to take a slightly different tack with it. I want to take the “vs.” part out and replace it with something else – some way to join the two that makes the experience more seamless – perhaps player skill (+) character skill. Not quite there but getting there.
I’ve been tinkering with Fantasy Flight’s newest takes on the Star Wars RPG quite a bit lately, transitioning from Edge of the Empire to Age of Rebellion with a group that ranges from fairly new roleplayers to old hands. We’ve been having fun and despite a few oddities, the game is well put together and fun to play. One of those quirks came up recently and I’ve been running over it in my mind a lot trying to think through my feelings on the issue. The issue of course is blind difficulties.
To try and explain what I mean, let me set the scene of what happened in game. So I was using an idea from an old SW adventure as a starting point for my new game and this involved a droid that the party meets who is in the employ of a really impressive slicer. The party’s computer expert (who is really good) wanted to check into transmissions being sent by the droid but these transmissions are being overseen by the droid’s employer (the slicer). So it’s an opposed roll. And I didn’t consider when planning things out that I was going to come to that moment when the PC looked at me and said that they wanted to check this out and I had to assign them a difficulty pool.
Of course, the whole point is that the droid is undercover so by assigning this huge difficulty pool (5 difficulty with 4 challenge dice), the party learns exactly what the computer skill of their opposition is. More than that, they learn – no matter what else happens – that the droid is definitely not what he seems. Not that they suspect it, they know it.
Admittedly, only the players know, not necessarily their characters, but it’s no longer a point of suspense or conflict – it’s clear knowledge.
And with this roll, I realized that in this system it is nearly impossible to “keep secrets.” This was such an odd moment for me that I actually did something I’m usually loathe to do and paused the game to discuss and consider the issue with my players.
We kicked around a few ideas – that the GM just make the difficulty pool and roll it “behind the screen” – and compared it to other games such that, “hey, I rolled a 30 and still failed, there must be something going on!” This was good brainstorming, and I’ve considered these ideas more fully since then but honestly, it’s still a difficult piece of design to navigate. Sure, in a game like a d20 system rpg, a roll like the one mentioned above does make a difference – but the player is still in the dark about the bits “under the hood” of that difficulty check. Why a 30 failed is a different question than, “why does this robot have a 5/4 stat/skill split when that doesn’t jive with his story at all?” It’s a different level of information being presented in a very straightforward manner. The other idea about hiding rolls is untenable as well – as the game engine is so built around the very transparent nature of dice pools and the resultant narrative-shaping symbols.
Information is powerful and shapes decision-making even when we try to ignore it. More importantly than metagaming, this type of information creates a situation where very straightforward revelations are made that do not exist in other aspects of the game. Combat, for example, uses standardized difficulties with upgrades for NPC qualities like “Adversary” but as my group has learned, combat is another quirky bit of the game where the margin between the PCs winning easily and the NPCs wiping the floor with them is very swingy. Even so, combat still contains surprises because even though you might suddenly learn who is a nemesis versus a rival… you probably already had some indication of that going into the fight from other in-game information that had little to do with stats. This same issue exists with any area of the game that could benefit from “hidden information” from Stealth rolls to Social Interaction rolls.
Of course, my last paragraph suggested a possible “halfway” solution to this. It is possible that I could just come up with a system of standardized difficulties – such as with combat – and then upgrade the dice (or use setback dice) as modifiers based on the opposition. While this still reveals the caliber of opposition, it is less directly revealing than providing the opposition’s dice pool exactly. So, creating a talent similar to Adversary for different types of NPC actions such as awareness or slicing, etc. It’s a step but not necessarily a solution.
I’d love to hear any thoughts about FF’s Star Wars games, the idea of blind difficulties, or navigating this terrain in game. I think my follow up post to this one will discuss how I let the PC’s set their own difficulties on a recent occasion and how ridiculous space flight is in this game. But all that is still to come.
As always, thanks for reading and comments are welcome.
Do I need anything else to the title of this post?
I’ve just had the chance to complete my first read through of the Starter Set box contents and the free D&D 5e PDF – which you should take a moment to download and read if you love RPGs and haven’t done so yet. Let’s not call what follows a review… let’s call it an exploration of my perceptions as I move through the material. I’m mainly going to focus on the Starter Set and occasionally reference the more complete PDF rules.
A disclaimer: I did not follow the playtest very closely. I kept it at the edge of my awareness but I did not play any games with rules, etc. I mention this only to say the new material was very new to me and not tempered by the playtest experience. Also, what follows is my own meandering ruminations and should be considered in that light…
The Short Version
If you just want the really short version… I like it. I enjoyed reading it and think that some of what has been done here is amazing, some of it is derivative, and some is “meh.” But overall, I really like what I’m seeing so far.
I have a friend who hates using the d20. He pretty much hates any version of the d20 system. His primary gripe – although there are many other well-founded ones – is rooted in the randomness of rolling a single d20 to determine outcomes. Basically, no matter how good he is, bad rolling can ruin that at any time.
My own gripes with the d20 system(s) trend toward a different direction but ultimately, the randomness of these activities really grates on me as well, sometimes doing a disservice to another convenient part of many d20 related games – Niche Protection.
This is a follow up to my last post concerning the nature of character skill vs. player skill at the gaming table and the various interactions that entails. Several comments on my last post raised specific points I intend to address as I write this, Part Two, and I have some additional ideas I hope to develop here.
This is a small post and I’ll say up front, I’m covering some well trod territory here… but it’s something that was on my mind recently as I began thinking about how to put together a toolkit for encounters.
At the con this past weekend we had several conversations about the difference between old school play and more modern “D&D” play, specifically thinking about how frustrating encounters are to create in a game like Pathfinder. It can take hours to plan a single encounter in Pathfinder. More importantly, we were discussing the idea of planned/balanced encounters vs. story-driven encounters.
I started thinking about the games I’ve played the most and how I GM, how I create encounters. I find that the more rules-light and the more well-defined the setting, the more capable I am of improvising and feeling good about it. I think back to running Star Wars D6 system in the Rebellion era and it was incredibly easy to run on the fly. I could improvise details and encounters easily. Amber DRPG works the same way for me.
Part of this comes from the fact that the whole group of players are very comfortable with those settings. They know the details and so they are not thrown off when encounters are not “balanced” because the expectation exists that they could run into odd but appropriate stuff at any time. Some other games really emphasize the encounter-mechanics-based method over the idea that encounters make sense for the setting. I think this is why my return to old-school, open-world style gaming has really been a boon. Sure, it’s sometimes a pain to make up treasure hoards and I am still getting my players familiar with the setting I’m running in, but the feeling of freedom has invigorated my desire to GM.
I’d never really thought about this from the player side before, and how it affects the play experience. I’m going to keep ruminating on this more, but it’s a thought that might show dividends at my table.
When I was younger I was really a system guy. I played tons of systems, read tons more, and really enjoyed working up ways to cross from system to system. I found an old notebook a while back where I’d done a complete conversion guide for Star Wars D6, 2nd Edition AD&D, and GURPS. Looking back – I was much cooler 15 years ago than I am now.