Monday, June 04, 2012

Why low level, high lethality?

So my little piece on Tuesday about 5e was more widely read and talked about than most of my blog posts.  Some folks took great exception to my suggestion that 1st level characters in the current draft of D&D Next were too tough.  In some of the less regulated corners of the gaming forums it reached the level of name-calling.  If you were to go by certain commenters on and grognards.txt, I'm some sort of tiny-dicked sadist of a DM who takes out his virginal sexual frustration on his players.  This is all fine and good, as calling people names has a long, proud tradition on the internet.  It's a freedom we all enjoy.  For example: those guys are all douchebags.

However, those douchebags did make it clear that I should have made some sort of attempt to articulate why I like running games for incompetent, fragile PCs.  There are two main reasons:

1) I'm a lazy bastard of a DM.  Prepping an adventure is super-easy when the characters are low HP, low resource buffoons.  Three orcs with indigestion is a perfectly feasible encounter.  Enemy spellcasters only have a handful of spells you need to think about.  You don't need to use monsters with a lot of special abilities.  I don't think I'm the only DM who wants to do the minimal amount of prep needed and not a helluva lot more, and a low-level game helps that a lot.

2) Players love getting away with murder.  Not necessarily literal murder (but that totally works), I mean that one of the greatest feelings you can get out an RPG is that you just did something naughty and got away scott free.  The less competent and more likely your PC is to die, the greater the celebration when you make it out of the dungeon alive.  Sure, you can achieve this feeling at any level with a properly lethal array of opposition, but nothing testifies to your ability to cheat death than escaping ANY adventure alive when your max hit points is lower than the number of fingers on your right hand.  Maybe you were clever, maybe you were lucky or maybe you just played as cowardly as possible.  Whatever method you used, you spat in the Reaper's face just by going into the danger zone with your schmuck PC.


  1. It seems to me that, somewhere along the way over recent years, speaking your mind and standing your ground has become tangled with being a dick. So many people seem to think that you have to be an a-hole when giving your opinion. The result is a bunch of people shouting about their opinions and no one is really listening to each other, because who wants to listen to a shouting a-hole? This sort of instantly combative stance, where people assume that others will instantly fight them on any and all topics of discussion, has bled over into roleplaying. Or maybe it was always there, in some embryonic form, and has finally flowered from the muck of low self esteem that has plagued many players/gamemasters over the long years of our hobby. The net result is that people come to the table with massive chips on their shoulders, and this doesn't lend itself well to cooperation or, in the end, fun.

    Ok, sorry for that mini-rant. I just can't stand this whole lack of civil discussion anymore!

    And as for your topic: it seems that many players need to have their PCs be unkillable right from the start. Is this a generational thing? Are these mostly younger players who are griping about low-power low-level characters? Now, granted, I think some old schoolers have a tendency to enshrine the aspects of old-school play and turn them into sacrosanct concepts. Such as low-level play being uniformly lethal. I think many old schoolers take those aspects of the game too seriously. But, I have to say that I agree that that lethality requires players to be, you know, creative! Ooh, perish the thought, right? Why would you use your imagination in a game that needs you to use your imagination?! ;-)

    1. I am the same general age as Jeff, and I do not enjoy the fragile-PC/old school ideas he does. However, I LOVE his bonkers and innovative adventures, ideas and total gonzo ways of playing.

  2. It's really the way you choose to stand your ground.

    For instance, calling people names in an echo chamber that requires a pay account to post on instead of, you know, actually coming to the article and making a well reasoned comment and engaging in discussion illuminates the truth of who is an actual ignorant little-dick incompetent jerk (I'm assuming, because this was the form of their insults, that it's, you know, what they are most afraid of being called, ergo: the truth) to anyone without their head stuck up their ass.

    I mean, jolly good post sir! May I have another?

  3. Anonymous7:45 AM

    Thanks for offering this extra explanation, Jeff.

    Let me point out something that I'm sure is obvious to you and probably most of the people following this discussion, though: In your campaigns, PCs with single-digit hit points (i.e., whom you describe as "fragile and incompetent") are really only as "fragile and incompetent" as an actual normal human being. They don't have the tall-tale abilities to withstand mortal blows or climb sheer, slippery walls with their bare hands, but they're no more "fragile" than any other 1 HD creature and no more "incompetent" than their players' judgment allows.

    Again, this is just a meta-comment, but I do find it a little weird that so many commentators (not just Jeff!) emphasize the weakness of PCs - which in many ways is the same thing as emphasizing the power of the DM - in games where the PCs start out with modest resources. That way of talking about the game seems a little fetishistic; viewed in that light, I don't think it's surprising that the notion turns people off.

  4. I object to the weaksauce-PC notion for two reasons.

    One, I play RPGs to put myself in the role of a hero -- someone a cut above average, able to go into danger, overcome it, and have his story continue. I'm not saying I need to be invincible, but being able to live or die based on the outcome of a single roll of the dice is too much inherent fragility for my taste.

    Two, by the time I've finished my character sheet I already have a character in mind. Usually I have a character in mind before I even begin the process. I want to get inside this character's skin and head and tell his story. Stories that end with "and then I was killed by an orc with indigestion" aren't all that satisfying.

    That second point applies to when I'm behind the screen, as well. I'm never going to kill PCs in anything less than a "boss fight"/dramatic encounter unless they're playing like total morons. Why? Because dying to a bunch of mooks doesn't make for an interesting story or a particularly memorable game.

    I don't relate to the second point that you made in the slightest. I don't derive any particular satisfaction from succeeding despite long odds. I like characters who are experts at what they do. I don't want to play grunt soldier #3, I want to play a member of SEAL team 6.

    None of this is to say that "you're doing it wrong." Nor do I think that your idea that maybe there should be a 0-level in D&D Next is a bad one. This is my perspective and mine alone, and the wacky thing about this hobby is that there are so many different reasons people have for engaging with it, and so many different things (and categories of things) they derive enjoyment from.

    1. If you've already decided "What makes an interesting game", then why, as a player do I want to waste my time at your table trying to make the game interesting for me?

      A party member, getting killed by an orc with indigestion is an opportunity for an interesting sequence of events.

      This is why your style of game isn't for me. It's refreshing to see you note that I and my friends can like what I like, while you can play the games you like.

      Even if those games are bad and you are bad for liking them. (I joke! I joke!)

    2. One, I play RPGs to put myself in the role of a hero

      I don't. I play to have adventures, to see weird things, and to be afraid of being killed by them. I like Jeff's games a lot.

      The style of play that we both like is supported by every edition of D&D until the current one (you could start with a higher level character). 4e and the hypothetical 5e represented by the playtest only supports one of them. That sucks.

    3. “I don't want to play grunt soldier #3, I want to play a member of SEAL team 6.”
      You are Seal team 6! You get an attack bonus and you’re not afraid to fight monsters. Special ops members can’t be magically shot more times than a normal person. Special ops members stay alive and kick ass because they aren’t stupid and that’s you.

      Grunt soldiers are hirelings.

    4. My most treasured PC is a sailor with low strength, low intelligence, low dexterity, low charisma and low size (we're playing Stormbringer 1e.) He's small, stupid, ugly and weak. Yet his plucky courage and ability to stay alive by finding friends in high places make him totally rocking to play.

      Now, if only I could get out in front of the screen to play him more often...

    5. There are really two types of 'hero' protagonist for our purposes here:

      1)a superhuman(as in superior to humans, not as a peer to Gods) possessed by greatness


      2)a mere mortal who with all the mundanity that entails

      Both must struggle against the tides of impersonal fate(the shared World constructed via GM/PC/ interaction). Type #1 is *much* more likely to triumph than its obverse. A player would select type #1 or #2 based on their own tolerance for (fictional)adversity.

      In Videogame parlance, I'd equate the difference type #1 and type #2 to the contrast in difficulty between NES/Arcade Contra and the XBOX Live/PSN Hardcorps Uprising. Or to throw out a Pro Wrestling analogy: the career paths of the hardscrabble, skilled, crafty but fallible grapplers like 'Bullet' Bob Armstrong or Jake 'The Snake' Roberts vs. the overwhelming presence and self-evident power of a Goldberg or Road Warrior Animal.

      Many Old Schoolers enjoy the challenge of playing #2.(Though they're not averse to taking #1 out for a spin from time to time.) So much so, that if #2 begins ever transmogrifies into anything resembling #1, they retire their PC and start all over with a fresh #2.

      And, of course, 'fragile' heroes can still be expert at what they do!

      For the record, I enjoy #2 style-play far more than #1.

      I must admit I never could understand the rationale behind a level *1* character with a grandiose backstory, unless Level 1 in this one game is like level 10 elsewhere! Not to mention, dang near fully fleshing out a personality before play begins seems a bit unnecessary, imo. In the games I play, back history, motivations, beliefs, personality quirks, etc... occur organically, developing the character from session to session. I also enjoy roleplaying obviously doomed mooks; as I find a PC who lives 5 hours or simply 5 minutes in an amusing and interesting fashion to be just as rewarding in my book as a grizzled but bland campaign vet who saves the world before lunch every Thursday(Strawman Lv. 45). Even a 'meatgrinder'/Monster Kitchen/Death's Funhouse(the prevalence of which is overstated in a tongue-in-cheek fashion by quite a few Old-Schoolers!) kinda game gives you the chance to exercise those improvisational roleplaying chops. Plus, it's just fun, ya know. :-)

      Also, as -C states below, 'cheap' deaths provide roleplaying opportunities.

      'I'm never going to kill PCs in anything less than a "boss fight"/dramatic encounter unless they're playing like total morons.':

      I'd *really* like to know stuff like this up front before I were to join up with a group. 'Cuz I enjoy games where anything could happen, rather than one where I have 'plot armor', however thin.

      'I don't derive any particular satisfaction from succeeding despite long odds.':

      You are literally the only person I've ever heard say this in reference to a game. Everyone else I know of is totally jazzed to slide under the wire!
      My amusement aside, 'succeeding despite long odds' was traditionally(and almost certainly still) considered a primary hallmark of a hero. From my perspective, it's a bit odd for an RPGer who seems to enjoy the combat aspect of D&D to be kinda indifferent to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. :-)

      Thanx for providing your rationale for your favored playstyle. It may help some people to understand where you're coming from. I myself don't share your preferences, but don't particularly dislike them either. To each their own, really.

      Reconciling the expectations and wants of the stalwarts of both 'camps' is, imo, the hurdle that D&D 5 may not be able to surmount.

    6. I currently play with a group who likes the options and resilience of a mid level character. They too do not like the fickle nature of an adventurers life at low levels, and actually in my most recent campaign I ended bumping them up to sixth level from level one to satisfy this preference.

      To be honest though I am in the same camp as Jeff...always have been. When I (rarely) get the chance to play as a PC in a game I almost always choose to play an underdog character, and am more than happy to let the dice rest where they lay so to speak. For me it is way more satisfying to have a shmook character make it to those mid to high levels that many find to be the games sweet spot.

      Hell, I'd say in many of the games I've played the most memorable deaths tend to come at the hands of traps and orcs with indigestion, more so than with a particularly epic boss fight.

      But like everyone says each tho their own.

    7. Last week's session of my weekly campaign ended with one PC's arm firmly ensconced in a Gelatinous Cube (and mostly digested) while the rest of the party argued about whether to burn him along with the cube or just cut and run, leaving him to his fate.

      After we put down the dice and pencils, that PC's player came over and thanked me for a truly enjoyable and interesting session, even though he had a week of waiting, knowing his character was almost certainly doomed. These are the sorts of players I want at my table as a DM--ones who appreciate the challenge that comes from very real consequences for failure in the game-world. Those challenges are a lot more tangible at low levels, and I find personally that my players and I both appreciate the benefits that come from advancement as a result.

    8. Cid, I think this may be the source of your discontent with high lethality play:

      "Two, by the time I've finished my character sheet I already have a character in mind. Usually I have a character in mind before I even begin the process. I want to get inside this character's skin and head and tell his story. Stories that end with "and then I was killed by an orc with indigestion" aren't all that satisfying."

      I absolutely agree by the way, if I want to tell a story about an interesting heroic fantasy figure I've invented I don't want him dying to a giant rat bite ten minutes into the dungeon.

      Yet when playing OD&D I discourage my players from getting into their PC's at the start. They're just stat lines and basic equipment - identity and back story emerge from play. They are a collaboration between the players and GM. I've noticed by the time a PC's hits 2nd level they have a story and an identity, but usually by then it takes at least two drunk goblins to end them. This is also why I don't fully embrace high lethality, giving various 1/2 chances and favoring the scrambling efforts of the party to save their own.

    9. Anonymous5:47 PM

      @Mouther Yes, that's a big part of it. And you're right, if you're playing OD&D it's just not a good idea to get attached. Can't help it though.

      @Philip yeah, my personal D&D sweet spot is the 6 - 8 range. In 3.5, anyway, I have no real experience with that range in any other edition.

      @velaran I know, I'm an oddball. But it probably won't surprise you that -my- favorite pro wrestlers are the Undertakers and the Bret Harts. You know, the guys you pretty much know are going to win right from the start.

      @Seth I know some special forces guys who would disagree with you :-p And in any case, bearing in mind that the Hit Point system is a weird abstraction, in all other ways a Navy SEAL is much, much more capable in combat than a first-level adventurer. If we're going by Jason Alexander's 5-level hierarchy, SEALS straddle the line between level 3 and 4.

      @-C The weird thing is, my games and philosophy sound awful to you, but I've been told by multiple players that I'm the best DM they've ever had. So I guess I've been lucky that the guys I've played with have all been looking for what I like to play/run: being the protagonist in a fantasy epic. Being, if not a superhero, a truly exceptional mortal.

      Of course, all of this is obfuscating the fact that it is always we, the DMs, who kill the players. Always. Even if we're solely "leaving it up to the dice," we put the monsters there, and made the monsters attack instead of running away. The DM has absolute and total control over the lethality in his game -- even to level 1 OSR characters, a single goblin poses little to no threat, so putting four there instead is making a statement.

      Ultimately the name of the game, whatever game you're playing, is finding players who want to play the same kind of game as you want to run (or who are willing to go along with the ride). I can't speak for anyone else here but I personally have never had a player come up to my table asking to play Frodo.

      Anyway, this got a lot more attention than I was expecting. Thanks for all your insights, I think I'll probably get a post of my own out of it :D

  5. Anonymous8:14 AM

    I also like high-lethality low-level D&D, but recently I went back to play a bunch of the indie retro old-school (stupid? pretentious?) video games I've picked up via the Humble Bundles over the year, and they're all very "do really really well or you start over from the beginning" and it makes me crazy. I like the game but I don't like dying over and over. So I don't want to play them. This makes me really sympathetic to people who don't want their RPG to feel like this.

    Still, I'm still behind your first post: to even begin to appeal to me, the next edition needs to have simple built-in rules for this style of play. Or I can just keep playing B/X.

    1. But in a tabletop RPG it's not the same level over and over when you die, most of the time. Every time is different, so I don't think the comparison is valid. It's the linear nature of those old video games that makes them frustrating sometimes (especially if they are just testing reflexes), not their difficulty.

  6. PCs with single-digit hit points (i.e., whom you describe as "fragile and incompetent") are really only as "fragile and incompetent" as an actual normal human being.

    I play RPGs to put myself in the role of a hero -- someone a cut above average, able to go into danger, overcome it, and have his story continue... I have a character in mind before I even begin the process. I want to get inside this character's skin and head and tell his story. Stories that end with "and then I was killed by an orc with indigestion" aren't all that satisfying.

    Must be because I'm an old CoC player at heart that these discussions always seem so alien to me. I'm used to systems where you very likely start out with a PC that is no more competent than real you, the player, and your in-game mechanical representation tends to sink rather than grow over time.

    My solution (again, from CoC) is assymetric warfare. Of course the horror killed you. Duh. And every round before that happens is a victory.

  7. I like your reasons. There are times I want to play low-power, high-lethality games. It's not all the time, though, so I do both. We'll play games with high-powered PCs - the ones where you get to start as Conan or Elric, not aspire to be him at the very end of the campaign. We'll play games with low-powered PCs that are lucky to pack their mule for the trip without getting kicked to death. Sometimes we'll do both - run low-powered PCs for a "break" from the high powered ones, which really makes you appreciate the power you've got once you get back to your tough guy.

    So both levels work for me, and I like it when my game systems give me the option for either.

    1. For classic editions of D&D the option was always there to start at higher levels. However unlike Hero System or GURPS there seems to be a stigma attached to this even among non-fans.

    2. Yeah, there was - and the systems for generating higher-level PCs and NPCs in the D&D systems I played were kind of weak. They never felt anything like an organically grown character of the same level. And leveling up "too fast" is still stigmatized . . . yet Champions had rules for dumping a big load of points on a PC all at once to ramp up their power. I have to wonder why.

  8. I fall squarely in the middle of this continuum. I like it when the PCs fail. Failure can be interesting because of the complications it introduces into the game. Death, more often than not, is boring because it stops the game.

    The other side of this is that I don't want to coddle the PCs. If you make a stupid decision where death is the sensible outcome, you will die. If you come up with a great plan, and do everything to the best of your ability, but still "lose", I want to find some way to keep you playing, but make your character's lives much harder.

    Of course, those two poles of the continuum exist within the larger discussion of what kind of tone you want your games to have. I'm of the opinion that it's more fun to watch your character grow from a nobody into something of great power (I'm hesitant to say hero). DCC RPG really suits my style of game because character death at 0-level is expected, and 1st level is actually pretty powerful without feeling too exaggerated.

    1. I like to let the dice decide what constitutes a great plan. A plan may seem great, but if it doesn't actually work in practice without fudging, to my mind that means it wasn't actually such a great plan. In other words, I prefer substance to triumph over style in gaming.

    2. The dice are a means, not an end. Smart players will do their best to guess at probability before throwing them. If you throw a natural 1, that doesn't make the plan bad or mean you're incompetent. It means in that particular instance something went awry or you got unlucky.

      If you roll higher than a 1 but less than the required DC, that still doesn't make the plan bad. It could mean you're incompetent, or don't have the necessary equipment to accomplish that task.

      If you roll a natural 20, that doesn't mean that you're skilled, either. It means you got lucky.

      The point is, dice are there to determine the outcome of an action when success is not guaranteed. While the results matter, deciding whether or not something was a good/bad idea based on a completely random, arbitrary mechanic sounds pretty awful.

    3. A good plan does not depend on not rolling a 1 on a specific throw.

      Also, bad plans can work with luck. But if all you are relying on is luck, it will turn against you at some point.

      Can you elaborate on your last paragraph? I'm having a hard time understanding your position. Personally, I like having an impartial way to adjudicate success and failure. I try to provide my scenarios with as much information as possible so that inquisitive PCs can make informed choices about what they want to do.

      Maybe, in some way, we are saying the same thing in a different way. For example, in many cases smart play is figuring out ways to do things that don't rely on the dice, or ways to force an enemy to rely on dice. For example, setting traps. An enemy might need to roll some dice to avoid them, so there is luck involved, but you are skewing luck in your favor. Do that enough, and the law of averages will put you on top. Finding a way around the room with the wraith is another example, rather than fighting the wraith directly and risking level drain.

    4. Your position, as written in your first post, is that you like the dice to decide whether or not something was a good/bad idea. You don't need dice to do that, and the logic of doing so can get pretty insane. Examples:

      1) A player decides to attack the captain of the city guards. He scores a natural 20, inflicting enough damage to make him bleed out if he doesn't get immediate medical attention.

      Is this a good idea or a bad idea? According to the logic (dice results = quality of idea), this is a good idea. He accomplished his plan! Except we all know what comes next, which makes this a bad idea.

      2) A skilled climber with the proper gear is scaling a cliff. He plans to use his grappling hook, rope, and pitons to scale the rocks. He rolls a 1 and falls 50 feet, breaking his leg. Again, according to your logic (dice results = quality of idea), this was a bad plan. Except, when you consider his skill as a climber and that he was properly equipped for the task, this was a good idea.

      In either case, the dice have nothing to do with deciding it's a good/bad idea. I agree that dice are a great, unbiased arbiter for resolving actions where success is not guaranteed, but they have literally nothing to do with how well thought out a plan is.

    5. You are assuming things about the system - for example, that it has fumbles and crits both of which are, in fact, bad ideas when using a single d20 roll.

    6. This is true, but the logic of the argument still stands. In example #1, replace the natural 20 with enough successes to succeed. In example #2, replace the natural 1 with enough failures.

    7. Those two examples are isolated and out of context. Lots of stuff happens before and after each of those examples. You seem to be talking about single actions. I'm talking about a whole series of actions. Getting off a lucky shot might help, but it is sort of beside the point. Smart play is not succeeding in a single roll, smart play is surviving a session (or profiting, or accomplishing some other goal). There's no need for all these potential challenges to be lethal either; that's just one kind of example.

      Regarding 1) a good plan might be stirring up a an old disenchanted group of rebels to make trouble for the guards while the PCs try to take out their leadership. Lucky shot on the leader? Great! Not required though.

      Regarding 2) maybe the climber secures ropes so he wouldn't fall? Or has a wizard standing by with feather fall? Why is he climbing the cliff at all anyways? Maybe he could go around, or negotiate with giant eagles.

      Dice in aggregate provide an impartial way to decide if things work where there is a question of failure. As a referee, I don't know whether some of those things are a good or bad idea, but I do have to be able to quantify the risk, and generally I will communicate that risk to the player if it is reasonable for their PC to know. Hidden goblin commandos? Perception or surprise check. (However, maybe they could learn that goblins infest the area in some diegetic manner, allowing them to avoid relying on the surprise dice.) Nasty weather for climbing? You bet I'm going to tell the player there will be a chance of falling, and the better come up with a safety net or be okay with resting their fate with the dice.

    8. None of that establishes that dice play any role in attributing the quality "good" or "bad" to an action. We could be talking about single actions or an entire string of them, it doesn't matter.

      It seems like you've moved away from your initial argument and are defending dice as impartial adjudicators. I have no disagreement with that.

    9. My initial argument was exactly defending dice as impartial adjudicators. That's what this means:

      A plan may seem great, but if it doesn't actually work in practice without fudging, to my mind that means it wasn't actually such a great plan.

      I think you read "plan" as any single action, when I meant it in a broader sense.

    10. No, that was not how I interpreted it.

      Failure does not mean bad. Good plans fail all the time and bad plans succeed. These statements, which are true, directly contradict the sentence you just self-quoted.

      The dice determine the success, not the quality of a plan.

    11. I think we are trapped in one of those semantic loops that is only possible on the Internet. Let's try to focus on the essence here rather than pick at the details of word meanings, because I think there is potentially some interesting difference here regarding play style over and above how we define the words bad and good.

      You wrote:

      If you come up with a great plan, and do everything to the best of your ability, but still "lose", I want to find some way to keep you playing, but make your character's lives much harder.

      I read this as: "I don't want the dice to (ever?) decide whether a plan succeeds, I want to be able to subjectively decide that a plan is worthwhile and reward the players."

      This is perhaps softened by the "make your character's lives much harder" bit which I don't really understand, but maybe that is something like a penalty for failure with some lower bound of awfulness? If that's the case, then maybe we just have different thresholds for penalties that PCs might reasonably have to pay. Also, I don't always roll dice.

      I take a sort of agnostic approach. It's like how you don't really know how much something is worth until you try to sell it. The quality of a plan is sort of meaningless until it's attempted. I roll dice when it seems up in the air to everyone at the table (with, of course, discussion possible but the referee having the final word).

    12. Ah, that's where our disagreement stems from. That comment was only meant in the context of player death. If the party pursues a reasonable plan within their ability, I see no reason to kill them because of a bad dice roll. I'm much more tempted to play the deus ex machina and allow them to live while introducing massive (situation appropriate) complications into the game.

      However, if the party pursues a dumb plan that gets them killed, ain't my problem.

      I also don't roll dice all the time. If there is no meaningful risk of failure, put them away and just narrate.

  9. "I'm a lazy bastard of a DM. Prepping an adventure is super-easy when the characters are low HP, low resource buffoons."

    I'm right there with you.

    Also, as early as 5th level a magic-user can possibly cast spells to make people fly or to breathe underwater. As the levels increase, the groundedness of the game decreases. The characters start to feel less like adventurers in Middle-earth/Nehwon/Hyboria/etc. and more like costumed heroes in the Marvel Comics Universe. I prefer the former.

    1. Well said, agreed!

    2. Anonymous5:56 PM

      Whereas I'd much rather play in a supers game. ;-)

      3.5 made adventure prep pretty easy at all levels. Grab your party CR, find an equivalent-CR bignasty, have at. I'll agree that statting out high-level casters is a pain in the ass, but that's why those are the setpiece encounters. Fundamentally, a hill giant or cave troll is no more work to run than a goblin.

  10. Jeff, Jeff, Jeff
    When are you going to learn U are doing it all rong

    since you dont havent coverage
    looks like you need some Tussin

  11. Douchebags, historically speaking, have made the world a much better, fresher place. It's simply wrong that such a grand apparatus that has brought the world more joy than penicillin must be slandered and sullied as a synonym for jerk.

    1. So many fine insults have problematic origins. Maybe I should stick to fictional one likes Red Dwarf's smeghead or that classic from Beavis and Butthead, jackbuttdillmunch.

    2. "Smeg" was used as an insult in my secondary school, which I guess might've been around the same time as Red Dwarf started, though I don't think it originated with the programme. Derived from "smegma," synonymous with the coarser "knobcheese."

    3. I find the term "gobshite" pleasingly unambiguous.

  12. @John Miskimen: no doubt that douche bottles (does douche even come in bags?) spur others to be better people. But there's such a factor as too much of a "good thing" to consider here. When there's a glut of douches, what is one to do? To be serious for a second: I don't think people are bad folks, I just think that nastyness, bad attitudes, snark, and general mean-spiritedness have become "institutionalized" in human discourse. The ironic thing is, the Internet has allowed for an unprecedented level of human interaction, but its scope and anonymity allows for the human failing of mob mentality to come to the fore. Thus more and more often we see people who seem to think that it's not enough to have a rational discussion and agree to disagree. Now you have to seek to totally undermine and destroy someone else's opinion, and humiliate them simultaneously. All conversations become scorched earth affairs. It's getting really boring and depressing.

  13. Well articulated! I too am an extremely lazy bastard and LOVE low-level encounters wherein a few troglodytes are a serious threat to a party. High-level encounters are sometimes more fun on a ROLEPLAYING level, i.e., high-level evil minions get to make nasty speeches and commit acts of unexpected subterfuge, sometimes using yet other layers of minions, but tactically speaking, potentially lethal low-level play rules!

  14. If you want to be a hero from the ground running, start at 4th level...right where it says next the the fighters name at 8000xp--"hero".

    4e players need to explain why 1st level needs to be "hero" and not veteran man at arms.

    1. However! 1st level 5e characters seem pretty low powered and it's modular nature means you remove cantrips, con kicker to starting HP, and healing surges and the player is now an equal to the 5hp kobold.

      Which is how the modular 5e is suppose to work, the default is as it's always been (max hp for 1st level PC's which include 24 hp rangers and extra spells for casters)

    2. A) Someone needs to explain to me the difference between "modular" and "I can hack the crap out of this".

      B) No arcane class got extra spells prior to 3e.

    3. Mu could make scrolls for 100gp in holmes...

      Modular means hacking I suppose, although removing healing surges doesn't effect other rules, so hacking ca be surgical, if you remove the hp kicker it doesn't wonkily effect the rules for cure light wound spell or some such. Rules are separate from each other instead of intigrated.

      4e healing surges are tied with clerical healing, so removing healing surges screws up clerics, not so in's modular.

      Classic edition had the rule that for every 5 turns exploring, 1 turn must be sent resting, to me, getting a little bit of healing done during that short rest is so self evidently logical, I'm actually surprised it took us 30 years to figure out a rule for it.

    4. A) Modular means taking out widget X will not cause other parts of the machine to grind to a halt that you didn't expect. Example: in 4E, healing surges are used to heal, to power some abilities, and as food for undead. You can remove them, but that is hacking, not modularity.

      Lack of interconnectedness is modularity. Most of the subsystems in AD&D are modular because you can ignore them without other stuff breaking.

    5. @Jeff:

      In regards to B)

      If you consider AD&D Unearthed Arcana relevant to the discussion, they *did*. See pg. 45 of UA. In summary: 0-Level(They started with negative XP totals and progressed through 3 sub-levels.) Magic-User/Illusionists were given a Cantrip Spell Book while apprenticed.(They were able to memorize and cast up to *3* a day!) Any Magic-User/Illusionist who achieves 1st Level may opt to keep their Cantrip Spell Book and retain up to 4 Cantrips in place of one 1st Level Spell.

  15. Give me ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances every time.

  16. I don't understand all this complicated stuff about the mechanics behind the game but I do want to say ...

    ... I love you Jeff Rients and your little red face.

  17. Anonymous2:06 PM

    The problem is: those guys have no idea how to survive an a real D&D game because they've never played in one! They're nagging for more power because that's one way they can get it without any in game risk. It's meta-gaming.

    Something else about high lethality play: it's exciting! As a PC, it's tense and fun when half the party is dropped during a combat. Meaningful choices everywhere. Do we run? Do we try to take the bodies with us? Who's?

    Imagine a war-movie without any killing. D&D is a war-game!

    1. Anonymous4:25 PM

      "those guys have no idea how to survive an a real D&D game because they've never played in one!"

      Oh, so it's you who gets to decide what's a "real" D&D game and what isn't? In future will send all questionable cases your way.

    2. Anonymous10:56 PM

      real = TSR, fake = WotC.

      It's dirt simple.

  18. i just wanted to post this comment you made jeff, from your post in april 'you are the unknown'
    i've copied and saved it as an inspiration for when im working on a game. :)

    (Ian, let me pitch you an alternative to straight-up joining a class:

    You're a hardscrabble dungeon bastard. You're always going to be an outsider. There's no such thing as really joining the Thieve( Guild or becoming a sorcerer's apprentice. At least not for a misfit like you. Instead, maybe you can stay with that cranky old druid just long enough to learn one or two pieces of magic. Or maybe that knight can show you how to properly swing a sword, instead of the inept chopping motions you make currently. You'll never be a true expert at any of this stuff. You'll never really belong to any strata of society. As a dungeoneer you are a perpetual amateur, a dilettante of a thousand respectable professions, collector of any useful little skill or trick that will allow you to continue the quest to go into slimy little hellholes in search of gleaming gold.)

    1. Anonymous6:23 PM

      ...which would be true if OD&D "skills" were even vaguely modular. ;-)

  19. Scrolls in Holmes and cantrip in UA. I sit corrected.

    1. No biggie. Whoever remembers AD&D's Cantrips anyway? :-) I forgot about the scrolls too. My fav Edition. And that slipped by me. >_<

      On the subject of Holmes D&D, are my comments here lost? Or just lurking? :-)


  20. Anonymous3:27 PM

    As someone who frequents (read-only) Grognards.TXT, I pretty much knew as soon as I saw your post the other day that it would be endlessly criticized in that thread.

    I fundamentally disagree with their ideas that playing a character who could die at the drop of a hat is not fun, which is why I (as you) do indeed love old-school D&D. But I also agree with their points that a game where your character could be dead immediately from some anti-climactic encounter is not good for hooking new people on the game, if you are interested in that sort of thing. There are too many alternatives where you CAN be an invincible hero for oldschool D&D to appeal to the average gamer.

    Fortunately, there are still new people who get into oldschool D&D, and I think Call of Cthulhu's eternal popularity proves that assured-mortality alone is not really the problem. I think if the tone of low-level D&D shifted to be more like Call of Cthulhu, where you are a legitimately stupid person in the game if you think it is a good idea to enter a den of monsters, then it would be more palatable to people who are fundamentally upset by the "weak start" of D&D.

    But, well, I do not know that anyone is really looking for reasonable mediation of this problem, haha.

    1. Getting knocked out of a poker game isn't fun either, but I don't see anyone changing the rules of poker to make sure you only lose after you've been playing for so long, or granting you an automatic stake to keep playing.

      Someone new to poker may choose never to play again if they get their clock cleaned. Others will be there again next week with cash in hand. Why anyone thinks coddling the guy who gives up when he loses makes zero sense to me.

  21. I find it amusing when someone demands an explanation. As if explaining your opinion will mystically make you see they were right or somehow you will charm them to your way of thinking. Sure, on rare occasions (rarer still, on an interweb forum) you'll have an enlightening and respectful sharing of each POV with no real intent to "win", but overall it's generally a waste of time.

    I think the biggest problem D&D faces is that in our digital age, we can truly show how different we all run D&D (or want too). Something we've always done, but it's easier now more than ever to promote our house rules and fight over a game we love. Something we always did, but now it's in realtime, and with people all over the world. I don't see this problem going away and I don't think 4E was the exact culprit, it was simply a strong tipping point. I also don't think WotC's publishing plan of generating profit from remaking the rules, helps their cause. This isn't the right market for that business plan.

    That being said, what I've seen of D&D Next really hits my sweet spot.

  22. I will say as a huge Jack Vance fan, that 3 starting spells is too many. T'sain (turjan of Mirr's simulacrum apprentice) was only able to hold 2 spells in her memory, water breathing, and strength. I should at least be able to play through Mazirian the Magician with d&d without changing the power of 1st level magic users starting spells...

  23. Hey, go ahead and play your wargames all you like. I prefer roleplaying games. High lethality tends against roleplaying. One, if your character doesn't have a long lifespan, it's hard to personalize them for me. Two, the big point I hear in high lethality games is that it's all about player skill. I don't want to play games focusing on the player, where Sir Replacement #23 seems to magically know all these tricks despite it being his first foray into the dungeon. I want to focus on the character.

    As to the argument about heroes being "superhuman", look at most of the protagonists in the stories referenced in the various inspiration sections. Conan? Fafhrd? Elric? Grey Mouser? Gimli? They overcame a boat load of bad guys and survived through a hell of a lot of adventures. I want to play a fantasy novel. I want to play an action movie. I'm willing to risk death but I don't want death to be everywhere. I want something where doing something stupid or a run of bad luck can kill you. Not where failing to do the optimum thing or missing one die roll kills you.

    As for the playtest, Mearls has stated they are still working on hitpoints. Some people have mentioned that in some iterations of the closed playtest, TPK's were pretty common. If your characters don't survive it doesn't make for a good playtest does it?

    1. 'Hey, go ahead and play your wargames all you like. I prefer roleplaying games.':

      We *are* talking about RPGs. Such dis-ingenuity is unwarranted, imo.

      'High lethality tends against roleplaying.':

      In my personal experience, high lethality provides *loads* of roleplaying opportunities! But as you said, you personally have difficulty identifying with a short lived character. I see it as a worthy and fun challenge to bring #17 in the Legion of the Dead and Dying forth into their own. Plus, not *all* Old-School game sessions feature Corpse Piles, Reigns of Blood, and Venerable Lichpires ya know.

      'Sir Replacement #23 seems to magically know all these tricks despite it being his first foray into the dungeon.':

      I didn't think many people broke the player/character knowledge divide nowadays. I certainly haven't played with anyone who has. It seems rather poor form and no fun, really. Pretty much every rules set I'm acquainted with disparages this for one, and two, it tends to hack other players who enjoy immersing themselves in the setting off.

      'Conan? Fafhrd? Elric? Grey Mouser? Gimli? They overcame a boat load of bad guys and survived through a hell of a lot of adventures.':

      Absolutely. These are most certainly not *1st Level* PCs in any recognizable D&D system *I'm* aware of, however.(Not to mention, their fates are predetermined by authorial fiat not generally exercised in an interactive play experience!) And, that, of course, is what Jeff is talking about.

      'I want to play a fantasy novel. I want to play an action movie.':

      By the very nature of those mediums, you can't!(The Books and Movies don't bend to your will! :-) ) In all seriousness, I enjoy doing that from time to time as well. But too much Rambo wears on me after awhile. I always find myself drawn back to low-level Fantasy after forays into Kickassia. Good times while I'm there, though.

      'failing to do the optimum thing or missing one die roll kills you.':

      Yeah. 'Save or Die' is pretty hated, isn't it? It's useful as a simple method of amping up the tension, though. Not every body in the Old School camp likes it, however! You might not have noticed a few OSR people who tend to tone it down or ignore it. It's a YMMV thing, really. Me? I use it straight in my games. Oddly enough, it's claimed very few PCs over the years. Must be the fact damn near *every* player is fairly cautious about fighting creepy critters and most ask what their PC knows about the locality's deadly and/or poisonous creatures.(I allow all PCs to be familiar with their immediate locales.) I blame video games for this. :-)

      You don't need to do the optimum thing, just avoid(inasmuch as possible) the sub-optimal situations or failing that, take evasive action to save your bacon. I've found that player skill really *does* help
      navigate those choppy waters of lethality. But sometimes, a messy demise can't be prevented. And that's good in my book. Keeps things from being too predictable. Not to mention, it oftentimes makes for a great and memorable story. 'Remember when that jackhole/cooldude did that funny/stupid/honorable/totally reasonable thing and he was like, dead as all hell? That was great!' :-)

      Of course, you could be campaigning in a Death World. In which case, aim your carcass furthest from the point of entry for the win. RPing in a setting like this is quite the exercise in improvisational characterization and a constant test of one's ability to think on their feet, lest you die where you stand. I think everyone should try it at least once! Of course, I also say that about Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game and Encounter Critical, so take that as you will!

      'If your characters don't survive it doesn't make for a good playtest does it?':

      Depends on what your testing *for*, don't it? :-)

  24. I've said it before but I'll say it again. Those who don't like high-lethality games should try introducing random headgear into chargen. Nothing takes the sting out of losing your precious PC like the anticipation and excitement of rolling up a nifty new hat!

  25. Anonymous5:12 PM

    The game needs to be bare-bones (and lethal) to start... but individual DMs can make their own games less lethal. Wasn't 5E supposed to strip down the game rules to a minimum and then let us add modules of additional rules to customize it? Seems they did away with that entirely now, as the core game is going to have all kinds of odd "improvements" and assumption of more complicated playstyles as a baseline. Too bad, cause the other approach would have worked to bring in most lapsed players... this won't.

  26. Anonymous3:01 PM

    As a player in Jeff's game, whose Dwarf, Fred, died (melted on a magic throne, fell down two consecutive pit traps) and was resurrected twice, while also surviving two fireballs from the same space wizard (on different occasions), a critical hit from a vampire, several poisonings, and all sorts of other threats to his general well-being, I love the edge of your seat gaming that having a more fragile pc brings.

    If you know you're going to survive, what's the point? Who cares if Fred fell the giant, Joe Mama, with a single sling stone if we were just going to win anyway? Who cares if Fred used his bare hands to rip apart the space wizard's armor so that one of his party members could pierce his heart with a magic sword if we were just going to win anyway? Who cares if Fred and his friends infiltrated the vampires' lair and engaged in a mass revenge slaying of the entire coven if there was no way we were going to lose? Who cares if we came up with the perfect plan to teleport the dragon away from his hoard if we were going to succeed regardless of whatever actions we took? Who cares if Fred used his Ring of Climbing to barely escape sure death at the hands of two iron golems if there was no way he was going to die in the first place?

    I got Fred up to 7th level (and then down to 5th level because of the m-f'in vampire - but he got his in the end! - and then back up to 6th level) while a number of his party didn't make it. Fred got resurrected a couple times because he was generous to the church and made good friends. His henchmen pulled him out of the fire a number of times because he was loyal to them and treated them well, both monetarily and otherwise. He was a calculating gambler, who never took unnecessary risks and became wealthy, powerful, and respected, despite staring life with 5 hit points and no ability score over 11.

    I got to see Fred go from a low level coward to an action hero with an outrageous mustache and his own catch phrase. "I'm the guy who's going to kill you." No one ever heard that phrase and lived!!! Admittedly it wasn't very clever, but then Fred only had a 7 Int. Words weren't really his thing.

    I don't know how people who play D&D with the safety net under them enjoy it. Either they're able to act like it's not there or they derive their enjoyment of the game from a completely different place than I do. And, hey, that's perfectly o.k. Play however you want. I just don't why "your" D&D is right and "my" D&D is wrong, and why "my" D&D has effectively been eliminated from the official product for the last decade plus.

    --Fred the Dwarf

    1. Anonymous9:11 AM

      "Your" D&D hasn't gone anywhere. Just because you can survive one or two hits now doesn't mean that you're invincible. 4e's combat is interesting because it's well thought out and dangerous.

    2. Well, that's the either deliberate or unintentional misunderstanding then.

      He isn't interested in "Interesting well thought out combat". His games aren't about long, interesting combats, because they aren't about combats at all.

      It's about adventure with the risk of encountering monsters that can slay the characters in a single blow.

      By the way, posting something like this is the reason that gives 4e players a bad reputation on the internet. Not everyone plays D&D to have a 4 hour long boardgame combat.