Monday, October 22, 2018

Dungeon Masters, Do Not Add Insult To Injury (Without Consent)

There is this bizarre need that many dungeons masters have to take any bad situation, and make it worse for their players. A missed swing in combat is never just a miss; it always makes you do something disadvantageous, like screw up your footing, or damage your weapon. And if you roll a 1, hoo boy, that's when the real knives come out! That's when the blade your fighter depends on suddenly snaps, when the rogue stabs themselves in the thigh, or when the wizard scorches their fingers and takes a Dex penalty. All because a die happened to hit on that 5% chance.

If you roll a lot of these, you may as well commit seppuku.
I dedicated an entire category to this kind of DM in my recent article 5 Bad Dungeon Masters You'll Meet Throughout Your Gaming Career; the Punisher. A DM for whom, unless that natural one ends in disaster for the player who rolled it (or at the very least the potential for disaster), they feel like they're being too generous. As if, somehow, they allowed a player to break a rule without being punished for the act of trying to do something, but having uncooperative dice.

Let's be crystal clear, here. If your game already has critical fumbles built into its existing mechanics, that's fine. If you can point to the page in the rule book with the chart and effects, then you're just playing the game as it exists. On the other hand, if you feel the need to add fumble rules to your game, whether it's with the Paizo Critical Fumble deck or just with a random chart you made up yourself, then I would ask why you're doing that? How does this enhance your game, and how do you deal with the fact that it punishes your players a lot more than it punishes your villains?

But I Run It Fair; PCs and NPCs Both!

Equal isn't the same as fair in this case, because the burden is going to fall a lot harder on the players than it will on your monsters.

Because that 5% chance has a longer-lasting effect on players than on you.
While it's true that you and the players are both rolling D20s, and that you may even roll substantially more than the players do (and thus you will have to deal with more critical fumbles on average), the important point is that you have a never-ending stream of characters. The players have only one, and those characters have limited resources that can be easily wrecked by pure bad luck, quickly shifting their chances of progressing the story.

Take one of the most common crit fumble rulings ever; the broken weapon. Your sword snaps, your bowstring breaks, what have you, but your main weapon is now either crippled or useless because you had a particularly bad roll.

Now, say this happened to a monster you were running. Oh no, the goblin's sword broke, or the giant's club snapped in half. Is that monster totally out of options? Probably not. Chances are good they have some kind of back-up option like natural attacks, or they have additional weapons on their person. And even if they don't (say your PCs were ambushed by footpads in a city chase), did you expect those NPCs to survive the fight anyway? Probably not. In fact, a majority of the characters who get involved in combat on your side of the line are meant to get defeated. Even if it's a big boss, like the minotaur in the middle of the maze, or that necromancer you've been saving for a big fight, do you honestly want those characters to win? Especially if it means they kill the PCs, meaning that now everyone has to start over again?

You want your fights to be a challenge, because that's what makes winning all the sweeter. But critical fumbles don't make things more challenging; they turn combat into a disheartening slog.

Let's take that same broken weapon situation from the PC perspective. Your paladin charges in, sword held high, and when he brings it down, oops, it breaks. That's bad enough at low levels, but what about when your party has enchanted gear? Does it break just as easily as common steel? Or does it just impose a negative while you wield it until it's repaired? Either way, that character may not have a back-up option in the same sense that the monsters do. Sure he can punch with a gauntlet, draw his knife, or shield bash, but you took away their main fighting option for no reason other than hey, you rolled the 1 big guy, you should have known better. And that is going to last for the rest of the dungeon, which may consist of dozens of fights, in addition to the big, climactic battle.

There is no scenario where this kind of action feels like a challenge, instead of a slog. The archer's bowstring breaks, so now they have to take an entire round or two of combat to re-string their bow (assuming they even have a spare bowstring on hand). The rogue slips in spilled blood and goes down prone while surrounded by ogres who now all get bonuses to hit them. The barbarian loses their grip, and their ax goes flying, making them a sitting duck until they get it back. These feel like dick moves on the DM's part because players are being punished for trying to do something. Even if their strategy is sound, and their tactics are good, that natural 1 doesn't just make them fail; it slaps them across the face for even trying.

Aside from the fact that it feels like random punishment (because let's face it, you're being punished based on a random die roll), there's also the question of resources. How many weapons do you expect your warriors to carry because they know any die roll could break one? How many spare bowstrings do you expect bowmen or crossbowmen to have? And if we look at the more serious crit fumbles, what do you do if a party gets crippled (lost eyes, reduced stats, etc., etc.) due to bad rolls, and is now unable to be a legitimate threat to the big boss? Or they have to blow potent healing resources that were meant to carry them through, but instead they're out of bullets less than halfway through the night?

Why Add Insult To Injury?

Rolling a natural 1 is already a punishment in and of itself. Whatever you were trying to do, there's a pretty good chance it isn't going to work. You failed, and your action had no serious impact... that's disheartening enough. You don't need to randomly have your future effectiveness penalized as a result.

Hey, you shouldn't have rolled a 1 on your polymorph. No, I don't know how you'll undo it, either.
If you want to make your players feel challenged, then don't give them random negatives. Instead, bring your A-game when it comes to your own strategy and tactics. Engage them, and provide opportunities for them to succeed or fail not because of a quirk of fate, but because they came up with a plan and executed it well (or because they failed to anticipate your plan, and had to scramble to counter it).

When you lose in a game of chess, you lose because the other person out-played you, you made mistakes, or some combination of both. No one is ever in the middle of a strategic game, then suddenly loses the ability to move their queen because they rolled a 1, and considers that a refreshing challenge. It's just a pain in the ass, and it does more to harm PCs than it ever will your villains in the long run.

But If You're Going To Do It Anyway...

With all of that said, if you are hell-bent on using your 5th Edition critical fumble deck fresh from Critical Hit Publishing, far be it from me to tell you how to run your game. However, there is something that you should definitely do that will stop roughly half of the problems you find with introducing critical fumble rules to games where none exist.

Get your players' consent first.

Seriously, consent makes all the difference.
If you're going to be adding a rules set to the game that is not actually in the core rules, don't just assume that everyone at the table is cool with it. Ask your table, preferably during Session 0, if they want to use critical fumble rules at all, and if yes, if they want to use charts, or a deck, or whatever your preferred tool is. Another good question to ask is if they only want temporary negatives like one-round drawbacks, or do they also want the serious stuff that can shatter their equipment, give them permanent negatives, etc. Some folks who'd be okay with the former may balk at the latter, after all.

You need to be prepared for either a yes or no answer. Because if everyone is on board with those critical fumbles (even if, in the end, they do them more harm than good on average), then shine on you mad bastards! On the other hand, if there are players who don't like the odds of using critical fumble rules, or who are outright against the idea, then you might want to save that deck for another day. Because everyone has to play the same game, and what do you gain from bringing in additional house rules that your players don't want?

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday! If you'd like to find more work from me, you should check out my Vocal page, or just click my Gamers archive to see all my tabletop stuff. You could also go to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio, where I make videos with other talented gamers.

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  1. I feel like you might not quite get how economies and tension work.

    RPGs, like any game, are all about managing your resources; whoever does so in the most economical way wins (Except for totally random games, like Bunko.) PF is a fairly complex economy, with many resources to juggle. Players already know there's a chance the weapon they rely on may break, or may not be useful in all situations, and so that's why most players carry 2 or 3 (or more) of them!

    I'll bet you have no problem with characters having a limited number of spells. After all, limiting spells is just a way to turn a game into a slog, by your logic.

    Mages have limited spells, Paladins have limited heals, bowmen have limited ammunition, non-mages have (randomly) limited swings or potions. It's the economy of the game, and when you go into combat, not only are you at risk of losing, you're also at risk of spending more resources on that combat than you intended. And seeing as how most players (and GMs) don't like it when PCs die, that means the only means you have to encourage solutions other than combat is to make it cost resources other than lives.

    Time is another resource that can be spent, but IME is often ignored in favor of dramatic coincidence. Well-tracked time, however, can put pressure on the PCs to take riskier actions to avoid failing the quest and having spent all those resources for no gain.

  2. I am going to respectively disagree with this article. As a 30+ year GM, I am far from being a "Punisher". Yet I love the Crit/Fumble decks, and my players are fine using them. I require confirmed crits and confirmed fumbles (Roll a 1, you roll again and if it misses the target AC, THEN you fumble). Combat is chaotic and the unexpected can happen, that's just part of the risk. It does seem like you may be exaggerating or perhaps haven't scrutinized the fumble deck though. Skimming through the melee results, out of 50 cards I'm only seeing two that break your weapon, and a few that damage it but don't take it out of commission. Most of them are status effects (some that can be negated with a save). And I don't think I've seen a melee character with only one weapon - usually it's 3 or more that they haul around. I find that the decks add a level of flavor and while they can cause a character inconvenience, more often it's their foes that are affected, since statistically there are more bad guys and the PC's tend to have higher AC's meaning more foes confirm the fumbles. Yes, a character have a very bad day with an unlucky card, but not very often, and certainly not to a degree that they feel punished.

  3. Unlike the prior two comments, I'm with you on this one. It actually follows a principle explained in the 3E DM's Guide -- anything that adds more randomness to the game favors the underdogs, and the PCs are *never* the underdogs.

    The reasoning basically matches your explanation. The DM has an unlimited number of enemies and monsters to throw into their campaign. With few exceptions, each of them is only going to be present for a single scene, and they're generally not expected to win. The PCs, on the other hand, are front-and-center in every single scene.

    So if you add something random to the game -- a chance at fumbling an attack, or a critical hit resulting in an instant kill, or replacing every d20 roll with a d30, anything along those lines -- while the players will occasionally have the fun of watching an enemy get punished by the dice, over a long enough period that punishment WILL fall on a player.

    Some players are fine with this. They like the added challenge, or find the chosen option interesting. But your consent rule is spot-on -- if even ONE player doesn't want to use such an optional rule, then don't use it.

    I just recently had this session-zero discussion with my own group, regarding a variant critical-hit and fumble ruleset for Pathfinder. Most of the group thought it sounded interesting, but a couple players said they didn't want the risk, so we dropped it.

  4. As a game designer and a master GM who transform people from suicidal to successful people. I agree with you in this one. Fumble decks or fumble tables are not balanced. Reality is already unfair, you make a game even more unfair than reality is against the basic fundamental requirement to make a game. ''Fun and Fair'' Unable to perform actions that the devote everything they have into is already a big punishment.

    Also it farther make the game unbalance as spell caster can easily win a game without roll a single d20 once. While other combatants have no choice but to take that risk. Skilled mage can't be touched even at level 1. Skilled fighter still taking deadly risk even at level 20. What logic is that?

    1. The logic is that magic is a powerful force and it takes years of training to use it safely. Under 5e a lot of spells are roll to hit any way and casters also have a lot less HP than melee classes so I don't think it's right to say they are unbalanced.

    2. First, e5 still have spells that will change better and allow one to win without roll to hit. Second, we are talking about Pathfinder in this blog. Three, magic is powerful? Takes years to train? You level up and get new spell. That's not really years. On the other hand, so it martial art, archery and firearm. However, non-magical attacks has less options without the use of magical items. Spell caster can do all types of attacks and damage with without magical items. Still make no sense. You can say people needs xx amount of years in train to learn magic so their magic should be powerful, because that wasn't in the game, there are no such rules.

  5. Waaah, it's not fair. Life isn't fair, deal with it.

    1. Gaming isn't life. It's an escape from life. Deal with it. ;)

    2. Critical hits and misses add variety and an element of randomness to the game which can be a lot of fun. Combat is chaotic and unpredictable, you never know what will happen.

    3. What you are describing is called gamble. Not game.

  6. i think you may have wasted your time with this article. i mean, did the article have to be so long to tell dms not to be dicks?

  7. I'm thinking maybe you are one of those who think good should always triumph... That PCs should never have the chance of the entire party dying... I am even willing to bet you believe all kids should receive trophies if they play sports, even if they lost.... Oh wait, nobody lost because nobody kept score, so one side wouldn't feel bad.

    Plain and simple, weapons break (look in your handbooks, there is a hardness chart and a HP chart for every item in the book). In reality, most of us dms don't keep track during a battle to see if a particular hit was enough to penetrate the hardness, and thus deduct hps from your equipment. Instead we use the critical fumble; and even then, it isn't always a broken weapon. In my case the two common effects are you threw your weapon by accident (hey, you've been fighting and your hands are soaked in sweat; not to mention the blood all over them from you or your opponent being hit!), and/or you making a fantastic pirouette before landing on your ass. Both results give enemies ONE round of bonuses, because both results simply cause you to either retrieve your weapon or get a new one... Or to stand back up.

    Newsflash... Its called REALISM. Yes, it can suck to have your lvl one wizard with four HP roll a one... But SHIT HAPPENS! get used to it, cause if you can't deal with life throwing currve balls at you, your going to be forever miserable.

    1. Realism? How so? I trained with so many weapons and I never had an accident in training and sparring. Nor it had ever happen when I got jumped on the street. So What is the realistic chance of having an accident? 5% chance is way too stupid for me. You can't tell me that I do the same move a thousand times everyday and not having a single accident is because I'm lucky and haven't rolled a one. Doesn't make sense to me at all. I made a hundred rounds and haven't shot anyone nor myself because I wasn't stupid. So where is that natural becomes realism? It's a game, it can never have realism, it can only get to as real as we imagine it. Shit doesn't happen just like that. When I did sales, there was a saying, there is no luck, only achievement. If you knock enough doors, practices enough, and put your heart to sell you believe the customer would want to buy, you will get a sale. If I take my time to swing my overweight Nagamaki a thousand time everyday, I will be able to swing it the same way without making a mistake once. That is realism.

  8. He's not saying don't use them, just get player buy-in first.

    My current game does not use them, but I have on the past, even using the brutal Rolemaster crit and fumble charts.

    My most recent 5e system was to use the ADV/DIS mechanic. Roll a 20? Get advantage on your next roll. Roll a 1? Disadvantage on your next roll. You could also trade in your ADV/DIS to take some narrative control of the situation. I've had players trade in disadvantage to have a weapon break or to fall prone.

    It's all about having the players on board.

    1. Yup. Consent mentioned right there in the title.

      For me, the use of fumbles depends on the nature of the game. D&D and Pathfinder generally aren't the type of game where I'd use them.

      If you're playing a game like Paranoia with emphasis on hijinks, fumbles fit right in.

      I think it's worth bringing up a system I think is interesting in Chronicles of Darkness: Players can choose to upgrade a regular failure into a Dramatic Failure to earn a beat (experience). It's also fitting the horror setting, since you expect stuff to go wrong at the worst moments. There's also no in-built expectation that your character would be trained for combat, like most settings assume.