Friday, July 12, 2013

Roles for exploration and interaction

Last night's game got me really thinking about exploration and interaction roles. I'm running Against the Cult of the Reptile God as my summer D&D fling game, and the party began infiltrating the church.

Now, I'm sure the player of the fighter was just tired, but the party didn't get to much fighting in general last night. So the fighter seemed bored as well as tired. The party's good planning reduced the need for combat dramatically, so people probably only took a swing or two each at enemies before they went down.

But the problem is that with the skill system, the fighter really doesn't have much that he can do outside of combat.

Now, the fighter is the pregenerated hill dwarf fighter with the knight background and feats for combat. His skills are 1) handle an animal, 2) persuade, 3) recall lore (political), and 4) ride. I was going to tell people they could swap out a skill for something they thought would be more useful, but I forgot to put that on my list of notes for myself, so that didn't happen.

Nonetheless, some skills are just significantly more useful than others, and it might be helpful for people to know that when they pick skills (or have backgrounds that do it). For example, in another game I'm playing (running the new version of Isle of Dread), I'm playing a druid so I've got not only skills that help in exploration, but also a bunch of spells. Being able to ask island animals for assistance (and the Animal Friendship spell as well) seems like it'll be huge for island exploration, and I'm a little shocked that no one picked the pre-generated ranger because of that. I feel, however, that I'm going to steal a lot of the spotlight on the Isle of Dread. Some of that is the character choice I made (Druid), and some of that is that with a game of seven players I might be more vocal. Meh.

Nonetheless, just as 4e designed combat roles, I think it may be useful to have roles for exploration and interaction. People have said a lot about this before, but this description of party roles is pretty good. So each class can fulfill one or more combat roles (Damage, defense, healing, battlefield control, and you could add in more like buffing, enabling, etc.) but should maybe be rated for non-combat effectiveness as well. A lot of this could be skill-dependent, but it doesn't have to be.

A lot of classes can do some healing in the current packet. Clerics and Druids have better options, but Paladins and Rangers can also heal. Honestly, I see little reason why Wizards can't heal at this point, but I'll go with whatever. Scouting can be vitally important, and apparently the Find Familiar feat in the new packet is one of the best ways to do this, but magic powers to scry or the ability to sneak ahead and take a nice look is incredibly helpful.  Travelling is important too: finding food, navigating a path, and helping the rest of the party make their checks. This is often the role of the ranger and/or thief, but druids and other casters can do this too. A trapsmith of some kind (usually a thief) is vital for dungeon exploration. You want at least one person who can deal with other people, though these interaction and social skills are often ignored in favor of pure RP. And you want someone knowledgeable about the world (generally magic, religion, nature, and history).

So the fighter could be doing some of this, if the skills his background provided him didn't suck as a random collection of junk. Maybe four skills isn't enough. Or maybe things one broad skill like athletics could ensure that a fighter could swim to safety, climb walls, and jump over a gorge.

One solution I have is to go the way of second edition (isn't that always my solution?) and focus on some kits or more specific class archetypes. Then your Askar (hometown hero) would just come with the sort of skills any townie boy next door should have, while your Faris (holy warrior) would come with the more knightly/religious/military skills. The fighter might be too broad to be useful, or at least suggest to people that his primary purpose is only combat actions. Its a little more rulesy than the 4e or current D&D Next background system, but it means your fighter isn't just a generic warrior (and, frankly, the same for rogues and wizards and clerics, though some of the Al-Qadim kits might fit better as class schemes/traditions/deity choices but that can be rectified with some more/better "kit" options).

A secondary problem I came across is that everyone likes to roll for shit. This isn't just a problem with the playtest rules, but once everyone can sneak around and has perception skills to spot shit... everyone wants to sneak around and spot shit. I'd wager that sneak, spot, and search are some of the most popular skills, followed by magic, nature, and religion lore, and then (if people have enough room, modulo some roleplaying choices) they'd love to be able to disarm traps and open locks.  I saw one post on a forum that the best part of D&D Next is playing a Mountain Dwarf Cleric of the Arcanist with Disarm Traps and Open Locks. That way you're a one-man party: weapons and armor from the Mountain Dwarf, clerical healing magic, limited wizard blasting spells, and thief skills.

I didn't really like thieves in AD&D, because I thought they were weak and got shitty skills. In some ways, by giving this set of skills to the thief, you take them away from other characters. Some of that is bad wording and the character sheet functioning as blinders. Rogue players are much more likely to attempt to climb walls because its right there on their sheet. Nevermind that that power is to scale sheer surfaces, the kind that fighters and wizards have no chance of climbing. Similarly for listening, thieves just had a chance to hear things that no other character could have.

With the third edition skill system though, rogues just got to be better than other characters in more skills (except the factotum, which I kinda liked as a class still...). So I don't like how AD&D suffered from skill blinders, but more recent editions suffer from everyone rolling willy nilly. Players just roll a d20, then say what their spot check was and ask what they see, unprompted because they're used to rolling their skills and they want to roll for stuff.

In the end, I think I gave up on having people rolling for little things. I still like to have the party roll to search for things like secret doors, because their characters might legitimately not see them. I like stealth checks, but I haven't yet figured out how to do a good group check, and even then people end up trying to do more checks than I want: one stealth check to get to their position, one to remain hidden in position, another to sneak away after scouting... too much!

I'm not sure what a good solution is, but the feats (more than the skill system) of D&D next seem like a good possibility to do it (though I know they want to make feats optional). So a rogue might have scale sheer surfaces, disarm traps, and listen at doors feats, but at maybe they can be worded so we know they're exceptional, rather than ordinary. Not everyone needs spot, but maybe Elves get notice secret doors or gnomes get magic schnozz to detect scents. Things that really would set them apart, rather than everyone just having spot, sneak, and climb. If things really are modular, maybe I could ditch their skill system and just use the feats.

Then again, maybe I just want to go back to modernized AD&D second. I like the new math (mostly), ascending armor class, and saving throws. I'm not sure how that everything is necessarily an improvement though.

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