On the Future of This Blog

I’m going to keep this short, because I don’t think it merits a lot of discussion. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be migrating this blog over to Medium. The primary motivation for that is to get more exposure, which I don’t think this site is getting right now. Additionally, I want to free myself from SquareSpace at some point in the future. One of my projects on the backburner is a website rebuild. Not having to build a blog engine would make that easier.

The plan is to start with my XP system articles and then rework and update some of my older ones and share those there. Eventually, the blog part of this site will just jump over to Medium. I’ve been enjoying blogging, and I’m finally ready to admit I would actually like to have an audience. I know in some of the fora I visit that my advice is well-received, so I’m hoping I can expand it out to more people.

XP Systems, part 1

I expect to be running 5e in the near future, but I don’t like the XP system. It’s probably fair to say that I’m not a fan of the way most D&D-likes handle XP and advancement.

I’ll go into detail a bit later what I want out of an XP system, but the crux of the problem with 5e is that its is overwhelmingly biased towards combat. That wasn’t always the case. In the original editions of D&D, you also received XP for finding treasure. There are a couple of suggestions in the XP Dungeon Master’s Guide, but they don’t quite do what I would like to do either.

Over this and the next post, I’m going to discuss what I would like out of an XP system and propose a structure that meets those goals.

Desired Traits

After thinking about it and what I have been doing over the last few campaigns, I’ve decided that there are six traits that I want out of an XP system.

One of the most important traits is that it should convey a sense of progression. This is one of the reasons why I do not like milestone-based advancement. There are a couple of ways milestones can be done, but I don’t like any of them. Something akin to the system in Fate Core is what usually comes to mind when I think of milestones: a system based on progressing through the plot; but it’s possible that these are handed out when it makes sense by the GM. The problem is this robs the game of an important feedback loop.

At the most basic, players engage the games via its structures. Their characters behave and engage the game using the techniques the system provides, and they treat most scenarios as challenges to be overcome. They want to advance, so they can more easily overcome those challenges. If you give them a structure to control that, they will engage with it, which makes them stronger and also opens up new challenges and opportunities. Even if the specifics are (often very) different, the same goes regardless of game type (from 5e to Dogs in the Vineyard), since they are still games at their core. If this structure is chosen carefully, it will reinforce the game’s creative agenda, the type of game as well as its themes and mechanics. This is where 5e has problems, because its combat-focused progression mechanics encourages players to approach most problems as combat challenges and to treat fights as things they are supposed to win, because that is how they get rewarded. As I mentioned before, there are options in the DMG, but they have problems such as still being challenge-focused or resting almost entirely on GM fiat.

Minimizing GM fiat, or more generally: avoiding player or GM bias; is another property that I consider very important. The problem with GM fiat is that it is very dependent on the quality of the GM, meaning that rulings can vary from table to table and even along a GM’s career as he or she gains experience. GM fiat is fine when it appears to work, but as soon as the expectations of the players and the GM’s decision making no longer align. This can cause group disharmony and reduce player engagement. If you’ve played in a game that awards XP for completing character-driven goals, then you’ve probably also experienced the disappointment of not receiving XP even though you thought you completed yours. This is why I like to rely on group consensus to determine whether players have met their goals (when I use a goal-based XP mechanic), but that can also be problematic in other situations.

XP rewards should be predictable. This goes along with creating a gameplay loop that reinforces the game’s creative agenda. If the gameplay loop is functioning effectively, then the rewards should come regularly. If it’s not, then the rewards will start coming irregularly. This allows the structure to serve the additional purpose of being a canary that tells you when your game has gone off track. One tricky aspect of this approach is that you want to be specific in how you reinforce that agenda without being too specific. I mentioned that consensus-based systems can have problems, and this is one I have seen. I have found, at least for my group, that people are reluctant to recalibrate the structure, because it has become an identity statement for the campaign, and they don’t want to abandon that. To put it another way: if the structure in place is there to reinforce a pirates on the high seas game, and it turned into a game of courtly intrigue, players may choose to keep the original structure, because that is what the game is supposed to be, instead of what it actually is.

Additionally, and relatedly to consensus, XP rewards should be awarded collectively while still providing opportunities for individual rewards. There are two reasons for this dichotomy. You want the group to engage the game at a high level. If someone is pulling the group away from its goals, then the structure should incentivize the group to redirect back—while still being malleable enough to adapt automatically when the group’s interest changes. At the same time, you want players to play their characters as individuals with their own agendas, because giving them a bit of agency again increases engagement while also functions as a source of possible plot hooks and future adventure ideas. Additionally, if it causes some mild inter-PC, that can be a source of drama (in the storytelling sense, hopefully).

Finally, the XP system should require minimal prep. If it offers any customization, it should be done in session 0 and then not revisited until either the next campaign or a large shift in the current campaign that is effectively a reboot with its own session 0 even if it’s building on established PC and their relationships. What I don’t want to have to do is prep plots to make the system work or calculate scenario or challenge values, and I definitely don’t want to have to plan out the game in advance. That’s why we play to find out what happens, because I don’t like knowing what happens before it does.

Next Time

Next time, I’ll discuss a system that addresses or implements the things I want out of an XP system. It will convey a sense of progression to the players, reinforce the game’s creative agenda, minimize the role and effect of GM fiat and player biases, provide for both group and individual awards, and do all this without requiring a ton of prep from me (other than devising the mechanic and then executing it in session 0 of our next campaign, I suppose).

Alternate Skill System for D&D 5e

After my current campaign comes to a close, I’m probably going to be running D&D 5e for my group. As a DM, I like it because there’s not a lot of complication to the rules. For example, running skills can be summed up pretty easily in about three sentences. However, my players like customization, so 5e’s skill system doesn’t quite appeal to them. I tried looking around online for alternatives, since the suggestions in the DMG don’t do what I want. I also tried looking around online, but I didn’t like what I found there either. This is my attempt at creating my own.

Design Goals

There are a couple of things I want a skill customization to accomplish. These things are a balance between what I want as a DM and what my players want for character customization.

It should be fairly easy to administer. One of the things I hated about Pathfinder was how difficult it was to keep track of skill points. It was pretty common for my players to have their skill points spent incorrectly, typically not enough. Keeping everything up-to-date in Hero Lab was also a huge pain in the ass. While compatability with D&D Beyond would be nice (and I think it’s doable if a bit clumsy via overrides), that’s not a primary concern.

It shouldn’t wildly change 5e’s power curve. This should go without saying, but I don’t want to have to rework DCs or monster skills. This is also why I won’t consider changing the skill list itself. It also helps me keep the changes to a minimal. For example, I’m going to treat tool proficiency like other proficiencies, tying it to your core proficiency bonus progression. Since it’s easy to gain tool proficiencies, I don’t feel like spending points on them is worthwhile.

Investing in the system should provide a tangible reward. One of the suggestions I saw on reddit provided a number of skill points equal to your class’s proficiencies, and your proficiency bonus was equal to your effective level for that skill. I don’t like this because it doesn’t really create the feeling of progressing in a skill, since your increases are still delayed in spite of investing points.

It should allow for customization outside of your class’s archetype. This is something that Pathfinder allows, but 5e does not. The only way to get any kind of proficiency in Stealth as a fighter is via an appropriate background or feats that add it to your list of proficient skills. I think this will also help allay my players’ concerns about customization.

The Design

All of the skills that you may choose as proficiencies are now known as primary skills. A primary skill is a skill that you can train more easily than other, secondary skills. You also gain skill points that you can spend to increase your proficiency in your skills, either primary or secondary. The first time you invest a skill point to a primary skill, your bonus to that skill starts at +2. Your bonus increases by +1 for every point you invest after that, but you may not invest more points than one more than your proficiency bonus (up to a maximum of +6). Your secondary skills increase at the same rate, but you most invest two points to gain the same effect as spending one point on a primary skill. You cannot bank skill points, and you may have a fractional bonus to a secondary skill, which rounds down as usual.

You start with a number of skill points equal to the number of skill proficiencies you gained from your background and class 1st level. Every time you gain a level, you gain one more skill point that you must spend. Rogues gain a bonus skill point at 3rd level and every two levels after that, and bards gain a bonus skill point at 5th level and every four levels after that. Your skill points may be spent on either secondary or primary skills. If you gain additional skill proficiencies from multiclassing or the Skilled feat, you retroactively gain skill points that must be spent before you complete the leveling up process.

For the purposes of game mechanics that rely on skill proficiency, you are considered proficient with a skill if and only if you have invested skill points into it.

Example

Claudette cal Musicia is an elven fighter with the noble background. At 1st level, she has the following primary skills: Acrobatics, Animal Handling, Athletics, History, Insight, Intimidation, Perception, and Survival. Between her class and background, she would normal receive four skill proficiencies, so she instead receives four skill points that she must spend.

As the captain of the Grand Elven Adventuring Company and a member of the Imperial family of the Grand Kingdom, she has some diplomatic training. To reflect this, Claudette invests two skill points into Persuasion as well as one into Insight and one into Perception. This gives her the following skill bonuses (in addition to her ability score modifiers for those skills): Insight +2, Persuasion +2, and Perception +2.

As Claudette gains levels in the field, she chooses to focus more on her adventuring skills while brushing up a bit on her history, since she has gotten word that things are changing back home. From 2nd to 5th levels, she invests a point into Athletics, a point into Survival, two points into Perception, and one point into History. This gives her the following proficiency bonuses to her skills: Athletics +2, History +2, Insight +2, Persuasion +2, Perception +4, and Survival +2.

Closing Thoughts

I feel like I mostly achieved my design goals. The low number of skill points should make it easy to keep track of them, and they correlate fairly directly with your actual proficiency modifier. Things are a little murkier with secondary skills, but I think that is okay. You can just record a fractional bonus and round down. The only place that might be questionable is how it interacts with 5e’s power curve. If you focus your skill points, your skill bonuses will jump ahead of your proficiency bonus before it catches up. I need to think about that some more, so that part may change. Additionally the additional proficiencies may subvert expectations regarding the spread of bonuses characters have, but I am fine with that.

Update on August 25, 2018: I decided to address the growth issue by capping skill bonuses at +6. I considered changing it to a base of +1 (instead of +2) and giving an extra skill point at 1st level, but I like the idea that if you focus on your core skills, you will max them all out by the time you hit the next tier of your proficiency bonus. This does mean 17th through 20th level characters can pick up some extra skill proficiencies, but that doesn’t seem problematic at face value (based on my previously being fine with more skill diversification).

Creating Threats and When

For my current campaign, I’ve been trying to follow the guidance Apocalypse World gives for creating threats. Accordingly, after every session, I go through my notes and create threats for any of the new NPCs that were introduced during that session. However, I’m not sure that’s working out well for me.

Apocalypse World is a game about scarcity and relationships. Open Legend can be a lot of things, but I’m running it as a fantasy RPG. The world isn’t quite like a typical D&D-like (which I hope to write about in the future someday), but the basic gameplay loops are similar enough. I try to name everyone and make them real, but that means my NPC roster is growing quite large. I also try to create PC-NPC-PC triangles; but, again, my NPC roster is growing quite large.

What I have been thinking about doing is separating my NPCs into primary and secondary NPCs. The primary NPCs are those with PC-NPC-PC triangles and (probably) deserving of being threats. Secondary NPCs are NPCs the PCs know, but their relationship with them is superficial at best. It’s possible for secondary NPCs to become primary NPCs, but I think it would be unlikely for them to go the other way. When they do, they should have acquired a PC-NPC-PC triangle and become threats.

And to be honest, having not played Apocalypse World, I may be reading it wrong. I do like the utility that threats provide, and that’s why I’m writing Roark, but it gets a little exhausting to churn out three or more new threats after every session. Maybe I need a setting appropriate list of threat types and subtypes I can use. Perhaps that’s something I can do as preperation for my next campaign. It’s something to think about, anyway.