Legends and Lore - The Fine Art of Dungeon Mastering

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Legends and Lore
The Fine Art of Dungeon Mastering

by Mike Mearls

Many of the objections to including more challenges against a player’s skill come down to two camps.

Talk about this column here.

As I said in my post on the prior L&L article (to which I of course got flamed)

"Maybe they should worry more about how to make good DMs, rather than rules"

Glad to see that Mike agrees.

Long have I believed that the rules of the game should serve the DM, not the other way around.


I'm not sure that WotC is in the position to get into the self-help seminar business.
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We can solve this objection through good rules. If R&D is smart and identifies what people want to do in D&D, we can build those abilities as options into the game. That’s where the idea of the skill system as a tool to customize a character comes in. For that reason alone, I think it’s a good idea to have skills (or a mechanic that fills a similar role) in the game.

It was good to see this paragraph in this week's column.  Could have stopped reading there, though.  I think we're all aware that an inexperienced DM can easily make for a sub-par game .. no surprise there!
If rules can protect us from bad/inept GM's, I wonder if it could be possible to have rules that protect us from bad/inept designers! 
I'm not sure that WotC is in the position to get into the self-help seminar business.



Because you're good enough, you're smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like you.
I like the concept. Now lets see if they can bring out a good implementation.

I must say 4e was a big step in the right direction, but they could step further... 
Epic Dungeon Master

Want to give your players a kingdom of their own? I made a 4e rule system to make it happen!

Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
Nothing new, but he is right: I have seen the same thing in Organized Play where people seem to expect adventures to protect them against bad DMing. It is actually an interesting subject, how much should rules (and as an extension published adventures) protect the players against bad DMing? At what point do the rules and adventure details stop being protection, and become just an excuse for bad DMing? Because that is one of the downsides of focussing too much on the rules.
D&D will turn into a jack of all trades and the master of none. Catering to all audiences isn't the answer. The Rulebooks run the risk of being a hodge podge of rules and little else. D&D is a roleplaying game, focus on roleplaying first, combat second (a little part of me just died saying that- I hate roleplaying, I love combat).
If rules can protect us from bad/inept GM's, I wonder if it could be possible to have rules that protect us from bad/inept designers! 

as well as bad/inept players. I hope that he takes that up during next week's column.

Considering how much great material is already published in the books, I feel frustration when players aren't reading about--or better yet, writing about--the depth of their character race, class, role, theme, background, choice of weapon/implement, choice of power, etc. and then bringing that depth to the table and using it in role play. 

I first found myself disappointedly surprised at the poll results, then thought a second and found myself pleasantly surprised. Initially I thought it showed how many gamers were selecting, "If I say what's right, I win." when, in fact, the more accurate interpretation might be, "I describe my PC's actions and allow the DM to choose how it applies, then DM or I roll the dice to determine success/effectiveness/value to the narrative."

Yet, Mearls still appears to hold the notion that 'good' role play deserves a bonus to the dice. Also, he's still got, IMHO, a too high measurement of immersion.
The 4E rules set does not stop bad DMs, it just makes it a little more difficult for bad DMs to ruin games because it is a well constructed set of rules. I have always seen the 4E rules set as a solid foundation on which any DM can build a good game, not a tool to protect players. Believe me, if a DM wants to be one of the aforementioned "bad DM types" they are more than capable of doing so with the 4E rules set. I have always been under the impression that 4E was about providing the basic tools for a DM to run a great game. "Protecting players" never entered my thoughts.
4E and other systems certainly take some power that was previously assigned to the DM and distribute it among the players.  Was that done "to stop bad DMs"?  Maybe - I have no way of knowing what the intent was at the time.  But the fact as I see it is that much of this redistribution of power has been a good thing, regardless of the quality of the DM.

I don't necessarily claim to be a "good" DM, but I have been running a wide variety of games for a wide group of players, some of whom have remained "with me" for the long haul, for over 30 years and I hope I have learned at least a few things by now.  I like a good portion of the "empowering of the players" as a DM, not just as a player.

In a sense, I think the centralisation of power in one participant is an artificial construct in the game (but then all of the rules are a construct - this is not entirely a bad thing).  Some aspects of that centralisation seem to me to serve a good purpose, but others don't.  What I think the rules designers and developers should be focussing on is selecting the elements of DM power that serve a useful purpose (like DM encounter design allowing the players to be genuinely challenged), and keeping or enhancing them, while selecting those that don't serve a valuable purpose (like, to my mind, the DM judging a player's idea for increasing their character's chance at a roll) and removing or mitigating those.  There may even be some instances of power that may be useful, for certain styles of play, but is not useful for others - these may be a genuine space for optional rules (which, on the whole, I dislike because all rules are optional, in the end).
======= Balesir
There is no amount of good rules that can protect from a person that want to destroy the game or just abuse his power (concienciously or not). But this is a problem of bad people, not bat player/GM...

A good set of rules is obviously important, but I think a guide that explains HOW i should use these rules is even more important. I can have a set of good tools, but if I don't know how to use them, nothing good is going to happen...

The next step, is to make clear that even the guidelines and istructions are rules, nobody should break them without a really good reason. Again, if I have a set of good tools and someone taught me how to use them, that should be the true way to use them, not a personal variant because "I know better". Obviosly modification and House Rules are ok, but they should be accepted by the whole group, not only the DM, and it should be clear that with them the game in not the "true" game but a personal variation...

4e was a step in this direction (at least the DMG has some useful guidelines!), but it can improve a lot...
L&L - The Fine Art of Dungeon Mastering
Mike Mears

One of the things I really like about the skill system that Monte Cook created was that it allows an expert to shine. The brilliant diplomat can talk his way past the half-drunk town guards, effortlessly conning them in a situation that would leave the half-orc fighter tongue-tied. 

My problem with the above sentiment is, its double-standard assumes combat should be fair, but noncombat should be broken beyond rhyme or reason.



The following sentence is unacceptable for combat gaming balance:

“The [brawny fighter] can [sword swing] his way past the half-drunk town guards, effortlessly [lopping their heads off] in a situation that would leave [other classes unable to get passed them].”



In the same way, the following sentence is unacceptable for noncombat gaming balance:

“The brilliant diplomat can talk his way past the half-drunk town guards, effortlessly conning them in a situation that would leave the half-orc fighter tongue-tied.”



What is good for combat checks is good for noncombat checks, and viceversa.
It's more of a bad encounter then a broken one, I think. After all, the Wizard can Daze all the monsters with a wave of his hands, while the Defender can only stand there and take a pounding from them.

It's only broken when the fighter cannot help others or himself at all, not when a certain option is unavailable to him. If there's a way for the fighter to reach the goal the diplomat is going for (which apparently involves getting past some guards) then nothing bad is going on just because the fighter can't con himself past the guards. He could just climb over the wall, for example.

If the only way past the guards is to con them, then it's a bad encounter. Just like when the only way past the monster is to hew into it with a sword because it's immune to magic makes for a bad encounter. 
Epic Dungeon Master

Want to give your players a kingdom of their own? I made a 4e rule system to make it happen!

Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
It's more of a bad encounter then a broken one, I think. After all, the Wizard can Daze all the monsters with a wave of his hands, while the Defender can only stand there and take a pounding from them.

It's only broken when the fighter cannot help others or himself at all, not when a certain option is unavailable to him. If there's a way for the fighter to reach the goal the diplomat is going for (which apparently involves getting past some guards) then nothing bad is going on just because the fighter can't con himself past the guards. He could just climb over the wall, for example.

If the only way past the guards is to con them, then it's a bad encounter. Just like when the only way past the monster is to hew into it with a sword because it's immune to magic makes for a bad encounter. 



An encounter that is “effortless” for one specific character type, but *impossible* for all other character types is broken - by definition.

Autowin is broken. Autokill is broken. Autodiplomance is broken.

We already know that diplomancers can break the game.
Yeah. But there's a difference between "bad encounter" broken and "bad system" broken. The first implies that the DM needs to try harder and the second implies that no matter how hard the DM tries he will always fail.

Just because you can make an encounter that is effortless for one character doesn't mean that it's the goal nor even that it's the entire encounter. Conning a few guards sounds like one check in a skill challenge, and considering one of the players probably came up with the idea it's not even that bad if the diplomat can make the roll and the rest can't.

You're looking at a small part of an encounter. It's like judging the Ranger broken because it can deal a lot of damage to a target. That's not the whole encounter, and it's allright for the Ranger to do that because it's one of the things he trained; the other characters have other things they can do and only together can they overcome all the obstacles and complete the encounter.

If an entire encounter can be overcome with just a diplomacy check, then it wasn't very well thought out. If a small part of it can, that's fine. The rest of the characters have their own contributions to make during the encounter.
Epic Dungeon Master

Want to give your players a kingdom of their own? I made a 4e rule system to make it happen!

Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
Yeah. But there's a difference between "bad encounter" broken and "bad system" broken. The first implies that the DM needs to try harder and the second implies that no matter how hard the DM tries he will always fail.

Just because you can make an encounter that is effortless for one character doesn't mean that it's the goal nor even that it's the entire encounter. Conning a few guards sounds like one check in a skill challenge, and considering one of the players probably came up with the idea it's not even that bad if the diplomat can make the roll and the rest can't.

You're looking at a small part of an encounter. It's like judging the Ranger broken because it can deal a lot of damage to a target. That's not the whole encounter, and it's allright for the Ranger to do that because it's one of the things he trained; the other characters have other things they can do and only together can they overcome all the obstacles and complete the encounter.

If an entire encounter can be overcome with just a diplomacy check, then it wasn't very well thought out. If a small part of it can, that's fine. The rest of the characters have their own contributions to make during the encounter.



It is “bad system” broken.



It isnt just diplomancers that destroy the game.

But Autoperception that makes one character type immune to stealth, Autoinsight that makes one character type immune to Charisma skills, and so on.



Broken mechanics for noncombat can break the game just as fast as broken mechanics for combat.
You might be thinking in more optimised terms then I am. I've never seen a character be flat out immune to Stealth or Bluff. They might have a very high chance to be able to do it succesfully, but a sufficiently powerful enemy can  always overcome it.


(Hm. I do agree that broken mechanics for noncombat can destroy a system, I just don't think that being able to bypass a minor part of the game is defining broken. Being able to diplomance some meaningless guards isn't neccesarily an issue, just like a Tiefling being able to walk on hot coals without taking damage isn't neccesarily an issue, even if other characters can't do the same thing) 
Epic Dungeon Master

Want to give your players a kingdom of their own? I made a 4e rule system to make it happen!

Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
You might be thinking in more optimised terms then I am. I've never seen a character be flat out immune to Stealth or Bluff. They might have a very high chance to be able to do it succesfully, but a sufficiently powerful enemy can  always overcome it.



Monte Cooks system will make characters flat out immune to Stealth or Bluff. Or flat out Autodiplomance, Autograb, Auto-anything.
Why is autofail/autowin autobad? 

Surely you can't be insisting that a level 30 Thief of Legend have at least a 5% chance to fail on every single Thievery check he makes?

Likewise, the chance of me picking the lock on the vault at Fort Knox is zero. 

These situations can't be assumed to be emblematic of a "broken" system.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
Why is autofail/autowin autobad? 

Surely you can't be insisting that a level 30 Thief of Legend have at least a 5% chance to fail on every single Thievery check he makes?

Likewise, the chance of me picking the lock on the vault at Fort Knox is zero. 

These situations can't be assumed to be emblematic of a "broken" system.



Its the same thing as having someone autokill with a longsword.
Hm, which Monte Cook system is this thing about exactly? I might have the wrong one in mind, I don't remember anything that came with auto-beat everything.
Epic Dungeon Master

Want to give your players a kingdom of their own? I made a 4e rule system to make it happen!

Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
The following sentence is unacceptable for combat gaming balance:
“The [brawny fighter] can [sword swing] his way past the half-drunk town guards, effortlessly [lopping their heads off] in a situation that would leave [other classes unable to get passed them].”
In the same way, the following sentence is unacceptable for noncombat gaming balance:
“The brilliant diplomat can talk his way past the half-drunk town guards, effortlessly conning them in a situation that would leave the half-orc fighter tongue-tied.”
What is good for combat checks is good for noncombat checks, and viceversa.


Not necessarily for several reasons...

First, the point shoudln't be that every character can con an NPCs with relatively equal ease.  Rather, every charcter should have a way to contribute meaningfully to an encounter.

The challenge in your second example is getting the party past the half-drunk town guards without raising suspicions.  There are several ways this could be done... stealth, diplomacy, bluff, bribery, and even intimidation. 

So the second example should be...
"The bard can talk his way past the half-drunk town guards, effortlessly conning them in a situation that would leave the half-orc fighter tongue-tied.... however, the hulking fighter can stare down the half-drunk town guards, effortlessly convincing them not to get involved in a situation that would leave the bard looking foppish."

The analogy to combat is...
"The bard can cast a charm to overwhelm the half-drunk town guards, effortlessly melting their minds in a situation that would leave the half-orc fighter incapable.... however, the hulking fighter can decapitate the half-drunk town guards, effortlessly slaying them in a situation that would leave the bard incapable."

Each PC has a way to overcome the situation, albeit different than the way the other PC does.  And they should be able to work together as a team...

"The bard approaches the half-drunken guards and gives them a song-n-dance of how they are on a secret mission for the constable and need to get inside.  The bard gives enough details to sound convincing, and, looking over the bard's shoulder, they see an impatient half-orc fighter glaring at them.  The guards decided, all-in-all, the best thing to do is just let the heroes pass.  They don't even notice that the distraction provided by the bard and fighter has allowed the warlock to sneak past in the shadows..."

Monte Cooks system will make characters flat out immune to Stealth or Bluff. Or flat out Autodiplomance, Autograb, Auto-anything.


No it didn't.  It only was an auto-win against people and/or challenges that are below your Skill Level.  Just like you don't send PCs into fights against foes more than 5 levels below their skill level.
Why is autofail/autowin autobad? 

Surely you can't be insisting that a level 30 Thief of Legend have at least a 5% chance to fail on every single Thievery check he makes?

Likewise, the chance of me picking the lock on the vault at Fort Knox is zero. 

These situations can't be assumed to be emblematic of a "broken" system.



Its the same thing as having someone autokill with a longsword.


Is it?  I'd like you to support that claim.  Why should noncombat interactions be held to the same standards as combat interaction?
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
Auto-win against people and/or challenges that are below your Skill Level.




Just like you don't send PCs into fights against foes more than 5 levels below their skill level.



Think on that a bit.

I'm not seeing it. I allow my PCs to autokill the **** out of anything that is so far below them. Why have a 9th level PC roll to see if it can beat a 3rd level minion town guard? He's going to win anyway. Let him.

Dice rolls are for when something could go either way. Auto-success or auto-failure are fine for things that can only end in one way.

But being able to autokill some things in no way means you can autokill all things. And being able to effortlessly con a town guard does not mean you can auto-diplomacy your way through the game, either. 
Epic Dungeon Master

Want to give your players a kingdom of their own? I made a 4e rule system to make it happen!

Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
I'm not seeing it. I allow my PCs to autokill the **** out of anything that is so far below them. Why have a 9th level PC roll to see if it can beat a 3rd level minion town guard? He's going to win anyway. Let him.

Dice rolls are for when something could go either way. Auto-success or auto-failure are fine for things that can only end in one way.

But being able to autokill some things in no way means you can autokill all things. And being able to effortlessly con a town guard does not mean you can auto-diplomacy your way through the game, either. 



Monte Cookes proposal doesnt use “level”, it uses “rank”.

A character that trains to be an “Expert” autowins against every “Novice” and “Journeyman”, despite everyone being the same level.
Why is level the critical parameter for skills, and not the capability of the character in question?

I'm trying to get you to expand on your position, rather than just saying "It should be this way, because this is the way it should be"
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
And this is different from any other system where one character invests a boatload more points in a skill then another character, how?

I'm pretty sure it's not that hard to make a character that auto-beats anyone on the same level with Stealth or Bluff under the current rules and it isn't neccesarily a bad thing either.

It's only a problem when one player can auto-beat his way through the entire game, but that should never happen. I see no problem when one player has one skill that he auto-wins with, if he can use it. Assuming he invested enough resources into it, and uses it against someone who didn't invest as much as he did.
Epic Dungeon Master

Want to give your players a kingdom of their own? I made a 4e rule system to make it happen!

Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
I take it, people feel autowinning combat encounters is unacceptable.

I am mystified, some people feel autowinning noncombat encounters is acceptable.
I've still not seen any examples of autowinning an entire encounter. I've only seen examples of autowinning one single skillcheck making up a fraction of a larger encounter, because someone invested a lot of character resources into being good at that skill.

Do you consider it unacceptable that a Wizard autowins an entire encounter because he cast Magic Missile on a single Minion creature that was supposed to make up an entire encounter?
Epic Dungeon Master

Want to give your players a kingdom of their own? I made a 4e rule system to make it happen!

Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
I take it, people feel autowinning combat encounters is unacceptable.

I am mystified, some people feel autowinning noncombat encounters is acceptable.



I think there are times when skill checks ought not to be necessary.  Those times are not for level appropriate challenges that inform the developing story.  The issue with autowin ought not to be that the 30th level rogue can break into the peasants wine cellar.  The issue, to me, is that the 30th level rogue can optimize skills so that picking the locks that hold fast the chains holding Prometheus to a stone outcropping can be an automatic success.

I don't care about resources spent, the roll should matter in a level appropriate challenge, in or out of combat.
The issue, to me, is that the 30th level rogue can optimize skills so that picking the locks that hold fast the chains holding Prometheus to a stone outcropping can be an automatic success.

I don't care about resources spent, the roll should matter in a level appropriate challenge, in our out of combat.

I don't care about resources spent, the roll should matter in a level appropriate challenge, in our out of combat.



Guess if it's an auto-success, it wasn't level appropriate ;) You can either complain or up the challenge. There's infinitely many numbers on the dial.

If you feel that unchaining Prometheus is a proper 30th level challenge, but your Rogue can lockpick his way out of a 40th level challenge, then slam another 10 levels on the challenge. Go over the top.

Specialising in a skill is merely upping what should be a level appropriate challenge. Just because someone is 10th level doesn't mean that for his best skill, a 10th level challenge is appropriate. Just like maybe a 10th level challenge isn't appropriate for his worst skill, either (though that comes up less)
Epic Dungeon Master

Want to give your players a kingdom of their own? I made a 4e rule system to make it happen!

Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
I've still not seen any examples of autowinning an entire encounter. I've only seen examples of autowinning one single skillcheck making up a fraction of a larger encounter, because someone invested a lot of character resources into being good at that skill.

Do you consider it unacceptable that a Wizard autowins an entire encounter because he cast Magic Missile on a single Minion creature that was supposed to make up an entire encounter?



The problem is that the ability to autowin a single check informs the idea that a good approach is to autowin skill checks rather than play the game.  Why risk failure and create story and dramatic tension when you can game the system and win without rolling? 

Said wizard doesn't have the option of entering a dungeon where only a single minion appears at range each round, but players are encouraged to participate or not as they choose in skill challenges. 

Because there are 17 skills, and you can at best autowin on two of them?

Wizards autowin against minions using Magic Missile.  I suppose you'd rather that they not be able to do that, because it trivializes combat.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
I take it, people feel autowinning combat encounters is unacceptable.

I am mystified, some people feel autowinning noncombat encounters is acceptable.



I think there are times when skill checks ought not to be necessary.  Those times are not for level appropriate challenges that inform the developing story.  The issue with autowin ought not to be that the 30th level rogue can break into the peasants wine cellar.  The issue, to me, is that the 30th level rogue can optimize skills so that picking the locks that hold fast the chains holding Prometheus to a stone outcropping can be an automatic success.

I don't care about resources spent, the roll should matter in a level appropriate challenge, in or out of combat.

Given that the DM decides the DC for what constitutes "picking the locks that hold fast the chains holding Prometheus" there is no need for this to be an auto-win with the current system. It need not be with the "Monty System" either of course. Likewise the current system already has auto-win, there is no "fail on a 1" rule in 4e, the peasant's wine cellar is an open book to the 30th level rogue, he'll just waltz in.

Honestly I don't see any difference between the current 4e system and the 'Monty System' at the edge cases. It just creates more situations where you will pass a skill check automatically. This IMHO isn't a great idea, but lets not get too far off from reality here.

Any given situation (encounter) should have a variety of obstacles. It should have a variety of methods for getting past those obstacles. Some of those may be 'minor speed bumps' like some drunken guards, which aren't really an obstacle to a skilled enough character. In a different scenario they might well be a significant obstacle, but the game allows the DM (in either skill system) to allow for both situations to exist.

There is a matter of degree here. It is not some tragedy if some characters can sometimes walk past a situation without even a check as long as that doesn't just win the day, and only a poorly conceived encounter will allow that to happen. Moreover there may be other subtleties to things. Maybe the half-orc CAN'T just clobber the guards without some checks and a possibility of failure, but if the bard just waltzes the party past there could be repercussions too, like the guards can now identify the bard later. It is perfectly OK to have trade offs like this. The players will have to make some decisions which could in this case be complex, involving thinking through the whole situation, making moral judgments, etc.

I don't personally have any problems with anything Mike said in this particular article. I would just add that in general while rules can never STOP a bad DM from being a bad DM there are ways in which the rules can help to encourage better DMing. Some types of mechanics tend to lead in the right direction. For instance the 4e encounter design system and combat system tends to encourage and promote balanced encounter design. A DM can still make a crushingly impossible combat encounter, but he's got CLEAR guidelines about how to not do that. It also helps if the DMG then explains why balanced encounters are a good thing, but both mechanics and DM advice help.
That is not dead which may eternal lie
Yeah, and that is bad design. In a proper skill challenge, not trying should equal failing, like it does in   combat encounter. It's not so much that some skills are autowin, it's that the system allows you to not use the other skills.

You can't go into a combat encounter and say "oh, we'll not do Melee today. Orcs with axes, please wait at the sidelines while the Ranger shoots your archer buddies, and then he'll shoot you".

You shouldn't be able to go into a Skill Challenge and say, oh the four of us will just stand aside while the Wizard rolls a bunch of Arcana checks. That's bad Skill Challenge design.

They should be built so that multiple skills are required, and all of them are required now. Time pressure is where it's at. It's inherent in combat encounters, because the other side is trying to kill you, but it should be a part of skill challenges as well.

And once you beat the time pressure, the challenge is over. Because as you rightfully note, a challenge where you can autowin through, isn't a challenge. 
Epic Dungeon Master

Want to give your players a kingdom of their own? I made a 4e rule system to make it happen!

Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
I don't care about resources spent, the roll should matter in a level appropriate challenge, in our out of combat.



Guess if it's an auto-success, it wasn't level appropriate ;) You can either complain or up the challenge. There's infinitely many numbers on the dial.

If you feel that unchaining Prometheus is a proper 30th level challenge, but your Rogue can lockpick his way out of a 40th level challenge, then slam another 10 levels on the challenge. Go over the top.

Specialising in a skill is merely upping what should be a level appropriate challenge. Just because someone is 10th level doesn't mean that for his best skill, a 10th level challenge is appropriate. Just like maybe a 10th level challenge isn't appropriate for his worst skill, either (though that comes up less)



And if a second character is trained in Thievery, you should write him out of any chance of success to accomodate a system who's math simply does not work?