Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Stop trying to win D&D

AD&D Player's Option: Skills & Powers
AD&D's power gamer wet dream
Over the last few editions, there has been a trend toward "winning" at D&D. The seed was planted with the AD&D Player's Options: Skills & Powers, which came out late in the product cycle of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition... but the tree of this trend really grew from the soil of D&D 3rd Edition (and also Pathfinder).

I'm not simply talking about power gaming here, but a change in the way the power gamer approached character generation due to the internet. Power gamers across the world now could converse and compare optimizations, which have lead to forums meant for just one topic... "character builds".

Character Builds

Perhaps it's the grognard in me, but the whole idea of a "build" raises my hackles. I can already hear the critique of this post. This post will likely be labeled as a "Your fun is wrong!" rant without actually considering my words, so bear with me a moment and read on before you judge.

Here's the thing. Role-playing games are form of improvisation. Your PC acts within the story and the story changes. And the story will also (ideally) change your PC. I don't just mean levels and hit points, but hopefully non-mechanical personality growth will occur. Goals will change. Motivations will change.

Perhaps a PC who is a bit churlish and grumpy will experience something that softens his heart. Or, conversely, a faithful paladin might experience something that hardens her and she eschews her deity for a demonic warlock patron... or the wizard, having experienced a divine intervention of some kind, decides to become a devotee of Pelor.

The whole point is that when you start out with that new character, you don't know what will happen at the table over the course of the next several months. Consider not planning all your feats and multi-class options at first level. By focusing on a "build" you may be missing out on opportunities for your PC to grow organically within the campaign. The "optimal" wizard build doesn't take into account that you might want to change to a cleric or paladin for story reasons for a couple levels.

If you are so fixated on the pre-destination for your character (as outlines in some build guide), you are closing yourself to changes that could occur during the actual play at the table. You don't know what will happen in the game to your PC at level 5, or 8, or 12... so consider not planning every single mechanical leveling up detail at level 1. Let what is going to happen be determined by play. If you are locked into a single character strategy, you have shut out the in-play possibilities.

D&D Ultimate Warlock Build
Skip the game guides. Build a personality.
This is my biggest issue with the focus on builds. They have nothing to do with character growth through role-playing during the game. They are completely about playing D&D as if it were a video or strategy board game. Not only that, but excessive optimization often leads to one character hogging the spotlight over other PCs in the game due to having the highest... everything.

Stop worrying about every little +1 bonus, feat, or ability score improvement from level 1 through 20. Play the character, not the mechanics. Then, when you actually achieve those levels, perhaps make a choice that makes sense for the character's story arc instead of trying to gain the highest possible DPS. I'm not talking about making a "gimp" character here. I'm just talking about not focusing so much on every minor bonus and think a little more about what makes sense within the fiction of the game, rather than the mechanics.

Character growth within the fiction of the campaign is one of the primary reasons we play in-person RPGs instead of games like World of Warcraft. Stop trying to make the perfect monk that can move 400 feet and stunning strike every enemy on the field in 1 round. This is D&D, not League of Legends.

Embrace the non-optimization.

I'm getting a lot of "Stop telling me your fun is wrong" replies, and that's NOT what I'm saying.
1) To be clear, I never said you should purposely build an ineffectively gimpy character.
2) I never said you shouldn't pick a combat-effective option or think about what's coming up level-wise.

One of the comments from Peter Olsen on Facebook put it best:
"... extreme focus on progression and builds lends itself to removing attention from where the character is right now."

This. So much this. I'm just trying to advise players (especially newbies) to not think about what's happening 8 levels from now. Think about what is happening in the game right now. Make character choices based on those events. Don't be a slave to the cookie-cutter "optimal build" if something happens in game that might lead your character to multi-class into something slightly less optimal (or pick a different feat, or whatever) because it makes more sense within the story.

Friday, February 21, 2020

GM 101: Adversarial Dungeon Mastering

GM 101, Episode 7 - Adversarial Dungeon Mastering

Using the power of the Dungeon Master, there are many obvious ways one could screw the players in a game. But there are also way you may be unintentionally hindering the players or passive-aggressively acting in an adversarial manner. Don't be the "Gotcha!" DM.

Other Owlbear musings