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Hit Points – Abstraction?

It happens every couple of weeks, it seems. Someone posts somewhere lamenting about hit points in D&D and how they don’t make sense. An argument ensues about what hit points really mean.

These arguments are almost always as poorly informed and poorly thought through as they are passionate.

Here are my thoughts on it, collated into an essay because I like writing essays and I’m getting sick of writing the same stuff over and over.

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Tips for DMs – Passive skills?

The Skills section of Ability Scores portion of the PHB gives a rule for Passive Checks. This is usually only ever used with Perception; there’s even a special spot on every character sheet I’ve ever seen for passive Perception.

That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. If Perception can have a passive score, why not Insight? Why not Nature?

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Tips for DMs Blog Series – The 3 Most Important Words

Many moons ago, I offered to run an OSR campaign for D&D players who hadn’t played anything other than 4e. They took a long time to  learn that they could try to do stuff that wasn’t specifically listed on their character sheets. They took a long time to learn the three most important words a DM can say to a player:

“You can try.”

“You can try” is your answer to just about everything a player wants to make her character do. “I want to leap the chasm.” “I want to shoot  the ogre in the eye.” “I want to surf down the stairs on a shield.” Pretty much any time a player says “I want,” you can reply with “You can

In order to facilitate their “try,” you need to be able to do adjudicate off-the-cuff skill checks, assigning a reasonable DC to what they want to do. “I want to leap the chasm” is Athletics. “Shoot the ogre in the eye” is a basic attack roll, with a crit giving the desired result. “Surf the stairs” is Acrobatics.

Now, be forewarned: Once the players figure out they can try whatever they want to do, they’ll start chaining stuff together: “I want to leap on a discarded shield, surf it down the stairs, and shoot the orcs.” You’ll be tempted to simply say “No.” Resist this impulse. Let them try! Rather than “No,” say, “Okay, Legolas, sure. Let’s do this.”

At this point you’re probably shouting, “How, Bob? HOW?” Easy. Assign a skill or other check for every comma in the player’s stated action. “I want to leap on a discarded shield” – Athletics/Acrobatics – “surf the stairs” – again, Athletics/Acrobatics – “and shoot the orcs” – standard attack roll. Write it out if you have to, with your grammar governing where the d20 rolls happen.

Also, keep it within reason. Your players, even when they’re trying cool stuff, are still subject to action economy. Remember RAW for what a creature can do on their turn: Basic/minor/free, Move, Action. The stair-surfing stunt is no more than that! “Leap on the shield” – minor – “surf the stairs” – move – “shoot” – attack action. If the player wants to do more than that, you’ll have to have her split it up. Usually, “more than that” equals wanting to simply do too many things or move too far in one turn.

NB: I have been known to let players spend Inspiration to try something more complicated than Minor/Move/Action, but it has to be super rad. That’s a judgment call, and I make it clear that players are not to invoke that too often. Try it, but do so at your peril.

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New weekly blog series – Tips for DMs

I’ve been really remiss about posting to this blog.

That’s because I’ve been way too busy writing other stuff! I finished a super-secret project a week or so ago, and just put the finishing touches on my latest Guild offerings. (You can get my Castle Spulzeer conversion and the latest Aristobulus’s Artificers catalog, if you’re interested.) I’ve also been super busy with work.

Well, that changes now. I’m going to start posting a regular series of advice and tips for Dungeon Masters. Short little snippets. Every Wednesday you’ll get a new bit.

The first bit comes now, though, because I have time.

Make better NPCs.

Index cards are great for this. Keep notes on NPCs – who they are, their names, what’s important to them, their relationship to the party, that sort of thing – so you’ll have their information at hand when you need it.

This isn’t about stat blocks. You don’t need to have combat information on neutral or friendly NPCs. If you need to know the village sage’s combat stats, you have a murderhobo problem, and that’s a different essay.

What you do need is information that will impact how the PCs will interact with the NPC. Jot down a basic idea of the NPC’s morality, for example. If the PCs are on the run from the local authorities, will the sage sell them out to the fuzz? With which other NPCs is the NPC allied? Does the sage share tea with the local priest? You don’t have to do this with every NPC; start with the ones the PCs will be dealing with most often.

Of course, remember your players will send everything sideways given half a chance. You think you don’t need full background on the butcher, and you do need it for the local bishop. Now watch as your players decide that the bishop is a twerp and the butcher should be their best friend and patron. Be ready to improvise. The good news is you can often just swap names on the index cards. The butcher can’t give them potions of healing or raise them from the dead, but he can give them the same wise counsel as the bishop would have, and point them to new quests.

It’s also wise to note roleplaying cues. What accent does she have? Does she have a high-pitched voice? Does she have a facial tic or some other unique mannerism? Is she well-disposed to the party or have they angered her? If you have all of that on an index card, when they encounter her again six real-time months after their last interaction with her, you won’t have that concussed-duckling moment when you realize you have no idea how to role-play her.

If you’re into minute detail, give the NPC a quirk or two. The sage, to continue the example, has an irrational fear of owlbears. So when the PCs bring him an owlbear figurine of wondrous power, he freaks out just looking at the chess-piece-sized piece of stone.

Take notes on the NPC’s attitude toward the party, and how what happens during the game can influence that. Is the sage well-disposed to the party? If so, why? Have they alienated him by their actions? Make a note of it. When they come back to town after looting an abandoned monastery, he might be angry that they ignored the monastery’s library full of rare tomes and instead brought him a terrifying miniature owlbear.

If you take away one thing from this, here it is: Make your NPCs memorable. Making your NPCs memorable will help to limit your players’ tendency to set fire to every hamlet and town they pass through. You don’t even need to do all that much creative work. You can get any number of pregenerated NPCs from DMs Guild. Just search for them.

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Priceless DM advice

A pretty much constant question asked among RPG referees is “What do I do about this problem player?” Now, I’m connected to a ton of online gaming communities, so I see it multiple times a day. But every “DM help” group I watch sees this scenario multiple times per week.

Here is all the advice you’ll ever be given on solving relationship and personal problems at the gaming table, distilled into a flow chart.

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