Category Archives: Game Design Philosophy

Yes, No, and Maybe

MaybeSometimes it’s useful to put your thoughts down in clear, precise language, even if those thoughts aren’t particularly novel.

As arbiter of the game world, the referee fields a lot of questions. Whether explicit or implied, these questions are usually of the form “Can I?” Such as “Can I climb the wall?” or “Can I sneak past the guard?” Even questions which don’t seem to follow this form often do. For example, if a player asks “What is the statue made of,” what they’re actually asking is “Can I tell what the statue is made of?” And while the full answer to these questions will be more complex, it will always boil down to either Yes, No, or Maybe.

There’s a well known dictate of improv comedy: “Always say yes.” As a fundamental rule, it’s useful if you need to create a coherent narrative for an audience. Unfortunately, some misguided folk have spread around the idea that the rule works just as well for D&D. It does not, for the simple reason that D&D is not a performance. The game is not meant to move smoothly through the familiar narrative notes of exposition, action, climax, and resolution.

In D&D, it’s important that it be possible to fail. Not just once, at a dramatically important moment, but over and over again until the failure becomes boring and you have to choose between continuing to bang your head against the wall, or going off to do something else. (The beauty of D&D, of course, is that you can go do something else in the game). If all the referee is needed for is to say “yes,” then they should just be another player at the table. The group can all participate in improvised fantasy theater for the amusement of themselves, or an audience. Given the proliferation of minor celebrities streaming their games on twitch, I suspect we’re going to see a lot of that.

That being said, I don’t want to make it sound as though saying “yes” is bad. If anything, I think the above misconception is so particularly dangerous because it’s so close to the truth. If you take the “always say yes” motto and apply it to D&D, you will have a good time. Then, if you’re observant, you’ll start to notice how all these dice and rules and systems are just getting in the way. You might reasonably think they’re getting in the way because they’re bad, when in fact they’re getting in the way because they’re meant to support a D&D game. But if you “always say yes,” you’re not playing D&D; you’re playing an improv game, with unnecessary baggage.

A better dictum might be “Try to say yes.” Think about the situation the players are in. Is the thing the they asked to do something they reasonably could do? If so, then say “yes!” Don’t muddy the game with unnecessary barriers, but do bear in mind what barriers exist, and enforce them. Never say “no” just because saying “yes” would trivialize a challenge. Taking clever action to trivialize a challenge is half the fun of good D&D.

This isn’t all that difficult to do. As referee, you have all the details of the game world in your head. Even the ones you haven’t bothered to come up with yet are in your head. And, as an adult human, you’ve spent a not-insignificant portion of your life observing other humans. You’ve got a good idea of what they’re capable of.

So when your players are in a room with a statue, and they ask “Can I push the statue over?” just look at the image in your own head. What kind of statue were you picturing? Do you think an athletic person could push it over? If so, say “yes”. If not, say “no,” and explain why. Is the statue too heavy, is it bolted to the floor, or is it just magically un-push-overable? If you’re not sure whether a person could push it over or not, say “maybe.” I’ll talk more about maybe a little further down.

First, while we’re still on the subject of “yes,” I want to talk about qualifiers. Qualified yeses give the players complications to overcome, and are almost always more interesting than a simple “yes” or “no.” Which isn’t to say you should invent complications that don’t exist, but you should take a moment to think about the specifics of your player’s proposal. What problems might they encounter?

A chainlink fence is a good example. If your players want to climb over a chainlink fence, you can’t really say “no” to that. Climbing over a chainlink fence is easy. You yourself have probably done it many times. But, it’s also noisy.

Instead of just saying “you make it over the fence,” you can say “Yes, you can climb the fence, but someone may see or hear you.” Razorwire is also a common feature of chainlink fences, so you might say “yes, you can climb the fence, but you’ll take damage from the wire, and there’s a chance you’ll become tangled.” The more you try to spot these hiccups in your players actions, the more your players will think about their actions. Your game challenges them, and they’ll be more engaged with it as a result.

Which brings us to “Maybe.” Maybe is easy: if you don’t know whether you should say “yes” or “no,” roll a die.

In a lot of cases, the die you should roll is spelled out by the rules. “Can I stab the goblin?” roll an attack. “Can I find food in the wilderness?” roll a Bushcraft skill check. These pre-established cases are easy to resolve, but just because the rolls are established in the game’s rules, doesn’t mean the referee shouldn’t consider whether “yes” wouldn’t be a more appropriate answer. “Can I stab the sleeping goblin?” Yes! Anyone who makes you roll for that is an asshole.

It should be noted that the inverse is not generally true. If the rules have established a roll that determines the success or failure of a specific type of action, it’s almost never appropriate to say “no.” Better to simply penalize the roll. After all, skilled foragers may still be able to find food in a barren landscape, it just probably won’t taste super good.

Then there is the other kind of maybe. The ones without any pre-established resolution mechanic. You still need to roll dice, but which ones?

Some folks use roll-under ability score checks. They figure out which of the scores best represents the kind of effort needed to successfully accomplish what the player wants to do, and have the player roll a d20. If the roll is equal to or under their ability score, the check is a success.

Roll under checks are an elegant solution. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just about the only good justification for having ability scores at all. But, since I think the ability scores are kinda sloppy, and want to move away from using them, I avoid this method. Instead, I just pick a chance-in-six that seems appropriate for whatever the player is attempting. I default to a 50/50 chance (1-3 success, 5-6 fail), and modify up or down based on circumstance, and any clever planning the characters put into their attempt.

That is all I have to say. This post is done now.

I Hate Choice

X-COM Second Wave Select ScreenA long time ago I wrote a series called “Pathfinder Class Analysis.” Basically, I would read over an individual Pathfinder class, then I’d write outlandish blog posts about what I would do differently if I were the one designing it. At the time I probably would have said I was criticizing Pathfinder because I loved it and wanted to see it improve. In retrospect, the whole series was kind of my parting shot at the whole 3.X family of systems. I had already started to play in OSR games at that point, and was enjoying the hobby more than I ever had before. It wasn’t too much later that I stopped writing about Pathfinder entirely.

But in many ways, Papers & Pencils is still much more popular as a Pathfinder website than it is as an OSR one. The Class Analysis posts in particular draw a lot of traffic, and produce a lot of comments. Some are surprisingly positive, but nearly all of them posit some serious disagreement . The most consistent criticism is directed at my frequent assertion that some class choices ought to be made randomly, rather than left to the player’s discretion.

It’s a belief I’ve only doubled down on. Many of the classes I’ve drafted for you this year have randomized powers, The Windmaster and The Slasher are two examples that come immediately to mind. I love randomized class options, but a lot of folks seem to think that’s a pretty weird thing to love. So lets dig into just why I love them.

There are two arguments I find compelling in favor of randomizing character options. The first is an argument against choice, the second is an argument for randomization.

Choice is good. But like all things, it’s only good in moderation. The human brain is really only capable of weighing so many options before it reaches a point of choice paralysis. This is doubly true when the effects of those options aren’t readily apparent. If you’re trying to learn a new game, you can’t know if +1 to your Blamf is better than +1 to your Flumph.

Most players don’t enjoy creating their character. Oh, sure, there are some who do. They’re the sort of folks who go online to talk about their favorite games. The ones who just can’t get enough D&D. They get together on forums or subreddits and it’s easy to assume they represent the entire player base for tabletop games. But I don’t think I’ve ever met one of those people outside the Internet.

Every player I’ve ever played with in real life just wants to play the game. Every choice the character creation process gives them is an extra step they have to take before they get to do the thing they actually want to do. But they won’t rush the choice, because they don’t want to make a bad choice. So they agonize over options they don’t really understand, that are too numerous to be explained to them in any meaningful way. When they finally do choose, it’s more out of exasperation than anything else. Then they spend the next several months asking the referee “so…what does this do again?”

This is not because players are lazy. This is because complicated, choice-heavy character creation is only fun for a small minority of people. For everybody else, you might as well gate the fun behind tax forms.

None of this is to say that character creation should never include any choices. Far from it, I think a small number of options that can be made quickly and understood easily are a great way to make a player feel like their character is really their own. But many rules-heavy games labor under the false assumption that more choice is always better. Quite the contrary, too much choice is poison to fun.

Courtney Campbell is particularly adept striking a good balance with this. Many of his games fall on what I would call the rules-heavy side of the spectrum. But his character creation processes strictly control the number of choices a player is asked to make at first level. I wish I could talk more about his upcoming “Perdition” in this post, as it really exemplifies this design philosophy. I’ll have to settle for telling you to be excited for its upcoming release.

So that’s why I don’t like (excessive) choice. It’s a barrier that prevents new or casual players from enjoying the game. But what makes randomized options so appealing?

If there’s a list of 10 class options, and the player is allowed to pick whichever one they want, they’re going to try to pick the one that will give them the most success in the game. That’s a completely reasonable thing for them to do. It’s what I would do. Most likely 1-3 of those 10 options will seem obviously superior to the rest. It’s not that any of the options are bad, but no array of powers are all created equal. Not unless they’re painfully bland. (+1 to attack during the day, +1 to attack at night, +1 to attack underground, +1 to attack indoors, yawn.)

If, on the other hand, the player must roll a d10 to determine their power, then there’s a good chance they’ll end up with something they don’t have a good idea of how to use. It’s a perfectly functional ability, there’s nothing wrong with it. But it’s not what they would have picked, and now they need to figure out how to make the most of it. There is a true artistry and beauty in figuring out how to excel with the cards you’ve been dealt.

If you’ve got a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. And in a world full of nails, you might be inclined to pick the hammer every time. But what do you do when someone hands you a hacksaw instead? Maybe you cut the nail in half, maybe you cut the board that’s supporting the nail, or maybe you realize some of your problems were never nails in the first place.

In other words: you get creative.

Randomization breeds creativity in players. It forces them to be clever. To think. To explore options they never would have considered otherwise. That creativity is the kind of thing they’re going to be proud of, and tell stories about.

So that’s why I said the Sorcerer’s spells should be randomized in Pathfinder. It’s also why anyone playing a Slasher in my games wouldn’t get to pick their own quirk. Choices made during character creation are a slow, alienating, unnecessary process; and randomized character options elevate play to artistry.

Come at me, bruh.

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