Let the dice do your dirty work

June 15, 2015 at 9:00 am
filed under Roleplaying
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Another reason why the OSR notion of objective difficulty paired with randomness appeals to me is simple: it’s more fun for me as a DM.

Now, I do enjoy the dramatic aspects of roleplaying. But D&D is— and ought to be— different. It’s why we have dungeons and travel and treasure. When I plan everything, that sense of excitement is missing, for me. I think I know in my heart that I’m in control. In addition to making me nervous, it also makes D&D less interesting to me.

I discussed this to some extent in Hex crawls. If all I have is a bell curve of encounter types, even I don’t know what’s going to happen. And if I don’t know what’s going to happen, the players sure as hell don’t, either. Moreover it lets me off the hook for “planning everything.” I don’t want to plan everything! When I do plan everything, bad things that happen to the PCs are my fault. But I want bad things to happen to them. Adversity is quite literally character-building. Or killing. Whichever.

Here’s an example: weather. I’ve completely ignored weather in the very few D&D games which occurred to me. What’s up with that? Weather makes a huge difference, all the more when traveling through territory known to be dangerous. The most straightforward way to handle weather is to do it randomly. In the forest, sometimes it’s foggy as hell. In the desert, sandstorms are a hazard. In the swamp, extra rainfal raises the water levels.

I don’t want to declare any of that by fiat. How the hell do you even know when to do it unless it’s part of “the plot”? If the PCs know weather isn’t randomly determined, they may assume I did it for a reason, or just to mess with them. Why not delegate that to a table? Suddenly, neither the players nor the DM know whether it’s going to rain. That’s magic.

Let’s keep going: why does anyone seek shelter from weather? The way I used to run D&D, this was purely hand-waved. There wasn’t any weather, for one, and it might only have existed by fiat, to drive the PCs to shelter or create some other condition or impetus.

People seek shelter because exposure is actually quite dangerous. Hypothermia can lead to pneumonia, among other things. The point isn’t that we want a system for hypothermia; the point is that seeking shelter is common and rational, and in combination with other conditions, drives people to make choices. And choices are what we’re all about, right?

I still haven’t figured out what this translates to, in game terms. One rule I saw floating around is that if there’s weather, you need shelter in order to take a long rest. You can still take a short rest. What you cannot do is recover hit dice. Or spells. (That last part is why I balk.)

Now Leomund’s Tiny Hut, et al, starts to seem mighty useful, doesn’t it?

One more concept: foraging. Why would a Nature check to forage ever matter? Who even talks about food supplies in the first place? What would cause a party to run out of food?

Weather is one example. With weather, we have reduced visibility and increased chance of surprise by nasty monsters, et al. With weather and no shelter, we can’t regain hit dice after these encounters. If we do have shelter, can we forage?

Oh, and now spells related to food, water, shelter, and even the weather, are all relevant if not amazing. Let’s make a short list here:

It’s not a coincidence that nature-inflected spellcasting becomes a major asset. There are many parts of D&D which don’t make sense if you ignore a handful of basic human needs. Druids aren’t just a low-rent cleric, and rangers aren’t just fighters with an enthusiasm for the outdoors.

I would almost argue that Goodberry is too powerful in that it lets you avoid the problem of food altogether. But it’s a level 1 spell. You can’t cast it without an opportunity cost. And it’s cool when PCs can just sidestep dangerous things. It reinforces their exceptional skills.

Conclusion

It’s worth pointing out what we, as the DM, don’t have a whole lot we’re responsible for. We’ve ceded control of the environment to some extent, and it’s on the PCs to cope. We’ll do our best to help them along and every so often throw a wrench (or another randomly-determined hindrance) in their plans.

We’ve also added a ton of gameplay to travel such that it’s a real undertaking. Terrain informs weather, pace, encounters, and availability of food, shelter, and water. Even if the PCs sidestep food, they may still need to contend with the elements and the ever-present danger of wandering beasties.

And the best part is that it’s not my fault when they get screwed. It’s OK to laugh evilly when the dice come up against them because it’s not your fault! The dice are cruel, not you. Furthermore, how they get out of this situation is, as always, their problem. I mean, that’s the DM’s job writ large, right? Give them interesting problems peppered with suboptimal choices.

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