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The Hidden Game

I’m not going to address this topic any more than necessary. It’s been beaten to death; there are many sources available for the reader to peruse; and if you haven’t decided by now that alignment needs to be thrown out of your game, then I suggest you stop reading and move on to something that’s more appealing to your paradigm. For the rest of you – for those who believe, rightly, that alignment has always been a baneful, spiteful and divisive element of the game, such that you have discarded it with other nonsensical cows like level limits and party leaders – for you all, consider this: alignment is useful and has a place in the game, just not in front of the players.

I’ll say that again for those in the back: alignment is not a player rule. It is a DM tool.

Poorly conceived slogans aside…

Consider this thought experiment: how many souls are in hell? Not, like, actual Hell, because this is not a philosophical or religious blog – despite all evidence to the contrary – but whatever passes for the underworld in your game; how many souls have lived and died in your world, and how many of them have ended up in hell? Why does this matter, you ask? Because you’re an idiot, that’s why!

Okay… yes, I know, my readers are not idiots, but let’s slow down for a moment and consider a basic paradigm of game design: the seemingly insignificant, behind-the-scene details always matter. Consider a trade system so robust that we can know the economic impact of a war started by the players. Or a weather system that makes sense and gives the DM information in advance of the players’ questions, such that logical and consistent answers can be provided (which gives the players options during their adventures). Or a political system that helps the DM track social influence in a dynamic environment. Each of these rules sets assumes that the details of the world, the ones that are hidden from the players’ view, make a difference in how the world operates, and thus in how the DM presents the world to the players.

So… how many souls are in hell? We can start by asking how many people have lived and died in this world, then making a few assumptions for a fantasy world. First, we should assume that our world takes place in an era that matches with some similar period from Earth. Let’s assume a Renaissance world which puts our estimation for dead souls at about 10 billion. Our next consideration is the presence of intelligent races – let’s limit ourselves to humanoids for the time being, such as dwarves, elves, orcs and goblins. There are others, but if we keep it simple with five races – humans included – we can assume an even distribution, bringing us to 12.5 billion dead souls (2.5 billion for each intelligence race). (A more robust distribution will require additional assumptions or variables, but I’ll leave it to the reader to determine which are appropriate for his/her world.)

If we assume that each race is predisposed toward a certain alignment – humans are generally neutral, elves are chaotic good, dwarves are lawful good, orcs are lawful evil and goblins are chaotic evil – and I must stress the key term, “generally” – then we can assume that, over time, following the law of averages, the number of humans who lived neutral lives is… some fraction of the total number of humans who lived, of course, but the specific fraction depends on whichever number set suits your world. For myself… well, let’s look at these numbers:

Alignment Distribution Stats

I assume the racial alignment is a tendency toward a particular (broad) moral and ethical worldview. Therefore, as humans are neutral, they tend toward neutral alignment about 31.373% of the time. Dwarves are lawful good about 44.138% of the time. (I trust the reader can sort out my methodology here.)

If, in our sample world, 2.5 billion orcs lived and died before the start of our game, and orcs are generally lawful evil, then we can say that close to 1.7069 billion orcs ended up in hell. Accounting for elves, humans and dwarves, we get a total of 2,578,725 souls in hell. Of course, this doesn’t include the neutral souls, which may end up in heaven or hell, or perhaps in another place altogether. (And we would need a method for deciding which way they’ll go upon death, but let’s leave that for another time.)

There may be no need to know these numbers; this is a thought experiment that assumes you have a use for them. If you’re running a game with a heavy emphasis on demonic corruption and influence, or one where it’s important to know how strong the demonic forces are, then these numbers help; other games, less so. Let’s apply alignment to something more immediately practical: determining an NPC’s personality. I’ll leave it to the reader to look through this document (NPC Personality Charts), but the basic concept is simple: with a list of possible personality traits, we can adjust the likelihood of an NPC possessing a given trait by associating that trait with an alignment and creating a cross reference chart to the NPC’s alignment. Therefore, evil characters are more likely to possess certain traits; but since the list I’ve used here is as large as it is, and the numbers I’ve chosen are small relative to the total list, the overall impact is lessened.

I feel I’m failing to get this concept across, so let’s look at it another way: the PCs encounter some travelling merchants. Two humans and a dwarf; their alignments and personalities are:

  • Human (LN), purposeful (dominant trait) and incurious (subdued trait), with a desire to raise children and motivated by eating
  • Human (LE), ungrateful (dominant) and fanciful (subdued), with a desire for order and motivated by the social contract
  • Dwarf (LG), weak (dominant) and bland (subdued), with a desire for exercise and motivated by the social contract

That took seconds to generate. And these NPCs will likely get a few seconds of screen-time with the players. The work behind the tables is the result of several days of research, to be sure, but once in place, the benefits are countless because you can use these tables again, and again, and again, and again… And I’m not talking about the benefits of using random tables (which should be obvious). I’m talking about how you can use alignment as a means to organize your random tables, to generate meaningful results and to build a world that makes sense.

See, these aren’t the only NPCs you’re going to run in the game. They are a drop in the bucket. There are millions of people in your game world, possibly billions, and the number of interactions the PCs will have can easily climb into the thousands. Over time, certain patterns will emerge. Some of these will be based on poorly understood bias and preconceived notions, but some of your players will, rightly, recognize that dwarves tend toward certain traits which we can call “lawful” and “good.” In other words, dwarves will be different in a way that is meaningful and dynamic, instead of static and clichéd.

But none of this requires informing the players. They don’t need to know how you make the world work. All that matters is that it works, that you’re consistent and it makes sense, even if only to you.


I can’t recall exactly which book it’s in – Mere Christianity or The Abolition of Man – but C.S. Lewis wrote something about human nature that struck a chord with me. To paraphrase: we all go through a cycle where our outlook waxes and wanes, and our emotions follow suit. We may ride the high for many weeks, perhaps even days, or we may experience more lows than those around us, but sure enough there will come a time when the tide will turn and we’re either on our way up or down for the next leg in the journey.

I’m not sure where I am in the process. I just know it’s time to give it another try.

My last post was over a year ago yet the sentiment remains as strong as before. I haven’t stopped working on my passion. I’ve just been unable to fit regular posts into my schedule. Work took me out of the country and it became necessary to restructure my day such that other priorities took precedent.

Now I’ve returned to a semblance of normality; at least, normal for what I was doing before. Thus it’s as good an opportunity as ever I’ve had.

The nice thing about living a normal life is the freedom to choose my workload. For example, a friend asked recently that I look over a draft of his current book and offer some feedback. I enjoy this sort of thing – I had the chance to do the same with a previous work, though the version I read wasn’t too far off from the published copy – but it’s definitely something that I can’t manage all the time. It’s fortunate that his need came about at a time when I have the freedom to fit in some extra reading.

It’s also fortunate because it got me thinking again. About the work we do and the things that inspire or motivate us. And yes, this particular post is filling out with a load of self-indulgent shit. But if that results in me pushing forward and writing more, like I keep telling myself I should, then it was worth something. So hopefully I haven’t wasted too much of your time.

Oh, and as far as Alexis’ newest work… well, I don’t know when it’ll be done and I can’t say much else about it, except that it’ll probably be worth the wait. His first book certainly was.


This is why I write. This is why I want to write. This is why I beat myself up for not writing, for not sticking with my plans and for not being disciplined enough to actually accomplish anything. It’s why I agonize over my dreams, why I obsess about worlds that could be.

And it just might be the thing that helps me to stay on task.


Delta’s house rules concerning clerics: there are no clerics.

And here’s my response to each of his reasons…

(Disclaimer: Yes, of course he can run his game however he wants. And I’m sure that his game is well run, judging by the quality of the content on his blog. My thoughts are outlined below because 1) I think he’s wrong, mostly because 2) I think he’s being intellectually lazy. These are intended as objective observations, not an attack on character.)

1. Don’t have to detail a list of gods before play begins (i.e., avoids DDG-type requirement); can keep gods a mystery or forego them entirely.

I don’t see how this is a problem. When starting a campaign, the DM should include details about the major religions (or at least, those religions that have the most influence in the players’ immediate vicinity). This would naturally include naming the deities (if the religion is a polytheistic one), explaining their relationships with each other and detailing things like ceremonies, observances, holidays, roles in society, appearances, etc. All of which takes work. So how hard can it be to assign a few spells to each as a way of further distinguishing one cleric from another?

And do we really need to start a new campaign? Because that’s how I see this issue playing out: the DM starts working on a new world with new societies and deities and all that jazz, and when it comes time to give the players options for their characters, “Oh, this is too much work.” Seriously, a good DM should have one world, maybe two, where they set their games. Never more than that. The need to switch from one game to the next, like you’re changing your underwear, is a symptom of a greater problem: you’re failing to deliver a satisfying game.

2. Don’t have to deal with integrated Christian mythology and institutions (equipment-list crosses, biblical-based spell list, Catholic class level titles, etc.)

No one has to deal with this issue unless they choose to. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the game got away from Christian influences as early as 2E (excluding vampire weaknesses, of course, which is easily fixed by removing the damn cross requirement) (please correct me if I’m wrong). Either way, if you’re that dead-set against including those influences – hey, I think I figured out why people hate clerics so much! – just remove them from the game. You don’t have to nix a full quarter of your players’ options for one small detail.

3. Don’t have to deal with proliferation of miraculous abilities among clergy in every church in the campaign.

As I pointed out yesterday, if you keep the number of clerics in your game down to a reasonable value, you don’t end up with a “proliferation of miraculous abilities.” At least, no more so than you get from having a like number of wizards in your world. And while we’re at it: are you having problems explaining the proliferation of arcane happenings in every culture in the campaign? Because if you’re not, then making half of them divine in nature isn’t going to break the game.

4. Streamlines the magic system to just one class (wizards).

…why is this a good thing? Simplicity for the sake of simplicity isn’t a bonus, it’s laziness.

5. Avoids many problematic spells (silence 15′ radius, know alignment, etc.)

Re-write or remove the problematic spells, not the class.

6. No open-access to entire spell list, thereby avoiding brokenness (becoming overpowered) and plot irregularities when spell lists are expanded.

Change the rules such that clerics don’t get access to every single spell on the damn list. Make them operate more like wizards in that regard: they receive new spells based on their training and religious studies.

And why is it a problem when the spell list is expanded? Is the world a static place where no invention or innovation ever occurs? Was there not a time when wizards only had the most basic of spells at their disposal? Or have spellcasters always been able to whip a wish out of their asses?

7. No turn-undead ability, which turns otherwise fearsome monster types into the most easily defeated ones.

8. Healing “requirement” is spread across the entire party, not just one player.

There shouldn’t ever be a “requirement” of any one player to perform a specific way to the exclusion of that player’s desire to perform in other ways. If there is, you’ve got a group of asshole players and you’re doing a bad job as a DM.

9. Creates an elegant system of one class each using d4/d6/d8 hit dice, none/light/heavy armor, and attacks progression at 2/3/4 levels.

…actually, I can’t argue too much with this point. I, too, enjoy this sort of anal-retentive attention to details. However, there is something a bit… simple… about this approach. It doesn’t allow for a more subtle, nuanced class design.

And does this mean that you’re not using other classes? What about rangers and druids? Or bards and illusionists?

10. Avoids disassociation with priest/healer archetype that is more generally seen as peaceful, robe-wearing, etc.

…where is this archetype coming from? Certainly not history because there were plenty of priests throughout the ages who engaged in war and conquest. Also, see #14 below…

11. Avoids robbing fighters of specialty in wearing heavy armor.

So take away the heavy armor proficiency. Issue solved.

12. Avoids singularity of the only class unavailable to demihumans or multiclassing in OD&D (or listed as NPC-only in the AD&D PHB).

Multiclassing sucks because it’s freaking awesome (in 1E and 2E) – two classes for the price of one with no downside except lagging behind for a level or two. And limiting classes to non-humans is fucking retarded. Both should be thrown out – the former because it’s too good an option and the latter because it makes no fucking sense.

13. Avoids oddity of one class type mostly missing from OD&D wandering monster tables.

Wandering monster tables suck. They always have. To keep using them simply because they’re the status quo is the lazy approach. To ignore their faults is likewise lazy. (I need a synonym for lazy… shiftless? indolent? negligent?)

Come on, people – we’re DMs. We’re meant to be better than this. Put some effort into it.

14. Matches most pulp fantasy sources in which fighters/thieves/wizards are common, but miraculous warrior clerics are rarely (if ever) seen.

Look, if your game is so fragile that you have to rely on the “pulp fantasy sources” to keep players engaged, then you have other issues that need to be dealt with. Granted, my view on this particular topic may have to do with personal preferences. I generally don’t aim to run games with a particular “feel” to them. I did, at one time, but each session was plagued by a hyper-awareness, a sensation that we’re just going through the motions. There was no immersion, no engagement and no reason to give a shit about what happened to anyone, PC or NPC.

I get it: these are the books we grew up on. These are the stories that tickle our fancies, that spark the imagination and hold us rapt with attention. We want to recreate these moments. The problem isn’t the desire to be the hero from our favorite fantasy novel. The problem is that the medium we’ve chosen – roleplaying games – is not conducive to recreating that sensation.

Each of these reasons (or benefits) are superfluous at best. They’re justifications for avoiding any real work – like reworking the wandering monster tables to include clerics or creating a rational explanation for why monsters can’t be clerics.


All the Work…

Let’s keep this going, shall we?

“Gods, clerics, and holy spells cause logistical problems. If you can heal, cure disease, and resurrect, then do leaders die? Are their [sic] epidemics? Does each god have a portfolio? Is that a lot of extra work? Are gods, gods or just beings on a power-level beyond characters? Does Healing magic just waste everyone’s time, devaluing hit points as a resource and shoehorning in a character “because we need a healer”? Are armored spellcasters really a good idea?”

“These are a lot of annoying work-heavy questions for elf-games.”

At this point it’s not the idea that the cleric should be removed as it is the idea that it’s too labor intensive to answer the question. As I said before, there is no sacred cow to the game. If the DM feels that her game is improved by adding or removing certain elements, then she should do it. But when the only reason she can offer is, “it’s too much work for something that’s supposed to be fun,” then she needs to step down and let someone else run the game.

Look, I like -C and Delta. I have their URLs memorized because they often provide content that, while not exactly right, is at least rational and thought provoking. It’s clear that they put a lot of effort into their blogs and their published products. So let me be perfectly clear: these two have accomplished more as writers than I have, and I respect them for that.

Even though they’re wrong.

I’ll address -C’s questions above and, in due time, address Delta’s house rules concerning clerics (specifically, the advantages of not having them in the game).

If you can heal, cure disease, and resurrect, then do leaders die? Are their epidemics?

Yes. All the damn time.

It’s true that the presence of divine magic – or, more accurately, miracles – suggests an inconsistency where it comes to the life and death of NPCs. After all, the powerful NPCs must have clerics working for them, right? Yet this question inherently fails to recognize that prayers and miracles – as distinct from arcane spells – are a limited commodity. Like any rare commodity, their use (or exploitation) is limited. After all, we have modern medicine which is capable of attaching a severed hand to a leg in order to keep the hand alive until it can be reattached to the arm. And yet, people all over the world lose hands and legs all the damn time.

First, we must consider how many clerics exist in the world. There are several methods we could use and, naturally, the final answer comes down to the DM’s decision. Regardless, it’s fair to say that clerics are rare. They’re members of an elite group – player character classes. They require specialized training, primarily in religion and prayer, but also in things like combat, ritual, politics, theology, philosophy, leadership, management, etc. They have stat requirements – typically just an average Wisdom score, though again, each campaign world can make this more restrictive.

For my own world, I estimate that, on average, 624 persons in 100,000 would be clerics. Compare that to about 1 in 20 for the number of leaders in the world. (Note that the difference is a matter of specialization. The cleric is a highly specialized, clearly defined character. A leader is, generally speaking, any person who leads a group of people. There will always be leaders, even if those who lead are not even remotely qualified for the job.) But clearly that’s not what we mean when we’re talking about leaders – I’m just quibbling over semantics. Not that it matters. If we look at just the number of people (per 100,000) with levels and assume that they represent the number of (effective) leaders in the world, we find that there’s 2,537 leaders for every group of 624 clerics (or a ratio of about 4:1).

(And yes, I’m using numbers according to rules for my game; I will address my methods in a different post. No, this doesn’t have to apply to your game. Either way, fuck off: if you want to disagree with the basic point I’m making, please show your work or provide some form of a rational argument.)

Please note that I’m only talking about the raw number of clerics in the world as compared to the general population (and to a population of “leaders”). This says nothing about the levels of these clerics, which gods they worship or their exact suite of powers.

Oh, and when epidemics do happen, you can damn well be certain that the local church will pay a little less attention to the king and his lackeys, and a lot more attention to the HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE DYING FROM THE SHITS.

Does each god have a portfolio? Is that a lot of extra work?

Yes. No.

Really, how many times must we go over this inane detail? Of course it takes extra work. It might take a lot of extra work or it might take just a little. That depends on how prepared you are. But let’s try looking at it from another direction: why are you creating new deities all the damn time?

A DM should only ever create one world. It’s her world, her pride and joy, her life’s work – well, not literally, but in the hobbyist sense – so why is she constantly scrapping it for a new world? Yes, I myself have spent many hours on creating new worlds. And I did it because I always felt like my games were constantly getting away from me. And they were but mostly because I was a bad DM who let bad players run amok and unchecked. Still, even during that time, I always had my personal game world and I tried as much as I could to keep the players in that world, regardless of how many characters they made or how many “new campaigns” we started. So, no, it’s no more work to assign the gods their portfolios than it is to answer the damn question, “Which gods have influence in this part of the world?”

Are gods, gods or just beings on a power-level beyond characters?

I don’t know. Is magic, magic or is it just a form of science that we, with our modern minds, don’t fully comprehend?

The answer is simple: you, as the DM, should KNOW THE DAMN ANSWER before you start running the game. And don’t change the answer once you figure it out. That’s just rude.

Are armored spellcasters really a good idea?

Honestly, I haven’t had any problems with this in my games. But if you find that it genuinely unbalances the game and detracts from the experience the players share at your table, then change the damn rules and be done with it.

Or would that require too much work for a simple elf-game?

Does Healing magic just waste everyone’s time, devaluing hit points as a resource and shoehorning in a character “because we need a healer”?

Story time: in college, one of my regular players usually played a cleric, especially for pickup games. She’s always been an active, engaged player; she always contributes to the action by becoming immersed in the fantasy; indeed, when given the chance to pick players for a new group, I always tried to get her involved because she brought so much to the table. But she’s terrible with numbers; she never cared for memorizing the rules; and she always let herself be talked into playing whichever class was lacking at the table.

More often than not, the class that was lacking was the cleric.

Part of the reason for this was my own fault. I used to play with alignment and my players, during the 3E era, were always wary of being told what they could and could not do. Part of this fear was justified in the case of clerics because they have an inherent social structure linked to the class, and the implication is that alignment is the foundation for that structure. It’s all bullshit, of course, but I didn’t realize that at the time and would occasionally let my asshole side seep through (in an attempt to adhere to the rules of the game, naturally; not justifying my bad behavior, just saying why it happened…).

So no one really wanted to play a cleric. Well, there was also the concern that clerics were just heal-bots and never got to do anything cool. Part of that had to do with 3E and the power creep inherent in every new edition. But part of it had to do with the underlying social structures at play. The former I could – and do – control by changing the rules to limit how often clerics can use their spells. The latter… well, again, I was an asshole and a bad DM, and it took me a few years to realize it.

Look, if your players are avoiding the cleric because it forces an obligation to play in a certain way – like, always memorizing heal spells in order to keep the party alive – then you’re playing with dickheads. Kill their characters in the most final way possible, wait for the ashes to settle (and the tears to stop) and make them roll new characters. When they do, have a good heart-to-heart, come-to-Jesus talk with them. Tell them that, while they are a team and they need to figure out how to work as a team, you won’t tolerate bullies. Give them a one-strike rule: anyone caught being a bully will get a warning. If the behavior persists, you’ll kick them to the curb. And yes, I’m saying that a group that insists the cleric always use healing spells – and nothing else – is a group of bullies.

More to follow…


I’ve seen this around the ‘net before. I’ve had this discussion many times. The ideas are persistent, pervasive and downright insidious. And in each and every case, they are dead fucking wrong. These arguments are based on laziness, pure and simple.

1) D&D has always had clerics.

Yes, this is a shitty reason for keeping clerics. No aspect of the game should be held onto simply because it’s a sacred cow. That being said, it’s important to note the historical roots of the class if only because…

2) The players expect clerics.

Again, not the best reason in the world, but players are accustomed to having the cleric as an option. Sit down with a new player – one who is new to your game but not the game – and there’s going to be preconceived notions about how things operate. If you want to buck the status quo, you have to be prepared to offer a valid reason for the difference. Especially since…

3) The game needs clerics.

Yes, you read that right: D&D needs clerics. More specifically, the game needs the powers and abilities that a cleric brings to the table. The first and foremost of these is the ability to heal. The game has always been rather harsh on natural healing (and it should be, considering how difficult it is to recover from damage in real life). Clerical healing gives the players an option that helps keep the fight going.

More than that, clerics are the moderators, the mediators, the social characters, the politicians and lawyers and leaders of the community: they are the foundation that holds a group together.

Seriously, have you ever thought about where the cleric comes from? And I don’t mean those fucking “references” from Appendix N (besides, there’s a rather significant lack of cleric-like figures in fantasy literature). I’m talking about the real world for a moment. If we strip away the magic – because real priests don’t have spells – clerics are little more than priests operating within a structured religion. Structured religions arose from two driving forces: 1) our need, as a species, to understand the world around us and 2) our need to organize into larger groups. Religion helps with both these needs: it gives us an answer to our questions (whether the answer is right or wrong is immaterial) and it gives us individuals who are skilled at managing people.

Now, certainly, we may argue that any of the other core classes have a need to manage people and can, therefore, fill that need within a society at large. Fighters are warriors and it’s the older, more experienced fighters that are often leaders in war. If you’re going to fight a war effectively, you need to organize and mange your troops. Similarly, thieves have a need to organize and manage people toward one or more goals, often with the acquisition of wealth or power in mind. Even wizards can do more with a team of skilled artisans, scribes or collectors. But it is the cleric that best represents the real world analogue of a skilled manager with a vested interest in the survival and success of an entire town/city/nation.

4) The reasons for not having them are lazy.

This will require another list…

  1. Clerical healing is too powerful.
  2. Clerics do nothing else except heal.
  3. In games where clerics can do more than heal, their powers are unbalanced.
  4. The proliferation of pantheons in the game encourages special, unique clerics for each god, which requires special, unique abilities for each cleric.
  5. Clerics require gods and gods encourage alignment, which sucks.

I won’t be able to address all of these issues in this one post, but I will address them all in due time.

The last one, the argument for ridding the game of gods (and therefore, clerics) because alignment is a pain in the ass, is just plain stupid. If you’re having such a hard time dealing with alignment – and to be fair (a rare thing, so don’t get used to it), alignment can really such the life out of a game – just get rid of alignment. It’s not hard to do. Change a handful of spells/abilities so that they don’t deal directly with alignment, and you’re done. For example, instead of detect evil you can have detect malevolence. There, simple. No need for alignment and you didn’t have to gut the entire game of a quarter of its rules.

I’ll skip back to the first reason for getting rid of clerics: that their healing is too powerful. This often shows up in discussions about the impact of magic on the world.

Yeah, I’m not sure how to properly address this other than to say… if you believe these arguments, you’re a fucking moron.

The player character classes are meant to be used as written: by player characters. Yes, a DM can (and probably should) use these classes for NPCs, but they are not standard representations of the general public. They are specialists. They are experts. They are the heroes and villains of the world. Each requires special training, which takes time and resources that your average denizen does not have access to. Yet in all the arguments I’ve heard, it’s assumed that everyone in the world has an equal chance of being a member of the elite. So the assumption is that magic is far more common than it really should be. This is the result of lazy thinking and people need to just stop.

Further, these arguments assume that simply because something exists, it must exist despite the cost involved. I’m not talking about the literal cost of casting a spell. I’m talking about the investment of time. Whenever a cleric casts a spell, she has to give up some of her time to get that spell back. She also has to give up the opportunity to use that spell for other clerical effects. Instead of casting animal friendship or charm person, she casts cure light wounds. Then she has to wait until the next day and she has to devote a portion of her day to prayer in order to get that spell slot back.

Now, just in case I’ve lost you, let me remind you that we’re talking about NPCs. See, these arguments – that clerical healing is too powerful and inevitably results in a sort of “free healthcare system” where no one dies, ever, because there’s so much healing available – these arguments ignore the fact that there’s no incentive for a given NPC to heal someone. None. At all. NPCs are not one-dimensional entities that exist for the sole purpose of a single task – especially one assigned by some random chum-guzzling internet troll. They are supposed to be people, in their own rights, who live and die in a fantasy world in order to make that world seem more real to the players. So even if your fantasy world has enough clerics – of any level or power – that you could provide one to every single household, there’s still the problem of motivation. Why should a cleric dedicate herself to just healing people all the time? What if she seeks out evil and destroys it before it can hurt anyone? Wouldn’t that be a more effective approach to healing, to end suffering before it can start?

Really people, it’s the 21st century and critical thinking has been around since the dawn of our species. Just try it once; I promise you’ll like it.

Your Skill Challenge is Shit

Let’s talk skill challenges. I used to be a fan. For the short time I ran 4e, I loved them. I don’t anymore. It’s not so much the structured approach to resolving conflict. It’s not the way they tie in with the game’s story/event based elements. It’s the shitty DMs.

Some background: skill challenges are based on the concept of a leveled skill system. 2e introduced proficiencies. They were based solely on stats (with a constant modified depending on how difficult the skill is to learn/employ). 3e went from proficiencies to skills and gave points to spend on improving them (awarded every level). 4e replaced points with a flat level-based modifier and a flat bonus for being “skilled” or “trained”. 5e… well, I’m not really sure. I think it’s the same as 4e? Whatever, doesn’t matter, because we’re talking about skill challenges.

4e gave us the concept of a skill challenge which is a structured approach to resolving a conflict through the use of skills (as opposed to hitting it with your axe). But all of this is dependent on the concept of a skill roll (and, to a lesser degree, training in a skill) as a necessary means to achieve a win-condition in the game. No skill sysyem, no need for skill challenge rules.

But this is where I have a real problem: in a skill challenge, the DM defines the win. Which is the opposite of how the game should work. When the DM defines the win, the game needs to play out according to that requirement. Players don’t want to scale the wall or talk to the guards? Fuck you, you can’t get into the castle. Only two can get over the wall? Sorry, you needed to get everyone over. You suck, no reward for you, start over.

And I know the despondent cries of opposition will proclaim: “That’s not how it works! If the players think of something clever, the DM just assigns a skill, a difficulty and a result, and adds the success/failure to the running total.” Well fuck you, voices from the internet æther, because you’re looking at it from the wrong angle. The problem isn’t whether or not the DM is capable of responding to something unexpected. It’s the fact that the DM defined the win for the players.

Players define the win. Look, when swords are drawn and initiative is rolled, what’s the win-condition? It’s whatever the players want it to be. The monster might fight to the death;  it might run away; it might be willing to parlay; it might take some food and wander off. But in no case should the situation be dictated by the DM such that only a few outcomes can count as a win. The players decide how to engage a monster and how to go about getting what they want. And the rules are designed to encourage certain behaviors, such that, more often than not, a win occurs when the players kill the monster and take its treasure (and earn XP). Want to encourage different behaviors for a different kind of game? Create a reward structure that supports your concept. But don’t define the win for the players.

Just… just stop. Let the players decide what their goals are. Let them choose what a win looks like and let them decide how to go about getting it. You, as the DM, need to worry about defining the rules that govern your world. “Skill challenge” resolution will happen naturally.

Fuck Your Tricks

Monsters tricks. A sure sign that the DM is a dick. This is why your D&D sucks shit: because you’re sitting behind a screen, hiding your dice, giggling like a school girl about how much smarter you are than the players. “Hehe, the rogue forgot to say he was performing some obscure task for no reason, time to pull out a monster that I totally made up just for this moment and that no one in the entire world has ever thought of before, so there’s no chance that the player would know to use that particular detection technique, but I’m so clever, aren’t I?”

And before we get into the, “That’s not what he meant,” arguments, let’s consider the word “trick:”

  1. noun a cunning or skillful act or scheme intended to deceive or outwit someone.
  2. noun a peculiar or characteristic habit or mannerism.

Yes, I realize that one of those works against me, but that’s the fun I get to have: I’m making the point and if you want to understand it, you have to listen first.

The first definition is the problem and it’s likely the most common understanding of the word. I have nothing to back up that claim, of course, except my personal experience. Be that as it may, this much is obvious: a monster trick, as -C points out, was “[a] creature that had a specific vulnerability removed…” (He also provides a short list, summarized from one of the original versions of D&D.) In other words, it was a means for the DM to fuck with the players.

The game we play is purely fictional. We are not our characters; we do not see through their eyes; we do not hear or smell or feel their world; we can only barely begin to get the faintest glimmer of what it is like to live their lives. And each of us will have a different impression of that fantasy, even though it is shared session after session with our friends and family. To help us come together, to assist and coordinate and delay the inevitable no-he-didn’t-yes-he-did fights – through all of this – the DM is the lynchpin. He is our connection to this phantasmal world. His words, mannerisms and behaviors are all that we have that brings this world to life.

So what do we do when the DM lies to us?

That’s a monster trick – it’s a lie and it’s served to us in the steaming warmth of the DM’s shitty embrace. When the DM presents several fights and parlays with a green dragon, all of them sharing the same qualities and characteristics, then during the final encounter, springs something new with no warning at all… that is the example of a monster trick – a “cunning … scheme intended to … outwit” – that we should all reject with thrown books and dice.

“But what about the second definition?” Yes, pitiful voice inside my head, that is why I included it above. There is a way to change the monsters or the scenarios or the dungeons of our games, to present something new and interesting, to spice up our worlds without fucking the players in the ass. In this case, the trick is not a deception, but the recognition that the encounter’s peculiar mannerisms, which we should be familiar with, have changed. For that to work, however, we need two things: 1) a prior familiarity with the encounter (or input from the DM about things our characters should know) and 2) information from the DM that points to the difference(s).

Here’s an example: the adventurers are indeed familiar with a wing of dragons, a mated pair of greens and their recently hatched offspring. (For this example, the mates are relatively young and the offspring very recent, so that the party can track them back to the parents’ lair.) The players dispatch the young – noticing a sickly odor in the lair – locate the mother and deal with her – a standard fight, but with something odd about her scale color, a bit of purple along the edges – and move to find the father. When they finally corner him, they see a few more signs: his coloration is distinctly different (with lots of dark purple and black among his scales). His breathing is ragged, as though he’s winded from something. The immediate area smells faintly of sour plums. And when the dragon readies his breath attack during the fight, it takes him a full round as he gasps and coughs up a bit of black bile.

What, pray tell, the fuck is going on here? For our purposes, it doesn’t matter, because the players should be well alerted that something is amiss. So here’s the trick: this monster is not a deception: it is different from the standard characteristics of its kind. The players are given information and a chance to act on that information. When they press forward, heedless of the warning signs, and become infected by the disease ravaging the dragon’s body – well, they were warned.

That’s how you employ the monster trick.


A few years back, I had other posts on this site. I took them down on purpose. That’s my prerogative, as it’s my blog and all that jazz. The decision wasn’t based on anything so much as my desire to start fresh. See, I’ve changed my mind on gaming, since last I wrote anything here, and I feel that those previous posts no longer accurately reflect my position. There are some things that remain constant and I will address those topics again, starting with this one: fuck point-buy systems.

I wrote before about AD&D (2nd) and an option to create your own classes. It’s listed in the DMG. Basically, you address each skill/ability as a unique talent that a character might possess. That talent has a cost assigned to it. As you add abilities to your “new” class, the cost goes up. This total, then, is multiplied against a static value for each level of experience (at some incremental ratio, like 400 for level 1, 800 for level 2, 1600 for level 3, etc.). Thus a class with many powerful abilities might have a high total modifier and characters in that class take longer to go up levels.

“That’s not a point-buy system.” Correct, disembodied voice inside my head, it is not. A point-buy system gives a set number of points to the player who can construct a unique character by purchasing abilities. The player might even take limitations or flaws that give back points; regardless, the goal is to spend all available points and use future points to buy new (or to upgrade old) abilities.

Take note: there are three critical differences between the AD&D custom class system and a standard point-buy system –

  1. A point-buy system puts the points (and the decision) in the hands of the player.
  2. A point-buy system provides a clear limit by assigning a starting pool of points.
  3. A point-buy system is usually associated with a point-based advancement system.

This is why I like the AD&D custom class system: it doesn’t do those things.

Point-buy systems place too much into the hands of the player. I don’t mean to say that player agency is bad, or that players shouldn’t be able to make choices about their characters, or anything else that you might misunderstand about that statement. I mean simply this: stop letting your players waste their time on character creation. That is bullshit. They should be wasting their time playing the fucking game.

So yes, I use a custom class methodology for designing my game. But the classes are set. I have the option of changing them and I welcome input from the players concerning which classes should change, why they should change, and whether there’s a need for a new class (presumably to address a gap in the game world). But I retain the right to veto stupid decisions.

Why Your D&D Sucks Shit

It’s true. I know, it’s hard to accept, but you have no fucking clue what you’re doing.

You started playing years ago when it was fresh and new, and the world was filled with an endless potential. All those adventures; all those dragons to destroy, those dungeons to delve. But you grew older and your game didn’t grow with you. The “official” rules are the same recycled tripe they were in the ’80s. And you know it. You know deep inside that you’re still playing a child’s game. You know that the glassy-eyed stare from your players signals the heat-death of your hobby. And you have no fucking idea how to fix it.

Maybe you’re new to the hobby. The publisher has made an industry out of packaging their shit with pretty artwork and fancy marketing schemes that leverage the opinions of the hobbyist (by gathering the most vocal and oft repeated fallacies from the internet), and so you could be a newcomer. You’re not familiar with the older games but you are familiar with the forum discussions, with online articles and social media gaming groups. You’ve encountered the arguments, you’ve analyzed the math and you can’t understand why the game is written the way it is. I mean, clearly, after 30 years of design and development, surely the authors would have figured out how to solve all these problems. Surely they’d be able to offer better advice on how to build a world or a fantasy city or a rational weather system…

But they can’t. So it doesn’t matter. That’s how you deal with it. Clearly, these things are not important because the powers-that-be have deigned to not include them in the Rules As Written. Clearly it’s better to nit-pick over the small details and rehash the same concepts again and again until our brains bleed through our pores.

Or maybe your D&D sucks s#!^ because you’re thinking about the wrong thing. You’re focused on the small details. You’re arguing over the definition of hit points or what it means to be a PC vs. an NPC. You think you’re talking about game balance or fantasy economics or the best way to structure the skill rules, when you’re really talking about how to manage people or how to address a complicated topic in a systematic manner (like treasure tables or random encounters).

That’s the rub, isn’t it? It’s not that the skill system isn’t worth discussing. It’s that when you think you’re talking about skills, you’re really talking about shitty players who hog the spotlight and you’re a shitty DM who can’t manage the shitty players and keep them from behaving like little shits during your game.

That’s okay. There are others like you out there. I’m one of them. And I’m here to help you through it.