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Good GMs Borrow, Great GMs Steal #1: Co-Starring

Today I’ve decided to roll out my first new post to completion in more than 6 months. As the briefest of status updates I’ve had several posts simmering on the back-burner for a while now, but this is my first crack at a good series in a long time and they should be pretty regular updates. They’re also going to be a lot shorter than most of what I tend to write because I struggle with that and the practice of being concise is good for me.

What is this series about?

I’ve read a lot of RPGs. Even more than I’ve played or run, and I’ve played or run a lot of RPGs. One of the advantages to being widely-read is that you come upon ideas all the time. This is pretty usual advice given to a GM who wants to make more cool adventures: if you aren’t publishing the adventure feel free to steal the premise of a story you already know and love and just change the trimming a bit. The title of this post in fact is based on a much more pithily phrased piece of advice offered by the author T.S. Elliot – good authors borrow, great authors steal.

This advice, however, rings true not just for adventure design, but also for campaign mastery. There are some things that some games do that I’ve outright liberated from their respective works and continue to use in most games that I run regardless of what system I run them in. I’d like to go over as many of those as I can while pointing out their exact origins.

Co-Starring: What is it?

The Fate system was created many years ago as an offshoot of Fudge, and rests roughly in the smack center of crunch vs. fluff, GM vs. player narrative ownership, and improvisational vs. prep driven. As a system it’s given rise to one of my all-time favorite mechanics: co-starring.

The first example of this in the Fate game lineup that I can think of was created for Spirit of the Century and goes a little something like this –

  1. Most of the player characters have met before.
  2. Each player writes (most of) a short (paragraph length or so) story blurb about one of their previous adventures.
  3. Then one or more of the other players adds a sentence or two to that story that incorporates how they were involved, too.

That’s it. It’s a paragraph length cooperatively authored (very) short story about a previous adventure that involved at least two of the player characters. Simple, right?

Co-Starring: Why should you use it?

This method solves a common complaint that has existed as long as roleplaying games have: how do I get the player characters to join together in a way that feels natural? The oldest solution to this problem is “dump them in a tavern, say ‘go’, and hope they cooperate for the sake of the game”, but this is a much more elegant method. Here’s the breakdown of the goods –

  • As it’s a story it will have at least one antagonist if it’s done properly (and if it doesn’t you should be helping the player to create a more exciting story with more conflict!). It’s not only less work to use that (those) antagonist(s), but also you have less fear of player rejection since it’s their own creation. The same goes for any other established NPCs, antagonist or not!
  • The player characters will for the most part know each other already, which means they’re all at most a single “I know him and you can trust him” away from total group cohesion in a natural way once the game itself begins.
  • It’s short enough that even the most crunch-oriented players won’t mind giving it a go.

The House Rule Test

I have a very simple test I use for house rules. I ask three questions:

  1. Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
  2. Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
  3. Is this rule as simple as possible?

There are some overlap in those questions, of course, and the first one probably has the most precedence, but the other two are critical for making sure it’s the best house rule it can possibly be. In most cases of narrative-focused games, however, lifting this concept nails all three questions. It’s extremely short, taking at most 10 minutes for each one and being very easy to understand, and it definitely does what it set out to do: make the beginning of the game more natural than plopping a bunch of characters into a story as if they sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus.

The only question that’s left, then, is if it benefits the particular game you’re playing. In most cases of a traditional PC-centric tale of high adventure I’d have to say it definitely does.

This is the first of a series of posts on general mechanics you can take from one RPG system and use in another. You can find further entries as follows:
#2: Drawbacks
#3: Skilled Backstories
#4: Abstract Inventories
#5: All About Initiative

Damage Dice Irrelevance?

This is a straight-up response post. I had too much to say to submit a comment to this article by The Id DM, and so here are my thoughts.

I feel it’s necessary, first of all, to explain my unique point of view that would make such a thing worth expanding beyond a simple comment and worth the time spent reading. I’m one of the few GMs that runs games almost exclusively online. Play by post games a bit, but more often combined with what I excel at, which is running games on virtual tabletops in real time. For a while now, my drink of choice has been Map Tool, and the majority of my experience has been with D&D 4th edition. The part about a virtual tabletop that makes my position unique, however, isn’t my credentials. What makes a VTT unique is that its random number generating functions, practically speaking as random as the best gaming dice outside of Vegas, are not even a little bit concerned with the logistics of dice rolling. It’s the work of mere moments to type something to the effect of /roll d20+d18+d74+24+108+1d12r3*d100 to get results from a mechanic that was surely so complicated it would’ve been laughed out of FATAL.

(For those curious, that would be equal to a brutal 2 d12 (reroll 1s and 2s) times a d% resulting in a quantity added to the static modifiers 24 and 108 in addition to a d20, d18, and d74 for good measure. Having just done it I got a result of 481).

The fact that the above dice expression can be calculated faster than you can type it, and you can type it in under ten seconds, coupled with the potential for linking to a button to repeat as often as I like, means that dice logistics are absolutely meaningless on a VTT; that’s right, dice logistics on a VTT are like the points on Whose Line. With that in mind, let’s examine the questions Iddy posed to the readers:

What are damage dice even FOR? What do they do for the game?

Damage dice, simply put, are the analog to “to-hit”s digital. Well, okay, they’re pretending to be analog, but they do a much more convincing job of things (not least of all because analog circuits often use ranges to represent discrete values rather than actually being used as the continuum they are). In some games, like Ars Magica or Spirit of the Century, the “to-hit” expression is a determining factor in damage every single time, not just on a critical hit. If you exceed the DC more you do more damage – makes sense, right? Not so in D&D, which is why having a more analog array of damage possibilities is important. Why is this sort of “analog” nature important in the first place? A few reasons.

  1. A game that involves very digital quantities, that is “on or off” quantities, is easy to predict and easy to “game”. Dice were purposely included in D&D as an element of luck, or fate, or whatever. I’ll get into that later, but for now all that matters is that it’s the case. A lot of people have said “I’d rather instead of a minion doing 6 damage on a hit it just did 3 damage automatically and that’s that”. Now that’s great for conserving your wrist muscles and saving some time at the table, but it makes the system eminently more game-able, which is something that was supposed to be avoided in the first place. Changing the amount of dice allows wider or narrower ranges of predictability to taste.
  2. A “feel-good” roll, or at least more of one than “to-hit” is, is good for player (and GM) morale. If you roll a 1 on your attack 3 turns in a row that’s some serious sour grapes, but if you roll a 1 on your damage 3 turns in a row while it may suck compared to max damage at least you haven’t missed and wasted your turn. Damage is the “everybody’s a winner” roll, even if some people are bigger winners than others.
  3. Finally, it should be noted that all of D&D’s original offensive and defensive jargon originated from an attempt to make a fun and fast facsimile of combat in a fantasy environment with too many strange variables to account for. Gygax, being an avid fan of tactical miniatures games, could’ve easily included more sophisticated rules, and said as much in his time on ENWorld, but felt that it was important to not do so. That to have a score that represents blocking, parrying, dodging, etc. (AC) against a roll for effectiveness (“to-hit”), and thence to have an abstract representation of physical hardiness, luck, and skill in slipping blows that seemed destined to connect (“HP”) to shield you against the actual damage if it is not entirely avoided would be sufficient.

Regarding point #3, the system could’ve just as easily been “did the blow hit you? Okay, you died because you have a sword in your gut”, but that was deemed, I suppose, too abstract. The “effective/not” and “degree of damage” system was selected as a good middle ground. It should also be noted that in Gygax’s eyes an RPG without dice would be more amateur theater than an RPG, so we should also keep that in mind whether we agree or not.

Why are we as DMs spending precious time calculating complicated damage rolls that can take over eight dice plus a static modifier to compute?

In this instance I am proud to say that, in fact, I am not spending my precious time calculating these; the VTT is doing all the calculating and it can do this trick in the blink of an eye where it would take me a few seconds at least. Presumably we are doing it for the above reasons, though for me the doing it is much easier than for people using pencil and paper with real dice.

Why not build monsters that deliver specific damage based on whatever attack they use against the player character(s)?

As covered in question 1, this is because it would be not only too gamey, but also treading dangerously close to “not an RPG”, much less “not D&D”, in the eyes of the creator.  In terms of monsters, of course, GMs probably appreciate that feel-good roll, too, though likely less than players do since GMs get to roll a lot more attacks than the players do, so being on a cold streak doesn’t hurt so much.

Why is the SOP in D&D one roll for attack and another for damage?

This is where I shall, as referenced above, call on the great creator. Typos and other such things have been preserved for posterity:

AC is the measure of how difficult it is to make an effective attack on a target subject. One might broaden it by including dodging and parrying, but those are subsumed in the single number, as is indicated by the addition of Dex bonus, thus obviating the need for a lot of additional adjustments and dice rolling. The game is not a combat simulation, after all.

Hit points for characters are a combination of actual physical health and the character’s skill in avoiding serious harm from attacks aimed at him that actually hit. This is a further measure of the defender’s increasing ability to slip blows and dodge, as mentioned above in regards AC. While AC increases mainly by the wearing of superior protectionm HPs increase with the character’s accumulating experience in combat reflected by level increase.

In combination the two give a base protection and survivability for the beginning character and allow that base to increase as the character increases in experience. It does not pretend to realism, but it does reflect the effects of increasing skill in a relatively accurate manner while avoiding tedious simulation-oriented considerations and endless dice rolling.

As someone who has designed a number of military miniatures rules sets, I could have made combat in the OAD&D game far more complex, including all manner of considerations for footing, elevation of the opponents, capacity to dodge, parrying skill, opponents using natural weapons, etc. Knowing that the game was not all about combat, I skipped as much of that as I could by having the main factors subsume lessers, ignoring the rest. It is a role-playing exercise where all manner of other game considerations come into play, not just fighting.

Oh, least I forget, when magic is mixed into the formula, getting anything vaguely resembling reality becomes wholly problematical 😉

There you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: precisely why D&D’s SOP is two rolls: to-hit, then damage. The TL;DR version (if such a thing could exist for a quote of Gary’s) is above under question 1 as reason #3.

How is it helpful to read about unique home rules by WotC staff who were prominent in building, designing and playtesting the game system?

I’ll answer this with another quote from Gary:

That calls to mind the incident that occurred when I was giving a seminar on AD&D to a large audience of dedicated players at a GenCon. Someone asked me howI’d handle a specific situation, and I responded. One fellow in the crowd objected, ‘but that isn’t what the DMG says…’

To that I respnded to this effect: ‘I don’t care what the book says. I wrote it, and I am not infalable. In the case just before us the material in the DMG is wrong–as it is anytime the DM over-rules it.’

The WotC staff are just as, if not more, fallable than the original. We may have learned a lot about RPGs and designing them since Gary’s pioneering journey into uncharted territory all those decades ago, but I’d be willing to bet this piece of wisdom still rings true. The WotC designers doubtless feel that their own rules may be wrong in places, but the majority disagreed at the time, or perhaps they were one of those who agreed but later had second thoughts, but for whatever reason the rules aren’t officially amended. Designers having house rules has existed since Gygax himself holding in disdain the rushed state of the psionic material, weapon vs armor tables, and weapon speed tables and stripping the lot from his home game of AD&D – if not from earlier!

So, now that I’ve gone on a bit of a tear, here’s the short answer: they’re helpful because it shows us what RPGs are all about, and have been about since their inception.

Didn’t you say something about “it’s not an RPG without dice”? What’s up with that?

Oh, right, sorry. Gygax was indeed noted to say that diceless RPGs were not RPGs (though they were still games where some great fun could be had), and whether I agree with him or not the point is that luck through the form of rolling dice is integral to D&D if not necessarily the RPG genre as a whole. Don’t believe me? Read for yourself:

Diceless and “storytelling” games are not RPGs, but that is not to say that they are not games, nor to claim they lack high entertainment value–fun! My complaint has been that these games hould not claim to be RPGs, nor should those that tour them claim any “adult” or “sophistication” merit becasue they have no random chance.


As for PA’s calling attention to the fact that many an RPG session has little or no random chance element interjected into a play session, this is so. However these RPGs can include that when needed or desired. In a private email I called his attention to this, and the fact that the “diceless” game can not to do, as it is not an RPG, has been emasculated by the excision of random chance


It ain’t an RPG without chance entering into play

And now to add one of my own…

Is Perkins’ idea good or not and why?

The ultimate litmus test of any rule tweak in an RPG is dead simple and two-fold:

  1. Is this rule as simple as it can be, but no simpler? And,
  2. Does this rule emulate the intended effect in a way that is at least as fun as what existed previously to emulate that effect?

Going back to the beginning…

Is this a good way to randomize damage? It’s fairly good, yeah. I’d tend towards slightly bigger die sizes than a d6, but having never really tried it I’m not sure if that’s really necessary. It obviously reduces your ability to tweak probability curves, but a similar effect can be achieved by simply varying die sizes. A smaller die size means a lesser variation than a bigger one, and that’s effectively similar to creating probability curves with multiple dice of varying sizes.

Is this a good way to maintain a feel good roll? Sure! Fewer dice slightly reduces its effectiveness, since rolling more dice means a higher chance to avoid minimum damage, but at the same time max damage’s likelihood is increased as well, so a bit of bad with the good.

Is this a good way to abstract the amount of damage that a character could take or avoid from a hit that is “effective”? Sure. A tighter range of results than what a fistful of dice is capable of producing may even be more realistic – if you’re hit “effectively” shouldn’t it consistently hurt an awful lot rather than swinging all over the shop? Possibly. I’m no expert in combat that involves magic, and I don’t think anyone else is, either. It seems as good as any other way in the abstraction department, with the exception that perhaps you feel it’s “too” abstracted… but as we already know, Gygax had a certain measure of degree that he enjoyed in abstraction, and other people probably have their own. This one is down to personal taste, I think.

Lowering the amount of dice obviously is reducing the complexity, so I guess the only question there is as above: does this reduce complexity too much in your taste?

My answer? It depends. In real life there aren’t any “magic bullet” solutions. I love using ridiculous dice expressions I could never even get a grip on in a game at a real table using real little plastic knobs with numbered faces because the logistics simply wouldn’t be there. For me this solution doesn’t really offer much in way of being compelling. Clicking the “roll the dice” button will be just as fast whether it’s “/roll d20+d18+d74+24+108+1d12r3*d100” or “/roll d6+536” in my case – I really have nothing to lose by using these ridiculous fistfuls of dice and everything to gain in terms of precise number curve control. However, in the real world, at a real table, the trade-off is extremely compelling. Saving yourself some time doing math without any average numerical effect on the game? Aside from the psychological wonder of dropping 200 dollars worth of dice on the table to represent how potent an attack really is, is anything of value truly lost greater than the value gained in time saved? I would say no. This seems to me to be, at the very least, a fair trade-off that every “real table real dice” GM should at least consider.

Adopting it, of course, depends on if you “care what the book says”… 😉

Happy Trails,
The Hydra DM