Sunday, October 22, 2017

Poll Results: Can the DM Cheat?

(Fair warning: there will be some anger, and some accompanying strong language. Online interactions not rated by the ESRB.)

So, a little while back I asked Ozymandias if I could borrow a survey he had made on a Facebook page, to ask some of the gamers in my own alma mater's tabletop club; he graciously agreed. I made it into a Google survey, and posted it in the group chat... and was promptly informed that I was apparently supposed to ask the officers' permission before doing so. (A fact which was never indicated in writing anywhere, in the official rules channel or in the general chat - but as you can see below, I shouldn't really be surprised.)

Quick note: I did modify the wording of some of the choices slightly, to make them more consistent and clear. I waited just over two weeks before closing the survey, and at that point had received only 10 responses, one of which was my own (made to ensure that the poll was working). Here is the complete text of what I posted for people to respond to.
Given any or all of the following definitions of the word "cheat": (1) to deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud; (2) to influence or lead by deceit, trick, or artifice; (3) to practice fraud or trickery; (4) to violate rules dishonestly; is it possible for a DM to cheat at D&D?
  1. No. The DM has responsibility for maintaining fun at the table, and they may do anything in support of that goal.
  2. No. The rules serve as a guide for the DM but their (the DM's) authority makes them exempt from cheating.
  3. Depends. Really, there are so many different variables that it's difficult to say for certain one way or the other.
  4. Yes, but only if the DM takes away player agency by dictating PC actions.
  5. Yes. Game rules apply to a DM just as they do to the players.
  6. Other (please comment).
Google Forms has an option to shuffle the order of the response options, which I think is great. Here's a pie chart with the percentage of responses; keep in mind that exactly 10 responses were received, so 10% = 1 person.

For those who can't see the image, here's the breakdown: #1 got two votes,
#2 got one vote, #3 got two votes, #4 got three votes, #5 got one vote, and
#6 (Other) got one vote.

There were two comments made; interestingly, only one person voted for "Other", so the second commenter must have wanted to expand on their rationale for voting the way they did... except that these are anonymous, and so not linked together. Here are the two responses in their entirety.

Response #1: "Unless the DM is an asshole"

Thank you, that is extremely helpful.

Response #2: "It depends on the intent of the action that could be considered "cheating". I occasionally fudge rolls at my table, both for and against the players. That could be considered cheating in most games, but here the objective is to use the rolls for storytelling. We don't want a level three player getting crit to instant death, but we also don't want the end boss of a cool dungeon to go down in one round without him doing anything significant to a party member.
"There are ways a DM can cheat however. A few examples include: 1) allowing dice that shouldn't be used if the table doesn't agree to let him do so occasionally, and 2) if the intent of the game is that it's DM vs players. The first would have the example of "loaded dice" or dice that favor a number. If the players ask for visible rolls at all times, and one uses a loaded die, it is breaking the player DM relationship of trust for the sake of a better roll more consistently rather than having the dice fall where they may. In a player vs DM mentality, the intent in the game I run where I occasionally change numbers for story would change drastically if my objective for the party is to throw them in a pit Fighting arena society where I control their lives. Dnd is not a game designed for pvp, and that goes for players and DM's."

Wordier, but has more content. I have no idea who wrote this (as I ensured that the responses were anonymous), so this will be based entirely on the response, and the assumption that this DM is referring mostly to D&D 5th Edition - and, considering I had the DM role removed from my profile in the group chat because I don't run their 5e organized play thing, that seems extremely likely.

If this person fudges both for and against their players, and doesn't consider that cheating, then why would it be considered cheating for a player to fudge their own rolls? After all, they're using the rolls for "storytelling", too; in their own preferred version of the story, their character doesn't get killed. If "storytelling" is the entire point, then why use the dice at all? Why roll a random number generator if you're going to ignore the number that it generates?

They go on to say that a 3rd-level character dying is not desired. Why? Is it because the player will throw a temper tantrum and quit the game? (I've had this happen with two 1st-level characters, for crying out loud.) Is it because this DM has, rather foolishly, based the integrity of their entire game world around a particular set of player characters? (This is foolish for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that both the player and the character can drop out suddenly.) Or is it because it will take too much time to create another 3rd-level character from scratch? (And this is how it's done in the club's organized play system for 5e; none of this "1st-level" crap for them, no ma'am!)

Also, if you don't want a 3rd-level character to be "crit to instant death", you might want to think about revising some of the rules that would let that happen, rather than lying about the result of your dice roll.

There's a brief refrain that "we" don't want this or that. Who exactly is "we"? Am I to infer from this that there are multiple DMs who think this way? Well, considering that six out of the ten responders apparently think so, that isn't exactly an unfair inference. (I was going to make a reference to The Big Lebowski, but I'm saving my quota on that for another point.)

This person goes on to enumerate that, while fudging - either for or against the players - isn't cheating, there are things that are. The first is deliberately using unbalanced dice, and I agree wholeheartedly with this; some DMs I've played with tend not to allow so-called "spin down" dice, the kind that are used for keeping track of points in Magic: the Gathering. While I haven't yet seen enough evidence that these dice are unfair in their results, I'm willing to concede the point and use a different icosahedron until further results are in.

The other thing that is cheating is "if the intent of the game is that it's DM vs players". Apparently fudging against the party is fine, so long as you're not actually against them.


The whole point of using dice is that it takes the arbitrariness out of the DM's hands! If reactions, hits, misses, and the choice of whether to surrender (or flee) are determined randomly, and not on the whim of the DM, there's a lot more reason to trust the DM's decisions as being fair. On the other hand, if the DM says that their super-powerful evil blood-sorcerer NPC boss was successful in an attack, when the numbers say that they were not, then that's fucking cheating!

Jeez... And making certain legal attacks not hit, for the purposes of "the story", is considered a perfectly valid behavior for someone who's supposed to be fair. Just imagine someone pulling that crap in a game of baseball, or chess, or a wargame. Is it any wonder that other gamers' opinion of tabletop RPGs is so low?

Things like this are what make me refer to myself more often as a "Referee" than a "Dungeon Master". My goal isn't to "tell a story" or "maintain fun at the table" at the expense of playing the game according to consistent procedures. It's to facilitate a game - that is the service I provide to my players, and sometimes we don't win at games. But that's no excuse to throw a tantrum like a fucking five-year-old until the facilitator can't stand your whining any more and gives you what you want just to shut you up.

And this ties in to what happened when I so much as posted the poll. The president of the club chided me for breaking a "rule" that had not been written down anywhere, and only existed in their head. Previously, they temporarily banned one of my friends from the chat for doing something that was not covered in the official club rules or constitution (and also misgendered them multiple times). Considering the attitude that most of the respondents had - admittedly, ten isn't a big sample, but I've seen enough of this attitude in person - is it any wonder that the "Dungeon Master" of the club feels free to fudge the rules of the club just as freely as they fudge the dice rolls of their games?

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Trimming the Fat II: The Trimmening

Here's the promised followup to my previous post. Last time, I pruned a few extraneous classes, and hung question marks over many more; today, I'll be looking at the typical selection of character races. As with the last post, to qualify here, the race in question must have appeared in the core rules of at least two "editions" of D&D.

Dwarves and Halflings

(First playable appearance: Men & Magic, 1974)

Dwarves have long been a staple of D&D, due to their ubiquity in Tolkien's Middle-Earth stories - major party members in The Hobbit, less so (at least directly) in The Lord of the Rings. These roles have been reversed in the latter, where four of the central characters are hobbits. These two races have often been grouped into similar categories; in original D&D (pre-Supplements), they are both restricted to the fighter class, while AD&D (both 1e and 2e) allow them to be thieves in addition. (1e is unusual in that halflings cannot be clerics, but halfling NPCs are allowed to be druids!)

The reason that I group these two together is as follows: I feel that having both as distinct species is a bit redundant. Short people, sometimes with long beards (including female dwarves, at least according to Gygax), who can't usually be wizards? In my campaign, I've long considered merging the two into a single species, with the subraces having different characteristics; perhaps it's the "Tallfellow" or "Stout" dwarves who are longer in leg and beard.


(First playable appearance: Men & Magic, 1974)

Elves are pretty much essential components of any high-fantasy game. They look and act similarly enough to humans that the two can conceivably adventure together, but are just different enough that a Referee with any creativity can put vast oceans between the two species just under the surface. (This is another reason that the Vulcans on Star Trek tend to pop up as major characters; in fact, one can easily draw parallels between the two). And if these are different species, not just different ethnicities of humans, then it makes sense that they would have some classes that are harder (or flat-out impossible) for them to pursue. An acquaintance pointed out that, logically, they should also be able to do things that humans can't do, and this is why I think multi-classing (with a few limits) is a good way to differentiate demihumans from humans.


(First playable appearance: Players Handbook, 1978)

Oh jeez... If dwarves and halflings as separate species seems superfluous to me, gnomes are about as useful as a third thumb. Rarely do I see anyone play them; in fact, I've only encountered two gnome player characters in any fantasy RPG I've run or played (one of which is my own PC, Roywyn Raulnor). Considering Tolkien's influence, it seems fairly obvious that their origin lies in Tom Bombadil, but it doesn't really seem necessary to have yet another species of short height and long beards.

"I gnow thee gnot, old man."
(model from Battle for Middle-Earth II)

The main point of interest is that, in AD&D (both editions), gnomes are the only demihuman race that can be illusionists; I concede that my own gnome PC, if ported over to AD&D from her current home of 5e, would be a multi-classed illusionist/thief. But I say just let the combined dwarf/halfling species be illusionists, and free up the gname of "gnome" for fey creatures more resembling those seen on American lawns.


(First playable appearance: Supplement I: Greyhawk, 1975)

Half-elves do technically appear in The Lord of the Rings. Elrond is called "Half-elven", although his parentage has little actual impact on his mortality or the way he is viewed by others (at least from what I read - I read all of The Fellowship of the Ring, but couldn't get through more than about a quarter of The Two Towers). He chose to identify with his elven ancestors, and so he's considered an elf.

If a player character wants to be a "half-elf", that's fine by me, but they have to choose whether that means they will identify as an elf or a human; there's no real reason for such a strong level of incomplete dominance that they're considered a separate race. I get the feeling that the desire for half-elves is largely based on min-maxing, as half-elves get more classes to choose from than elves, but still have some special abilities. In that cast, why not just let elves have more classes, and drop the mechanical differences of half-elves?


(First playable appearance: Players Handbook, 1978)

Same here as for half-elves. If a Referee wants to let players be a potentially "monstrous" species, just remove the status of full orcs as mindless, faceless evil minions, and let players be orcs. The games in the Elder Scrolls series, starting with Morrowind, did this with great success; orcs are integrated into society for the most part, and their fierce reputation serves them well as soldiers.

Dragonborn and Tieflings

(First playable appearance: Player's Handbook, 2008)

I'm inclined to just say "no". Tieflings have a bit more history, appearing initially in the Planescape setting for AD&D 2e, but dragonborn have no excuse aside from Wizards of the Coast trying to cash in on the humanoid races popular in World of Warcraft. If someone wants to play a dragon-like character, there were already half-dragons for over ten years by the time 4e came out! Also, as Preston Selby pointed out here:
"I just think there's a sort of breakdown in the game when a player can say their character is a half-dragon with a horny lizard-head and a breath weapon, and there is an expectation that the character can walk into a town and an inn with the humans and the halflings and everyone will act like this is totally normal. At that point, the game has seriously damaged its potential for weirdness and wonderment."
At that point, discrimination by non-fire-breathing humans and dwarves isn't necessarily based on irrational, prejudicial fears (although there's probably an element of that); it's a very rational fear that the dragonborn might sneeze too hard and burn down your house!

I realize that this gets into the same thorny area as X-Men (as much of a prick as he was, Senator Kelly was right when he referred to powerful mutant teenagers as "weapons in our schools"). This is why fantasy and sci-fi can only use metaphors for racial and religious discrimination up to a point.

Ack, back on topic: I don't think dragonborn should be a "standard" species in the kind of games I like to run. As always, these are just my opinion, not some kind of holy pronouncement.

The Tally

Playable: Dwarves (including Gnomes and Halflings), Elves, Humans, possibly Orcs

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Trimming the Fat

I've been thinking a lot about the necessity of certain classes in D&D (and similar games). Fighters, mages, and thieves are pretty much essential in terms of both tone and gameplay. Clerics might not always fit tonally, but they're almost always a necessity for gameplay purposes (as the party needs to not die too quickly). Having these four as the "core" classes - a tack taken by virtually every iteration of D&D calling itself the "Basic Set" - gives a good range of options for players. The subclasses of these, however, are less clear-cut in their necessity.

Note that I'll only be talking about those classes that have been central options available in multiple editions. The class has to have been in the Player's Handbook or equivalent, and have appeared in more than one edition in such a capacity (so no cavaliers or gunslingers).


Barbarians are completely unnecessary, and the RPG archetype is ridiculous; even Conan the Cimmerian, one of the most famous "barbarians" of fantasy literature and film, wore armor when it was appropriate. In my opinion, there's no need to have them as a distinct class from fighters.

Paladins are basically fighter/clerics, with the weapon selection of a fighter and some of the spell and turning ability of the cleric. Tonally, they might as well just be clerics, so in my view they aren't needed as a separate class.

Rangers' tracking ability and (in some editions) proficiency with two-weapon fighting are nice extra abilities, but not essential in a primarily dungeon-focused game. They might not be needed as a separate class from fighters.


Druids are a tough case, as besides their extra powers (like shape change), they sometimes have a very different set of spells from their parent class; in oD&D and AD&D 1e, they don't even get cure light wounds until second or third level! The issue is that having both clerics and druids can lead to some tonal mismatches. I might elaborate on this in a different post, but the jury's out on the necessity of druids.


Assassins are in a similar boat as rangers, as they're basically normal thieves with some extra abilities. Assassination is largely redundant considering thieves can already backstab, but their disguise ability has so much potential; admittedly, it could just as easily be assigned to regular thieves instead (shades of Lupin the 3rd?). Since they're also of little extra use outside of cities, I'll call this one a draw.

Bards, on the other hand, are excellent to have in one type of game: one with a small number of players. In a group of six, it's easy to have at least one player character to fill each basic role, with some doubling-up as needed or desired. This is harder to do in a group of three or four, and while the bard is certainly no substitute for a fighter or a spellcaster (except in AD&D 1e, but that's a whole other kettle of fish), they can certainly pull their weight in a pinch. The problem comes when bards are designed to be equal or superior fighters, thieves, or spellcasters compared to actual, single-classed fighters, thieves, and spellcasters; 5th edition has this problem in a big way. I'll chalk this one up as a maybe due to their utility for some groups.


Illusionists, if their spell lists are different enough from standard mages, can have interesting possibilities. I'm not a big fan of them in AD&D 2e due to the fact that mages can access every spell, with illusionists' (and other specialists') only advantage being more spell slots and easier learning. What are not different enough are...

Sorcerers. This step-headed redchild is so bafflingly similar to its parent class that both sorcerers and wizards share exactly the same spell list in D&D 3.5; even in 5th edition, their selection of cantrips is identical. If you prefer the sorcerer's more cleric-like method of casting spells, that's fine. But the presence of both sorcerers and normal wizards in the same setting destroys any reason to play the latter, and also destroys the entire rationale for wizards being somewhat rare and secretive.

The Monk (or Mystic)

Monks are... an odd case. AD&D treated them as the fifth core class, and with good reason: their means of attack, defense, and other abilities can't be easily slotted under the warrior, priest, rogue, or wizard groups (although some editions, including oD&D, consider them a cleric sub-class for attack and hit dice purposes). Even in BECMI, the rechristened mystic was added as the only other human class available at first level (the druid, as well as the name-level fighter trifecta of paladin/knight/avenger, being more akin to WOTC's prestige classes). Tonally, they might not fit certain settings in their default form, but I would argue for their inclusion.

The Final Count-up

Assassin - Maybe
Barbarian - No
Bard - Maybe
Cleric - Yes
Druid - Maybe

Fighter - Yes
Illusionist - Maybe
Mage - Yes
Monk - Yes
Paladin - No
Ranger - Maybe
Sorcerer - No
Thief - Yes

(Reminder: this is all my personal opinion. Feel free to disagree, but please do so civilly.)