As we approached the first troll of the campaign, I anticipated that were were going to have this discussion.
It’s 5th edition D&D and none of us, to my knowledge, have encountered a troll in the new system. However, we all know by now that the regenerative abilities of the Troll are legendary and horrible and punishing for those who assume that dead is dead. Unsurprisingly, the players imported out of game knowledge to ready against the rise of the troll, lighting torches and oil, and the debate started.
“I spend a ki point to trigger my defensive ability…I’m not trusting that shit,” the Monk said as the troll went down.
“Two things,” I said, “One, you know nothing of trolls, and two, you’re like 30 feet away, and you’re going to waste a ki point… so don’t for either of those two reasons.”
“Certainly,” the Wizard said, “We’ve heard something about trolls. I’m a scholar if nothing else.”
“Maybe,” I allowed, “but there’s lots of horrible creatures out there, trolls included. Make some rolls and I’ll give you some wives tales and things.
Party rolled with less than amazing results, but indeterminate.
“You’ve all heard a story about an old woman who captured a troll and cut off its head, then kept the head in a basket. The troll would then tell her secrets, and she used it to get out of a variety of challenges and marry well and live happily ever after.”
“Good enough for me, light it up” someone said. Burning starts.
Hmph, I thought. “Isn’t anyone going to get the head?”
“I am not taking this things head in a basket.” the paladin said.
And that was that. I was a little disappointed, as an evil GM, that I couldn’t get the players on this old surprise, even if we were all fully aware of the trick. Did it diminish their fun? I don’t think so. Did it diminish mine? Only slightly. But overall, it seemed bad form from what I consider to be a group of truly excellent gamers. That said, I feel confident I would have done the same thing in their shoes. So what do we do, as gamers, with the knowledge of metagaming and the desire to metagame, and perhaps even the need in some cases to metagame?
Wikipedia defines Metagaming as:
Any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself..
Now before you think I’m living comfortably in my glass house, I do this too and am not trying to throw stones. We ALL do this to some greater or lesser degree. Whether it’s using tactics that your 1st level character wouldn’t use, or not running when attacked by goblins for the first time, or picking spells based on your experience as a gamer as to how useful they are. If we didn’t metagame at all, most of our characters might end up returning to their farming and sheepherding responsibilities after the immediate crisis had passed, and tell the same story at the local inn every Godsday about the time they went down to the old Moathouse and tangled with a couple humanoids.
So what do you do about it? First, you have to know what form of metagaming you have, and then identify whether its a problem that you need to remedy, or if you even want to. Metagaming has a certain utility that might just have a place in some games. This is me playing devil’s advocate with myself to some extent, but let’s play this out for a minute.
I’ve identified the most common types of metagaming that I encounter on a day to day basis:
- FLOATING HEADS – This is where you offer friendly advice to another player on how to run their character or communicate your in-game desires to them out of game. Your head floats off its shoulders, whispers in their ear, and floats back, so to speak.
- PRO’s: This keeps the action on point, makes the play most effective, avoids general murder, clarifies miscommunication due to the abstraction of the setting, and occasionally reminds a player to act more in line with the way their character might actually respond, rather than what a less skilled or confused player might do under the circumstances.
- CON’s: Leads to kibitzing and breaks the game. You have to have some faith that a player knows how to run their character, and the imperfection of communication on a battlefield is a core issue in general for those involved in combat. Further, spells like Rary’s Telepathic Bond allow for players to communicate in their heads with little other benefit, and this is a 5th LEVEL SPELL. To do it with impunity without the benefit of the spell essentially negates its usefulness.
- FINAL VERDICT: Should be kept to a minimum, to address player confusion rather than to advise, instruct, or exhort.
REVISIONIST HISTORY – As illustrated above, a plan or course of action is reversed after one or more active steps are taken to complete the initial task, only for the action to be withdrawn or reversed one or more steps to apply the corrective action
- PRO’s – Often in a game, the order of actions is unclear, and polite society frowns on interrupting or shouting over other people talking. Often, the loudest, most quick witted, or most ridiculous player leaps into action while other players who may be playing quicker, smarter, or more clever characters might not articulate their actions first, and the GM rule that they are too late to stop Mr. Dwarf Smash from axing the door. That’s not fair, is it?
- CONS – People do dumb things, and so do their characters. Half the fun is watching players and characters make mistakes with deadly or hilarious consequences. Sometimes its allowable, or initiative needs to be rolled, but players often want to rewind events back too far, and gain out of game knowledge of the consequences by doing so. It slows down the game and confuses everthing.
- FINAL VERDICT: We use a rule at our table that you can back up most actions until a die is rolled. Then, the action locks in. I would say too that if the players discovered something, like a trap, that they would not have known, it’s too late as well. You have to be careful in looking at this, however, as the crazy barbarian shouting “I smash in the door” should be interpreted as saying, “I want to smash in the door” and a few seconds pass before it happens. Louder does not mean faster.
OUT OF GAME KNOWLEDGE – Using personal knowledge of the rules, books, and statistics out of game to affect the actions of a character in game.
- PROS: It’s unavoidable to some extent, but sometimes allows the players to have more fun. It keeps the game master in check when the rules are bent or broken. Can create some appreciation for the nuance of a clever build/trap/spell combination. It’s also very hard to relearn everything in game in every campaign you ever play in.
- CONS: Changes the flow of the storytelling and arguably breaks the game. Creates situations where player characters act in discord with their experience. Especially dangerous, however, for Game Masters who use strengths and weaknesses of characters against them when monsters may have not subjective knowledge of those weaknesses. This would also encapsulate excellent GM tactics where monsters may not be operating at that level.
- FINAL VERDICT – This is the toughest to avoid and also perhaps the most onerous at the same time. It is perhaps the worst, however, on the GM side, where stupid monsters fight with tactics and knowledge that is not properly afforded them. I have felt the urge to avoid targeting a player with a spell that he is warded against, but feel good about myself when I do it anyway. Typically a nod to this sort of learning curve can help bring the game into technical compliance with the spirit of the game itself. (i.e. He takes a swing, and his best blow clatters off your armor. He knows he’ll never penetrate it and moves on to an easier target, etc. etc.)
Does Metagaming have a place at your table? It’s already there, I can almost guarantee it. There are a few pointers I can offer as I’ve seen them used in the past:
- Change Things– Book knowledge is useless when a monster’s appearance changes slightly. A friend terrified us by making kobolds appear to be tiny red-skinned devils. We actually fled. A little twist can keep things interesting, and is used to great effect in Dungeon Crawl Classics. You never know what’s going to happen there.
- 6 Word Maximum – Players get six words each round of combat to communicate, even off their turn. Kind of fun to limit yourself, and keeps it brief. Limitations of sound travelling through stone still applies.
- Attribute Checks – If a player is about to botch it, like not check for traps when a talented theif is in the party, a roll may be suggested or required as long as not too much has happened in reliance on that action. Intelligence or Wisdom Checks, or Charisma checks by other players to get the acting player to stop and listen. Initiative in worst case scenarios. Let the dice then fall where they may, and always freeze the action once a roll has determined success or failure.
- Caller – Grognards will remember that the game originally had a position called the “Caller” who would take the assembled players (usually about 10 in those days) and once the plan was digested, would call out to the GM what they would do. When things get confusing, I still use this, and it is amazingly helpful. Try it when things get crazy. Old Gary knew a thing or two about what he was doing, so lets give him the benefit of the doubt.
As always, we love to hear what your suggestions might be. Look forward to your comments.
Today is a day many felt would never come. Wizards of the Coast has released a pile of 5E information under a new System Reference Document and Open Gaming License. Not only that, they are selling Adventurer’s League materials through the newly formed Dungeon Master’s Guild. This allows 5E D&D enthusiasts to purchase the AL materials and run them in home games if they don’t live near to a FLGS that sponsors such games.
The implications of this are far-reaching, and some would argue, overdue. Most notably, Goodman Games and Kobold Press started creating adventures for 5E without a clear licensing framework in place for such content. Unlike the 4E era, the 5E OGL allows a good bit of proprietary content for use in independent development. Not only that, but in a partnership with OneBookshelf, anyone can create 5E Forgotten Realms content (with certain restrictions) and get paid 50% of the asking price. The remaining 50% is divided between OneBookshelf and WotC, respectively.
Many RPG enthusiasts have been requesting this kind of move since the development of 4E. The Skyland Games crew first came together under the D&D Encounters program hosted at an FLGS in 2009. Even then, players were lamenting on the now defunct community boards about the Encounters materials not being available for purchase, only available through store play. This new program provides options for players and GMs alike, and provides WotC with a brand new revenue stream.
Content created as part of the Dungeon Masters Guild can be considered for additional publication by WotC, included in digital games (Sword Coast Legends?) and possible marketing materials. This is a huge win for WotC, but also a huge win for the community. OneBookshelf offers any pricing model from free, pay-what-you-want, and set prices, which allows the flexibility to create a teaser adventure, then a series of paid adventures, or just let fellow DMs set their own price based on what they feel the content is worth. This model has worked surprisingly well for content creators on other OneBookshelf properties like RPGNow and DriveThruRPG.
Hopefully this program will be a resounding success, and more material and worlds will be released to an eager gaming community. Previous editions of D&D? Greyhawk? Dragonlance? Dark Sun? All speculation for now. Since this gaming group was founded around a company of dwarves adventuring in the Forgotten Realms, maybe one day, your own dwarven clan can follow the path of the Feyhammers.
Questions? Hit up the AMA on reddit January 15th at 1pm Eastern time.
Last March, Mike Mearls released a mass combat system for 5th Edition games Dungeons and Dragons, “When Armies Clash”, that has been dubbed “Battle System” due in part to the file name. Grognards will also remember Battlesystem for 2nd edition, a system for mass combat. This was released through Unearthed Arcana, the name for Wizard’s monthly newsletter with new and optional content for 5th edition games.
I’ve always been a fan of at least the idea of mass combat for D&D, as the movement of armies seemed to be the end game for many campaign events, especially for your first edition fighters who commanded large numbers of men as a 9th level ability. A current and former player from my high school days reminded me a of a large scale combat scenario I had put together back in the 90’s that involved mass combat and hand drawn hexes to complete our 4 year campaign. It was, as he recalled, one of the coolest ways to end a campaign he had ever experienced, and hadn’t re-experienced it since.
That’s flattering, but plenty of game designers and players have attempted to incorporate such a system into their current games, and indeed Gary Gygax was playing Chainmail and like games as mass-combat first before Dave Arneson brought the adventure indoors to Castle Blackmoor and later Castle Greyhawk. I regret to say that I haven’t sat down to play the original rules, and maybe should. But I have explored various subsequent iterations, and have even taken a stab at my own through Skyland Games’ Fog of War. While somewhat fun to play, it’s not a masterpiece, but check it out and remember it was written with 4th edition in mind, if that even matters.
Really, no mass battle system game has really hit the nail on the head and also been easily adapted for tabletop play. Mearls attempts to accomplish this with the recent Unearthed Arcana release. It succeeds in some areas and fails in others. We’ll go into that in a second.
The New Battlesystem Mearls presents is a short document, just over 8 pages. In it, groups of 10 combatants form up into a single figure on the battlefield, called a “Stand“. Stands join together to form one of two types of Unit. These units are Skirmish Units, which can Hide, move in a non-adjacent (but close) formation, and take the higher of their component initiative bonuses in rolling initiative. The other primary unit, Regimental Units, must remain adjacent to one another and cannot hide, but may take different configuration that allow advantages (such as advantage on attacks, bonuses to defense, and so on). Lastly, a special unit exists, the Solo Unit, which represents a sine player, capable of joining a unit.
Stands separated from their units and Solo Units take double damage and are attacked with advantage.
What Mearls does is smart, and almost necessary. It incorporates the existing rules, and changes the scale down to 20′ squares. It eliminates diagonal movement to avoid what we call “F#%k You, Pythagoras” rules inequities in diagonal movement under the current rules set, but most other rules continue to exist as written and take place on a representative scale. Ergo a spell that has a range of 20′ strike else square away. Specific rules set out what happens when your ability doesn’t affect an entire square and other gray areas.
Standard movement of a stand is divided by 5 to determine their speed for battlefield movement. Monster abilities that include a distance effect, such as a Minotaur’s knockback ability, are divided by 5. Other ranged attacks are divided by 20. This inconsistency is problematic, as we’ll discuss below.
Units begin Morale checks after losing half the number of their unit (which, coupled with the penalties for becoming detached,create the primary justifications for acting in a unit). Leaderless units that fail run with abandon towards the safety of the table edge, which Solo Units attached to a unit may force rerolls until escape makes the retreat permanent. Units are removed at the END of the round, allowing the simultaneous nature of the combat to occur.
Simple brief rules are a must. Mearls accomplishes this for the most part by keeping them short and incorporating the primary rulebooks by reference, without elaboration. In our playtest, one player threw up her hands at the rules-set, but adopted it easily when play started after a round or two.
Movement is gridded, and uses a representative scale of 10, making it playable with what you’ve been using in regards to miniatures, maps, and so on.
The need for a solo unit is adopted but also penalized for working alone against an army. Allows the players to be somewhat effective on their own, and to take ownership of another unit and command.
Character death is avoidable if the unit is destroyed, but solo units stand to be killed if they get out on their own.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
Reading the document itself, it’s brevity is a blessing and a curse. It isn’t comprehensive (it IS FREE, after all) and while it makes it easy to read and digest, it doesn’t address the idiosyncrasies of D&D as it relates to mass combat. Accordingly, a lot is placed on the GM to manage calls. This is a mild complaint, but errata and FAQ’s would be helpful. Overall, however, this has a feel of a pet project or weekend effort, rather than an organized release. In all likelihood, that’s just what it is; a home-game house-ruled experiment. It would benefit for revision, extrapolation, and review.
Strange inconsistencies exist in the document. Monster abilities and movement both are divided by 5, while ranged attacks and spells are divided by 20. There’s no explanation for why the difference in those measurements, but it makes a significant difference in the way the events play out. It diminishes the benefits of range, and gives a vague advantage to monsters that feels like a typo or unedited revision. I recall 1st edition calculated outdoor movement differently than indoor movement. A throwback, perhaps?
The difference between skirmish units and regimental units are somewhat difficult to distinguish. Certainly their regiment benefits and initiative calculations make for some differences, but skirmish units need to remain within 1 inch of each other, making their movement flexibility questionable.
Overall, the system takes more time than you would expect it to. A relatively simple combat ended up taking us about three hours to play, though that would potentially improve with repetition, puzzling over the inconsistencies slowed us down. (“Does this monk ability fall into the divided by 5 or divided by 20 measure?:) Most spells maintained a range that made them useless on the battlefield absent a more generous interpretation of their measurement restrictions.
WHAT IS NEEDED?
A great question, but not one that is easily answered. We can assume that every mass combat system needs a few common components:
- EASY TO LEARN – If you really want to play mass combat with some degree of dedication, a wide variety of games specialize in the mass combat experience as complete systems. We don’t want a completely different system, we want something we can blend in with our Dungeons & Dragons. Getting your 5 players to learn something new for a single game is going to be hard, so the system has to use the existing rules and shake up as little as possible.
- APPROPRIATE SCALES – Mass combat is entirely a matter of scale. Arguably, you could play D&D normally and say everything was representative, but we break into inconsistencies where scale is concerned. Your ‘Burning Hands’ spell barely fills a corridor – why does it now explode across the ball-field sized area?
- MORALE – A key component of most war-games and battles is the importance of Morale. A mechanic must exist that addresses what happens when allies break and run, and also to give a role for the great leaders (the players) that drive the action. Else, you diminish the role of the heroes, which is poor story telling if nothing else.
- PLAYER ROLES – Players have to have a way to be themselves on the battlefield. It is unfair for the wizard’s fireballs to be under wraps when they would be most effectively used in a battlefield scenario, and pairing them with 10 additional wizards to cast one fireball makes little sense as well.
- TACTICAL RELEVANCY – Massive battles should reward tactics, and have, ostensibly, advantages for positioning, flanking, charging and higher ground.
Mearl’s system his a lot of these but needs polish. Primarily, scales seem out of wack. Also, when playing with mixed stands, play becomes confusing and irregular. Largely, for playability, concessions probably need to be made. Items or spells that amplify abilities, powers, and magic that allow a game to be played in a more consistent way. Without these concessions, you have to play everything straight and by the book.
And that’s probably the underlying problem. While D&D was designed originally as a mass war game, D&D as it exists today wasn’t designed with that in mind, and doesn’t translate well on a direct basis.
While I might continue to use the system with slight modifications, Mearls suggests using objectives to accrue victory points, which adds a dimension of various goals other than annihilation that permits even a small force to prevail.
This Victory Point arrangement, sadly, is probably best applied without the ‘board game mini-game’ element. Mass combat is best represented in a game as a backdrop, with characters taking important action to secure victory points which are calculated to analyze respective success or failure. This is well illustrated in the underrated 3.5 Edition supplement “Heroes of Battle” as well as in Paizo’s Reign of Winter Adventure Path module #70 “The Frozen Stars” as well as Pathfinder Society module Quest for Perfection: The Defenders of Nesting Swallow. Heroes of Battle is all about running a game entirely centered around massive battle as a backdrop for the action, while The Frozen Stars portrays key events requiring the party to complete key actions to earn victory points towards partial or total success. Defenders of Nesting Swallow addresses Defense Points, which reward players for strategic planning versus effective combat-action. All have a lot to add to this conversation, and none involve combat grids and tactical movement.
Somewhere on the horizon, I am contemplating what to do with my now complete collection of Bloodstone Pass modules, which use the clunky 2nd Edition Battlesystem rules. Are these modules, which incorporate necessarily the Battlesystem elements as a core component, really playable for a modern gamer not usually disposed to the time-suck of a mass combat system? Are Mearls’ rules usable or adaptable in a helpful way for that series? Can either that system or the traditional Battlesystem adaptable to be fun, quick, and accurate without leading to frustration? I’ll continue to seek the answer, as I have these past decades, until something truly fits the bill.
Surely others have pondered these mysteries before. What systems do you use, or what steps have you taken to bring the power of that final epic battlefield confrontation to your players? Let us know.