Player Agency vs. Narrative Control

Player Agency is when as a player, your decisions matter… they have weight and consequences, and play out into the future in the game.  Narrative Control is when the player can control what goes on in the world, including what the consequences are or whether to accept them.

As I view them, they are incompatible despite the fact that at first glance they’re both about allowing the players to have input.  The problem is that the kinds of input cancel each other out. Weighing the decision whether the character should do X or Y in the game hoping for consequence A or B becomes pointless as soon as you can control whether it’s A, B, or something else.  And if you’re controlling the consequences, whether creating it from whole cloth or picking from a list, any time spent on the decision that led to that point is a waste…you’re just slowing the game down by pretending to consider probabilities and chains of causation which in the end will actually be decided by you choosing the one you like (understanding that like might mean what you feel is dramatically satisfying and not necessarily what the character would choose).

Now, if you’re very careful and aware of the distinction it may be possible to have a game where you shift back and forth…only having narrative control over things that aren’t the consequences of the decisions you’re making, and only pondering and planning out your decisions in areas that have been placed beyond your narrative control.  That’s actually kind of how SFX! games work: players have a lot of narrative control over details of the environment, but only as long as they don’t really matter.  If you’re in a bar and want to hit somebody with a bar stool, that’s mechanically the same as hitting with your fists, or a chair, or a bottle so you  have narrative control over whether there are suitable bar stools in the place.   It matters only insofar as hitting them with a stool might insulate you from their electric shock power, say.  On the other hand, whether hitting them is actually going to hurt them is completely out of your control and in the hands of the GM and the dice, so the decision you are making to try to hit them instead of any of the other things you might attempt (grab them, knock the gun out of their hand, distract them by throwing a drink in their face, run away, etc) is an important one that bears assessing and reasoning about the probable consequences.

This is why as a player I have very little interest in games that emphasize giving the players a lot of narrative control: it’s something that actively interferes with my favorite part of RPGs.  I want a lot of player agency, but only narrative control in very limited circumstances, such as when creating a character, or perhaps between sessions deciding what’s been going on in the character’s life off-screen.

Chess isn’t an RPG, but D&D sure as Hell is

John Wick’s post Chess is not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance is making the rounds of the RPG blogosphere (I stumbled across it when Michael “Stargazer” Wolf wrote about it here) .  I started to write a comment, but it blew up into an entire post.

I was suspicious when I saw Wick start talking about telling stories, since that’s not really what I think RPGs are about, but it’s a common-enough starting point for discussing them.  Where Wick completely lost me, though, is when he proclaimed “The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games.”  Sorry, but if that’s where your argument ends up, it’s obvious you need to reexamine your premises.

Riddick and the teacup is a terrible example of why weapon stats shouldn’t matter: the thing that makes the scene stand out is that we all know that a teacup is a lousy weapon.  In a game without weapon stats, players will be completely unimpressed if you manage to kill somebody with a teacup because they’re aware that the rules make that no harder than killing with a gun or sword.  They might give you points for style if it’s the first time anybody’s done that, but nobody’s going to conclude your character is a bad-ass because of it.  Even having it built into your character “Can kill a man with a teacup” is less impressive than accomplishing it when according to the rules you need to roll two 20’s and then max damage to have a chance.  And I say that as the designer of a game that indeed doesn’t have weapon stats precisely so that characters with the right kind of abilities can accomplish feats like that.

My take on balance is the only important form of balance is whether the players are all getting satisfactory amounts of time to do their things.  It comes up in combat more frequently only because a lot of systems make resolving combat take a lot of time even in encounters that aren’t very important or interesting so the combat-oriented characters get a bunch of spot-light time simply because there is a combat.  This leads to people feeling that everybody needs to be balanced in the sense of having a substantial role in combat when really what needs to be balanced is the amount of table time devoted to combat vs. other activities.
As for player skill vs. character skill in social tasks, I’m pretty firmly against the model where accomplishing a task is defined as entertaining/persuading the GM. The problem isn’t just that naturally some people are better at reading the GM and describing or acting out what they do in such a way to please the GM and get rewarded with a success, or that games of charming the GM into getting your way often narrows the scope of characters you can successfully play, it’s that games like that are almost always too predictable and cliched.  Once you’ve grasped the GM’s sense of plot and pacing, everybody knows what’s going to happen most of the time.  Games are much more exciting for everybody involved, IMO, when the outcome isn’t known before the die stops rolling. You may make the most brilliant rallying speech since St. Crispin’s say… but do the troops buy it?  That moment when everybody at the table, GM included, are hanging on whether the universe is going to pop up a Yea or Nay result, is *the* moment in an RPG where it goes from being a form of clumsy collaborative fiction to an “it’s almost like you’re there” experience.  That may actually be the crux of it: fiction you create, games you experience.  Substituting the former for the latter every time there’s an important social interaction robs RPGs of their most compelling feature: the ability to experience fictive worlds.

Most Intellectual RPG I own

(This is in response to the #rpgaday list of questions)

I’m not entirely sure what “most intellectual” RPG I own even means. Clearly *Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth* is the most pretentious RPG ever published in English, but do I own that or was it Rob Barrett’s copy?

I think, though, that I’m going to go with a different take on “intellectual”, and make an argument that good old D&D white box is the most intellectual of the RPGs I own. I mean, besides the fact that even understanding how to play requires a bunch of analysis of cryptic text. Unlike most of the games that came after it, OD&D engages the GM and the players on a purely intellectual level. Not that you have to be smart to play it, but that there’s nothing to do, no way to resolve situations or move ahead in the game except by thinking, trying to understand the fictional world, and making decisions based on that. Any puzzles that are encountered have to be solved by the player. Anything the players attempt to do outside of a sparse set of tasks has to be adjudicated by the GM based on what seems reasonable: there isn’t even a hint of a mechanism along the lines of pick a difficulty and roll a die, or rules to mold outcomes according to aesthetic considerations or play that emphasizes non-thinky things like performance, empathy (especially empathic understanding of your own character), and so on. You could use OD&D as the basis for such play, and it wouldn’t get in the way…but that’s because it said nothing about it. Everything that’s actually on the page is about play as an intellectual task. OD&D doesn’t even use the term “role-playing” anywhere in its text: the only uses of the word role are in reference to the character’s *function*, e.g. “roll three six-sided dice in order to rate each as to various abilities, and thus aid them in selecting a role.” (in context fighting man, magic user, or cleric).

Unofficial Large Creature Template for D&D 5e

Minotaur_SmallSince Joshua Burnett and some folks on G+ were talking about statting up Minotaurs as a Large playable race, this is my take for a Template that could be applied to a creature to make a Large version of a creature.  This is based on the Ogre from the Starter Set, since that’s the only example of a Large humanoid we’ve got so far.

Large Creature

Movement: +10 feet

Reach: +5 feet

Ability Scores: if you want to stick to the Basic pattern of playable races not having any penalties, I’d stick with the ranges of bonuses they have (+2 to +4, no more than +2 in any single ability); if you’re willing to impose penalties, then I’d suggest another up to +3 on STR or CON, with a matching penalty to DEX, for a maximum of +5 increase and a cap of 21.  So a Minotaur might have straight +3 STR (within the “normal” increase range for a non-human, so no penalty, but all applied to the one stat), while an Ogre might be STR +4, CON +2,  DEX -2 (another +2 above the normal, matched by a -2 penalty, and again with more in the one stat than “normal”).

Points to bear in Mind

While most rules and spells in Basic affect creatures up to Large the same way as Small and Medium, so there’s nothing special you have to do, there are a couple rules that are triggered by a creature being Large:

Maximum # of Large enemies that can surround a Medium creature: 5 (page 71)

Large creatures can’t squeeze through a space smaller than would fit a Medium creature, and treat spaces that are Medium size as difficult terrain.  So, e.g. a 5′ wide corridor would be difficult terrain and take 2′ of movement for every 1′ of passage.  This is really the same rule as for other creatures (Medium vs. Small), it’s just liable to come up much more often. (p.71)

Carrying/lifting/dragging capacity is doubled compared to a Medium creature of the same STR. (p. 60)

Armor should have to be custom made (p. 44 suggests armor size as an optional rule, but it probably ought to be mandatory for Large humanoids even if optional for Medium and Small).



Beast-kin of Salmagundi

A new #DnD5e racedog-kin

Beast-kin have the appearance of bipedal beasts (cats, dogs, pigs, cows, etc). They usually wear clothes, and are roughly human-sized. They can also transform to full-on beast form, in which case they use that stats for that type of beast, as well as an almost completely human form. Beast-kin typically end their utterances with an sound appropriate to their nature. E.g. “What’ll you folks have for dinner, moo?” or “Catch them before they get away! Oink!”

In their hybrid form they can move around and breath on land as humans do even if their full beast form could not, but have the special abilities of their subrace according to the table below.

In their fully human-looking form they retain only slight traces of their beast ancestry (generally ears, tail, and eyes): this form grants an extra +2 Cha but lacks any of the special abilities of the hybrid form except Animal Senses.

In their fully beast form, they have the stats and abilities of their beast, though they are size Medium unless otherwise noted.

Size Medium
Speed 35 feet

Stats +1Dex +1 Con

Animal senses: choose one since that acts as tool (grants proficiency in tasks that use it)

Proficiency: Survival

Languages: Common, specific species (e.g. Wolf-kin can talk to wolves)

Beast-kin Type Tablecat-kin

Roll d20 (Type and Examples)

  1. Fish:
    Bass, Clownfish, Dolphin, Eel, Lionfish, Marlin, Puffer, Shark
  2. Bird:
    Crow, Dove, Egret, Hummingbird, Ostrich, Parrot, Raven, Robin
  3. Insect
    Ant, Bee, Beetle, Butterfly, Centipede, Cricket, Flea, Fly, Moth, Wasp
  4. Arachnid
    Mite, Scorpion, Spider, Tick 
  5. Rodent
    Bat, Capybara, Gopher, Mole Mouse, Rat, Squirrel
  6. Canine
    Dingo, Dog, Fox, Hyena, Jackal, Wolf
  7. Feline
    Cat, Cougar, Leopard, Lion, Lynx, Ocelot, Puma, Tiger
  8. Bovine
    Antelope, Auroch, Bison, Bull, Buffalo, Gnu, Ox, Yak
  9. Marsupial
    Bandicoot, Kangaroo, Koala, Platypus, Possum, Tasmanian Devil
  10. Pachyderm
    Elephant, Hippo, Rhino
  11. Raptor
    Eagle, Falcon, Hawk, Owl, Osprey, Peregrine
  12. Amphibian
    Frog, Newt, Salamander, Toad, Turtle
  13. Aquatic Mammal
    Beaver, Manatee, Orca, Otter, Porpoise, Whale
  14. Reptile
    Alligator, Crocodile, Gecko, Gila Monster, Iguana, Komodo
  15. Snake
    Anaconda, Boa, Cobra, Coral Snake, Mamba, Viper
  16. Dinosaur
    T Rex, Ankylosaur, Triceratops, Allosaur, Pteranodon, Velociraptor
  17. Extinct Giant Mammal
    Giant Sloth, Mammoth, Mastodon, Saber-tooth Tiger
  18. Primate
    Ape, Baboon, Chimp, Gibbon, Gorilla, Lemur, Monkey, Orangutan
  19. Equine
    Camel, Deer, Donkey, Horse, Reindeer, Zebra
  20. Invertebrate
    Jellyfish, Octopus, Sea Anemone, Sea Urchin, Squid, Starfish

Hybrid Special Abilitiesbear-kin

The GM and players are strongly encouraged to tweak the special abilities to better fit the exact beast type since the listed special abilities are quite general.


Breath under water, +10′ movement in water

One of Camouflage  (hide as bonus action in appropriate terrain), Natural attack 1d6 Bite, Natural Attack 2d4 Poison spines


Flight or +10′ running (for flightless).

Two of Proficiency: Singing; Absolute Direction Sense; Natural Attack 1d4 Peck or Scratch, Long-distance vision


Walk on walls and ceiling

One of Poison Bite/Sting (1d6), Fly +10′,  Blood sucking (recover 1d4 HP on successful attack after grapple), Can eat anything organic


Walk on walls and ceiling.

One of Poison Bite/Sting (1d6), Web Spinning (cast Web spell once/short rest), Blood sucking (recover 1d4 HP on successful attack after grapple)


+1 Dex. Treat as 1 size smaller when moving through tight areas (so no penalty for small, tiny is difficult terrain).  Low Light Vision. Proficiency: Climbing. +5 Move.


Proficiency: Tracking. Natural Attack 1d6 bite. Pack Tactics (gain advantage on foe if ally who isn’t incapacitated is within 5 feet of foe), Additional Keen sense.


+2 Dex.  Low light vision.  Proficiency: Jumping, Climbing.  Natural Attack: 1d4 claws. +5 Move.


+2 STR, Double carrying capacity. +10 Move.


+2 Cha.  Either Proficiency Climbing or Proficiency: Jumping.


+2 Str, +2 Con.  Double carrying capacity.  Either Trunk (extra limb), or Natural attack 1d6 (teeth/horn)


+1 Wis. Fly +10 Move, Long-distance vision, Natural Weapon 1d6 claw.


+1 Wis, +1 Con. Can breathe under water, Full movement under water, Camouflage (hide as bonus action in appropriate environment). One of climb walls/ceiling freely or Proficiency: Jump +10′ jump

Aquatic Mammal

+1 Dex, +2 Dex under water, +10 movement under water.  Can hold breath for 10 minutes per +1 con bonus.


+2 AC. Additional Keen sense (one of heat detection, vibration detection, smell).  Hard to Kill (advantage on Death saves)


+2 AC. Additional Keen sense (one of heat detection, vibration detection, smell).  Hard to Kill (advantage on Death saves)


+2 AC, +2 STR, Natural Weapon 1d8 Bite.  Note that Dino beast Kin are still Medium sized humanoids, and their beast forms are only Large, even if the natural form would be Huge or bigger

Extinct Giant Mammal

Size Large (+10 Move, 5 ft reach, double carrying capacity). +2 Con.  Natural Weapon 1d6 Bite or claw or tusk.  Advantage on saves vs. cold.


+2 Str.  Proficiency: Climbing, Jumping.  One of +1 Con; Size Small; Size Tiny + Prehensile Tail.


+10 Move, Double Carrying Capacity.


Advantage on saves vs. crushing; Damage Resistance vs. bludgeoning.


Suraimu of Salmagundi

A new D&D 5e PC race. slime

Suraimu are intelligent amorphous creatures, usually translucent although some are opaque or even metallic colored; a given Suraimu always stays the same color. Unlike oozes and jellies, Suraimu have visible and fixed eyes and mouths.

Stats: +2 Con

Size: Medium

Speed: 25 ooze, on any solid surface.  Despite lack of legs, Suraimu may jump. Age: Suraimu reach maturity at age 1 and never die of natural causes.

Alignment: Chaotic Languages: speak Suraimu and Common.

Weapons and Armor: Cannot use weapons or armor unless under the influence of a People Potion, but have a natural melee attack (1d6, Acid). They can extend pseudopods to manipulate other items, or even carry items.

Magic: Suraimu can use magic without material components it would ordinarily require or a spell focus (if the spell calls for a consumable material component like gold dust or a gem, the Suraimu must consume it first).

Dissolve: Can attack with 1d6 Acid as a Bonus action against any grappled foe.

Amorphous: Advantage on saves vs. crushing, Damage Resistance against Bludgeoning attacks. Any Slashing attack that does over half the Suraimu’s Max HP may split the Suraimu in two… Make a Death Save or become two creatures dividing the remaining HP between them.  The twin Suraimu have the same personality and memories up to the point of splitting, but are distinct creatures after that.  If they are ever rejoined the memories merge, and but the two personas must battle for dominance (Opposed Wis rolls)…the Suraimu has the levels, XP, proficiencies, etc. of the dominant persona.

Ooze: May pass through any opening large enough for one of the Suraimu’s eyes to fit; this counts as at least one foot of difficult terrain (2 feet of movement) regardless of how thin the barrier is. May not take carried items with them unless the items would also fit.

People Potions: Suraimu can consume People Potions (what other races call Healing Potions) and temporarily assume human form.  A Healing Potion used on a Suraimu doesn’t heal any HP, but changes it into a human for a number of hours equal to the HP that would have been healed.  Other sources of healing such as spells do not have this effect, and heal normally.  People Potions may also be used to re-merge split Suraimu.  Suraimu may decide such things as appearance and gender each time they consume a People Potion, though they will retain some of their natural coloring (typically the hair and eyes), and disguising themselves as a specific other person would be difficult (likely DC 25).  A Resurrection Potion or Phoenix Down will allow a Suraimu to permanently gain the ability to assume human form (switching back is an action).



Nomaru Suraimu come in various colors, with abilities that vary by color.

Abilities are shown in ROYGBIV order (Violet may be Pink instead)

Ability Score Increase: +1 STR/+1 DEX/+1 CON/+1 INT/+1 WIS/ +1 CHA/+1 Random

Damage Resistance: Fire/Necrotic/Poison/Acid/Electricity/Ice/Random



Metaru Suraimu have shiny metallic coloring.  Metaru Suraimu are unable to use People Potions.

Ability Score Increase: +1 Con

Toughness: +4 AC

Conductivity: Advantage on saves vs. Electricity, Damage Resistance vs. electrical attacks


Hearingu Suraimu have the appearance of floating jellyfish, with a gas-bag like head and dangling tentacles.

Ability Score Increase: +1 Wis

Float: unlike other Suraimu, Hearingu Suraimu float through the air at 25′ instead of oozing or jumping.

Heal: You have tentacles dangling beneath you that can heal creatures you touch. You can cast Spare the Dying as a cantrip, and can also cast Cure Wounds once for free (recharges with a Short Rest).  If you know spells, you may additonallycast Cure Wounds with your Spell slots without having it prepared.

Short Rests in D&D 5e


Campfire by Temarinde

One of the relatively few things that bothers me a bit in D&D 5e Basic is the decision the player is presented with during a short rest of how many hit dice to recover as a result of the rest.  As people who’ve been following along know, I really prefer “diegesis” in my game mechanics… that is things that present decisions and options from the character’s point of view*.

So while I don’t particularly object to the notion that the characters can get a substantial part of the HP back after a “Short Rest” of an hour or more, I have a bit of trouble picturing what it is the character is deciding when recovering 1 vs. 2 vs. 3 Hit Dice.  It’s not the end of the world, but it could be cleaner.

So, let’s fix it up:

After a Short Rest, a character regains 1 Hit Die (assuming there are any left… )  In order to regain more than a single HD, the character has to take extra steps to make the rest more comfortable and complete.  Each extra step is one more HD recovered.  A non-exhaustive list of extra steps might be:

  • Take off armor,
  • bandage and clean scrapes and cuts,
  • drink something,
  • drink something alcoholic,
  • eat some food,
  • drink a hot beverage,
  • eat some hot food,
  • take a cat-nap,
  • sit around and chew the fat with another PC or NPC (must be roleplayed, and should be idle chatter about backgrounds and such, rather than tense planning about next steps and tactics),
  • play a musical instrument or sing,
  • huddle around a fire,
  • clean weapons and maintain tools,
  • take off boots,
  • bathe,
  • take a hot bath,
  • shave,
  • smoke something,
  • canoodle,
  • write a letter to someone left behind

In other words, just about anything that might be depicted in a story showing the characters in their down-time. (Things like drinking a hot beverage are intended to be allowed to stack with drinking something; this is deliberate to allow recovery of bigger chunks of HD for higher level characters without making them list a dozen things they’re doing.)   The characters can thus have a reasonable proxy for the decision of how many of their HD they recover by deciding just how relaxed and unready for action they’re willing to become to knit body and soul back together.  In addition this will hopefully lead to slightly more vivid descriptions of what the characters are doing during their Short Rest.

This doesn’t really change any of the game mechanics of Short Rests at all, it’s just a way of tying it more tightly into the fictional world.

* It’s my usual complaint about Fate or Luck points: is it something the character knows about in the game world?  If not, then it can get in the way of my thinking about what the character would do.  As the player, I might know that since I have a Fate point to spend, the character will absolutely be able to hit the fleeing villain with a shot without endangering the hostage; the character, though, probably ought to view it as a real risk. Whether to take the risk ought, imo, to depend on my take on how bold or desperate the character is and not whether I’ve got or can scrounge some meta-game resources to reduce the risk.


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