Frequent readers of The Id DM likely know the site started as a result of my interest in analyzing data related to combat speed in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. To satisfy that curiosity, I coded episodes of the Dungeons & Dragons Penny Arcade & PvP Podcast Series and presented the results. One of the more intriguing results was the findings related to the behavior of the DM, Chris Perkins. Here is what I wrote back in March 2011:
I analyzed the behavior of the DM. I was unable to break down the DM’s actions in the same two categories (Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions; Rolling/Calculating & Results) because the DM – quite frankly – moved too fast for me. The DM does not appear to be rolling for his attacks, and may be using an automatic dice roller . . . [and] takes significantly less time to take the monsters’ actions when compared to the PCs. Considering the DM is managing the actions of up to seven monsters, this is impressive.
And here is an excerpt from Mr. Perkins’ latest The Dungeon Master Experience column series:
As much as I like rolling dice to achieve random results, as a DM working behind the screen, I prefer to roll as few dice as possible. In fact, I usually keep only two dice behind my screen. That’s two dice total . . .
Two dice behind the DM screen, you say?
Why the heck not. I know how much damage (on average) a monster’s supposed to deal — I have a spreadsheet that tells me (with numbers derived from a fairly straightforward formula). Should my players care that I’m rolling 1d6 + 25 instead of 4d8 + 10, like the Monster Manual says I should? Why should they care? The only measurable difference is a narrower damage range with results edging closer to the average (26-31 damage instead of 14-42 damage), and my players have more important things to worry about than whether or not a monster’s damage range is wide enough . . .
If I have a choice between rolling 3d10 + 11 damage or 1d6 + 24 damage, I’ll take the single die and the big modifier. It seems like an insignificant thing, but it’s the kind of no-brainer shortcut that keeps overworked DMs like me alive and kickin’.
I have considered alternatives such as pre-rolling attack and damage dice to reduce the number of rolls a DM needs to complete while running an encounter. But one person like myself offering alternative mechanics through an independent blog seems vastly different from the DM of Wizards of the Coast– the company that designed and published D&D 4th Edition – writing on the company’s website that dispensing with the damage-dice mechanic is a “no-brainer shortcut.”
The column by Mr. Perkins – regardless if you agree or disagree with him on the importance of damage dice – is noteworthy. Below, I attempt to explain why I find his column so intriguing and – in some ways – pleasantly shocking.
Why Do DMs Roll For Damage?
The core of Mr. Perkin’s column is that calculating monster damage through complicated roll with multiple dice and modifiers is unnecessary – and to summarize it even more bluntly – a waste of the DM’s and players’ time. I mentioned this on Twitter and it started the ball rolling on a wonderful conversation, leading Scott Rehm to question:
Scott (@TheAngryDM) July 13, 2012
The DM rolling a first time to determine if an attack hits a character and a second time to determine the amount of damage the hit inflicts upon a character seems to be the SOP in all editions of D&D. Why is the game built this way?
First, I believe all players including the DM enjoy rolling dice. It adds randomness to the proceedings and it is simply enjoyable. Second, rolls add drama and unpredictability to the events in a campaign, such as a normal monster going nova and almost killing the entire party with numerous critical hits with a high crit weapon. A potential consequence of reducing the amount of rolls is the events become more scripted. A potential benefit of maintaining rolls is everyone at the table does not know exactly what will happen next. In summary, it seems the two most obvious reasons to keep damage rolls are players like to roll dice and it increases the element of unpredictability.
There are numerous alternatives to having two separate rolls for attack and damage. In fact, 4th Edition D&D features monsters that inflict a static amount of damage – Minions. Each minion in 4th Edition comes with a static damage amount instead of a damage dice formula. During the flow of conversation on Twitter, I asked why it was acceptable to have static damage for minions but not other monsters:
Ian (@Reg06) July 13, 2012
The feedback above suggests that rolling damage for many minions would take up too much time. But how is rolling damage for six or more non-minion monsters during an encounter any less boring or time-consuming? If the static damage used for minions makes the game flow better, then would not the same concept apply to all monsters as suggested by Mr. Perkins?
What else is the purpose of damage dice formulas in monster stat blocks? Some have suggested it is included to assist with balance. For example, monsters with static damage would inflict more damage over time to the characters in the party and thus tilt the game in favor of the monsters. Monsters would never land a “glancing blow” but deal an average amount of damage each round. Static damage eliminates the lower end of damage outcomes. I am in the process of learning the other ways damage dice formulas affect the game, but that is not the most interesting thing about the column.
The Party Line
Wizards of the Coast spends money employing talented staff to design and maintain the D&D franchise. Since 2008, WotC has printed numerous rule books, manuals, modules and supplemental material for 4th Edition with the same monster stat block format. Within every stat block, there is an area for the attack roll modifier and another area for the damage-dice formula. The only difference in this structure is damage inflicted by minions, which was covered above.
The column by Mr. Perkins basically says a substantial piece of the format and design of monster stat blocks as presented in 4th Edition D&D is a waste of time for the DM and players. That initially staggered me. My early attempts to find an equivalent of an employee of a company directly promoting ideas contrary to the company’s intellectual property failed. It would be like a high-level executive at McDonald’s writing on the franchise’s website that the Big Mac should be made with different ingredients. To take this example to a ridiculous level, imagine Mr. Perkins remarks from the same damage dice column paraphrased in a new context:
The lost of the Big Mac’s Special Sauce seems like an insignificant thing, but it’s the kind of no-brainer shortcut that keeps overworked store managers like me alive and kickin’.
Would McDonald’s ever publish such content on their own website? Why would Wizards of the Coast allow it?
Instead of making uneducated guesses as to why WotC would do such a thing, I consulted with Mike Shea, who has written for WotC on several occasions and has much greater experience related to the industry side of D&D. He responded:
I like that WotC gives their writers the freedom to talk about how they break their own rules. I know exactly what you mean, though. When I heard Greg Bilsland radically changing his house rules for his game, I had to wonder why they didn’t just roll in their rules into the core. These are the designers after all.
Chris Perkins never said that his way is the way D&D should go. That guy breaks the rules all the time. But he’s replaced the rules with a ton of experience to know how to break the rules and still keep the game fun. I find myself doing this more and more. Once you have the core designs and concepts in your head, it’s a lot easier to break them at the table to keep the game fun.
Roleplaying game rules are assumed to be tweaked and fiddled with by customers of the game system. Even those instrumental in designing the game system create their own unique house rules for experimentation and improved play. Perhaps Mr. Perkins’ alteration of the damage dice formulas for monsters is an “insignificant thing,” but it feels like his column illustrates a significant thing that applies not only to 4th Edition but to the development of D&D Next as well.
No game system is truly ever complete.
Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition has been available to the public for over 4 years now and employees at WotC and players in home campaigns continue to edit, adjust and experiment with changes to the rules. A house rule – such as adjusting the published damage dice formulas – may be a fantastic fit for several employees at WotC and perhaps 30% of the DMs in the general public while the majority of employees at WotC and the other 70% of DMs prefer the published rules. Everyone who plays 4th Edition has permission to change the rules, even those who work for the company that created the game system.
That is an extremely liberating message to DMs and players, and WotC should be congratulated for allowing their staff to speak openly about how they adjust published rules to fit their personal tastes. Imagine if an employee from Parker Brothers commented that she and her friends play Monopoly by always moving in a counter-clockwise direction; that gives permission to customers to think outside of the rules to experiment with the game and make it their own. Are you not at least a bit more curious now to play Monopoly to see what it is like to move the pieces around the board in the opposite direction as it’s always been played? In discussing why this openness was so valuable, Mike Shea stated the following:
I would hate it if we had no access at all to the internal thoughts of the designers. I much prefer the openness of their own self-exploration as they test the rules they put out years ago.
The awareness that no RPG game system is ever truly complete should give everyone pause as they nash their teeth over the proposed rules so far for D&D Next. Whenever the next edition is released, be aware that those who had a prominent role in designing the game will continue to tweak the rules for their home campaigns four years after the date of the game’s release to the public.
Navel Gaze, Engage!
I find Mr. Perkin’s column – and the fact that it appeared on the official WotC site – delightfully fascinating. His report about ignoring recommended damage dice formulas does provide validation to the analysis I conducted last year on combat speed. And it also raises numerous interesting questions; I’d enjoy reading responses from designers, players and DMs regarding the following:
- What do damage dice do for the game?
- Why are we as DMs spending precious time calculating complicated damage rolls that can take over eight dice plus a static modifier to compute?
- Why not build monsters that deliver specific damage based on whatever attack they use against the player character(s)?
- Why is the SOP in D&D one roll for attack and another for damage?
- How is it helpful to read about unique home rules by WotC staff who were prominent in building, designing and playtesting the game system?