How to Dungeon Master, 3: Attributes and the D20

In the early editions of D&D monsters and characters had very different attributes, and you referenced scads of tables to figure out how they affected your chances of succeeding at various actions.

My friend Jonathan Tweet changed all that. He put all character and monster attributes on the same scale, and he dispensed with most of the tables in favor of the difficulty rating, which is a number you need to arrive at by adding modifiers to the roll of a twenty-sided die, or D20 for short.

The six main attributes are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma. For humanoid characters, they generally range in value from 3 to 18, with 3 being essentially handicapped in the attribute and 18 being exceptionally gifted. Monsters may have much higher scores in the attributes, but they’re still on the same scale, that is, where a comparison is at all meaningful. A zombie doesn’t have any intelligence, wisdom, or charisma, for instance. A really gigantic monster’s strength may not be practical to quantify.

In addition to the six attributes, characters have Hit Points, which are the amount of damage they can sustain, and Armor Class, which is how tough they are to hit. Characters also have a blanket bonus modifier called a proficiency bonus, which can be applied to skills they’re trained in, and to their combat rolls.

The power and prestige of a character is measured by the character’s level: as characters go up in level, they gain more hit points, a better proficiency bonus, and special skills. Characters start at first level and go up in levels as they gain enough experience points, or XP. They earn XP for defeating foes and solving puzzles.

Whew, that’s a lot to digest. Next I’ll give you some tips for putting it all together.

Next: Monster Stats, Character Sheets, and Adventure Modules

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How to Dungeon Master, 2: Trappings

Since the advent of Dungeons & Dragons, there have been scads of roleplaying games exploring other genres than heroic fantasy. A few have gained serious popularity, like Call of Cthulhu, a horror roleplaying game set in the worlds of writer H.P. Lovecraft, and Vampire: The Masquerade, a roleplaying game that lets players assume the persona of an angsty vampire, powerful, misunderstood, and tormented by dark desires — an obviously potent stew for teen goths.

But I think D&D is by far the most popular not only because it was first, but because it’s the most accessible. The setting is by default a generic medieval one with monsters and magic and feudal government. Fairy-tale stuff: kings, knights, princesses, dragons, gold, gems, swords, and armor. While there are many character types, they’re all basically permutations and admixtures of four main classes: priests, thieves, fighters, and wizards (more generically called clerics, rogues, fighters, and magic-users). Characters can be of various races, including humans, elves, dwarves, halflings (hobbits), and gnomes. (And dragonborn and tiefling and a few others, but I consider them highly optional.)

The trappings of D&D run broad and deep, but really you were already exposed to the essentials before you learned how to read. We understand fantasy archetypes really easily. We’re evolved to understand monsters, magic, and monarchs — we have strong cognitive biases that make us susceptible to the idea of them. That’s really all you need to go on with as far as D&D trappings.

You can get deeper into the essentials of D&D here, in my discussion of what I call “tier 1” D&D.

Next: Attributes and the D20

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How to Dungeon Master, 1: Objective

I started running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for my nephews and a few of their friends about a year ago, and news of the game spread locally. A few adults have expressed interest in learning to be Dungeon Masters. I will write a series of brief (!) articles that I can refer them to.

You know how boys and girls spontaneously do makebelieve and adopt the roles of characters? D&D is like that with a couple of strong innovations.

The problem with makebelieve is conflict resolution. If you had a session of makebelieve and had one kid who sits out to tell the other kids what happens in their makebelieve and to resolve disputes, you’d be pretty close to a setting up the Dungeon Master role.

However, the Dungeon Master applies rules that everyone has access to, and that limits the Dungeon Master’s power and lets him experience surprise at developments in the story. Just having rules that give the players options they control makes the game a bit unpredictable. It’s made even more unpredictable by dice that are used to see if characters’ actions succeed or luck spares them from some misfortune (like getting turned to stone by a basilisk).

Your goal as Dungeon Master is to involve your players in a fun story. If you manage that, you’ve done the job. The co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary E. Gygax, said, “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.”

Actually, I think the first thing you should know is that the D&D rulebooks are a resource, not a binding contract. If you try to learn by following all the rules, you’ll either feel like an idiot or drive yourself nuts. You’ll probably regret getting anywhere near such a ridiculous game. After all, we’re talking about fairy tales!

The D&D rules are a set of tools for working within a tradition, and most of those are optional. To play D&D — to be passably consistent — you need to learn some trappings of the game and very few rules. Your success as a Dungeon Master depends on storytelling.

Next up: Trappings

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When identity politics trumps all

In a recent Facebook thread on identity politics, I made the following contribution, with some redaction here.

I see a dozen online memes an hour speaking to Trump’s “misogyny” and “racism.” These terms have suffered scope creep. They no longer refer to an avowed attitude of racial or gender superiority. Now they apply to people’s actions. So why shouldn’t they? After all, if someone uses racist language or targets a minority group for discrimination or exploitation, they probably hold racist attitudes; if a man takes sexual liberties with a woman, he probably holds women in contempt. Anyone who objects to judging people to be racist or sexist based on their actions is probably racist or sexist themselves. Continue reading

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Feminism Dialog, Part 1

My friend Kristin King and I have had several tense but mutually respectful conversations on Facebook where evolution intersects gender politics. We’ve decided to hold a series of conversations about feminism by introducing a subtopic as a post and then holding a dialog in the comments. This past week, over several days, we held a leisurely exchange in the response thread to my post “Liberalism Needs a Housecleaning.” This will be like that.

VISITORS ARE NOW WELCOME TO WEIGH IN ON THIS POST. Keep it civil if you expect your comments to be approved.

Continue reading

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Do Dungeon Masters roll magic dice?

Tony Daniel at Baen commissioned this article from me. I’d been thinking about the role of self-deception in both creating and appreciating stories.

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Glossary for The Precambrian Conspiracy

The Precambrian Conspiracy is either my public-domain project or the real state of affairs. In either case, feel free to set stories in this universe. Ideas are cheap and this is no exception. However, I ask that you give me or other contributors attribution for ideas you crib — you can just reference this blog if you’re in doubt. Thanks. I will update this glossary from time to time. Feel free to contribute to it in the comments. Continue reading

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