Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Prose by Any Other Name
Wouldn't smell as sweet
I tried a little experiment recently.

I wanted to break a character sheet down into its story elements. See, every mark, every number on the character sheet has a story behind it. You aren't just a "fighter", you chose this life for a reason. You aren't just "STR 18", there are years of struggle and effort behind that number. Ask any weightlifter and they'll tell you a unique and personal story about their relationship with gaining strength. Why are they doing it? How are they doing it?

So, to facilitate this experiment, I asked two of my players to bring a spiral-bound notebook to an impromptu session. We just started talking about what sort of game we wanted to play, and I steered the conversation towards what kind of characters they wanted to play. We dug deeper and deeper until we had covered everything we could think of that would normally be needed to play a character.

I had them write everything down in their journals in first person. That way, their notebooks could act as a campaign diary and a record of their adventures, both in and out of the fiction.

During the actual game, I tracked the player's actual stats and rolled dice for them, so they could focus on describing their actions and figuring out what to do. I'm still trying to work out the kinks in that, but when we play next I'll be trying out some new things and posting an update.

Essentially, I wanted the players to be immersed in the fiction. No numbers, no dice. In the end, I actually think it worked out really well!

I'm going to go through everything we did to make this happen!

The Basics
The players wanted to be wizard apprentices, so that's the art theme today
First off, we can address ability scores. This is actually a fairly easy one, as many people have already provided prose versions of abilty score equivalents. I used this one:

Next is alignment. I believe that there are actually two "neutral" options for each alignment axis, so I had the players choose two statements about morality and society from the following lists:

  • I trust others, and believe everyone has some good in them. (internally good, inherently good)
  • Even though most people are jerks, that doesn't stop me from believing the best of people. (internally good, inherently evil)
  • The average person is too trusting, you've got to think for yourself if you want to survive. (internally evil, inherently good)
  • Deep down, everybody only looks out for themselves. I'm no different. (internally evil, inherently evil)
  • Society exists to keep us safe, I want to contribute in any way I can. (internally lawful, inherently lawful)
  • It's important to have discipline and structure in your life. Unfortunately, it's something many people lack. (internally lawful, inherently chaotic)
  • Rules are for normal people. I do what I want to! (internally chaotic, inherently lawful)
  • People are just animals pretending to function. When I break their rules, I'm just living my true self. (internally chaotic, inherently chaotic)

As far as the 5th Edition Personality Traits, Bonds, Ideals, and Flaws go, I think those are already pretty prosaic and can remain abstracted. Inspiration can be likewise abstracted.

Now for a hard one: level. That's a pretty serious abstraction, so I broke it down into two parts: features and combat prowess.

Features is the easy part. Whenever you gain a level, you gain the option to use a new ability in combat. But that means you had to have been working on it beforehand!

So, whenever a character gains a level, they should write down what their character is working on that will lead them to their next level up. A level 2 fighter might write about their upcoming training to become a gladiator, if they were planning on choosing to be a champion fighter. A level 2 wizard, on the other hand, might write about learning a new spell and not quite mastering it yet.

Then, when the character actually levels up, they "master" what they were working on and start their next level's worth of tasks to work on. This ends up having two benefits: a smoother level-up process (rather than "I can suddenly cast Fireball!" we get "I finally figured out how to make the explosion happen somewhere else!" which is a much better story) and the opportunity to use half-baked abilities. Sure, a level 13 rogue doesn't have the blindsense feature yet, but how do they get there? Have they been training with a blindfold on? If that might have a specific effect in a combat, it's at least worth giving the character advantage on a roll to demonstrate they've been practicing, even if they can't use it completely effectively yet.

The other part of leveling is harder. When you level up, you gain hit points and hit dice. Generally, hit points are a pretty abstract concept. How can you translate that into prose?

Well, you can do it. Hit points and level is another way of measuring combat prowess. If you're fighting correctly using your class's style, you should be able to take on a certain level of monster. This is reflected in that monster's CR.

If level is tied to combat prowess, which is tied to what CR monster you can face, then you can describe a character's level by describing how difficult it would be for them to take down different types of monsters.

Of course, you can substitute different monsters in each slot, I just used some common monsters from the Monster Manual. It's not perfectly unique per level, but it's close enough to get the job done.

"Expecting to defeat" a monster is the equivalent of a medium challenge for a single character. "Fighting within an inch of your life" is the equivalent of a deadly challenge for a single character. And "better not fight" a monster that's twice a deadly challenge. (All of this is in the DMG, page 82)

Of course, you need a way for the players to track their HP as well. And this is where your work comes in: as the DM, you have to be on point with your combat descriptions. Otherwise, your players won't be able to accurately judge their own remaining stamina.

I use the following general rules when a player is attacked:
  • On a miss: you dodge/redirect their blow with ease
  • On a hit, if more than half of their HP is remaining: you block the blow, but feel yourself weakening under the attack
  • On a hit, if less than half of their HP is remaining: the blow lands, drawing blood
  • On a critical hit: the attacker evades your defenses and lands a direct blow

It's also helpful to say things like "you don't think you could take another blow like that" or "the fight is wearing on, and you don't think you can stay on you feet much longer". This way, the player doesn't feel blindsided when they go down. And when they do, you can always give them the chance to keep acting by simply wounding them.

Finally, when it comes to hit dice, remember that hit points are more a measure of stamina than injury. Spending hit dice just means that you were able to relax and recuperate. Most players will take the opportunity to regain full hit points or as close as possible on a short rest, so I think it's okay to assume a character would do that.

If a character is out of hit dice, saying something like, "while your companions were able to relax, you couldn't get comfortable due to the axe wound you sustained. At the end of the hour, you don't feel any better, and you feel like you could use more rest." Again, trying to make everything prosaic.
Google "wizard student" and see how much Harry Potter comes up
The last "basic" item is class. This is fairly straightforward: each class already has a good series of questions at the beginning of the class description in the Player's Handbook. A class represents some kind of natural ability (in the case of a sorcerer or barbarian), a defining event (in the case of a warlock, cleric, or paladin), or formal training (literally every class), or some combination of the three.

Thus, describing those circumstances are key to defining the class. In order to move away from "picking a class", I'd use the following lists to guide the conversation.

I get my power from...
  • my physical abilities, focusing on...
    • brute strength and endurance. (barbarian)
    • mastering weaponry in battle. (fighter)
    • speed and precision. (rogue)
  • a divine source, which...
    • chose me after years of devout worship. (cleric)
    • rewarded me with power after I devoted myself to nature. (druid)
    • I chose and swore an oath to uphold. (paladin)
  • the arcane, which...
    • I've been struggling to master since birth. (sorcerer)
    • has started to manifest in me since my bargain with a dark power. (warlock)
    • I've slowly been mastering through years of study. (wizard)
  • my deep understanding of...
    • people and their stories. (bard)
    • the connection between mind and body. (monk)
    • nature and animals. (ranger)

Then, just have the player answer the questions listed in their class's description.


When it comes to proficiencies, every single one has a story. Skills, saving throws, languages, equipment, and tools, all had to be learned somehow.

Some are fairly easy to describe, especially when you use your background as inspiration. Equipment and tools require some kind of teacher, which can be part of your class training or something from your past. Being fluent in a language requires immersion in that culture, or intense study. For example, the Sage background grants two languages, which could easily have been learned in the course of the sage's studies. Skills are similar to languages.
Rode a horse once -> Animal Handling proficiency
Training generally comes in three flavors: formal training, chosen life experience, and forced life experience. To demonstrate, here are two skills with an example of each. A player with proficiency in these skills could write down any of these three, based on their class and background.

  • Growing up in a circus family, you learn a little bit of everything. I can tumble and fall without hurting myself.
  • As a child, my friends and I would compete who could perform the best dives and flips into the local pond.
  • Growing up as a street urchin, I often had to run across rooftops and down unevenly-stoned alleyways to escape capture. It's second nature now.
  • While I was in wizard school, I had a few electives to take. I always liked being outdoors in nature, so I picked herbology. I still remember all the names of the flowers.
  • My mother was an avid gardener. While my siblings played sports and wrestled, I helped her grow flowers, and she taught me everything I know.
  • As a child, I was abandoned in the wild. I don't know what each plant or animal is supposed to be called, but I know from hard-earned experience which ones will make you sick and which ones are good for eating.

Additionally, learning a skill or ability takes time and practice, and not all skills are equally enjoyable to learn. A wizard learns to use simple weapons like daggers and quarterstaffs in their training, but most wizards probably don't enjoy such pursuits.

This also leads to some interesting story discussions: where is the wizard combat school? Who teaches the wizards to fight? Do a lot of wizards skip their lessons? Or do most wizards come from a background that teaches them these weapon skills? All of these questions can enrich the story of the world and the characters.

Finally, we get to saving throws. These are used to resist certain effects, and as such can be described to demonstrate training in those areas. As a generic example:
  • Str: My training included a wrestling component, which allows me to easily pin enemies and break their hold on me
  • Dex: My training honed my reflexes, to the point where I react with unnatural speed to threats
  • Con: My training pitted me against the harshest conditions I've ever withstood. The elements don't bother me much anymore
  • Int: My training included extensive memorization and study, and my eyes are now quick to spot falsity and illusion
  • Wis: My training involved long and careful meditation on my work, making me more thoughtful and understanding, but also less prone to distraction and confusion
  • Cha: My training included practice in social situations that honed my personality and made me confident in who I am

Spells and Spell Slots
A requirement for wizard school
Now here's a tricky one. Let's tackle the easy part first.

Since we're moving away from specific descriptions, you can start describing spells in unique ways. Not every wizard school in every culture would call their spell "magic missile". What about the following?
  • Wizard Bolt
  • Unerring Spirit
  • Faultless Arrow
  • Homing Dagger
  • Silverfish
  • Apprentice's Fire
  • Fire of the Guilty

Additionally, magic missile requires a verbal and somatic (hand) component. What are those? Do they just say "Magic Missile!"? Do sorcerers say something different from Warlock and Wizards? When each spell is brand new, the player is free to customize them to their actual use.

For spell slots, we can use the same language as the class features and hit points. Instead of talking about how many first level slots the character has, instead we can discuss things in terms of "ability" and "exhaustion". Here's an example for a 9th level wizard:
"I recently graduated to Arcane Brother at the conservatory. My teachers have bequeathed a new spell to me: Winter's Fury. My mastery of it is not yet complete, however, and I am quite exhausted after casting it. However, my lesser spells are coming easier and easier, and the Ghostshadow spell that vexed me a month ago now comes as easily as casting Conjurer's Smoke."
Translation: you have one 5th level spell slot, and your 4th level slots increase to three (same as 2nd level slots). You know Cone of Cold, Greater Invisibility, and Fog Cloud.

Another way to tackle this would be to use spell points. There's a decent system in the DMG (pg. 288) for this, or you could go with one of my favorite and most deadly systems...


Finally, you can keep equipment mostly the same. But take the opportunity to give certain items a backstory!
  • Though it's not much, my father's shortsword has served me well. The family crest is etched into the hilt.
  • The vendor laughed when I tried to buy plate mail. I had to settle for chain.
  • I picked up a few torches from a general supply store. I hope I don't have to use them too much!


So, how'd the session go?
Nobody blew themself up. A good start!!
Well, not to brag, but it went really well! The players were very invested in their characters after working out so much of their story, and they were much more creative and experimental in combat. We all had a blast!

I don't think it's a system for everyone, and it's definitely not a system for old-school dungeon crawling. But I like it a lot.

Maybe I'll come up with a system to resolve D&D combat without dice, then nobody will roll dice and we'll just be playing group storytelling.

Just kidding! I love dice and would never completely give them up.


Thanks for reading!

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