Kobold Press's new advice column

Kobold Press recently launched what looks like an advice column. The concept is interesting: I guess readers send in questions and then a bunch of industry “big wigs” answer briefly, so you get a variety of opinions.

A friend of mine shared this link recently. I don’t generally go reading 5e GM advice (as it typically seems to be very very similar to the RPG play advice I remember from the 90s, which makes me feel a bit weird!), but this one was very short, so I took a look.

I wonder what this community thinks about the situation and the solutions or opinions being offered? Does it bring up certain thoughts for you?

How would you approach such a question, and where would you draw inspiration - a particular set of principles, agenda, rpg theory, techniques, something else? (Maybe you’re into Robin’s Laws-style player typology, for example, or whatever else.) If so, how would that inform your answer?

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The question they are answering in the advice column, in summary “how do I handle players’ plans for the upcoming boss fight?”, is quite close to a dilemma I faced with a group playing Fabula Ultima online.

What's Fabula Ultima?

To provide some context, Fabula Ultima is inspired by videogame JRPGs and a big focus is on tactical fights, with strong components of system mastery to create builds with powerful combos and a big prominence of damage resistance and vulnerability. Quite notably, the game doesn’t feature a bestiary.

In this case, the issue was brought up by the game master. Since he was in charge of creating enemies and setting up combats, he started growing restless early on because the feeling, on his side, was that he was not playing. His main point was that if he fought out of his own volition, then the outcome of every encounter would only depend on him, which is quite a compelling argument, given that the game master in Fabula Ultima knows everything about both the players’ characters and the enemies, plus the latter are quite frequently tailor-made to challenge the party as it is built. We decided to proceed with a setup where he would prepare, in addition to the various stats and abilities, also strategies for the various opponents, such as “it attacks the latest to cast magic”, “it throws a fireball to the character who dealt the highest damage”, or similar triggers.

Talking specifically about the advice given in the post, I’m not particularly fond of it. Some of it is just sensible “prepare something that actually works given how the game is structured”, some of it inches quite close to illusionism or, at the very least, to solidifying the idea that the dungeon master is solely and utterly responsible for how the game session goes.

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Yeah, a very understandable approach to this dilemma. I don’t know if anyone here has heard of Sandra Snan, but she was the one who coined the term ‘blorb’ (a ‘solid’, simulative ‘game state’ which is as objective and unbiased as possible, roughly). She went quite deep into this kind of thinking, and ending up building various procedures like an analog “monster AI” which tells the group whom the monsters attack, without the referee/GM having to make any decisions about that. Quite hardcore!

I suppose the underlying motivation is to be surprised by the outcome of the simulation - messing with that with a personal touch is, of course, quite a “dirty” idea when looking at the game from that viewpoint.

Well said. This is a real concern, and one I’m very sympathetic to! I’ve experienced this sometimes as a GM, and as a result I’m now quite allergic to it.

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I’m tempted to try to diagnose all sorts of potential problems just from the assumptions underlying the way that question is posed in the post. However, I’ll avoid that for now and stick to observations from my own experiences.

Over the last few years, I’ve been playing a lot of Champions Now and have encountered a similar situation to what the questioner is worried about a few times: namely, the GM has created a villain that they think will really give the PCs a run for their money, but when the anticipated combat starts, the PCs dispatch the threat with relative ease. Sometimes this is just because of good planning, sometimes luck of the dice, but almost always an issue is that in games with a lot of options, powers, moving pieces, etc. it’s impossible to really plan ahead how combats are going to go because each unique combination of characters is going to showcase different rules bouncing off each other in different ways that can be hard to predict. In these Champions Now games, I’ve been on both sides of the divide: as a GM, watching my lovingly created “hero killer” go down without being able to land a single attack; as a player, plowing through a villain that the GM was expecting would really make us sweat.

Drawing on this, I’d first say that there’s a learning curve for this type of game, and learning to build actually effective threats is a skill that might take time to develop. (I don’t follow the scene all that closely, but I’m pretty sure there’s a million YouTube videos about how to build effective D&D 5E encounters). Second, as it actually played out, even if it was disappointing in the moment to have my villain get thrashed, play went on unhampered and the outcomes were meaningful. And I think most of the answers given to the posed question are supporting this second point: the answers are all saying, in one way or another, “this isn’t a problem because this is a role-playing game”, i.e., one where an unexpected and unwanted outcome is not only ok, but the whole point; and one where the characters (NPCs and PCs both) aren’t simply meant to be chits on a hex map but we’re supposed to take into account their memory, personality, characteristics in how we play them.

(It’s a sign of how poorly this activity is taught and explained, that about 95% of questions like this I see on the internet could be answered by some form of “why don’t you guys just try role-playing.”)

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I feel similarly to the others regarding some of the implications of the framing of the advice column. I see this type of advice often given “from forever-GM to forever-GM”, and it’s deeply rooted in the idea that a GM is the Quality Assurance of fun of the gaming group, and most of the implicit is about “how to get your players to have fun”, sort of a moment-by-moment entertainer role, with this deep fear of responsibility if fun is not had. “Don’t let their plans ruin the encounter”, “Let your players”, “don’t deny your players”, are all explicative of this mindset where agency only exists at the behest of the GM.

I’m positing that this attitude is what leads to the plethora of soft and hard control techniques that are common in groups to keep games “on track”, even when no preplanned railroad exists—so that expectations about the content of the game are met. I say hell to all of this!

I like some of the things said about letting go and accepting outcomes, and that being the fun of role-playing. That’s something I advocate for quite a lot. It’s in contrast with the framing of the column that I criticized above.

@Eujohn, I have similar experience with playing D&D 4E many years ago that I never really made Monsters pick the most “optimal” choice (and I don’t care for figuring out what that is, either). Given the connections between Fabula Ultima and D&D 4E, I think that probably applies to your experience, as well. I think for me, hyper-proceduralising the antagonists isn’t the answer, but rather just considering their fictional content when making decisions about what they do—maybe they’re dumb, maybe they just hate this guy in particular—rather than going for the most optimal strategy. I’ve a feeling this idea of “optimizing” has roots into play habits that I just don’t have.

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(full disclosure: i’m a community mod in Kobold Press’s discord server)

I think KP’s perspective in this article comes from a place of being a third-party publisher for other systems; they make products for an audience of 5e/PF players who are largely disaffected by the official content or have burned through all the official content and want more out of the games-- so I think naturally their advice is going to trend towards more high-level and Optimized play than the average D&D table, let alone for other games. Throwing interesting twists at the players, like splitting the party or having the BBEG predict their tactics, tends to be a good method of livening up combat for that audience-- you want to challenge the players (more than the characters) in ways that break up their usual routines of combat and lead to interesting scenarios.

More broadly, I think dealing with Optimized Play as a GM is a difficult line to walk and varies from party to party and system to system (a game that’s mostly “figured out” on a metagame level or has a robust set of resources for making specific builds is going to trend towards a playerbase who seeks out that information to feel like they’re ‘fitting in’ with the other players, especially when there’s a skill differential in the party) and a table that communicates well in a tactics-centric game and have been playing together for a while is going to plan ahead with at least some understanding of what each character can do on a systems level and how those might synergize.

Players are setting their expectations when they form plans and strategize, and the key is figuring out when to follow through with the foreshadowing and when to subvert those expectations-- usually this tends to be fairly easy, because they’re operating off limited information and the DM has a broader overview of combat. I think these solutions are more Cosmopolitan-style “spice up your long-running D&D game” than cross-game advice as a result, and I don’t think I’d recommend pulling the rug out from under the players in every single encounter with a BBEG just to subvert player expectations. It’s specialized D&D advice for a specialised D&D audience.

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I did. I’m not an expert on the matter, but I read a couple of her posts over at Idiomdrottning. Despite devising a similar solution to the “monster AI” you mention, @Paul_T, our premises were completely different. None of us was giving any about the imaginary world, which is instead the core goal of the blorb principles. In our case it was a discussion among players on a game design issue that we felt problematic at our table and so called for a solution. But our problem never was that the imaginary world needed to feel more real. It was very specifically that a good chunk of gameplay in Fabula Ultima revolves around fights, which are quite concretely the main tool to resolve conflicts, hence it was crucial to us that those combats’ outcomes were actually the results of the contributions by everybody at the table.

Which naturally leads here:

I’ve never played D&D 4e, so I don’t really have a basis to draw a comparison. The closest I can get is a nine-month long campaign of D&D 5e where I was the dungeon master, but I think it’s enough to make my point. Given the fact that all the modern D&D versions (or, actually, every version in the Advanced line) provide a Monster Manual, I work on the assumption that you probably set up combat encounters with a procedure along the lines of:

  1. Find the instructions on the Dungeon Master’s Guide about balancing encounters for a party of the level at hand
  2. Decide how hard you want it to be with the ballpark estimates du jour
  3. Pick some random (or thematically appropriate) enemies that fit within your monsters budget

If this was the case, I make my point that this is already more than enough to relieve the game master of a lot of pressure. You follow an established procedure and build upon published material, so the final outcome is already quite out of your hands. You have a totally different situation in Fabula Ultima, where you make up the opponents from scratch and you shape them quite precisely for the party. The game master needs a very fundamental understanding of the game and its strategies and crafts the enemies down to the finest details.

I can also add, contrasting my experience with D&D 5e and Fabula Ultima, that using Roll20 and a square map further helps in disclaiming responsibility on the outcomes of combats. It feels natural that, for instance, the archer behind the bushes on the map’s northern side attacks the character furthermost north, or that the orc on the left hand side of the map will charge in a straight line towards the right and will attack the leftmost character in the formation. It just flows logically from the prepared setup and the most appropriate actions taken by the enemies. I don’t know if this latest example bears any similarity to what you experienced with D&D 4e, @Froggy.

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The advice column is a venerable institution in the space Kobold is operating in. Between the letters column and Sage Advice columns of TSR/WOTC and Kobold, there have been other attempts to make third party periodicals in the D&D space, and advice to readers is pretty common. People like talking about best practices! Here’s Pathways from Rite Publishing, for example.

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All I see in all of the answers in that column is “manage the fun! Manage the fun! It’s your job to entertain and manage the fun!”

Kill it with napalm, please.

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I write a (mostly) “from forever-GM to forever-GM” kind of blog :slightly_smiling_face:. And I’m definitely guilty of presenting agency (years ago) from a GM-oriented perspective, in terms of things that you should “allow” or “not deny” - I received legitimate criticism by @Froggy on that point and it took me a certain time to fully understand the downsides of my approach.

That said, I never viewed the GM as somebody who should entertain players or manage their fun.

I agree with what was said in the previous comments, which were interesting and provided very good points of criticism. So, I’ll not repeat them.
Instead, I’ll try to see the thing from another angle.

Questions by GMs to other (usually: to more “experienced”) GMs are normal in my experience, and I find them useful.
I didn’t have the chance to ask so many questions by myself, unfortunately, since I played several years with the same group with almost no connection with a wider community. But it happens very often, now, to have other GMs asking questions to me.
I can testify that, in most cases, they ask with an open mind and with the genuine wish to improve their game. They’re usually open to challenge their own approach, at least to a certain degree, if you give them useful advice. So, I see these as good opportunities.

In this case, the question itself is interesting. I might be wrong due to language barriers, but to me it doesn’t look like the person is asking how to entertain players better, or to increase their fun: they’re focusing on their own fun, instead. Uncommon, I admit. If the question was asked to me I would have been positively surprised by that.

Every plan the group has sounds super not-fun to GM, and maybe a boring game, since so many of their proposed tactics center on denying the BBEG (i.e. me) from taking turns and having any chance at success.

It’s true that the answers seem to go back to the “how to entertain players” angle. In fact, I disagree with most of those. (To be fair, I also noticed that most comments below that Kobold Press page are quite valid instead.)

But my feeling is that the OP was asking something different. Assuming that we are playing emergently, with no cheating and no entertaining purposes, in this “wargamey” part of play I (as the GM) have both the roles of one of the sides (the enemies) and of the omniscient referee. So, for example:

  • What if my fun, in playing the enemies, is diminished by knowing in advance the plans of the PCs? Players don’t know in advance the plans of the enemies.
    • Preparing plans for the villain in advance, before listening to the players, could be a suitable mitigation.
  • What if I find out that “save or suck” effects actually make the battle boring?
    • First, I would suggest to investigate if players feel the same (their PCs happen to be impacted by those effects too, I suppose). If there’s agreement that they aren’t fun, we can simply remove them. (It’s not surprising that such effects were very, very limited in D&D 4e.)
    • Assuming that we want to keep them: what is a good way to mitigate this downside, without making such effects completely useless?
      D&D 5e has the “Legendary Saves” mechanic, for example. Not the best, in my opinion, but it’s a good starting point. I use it with a certain, very simple hack that I love.
    • Another general advice that I give very often is to avoid a “solo” villain fighting alone: prefer instead a group; it might include a leader but all members should be dangerous. (By the way, I don’t like D&D 4e but its “minion” rule was very nice and I imported it with a few tweaks in my games.)

There’s no easy solution, but they’re interesting topics for discussion.
I think that “accept that your BBEG can go down in a second without even acting” is a fundamental advice.
But I think that the experiences of @Eujohn and @Froggy above, for example, might have been interesting and useful too, for the Kobold Press OP.

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I think this is a really great point. It does then lead me back to the kind of diagnosis I was trying to avoid: which is to say, perhaps if the players are engaged and having a lot of fun, but the GM isn’t, maybe it’s time to look at a different game where things aren’t set up in such a way that when and where the fun is supposed to happen is that asymmetrical. Which is to say: I can get the appeal of a game where the fun for the GM is in building the encounters and the fun for the players is in solving them, but where the GM’s role during the “solving” phase isn’t as engaging as that of the players.

But this may be taking the conversation farther afield than @Paul_T wanted.

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It looks on topic to me, but @Paul_T is free to narrow it down more within reason.

I also really liked @Bille.Boo’s contribution to the topic and it’s good to remind myself to hold my horses a bit on the remote diagnostics.

I remember when first met @Bille.Boo that he used a lot of language that came from the space of italian mainstream role-players, which I associate with behaviors that I consider bad habits. After playing with him, I realized the problem was only that he picked up this vocabulary, but his play practice was a lot better than I had initially thought. After a lot of fruitful conversations, @Bille.Boo improved his language—making it more precise while maintaining it as different from mine—and I learned how to read and understand him.

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All these lines of discussion are welcome here, and quite interesting to me!

As @Froggy knows, I find the idea of getting into some real dialogue with “mainstream roleplayers” (as Claudio refers to @Bille.Boo above) to share techniques and ideas a really important and fruitful one right now. We’ve been circling around this topic for some time in various ways, as we did in several threads earlier on (including on this forum, like here or here or here).

I’d really like to find productive ways to bridge some of the gaps between different ideas of what play is and how it works.

That said, my own reactions to this Kobold Press posting were not terrible positive, I must admit.

The first thing that jumped out at me… well, I found it noteworthy how much most of the answers lean into the GM being responsible to create a particular kind of scene, as befits the planned story . Makes sense in the 5e context, of course, but that really jumps off the page/screen for me.

The players and the GM are working completely at cross-purposes here, instead of all engaging in the same game that they all enjoy, together, on purpose.

It’s both amazing and disappointing to me that today, in 2023, not one of them considered talking to the players or getting on the same page or something similar.

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I do think it’s interesting that my take is much more positive than that of @Paul_T, @Froggy, and @Hans — if only because I’m usually very judgmental and opinionated about things like this. Maybe I just have very low expectations, but I was glad that only the last answer (having a henchman backstab the villain if things are looking too boring) seemed to suggest anything that I would think of as an outright control technique.

And I’m not seeing the same emphasis that some of you are that these responses are about the GM having to manage fun or be responsible for fun. In games like these the GM is responsible for setting up encounters and building villains and often framing the scene leading up to these confrontations. There’s a learning curve with all of this and it’s possible in these games that you aren’t doing these tasks well. And it’s also possible that even if you do them well, you might not find them actually enjoyable.

But if those things are the problems then what really needs to be on the table is the idea that 5E isn’t the only game: and that awareness isn’t part of the context of this kind of focused Q&A column.

That’s also why I’m not sure advice to talk to the other players would necessarily help here: the other players, by the original poster’s report, are enthusiastically engaging with the material they’ve been presented and engaging with the system they’ve all agreed to use for this game. It’s not their fault that the GM isn’t good at making villains that can’t be easily thwarted — maybe he should learn how to get better at that??

It seems obvious to us, of course, that they could play another game. But my experience talking to people whose ideas of playing RPGs is limited to WotC-era D&D (including Pathfinder), is that there’s little consideration of ever engaging in other kinds of RPGs and there’s often lots of fear involved when discussing/contemplating that possibility.

And I think that quickly takes us out of bounds of the context in which this question was asked and answered. These answers, I think, give reasonable, practical advice: don’t get hung up on controlling the outcome, think more about how to set up encounters so that the PCs can’t so easily blow through them, think about playing the villains as characters so that the outcome (even if not what you wanted) still matters to the ongoing game. And I think that’s in line with Q&A columns for other activities: the focus will be on making sure you’re doing it right or working on doing it better. They’re unlikely to jump instantly to recommending you do something else.

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To come at Jon’s point from another direction, the celebrated material in D&D5e as written is the GM’s cool ideas for locations, bad guys, evil stratagems and fantastic imagery (mostly concocted beforehand), and then the players’ cleverness in character construction, weapon and spell selection, magic item selection and use (no accident that in 5e it’s relatively easy to swap one magic item for another), and improvisational strategy. Trying to improve what you’re doing is by no means diminishing the importance of what others are contributing. Lots of bands play songs with solos in them, anyway!

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That’s a decent “positive” take on the topic. And I agree that some of this is decent advice. It’s mostly phrases like “don’t let them ruin the encounter” that worry me, in this context.

In terms of “talking to the players”, what I mean is that it would be a good idea for the group to have a sense of why we’re playing this game and what is expected of us. Are we playing a challenging game, where we’re trying to outwit a bad guy? (If so, the advice to the GM to change it or have someone backstab the bad guy, etc, is totally out of place.) Or are we crafting this fantasy epic, which flows along familiar tropes? (If so, then the players shouldn’t be trying to come up with some lateral solution and to find a loophole in the situation they’re facing.)

If I were a player in this game, I’d want to know which of those games/universes I was in! :slight_smile:

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I see it a little differently: I’m not seeing an agenda clash here. The players are enthusiastically trying to get their tactics together so they can beat the tar out of the bad guy; the GM isn’t worried about his big fantasy plot being derailed: he’s worried that he’s going to have to play through a tactical miniature game where he’s only going to have boring options available because the players will out-gamed him.

Players and GM seem to share a purpose in what they want from the game, but the GM is worried that the game isn’t going to deliver their kind of fun equally. It could be they should try a different game: one where there aren’t the kind of tactics available that the GM sees as broken (I don’t know the ins and outs of 5E, but almost any of these super complicated games seems to start to have breakdown points like this after a while); or maybe they’d all really have more fun just switching to a straight up tactical minis game (my childhood D&D group won’t touch actual D&D anymore but they play a lot of Dungeon Squad). Or maybe the GM has to get better at not making villains who will get so easily pwned by the PCs.

I’d be agreeing with you if the GM’s fears were about his plot being overthrown: then, certainly, at least a conversation about what we want out of the game would be helpful. And I’d also support a conversation about whether 5E is the right game to deliver on what they want: though in this case I’m not surprised that that answer wasn’t given in a 5E-focused forum.

For what it’s worth, if the OP had posed that question to us here, and we had given those answers, I would grade us an “F”. But I’m the context of talking about 5E in a 5E space, I give those answers a “B”.

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An interesting perspective, Jon! I find it very hard to see that way, but I do like hearing an alternative perspective, so I’ll read and reread your take here. It’s worth thinking about!

To clarify:

The way I read it, the players are effectively “cheating”, in the GM’s view, by engaging in “dirty tricks, and metagaming that feels outside the spirit of the game”.

The GM’s response, then, is supposed to be to find counter-strategies to these, so as to preserve the intended “fun” of the encounter. I agree we could have a more charitable reading (e.g. “the GM is trying to keep enjoying the game”), but my impression is rather that the GM feels that allowing these moves to work will create a “super not-fun to GM, and maybe a boring game, since so many of their proposed tactics center on denying the BBEG (i.e. me) from taking turns and having any chance at success”.

So it seems to me that the GM sees some of the strategies involved as either being unfair, outside the scope of the game, or ruining his/her plans for how it’s supposed to go (e.g. that the bad guy must retain a chance of success).

It’s clear to me that they are not playing the same game, or not according to the same rules. For me, that situation is one where some clarity would be really helpful - what is the role of, say, “dirty tricks” in this game, and is everyone agreeing that it’s a fun thing to try? Because it sure doesn’t seem like it.

The conversation could be as simple as, “hey, is this a game where dirty tricks are welcome? If so, cool, but be ready to do your worst, as your opponents will also be taking advantage of loopholes in the rules” (or whatever). And then you’re back to playing.

We never get to anything like this point in this question, discussion, or answers, though, which seems like a seriously missed opportunity.

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