Saturday, November 10, 2018

Environmental Obstacles in OSR and 5e Rangers

In the OSR, there's a lot of emphasis placed on exploration. The main obstacles of exploration are resource management. Some OSR blogs have a take on how to manage inventory, storage, and environment as a challenge; which is awesome. I want to compare the OSR and 5e.

There are mechanics that appear in exploration in both systems. Management of light, management of food/water, management of ammunition (spells and arrows alike). 5e has a less technically complex approach that requires more bookkeeping: each item has weight, and each player has a maximum amount of weight they can carry. While this is simple, it doesn't create any need to track inventory, which means less players look at inventory, which means most players are less aware of the tools they have. There are penalties in 5e and in the OSR for carrying more than you can handle.

When running a gritty (OSRish) 5e game, 5e inventory becomes very important. Heroic fantasy - not so much. The overall approach for inventory remains the same, though: 5e and the OSR offer ways to keep track of items and hard limits to how much a given player can carry. 

Environment and related obstacles, though, are treated very differently from other ways of overcoming challenges.

For example, during combat, there's a different set of obstacles. AC, HP, conditions, damage, healing - all of these impede success/survival, the "goal" of combat. Players work through multiple steps to overcome the obstacles of combat.

In environmental exploration in the OSR, there's a lot of thought given to obstacles. A good obstacle should be something that is impeding progress, but can be overcome. There is no one "right" solution to any given obstacle, merely degrees of success (there are wrong solutions) because some solutions are better than others. Some obstacles will be more difficult to clear than others, but obstacle difficulty changes with the situation. Given the right tools and people (lockpicking rogue) a locked door becomes a delay. It's not a given that the rogue can pick the lock, but now the party doesn't have to try to bang the door down or search for another way around, or, or, or....

It's also important to note that dungeons have an environment all their own. I will be talking about environment very generally in some points covering both dungeon and natural and even city environments, (my 3 different environments) but I recognize each of those environments is fundamentally different.

What changes between environments is the toolkit game systems give you to address their challenges. There's a decent amount of mechanics in the OSR and 5e for dungeon environments. Some of these dungeon env. tools can also be applied to situations in the city.

Back to my earlier thought: the way 5e handles natural env. challenges is too reductionist.

In combat, obstacles are overcome gradually. This necessitates the most complex ruleset of any part of the 5e game. With 5e obstacles, almost all solutions are: roll 1d20+proficiency bonus+related ability score+other situational bonuses (advantage, spells, etc.) and compare the total to a DC. One and done. I don't have an issue with using dice to solve some challenges, BUT:

when players (especially new ones) learn they can solve obstacles quickly with dice rolls, they can get used to quick solutions for obstacles/get tired of obstacles that feel like arbitrary dice rolling.

 when players depend on dice rolls to solve problems, sometimes the only "good" obstacles can't be solved with a dice roll.

one dice roll (usually) doesn't change the course of a single battle. Why should one dice roll determine either success or failure (with no in-between) for other obstacles that should require time to work around or are ongoing?

I know there're some parts of 5e with contested checks or "best out of 3" to resolve obstacles. The norm, however, is one and done.

I have butthurt with the ranger class too. The original ranger completely takes the tension out of a number of compelling environmental challenges.

In my current campaign, the party's traveling with pack animals on a road through a jungle. NPC's have told them they're being chased by a group of demons. If they travel at the maximum pace that their mounts can travel, they'll probably make it to relative safety and elude the pursuit. If they lose even an hour (we did the math), the chances of being caught will rise. Last session, my players were attacked by demons, interrupting some of their long rests. Because my players and the caravan they're traveling with don't want to stop, they're marching on at daybreak, but some PC's are finishing their long rests later. If there's an encounter during the day, and these unrested PC's have to fight, they lose the resources of HP, hit dice, and spells.

Goblin Slayer probably has some advice for you, buddy

With the original/revised ranger's Natural Explorer, after traveling in Favored Terrain/any terrain, the ranger gains:

 - Difficult terrain doesn't slow your group's travel.
 - Your group can't be lost except by magical means.
 - Even when you are engaged in another activity while traveling (such as foraging, navigating, or tracking), you remain alert to danger.
-  If you are traveling alone, you can move stealthily at a normal pace.
- When you forage, you find twice as much food as you normally would.
- While tracking other creatures, you also learn their exact number, their sizes, and how long ago they passed through the area.

Both rangers would vastly simplify environmental exploration for my party and take away the tension that comes with resource management.

I don't like the fact that the ranger outright solves many resource management obstacles and other literal obstacles, such as difficult terrain, outright. Overcoming obstacles should be a process. I think the ranger should have tools to solve obstacles rather than just ignoring obstacles outright.

I recognize that combat is the strongest emphasis of 5e, but I think a well balanced game needs more than just combat rules. An Unearthed Arcana post detailed three pillars of experience points: exploration, combat, and roleplaying. There are systems in place for combat, not so much for roleplaying, and exploration is neglected. If a 5e game wants to grapple with resource management, there isn't any systematic approach that creates tension but encourages problem solving like in combat. In short, if you want people to be able to engage with and enjoy all sides of an RPG, you must design mechanics that allow them to approach a side with tools and hindrances. D&D 5e does this with combat and spells, but nothing else. (I recognize that it's also possible to approach an obstacle in theater of the mind with no rolls at all, but I can't render a scenario well enough to create that without lots of preparation.)

As a quick aside, I also dislike immunity to damage/conditions in class design for the same reasons. Damage/conditions should remain relevant, and special abilities that overcome immunity simply reinforce the ridiculousness of immunity for me.

How to resolve this issue for natural environments?

Well, I want people to be able to play Ranger at my table. So I have to fix Ranger. Let's revise Natural Explorer, point by point, trying to strike a balance between 5e checks and the OSR. For those of you unfamiliar with OSR design philosophy, it goes like this: less is more, and make it intuitive. (Dear god, I'll try.)

I'm going to summarize the 5e travel rules below because some mechanics will refer to them.

Fast pace: 400 feet/minute, 3 miles/hour, 30 miles/day. Effects: -5 to passive Perception scores.
Normal pace: 300 feet/minute, 2 miles/hour, 24 miles/day
Slow pace: 200 feet/minute, 1 mile/hour, 18 miles/day

- Difficult terrain doesn't slow your group's travel.

You can travel with groups through difficult terrain in their favored environment at a slow pace. If you wish to travel at a slow pace in a group outside your favorite environment, you may make a Survival check with a -1 penalty for every group member in the party not proficient in Survival. If you fail, you may not attempt again until after their next long rest. You may not travel at a slow pace through difficult terrain with a mount in the party.

It's fine if ranger has some helpful bonuses, but nothing that completely negates the challenge of surviving. Also, I referenced favored terrain, something that isn't in the Revised Ranger. I like favored terrain cause it helps ground a character. Any version of this that's less wordy would be good.

- Your group can't be lost except by magical means

You have advantage on checks to follow a heading you determine while in a natural environment. Additionally, you have advantage on saves to avoid getting lost through magical means in your favored environment.

I like the idea of giving rangers little things that make existing in their favored environment easier. Rangers should have an advantage if they're traveling through familiar terrain.

- Even when you are engaged in another activity while traveling (such as foraging, navigating, or tracking), you remain alert to danger.

Even when you are engaged in another activity while traveling (such as foraging, navigating, or tracking) in your favored environment, you remain alert to danger.

Honestly, this is fine as long as it's in your favored environment. Otherwise, it negates surprise for the ranger across the board after an hour of travel (per the Revised Ranger), which lessens the impact of ambushes.

If you are traveling alone, you can move stealthily at a normal pace. 

If you are traveling alone, you can use Stealth while moving at a normal pace through any environment.

Good! No changes. This is something ranger should have access to after all that traveling outdoors.

- When you forage, you find twice as much food as you normally would.

Oh boy! I'd like to introduce a new mechanic thingy for foraging that tries to reflect resource depletion.

So, there are lots of different environs in D&D that're possible to travel through. I'll cover 3: desert, plains, and jungle.

So, natural environs have a Resource number: 20. Natural environs also have Depletion Dice: how much the surrounding area is depleted every time a group (not one person) forages for food. "Area" is a pretty broad term here. For my purposes, an area is the amount of ground covered by a day of travel. Referring to the travel table above for a normal pace, the area covered by a forager traveling at a normal pace is 24 miles/day. So, for a party traveling at a normal pace:

Desert: Every time a group successfully forages, roll 3d6 depletion dice. Average roll is about 10.5, so 2-3 days of foraging in the same desert place sounds reasonable to me.
Plains: Every time a group successfully forages, roll 2d6 depletion dice.
Jungle: Every time a group successfully forages, roll 1d6 depletion dice.

I'm pulling these numbers out of thin air, but it seems reasonable to me that deserts have less resources than plains which have less resource numbers than forests.

Also, "successful" foraging is passing the check to forage. Failure means you find half the food/water you/the group needs and the depletion dice are still rolled. Depleting Resource to 0 means that you can't find enough food to sustain the group unless you move on. Resource regenerates at a rate of 1/day.

So, with these new mechanics in mind:

- When you forage, you find twice as much food as you normally would.

When you forage in your favored terrain, you roll one less depletion dice, or halve the dice roll if you would roll less than one dice. When you roll to forage, add +1 to your roll for every other group member proficient in Survival.

This is an extremely untested mechanic because my group hasn't gotten to the point where they actually have to worry about food...yet. Heheheh. Additionally: as long as you pass your check, it won't be hard to find food if you're constantly on the move. If you are forced to stick around one place and run out of rations, or can't move to another area to forage, though, you just might run into some serious trouble unless you have a cleric/paladin/bard who can cast Create Food and Water which makes all this irrelevant AAAAAAAAAAAGH

- While tracking other creatures, you also learn their exact number, their sizes, and how long ago they passed through the area.

When you track other creatures, you can make a Survival check to learn their exact number, their sizes, and how long ago they passes through the area. You make this check with advantage if you're in your favored terrain.

If you like this for OSR, replace the Survival checks with whatever you have your rangers or nature-oriented classes do. There's a great article about the weaknesses of the 5e barbarian, and one of the points it brings up is that there isn't much for barbs to do outside of combat. As a a stereotypical nature-centric class, there should probably be a barbarian subclass that overlaps with ranger a bit.

Another way to come at natural environments are some really, really good random encounter tables. Those are hard to write.

What I'm trying to keep in mind is that I'm not writing a game in which the players slowly die because they depleted the natural resources and can't move quickly enough to find more because of exhaustion. That's horrifying. I'm trying to write something that creates pressure and a chance at failure and success. Whether or not this'll work....we'll see!

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