Tag Archives: D&D

Q&A: D&D Raksasha

Would having backwards hands (Like a Raksasha from D&D) provide any kind of tangible combat benefit.

I kinda doubt it. Both my editions of the Monster Manual insist that it doesn’t affect their manual dexterity, which, I’m not so sure about that. They suggest that all it does is make the Raksasha look more disturbing.

I mean, if you spend enough time, you may be able to come up with some extremely situational examples, where their reversed hands would be an advantage. For example: They can claw you on a backhand, instead of a normal rake. Though, the value of that is kinda dubious. Mostly this detail is just to make the Raksasha more memorable and feel more unique. I mean, the 3.5e MM runs to over 300 pages, the Raksasha needs something to stand apart from the crowd.

Details like this can help to sell a fantasy creature you’ve created. Weird little anomalies you can use to make your world feel less generic. At the same time, these don’t need to be immediate, concrete, beneficial powers. Things like the Rakshasa’s reversed hands can just be there to sell your setting.


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So, I was reading a story about where characters live in a RPG. The story is founded on each person has a class at birth, that can’t be changed. The main character is a blacksmith, a class that is not “Made” for combat. And on his journey to become a “Hero” he blindly stumbles through the social norms of heroes and a bunch of other things. I was wondering how you think one would go about writing his personality and thought proccess and character growth. Thanks.

Up front, I don’t have an answer. As I’m sure I’ve
said before, I can’t tell you who your character is. What I can do is unpack
this question a little.

The hardest part with writing characters inside a
game is, you need to understand the game’s rules. It’s actually a much more
difficult kind of worldbuilding than simply saying, “I have a setting here.” It
also breaks from how reality functions in a critical way.

Games are, at best, a simulacrum of reality. Details
get sanded over to present the underlying philosophies. Sometimes that’s an
intentional choice by the developers. They want to talk about something
specific. Sometimes it’s an incidental choice that reflects how the developers
view the world. Sometimes it’s a fluke, created by the other systems.

This applies to the rules themselves, and can
reflect a developer’s priorities. A more intricate combat system suggests the
game is focused on players delving in and working through the intricacies of
complex tactical situations. A game with an abstract combat system suggests
that combat is less of a focus, or if it is, that it’s more of a venue for
player expression than the mechanics designed to keep the players engaged.

Roleplaying games aren’t about what’s real, or how
people actually work. It’s about creating a system with a specific goal in
mind. Usually, that goal is populating the world with characters who fit into
it, and allowing the players to experience (and hopefully influence) a story
(or a multitude of stories).

Class systems can serve several distinct purposes. In
games, they can be an attempt to push characters towards certain archetypes
defined by their setting or genre.

This is especially true in something like D&D,
where the player classes are designed to build into the normal fantasy hero
archetypes. You have your Aragorn or Legolas style Rangers. Your Conan inspired
Barbarians. Your academic Wizards who wander the world in search of lore. Your
chaotic and impulsive Sorcerers who cast magic as it flows through them. Your
rogues, freshly escaped from the pages of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. These are
the kinds of characters the game wants available to the players. It doesn’t
mean that every Barbarian will be a shallow imitation of Conan the Chimerian,
but it forms the initial framework of the character. It’s a player aid, saying,
“hey, kid, you wanna be a hero?”

Now, remember what I said above about system focus?
Character creation in an RPG is the same; it informs design goals. An RPG that
simply gives you a non-customizable class is more interested in putting players
into the action. It may also suggest the game is one where individual
characters are expendable. Conversely a game without any class system
whatsoever is probably advocating character creation as an element of personal
expression. A game without a class system, or a more pervasive one will be more
accepting of “special snowflakes,” than a game that hands you your class on a
playing card and says, “it’s this or you could try the Waywatcher.”

When it comes to getting interesting material out of
this kind of a dynamic, your best bet is letting characters play against one
another within the range of who their class expects to be.

Now, here’s where understanding your game becomes
vitally important. If you look at classes as training wheels for building a
character, your next question becomes, “how restrictive is it?”

RPGs can have very open classes or very tightly
restricted ones. D&D’s done both, over the years, and had a lot of
different approaches to class systems over the years.

A restrictive class system is one where you cannot
break out of your class identity at all. An RPG with a strict gear list based
on classes. Where a Wizard can’t even use a sword or any armor, for instance,
would be a highly restrictive one.

A less restrictive class system might use certain
skills to control progress, and ignore or cap advancement in others. An
unrestrictive class system might let you simply buy out of your class and into
others as you progress.

For example: Third and 3.5 Edition D&D allowed
you flat out choose new classes when you leveled up. You’d start at level one
in those classes, but you’d gain everything associated with being a member of
that class in addition to the old one.

Another example would be White Wolf’s Exalted. Where
characters could buy skills and magical abilities outside of their Caste. In
one specific case, they could also buy skills from other kinds of beings in the
game. There were limits, but those were more about ensuring your character had
a basic core ability set, rather than saying they could not follow their

It’s also probably worth noting that the Exalted
were (explicitly) demigods, so their ability to do whatever they wanted was a deliberate
reflection of that nature.

The philosophy and worldview that underpin class
systems is that people have a specific venue. That may be they have a specific
skill set, and can learn others. Or it could be a far harsher view that “they
have a place in the world,” and cannot deviate from it.

In a very restrictive class system, it may not be
possible to buck the trend. If your character literally can’t equip armor,
because their class doesn’t allow it, they’re going to have a very difficult
time becoming a frontline fighter.

And it gets worse.

In most
games, blacksmith wouldn’t be a player class. Not all, some MMOs will gleefully
allow players to pick non-combat/non-social classes, with the idea that you
want to simply roleplay in the world.

Most class based RPGs maintain a hard line between
playable and non-playable classes. Players stand head and shoulders above the
general populous. Your normal RPG is a power fantasy after all. It’s about
being bigger, stronger, faster, more cunning, or more lethal than you can in
life. You’re creating a character to be (one of) the protagonist(s) in a story.
Not the tavern owner that serves the heroes their beer while they plot to take
down the evil overlord.

For games like D&D, that means that NPC classes
(even combat focused ones) are flat out inferior to player classes. For
example, if you’ve played 3.5 Edition D&D, you’re probably aware of the
Fighter class. Did you know there’s also a Warrior class? It is almost the
same, except it doesn’t have any bonus abilities, fewer hit points, and a much
shorter skill list. It’s a class for NPCs, designed to allow the GM to
introduce professional soldiers, guards, or other combat capable NPCs, who aren’t
as powerful as the party but can fight alongside, or against, them.

If you’re curious, D&D 3.5 has five of these NPC
classes. The Expert (a highly skilled non-combat character), the Adept (a weak
healer), the Warrior, the Aristocrat, and the Commoner.

Now I’m going to go out on a limb. I haven’t done a
full lit review of how RPGs have influenced modern fantasy. I see it frequently
in passing, but it’s a specific interaction that I’ve never really researched,
so take this with a few grains of salt. It’s my opinions, not empirical fact.

The rise of RPGs, particularly D&D, have
influenced how we write “conventional” fantasy. A modern generic fantasy novel’s
setting often owes more to Gygax than to Tolkien. This is a symbiotic
relationship. It’s not that people are “ripping off,” D&D nor the reverse.
Simply that D&D has become a nexus of modern fantasy elements that has superseded

Within post-modern fantasy lit, there’s a
substantial chunk of lit dealing with a very specific paradox of D&D and
RPGs in general. If your character is a normal farm boy (or girl) one day, and
an adventuring hero the next, what the hell just happened? How does a character
go from being a background NPC in their world one moment to becoming a
significantly more powerful player character?

I brought up D&D because it, systemically,
illustrates how strange this paradox really is.

Some of this is because it’s how Campbell’s hero’s
journey works. Your protagonist comes from nothing, and in a moment is revealed
as the protagonist. They were always there, hidden (even from themselves), and
are forced to reveal themselves.

Some of it is supposed to be glossed over. You
rolled up your character to play a hero, not to spend thirty years forging
horseshoes before being killed by a goblin to provide a nearby adventuring
party with an adventure hook.

It’s entirely possible to cheat around this. Your
character finds some magical doohickey that “reveals their inner potential,”
and changes their class. It’s not a satisfying answer, because it doesn’t
actually say anything meaningful, it just levels your character up and pushes
on with the quest, but it’s one that many writers do fall back on.

Unfortunately, I don’t really have an answer for you,
just more questions:

How self aware is your setting? There’s an entire
sub-genre of D&D lit where characters are literally discussing how the
rules function in setting. Order of the Stick is probably the best example that
comes to mind. A story where adventuring heroes wander the land is going to be
substantially different if people are actually talking about the result of To Hit
rolls, crit confirmations and hit dice.

Is this something the rules actually allow for?
There are games that will allow you to flat out break class. Hell, one of my favorite
methods for subverting the level scaling in Oblivion was to roll an Acrobat and
then specifically play against class, to artificially deflate the character’s
level in comparison to their skills.

What does being a hero mean? This one probably needs
to be further unpacked, but at a basic level, who does your character want to
be? In many campaigns player characters are little more than exceedingly
homicidal magpies on the prowl for the next loot piñata. That is something he could aspire to. But it’s
a pretty warped definition of, “hero.” It’s fun, and game designers usually
come up with contextual elements to excuse it, but this is a genre that can
become pretty messed up when you step back and ask, “but why am I hitting this
man with a giant club made from the incisor of a petrified dragon?”

How does your character deal with failure? Even
under the best of circumstances, your character isn’t going to get what they
want. How they deal with failure is at least as important with how they deal
with success. This one’s a pretty good question to think about for any
character you’re writing.

Who’s playing this thing? Is your character a player
trapped in the character sheet of an NPC, or are there actually player
characters wandering around adventuring while your character looks on? If it’s
the latter, what is the GM after? This can lead to some incredibly surreal
weirdness. Especially if it’s 3am and everyone’s still laughing about the
butterscotch zombie, while the GM’s trying to get the game back on track, while
your character’s just trying to deal with the insanity unfolding around them.


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Somehow, Discworld seems to be the most appropriate
reading recommendation. It might not make sense immediately, but Terry Prachett’s
approach to messing with fantasy conventions and clichés is on point. I’m linking The Color of Magic, but feel free to poke around and pick other ones from the series, if they catch your attention instead.

focused on one interesting twist on what you’re talking about. Exalts were
superhumanly powerful. For the weakest variety, their powers were usually hereditary,
but in some cases the offspring of Dragon
would fail to Exalt, and remain mortal. It’s part of a larger
setting, but if you’re worried about your fantasy setting being too generic,
then Exalted’s setting might help. It
also spent time talking about characters who went from nobody to demigod in a
moment, and how they dealt with that. More what your character fantasizes about
than their life, but still.

This might be a doozy, but do you guys have a best guess for what century/age of the real world standard fantasy RPG’s take place in? (I’m thinking DnD 3.5, Pathfinder, etc.)

As a general rule, D&D is extremely anachronistic. It’s
also not one setting. Third Edition and 3.5 both default to Greyhawk, (which,
Ironically isn’t a setting I’m incredibly familiar with), which offers
technology ranging from the 9th century up through the 18th, depending on what
best fits the feel they’re going for. This results in situations where you have
sailing vessels designed for broadsiding in a setting without gunpowder, and
armor that never existed in the real world.

As a result, you can’t really tie D&D down, and this is
before you start looking at the other campaign settings. Forgotten Realms is
the one most people probably think of as the default D&D setting (it’s not,
but that doesn’t really matter.) There’s Dark Sun, where magic drains life from
the world, and the resulting environment is a barren wasteland. There’s Dragonlance,
where, unsurprisingly, Dragons are the biggest threat (usually), and the world
outside of fortress settlements is barely civilized as a result (incidentally,
this is another setting, I’m not that familiar with). There’s Ravenloft, where
the entire world is splintered across various horror themed mini-planes. There’s
Eberron (one of the newer settings), which has a magitech/steampunk aesthetic
going on. There’s Birthright, which is explicitly pulling from 13th century
knights, and fairytale chivalry (though, I honestly can’t remember much about
this setting beyond that.) There’s Spelljammer, where people fly magical
sailing ships between worlds (including, potentially any of the ones I’ve
listed here.) There’s Planescape, where characters wander between universes,
including any of the ones I listed above.

If you want a D&D setting I can pin down to a specific moment
in history, the only ones that come to mind off hand are Urban Arcana, Dark
Matter and Shadowchasers, but those are both from D20 Modern, and by default
they’re set around 2002 (give or take a year.) (Strictly speaking, there’s some
Dark Matter supplements from back in the 90s, so that setting is a little
older, but it’s tenure as a D&D setting starts in 2002.)

And, honestly, that’s okay. Fantasy is rarely designed to
mimic specific moments in history. As a genre, it owes a lot to both J. R. R. Tolkien
and Robert E. Howard.

With Lord of the Rings,
Tolkien was specifically pulling inspiration from the literary epics like
Beowulf. He envisioned a forgotten version of Europe that existed in some
forgotten dark age long before recorded history. The technology is an incoherent
mix of different eras because, the idea goes, that much of this was lost, and
then later rediscovered.

The result is: Middle Earth is usually read as a self
contained world, with no relation to the real one. It’s treated as fantasy
world, segregated from reality, rather than a piece of fiction that takes place
in “the real world,” but this wasn’t Tolkien’s intent. Ironically, this
actually sets Tolkien into a fairly small subgenre of fantasy, with series like
Terry Brooks’ Shanara Chronicles, or Jack Vance’s Dying Earth (which became the
basis for D&D’s spell casting system.)

Robert E. Howard just loved history. Really loved it.
Apparently, to the point that he couldn’t pick a single favorite element, and
simply grabbed pieces of whatever wasn’t nailed down. If you’ve never read the
Conan stories from Howard, you really do owe it to yourself to take a look. More
than Tolkien, Howard set the tone for modern Sword and Sorcery as a genre. So,
while D&D inherits a lot of its ideas, like elves and dwarves from Tolkien,
it looks to Howard, when the time comes to pick from a moment in history.

So the end result is a massive collection of anachronisms,
and usually that’s acceptable. You have a fantasy setting, where different
concerns gave rise to different technological priorities, and some of the
things you take for granted in your daily lives just never happened.

It (sort of) makes sense that Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk
don’t have firearms. Magic is very prevalent, to the point that convenient
ranged weapons exist. Additionally, because of how gunpowder works, a single
wizard or sorcerer could (theoretically) ignite your batteries with a stray fireball,
which makes the entire idea of stockpiling powder a lot less appealing.

Of course, it’s also entirely possible you would have
gunpowder in your setting. Warhammer pulls heavily from the 15th century Europe.
Primitive firearms and all. Even with the danger of a Bright Wizard being able
to detonate handgunner’s powder on a whim (or on accident).

The only times you’ll see serious criticism of D&D’s
historical elements are when you try to do one of two things. Putting one of
the campaign settings together into a coherent whole while accounting for the
game’s rules and asking, “does this make sense?” No, the actual rules
(particularly in 3rd and 4th edition) are designed to facilitate play for the
party, and characters accelerate to godlike status (or outright godhood) with
horrifying speed.

Or, when someone looks at individual technologies in a
campaign setting and finds one that is dependent on a technology that never
happened. For example: Forgotten Realms’ sailing ships, which are based on 17th
century designs, which were heavily influenced by cannon fire.

When it comes to Pathfinder, I don’t know. What I’ve seen
suggests it mixes 14th and 17th century technology together with gleeful
abandon. I don’t know how fair that is, because I’ve never purchased or read a
Pathfinder book or game.


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Magic in D&D


For my money, Greg Stolze has some of the best Magic-writing advice in his RPG Reign: Namely, that one of the most important things to figure out for magic is what it -can’t- do and what it costs to use.  The default assumption with D&D type magic is “Nothing”, but that’s not as interesting as having strong limits to play with, and makes it easier to see how it affects the world.

As far as I can tell, Stolze didn’t work on Mage specifically, but he was partially responsible for Demon: The Fallen and Hunter: The Reckoning. Both of which excel at pushing the players to think out realistic consequences to magical violence. So, now you have my attention. Anyway, I’ll stop chasing after White Wolf’s Alumni and poke something with a stick that really wouldn’t have been appropriate for the original post.

The problem with D&D’s magic system isn’t that it’s free. It’s that there’s serious discrepancies between the original design intentions and what ends up in game.

As a quick aside, it’s really important to understand where your baseline is, for D&D. For some things, the transitions between editions are, fairly minor. They change things a bit, but you’re still rolling a 20 sided die to brain some critter with your weapon and hoping for the best.

That’s not the case for wizards (and other spellcasting classes). The transition between AD&D and 3rd Edition seriously warped the way magic was presented to the player. It also seriously screws up balance, in a way that actually really irritates some AD&D veterans. (And, for disclosure, my native D&D baseline is 3rd or 3.5. That’s where I started, and what I expected as normal, until years later when I went back and looked at AD&D.)

In D&D magic for wizards (and most of the spell casting classes) are metered out based on a Vancian system. Named after the system Jack Vance used in his Dying Earth setting. The basic idea is your spell caster can commit a certain number of spells to memory. Two or three when they’re starting out, up to a couple dozen by the time they’ve ascended into Gandalf levels of power. They can cast each spell once. After that, it’s gone from their mind, and they’ll need to memorize it again before they can recast it.

And, of course, Tolkien is a massive influence on D&D. Wizards are very much in the Odin Wandering mode of powerhouses, once they’ve spent a few decades (or centuries) traveling and accumulating lore.

In D&D there’s also the concept of spells being segregated by separate tiers (called “circles”). As a wizard (or any spell caster, really) levels up, they’ll gradually get access to higher tiers of magic. These occupy separate memorization slots, and the spells get absurdly powerful, fast.

These more powerful spells are moderated by increasing costs. Literal costs. The example I used in the original post, about having a sack of diamonds worth five thousand gold, is actually a necessary sacrifice to cast the basic raise dead spell. Which means, being a wizard (or cleric) can get really expensive fast. A lot of players and DMs simply wave these costs because it’s a lot of tedious paperwork. Do you really want to have a character demonstrate that they have a dart, a powdered rhubarb leaf, and an adder’s stomach when all they want to do is cast Melf’s Acid Arrow at a bugbear that’s eating Disposable Party Member #16? On one hand, it’s not fun, but on the other hand it is a major element that keeps the system’s magic grounded.

The other thing that intermittently gets lost from a lot of campaigns is the idea that a Wizard needs to keep their spell book on hand. It’s actually a physical volume, and if it’s taken or destroyed, that’s it. They need to start over from scratch and put things back together.

I can’t remember if it’s technically house rules from someone’s homebrew, but I could swear there’s also occasional chances that higher tier spells would be incorrectly memorized, even by an experienced wizard, resulting in a spell fizzling, or worse a wild magic roll. (AD&D’s wild magic table for spells that get out of control is several levels of boggling.)

The other major problem is that spells get handed out way too gleefully in Third and 3.5. In AD&D, the Wizard spells per day are a little more conservative. They start with a single first circle spell, instead of 3 + some additional slots for high intelligence. But, they advance through the spell tiers at roughly the same rate… sort of. They get access to the second tier of spells at level 3, and the third tier at level 5. Which just means they get a few more spells to work with, except for one major thing. Third Edition streamlined the experience progression.

In Third, 3.5, and Fourth edition, everyone advances at the same rate. It’s 1k XP to hit level 2, 3k after that you hit 3, 6k after that you hit level 4. You can actually find this table online pretty easily, and it’s really simple. If you’ve got a party of players that are gaming together, they’ll hit their level ups at roughly the same time, so all the paperwork is done at once, and then out of the way until later.

But, in AD&D each class had a separate progression table. And, Wizards had one of the most brutal. An AD&D wizard and third edition character will hit level 5 at the same XP (the progression before that’s off by a bit), but, then Third edition characters start cooking with gas. (Incidentally, I’m using the Baldur’s Gate 2 manual for the AD&D XP progression, because it’s the most convenient thing at hand, I could be messing these numbers up a bit.)

This wouldn’t be a real comparison except, in AD&D the non mages, will also be leveling up faster. So you have a system where wizards need to spend a lot of time very carefully advancing through the world, scouring everything, to reach a new level of understanding and power, while you’re fighter’s off clocking heads, and your thief is engaging in their time honored craft of murder.

At higher levels these numbers go absolutely insane. Getting an AD&D wizard to level 12 takes roughly three times the experience what it takes to get a Third Edition character there. Advancing from 12 to 13 takes over 1 million XP in AD&D, while that same amount of XP will put a Third Edition character almost to 19. Given that 18 is the level where you get access to the final tier of spells, and a 12 has only just gained access to the sixth tier, there’s an issue.

So, in migrating the spell list from AD&D to Third, there’s a serious, unintentional, power creep, that results in godlike mages at a shocking speed. This was actually a pretty major sticking point for a lot of amateur game designers and some players, because as you said, it makes magic in Third Edition feel costless. It also makes some stupidly powerful spells available to relatively inexperienced characters.

This is also where we get into the other big problem with D&D, which TV Tropes gleefully dubs Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards. For most classes, a new level means they’re now slightly better at hitting things, and get to add one to the D20 they’re rolling to slap something senseless. For Mages, that’s actually a whole new surge of powers. Sometimes it’s just a new dice of damage on the spells they’re using (doubling the effectiveness of that new spell they got last level), but every other level cranks them up a bit further. Now, in AD&D Wizards do eventually outclass everything on the board, but it comes a lot further down the line, when you’re already in Odin Walking territory.

And before someone wonders, all told, I much prefer 3.5 over AD&D. A lot of the needlessly complex systems got streamlined down to something that was easily manageable, while still leaving the player with a lot of freedom to define a character. It’s also a hilariously broken and imbalanced ruleset, and not something I’d recommend for your writing. And any writer that thinks that, “so my character gets an attack of opportunity against the thug that’s bull rushing her, so I’ll use circle kick…” No, just, please, don’t. It’s a deep and fantastic strategy game, but it’s about as realistic as XCOM.

That said, some of the campaign settings do have fantastic world building. So, there is stuff to use there, it’s just going to be buried behind a lot of math. And, while I’ve never gotten into the D&D tie in fiction, there’s a lot of stuff there to dig through.


Hello, I have a question regarding “agility” and its use in popular media (well, a couple of questions, actually). How would you define “agility”? And, it’s possible to someone who is tall and/or heavy have high “agility”? I’m mostly asking regarding RPGs, because on those the shorter and “lighter” race always has more “agility” than other races.

I tend to think of it as overall physical mobility. But, that’s almost more of a word association thing, or a general language preference than anything profound.

Basically, the same reason I don’t like using the word dexterity outside of talking about game stats.

So, second part of this is size doesn’t really matter. At least, not in the way you’d think it would. Spend enough time dealing with martial artists, cops, or even former soldiers, and you’ll find some really heavyset individuals who can move. It’s not something we tend to think of, but someone can be in both really good condition and overweight at the same time.

Games like D&D, tend to give Elves a Dex bonus because they’re pulling from the Tolkien model of fantasy races. That is to say that elves are, by default, supernaturally graceful. So, they get a +2 Dex bonus. I wouldn’t read much more into it than looking at how much Tolkien has influenced our general concepts of fantasy.


I follow this blog for the obvious reason, and I kinda wonder if I’m on the right track here; I play dungeons and dragons, and I decided I would make stats for my characters similar to that format and “roll” out a fight. Is this a good idea or not?

If you’re honest about the rolls and don’t cheat for your characters (re-rolling to get the desired results) then it can be a really great snapshot of how things can sometimes go wrong even when your characters are perfectly prepared for the situations that they’re facing. It can also be useful for reminding yourself, as the author, that fights involve two people or more, not just one. Which means that you need to be paying attention to what characters other than your protagonist are doing.

The downside to RPG systems is that a character you might use in an RPG with your friends and a character you create for a story are two different things. This is something we plan on talking about in the future. RPGs put the emphasis on the player to create the most overpowered jackasses possible and then reward them for it, but you can’t do that in a novel. If you do, you’ll essentially end up with a Mary Sue and a story that doesn’t work.

So, using an RPG for character creation relies on a certain level of honesty. You can only give stats that are character appropriate, not power gaming ones that will be best for your character in the long run. This means that from a D&D standpoint, the characters for your novel will come out looking subpar. This is fine, because they’re not for a D&D game. However, if you are someone who plays D&D often this may be difficult to look at because it’s all wrong.

The best solution I’ve found to this problem is to create a stat block for the character at the beginning of the story and a stat block for them for where they are at the end of it. And, you know, never use these characters in any D&D game ever.

Other than that, go to town, have fun, see what shakes loose. It’s a great way to help you develop an awareness of the uncertainty that comes with combat and a good reminder that even when your character is overpowered someone could still possibly knife them in the back.

General gaming good. Power gaming no.

I hope that helps!