D&D YouTube Roundup 4: Magic Numbers, Rules Light, Nimble

Posted: 2023-11-02
Word Count: 1225
Tags: d20 osr rpg

Table of Contents

As I said before, I’ve been taking a deep dive into D&D vlogging. Recently I found playing these videos at x1.5 speed shortens them without losing information. Americans just talk slowly. If Jenna Coleman just rerecorded all these videos they’d be much easier to listen to (never mind watch).

Really I wish these vloggers would write blogs instead, because I read faster than most people talk.

The 5e DM’s Magic Number(?)

Professor Dungeon Master (yet again) has an interesting video on the secret to guesstimating target numbers in D&D 5th edition.

According to this video, the secret number is … 8. That is, D&D 5e players using their best abilities against a “fair” challenge have to roll an 8 or more on a d20 in order to succeed. (There, I just saved you 8 minutes.)

As someone I was discussing this with noted, a 10 or 11 would make the whole thing a coin-toss. Instead it’s very nearly a d3 toss.

Technically 8 is the magic number you need on the die for stuff you’re expert at. He goes on to say 10-11 is for stuff you’re average at and 12-14 if you’re bad at (e.g. a typical wizard doing athletics). Making 8+ the “expert” success rate is probably why D&D 5e feels “easy” compared to other editions. That and the maximum HP + Con bonus at first level. Back in my day we had only 1d6 HP at first level and we liked it … descends into old man mumbling

Near the end he recommends DMs saying something like “I’ve done all the calculations and you need an 8 on the die” and if you’re right you look like a genius. If you’re a bit low they’ll take the 8.

I found it fascinating because this is “the math” that all 5e True Fans point to when you try to modify something. Ironically, in a “balanced encounter”, all a character’s levels, abilities, feats, etc. make no difference.


Also apropos of nothing (OK, I’m playing a dwarf in a 5e game) why are axes the Dwarves’ cultural weapons? Yes, I know, Gimli, vikings, blah blah blah … but wouldn’t spears be more practical in underground tunnels? I guess spears are insufficiently heroic. (Just don’t tell Motoyasu from The Rising of the Shield Hero.)

Rules-Light, Rules-Heavy, and Rules-Stupid

OK, here’s a new PDM video.

Money quote: “Why would you trust a Seattle hipster you’ve never met to be an authority on Hobgoblins, which are not even a real thing?”

TL;DW: rules-light RPGs play faster and are easier for beginners, and DMs/GMs sticking to “the rules” is at least no better and probably worse than simply making stuff up off the top of your head.

For what it’s worth, I’d class Cypher System, of which I’ve been playing a lot, as “rules-moderate”: the base mechanic is dead easy, but PCs have lots of pools and abilities and modifiers to nudge the GM-given target down by increments of 15%. Plus the book is 300+ pages. In contrast Cepheus Quantum is ~1500 words and Mini-Six about 11k words. (Just take a look.)

PDM’s own Deathbringer (DTRPG version) fits on two pages in reasonably sized type and is mostly complete. The “Deluxe” beta version is a 25 page Word document including about 10 pages of GM advice. (Still no sample spells, though.)

According to DTRPG EZD6, mentioned in the video, is 114 pages. Only the first 21 appear to be rules; the rest are GM tips, monsters, and random tables. Reviews are positive with a few criticisms. It may be worth picking up.

FWIW My own Elf System pre-Alpha is 3000 words but it’s missing a lot of stuff. It’s more of a game idea than a complete game.1

The point of counting words and pages is not to say “rules light” games are automatically good, or games with large word counts are automatically “rules heavy”. The word count could include setting description, examples of play, or simply clumsy and verbose prose. The amount of text, however, and what it’s explaining, does give a rough idea of the number of complexity of rules.

As I’ve said before the player-facing rules are a kind of contract or interface that tell the player how their actions translate to game events, and more options and interactions in a tabletop game do not necessarily translate to a more fun or involving game. Often the paradox of choice kicks in, leaving the player overwhelmed and confused; the game drags as players must choose from a large menu of options or try to reason about the ramifications of each choice.

On the other hand, too few rules, or not enough rules in the right areas, leaves a game where the GM must make rulings to pick up the slack. Experienced GMs can simply pick some numbers out of the air and move on, but novice GMs – like many D&D 5e DMs – may become overwhelmed and confused by the lack of “official” rules for what the players want to do.

So I both agree and disagree with the Professor: running a game with few if any rules can be fun with the right GM, and very un-fun for all involved with an inexperienced or less flexible GM. The old quote about plans also applies to rules: adhering to rules is useless, but having rules is essential.


BTW, while I’m inflicting long YouTube videos on the rest of you, this video explains the other2 Kickstarter I’m backing this year: Nimble.

TL;DW: Nimble tries to streamline D&D combat by radically simplifying initiative, eliminating to-hit rolls, and giving characters Action Points instead of the standard Move, Action, and (optional) Bonus Action. (For the last I’d further houserule that we go around the table letting everyone spend 1 AP before the first character spends their next, but maybe that’s too complicated.3)

Most of the comments on Nimble videos tend to be “Why don’t you just play ${MY_FAVORITE_GAME}, durr hurr.” (They don’t bother writing out the durr hurr part, but it’s implied.) On the other hand I can’t say they’re entirely wrong. If you overhaul the Action Economy, Initiative, Combat Rolls, Skill Proficiencies, Long Rests, and a bunch of other stuff … aren’t you just writing your own game? Why not jettison the over-complicated classes, broken spells, and revised feats? Were I doing it I’d write a game “kernel” and then put D&D 5e as an emulation layer on top.4

If you’re sick of videos, I recently found an interview with the creator of Nimble. It goes in depth about justifications and effects for all his variant rules.

  1. BTW, lately I’ve had a few ideas on revamping the Elf System for a grittier low-magic low-fantasy rules light game called Grimlands, which this footnote is too short to describe. ↩︎

  2. The first one being Beyond Dread Portals. As of this writing they’ve passed one stretch goal, a tourist’s guide to the city of Ys, but there’s a lot to go. Go fund it! ↩︎

  3. AP sounds a lot like the mechanic from Mythras, and that’s how they handle AP, btw. ↩︎

  4. I’m sort of doing this with Grimlands, my answer to Deathbringer: players only need d20s and d6es, players roll all dice, no hit points, same classes more-or-less as Deathbringer but up to 17% less grimdark. (Percentages of grimdark are not guaranteed.) ↩︎