Polymorph, Wild Shape and the Barbarian Rage

TL;DR A barbarian suspends any active rage and may not enter a rage while polymorphed via a polymorph spell.

The other evening, in running the D&D 5E adventure Tomb of Annihilation, the players brought forth a raging King Kong. The warlock polymorphed the raging barbarian into a giant ape. We went with the rage continuing for the barbarian; after all we allowed the druid/barbarian to rage in wild shape. But that polymorph ruling festered as I thought through the long-term ramifications – a huge pile of hit points that burn at a far slower rate.

Before we get too far, let’s look at rules:

Rage In battle, you fight with primal ferocity. On your turn, you can enter a rage as a bonus action… Your rage lasts for 1 minute. It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you haven’t attacked a hostile creature since your last turn or taken damage since then. You can also end your rage on your turn as a bonus action.

 

Polymorph The creature is limited in the actions it can perform by the nature of its new form, and it can’t speak, cast spells, or take any other action that requires hands or speech.

That’s a little murky. Rage requires a bonus action to activate, so while polymorphed a character could not start nor deliberately end a Rage. But what about polymorphing someone already raging? Is it important that Enraged is not a game condition, akin to poisoned, restrained, etc?

Let’s look D&D team responses on Twitter.

From Jeremy Crawford, lead rules designer:

Polymorph replaces your game statistics, including class features, with those of the beast. If you’re a barbarian, you lose Rage.https://twitter.com/JeremyECrawford/status/905513072898531330

Mike Mearls, co-creator of 5e responded Yes to the following question:

Barbarian rages, get Polymorphed into Giant Ape. Does the character keep the rage on them as a Giant Ape? https://twitter.com/mikemearls/status/899824708027154432

Conflicting answers from two reliable sources. Jeremy Crawford’s response provides deeper transparency into the reasoning, so I’m inclined to lean towards that answer.

I also want to look towards why barbarian/druids can rage and wild shape. For reference, here is the relevant druid wild shape ability.

Druid Wild Shape You retain the benefit of any features from your class, race, or other source and can use them if the new form is physically capable of doing so. However, you can’t use any of your special senses, such as darkvision, unless your new form also has that sense.

Where druid wild shape grants explicit permission to keep the benefit of any features, polymorph does not. Polymorph instead limits the actions you can perform.

My refinement to polymorph is:

The creature loses the benefits of any features from class, race, or other sources and instead can perform actions according to the nature of its new form. It can’t speak, cast spells, or take any other action that requires hands or speech.

Do you prefer your RPG Combat as War or Sport?

I was reminded again today of a long running thread on Enworld.org discusses the difference between Combat as War and Combat as Sport.

There are two competing ideologies about combat in RPGs. The modern one, Combat as Sport, is based around the idea of two more-or-less evenly matched sides engaging in combat where luck and good play within the intended rules of the combat system prevails. The older ideology, Combat as War, favors seeking every possible advantage in order to make the fight as quick and deadly as possible (and I do mean every possible advantage).

Combat as Sport assumes two sides crashing against each other, likely evenly matched. Here each side aims to build on tactical advantage and to gain tempo; optimize the action economy and so forth. The majority of dice rolls occur during the conflict.

Combat as War assumes each side engages in operational and strategic positioning, one side may well be unaware of the other. Then pow a surprise strike that aims to decide the outcome with minimal reliance on dice rolls. In a Combat as War game, a long-running combat encounter is a loss for the attacker. They are likely depleting more resources, and putting more up to fate.

I prefer “Combat as War”. I suspect other OSR advocates, acolytes, and adherents favor Combat as War as well. There is no room for LeRoy Jenkins in a Combat as War game.

“Combat as War” assumes that the characters will engage in antics to eek out every advantage. The antics and scrappign together a plan is the wheelhouse of tabletop RPGs compared to other systems that have combat elements (e.g. boardgames, wargames, computer games)

When GM-ing a game, nothing compares to the crazy ass shit that players come up with when they:

  1. have time to prepare
  2. know the odds are against them
  3. scratch for most every advantage
  4. and decide to go for it

Take a moment to reflect on your most memorable game sessions and encounters there within. What makes them memorable? What details do you highlight? What makes you smile?

I believe the best “Combat as Sport” story pales in comparison to the story about planning for and executing a strike for a “Combat as War” story.

For Combat as Sport, I imagine the following:

I saw the ledge and knew if I could push the ogre over, we’d win. I went for it, and rolled a nat 20. Woo! Bye bye ogre!

For Combat as War, I envision the following:

We heard there was an ogre guarding a bridge. And they are nasty. So we hatched a plan. First, we’d lace a shank of mutton with a sleeping drug, then someone would approach and attempt to engage the ogre. The ultimate goal was to get the ogre to take the shank of mutton and eat it. Jehat, the rogue with a silver tongue and quite a few evasive maneuvers, approached.

If I have to sit through someone telling me a gaming story, I’d much prefer a Combat as War over a Combat as Sport story. In the real world, I’d rather hear a war story than a sport story.

Game Mechanics and Manifestations of Combat as War

In D&D, mechanics that circumvent the HP mechanic point towards Combat as War:

  • 3E’s poison that does ability damage
  • 5E’s exhaustion mechanic
  • 0E to 3E’s save or die mechanics
  • 3E’s coup de grace mechanic
  • 1E’s assassination table
  • 0E to 2E, and 5E’s morale rolls

Assuming an attacker has access to these, they can strike quick and decisively at a target (albeit relying on a failed save). The cost of spells, in early editions of D&D, was once spent they required far more time to get recover (a full night’s rest and 10 minutes per spell level per spell to re-memorize).

And at a more basic level, look to the XP rewards for early editions. Most of the XP (80%+) came from acquiring treasure. Whereas fighting monsters brough perhaps 20% and a higher chance of death.

Another thing to consider, combat in war-mode tend to be quick and decisive affairs. Not the multi-round grinds of 4e and to a lesser extend 3e and 5e.

Game Mechanics and Manifestations of Combat as Sport

In D&D, mechanics that shift position on the battlefield or are inexhaustable resources:

  • 3E to 5Es Attacks of opportunity
  • 4E’s marking an opponent
  • 3E’s 5 foot step
  • 3E’s cleave and great cleave
  • 4E to 5E’s Healing surges and hit dice
  • 4E to 5E’s “at the end of each round make a save”
  • Powers that encode rules for moving others on the battlefield
  • At-will combat spell powers

Combats in sports-mode tend to be multi-round affairs; Each team vying for position and building on their accumulated tactical advantages.

D&D as Sport or War

By default, the current incarnation of D&D is Combat as Sport. Characters recover hit points quickly and time is a bit abstract. To bring about a more Combat as War element, make sure that time matters. Taking a long-rest outside of a secure location should come with risk (random encounters). Likewise, short-rests should come with danger. Consider modifications to Death Saves (e.g. a failed save sticks with you until you complete a long-rest). Shift XP from combat towards milestones or wealth accumulation.

In other words, shift the game towards an operational and strategic perspective.

Litmus Tests for Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War

Within the fiction, what is the impact of a single roll? As a GM, how much could you place on the line with a single roll? How much does the system allow to be put on the line? The more at stake with a single roll, leads towards a system that is more Combat as War. In Burning Wheel, I could place an entire season’s military campaign on a single Tactics test (with a linked Administration test from the quartermaster).

Another way to rephrase this is: does a dice roll represent a change in momentum or a substantive change in fictional state?

Do you have a gruesome critical hit chart? What does resource management look like? What does the press your luck mechanic look like? What tools do you have to mitigate a bad roll of the dice? How long are your typical combats? What is the ratio of time between combat and not combat?

Further discussion

Systems

As I’ve looked at my game shelf, I thought I’d start to categorize. And there are varying degrees of War and Sport.

Combat as War

Combat as Sport

Tangent

As a software developer, I see analogues to compiled languages vs. interpreted languages. Compiled languages optimize execution, at the expense of greater upfront resources (e.g. compile the code into an executable). Interpreted languages distribute their source code, and when the time comes to execute, the entire code-base is read into memory and then executed.

Combat as War assumes more planning and quick conflict; It is the compiled software language. Whereas Combat as Sport is the interpreted software language.

Randomizing My Way Through Tomb of Annihilation

The past month, I’ve been running Tomb of Annihilation, in 5E D&D, for two different groups. The first group includes my daughter, step-daughter, and their friends. The second group includes friends from high school and college. I also have a 3rd campaign in the mix as well; A Labyrinth Lord game for my step-daughter and her 6 to 9 other theater friends (and not Tomb of Annihilation).

Tonight, my daughter and step-daughter’s group left Port Nyanzaru. This coming Thursday, I assume the other group will also leave Port Nyanzaru.

With my daughter and step-daughter’s group, I used the recommended hooks for character backgrounds to steer them to Chult. For my friend’s group, they all decided that they were a musical band benefiting from the patronage of Syndra Silvane.

While in Port Nyanzaru, each group learned different information (via a rumor table). They received guidance from different people (via random side quests). They have three things in common:

  1. They both went to Watangu and got the same quest (one gets a spellbook the other a bag of holding). Oddly, they both attempted to persuade him and each group rolled a 1.
  2. They both opted to stay at the Thunderous Lizard, each getting a free night stay (one through a swindle, the other through a rocking performance).
  3. Chaos is the predominate alignment; The high school group is all chaotic, the other group is all chaotic except the roadie and the band manager.

As they journey into the jungle, I’m sure the random encounters will push further divergence. Already the high school group encountered two formative random encounters; a tabaxi hunter and a red wizardess. In the book, these encounters are rather sparse. However, with some role-playing and an odd bargain, the tabaxi joined the group to help them navigate the jungle.

The odd bargain emerged from rolling a random Tabaxi Quirks and Motivations from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. String of Yarn, the tabaxi hunter, sought to find lost civilizations. And never wore the same clothing more than once. With a bit of back and forth, String of Yarn will wear the characters clothes (and costumes) as they travel. In return, he’ll help them navigate through the jungle.

And the party wouldn’t have learned about the tabaxi hunter had they not had a random encounter with flying monkeys. The party did not escalate to violence and instead the bard cast speak with animals learning that they were being followed.

Random encounters are the lifeblood of any and all adventures that I now run. In Tomb of Annihilation, each group will experience a similar game, but the details will vary. And in that variation, we’ll find surprises to which we must all react.

A Slow Path to Dungeon Crawl Classics

While out visiting my brother and sister-in-law, I bought Dungeon Crawl Classics in Lawrence, Kansas in October 2012. The art was captivating (and I should’ve bought the Easley cover). But the rules were not yet for me; I was deep into Dungeon World and felt the DCC book to be rather intimidating.

The game lingered on my shelf for years. I’d pull it out to look at the art, but it never took hold. Then in August of 2015, something changed.

Fate-based games were tiresome and predictable (see Fate Point Economy: All the Glories of Accounting and Fiduciary Obligations). Dungeon World’s shimmer and shine as a new GMing approach had worn thin (It took 18 more months to outline in a blog post a primary issue I have with Dungeon World.)

I was looking at running a new campaign, and DCC made the short list (but was still a dark horse, I think because of the funky dice). But 5th Edition hit and I wanted to give that a spin. I even set up rules for a 5th Edition Character funnel (and should revise those rules based on my observations.)

That campaign fizzled due to scheduling conflicts amongst the players; Also, Out of the Abyss is a hot mess and requires a lot of organizational effort.

A few months passed, and I started playing in a 5E game at Better World Books in Goshen. The group was rather large, combats moved at a glacial pace, and the campaign style was not for me. But it didn’t matter who showed up, the DM ran regardless.

During this time, I was listening to the Save or Die podcast, and I couldn’t help but not GM Jim’s exuberant praise of DCC.

I stopped going to those 5E sessions, as a perfect scheduling storm occurred. I had a chance to start a Burning Wheel campaign based on an idea I had been noodling on for years. We set the group, cleared schedules, and then life shifted and the campaign stopped.

During that short-lived campaign, I saw the Road Crew kits that Goodman Games provided. I decided to run a game to get some swag. On one of the Thursdays when the D&D group wasn’t playing, scheduled and ran a DCC Funnel. At this point, I had never played nor judged DCC.

I left that session energized and excited. My 5th Edition funnel was a pale comparison to the DCC funnel experience. The session felt part Looney Toons and part B-Horror film (abbreviated session write-up for Portal Under the Stars).

As winter passed, I was delving further into OSR options, working a modified Whitehack and writing my own FLGS Quickstart Rules. By this time, I had listened to all of the Save or Die episodes, and moved on to Spellburn. I love Jim Wampler’s podcast energy and enthusiasm.

And that’s when DCC clicked. I re-opened the books, and saw the game for what it was – an intriguing and energizing paradox.

A rules light system in a book that could maim a person. A game that eschews balance in favor of judgement calls and wild randomness. Where death is memorable and an inevitable stepping stone in the campaign story arc. And how a simple mechanic, the Might Deed, can obviate all of the feat chains of other game systems. Where players can get anything they want if they are willing to quest for it!

Now, I am running a regular DCC drop in campaign. I write up session reports, session preparation, and other procedures for the game. I am enjoying it. If the revolving and returning players are any indicator, so are the other players.

It’s a bit chaotic digging through my binder full of characters, never quite knowing what the session will look like, but I enjoy those challenges and improvisations. I’m running from a mix of modules, my own procedures, and improvisation.

Campaign, Rulings, Descriptions, and Questing

Favor Campaign over Characters

In most games, characters start fragile. A dead character should not end the campaign. Players are busy. An absent player should not scuttle the session.

Ensure that the game can handle drop-outs. Also, ensure it can handle drop-ins. Someone has intermittent availability. Work so the game would be fun for them as well as the regular players.

Let’s call this Martin’s Law. George R. R. Martin “Song of Fire and Ice” is a testimony to ensemble stories.

Favor Rulings over Rules

I don’t want to remember a wide variety of rules. I want a light framework to help me adjudicate in a consistent manner. I want to avoid time spent looking up rules, but instead want to keep moving in a consistent manner. I want the players to get back to the adventure/story.

I also want to make sure players have tools that they can use to counter the sting of some of my rulings; Either giving them a bonus, re-roll, advantage, or way of buying it off:

  • Fate Core has Fate points
  • Burning Wheel and Torchbearer have Artha
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics has Luck
  • D&D has Inspiration.
  • Eberron has Hero Points

Favor Description over Prescription

This is an extension of Rulings over Rules, but merits further discussion.

When presented with a problem, are do players limit their response to they have on their character sheet? Or do they start narrating how they respond and look to you for adjudication? Are the players engaging with the adventure or their character sheet?

For clever or amusing ideas, don’t require a role. They described how they were looking for traps and how they would disarm it. Give it to them. Broadcast that you will be rewarding player skill. This is a core tenant of avoiding the grind in Torchbearer, and what the OSR builds on.

Also, throw them some Inspiration, Luck points, Hero points, or Fate tokens. Given them currency to further engage in the story.

In a DCC funnel I ran, one of the characters had a pound of clay and fashioned a terra cotta helmet in hopes of blending in with a bunch of terra cotta warrior automatons. Instead of requiring a Personality roll, I said it worked. If I had to do it over again, I’d also have awarded +1 Luck to the character.

Mighty Deed Die vs. Feat Trees

The Warrior in Dungeon Crawl Classics has a Mighty Deed Die. The Might Deed Die replaces your static bonus to hit. At 1st level, you get a 1d3 Mighty Deed Die. (2nd level it becomes d4, 3rd a d5, etc).

When you attack, you declare your Mighty Deed – trip the monster, blind it, dive between it’s legs slash its underside etc. You then roll your attack add your Mighty Deed roll and your strength (or dexterity) bonus. If you hit the armor class and get a 3 or higher on your Mighty Deed die, your deed happens. The rules suggest the Referee to scale the degree of success based on the Mighty Deed result.

The Mighty Deed Die subsumes 3E and Pathfinder combat maneuvers: trip, disarm, sunder, improved grapple, etc. It guides play from the character sheet back to the table and story.

Favor Questing over Railroading

Put decisions on where to go adventuring into the players’ hands. Let them know if they want it, they can quest for it. Lost a limb? Give them clues about the promises of the Regenerating Muds of Lazul. Ask the players what their characters want. Let them pursue those desires by engaging in the world. But make sure the world is not remaining static.

Set larger events in motion. Create rumor tables. Think off screen. In other words, favor a sandbox world over adventure paths. The campaign is more than the actions of the characters.

Postscript

I recommend three resources:

The Rise (and Fall) of Session 0

I’ve seen an uptick in Session 0 rules for RPGs. And their usage.

The general idea is that before you play your first session, you have a collaborative session to prepare for the game.

You do a little world building (as per Diaspora, Dresden Files, or Fate Core). You might leverage Microscope to build the campaign setting.

Then move into the involved process of character creation: Pick your traits, feats, backgrounds, skills, etc. What shiny bobbins do you want this character to have.

One notable difference between Session 0 and Session 1 is that they are different activities. Where Session 1 is playing a character (or characters), Session 0 is preparing to play the character(s) by playing at world building. It’s analogue to making a Magic deck vs. playing Magic against an opponent. Both can be enjoyable, but they are two different activities.

Session 0 may also be a natural consequence of an involved character creation; Or rules baked into the game system.

While the goal may be admirable – to build consensus and a shared understanding of the game – there is peril.

Where Session 0 Falls Flat

The peril is that Session 0 creates a social contract and understanding that emerged through a different mechanism than the other future sessions.

Session 0 is not about playing to find out what happens…its about building what has happened beforehand. Your character is not taking risks nor in danger – unless you are playing original Traveller in which you could die during character creation.

Session 0 builds the initial conditions that the GM should bring to the table for Session 1. Its now on the GM to live up to those speculative constraints. Its also possible that the player’s initial constraints may not reflect what they discover they want to play in the future sessions.

In other words, in the advice of seasoned programmers: Avoid premature optimization. Get something running as soon as you can.

Making Session 1 the First Session

When the group gets together for the first time, the goal should be to start the charactersen media res as soon as possible.

This assumes:

  • Players know what they are playing that day
  • There is immediate action
  • Characters are quick to bring to the table

Players Know What They Are Playing That Day

Set expectations; What do they need to bring. What will you be doing. What are you trying to get done in the first session.

I ran a DCC 0-level character funnel and did a poor job setting expectations with one of the players. She later expressed frustration at the game.

I should have said:

We will be playing a Dungeon Crawl Classics character funnel. Each of you will have 4 fragile characters to start. The goal is to make it through the dungeon with at least one of them alive. The survivor(s) will be your character(s) in further adventures. It won’t be easy, and you should think of your characters as pawns. Don’t risk them all at once.

There Is Immediate Action

Grab an introductory dungeon and have the characters start there; Either at the threshold or scouting out the approach. If there are random rumors for the adventure, give them a couple.

Do not worry about how they met; They are there and rescuing the puppy, seeking treasure, or ridding the area of monsters. Worry instead of playing to find out what happens.

Suggested Adventures

Characters Are Quick To Bring To The Table

If character creation and equipping is fast (e.g. 15 minutes or less), let them make characters. Keep it time bound. If you have a straggler – cough Matt cough – have them catch up in the dungeon (or find them as a prisoner).

If character creation is longer than 15 minutes, give the players pre-made characters to choose from; If you have time give each player 2 characters and let them pick one.

The goal is to start playing to find out what happens.

Postscript

If character mortality is high (e.g. B/X D&D, Dungeon Crawl Classics, etc.), make sure there are opportunities for replacement characters.

Encourage or give them a some hirelings. In the dungeon add some bound prisoners that can replenish the ranks. Don’t worry about verisimilitude; worry about engaged players.

If character creation is slow, make sure you have some spare characters prepared.

Randomness, I Forgot that I Needed You

I have fond memories of my 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons gaming days. Through random encounters, rolling on treasure tables, swingy spell results, and shared adventures I formed friendships that continue to this day.

From high school through college, we played D&D. Then moved for a brief time to Rolemaster, and it’s notorious charts (and critical tables).

From the Stone Giant Smoothy:

In exploring the caverns, the group had turned the corner and at the end of the corridor was a room packed with Stone Giants. We were out of our league. But we attempted a last ditch defense. My priest decide the best option was to drop a blade barrier in the giant filled room. The wizard thought it would be best to run, and opted to create a wall of force that would buy us all enough time to flee. The initiative fell, and the blade barrier went off, then the wall of force. The dimensions of the blade barrier fit the room, and all we could do is stare at the invisible barrier as the frost giants met their doom.

To Ace and Deuce in a short-lived Rolemaster campaign:

Deuce was an accomplished bowman and rogue; Built to be a death dealing archer. Yet, when arrows flew, his first critical hit – D critical – were superficial and his second hit was the killing blow. To aggravate the situation, the other player adopted the moniker Ace after three occasions of one-shot kills. (Thank you Matt for the corrections)

Through a random encounter with a White Dragon:

I rolled a random encounter: A White Dragon attacked the character’s on the permafrost fields; Lucky initiative and some potent spells dispatched the dragon. From there, the party druid cast Find the Path to locate the dragon’s hoard. And a grand session ensued where the party fought tooth and nail with a drow (again random) raiding party who also wanted to loot the dragon hoard.

And:

A Diversion

For the last 5 or so years, I’ve been chasing game systems looking for the right fit (Thank you 4th Edition for the bitter taste you left in my mouth). For a while my system of choice was Dungeon World.

In Dungeon World, I found a system that I could run with little prep and ample room for rulings. But as I’ve reflected, I noticed these games had a subtle yet profound frustration – the initial character bonds.

We would go around the table, establishing bonds and dive into the details of those bonds. From the interwoven bonds, I would improvise our first session. It is a great trick for convention games and short scenarios.

The interwoven bonds create an obvious starting situation. We’d play and during those sessions the situation would begin to resolve. Moves would snowball, but I found that nothing new and unexpected would enter the ecosystem of the starting situation; We would build on what the GM and players came up with.

What was missing was “Things that nobody knew would happen“; the random initiative, critical tables, and random encounters. Those subsystems that inject the unexpected.

I missed the moment when all players at the table would assess and respond to the unexpected. When imaginations fired and creativity responded to the constraints of the new situation.

The Challenge

Here’s a challenge to everyone, pick one:

  • Ask another player who has been playing for awhile to describe their most memorable experience with a Deck of Many Things.
  • Drop a Deck of Many Things in your next session, and roll with the punches.

In my experience, the table comes alive with the Deck of Many Things: The promise of riches and the gamble. A scene with a Deck of Many Things is a concentrated moment of adventure.

That first player who draws a few cards, and all is well. Thus goading others on. Then the desperation as party members begin drawing from the Deck of Many Things not for riches, but to try to undo the drawing of the Void or Donjon by a party member. And there are the treasure maps, fighting death, gaining a keep, and enmity with an outer planar creature.

In 2nd Edition, I had a Dwarf that once drew 5 or 6 cards. He drew the Euryale (-3 penalty to all saving throws vs. petrification). Several sessions later, the group had a random encounter with a Gorgon’s petrifying breath; The -3 penalty made the difference in his failed roll.

I wasn’t there for another use, but I believe a beloved and long running henchman began his career when a player drew the Knight (gain the service of a 4th level fighter).

Postscript

These days I’m looking to Dungeon Crawl Classics as my system of choice. It is a paradox…a rules light system in a massive tome. The majority of the pages are for random things (spell results, dragon powers, critical hits, fumbles, starting occupations, deity disapproval, etc.).

Characters don’t begin with interwoven backstories, they are instead dropped at the start of an adventure with 3 random bits of equipment and some coins. But more on that for another time.