Tip of the Iceberg: Monte Cook’s First Legends & Lore

by Dantracker (Kenneth McNay) on September 28, 2011

Monte Cook’s inaugural Legends & Lore column is an inauspicious beginning. Taken as a whole, the column introduced Monte Cook to readers and discussed his take on the skill system proposed by Mike Mearls in his August 16 Legends & Lore article Difficulty Class Warfare. As if rehashing a used topic wasn’t bad enough, Cook didn’t present it nearly as well Mearls did a month earlier. If you haven’t yet read Monte Cook’s first Legends & Lore column, Very Perceptive, I encourage you to do so before reading my running commentary and opinions on the highs and lows.

The purpose driven column

Cook began by giving a description of the job he is undertaking; he is working with the Research & Development department at Wizards of the Coast as a remote consultant. His primary role is to explore options. The reader can only assume this is research for a future edition; however, it seems likely that his writing could lead to new 4e D&D content long before a future edition.

Cook attests to D&D as an evolving game that must move forward and remain true to its roots. That sounds like an excellent morgue file for future topics. What makes up the identity of D&D? Have any 4e D&D mechanics, systems, or lore become a necessary part of the D&D identity? Unfortunately, this is not the topic he chose for this column.

That was no swan dive

Cook dives right into his perspective on skills and role-play. This is the system he proposed to Mearls only a few weeks ago. However, Cook’s presentation appears distinctly less developed. It comes away as a lost opportunity. This column is a good place for Cook to write his own article describing how to implement the system in place of 4e’s skill system and provide guidance on using it in play. But, the result sadly lacks strength by forgoing mechanics in favor of an example based on the cover art from the first edition’s PHB.

Moving forward, there is a distinct lack of bite with regards to adventure design. It is true that a DM acts as the sense of the PCs; if a DM doesn’t give description, the PCs are left unaware. What is missing in Cook’s analysis of adventure design is a depiction of a DM choosing to include content. A designed adventure has already generated the rewards, hidden traps or hazards, secret doors or levers, and set dressing. The what ifs and maybes of players attempting to open every nook and uncover every stone doesn’t generate things which the DM didn’t choose to include.

Cook suggests rewarding role-play with special secrets or stunts. Why are readers being told to reward role-playing in a role-play game? One would not expect a baseball player to gain a bonus for talking about baseball? Role-play is the method of driving a story forward in the adventure. The reward of role-playing should not be a mechanical bonus. It should be the benefit of telling the characters’ tale and participating in a collaborative story.

Furthermore, this kind of benefit rewards the player’s skill and imagination more than the character’s. This creates an unfair platform for those that have little role-play talent or inclination. It removes player capacity to depict their character as written (unless it is a roughly equal copy of the player). Lastly, Cook bemoans the truth that a bad dice roll could cause all that good role-play to fail. Dice provide an unbiased equal footing for all participants. The dice create a bridge for players to embody their character while erecting a wall between player’s stats and character’s stats.

What is seen in Cook’s attitude is a fear of permitting failure to exist in a role-play game. His proposed system removes failure in one of two ways: first, those without sufficient chance of success are excluded from failure by not allowing a roll; second, those with an overwhelming chance of success are not required to roll at all. Thus, the chance to permit failure is reduced to only the smallest range of possibility. The risk of failure is not a system flaw to be corrected. Attempting to do so is a user error. Role-play needs to include the response and decisions of a character faced with failure. Perhaps if he had started with the debate of storytelling vs. game playing this would have been covered. Unfortunately, this debate is postponed until further notice.

The worst two paragraphs

In the limited description of a word-based skill ranking system lies a serious question: Does Monte Cook have any comprehension of 4e D&D? His writing leaves one with an impression that he has no comprehension of the core rules. The proposed skill reimagining appears far too similar to the existing 4e skill system. What is the purpose of replacing a functional system with a new system that appears little different?

There was a need for Cook to give a more developed presentation of the system and methods of implementing and testing the ideas for readers of Legends & Lore to parse and respond. The conceptual suggestion is a lost opportunity for the lack of a defined system of implementation.

Open to what comes next

Despite the troubling first column, there are several good topics already alive in the piece which can be approached during the coming weeks. A more inclusive debate of the identity of D&D could spur fantastic research of what content should be provided. A strong debate of storytelling vs. game playing would lead to improved guidance for DMs and players for better campaigns; it could also show where rules can step back to allow better stories or better games.

However, the discussion of the skill system is burnt out. It is time to move on and time to let go of force-feeding the idea of word-based skill ranks over number-based skill scores. Readers have seen two presentations of the concept. The forum threads have discussed it. Some readers will quickly attest it is not as good a system, especially without more development and possibility of play-testing.

As a readership it is time to hope for the best of Monte Cook and plan for the best. Yes, we should plan for the best of his work. During the weeks and months that Cook is permitted to write Legends & Lore we are certain to see his best work come forward.

What are your thoughts on the identity of D&D as a game? Has 4e presented elements that should be included when speaking of D&D’s roots? What topics are you interested in from Legends & Lore?

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1 Dungeonmaster Johnny September 28, 2011 at 9:44 am

I thought the same thing. As I posted on my facebook page a couple days ago, how can he add to game or improve it if he doesnt know the mechanics. I also posted on his page he needs to be put in the adventure creation department,lol. He clicked “like” on that statement.

2 Thorynn September 28, 2011 at 9:56 am

My reaction to his article was almost completely opposite. I felt his skill system seemed to make more sense than what 4e has in place, and I felt it made more sense than Mearls’. And I’m a huge fan of 4e and never even played 3 or 3.5, but the way he described skills happening seemed more natural to me. Say a party discovers a magical tome. The wizard rolls a 1 on his arcana check, the ranger rolls a 20. Why in the heck would a ranger know more about magic than the wizard? Intrinsic skills make for good role-playing in my opinion, and allows the people who are supposed to be good at their respective skills shine at the appropriate time.

3 Dungeonmaster Johnny September 28, 2011 at 10:43 am

@Thorynn- a check like that should usually be a trained skill check,so the Ranger shouldnt get one anyway. Its also completely possible that the Ranger has heard legends of the magical tome and the wizard has absolutley no knowledge of it. Its like when the weather man says its gonna rain and I look outside and tell my wife its not gonna rain and end up being right.(yes strange example, but true ALOT )

4 Thorynn September 28, 2011 at 12:17 pm

@DM Johnny – I see your point, and I agree in some respects. To me it just lets people shine in the roles they chose to play. It’s no fun when I’m the cleric in the party, and I fail all the religion checks, meanwhile the happy-go-lucky gnome passes them. If you choose a particular class its because you think aspects of that class are cool and you want to be good at them. Monte’s checks would allow people who want to be good in something take ranks in things they want to be good at, and succeed much more often than they do now.

5 Pedro Rodrigues September 28, 2011 at 12:34 pm

While i agree with pretty much everything you say, i strongly disagree with this:

“The reward of role-playing should not be a mechanical bonus. It should be the benefit of telling the characters’ tale and participating in a collaborative story.”

The actual result i have been seeing more and more is a reliance on rolls over role-play as THE defining way to solve problems and advance situations; this also builds into itself, as roleplay takes more work that rolling a dice, thus RP should be rewarded with mechanical bonuses IMHO; also note that is a reward (as in bonus), not a penalty for the others (both roleplay challenged and tired players).

But thats a topic for another time.

6 Thorynn September 28, 2011 at 12:52 pm

this t-shirt may become more poignant than we know right now:


7 froth September 28, 2011 at 1:55 pm

he bravely suggested the exact same system we already use

8 Ameron (Derek Myers) September 28, 2011 at 3:02 pm

This is the first time I’m seeing this T-shirt. Love it!

9 The Gimper September 28, 2011 at 4:12 pm

“Why are readers being told to reward role-playing in a role-play game?”

To encourage role-playing. Most often what I see is people just rolling dice and expecting the DM to tell them what they did, and what the result was. I’m not saying that the player needs to be the best actor in the world, but I do think that something more than “I bluff the king. (Roll dice.) I got a 32. What happens?” is required. At least give me something like, “I try to bluff the king into believing that I’m a member of the Royal Court in my city.” So, to encourage that, you get a +2 to your roll just for trying. If you don’t want to do that, you just go with your straight roll, and take the results you get from that. There’s no penalty to the player who doesn’t role-play.

“Furthermore, this kind of benefit rewards the player’s skill and imagination more than the character’s…The dice create a bridge for players to embody their character while erecting a wall between player’s stats and character’s stats.”

I think this is a bit of a false dichotomy. Yes, there are things the character can do that the player can’t (cast a magic missile for example). But, decisions about whether a character should move, where he should move to, whether to attack or try to talk, what power to use, etc. are made by the player, and all involve tactics, even if the player is not very tactically minded. Sometimes the player has his character do something that is tactically unsound. That’s the way it goes. But we don’t allow the player to just roll a d20 and let the DM decide for him. And players often (if not always) tend to draw on knowledge that they personally have when making decisions about what their character does. For example, a player who has never done any climbing, in describing his character’s actions, might say, “I use a rope to climb down the cliff side.” Whereas a player who has lots of experience with climbing, might describe how he ties the rope around his legs and waist so that he can repel down the side. In other words, the player’s personal knowledge colors what his character does.

10 Dave September 28, 2011 at 4:26 pm

I found Monte’s article sadly lacking. It didn’t bring anything new to the table, nor was it a particularly good read.

I agree with Pedro that role-playing should be rewarded. We’re playing an RPG after all. I wouldn’t punish someone for not being good at role-playing, but the people who put in the extra effort deserve an in-game benefit. In the aforementioned case of searching for a hidden door, it makes sense that the guy who is looking for scratches on the floor will have a better chance of success than the guy who say “I’ll seach for secret doors”, as the latter might not even think to look down.

The 3.5 D&D PHB has a table of modifiers for Bluff attempts based on how believable your bluff is. I think that’s a great way of combining player and character skill. Similar modifiers could easily be created for almost all skills.

11 Oz September 28, 2011 at 5:35 pm

I echo the sentiment that good role-playing should be rewarded. It can be mechanical, as in a bonus, or story oriented. This encourages more role-playing over roll-playing.

12 Rabbit is wise September 28, 2011 at 8:30 pm

I like his system for passive checks only… you have to remember very few characters will have more than one or two “grandmaster” ranks and who says they are in perception or insight, by the way his system should only grant you a “typicial” player one “grandmaster” rank… you could even intergrate this into the skill system now, and make it just for insight and perception…
0 or less = fail…
1-8 novice…
9-16 journeyman,
17-24 expert,
25- 32 master,
33 or higher grandmaster… fails at only impossible tasks

in fact im thinking of implementing this for my homebrew game

13 Kenneth McNay September 28, 2011 at 9:09 pm

@Dungeonmaster Johnny
I tweeted back and forth a bit with Monte and watched a few other conversations. It appears he has limited experience playing in 4e D&D game sessions. However, he sincerely feels his passive perception system is different than the existing 4e system, but it wasn’t properly expressed. That was my frustration with the piece–nothing was well written, though it might be a viable system.

Do you think that his system could be viable if it is well developed and properly presented?

I’m convinced that what you’ve used as an example can be worked out through DM practice. For example, I place an ancient tome and decide on an appropriate DC OR I place an ancient tome and decide taht the party wizard will have sufficient passive arcana. If the ranger is trained, and wishes to attempt, I’ll allow the attempt with an appropriate DC. So, then the narrative must tell why the wizard might not understand the tome, yet the ranger understands. (if the ranger isn’t trained, I’ll likely not allow an attempt.)

This is a DM decision point in 4e. Monte’s system turns it into a system decision…possibly. I could still decide that the tome is of sufficient quality that the wizard must roll, but to do so, it is likley, by system rule, outside of an attemptable range by the ranger (if trained at all). It is viable, but it is different.

What sort of DM practice activities do you use to improve your craft at adventure design?

@Pedro Rodrigues, Dave and Oz
I think we may be on far sides of the fence about role-play. I see that role-play can provide a large benefit to those that use it in-game, but I never want it to provide the feeling, “Yay! I role-played, can I have my +2 bonus now?”

I don’t want to be obligated as a DM to provide a bonus for role-play.

However, role-play decisions can provide benefits that appear mechanical which might be narrative. As Dave says in another comment, describing actions of a PC could result is different results. I see that as narrative, not mechanical.

Also, useing role-play to ‘defend’ against a worst solution: e.g. player: “I speak with the duke about our need for his help. I’m not certain what to say, but I absolutely know that I won’t insult his mother, deride his father, nor call his sister anything rude. I’d like to use Diplomacy to represent my skill while speaking with the duke.” Even if the roll comes out poorly, at least you’ve established that your PC knows what to avoid even if the PC doesn’t know the right topic. Without role-play description, you rely on the DM to provide narrative of success or failure–the failure might be narratively far worse than desired.

Role-play is a way to ensure a narrative voice in the game. That is the benefit I think most fitting. I don’t want a pattern of +2 for a role-play performance.

Also, as DM, I can restrict rolling dice to only those rolls I permit and acknowledge. Just because the dice hit the table doesn’t mean I must accept and adjudicate the results. I can ask clarifying questions, determine intent, and/or require description before the dice begin to roll. This helps determine if the task could be handled by take 10 or take 20 instead of a die roll.

@Rabbit is wise
I agree the system has some viable strength and could be developed. I don’t personally prefer it, but I can wrap my head around it and consider it in that light at least.

@ Everyone
I think that Monte missed an opportunity and squandered an opportunity. He wrote about a previously discussed topic and showed little to no recognition of the discussion that came before. He also presented an idea with no additional contribution to the original presentation and a strong arguement for its function and value.

I also think he missed a chance to discuss storyteling vs. game playing which could have been ultimately far more notable for a first column. I know that my playstyle and DM style sit solidly on the storytelling side of that debate. As a player, I am an actor, explorer, storyteller, and instigator. If he could have taken time to show us where he sits on those topics, he could have opened a very lively dicsussion as well as given a strong indication of the content he was intending to present through L&L.

Surely that could have polarized fans for and against him, but at least everyone would know where he stands. They could know that his topics come from his perspective and may or may not include their direct interests. They could know that his proposals would be directed toward one side of that debate more often than the other side.

I feel that regardless of edition, skills are now a part of the roots of D&D. It is a portion of the identity that you can have character stats that indicate abilities the player might not have and can empower the player to embody a persona they don’t normally. Skills could be expressed by word-based ranks or number-based scores, but serve that identity either way. If Monte had taken on the discussion of story vs. game or the roots of D&D, he could have established his position before presenting systems, lore, or mechanics.

14 Rico September 29, 2011 at 2:08 am

@Kenneth McNay
“Without role-play description, you rely on the DM to provide narrative of success or failure–the failure might be narratively far worse than desired.”

Also, it means that the DM is solely responsible for story-telling rather than it being the cooperative effort it is supposed to be. The PCs end up being little more than an extension of the DM when he is responsible for narrating what the PC says and does as well as the result. He might as well just be telling a story to a group, “And then you said this, and the prince responded…”

“Also, as DM, I can restrict rolling dice to only those rolls I permit and acknowledge. Just because the dice hit the table doesn’t mean I must accept and adjudicate the results. I can ask clarifying questions, determine intent, and/or require description before the dice begin to roll. This helps determine if the task could be handled by take 10 or take 20 instead of a die roll.”

Exactly! This happened to me tonight while running Encounters. A Player asked, “Can I make a perception check?” and picked up his dice to roll. This is what D&D has largely become. I asked him what he was trying to perceive, what was he looking for? After he told me, so that I had an idea of how to respond to his success/failure, I let him make the roll.

15 Sunyaku September 29, 2011 at 2:50 am

Uh oh, I read this and thought, “I really hope they don’t release fortune cards that offer mechanical bonuses for role playing”. Ugh. 🙁 Back in the Dark Sun season of encounters, we had a DM who did occasionally reward good roleplaying with a minor mechanical bonus, especially in skills challenges. Rewards were mainly issued for things like creative uses of skills or descriptions of actions that actually made sense in the context of the plot (and/or the character’s story background). While it made sense at the time, I could certainly see how this could be abused.

16 benensky September 29, 2011 at 7:43 pm

This did not move me too much. It was flat since it did not move into new territory. Instead it rehashed their ideas on the skill checks system proposed before.

Additionally, I do not see how this new rank system increases roll play. For example, if a player a rank below top rank and he walks down a passage and gets hit in the head with a spike because it is a top ranked trap. Then, why wouldn’t he walk down the next passage requesting perception rolls before every move so he does not catch an other spike in the head.

Making the rule that the DM calls for skill checks and players are not allowed to request them. Instead the player needs to describe his actions and if they do something that is neither so easy that they can do it without a roll (I pick up a stone and toss it into the next room) or so impossible the DM tells them outright they fail at doing it (I tear the massive statue from its base and jettison it at the speed of sound into the next room) then the DM will tell them they need to roll (I throw the large rock into the next room). This will encourage more roll play and reduce mechanical play. In the spike in the head example the DM could say, Make a perception roll after the player says they proceed down the hallway. If the player failed he would get hit and if he succeeded he would be told, “You see a trap up ahead.”

17 Thoth October 1, 2011 at 8:56 am

Through my entire D&D playing life (I started when Basic / Expert / Advanced was current) I have always looked forward to each new edition of the game and thought that it was far and away better than the previous version. 2 was a great step forward, 3 was a leap beyond 2, and 4 is hands-down the best it has ever been.

I can honestly say that I was never more fearful for the future of D&D than the moment I read that article. The entirety of Cook’s article essentially said: “I’ve never read the current rules, but here’s my idea for doing exactly what the system already does, but in a much less elegant way.”

Literally nearly every single thing he wrote was just a different name (and sometimes not even that) for the exact same system we currently have. He actually put Passive Perception in quotes – as though he was coining the bloody term.

Seriously, has Cook actually read a single word of the current rules? The entire skill system he expressed is exactly the current 4e rules, just using a different granularity of difficulty, and replacing a universally easy to understand scale (bigger numbers = better) for a set of names that are just numbers in disguise. And in exchange for a more obscure labeling system, we gain nothing.

He suggests that this proposed system rewards interaction and role playing more than the current system? Bull. A +2 bonus for doing something clever or appropriate has been built into the system since D&D3, and is in the D&D4 DMG as well.

Passing checks automatically because you’re an expert at Skill X? If you’re total modifier for the skill is high enough, you automatically pass certain check DCs. Certain characters who are experts at certain kinds of skill being the only ones in the party able to succeed at certain checks? already in the rules with Trained Only uses.

Bluntly, if this was Cook’s ‘best foot forward’ moment for his new role with the future of D&D, he should be fired.

18 Rabbit is wise October 3, 2011 at 5:29 pm

really thoth he should be fired?
dude chill it was a decent article not great, not good, not bad…
but fire the guy really?
and people wonder why they’re not takin seriously

19 Thoth October 4, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Yes, really. That article as written should never have seen publication – all it did was show that Cook had zero knowledge of the current rules, and that his editor was negligent in not telling him that the article was worse than useless.

Exactly how useless the article was was made even more clear by the “Rule .5” answer in this week’s Rule of 3 column, which (in 3 succinct paragraphs) completely summed up how the current game mechanics can easily address why and when to bother with making skill checks.

I should note that the ‘should be fired’ comment at the end of my post wasn’t placed there lightly – I honestly feel that the article as published was that bad. In my world, when you’re incompetent at your job, you don’t keep that job.

20 Rabbit is wise October 5, 2011 at 7:20 pm

But thats not true… this article was a “theoreticle” way skill checks would be used in the future. Who cares what the rules are now, it wasnt about 4e d&d.
remember 12% didnt like it… the rest thought it was ok… or better.
Even if it was a bad article your kind of reaction isnt going to get you takin seriously…
Lets let the sample size go to larger than 1 article before we call for his head

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