Friday, January 27, 2012

Half-Hearted about Half-Level

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about D&D and one of the things we talked about was the half-level bonus. I got very passionate about how awesome I thought it was and how it works really well.

I was right, and I was wrong. I sat down today and went over my arguments in support and realized I meant everything I said, but also that it really didn't matter.

The only thing I said that I feel strongly about was how it made characters who have moved on from local issues to grander adventures don't get bogged down by local issues again. But that is me.

My other big argument was that it helped characters who were stripped of their gear deal with threats, but that is just something that 4E was the first system to do right. It doesn't mean that D&D Next needed half-level to achieve the same thing.

So I stand back from my statements. Half-level is fine, and it works, but it is far from the importance I gave it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Location, Location, Location.

With all the talk about the new edition, I haven't done much talking about the topic that matters to me the most. Designing and running D&D adventures. I love telling stories, and I love sharing the creation process with my players as they get to change the course of the story. I love being able to being together disparate aspects of the story into a coherent picture as the story unfolds.

Monte Cook today expressed his feelings that D&D is a lot like episodic television, and he is correct. Each adventure is an episode with common threads in a common setting that reveals part of an overall story. It will be unique and different to the adventures around it, but will still be part of the same story.

Today I want to talk about one of the elements of D&D based storytelling that all too often gets overlooked or oversimplified. The location those adventures and encounters take place in. I will be going ahead with the concept that people will use a map during gameplay, especially for encounters. I have already expressed how using a map doesn't mean tactic or mini based play, just a better and more consistent method of communicating the location to the players.

Adventure Location

One of the things I remember about the 1E modules I read, and I read a lot of them, was the description of the locations. Most of them had a key concept and most of the adventure was designed around that. Then 2E came out and the adventures being published tended to become very setting focused, and you rarely got the same impact from the locations as they were diluted by the overall setting they tried to encapsulate. 3E had a mix, with some of the better locations coming from 3rd party publishers. 4E really hasn't impacted me much because it was the first edition that allowed you pure creativity, so I have focused more on writing than running published adventures. But the couple I have looked at seem to be similar to 3E in style, though better in presentation.

When I write I try to give each adventure a strong location, and ensure that every encounter adds to the flavor of that location. Coming up with a good location isn't too difficult, but making it more than description can be. In my current campaign, which is still in the Heroic Tier, the heroes have explored an abandoned dwarf city in preparation for recolonization, trudged through the city's overgrown and occupied aqueduct system, explored a chitine lair made of huge spheres hanging over a gravel pit and connected by webs, entered a slavers camp hidden in the hills and other locations of that ilk. All of these are locations I am proud of, they were simple but good enough to give a style to the story I was telling with the adventure. Some of my favorite locations are written down, but the players aren't there yet so I don't want to say too much.

The important point is the location is more than just the setting for the adventure, it should be something that is explored with every encounter the characters have while on the adventure. Try not to fall into the 2E trap of making your location feel unimportant because you keep referring to other places to define it, and try to avoid the all to common mistake of defining a location, and then designing encounters that could fit in anywhere and don't feel like part of the location you are trying to establish. Your players will remember your adventure for far longer if they can attach it to a detailed location, rather than a string of chambers. I know this from what I remember out of my 30 years of playing D&D.

One thing I recommend for most locations is make them special. Be fanciful and make them grand. One thing D&D has suffered from throughout it's history is keeping things small because of wanting to keep it all on a single map. Or making things large and then filling them with so many encounters that it gets very repetitive. One of the best things about the adventures I have read for 4E is locations are made as big or small as suits them, and then the encounter locations are mapped out in more detail, leaving the rest to the DM. You may have an island 10 miles across with only a half a dozen encounters on it, whereas I remember a small island in 1E that had over 40 encounters that were all quite similar. The island was great, it just felt too crowded to maintain the fantasy.

Don't be scared to make locations that extraordinary. If you want to put a city on top of a cloud, or have an adventure inside the body of a dead dragon lord, or want to go the other way and have a whole adventure inside a roadside inn, do it. Just try to make the whole story part of the location.

Encounter Locations

This is a much more complicated and controversial topic. Every edition of D&D has suffered from bad encounter location design, though 3E was better than earlier editions, and 4E tried to improve again. I want to state flat out that having 30 dungeon rooms on a map isn't designing good encounter locations, though it might be a good adventure location. Good encounter locations will contribute to the encounter or encounters that happen there, while feeling like part of the adventure location and telling part of the story.

This is why I have stated that I feel encounter maps are needed even if you don't put a grid on it and use miniatures. The information on a map will give your players ideas you never though of, and give them a lot more creative input than they will have from asking a lot of "Can I" questions. I will be moving forward assuming miniatures are used, because they really do add to the DM's ability to convey the uniqueness of any location.

But what makes a good encounter location? There is no definite answer to this, but I can express what I have found.

Firstly make the size appropriate, and by that I don't mean ensuring you don't put a dragon in a 20' x 20' room. You can convey mood very well by playing with the available space the adventurers have. A tight situation, where the players have to move around each other and get in each others way, will change not only the way an encounter is described but also the way it is played and the story it tells. An expansive room, where everything is far apart will tell a different story and convey a different mood. As a general rule I have found a 60' x 60' encounter map is a good starting point, and then I go bigger or smaller depending on the encounter that happens there. If I want to make it a multi-room encounter map I tend to make it larger to make up for the walls and corridors. Also try to think in three dimensions; adding a tower, a ledge, a pit or anything that gives three dimensions the adventurers can move in will add a huge amount to the encounter.

One of the strengths about thinking in three dimensions is the ability to control movement of both the adventurers and their enemies. If there are stairs up to an upper level, then moving up or down them can add a lot to a combat. Meanwhile your thief will be climbing over the ledge and using their skills to manipulate the combat in more ways than they ever could in a flat square room.

One last thing. You can make the location special by having it contribute powers to the fight. I recently ran a fight in a forge where anyone near one of the openings to the furnace could make an attack by pouring molten metal over people below. When an enemy did this the adventurers took note, and by the end of the fight they had turned the tables and were using it themselves. Locations can add as much or as little as you want them to.

I don't want this article to be about map design, I will cover that later. But when designing a location for an encounter, thinking about size, mood, features and movement will contribute more to the storytelling of any encounter than any amount of descriptive text.

Coming Soon: My Mapping Methods
My guide to designing and presenting maps, which is focused on well designed but simply presented.

Monday, January 23, 2012

An alternative to AEDU

The 4E Power system has a lot of haters. I am not one of them. As there are a lot of people who are against the AEDU system, I thought I would post some initial thoughts.

AEDU stands for "At-Will, Encounter, Daily, Utility" and sums up in four letters the current power system. There are At-Will powers that can be used every round, Encounter powers that can be used once per fight, and Daily powers that can be used once per day. The Utility powers fall into one of these three categories.

Most of the hatred seems to come from the idea that certain abilities can only be used once a day. Personally I like this for a mechanic, but I understand where they are coming from. While playing 4E I really enjoy the current power system, it is a whole lot more fun when you chose what to do based on what you are fighting and how the battle is going.

But for an alternative how about a system that replaces Daily with Limited. You can use one Limited power per fight, but you can choose which one and use the same power every fight if you want. On big fights where players need to pull out all the stops, the DM adds a time where the players get a second Limited power use. Eg. The boss becomes bloodied, and everyone gets another Limited power usage.

You could do similar for Encounters if you want, maybe starting with 2 per combat and then giving an extra Encounter usage for every 5 levels a character has. Personally I don't like this system as much, but it is a cross between AEDU and the Vancian system. One advantage this system could have us you could introduce preparation of powers at the start of the day, so if you wanted a wizard to have 100 powers in his spell book and only able to learn maybe half a dozen of each type of power in the morning and then select from them in combat for that day.

This would allow for some things that were moved to rituals in 4E to become powers again, which would be good as the current ritual system is flawed. But I am not sure that this single fact makes this suggestion an improvement.

As I said I prefer the current system than this suggestion, but it does start to address some of the concerns lots of people seem to have with AEDU.

Feats - can they work better?

No clever title this time, just a question that has been bothering me since their introduction in 3E. Feats are a great concept, but they have been implemented badly, and the next 12 months might be the only chance we get to get a solid fix in place.

So what went wrong?

The first problem with Feats is the variation in power level. Some Feats were so much more powerful than others that they were always taken in priority, others were so weak that I never saw anyone even consider them. Even in a role playing heavy campaign some Feats just weren't worth the paper they were printed on. I don't think it's because they weren't powerful enough, but because others were too powerful.

The second problem was with the requirements. Often a Feat would have a requirement that just wasn't feasible for the classes that would want it. Having to increase one of your stats only to meet a Feat requirement was annoying, especially if you use point buy stats.

3(.5) had out of control stat increases through items, which 4E cleverly eliminated; but the Feats weren't adjusted for this so many of them were nearly impossible to get, even if they were low in power. Neither system got them right, both tried hard.

So how do we fix it?

I don't know. I have some ideas, but not having spent time designing and playtesting an alternative I am almost certainly missing important things, but not expressing ideas because you don't know how they will turn out never gets you anywhere.

Some Feats are always going to be more powerful than others, so maybe we need tiers or classifications of Feats. I don't suggest going back to the 3(.5) system of having to buy feats you don't want to unlock the one you do, but rating feats by their power and function and allowing them to take Feats of different types at different levels. Adding this level of complexity is normally something I try hard to avoid, but Feats are something you only worry about during level advancement, so it wouldn't slow gameplay too much. As I expect the core rules not to include feats, and them be a modular option, it also should work as it would be part of choosing Feats as an available module.

So how would you do this classification of Feats? Maybe have four types. Combat, tactics, utility and flavor. Combat feats would give bonuses to hit or damage, or allow for armor proficiencies, things of that sort. Tactics feats would allow for movement or positioning benefits, and allow players who don't use maps to ignore this type of feat completely. Utility feats would provide benefits that don't directly effect combat, improving skills or maybe maximizing out of combat healing. Then Flavor feats would add customization to role playing, though they might include diplomacy type skills.

At first level you might get one of each type of feat, then at each level you get one of a specified kind, so you can't just stack the combat improving feats. This will reduce the urge for people who want to take flavor type feats but feel they need to take the min-max feats to either keep up with the player who does, or just as often to avoid ridicule from those players, who feel any feat that isn't 'the best' is a waste of time.

As for prerequisites, perhaps they shouldn't be based on Stats, but the bonuses from that stat so you get the half-level bonus, assuming that remains in the game (and I hope it does). That way as you progress through the levels you get more customization options rather than running out of options. At low levels only a Fighter might have the strength to get a Feat, but later on other classes would get access to them without having to spend too much time trying to meet weird prerequisites.

This would also remove the need for Paragon and Epic Feats, you would just be able to set the requirements so that you need some half-level bonus in order to get them. This may seem to go against what I said above about impossible restrictions, but it doesn't make them impossible forever, just until you get to the level where they become available. This would also give the people who desperately want a feat to work towards getting it faster, while not forcing them to make these decisions if they are prepared to wait a few levels. If you want more powerful Feats available for higher levels, you make them need a higher Stat bonus, so people don't take them too early.

As I said, there are almost certainly problems with this system I haven't thought of, but as a starting point it seems to address some of the most significant problems with the current Feat system.

Maybe we will see something like this as we hear more about D&D Next, and hopefully we will see something even better.

Defenses - Missing The Point?

There are several philosophies to Defenses in D&D, and unfortunately they rarely work well together. They generally require completely different stats and mechanics, and this means balancing something to work for different systems is very difficult. So the challenge for the designers of D&D Next is to come up with a system that will work for all players no matter what level of complexity and tactics they wish to use.

Who should determine the success of an attack?

In the past, hitting something with a weapon attacked their Armor Class and casting a spell required the target to make a Saving Throw depending on the type of magic used. This is an overly simplistic description, but holds true for most of the history of D&D.

This system worked for a long time, but that doesn't mean it was good. My biggest issue with it was the Saving Throw. Once a character attacked with a spell they then had to wait for a defensive dice roll to see how effective it was, this meant the resolution of the attack wasn't done by the player. They didn't have a target to hit, they just threw the spell at something and waited to see what happened. It didn't feel like their skill with magic or their actions really had much impact on the result.

In the current edition of D&D all creatures have defensive stats for different types of attacks. Then your attack will designate what defense you have to overcome to successfully hit. All of the dice rolls to resolve an attack are made by the player. I feel this is a better system because instead of the player waiting for the DM to tell them how their attack went, the player tells the DM. It's a small distinction, but has huge impact on player involvement.

Whatever system we get in D&D Next I hope it keeps the results of the attack in the hands of the player.

He current system used in 4E is great in this way, but in many others it really misses the target. The four primary defensive stats (AC, Fort, Ref, Will) work in concept, but they frequently failed in practice.

The concepts are:
• Armor Class (AC) is how hard it is to land a hit that gets through the armor of the target. Eg, hitting someone with a sword.
• Fortitude (Fort) is how hard it is to land a hit that strikes someones physical core. Eg, a disease or poison attack.
• Reflex (Ref) is how hard it is to land a hit that someone has to dodge. Eg, hitting them with a bolt of magic energy.
• Will is how hard it is to land a hit that effects someone's mind. Eg, a charm or fear effect.

These make sense and seem like a good idea, so how do they fail in practice? Well, the lines blur a little too easily, and way too often.

Frequently you get powers, either character or monster, that seem to attack the wrong defense. Other times you get monsters who's defenses don't match the concept they are trying to convey.

Let me try to explain with an example.

You are facing four monsters. One is wearing plate mail and a shield and is wielding a sword. One is in leather armor and had two daggers. One is in chain mail and has a mace and a holy symbol. The last is in cloth clothing covered in magical symbols. Pretty much the standard archetypes.

You would expect the plate mail and shield guy to have the highest AC by quite a bit, but in practice in there is likely to be very little difference in the AC of the monsters. You would expect the leather wearer as a rogue type to have a higher Ref than Fort defense, but generally they are almost the same. You would expect the cleric or wizard type to have a higher Will defense than the others, but again  not so much.

The reason for this was because of the limit to the type of attacks that PCs had, and the chase for the almighty balance point where everyone was on equal footing. In the DMG it goes as far as setting the non AC defenses for a monster as all the same when you create a monster, showing how little the defenses really meant. So every PC type had an equal chance, the defenses got closer and closer together, and the number of attacks that attacked defenses they shouldn't got more and more.

I can accept a fighter being able to use encounter or daily powers that target Ref and Fort, but mostly they should attack AC and maybe occasionally have an ability that targets Will; I know having a guy in heavy armor tossing around an axe dripping gore yelling at me would scare the hell out of me. But there should be a reason for these attacks to not focus on AC, and generally there isn't.

I can accept a wizard having different types of attacks that could target almost any of the defenses. A rain of sharp needles of ice could attack AC, a rolling ball of fire could attack Ref, a blast of freezing cold air could attack Fort and a domination spell could attack Will. But there should be some obvious reason for it, not just because they were due a power that attacked a certain defense.

What I feel a player should be able to do is look at an enemy and make some sort of educated guess as to which sort of attacks would be more effective, and have the person who has those types of attacks use them to exploit the weakness. A weapon against a wizard should be more of a threat than spells against him. A spell against a warrior should be more effective than a weapon. Sneaky attacks should work better against bigger foes. We all know the stereotypes, and those stereotypes exist for a reason.

4E, I assume in an attempt to maintain balance, broke all those stereotypes so you can rarely look at something and say what sort of attack would be most effective. And I feel this is one of the main things that breaks the concept of storytelling in fights.

So I suppose what I am saying is I hope D&D Next uses a system of target defenses, and that those defenses make sense to the concept of the enemy being fought. Balance the system, and allow for the moments for each character to shine to come from those characters having differing effectiveness versus different types of enemy. This should come as much from defenses that make sense.

One suggestion I have discussed with my players, and have used in a simplistic way is starting all the defenses at the same point, and then buying one point increase in one defense with a point from another. Generally AC buys Ref, or visa versa, indicating that the more armor you have the harder it is to move. Then Fort buys Will or visa versa, indicating the difference between physical and mental prowess. At the end of this process, AC goes up by 2-4 depending on the role of the monster, to indicate that 4E is currently balanced around AC being easier to hit. You only need 2-3 points each way for each enemy to feel quite different. Special enemies may trade in different ways, but this has generally worked quite well.

Still, I think that there has to be a better system than this possible, and I hope I see it in reality as the play testing materials come out in the coming months. For me I will look at what the designers have come with, compare it to me concerns listed here, and see if they managed to fix these issues. As long as attack resolution stays with the player making the attack.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I Keep Missing the Target

This started off being a post about damage reduction, but in writing it I was finding I needed to talk more and more about defenses, because really DR is a subtopic of Defenses, so I started again.

Then I realized that I was finding it difficult to express me feelings on the various defense systems D&D has used, because they are much more complicated in aspect than the rules that define them. So I started again.

Then I found that in trying to express the fundamental aspects that make this such an important issue, I completely confused myself and I had written a wall on unmitigated garbage. So I am starting again, and I expect that when I finally get it written it will be both too long and too limited in scope.

So I am still writing, and still have a lot to say. I am just having trouble saying it.

I have also been thinking about other topics I want to cover. The main one is how important a solid system for making you own fantasy stories is. I also want to write a piece on the importance if location for both combat and non-combat encounters. Then i want to write about the difference between different types of combat encounters, and the different types of non-combat encounters. Then there is the skill system, the ritual system, the utility powers system, the leveling system, the three tiers introduced in 4E, the planescape, the monetary system and lots lots more.

Of course, there is also the Power System, and wether you want AEDU, Vancian, or some other system. This comes with another whole set of issues based on balance, speed, ability, roles and storytelling. All of these things I have an opinion on and ideas that might make them more flexible while keeping them simple enough to be tools rather than obstacles.

Then I think of the problem I am having just expressing my feelings on Defenses and I do not envy the designers trying to make this game better again. My deepest wish with these posts is maybe in someway for these posts to help the people with the impossible task to do it a little better or a little easier; though I know that is an unrealistic hope.

Friday, January 20, 2012

D&D 4E is a WoW clone? Really?

Okay. That's it. I have had enough. Time to sit down an write my rationality for why the people who think D&D 4E is a World of Warcraft clone are just plain wrong. In fact, of all the D&D Editions 4E is the one that plays the least like WoW. Not the most, the least, and I can back that up. Of course, those people will stop reading now because they have based years of opinion on something they haven't actually thought about clearly, and they don't want their opinion to be challenged by such awkward things as facts.

I will preface this by saying that I do play World of Warcraft. Not as much as I used to, but still a few hours a week in general. I have played all the roles in WoW and many of the classes. I enjoy the game, and know enough about it to be able to base my opinions on the gameplay of WoW, not just the descriptions. I will be using PvE play style for my comparisons, because that is the play style that most resembles D&Ds cooperative play style.

For most people WoW is a game of combat. You fight enemies to get better equipment to make the next combat easier, so you can get better gear, and so on. So when looking at comparisons between the two systems you look at how the character and combat mechanics of the two games compare. They are complicated mechanics, with lots of facets to look at.

Here is how I am going to do this. I am going to pull a concept from WoW or D&D and compare it to the other. See which ones are similar and which are different. I will also grab the common reasons given by people as to why they think 4E was a WoW clone and look at those.

At the beginning of each game you pick a class to play. That class dictates what style of character you want to play. With WoW once you have picked your character and spec your choices of abilities and play style are pretty much locked down for you. This is very similar to the concepts of all D&D editions, except for 4E. In 4E you get to pick your own abilities as you play the game, and they dictate your play style. You aren't limited to the choices that were mostly pre-destined by that initial class choice. 3(.5) had some ability to customize as you progressed but no where near as much as 4E did.

You customize your character in WoW with talent choices, the same as you do with feats in D&D. So in this regard both 3(.5) and 4E are on an even footing in the comparison. It's worth noting that this talent system is being almost completely removed in the next WoW expansion.

Once your class and spec decisions are made, in WoW you level fast and spend most of your time playing at the highest level, currently 85. Then you improve your character through getting better equipment. In D&D you level as you play, and improve your character through getting better equipment. In WoW if you strip your character naked they lose most of their power, the level of a character is mostly a limitation of what equipment you can wear. So WoW is an equipment chase. Of all the versions of D&D the one that is least like this is 4E. Yep, least. Why? Because in 4E most of the power rested within the character, not with the gear they were wearing. 4E was the first edition of D&D where stripping your character naked because they were captured, or ambushed while they weren't wearing their equipment wasn't crippling. You could still do most of your attacks, albeit less effectively, but not as flat out crippled as a high level character from any of the previous editions was without their armor or weapons. WoW is all about the gear, as was every edition of D&D until 4E.

So let's look at combat itself, starting with the Buff mechanic. Buffing is such a core part of WoW that when doing the harder content you are expected to have them. Which version of D&D had this concept? 3(.5)! 4E barely has them at all. In 3(.5) characters would be expected to learn the spells that gave buffs for a number of minutes so everyone could benefit from them. You would try to cast them at the start of every fight and try to get the most out of them before they wore off. Never in 4E have I had concerns that a fight was started without the buffs being cast. Buffing before a fight is a WoW concept that is almost exclusively in 3(.5).

Let's now look at healing. In WoW a healer is someone who's job is to keep the other players alive. That us what they do, and most of the time that is all they do. Of all of the editions of D&D the one that is least like this is 4E. Yep, least again. Prior to 4E you would have a healing class, often a Cleric, who would memorize spells solely for the purpose of healing their comrades, and they would spend their turn using those spells. In 3(.5) you could memorize other spells, generally buffs, but you would then often use their power to heal someone anyway. The healer healed, that was their job. In 4E healing isn't like this at all for several reasons. First of all everyone can heal themselves to a limited degree, but more importantly the classes that could provide healing benefits did it while they were using their divine power to actually do other things. They don't wait around for someone to get hurt and then heal them, they get into the battle and then use their healing skills to supplement those. When it comes to someone being responsible for keeping the group alive, 4E is least like WoW.

What about play style in combat? Well, WoW is actually more like playing D&D without miniatures than it is playing on a battle map. In WoW creatures don't get in each others way. You can't stop an enemy from moving somewhere by standing on front of them, which is very much a 1st and 2nd Ed D&D concept. 3(.5) sometimes had it too, but as most people say, 4E is heavily driven by position and movement. The main movement in WoW is "don't stand I the fire".

In WoW each player is generally doing their own thing, and success results from each player doing it right and everyone surviving to the end of the fight while doing their job. Healing is the exeption, but I have already covered that. Again, the edition of D&D that is least like that is 4E. In 4E every class has the ability to provide benefit not just to themselves, but to their allies. I am not talking about buffs here, but about short one shot cooperative abilities. In 4E a characters abilities are designed around working as a team, and every action you take can effect everyone else to a greater or lesser degree. 3(.5) had this too, but not as clearly. 1st and 2nd had it to a very limited degree. WoW doesn't have that concept at all. In WoW you don't get two dps classes working together to better effect, in D&D you do, especially in 3(.5) and 4E.

So where is this 4E is a WoW clone come from? That's simple. The character roles listed in the PHB. WoW has four roles; Tank, Healer, Melee DPS and Ranged DPS. I know most people consider melee and ranged dps to be one role, but they play differently. 4E has four roles; Defender, Leader, Striker and Controller.

You know how important roles are in D&D? Not very. It is a classification to help you chose what sort of play style you might prefer. There are no rules specific to your role, and there are no role sourcebooks that give specific rules based on your role. Even though I play D&D a lot, I had to look up the roles to confirm I had them correct. Once you chose your class, they are almost meaningless.

Leaders are similar to healers, except as I have already covered, they do a lot more than heal. They use their abilities to battle enemies, inspire their allies and also to provide some healing.

Striker and Controllers are similar to the WoW DPS classes. A striker does best focusing on one target, a controller does better against multiple targets. In WoW the DPS classes are balanced to be as close as possible in both situations, so there is no direct correlation there. Crowd Control as it exists in WoW is rare in D&D, though I do remember it in previous editions, in 4E it has not come up at all.

So that leaves Protectors and Tanks, and I get the feeling it is here that 90% of the opinion of 4E being a WoW clone comes from. In WoW a tanks job is to keep the enemies hitting him because a hit on a non-tank is likely to be fatal. Tanks wear gear designed specifically to reduce damage taken, and many of their abilities are based on being able to do enough damage to creatures to get their attention.

Protectors in D&D don't generally gear for protection, though they might wear a shield rather than swing a bigger weapon. They don't force every enemy to attack them, but they do encourage creatures to do so my Marking them, which generally provides a slight penalty if the enemy makes an attack that doesn't include the character that marked. It's worth noting that some non-Protectors have marking capabilities. Marking is the closest thing in D&D to the WoW Taunt mechanic, which is a key ability of Tanks.

So Marking becomes the thing that causes all this hatred of 4E. And yet as a mechanic in play it's a positive contribution to the game. In all previous editions of D&D it has been a strong temptation to just kill the healer to stop the healing or the Wizard because he isn't wearing much armor. Why doesn't this happen? Because the DM contrives a reason for the enemies not to because it wouldn't be fun for the player who gets picked on every time. This contrivance may make some sort of sense, but it happens to keep the game entertaining. With Marking 4E just put a simple mechanic in place to make that contrivance easier. If you make an attack that doesn't include me, it is less likely to hit. Compare that to WoWs mechanic of having so much threat that the mob will only ever attack you. They are similar, but not similar enough that it turns a whole complicated fantasy gaming system into a clone of WoW.

In fact if you look at PvP in WoW, the kill the healer or the person in cloth armor concept is there with a vengeance. Taunting doesn't work in PvP so in that regard WoW is more like the D&D editions that don't have marking.

All of this is the reason whenever someone makes a comment about how WotC turned D&D into a WoW clone and that made it bad, I tune out. They either don't play WoW or they don't play 4E. It's a silly argument used by people who are looking for an excuse to hate for 4E because it was presented differently to previous editions. It has very little basis in fact.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Conspiracy of Cartographers - D&D and Battle Maps

Talk about a hot topic, and one I am not sure how to post about. There is so much to say, I am certain there will be more posts about this from me.

Should D&D Combat Be Map Based?

For me there is only one answer to this. Yes. But that doesn't necessarily mean that map based play should be part of the core rules, and there is a strong indication that it wont be. There are definite advantages to map play, and lots of arguments used to call them bad. I will try to cover some of the common ones I have read, and explain when I don't think they hold water.

In all the years I have played D&D I have used a battle map for less than half of them. I couldn't go back to a system that didn't use them.

The main reason I feel that maps are important is because they ensure everyone has an idea what is going on. Before playing with a map there was regular confusion on who was doing what, and how they interacted with each other. Combats used to pretty much be monsters would be assigned to players, and that person would fight the monster until there was a winner and then they would go help someone else. Killing monsters tended to be purely about hits and damage. It was fun, but it felt weird when a player wanted to do something and the DM had to explain why they thought it couldn't be done. When you added AoE you would have questions about hitting monsters without hitting players, and generally it was based on the mood of the DM. You would hear questions almost all the time starting with "Can I..." where the DM would make a decision based on their idea of what was going on. The players didn't know what they could do, they had to ask. This was hard on the DM, and very hard on the players. Especially when the DM wasn't consistent.

Adding a battle map and some sort of tokens to track characters and monsters eliminated this in one fell swoop. All of a sudden players could see where they were, and what was going on, without opinion or guesswork. Arguments were reduced, and planning and teamwork became much more important. Some battle map opponents say that having to work as a team isn't D&D, I think it is the core of the game. Working with the other characters to beat obstacles and achieve goals.

A common objection to using battle maps is that they don't allow for creativity in battle and limit your options. This is partly true, but not in the way that the people who say it feel it is. What they tend to think is that just because you have put a token on a map you are now completely unable to be creative in your fights. Never have I in all the years I have played on a battle mat felt this, what I have felt is a battle mat clearly tells me what my options are, and only limits me by preventing me from asking to take actions that are clearly out of the question.

The opponents say they love the freedom to say "I run to the wall and use it to launch a jump onto the trolls back where I grab him and try to stab him." Sounds good to me, but where in any of the rules that include a battle mat say you can't say this? Because you are in the centre of the room and the nearest wall is 40' away? Well then that is helping the storytelling, making it clear that your description is breaking the narrative. Apart from that, I can't think of any of the last 60 fights I have DMed where PCs couldn't do this.

In fact it is the opposite. I try to make my maps interesting, with details like low walls, or ledges, or bridges or whatever details fit the area the battle is happening in. I will never forget the fight where the player decided to jump onto the back of the monster approaching them up the wall from below while they were on a bridge and plummet with it into the depths below. Things like this happen all the time because the players can use the maps as tools the same way the DM can. Visual Aids are a good thing. A picture tells a thousand words, and a map with tokens on it can convey many thousands of words of detail and prevent just as many words of questions.

Does this mean you need to use the current 4E system of movement based combat? Certainly not. A map can be just as I said above, a visual aid for all the people at the table to be working with the same understanding of the battle. Have a map, use tokens for monsters and for characters, don't have squares, don't care too much about accurate distances, just use it as an indication. Someone wants to move "over there" move the token. Don't measure if they are moving too far or not far enough by a few feet, just move them. Don't worry too much about line of sight or line of effect, just allow them to do what they want the same is in fully descriptive play, but use the map to keep things clear. The only rules become common sense. Is it likely someone is going to be able to climb down a ladder, run across a 40' room and hide behind a barrel in 6 seconds? Probably not, so use your common sense, decide how far they would get and put their token there. Maybe that means the Troll can see them, or approach and hit them, but that isn't a penalty of using a map, it is a part of storytelling.

The important point is this. Using a battle map does not mean counting squares or getting out a ruler to measure distances, it is a method of communicating the environment to the players, and only as limiting as you want it to be.

Another argument against maps is that D&D isn't a war game, it is a role playing game. I agree completely, and I am not a fan of strategy based war gaming, but I love the freedom that D&D on a battle mat gives me to be able to do interesting things. I have already stated, repeatedly, that you can use a battle mat without D&D becoming a complicated strategy game, but the simple strategy mechanics used in 4E were great for doing amazing things. Telling the players the dragon's breath pushed them back and knocked them down is fine, but when their descriptive action is to stand up and attack the dragon again, it really is just description without impact. When all of a sudden they have to decide if they want to stand up and make a ranged attack, or stand up and move back into range but not attack this round, the dragon's breath had impact on the fight beyond just some damage and description. Neither the damage or description was removed by the battle mat, it was enhanced with simple mechanics that made the players have to deal with the actions of the monsters, not just cross off some hit points and move on.

Lots of people say they can be fully consistent and have the same level of expression without the use of a battle map. Great. But I expect the number of players who can say they do this and honestly say they never get questions about what is happening or if something is possible are very few.

Reading through this it sounds like maps are the main thing in my D&D games, and that isn't true. There are times we go for ages without using maps at all, because we are role playing. We use maps when combat starts to ensure that we have a level of communication between all the players that prevents mistakes or confusion. The battle map is a visual representation of a combat that is taking place inside the imaginations of the players.

There is so much more I want to say on this topic, and I expect I will in the coming weeks. Things about what part of the current system works and what doesn't, things about how it could be improved, or problems I have encountered but can't think of a solution for. This post, if you have read it, will hopefully make you understand my reasons for thinking some level of battle map use is vital for good Fantasy based combat.

Extra Note: My Tokens

I have used several token systems over the years. From D&D Miniatures, to colored glass beads, to the tokens provided in the Monster Vault. The tokens were great because they were numbered and you could track each enemy easily. The colored glass was good because different types of enemy were clearly visible at a distance, which with the tokens was sometimes hard as they were very similar. In the end I made my own tokens out of different colored polymer clay and painted numbers on them, with a border on one side for bloodied. They work great.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Critical about Criticals

So I have been trying to sort out what I should post about first. There are some big issues with D&D and some of them are going to be long winded and probably require some serious thought. I finally decided on something simple.

Critical Hits

You would think something so simple wouldn't be the cause of edition wars, but of course people will look for any reason to try to convince WotC that D&D Next needs to be like their preferred edition. If you want to read all this conflict, head over to the WotC Community Forums. I don't recommend it. I find it mostly depressing.

There have been several Critical Hit (Crit) systems in D&D. None of them have been perfect, but they have tried to improve. Here is my breakdown.

The Attack Roll

A critical on a 20. Yep, this makes sense and is a good way to do it. You roll the top number of your d20 and you land a Crit. Simple and effective. No downside here.

Threat on a 20 with a chance of a Crit. This was the 3e mechanic and it was good, but took a lot of the thrill out of rolling a 20. You rolled a 20 so you made another attack to try to hit the enemy again. If you missed the joy for rolling the 20 was wasted, if you hit you got the Crit for rolling whatever the second roll was. It made sense sure, but it was less rewarding and added complexity the system didn't need. Make it an option if people want it, but not the core rule.

Miss on a 1. Lots of people hate this, I think it is fine. If you are in a fight where you would hit on a 1 then there is a balance issue, but maybe you are just running through a low level encounter, or have stacked bonuses too high. Roll a 1 on a d20 and you miss. All good here.

Fumble on a 1. This is where things get really problematic. How do you deal with fumbles? Does the person drop their weapon? If so, what I'd they are flying on the back of a Pegasus, do they lose the weapon forever? Fumbles add a certain feel to a fight for sure, but there are other ways of doing it. I would prefer a characters problems to come from the actions of their enemies, not through a bad die roll. When you add the 2nd edition options of having a chance of breaking your weapon on a 1, the fun went right out the window. There is little fun about losing a battle because of a single roll of the dice. Keep fumbles out of the core rules.

There is one place that both 3E and 4E fail, and that is the increased chance to Crit mechanics. I have no problem with people of higher skill with training getting Crits more often, but 3E got silly and 4E tried to wind it back, but it got silly again fast. When you have a character not half way through the leveling system Critting on a 16, the system has turned a special bonus into a requirement. Crits should be special and the exception rather than the norm. If they happen too often you are just forced to ramp up the encounter difficulty, and the players who don't have the high Crit chances get left behind.

I would out a limit in the bonuses you can get to Crits, and I would make them not easy to get. Using 4E terms, set a limit of 20 only in Heroic, 19+ in Paragon, and 18+ in Epic. On top of that make it harder to get. Maybe your paragon path or prestige class gives you that bonus with a specific weapon. Maybe you get it from training several feats or skills with a specific weapon. Don't just give it to a weapon class, don't just make it a simple feat, and don't let it get out of control. Players should be happy to hit, not sad they didn't Crit.

Damage from Crits

Like critical hit systems, there have been many critical damage systems. Most of them have been playable, but some are better than others.

Double damage is fine, though it suffers from a similar problem to only getting Threat on a 20, bad dice rolls ruin the thrill of getting a Crit. You don't want to do a Crit for less damage than you can do with a normal hit.

Maximum damage is good. It means you are guaranteed to do well with that 20. I approve of this system, however 4E really lost the plot with the way they did it.

In 4E you do maximum damage, great. Then you add 1d6 which you roll for every plus your weapon has, which slows things down, but isn't too bad. Then you have weapons that do d8s, d10s or even d12s for that bonus, which starts feeling like the inflation problem all over again. Add to this the concept of High Crit weapons, which do bonus weapon damage, and you are talking about sometimes doing levels of damage that are encounter breaking. Crits should be special, not required, and the levels of damage that you could get to in 4E were ridiculous.

Other systems had extra dice rolled, but few of them got as out of hand as 4E. I think extra damage dice is a nice, but not required.

So What's My Suggestion?

Critical on a 20. If you are an experienced character who has specifically trained for it get to 19. A legendary character who is known the planes over for their proficiency with their weapon or implement of choice can get it down to an 18.

Do maximum damage with some bonus that doesn't get out of control. One bonus d6 for Heroic, two bonus d6 for Paragon, three for Epic. If you don't use tiers, it doesn't matter, the concept holds true. Maybe a weapon specifically enchanted for it might get to d8s, but you don't want the damage bloat to get too bad. It would even be fine to keep the dice out of it and just have a weapon do bonus damage equal to three times it's multiplier or something similar.

If you want weapon types to have some bonus for being High Crit, keep it under control. Maybe 5, 10 or 15 damage, again based on character progression.

Miss on a 1. You his shouldn't come up too often, but who it does it's simple and means characters are never guaranteed to hit.

Other Ideas

There are some other good ideas I have encountered that could be used in place of extra damage dice, or in addition too if you really want Crits to be game changers.

All of these suggestions would work as Crit bonuses for certain weapon groups without just being bigger numbers.

Suffer a Crit, get a penalty. If you critically hit an enemy that enemy suffers a penalty to all attacks until the end of their next turn, or even until they save. Maybe it even opened a gap in their armor so their defense goes down a little. This adds flavor instead of just damage to Crits.

Score a Crit, get an extra effect. Maybe the big hammer you are using allows you to push the enemy, or even knocks them prone. Maybe the dagger penetrates their foot and slows them. Maybe the axe causes ongoing bleed damage. Maybe the fire spell Crit causes the enemy to lost their next standard action while putting themselves out.

The options for this are almost endless, and it makes Crits add to the story of the combat, not just the damage done.

I don't expect anyone from the D&D Next Design Team will ever read this, but I hope they figure all this out for themselves.

The Three "F's - How to measure D&D

First of all I think it is important for me to state how I personally measure what I think makes a rule or a system good or not. Well, to be honest I just go with gut feeling and experience, but if I am going to be writing about this, I should try to come up with some explanation of what is important to me.

The Three "F"s : Fun, Fair and Fantastic

Dungeons & Dragons is fun. If we didn't think this we wouldn't be here. But that does not mean that everything about it is fun. Something can be fun overall, but have aspects that are painful and awkward. When I am looking at a particular aspect of D&D, I am trying to judge for myself whether it adds to, or diminishes, the fun.

Fairness has never been something D&D has worried about, even when it really should have. The attitude for most of it's history has been that you do not need to be fair because it is a cooperative game. I couldn't disagree more. Everyone at the table should be able to contribute to the story, and not feel like they are the assistants to someone else.

Fantastic, as in "being a thing of fantasy". Realism is all well and good, but D&D is not a realistic game. Rarely has it claimed to be realistic, but often it has attempted to be realistic. People use different terms without, in my opinion, really considering what they are trying to say.

I will go into more detail about this.

Realistic: This is trying to make something as accurate as possible to how things work in the real world. D&D isn't this sort of game.

Believable: This is trying to make something feel like it makes sense within the defined setting. It is the word bandied around by a lot of people who know that D&D isn't realistic, but they want to keep it as close as possible. This is a fine attitude to have, but too often it will come at the expense of either the Fun or the Fair.

This is why I went for "Fantastic", if I was to be honest to myself the word I should be aiming to use is verisimilitude, but it's a pain to say and it confuses people. So I decided to settle for Fantastic.

When a Wizard uses his magic to drag the hippogryph out of the sky, that isn't realistic, it's Fantasy. When a Fighter jumps onto the dragon's neck in order to bury his axe into it's skull, that isn't believable, it's Fantasy. I want to feel like the actions taken by the characters and creatures in my D&D game to feel like they are part of a fantasy world not just with their special powers, but in the way they act, the way they think, and the way they talk. To them, it is realistic, because that is the world they live in, and that world is Fantastic.

You want there to be some form of internal consistency to the story, especially if you want it to be Fun and Fair. Just because something doesn't make sense from a realistic point of view doesn't mean that it isn't the right thing to bring the Fantasy, but you don't want to take it too far. Verisimilitude is what we are aiming for, but Fantastic works if you think about it from the perspective of adding to the Fantasy.

I expect this is the concept I will have to spend the longest explaining when I use it, but I hope people understand what I am trying to say.

So this is my starting point for looking at the aspects of different versions of D&D and other RPGs, including D&D Next. Fun, Fair and Fantastic. If something contributes to those, then it is probably something I will be supportive of. If something works to the detriment of those, then it will have a much harder time justifying itself.

So when someone, including myself, tries to claim something is better or worse, they better be prepared to explain their thoughts from these perspectives. How does it add to the Fun? How is it Fair? How does it contribute to the Fantasy?

If you don't want D&D to be Fun, Fair or Fantastic, I am not sure why you are playing, or why others would want to play with you.

D&D Next is coming...

The announcement it made, the publishers engaged, now it's time to see if they can dance... I feel both good and bad things about the anouncement of the development of a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, because I think they did wonderful things with the last edition, and because there are a lot of people in the world who hated it.

Even after spending days and days reading forum posts about why people hated 4E, not a single one of them has been able to give me a reason that made any sort of sense. I am not saying 4E was perfect, but it was better than anything previous, and I feel I need to organise my thoughts on the subject and put them somewhere.

That is one of the purposes for this blog. The other is for my to say what I think about information about D&D Next that has come to light. Sometimes I will be general in my thoughts, other times I will be speicific.

So where this will take me I do not know. But I am sure I will have moments of joy and moments of horror as information about D&D Next starts to surface in more meaningful amounts, so if you are interested in what I have to say. Keep watching.