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Tearing 4E a New One Addendum

February 22, 2011

Between comments, Twitter conversations, direct messages, and e-mails, it turns out I struck a few nerves and raised a few questions with my latest article (Tearing 4E a New One: Short Rests and Encounter Resources), so I’ve thrown together a hasty sort of clarification/defense/justification/apology/further insult. If you haven’t read the article, this won’t make much sense. But the article is awesome and you should go read it.

Where Do I Get Off Calling it a Bug? Isn’t That An Opinion?

I know that there is a difference between something you don’t like and something that’s broken. You might not like the skill challenge system, for instance, and you have a right to that opinion. But if you are going to call the skill system broken, you had better be prepared to prove that its not doing what it is supposed to do.

Well, here’s the breakdown of my reasoning:

  1. The designers said they wanted to end the fifteen minute workday.
  2. The designers included the encounter resource system.
  3. The encounter resource system strongly emphasizes efficient, high damage output as the hands-down most optimal strategy.
  4. The designers also included a set of efficient, high damage output powers as daily resources, requiring extended rests to recover.
  5. The fifteen minute workday remains an optimal form of play.

Points 2-5 have been covered in the previous article at great length. If you disagree with that reasoning, that’s fine. If you don’t find the fifteen minute workday problematic, that’s also fine. But it doesn’t matter. This is not about opinion. This is about point 1 and point 5. If point 1 didn’t exist, I would just be saying that I personally don’t like a certain playstyle. But even if that playstyle is totally fine with you (and with everyone), the contradiction between 1 and 5 would still exist.

But I didn’t make a big thing about this. I didn’t try and “prove the bug.” And, toward the end of the article, I lightened up and gave the designers a pass. Why? Because D&D is a complex system. It is very easy to analyze a single mechanic with the benefit of hindsight after the game has been played to death by lots of people. Its much, much harder to build a complex system and predict exactly how every piece is going to interact. Beyond that, design decisions are complex. As I noted, every decision is a trade off and designers have to decide which things are priorities and which ones aren’t. Game balance is a huge deal in 4E. A huge, huge deal. And that’s to its great credit. But part of enabling DMs and adventure designers to build balanced encounters was finding a way to ensure every party would approach every encounter with the same resources. So, that may have had a stronger influence than the “lasting impact” problem or the “fifteen minute workday” problem. You know what? Remember what it took to balance encounters in 3rd Edition (which I also love), I probably would have agreed at the time.

When all is said and done, I don’t care why it happened or what informed the decision (okay, that’s a lie: I am extremely interested in the entire thought process), because it doesn’t change what’s in front of me. Either I play it or I don’t. Either I fix it or I ignore it. And if I fix it, I’d better be prepared to adjust my game balance accordingly because I’m probably going to mess that up. And I need to be ready to experiment to find a sweet spot that works for me.

I also don’t want to complain about innovation and experimentation. Encounter mechanics (for D&D) were fairly innovative and, love them or hate them, they are a game changer. They show a marked shift away from the heavily simulationist ways of 3rd edition and a willingness to experiment with abstraction and to challenge preconceived ideas and biases in the system. That, my friends, is how we get better games.

So, at the end of the day, the designers have a bug in the system. The impact of the bug is going to vary based on personal opinion. The bug may have been let through intentionally or it may have been overlooked. But now that we know what its doing, if we care about it, we can fix it. If we don’t care, we don’t have to. But I’m not calling anyone a moron or a jerk or throwing bricks through any windows or screaming 4E sucks. If 4E sucked, I wouldn’t have wasted thousands of words on this.

The DM’s Responsibility

I knew I was going to take a lot of flak for this one, but what surprises me is that no one called me on the hypocrisy. The DM has a lot of responsibilities. I agree. Meaningful choices, engaging experience, risk, rewards, incentives, the whole shebang. And the DM should own the game and make whatever changes he wants or needs to get the play experience he is looking for. Or leave the game and play a different one if that will give a better experience. And when there is a flaw or problem in the system, ultimately, the DM needs to analyze it. The DM needs to decide whether it can be ignored or worked around or whether a fix needs to be made. And if a fix is needed, he’s going to have to come up with a good fix or else do some research see how others have dealt with the issue. That’s all part of a DMs job.

And that’s exactly what I’m doing here. I found a flaw. I analyzed it. I decided that I, personally, could not ignore it. Now I am thinking about ways to fix it. The reason I’m writing about it and encouraging folks to try to fix the problem is so that other DMs who run into the same issue can skip some work and jump ahead to the part where everything is running smoothly. So, how can I do that while claiming that the DM shouldn’t have to this. Isn’t that hypocrisy?

There is a big difference between saying “if a problem comes up, the DM has to fix it” and saying “there are no problems because the DM can fix anything.” I think the second line of thinking is extremely dangerous. And just to be clear, I am talking here about actual problems: places where there is a demonstrable conflict between the way the game is intended to work and the way it actually works.

First of all, that line of thinking shuts down any useful, critical discussion. “Hey guys, I found a problem, let’s talk about it,” can easily be countered by “there are no problems because the DM can do anything.” Either that immediately shuts off the conversation or else it lends to a “shut up and fix it” mentality where the critical analysis is shut down and a slapdash patch is thrown over it. Or, worse, the DM just wings it and hopes for the best.

Second of all, it amounts to asking for lazy design. The most extreme outcome of the “there are no problems because the DM can do anything” mentality is a game that consists entirely of a box, a pad of paper, and a pencil. Because the DM can do anything, there doesn’t need to be more than that. There’s a reason we pay money for these games (and, thanks to DDI, a reason we keep paying for the game every single month – sorry, that was low). Now, I don’t think anyone at WotC is really planning to release a sourcebook that consists entirely of blank sheets of note paper, but I do know the creators listen to what the players are saying. And if the players are shutting off their own conversations because “the DM can do anything,” a lot of innovation might get lost.

Third of all, it keeps new blood from joining the hobby. There is a default play experience in every game. A simplest expression of D&D. You can find it easily. Get out the three core books one hour before your next session and write an adventure with no house rules or modifications. Write using only what’s actually in the book. That’s the heart of the game right there. And that’s the first experience any new player is going to have with the game. Its easy for experienced DMs to forget how complicated these games really are and how different they are from any other experience. We forget how many skills we’ve had to learn just to make these games work. A DM is a writer, storyteller, referee, psychologist, director, producer, game designer, teacher, administrator, and on and on and on. Its an overwhelming thing, but it promises an incredible experience. If the game doesn’t deliver on that experience, that player is lost after a few sessions. Gone. And the hobby loses a potential member. I don’t know about you, but to me, that sucks.

More importantly, the new DM is shaped first and foremost by those first few experiences. While he will eventually learn to fiddle with the system and make it his own, he’s also going to form biases based on what’s already going on. If the system has in-built incentives for certain styles of play, new DMs and players are as likely to internalize them and accept them as part of the game as they are to get frustrated by them and leave. That’s why the game has to make the intended experience, the desired experience, also be the easiest one to discover. Even if players and DMs are going to grow beyond those formative experiences, the intended experience needs to be the first one they trip over.

Fourth of all, sometimes I get lazy as a DM. Sometimes I need to do something quick and easy. Sometimes I find myself with very limited prep time. Sometimes I just want a throw down or a one shot or I just need to fill a session with something simple while I recharge my creative juices. I assume I’m not the only one. It is at those times when I want the system to just kind of work by itself so that all I have to do is throw a dungeon in front of my players and let them explore. And sometimes I get blocked and have a hard time coming up with this week’s “reason why things are risky” or “alternative goal” or “reason why you can’t take a rest.” And that’s why I think that even experienced DMs need the default experience to be the intended experience. If every adventure I write needs to work around some problem in the system, frankly, I get burned out. If there is an extra, creative restriction on extended rests, it should be because the story demands it, not because the system needs it. Eventually, I’m just going to be forcing it.

By way of example, imagine if druids could only use their primal powers underneath an open sky and outside of a city. If I have a player playing a druid, I now have to find a reason for almost every adventure to take place in the wilderness, outdoors. After a while, its just going to start seeming forced.

Fifth of all, while I am not a big fan of a sense of player entitlement, players do have a right to expect the rules to apply most of the time. The DM has some leeway, sure, and a rule can be modified or suspended, but even players have their limits as to how much they’ll accept before it starts feeling like they are getting screwed. If the rules create certain expectations, its not cool for the system to secretly advise the DM to subvert those expectations every time. Its just not fun for players to be forbidden from taken short rests every second encounter. Eventually, some players will get pissed. So, a system fix is preferable to DM handwaves whenever possible. Obviously, in this case, the system has already failed, so a house rule in the system is the next best thing because at least it is something the players can understand and plan around.

Last of all, that mentality (nothing is a problem because the DM can fix it) erodes the common ground between different tables and prevents DMs from being able to talk shop. Many DMs modify the game for a variety of reasons, but we can still talk about the game because there is a common ground: the default core game, the rules as written. Without that as a starting point, we have no context for discussing ideas, changes, fixes, flaws, whatever. As it now stands, if I want to discuss my game with someone else, I don’t have to start by discussing the changes I’ve made unless they are substantial and relevant to the topic being discussed. Imagine again if D&D really were just a notepad and a pencil in a box. How would two DMs ever have a conversation about it? They’d first have to spend hours describing their respective systems. Now, again, its an extreme case, but the more a game system relies on the DM to create the basic experience, the less connection any two DMs are going to have. In short, the community starts to break down. And D&D is a social game. Community is everything.

The Proposed Fixes

I want to make sure I was absolutely clear on this: those two “rules” were not a proposed fix. They are not tested, I’ve never used them, they pretty much appeared on a whim. They are a thought experiment. And I take no responsibility for them other than the fact that I will try them as soon as I have an opportunity, just to see how they work out. More than anything, they were intended to demonstrate how to create incentives within the system. I just don’t know how they will work. But I should have spent a little more time on why I chose those two rules. In the end, I was trying to do a little more than just patch a problem. I was seizing an opportunity to create a meaningful choice.

Now, that phrase is bandied around a lot and I have some very specific criteria for what I consider to be a meaningful choice. If some of you are fans of Extra Credits on The Escapist, then you might see a similarity between my ideas and theirs. We’re talking about the same thing, essentially, even though I use some different words. By the way, if you are a DM, you need to give Extra Credits a chance. They talk about video game design, but they talk about a lot of high concepts that very directly relate to everything a DM is trying to do. And besides, frankly, RPGs have more in common with video games than books and movies: they are both interactive storytelling after all. Start with this one: Choice and Conflict. If you watch it right now, you can probably skip two paragraphs.

First, a meaningful choice has to have an impact. Whatever the players choose, there needs to be a consequence and the players need to eventually become aware of the consequence. Second, a meaningful choice cannot simply be a matter of recognizing the best alternative.

This second one is important. Suppose you have two at-will attack powers. They both have identical ranges. They both cause the same conditions. But one of them deals 1d6 damage and one deals 1d12 damage. Which one do you use? Obviously, the one that does more damage. That’s not a choice. That’s just recognizing the best alternative. Interestingly enough, if you accept my argument that damage is of the utmost importance in 4E, ask yourself how many decisions in combat are actually meaningful choices.

Now, choosing the best alternative is not always easy. Sometimes there’s a lot of information to cull through. But, in the end, its still not a meaningful choice because any two people of similar intelligence with access to the same information should arrive at the same conclusion.

There are two easy ways to create meaningful choices. The first is to make the alternatives impossible to compare so that, even if there is a best alternative, it can’t be recognized as such. The second is to put two different goals or motivations in conflict. And that’s what my two rules do.

As it stands, the decision to take an extended rest in 4E is a simple calculation. It is always best to take an extended rest when (a) the party does not have enough healing surges to restore themselves to full hit points and power all of their healing options through the next fight or (b) the party has expended any daily resources.

The reason I proposed the two rules is because it creates a conflict at the end of every encounter. If we rest, we lose our momentum. If we don’t rest, we have lower hit points. The choice has impact because the party is certainly going to feel the results either way and it is going to change the way they deal with the next encounter.

If this looks familiar, that’s because that’s exactly what milestones were trying to do. But the incentive they created wasn’t strong enough to cause a conflict. And ultimately, they got hamstrung by their own complexity and have kind of vanished from the game.

Beyond that, though, the healing surge limit creates an incentive to handle each fight well. If a party can handle each fight well, they don’t have to worry. They just keep adventuring and their daily powers unlock, so they become more powerful. If they handle a fight badly, they have to make a choice between tackling the next one at reduced HP or losing their momentum. But, if they handle the next fight well, they can make up the ground they’ve lost and keep going. If they handle the next fight poorly, now things become an emergency.

Beyond even that, the two rules match the normal pacing and flow of tension in the game. Tension is supposed to rise. Even if encounters don’t get more difficult, the party has a feeling that they are pushing themselves because they know that each encounter can weaken them. But at the same time, they are also gaining access to more abilities. They are digging down deeper within themselves to face stronger challenges.

Even further beyond that, the daily power thing is a strong incentive because no player wants to have powers on their sheet that they never use. If they can’t push through four encounters, they will never get to see their biggest, coolest power. That’s a powerful force. And using that power is going to feel damn good. The party will have managed their HP well, unlocked their best abilities, and pushed through a hard day. When they finally settle down to camp, they know it was a good day.

In terms of pure power, I am hoping that it sort of evens out, so that not much of the game balance benefit of the encounter mechanic is sacrificed. But it may require tweaking. Part of me wants to toughen the limit on healing surges and drop it to one. Part of me wants to explore other options. For instance, after you become bloodied in an encounter, you can’t use healing surges outside of an encounter to get you up past bloodied. Or perhaps if you get reduced to 0 HP in a fight, you can’t bring yourself past bloodied outside of combat. Something like that. I want to fiddle a lot. Maybe I’ll have some better ideas to share eventually.

Overall, though, the key is to put more emphasize on how well the party handles the fight so that the 4E combat engine can really shine and to create a strong incentive for pushing beyond the point where it is safe. And to accomplish those things without giving up too much balance in the process.

By the way, I am a sucker for this sort of a mechanic that lines everything up: the system’s incentives, the expected play style, the narrative structure, and the player’s own incentives and desires Because, really, that’s a powerful way to create a very good default experience. What’s most fun is also the best mechanical strategy and fits well with how the game is structured and paced.

At the end of the day, though, putting in a default system to overcome the encounter resource side effects does not replace the ability of the DM to create his own risks and incentives within the story. It does mean that DMs don’t have to force them into every adventure. Moreover, it makes the story-specific risks and incentives more interesting. Why? Because there is another layer of conflict. If the party really needs an extended rest, but they know taking one is risky, the choice is more meaningful. If the party knows a powerful dragon waits at the end of a long series of encounters, that changes their resource management and makes them more likely to push. If there is a time constraint in an adventure, the combined power of the time constraint and the daily powers might urge the party to make dangerous, reckless decisions, and force them to compensate with defensive tactics that slow their fights down and thus put them on a knife’s edge balancing speed, defense, and offense. If the party is escorting someone through hostile territory, will they push their quarry too hard because they want to keep their momentum going? Will they face tougher challenges because the quarry needs to rest frequently? These are interesting questions. Far more interesting than “you can’t rest here” or “your NPC buddy needs to sleep now” or “you only have two hours.” All of the tools experienced DMs have already developed are not only still in the toolbox, they get shinier and prettier, and they can be less heavy handed to boot because the system is already creating the incentives you want.

For the last word on this topic, check out A Final, Angry Word.

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