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Tearing 4E a New One: Short Rests and Encounter Resources

February 22, 2011

Are Short Rests Changing Your Game

The Side Effects: What Else is Going On

Nothing is ever free and no solution is ever perfect. Generally, fixing one problem in a very complex system (particularly one that involves human choices and actions) usually creates a new one. Or else, it allows an old problem to surface in a new way. And the encounter resource mechanics provide a perfect example of how a seemingly simple mechanic can create incentives and optimal strategies without necessarily intending to.

Let’s tackle the biggest one first. The encounter resource mechanics render moot many of the choices that the excellent combat system allows and reduce the importance of combat in the game to near insignificance. That’s not hyperbole. I’m not trying to be shocking. This one mechanic basically makes every decision the PCs make during combat almost utterly meaningless in terms of the adventure.

Okay, moving on. Number two… what? Okay, yeah, I guess I can’t drop a statement like that and then not justify it somehow.

Here’s the thing. The players know that at the end of every combat encounter, they will be able to heal fully and recover most of their expended resources. And if that’s not enough, they can take an extended rest and start completely fresh. So long as none of the PCs actually dies during a fight, the slate is wiped clean at the end. There are no persistent effects. Everything starts fresh at short rest.

What that means is that it doesn’t matter how well the PCs handle a fight. It doesn’t matter how lucky they get or how smart they play. As long as every PC crosses the finish line alive, they win the grand prize. There are no degrees of success. If the fighter ends with 5 HP, that’s just as good as ending with 50 HP.

This is a shame because the 4E combat system is loaded with all sorts of tools to let the party handle the fight very well (or very poorly). In my opinion, the 4E combat system is probably the most well-put together tactical combat system I’ve every played. It’s just loaded. And it runs very well (if a little slowly) and very elegantly. It would make a wonderful game by itself. Maybe one with collectible miniatures and poster maps. Oh, sorry. Too soon? Yeah, it hurts me too.

But none of it matters. It doesn’t matter how well or how poorly the party handles things, it doesn’t matter whether they make all of the right decisions, because at the end of the fight, not one of those choices has any lasting impact on the game. Very rarely does anyone say “if we’d handled that ogre fight better two hours ago, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

And once a party catches on to this fact, consciously or unconsciously, they come to a very dangerous realization.

The thing is: death is not as big a danger as it used to be. It takes a lot to kill a PC. There are no one-shot or even two-shot monsters out there barring some very high crits. As long as a PC isn’t ganged up on, it’ll take two or three rounds just to drop him. The death save mechanic guarantees that the downed PC will live for three rounds at least. Because the system is designed around an average combat length of five rounds, death just isn’t a huge issue.

So, given that, the best strategy in every fight is to end the fight as quickly as possible and only worry about defense or survival when someone is really in trouble. In short, the best strategy is to do the most damage possible as quickly as possible. And if you focus that damage and systematically eliminate one foe at a time, you reduce the incoming damage and further reduce the risk of the rare death. Focus fire – as described in the Player’s Strategy Guide – is the closest thing to a universal, optimal strategy that exists in D&D 4E.

Now, not every group plays this way. That’s true. Some groups don’t recognize it and others just don’t care. Some DMs consciously or unconsciously write around the problem. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And it doesn’t mean it isn’t shaping group behavior even if they don’t adopt the damage first mentality.

Ever wonder why the average player is wary of spending a standard action on anything other than an attack? They might say because it is cooler or more fun. But the reason is because it’s the best contribution they can make. Damage output trumps all except in emergencies.

Ever wonder why, despite all the great control effects they have, wizards (and other controllers) are still talked about by some only for their minion-killing ability? Because eliminating foes is the quickest path to victory.

Ever watch a player throw a powerful attack, even when the rider on it doesn’t really help? Ever notice that some players seem to compare powers in terms of damage first? Ever wonder why controllers are often referred to as the one role the party can most easily live without? Ever watch players leave a dying friend on the ground because they don’t have a power that lets them help him while attacking? Why do players prize offensive powers over defensive powers? Why do some defenders get more of a thrill when monsters ignore their mark and trigger an extra damage effect? Because eliminating foes – and eliminating them quickly – is by far the most optimal strategy in the system.

Why do some DMs think combat is too long? I’m willing to bet at least a few of them have figured out that a combat encounter is 40-90 minutes of highly detailed minutiae that, in the end, has the same impact on the game as a whole as a coin toss where heads is “story continues unaffected” and tails is “someone died.”

Beyond the impact on the tactical game, the next biggest effect of the short rest and encounter resource mechanic is that every encounter has to carry the threat of death in order to be scary. Once again, because nothing carries over beyond the end of the fight, the system provides only one real danger for DMs to work with: that someone will die during the encounter. The party can’t be whittled down by small guerilla groups of weak foes. For a combat to carry any weight or threat, written by the book, it has to bring someone close to death. Nothing else in the system has any impact.

Want to talk about solos and why so many people have been down on them for so long? Because most solos simply can’t kill. They don’t have enough actions to maintain a high enough level of damage output and they are too easily controlled so that, in an emergency, an endangered character can get out of harm’s way. The party always faces the solo fresh and always recovers from everything it does to them at the end of the fight, so the solo pretty much has to be deadly to have an impact. But most solos just can’t manage that.

Of course, that also speaks to the action economy and many other factors, but we’ll leave that discussion for another time. For now, understand this: because of the encounter resource mechanic, every encounter has to put one or more characters in deadly peril. Nothing else means anything anymore.

And while we’re here, let’s revisit the “fifteen minute workday” problem and see why the encounter resource mechanic is actually making things worse. As I noted above, the surest strategy is to throw out the most damage possible as quickly as possible. Well, every non-Essentials character has a pile of very efficient damage powers – daily attack powers. You can probably see where I’m going with this.

All else being equal, in a by the book adventure, the absolute best strategy is to throw out all of your daily attack powers to destroy every foe before there is any risk of death and then go to sleep and get them back. Kaboom!

Fortunately, the system provides incentives to keep the party pushing forward instead of falling back into the “fifteen minute workday” trap, right? I mean, there’s increasing daily magic item powers. Oh, wait. That got removed. Well, action points… oh wait, those are really more of an encounter resource on a slow recharge. You start the day with one. Well, milestones carry other benefits like… hrmmm. Oops.

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