Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Curse of the Absent Host

So, basically, whenever I'm on deadline I suddenly get the idea to post in my blog. I finished up PH 3 last week, and between that deadline and my last post I've had zero time to even look at this blog. Of course, that's when I get 28 responses to something I write.

So, let's tackle some of the things that came up in the comments:

Noism: I agree that painting WFRP as heroic is crazy, but that's how we played it. With a lot of RPGs (most notably Shadowrun) my high school group houseruled the hell out of them on the fly. In a lot of ways, we ran all our games (even AD&D) almost entirely by fiat. I vividly remember ignoring AD&D's combat rules left and right. I'd pick a number that a player had to roll to hit, and if that's what they got, that was enough. We did the same thing with almost every game we played.

2e's Goofiness: Perhaps it's the Greyhawk DM in me, but I direct you to Child's Play (the crappy module, not the charity), Gargoyles, and Terrible Trouble at Tragidor. Case closed! Or not, since one man's goofy is another man's form of government. I'm willing to accept that if you were an FR fan in 1989 (or passed on GH), that goofiness passed you buy.

And now, the meat of this post: I am calling complete bullshit on everyone who wants to try to tell me that 4e obsesses about combat to the detriment of everything else. Does it have comprehensive rules for running fights and building encounters? Sure. Just like every version of D&D that's ever existed.

Are characters built to excel at combat? Obviously, yes, just like how the skill system is built to allow any character at least a shot at making any skill check. 4e seeks to make sure that nobody is ever 100% helpless or useless due to player decisions made outside of a game session.

The truth of the matter is, though, that if you read the DMG, it talks a lot about working with your players, building plots, and roleplaying. I think the perception that 4e is an endless series of fights could come from the preview articles, which focused on the mechanics of encounter building because those are areas where 4e features a lot of improvements. I could easily see that happening if you read the articles and only skimmed the DMG. I admit that's what I'd do, because I've been playing D&D long enough that I rarely read D&D books cover to cover. I tend to skip around and read the bits that I need to run the game.

However, I find the idea that the DMG pushes a combat-combat-combat agenda an untenable position. It goes out of its way to talk about props, roleplay, puzzles, and catering to a diverse array of play styles.

27 comments:

Lizard said...

I don't know if you're addressing me or not, but I pretty explicitly said the 4e DMG gives the impression that the way to play 4e is an endless series of rapid-fire ENCOUNTERS, which is not necessarily the same as COMBAT. The focus has shifted from presenting the players with a wide-open challenge or event and letting them resolve it to tossing them on the treadmill and running them through set pieces. Worldbuilding advice is limited, at best, and the act of worldbuilding, instead of being center stage as it was in previous DMGs, is basically treated as something mostly unnecessary -- you can keep having generic Adventures in the land of Generica where there is the Village, and several Dungeons. That's a little TOO old school for my tastes. :)

This is further strengthened by the assumption I've seen in published material that there's NPCs for talking to and NPCs for killing, and these roles are fixed. In my experience, players are ornery types who will stab your jolly bartender and enter into negotiation with your lich lord, and I try to make sure I'm prepared for either contingency.

It should also be noted that there seems to be an assumption that powers will not be used outside the bounds of formal encounters. It's sometimes hard to see how powers can be used in Skill Challenges, another example of how the rules seem to define boxes and turn the game from a free-flowing interaction with a world into a series of discrete and disassociated moments. For example, what happens in a SC when a Wizard uses Ghost Sound to distract pursuers? If an SC represents an extended period of time (hours or days between each roll), how often can I use a skill-boosting Encounter power?

I've read the DMG pretty much cover to cover, and I've been playing in (and enjoying greatly) a 4e game every week for the past three months, so I think I have enough experience to comment on the game as it is written and as it plays.

(On another note, in terms of 2e goofiness... I wasn't an active player of 2e, but I recently got a chance to flip through the 2e Greyhawk module, and, muhgawd, if THAT abomination was what 2e was "supposed" to be.... gack! You win. There's a big difference between "So cool you forget how stupid it is" (Spellhammer hippos with muskets -- major cool!) and "Just plain stupid". (The 2e Greyhawk module. Was that written solely to insult Gary Gygax?)

Jer said...

I think if you're a player (not a GM) who has played RPGs for the last decade or so, you probably will come to the conclusion that 4e is mainly about combat. Because that's what the Player's Handbook focuses on and that's where you make choices as a player as you progress through the game.

The extent of your character-building choices amounts to "which power am I taking at this level", "which stat am I increasing at this level", and "which feat am I taking at this level". Since most of the powers are combat related, and most of the feats are combat related, you end up with a situation where a player looking to make choices for their character has few mechanical options outside of optimizing for combat.

Contrast this with the games that the current crop of players are likely to have cut their teeth on - 3e D&D and the d20 Star Wars system both had the sop of a point-based skill system to give people the impression that there was a non-combat route for them to enhance their characters. The entire White Wolf output has many areas for the distributing player choices in non-combat areas. Most other games that people might have played are skill-based, and put the choice of enhancing combat and enhancing non-combat abilities at the same level of importance.

For myself and my players, it isn't a problem. The older versions of D&D didn't really give you much opportunity for non-combat personalization of your characters either (heck, go back far enough and there's nearly zero opportunity for personalization at all - everything is either random or on a fixed schedule). But I can see how someone who came into gaming in the last decade or so might walk away with the impression that the game is all about combat. (Heck I know a lot of people who left the game behind in the 2e era for precisely that complaint - that D&D "wasn't an RPG" but was rather a "combat simulation with RPG elements". So it's not like this is a particularly new debate either...)

Lizard said...

There are no new debates. :)

In terms of character customization, I find myself pleasantly surprised by 4e in Actual Play. I have more feats I want to take than I *can* take, and there's a real choice to be made between more skill training/skill focus (to help make my character more what I envision him being) and combat/damage feats (to make sure he kicks enough ass -- the damn halfling often outdamages him despite the twin bastard swords). Add in that I've got the Dhampyr template[1] (added post char-gen as part of major Dark Family Secret plot), and I have way too many choices.

[1]You can call it a multiclass if you like, but it will always be a template to me, just like I still talk of 'dialing' a phone. I'm old!

Brock Cusick said...

Sorry Mike, but Lizard nailed this one.

Encounter doesn’t mean combat, but running a chain of set-piece Encounters is absolutely “a way” of playing D&D, and it’s “the one way” promoted by the 4E DMG. Page 110 of the 4E DMG absolutely says in plain type that there is a “Best Method” for playing D&D. One. Best. Method. So it’s –absolutely- true the DMG promotes a “one-way.”

But the funny thing (to me) is that the rules actually provided mostly support the “Staged Method” that the DMG admits is the worst approach (p. 110). You want encounters? Well good news then! There’s a chapter on running encounters and a chapter on building encounters. There’s a chapter on non-combat encounters. The rules on movement are at encounter distance and effect encounter speeds.

There’s one page on random encounters, but no tables. :(

You want a world? Bad news. Rules that are missing include: Hirelings, Keeps, Followers, Ship movement. Random tables of all sorts (government, primary race, etc. etc.). World building generally. No random harlots table, for instance. :( :(

Further, since I commented on the previous post by (basically) accusing you of pot/kettle hypocrisy (sorry about that), I’ll just provide a couple quotes from the DMG that seem to be driving this issue:

Modes of the Game: Exploration: “It’s usually what fills the space between encounters.” – p. 20

Modes of the Game: Encounters: “Encounters are the exciting part of the D&D game.” – p. 21

“Stripped to the very basics, the D&D game is a series of encounters. Encounters are where the game happens – where the capabilities of the characters are put to the test and success or failure hang in the balance.” – p. 34

------
Linking a series of encounters into an adventure, and linking adventures into a campaign (or even the reverse, deciding on a campaign and then filling in details with adventures and encounters) is one way of playing D&D. It’s the way supported by the 4E DMG. It’s not how I play D&D though. There’s some real good advice in the 4E DMG, but there’s a lot of stuff missing too.

Maybe Wizards should consider a “Sandbox Masters Handbook”? Seriously, I bet it might sell pretty well. But you guys probably shouldn’t write it; I don’t think it’s a method of play that you enjoy much or would play willingly, just based on the descriptions of how you run your games.

----

None of which doesn't make 4E un-fun. It's awesome. It's my favorite game. I just don't use the DMG for worldbuilding, sort of like how I don't rely on the PHB for developing the non-combat aspects of my character.

Dave The Game said...

Screw all that, tell us about PHB3! :)

buzz said...

And now, the meat of this post: I am calling complete bullshit on everyone who wants to try to tell me that 4e obsesses about combat to the detriment of everything else.

Mr. Mearls, I love you.

buzz said...

I wish I could compile all of the comments that were being made about 3e for YEARS that are identical to the comments now being made about 4e... which are themselves now referencing 3e as "less about combat and more about story".

What a load of crap.

Mike Mearls said...

Ah, very enlightening stuff guys. I don't have time to comment right now (I have a hungry cat meowing at me as I type) but there are definitely elements here that make sense to me. In particular, I was often reading "combat" into "encounter", and that was the root of a lot of misunderstanding on my part.

Thanks for taking the time to post, everyone. It's always helpful. Once I'm at the office, I'll flip through my DMG and talk some more about this.

Dave - I can't talk about the PH 3! It does not exist as far as the public is concerned (unless Bill says otherwise).

Thasmodious said...

Playing an RPG is always about the encounter, Brock, even yours. Just like a movie is always broken down into scenes. Whether you are fighting an ogre, talking to a bartender, or RPing your bard's show at the local tavern (complete with karaoke), that's an encounter.

"Rules that are missing include: Hirelings, Keeps, Followers, Ship movement. Random tables of all sorts "

Those rules aren't missing. They're not wanted. You need followers? Why do you need dice and a table to come up with how a PC gets them? Isn't more fun and immersive when such things come about through actual gameplay and roleplay? Keeps? Charge a buttload of money, draw a castle map and move on. My PCs managed to found a company, negotiate a deal with the local ruler, buy property for a homebase, liaise with the locals and attract a number of followers to their company all without needing to consult any random tables. They rolled a few dice since these things player out as, gasp, encounters!

Brock Cusick said...

Mearls:
I can't talk about the PH 3!

Damn you, Rules #1 and #2! Oh how you taunt us with your insider knowledge!

Good thing this particular information isn't material to Hasbro's bottom line ...


Thasmodius:
Those rules aren't missing. They're not wanted.

Um, says you, perhaps? Did you forget the "YMMV" tag, or are you just fond of accusing everyone who doesn't like what you like of BadWrongFun?

-- Irda Ranger

Lizard said...

Thasmodius wrote:Those rules aren't missing. They're not wanted.
(BTW, is there any way to quote a post without manually C&P?)

And this, boils and ghouls, is what we (well, at least, me) mean when we talk about one-true-wayism. Some of us (again, me, I don't presume to speak for others) LIKE demographics rules. Want to know how much it costs, as a baseline, to hire a torchbearer, a sage, or get a high-level wizard to cast a spell you can't. The plot-uber-alles approach is certainly one way to play, but it is not the ONLY way. And random tables are fun in and of themselves, as ways to cause things to happen that the DM didn't plan for, or allow him to make a decision which isn't biased by his ideas of how things "should" go. (I point to Mr. Mearls' Kobold Victory Table. You might say "You don't need a table, just decide what the kobolds do if they manage to drop someone!" I say, the table was a lot of fun, very inspirational, and I hope to use it in play.)

"World" rules may not be wanted by YOU. They are wanted by others. Perhaps we're an insignificant minority, like people who like FFA PVP in online RPGs, and we should just learn to accept that our interests will be at the bottom of the priority pile. Perhaps we're NOT such a small minority, and speaking up is a way to see our interests catered to in future books, Dragon articles, or what not.

rdonoghue said...

Curiously, one of the things that impressed me most about 4E was how "Encounter" really meant "Scene" even if it would be too hippy-dippy to actually _call_ it that. Though that lens, a lot of the comments get kind of funny.

-Rob D.

thanuir said...

Thasmodius;

There certainly are encounters (or scenes) in all roleplay, and most of the action certainly happens in them. This is not to say that all gaming is about what happens in the encounters.

Big part of old school play is, for example, picking your encounters carefully and minimising the chance of hostile encounters. Get the treasure, don't fight the guardians, and you can go hunting for the next one with more resources, for example.

So, even though the game has many encounters and there is plenty of focus on them, there is plenty of play such that codifying it as encounters would do little good.

There's also sandbox play, where often encounter limits are fuzzy and the concept loses some meaning.

buzz said...

Lizard wrote: "World" rules may not be wanted by YOU. They are wanted by others.

L., there's going to be more than one DMG. In fact, there's going to be a whole series, just like the MM and PHB. Let DMG1 focus on getting people up to speed on the basics of DM'ing, and leave the tables and lists for successive volumes... or even GSL product. Heck, why don't you write one?

Also, the 4e DMG may not have random encounter tables, but it does have rules for building encounter decks, which is, IMO, a far, far, far cooler idea than encounter tables.

buzz said...

Mearls: I was often reading "combat" into "encounter", and that was the root of a lot of misunderstanding on my part.

I think reading "encounter" as "combat" at the root of other's peoples confusion as well...

Brock Cusick said...

Mearls said:
Thanks for taking the time to post, everyone. It's always helpful.

Oh, Mike, I forgot to mention this in my last post: Thank you for having an open channel with the gamers. I don't often get to provide direct (hopefully constructive) feedback to the guys who actually make the stuff I purchaser and enjoy; and I really, really appreciate that I can with Wizards of the Coast. If you see Scott Rouse at the office you can also let him know I appreciate his (and others) presence on EN World.

Best regards,

-- Irda Ranger

yeloson said...

Hey Mike,

At some point, it'd be pretty cool for you to post somewhere (here, Dragon, where-ever), some things you think are small, easily overlooked rules that really contribute a lot to 4E?

I just started re-reading the DMG and came across the fact that EVERYONE gets Quest XP, even if the Quest only focuses on one PC (pg. 122). What a great rule for encouraging team playing.

Are there rules you think people overlook that probably have neat effects like that?

Ryven Astrology said...

Hey - I realize this is kinda off-topic, but it's decent place to ask I suppose. There's a boatload of discussion on ENWorld about the PHB2 Weapon and Implement Expertise feats being 'errata disguised as crunch.' Basically that you're trying to adjust a mechanical error by burning a feat slot. I disagree intuitively, but don't have anything to back me up on it. Care to comment?

Dwayanu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin Alexander said...

Primarily, I just want to say that Lizard and Brock are articulating all the points I would normally be making.

But I also wanted to respond to this:

Thasmodius wrote: Playing an RPG is always about the encounter, Brock, even yours. Just like a movie is always broken down into scenes. Whether you are fighting an ogre, talking to a bartender, or RPing your bard's show at the local tavern (complete with karaoke), that's an encounter.

After the fact, any game session can be broken down into scene-like chunks. This is unsurprising: You can do that with the narrative of any series of events.

But here's the important distinction: As a general rule, I don't design encounters. (There are exceptions to that. But they're exceptions.)

I don't even design encounters in my dungeons -- at least, not in the sense that 4th Edition uses the term "encounter". Oh, I'll put 6 goblins in a room. But it's not an encounter. It's 6 goblins in a room. And maybe the PCs will fight those goblins all at once or separately; in that room or somewhere else; all by themselves or with reinforcements. Or maybe they won't fight them at all.

4th Edition, on the other hand, is all about designing encounters.

You go in and you build a very specific combat encounter, and the participants in that combat encounter are all very carefully balanced according to very precise rules. And you would never have the goblins run for reinforcements (unless, of course, that was part of the designed encounter) because that would mess up the balance of the encounter.

Or you go in and build a very specific skill challenge. And the original rules for the skill challenge have you come up with a specific goal and specific ways of accomplishing that goal and then you tell the players what they're supposed to be doing. And if the players try something else, the rules tell you to punish them with hard DCs.

And even if you use the errata, which softens this rule-mandated railroad, you still have the issues Lizard brought up regarding he use of non-skill-based solutions in a skill challenge.

Of course, there have always been adventures designed like this. The difference is that, before 4th Edition, this structure wasn't hard-coded into the rules.

If that's the way you play, then it's not surprising that the One-True-Wayism of the 4th Edition system is not particularly noticeable to you. In fact, you may still be struggling to understand

I, on the other hand, don't play that way. The difference is like a huge, flashing light. It's impossible to ignore. And trying to use the 4th Edition rules is like trying to ride a bucking bronco: The rules are fighting me every step of the way. (And, sure, if I ignored enough of them and rewrote others, the problem would eventually go away. But I'm counting that as part of the bronco ride.)

(And this whole encounter-vs-sandbox paradigm is just one of the ways in which 4th Edition has abandoned my preferred style of play. Dissociated mechanics, for example, are like kryptonite to the immersive roleplaying I prefer.)

Which is fine. There's nothing wrong with the style of play that 4th Edition has embraced as the One True Way. If that's what you like, then 4th Edition is perfect for you.

But if it's not what you like, then 4th Edition's decision to hard code that style of play into its mechanics makes the game unusable.

buzz said...

Oh, I'll put 6 goblins in a room. But it's not an encounter. It's 6 goblins in a room.

Tomato, tomato.

You go in and you build a very specific combat encounter, and the participants in that combat encounter are all very carefully balanced according to very precise rules. And you would never have the goblins run for reinforcements (unless, of course, that was part of the designed encounter) because that would mess up the balance of the encounter.

Or you go in and build a very specific skill challenge. And the original rules for the skill challenge have you come up with a specific goal and specific ways of accomplishing that goal and then you tell the players what they're supposed to be doing. And if the players try something else, the rules tell you to punish them with hard DCs.


You must own a different version of 4e than the rest of us.

Justin Alexander said...

Buzz wrote: You must own a different version of 4e than the rest of us.

Your version of 4th Edition doesn't have an entire chapter for building encounters which includes:

(1) Specific XP budgets.
(2) Specific monster roles, including encounter templates laying out specific mixtures of those roles.

Are you sure?

And your version of the 4th Edition rulebooks don't include all the material on page 75 describing skill challenges exactly the way I said they did? (Albeit most of this was almost immediately removed from the game.)

Weird, because mine does.

Buzz wrote: Tomato, tomato.

Obviously you are still incapable of understanding that other people don't play like you.

That's rather sad and vaguely pathetic. Perhaps when you grow up you'll learn the value of being able to see things from other people's point of view.

buzz said...

Your version of 4th Edition doesn't have...

You painted 4e as incapable of doing all the bog-standard D&D stuff you described in your post. I'm just calling you on it. The idea that Keep on the Borderlands describing how the goblins in area F will go pay the ogre some gold if they need help is somehow vastly different from Keep on the Shdaowfell describing how the goblins in the guard room will try and lure PCs towards the zombie chamber is utterly ridiculous. What stuns me is that your grognard myopia seems to have made you totally incapable of seeing that.

Obviously you are still incapable of understanding that other people don't play like you.

Haven't said this since my Usenet days, but: Pot, meet kettle.

The only person advocating a true way is you. My only argument is that I don't see how Justin's True Way is incompatible with 4e. Every edition of D&D has been fundamentally the same game at the core.

If OD&D or 1e rocks your world, more power to you. I'm not sure why you're polluting the blog of 4e's lead developer, though, if that's the case.

Brock Cusick said...

buzz said:
... your grognard myopia ...

Lol. That's hilarious.

Justin, buzz is right. I've actually run The Keep on the Borderlands using 4e rules (converting all encounters on the fly) and it works just fine. My best friend is running us through The Temple of Elemental Evil with similar good results.

Those rules in the 4E DMG are just guidelines for determining how much XP a particular fight is worth. They help a DM judge what a "tough" fight looks like under the new rules. They're road signs, not a steel ball & chain tied to your neck. Man up and run your adventure however you want.

If it makes you feel any more comfortable with the rules, just run the XP Budget algorithm backwards like this:

1) Determines how many goblins should be in the room and what weapons they have.
2) Determine how much XP it would be worth to fight them.

Done. Just like 1e. Some bronco that was ...

Brock Cusick said...

Lizard said...:
(BTW, is there any way to quote a post without manually C&P?)

Officially, no. If you use Firefox though several Greasmonkey scripts from Userscripts.org make things a lot easier. I also user Texter from Lifehacker for certain often-typed phrases, such as the html codeblock that links my signature here to my EN World profile.

-- Irda Ranger

aberzanzorax said...

Ok, a good dm can bring in roleplaying, yes.

A problem is that there seems to be a HUGE dearth of modules that are much of anything more than dungeon-crawly combat. See these threads for more info:

http://www.enworld.org/forum/general-rpg-discussion/257275-adventures-not-dungeon-crawls.html

http://www.enworld.org/forum/general-rpg-discussion/253449-any-good-d-d-4th-edition-adventures-arent-dungeon-crawls.html

http://forums.gleemax.com/showthread.php?t=1186866

http://forums.gleemax.com/showthread.php?t=1196596

Thing is, the books are full to the brim with combat rules, but not so full to the brim with roleplaying/adventuring that isn't hack and slash rules. Do they include that? Yes. But is it emphasized (overemphasized?) the way combat is? No.

So, between a real focus on combat in the books and a dearth of ready to run adventures that are more than Kill and Kill again, I don't really see how 4e offers much of an emphasis on roleplaying.

Of course you CAN. Especially if you have a good DM. Especially if that DM is a veteran from an earlier edition or learned how to orchestrate roleplaying from a veteran DM of an earlier edition.

But to just pick it up naturally with the resources available? I don't see that happening much, and I think that will change the direction of the game in the future to more of a "minis combat" game rather than a "roleplaying" game.

Hopefully that made sense and was bullshit free.

-Aberzanzorax

Tuft said...

The problem here is that you speak only from the perspective of the DM, and about the DMG.

Try putting on the Player hat for a second. What part of the rules will you look through? Right, the various PHs.

The question is: what cool non-combat stuff is there in them? What abilities, powers, magic, talents, etc is there that you can find and say "Oooh! I just got to try that!", aimed at non-combat situations, with non-combat examples?

I've picked up many rulebooks and leafed through, and the 4E PH is the first one that failed the above test. I just could not find anything non-combat coolness in the 4E PH... :( :(