Wednesday, March 11, 2009

No Minis, No Problem

This is a little bit of a weird idea, but bear with me.

If you want to try playing 4e without minis, try this. For each of the PCs' powers, give the players the flavor text for the powers and nothing else. Same for magic items (you'll have to handle flavor text for magic item powers).

Let players track everything else about their characters - hit points, stats, and so on. They can still roll attacks, and maybe the shortened powers still have attack bonuses and damage expressions, but the other details are behind the screen.

You (the DM) track the mechanics for their powers.

Now, when a player uses a power, in most cases you can just apply its effects as per the power card. However, if a power uses forced movement, you can describe an appropriate effect that fits the situation. It might be something simple ("the orcs stumble away") to more extreme ("the troll pitches back and down into the pit.")

Basically, if you don't want to use minis the DM is taking narrative control over setting the scene. In that case, just go ahead and give all that control to the DM.

It's more bookkeeping for the DM, but it avoids the disconnect that can set in when the DM has full control over the scene, and likely isn't tracking things with exacting precision, and the players are throwing effects into the game that rely on precision. Rather than fight that, tuck that precision into the DM's pocket and let him play with it as it best fits the scene he's building.

I've always been fascinated by the idea of an RPG where the players' resources had no mechanics, only descriptive elements, and the DM's rulebook had all the actual mechanics. I think it goes back to AD&D, when the combat rules were in the DMG, not the PHB.

Anyway, just a crazy, random thought that bubble into my mind.


Buddy said...

If you like that check this out

Simon said...

That's not so mad an idea. It's the way I've played with every previous version of the game, usually with mini's only to establish marching orders in the few instances when you use them.

You hear plenty of complaints about 4E being too mini-based, but as you point, it doesn't need to be. I'm playing a small game of 4E on-line, just using googlegroups and e-mails and it works fine without mini's involved.

jasin said...

Interesting concept, but I think the specific idea of players choosing powers based on just flavour text is unworkable, with the PHB as written.

The power flavour text has already been criticized as uninspired and uninspiring. It might be good enough for what it needs to do in the game as it stands now, but I think it's certainly not good enough to be the players' sole source of information on what they want to do.

Balard said...

Nice idea. But I like the concept of divided work with the players :)

Brock Cusick said...

This is really neat. I must try it.

Lucky for Jasin writing flavor text is (roughly) 1,243% easier than writing (and playtesting) a whole book full of rules. I'm sure he can adequately re-describe a power's effects on an ad hoc basis if necessary.

buzz said...

What prevents combat from becoming a "Mother-May-I"* situation, though?

* A phrase I first heard from you! (In this context.) :)

AccidentalFraser said...

Intriguing. This may put me a step closer to running my wuxia in Choson Korea 4e I've been thinking about.

May even have to get my hands on the books. ;)

Mike Mearls said...

Buzz - I think if you're playing without miniatures, you've embraced that idea that the DM is the one who enables or disables secondary effects from attacks, like pushing a monster into a pit.

A DM could simply short circuit anything like that, but on the other hand it might free up a DM to inject more interesting effects into the game (the grid would show that the goblin is too far from the the pit for the push to knock it in, but it'd be cool for that to happen so it does.)

Basically, the idea struck me that if you want to get rid of minis in a physical sense, you also need to get rid of them in a philosophical sense (precise measurements, grid as neutral arbiter).

Krensky said...

An RPG where the players aren't allowed to know the rules. Isn't that Paranoia?

anonynos said...

I don't think "Not allowed to know the rules" is quite the point. It's more about making all movement largely arbitrary, and thus up to the GM to arbitrate.

The concept intrigues me, and plays to my generally free wheeling nature as a GM. I have certain reservations in how some powers would end up working out (some seem more dependent on squares/positioning than others)... but it might be worth a shot to see it in action.

rdonoghue said...

I would say the only weird thing about this approach is that it would be considered weird at all.

-Rob D.

Wyatt said...

Reminds me of how I used to play 3.5 in a way.

mxyzplk said...

Yeah really, this is how we played D&D up through the first blush of 3e; tactical maps were rare things used only for very specific setpiece battles. And most other RPGs do it this way.

Avoiding mother-may-I is just a matter of "not doing it." Advocate limited player narration. Feng Shui did this fantastically; you had stats including movement stats and all, but it specifically said "don't use maps you fool!" Discourage asking, encourage telling.

"Is the orc minion close enough to push off the ledge with my pushy power?"
"No. But if you had just said 'I push the orc minion off the ledge with my pushy power' I would have said 'Sure, roll it.'"

Takes 2 repetitions and then no one ever does it again.

Lizard said...

If you like that sort of thing, I'd suggest people play a game built around the idea of abstract combat: Spirit of the Century, Rolemaster/HARP, BESM, Amber, dozens more. I find that if I try playing mostly-tactical games (D&D 4, D&D 3.5, Hero, GURPS) without the appropriate tactical tools, not only is it more work, but player abilities balanced based on very exacting rules for movement, positioning, etc, become unbalanced in a way that ends up making the game Less Fun. You don't need Official WOTC Minis, after all. A chessboard and lego -- or even coins, jelly beans, or distinctive pieces of lint -- can provide all you need.

(4e, in particular, with its large combats, strikes me as hard to run miniless -- too many interactions. A is near B, who is near C, who is adjacent to D and E... if A moves, can E take an opportunity attack? I dunno! I guess you could add a random mechanic, something like, "If you are in the Melee Area and try to leave it, there is a 50% chance any given opponent will get an OA" or something...)

buzz said...

I totally agree with Lizard. I wouldn't play D&D (or HERO, etc) without minis the same way I would not play Monopoly without a board, or poker without a deck of cards. There are so many great RPGs that are mini-free (Burning Wheel being my favorite), that I'd point people in that direction if that's their preference.

Honestly, I think it's that a lot of people feel like D&D is the only game in town, and they must play it... even if they need to modify it beyond all recognition.

Colin said...

Interactive storytelling with dice adjudication? That's crazy! Dungeons & Dragons is a game about rulers and grids!

Seriously, though: That's one of the things that turned me off toward later editions of the game. I didn't want to be forced - or rather, "strongly encouraged" - to have to build a library of minis, maps, tiles, and other extraneous materials in order to play a game that I used to play with dice, a pencil, and paper.

Sorry. My grognard is showing.

Lizard said...

Colin said:
Interactive storytelling with dice adjudication? That's crazy! Dungeons & Dragons is a game about rulers and grids!

Current editions (3.0+) are. :) WITH interactive storytelling and dice adjudication.

Too many of the core mechanics used for balancing abilities depend on exact placing for me to comfortable giving it up, except for tiny 1-on-1 fights where neither party moves much. Remove AOO/OA, for example, and you shaft anyone who invested heavily in feats/powers which revolve around them. There's plenty of RPGs, on all levels from the crunch scale from commiehippie Forge stuff to "hand me my scientific calculator" classic Rolemaster stuff, which are built and balanced around there NOT being a battlemat. I just think that if you gut the tactical detail of D&D 3 and 4, I have to ask why you're using that particular system when you're ignoring a lot of the rules.

rdonoghue said...

I'm very sympathetic to the argument that 4e works so well because of its boundaries, and that it would be an active departure from the areas where it excels to try to make it _not_ revolve around being map & mini fightingtastic. The thing is, it's going to be about 2 or 3 more years before I find the argument to be genuinely persuasive.

My hesitation revolves around this: 4e brought a lot of really interesting game tech to the table, and some of that is going to inform on other, less mini-centric, RPGs down the line (or at least it may do so), but that hasn't happened yet. When the day comes that there's a D&D knockoff that has clearly derivative structures but with powers better designed for descriptive combat, then I will totally get behind the idea that trying to get 4e to do this is making soup in a basket, but since we're not there yet, stuff like this is totally worth kicking around.

-Rob D.

Precocious Apprentice said...

I hear what you are saying Lizard. I used to be adamantly against minis, but playing 4e has changed my mind. I prefer 4e with minis.

That being said, being able to play even just a session without minis is a good thing. I can take my usual campaign, my usual players, and their usual characers, and we can go on a road trip and bang out a level or so on the way. This is good. We don't have to recreate our campaign with a new system. We just get a little looser with the rules. We can even use virtual dice on iPhones! No dice survace needed.

I just put this in my toolbox as another thing that I can do with 4e. It is useful for many purposes. If I wanted strictly narrative style games all the time, I would use a different system. When I want to do narratve style sessions within my usual 4e D&D campaign, I can use these ideas. I have used this a few times since I first saw Mike post on En World about this. His ideas got refined a little in other threads and posts. This idea just takes it a step further. I like it. It can be used. I will not use it every session, but I have and will use it some.

As always though to each their own. Works for me though.

Colin said...

Lizard said:
I just think that if you gut the tactical detail of D&D 3 and 4, I have to ask why you're using that particular system when you're ignoring a lot of the rules.

That's just it... I'm not. It was the tactical detail that turned me off the later editions. Well, that and not having anyone in the area to game with.

Colin said...

I should note, for posterity, that I am NOT bagging on 4e. What I've read and what I've played is an impressive feat of largely integrated and coherent design. Although it's not the way I want to play, I do recognize that reasonable and intelligent people like it just fine.

Grimbones said...

Love it. Thanks, Mike.


BOFH said...

As far as I'm concerned, 4e is Avanced Dungeons and Dragons Minis. Sure you can do all your roleplaying (which the game mechanics do not come into, you abilities used as a guide to how to play the character), but the combat/encounter system seems to be purely a more complicated version of the minis game.
After two and abit games (we return to 3.5e in between), I'm still to be convinced this is an improvement. A good game it is, but obviously aimed at the CCG and MMORG set to encourage them into spending money elsewhere.

As repeated elsewhere, if you don't want minis use another system My fav is Earthdawn, which I see alot of ideas being taken into DnD4e (e.g saves against static defence)

buzz said...

As far as I'm concerned, 4e is Avanced Dungeons and Dragons Minis.

:rolls eyes:

AzaLiN said...

Without minis or a grid, you just have to modify movement/positional power descriptions to more vague ones and add more death pits to use them with :D

The only hard part is working in flanking and sneak attacks! I've wanted to do a version of this for a while, but what about rogues!

LesInk said...

May you could just make saving throws to see if you flank. This then gives them a 50% chance to be in the right position to flank. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Its just chance. The GM then just describes it as the target enemy adjusting to avoid your flank. To take one step further, once you flank, you always flank until the enemy shifts to counter the flank. 1 for 1.

Koi said...

That's an interesting way to go about it. I have also heard much of how 4e is way too mini based. However, I haven't yet had a chance to try it out. My friends and I have started a campaign (or made characters for it at least), and things keep coming up that keep pushing the game back and back. By the time we end up playing I'll be back in school!

Anyway, I watched a youtube video of the creators of Robot Chicken playing 4e (stumbled upon it and got hooked; its pretty long!). From what I can tell, it still plays much like any other game. Some of the mechanics have changed and what-have-you with the powers system and all that and the sliding and pushing of characters, but it's still essentially the same.

I think, however, that I would much prefer a game without the map, but still with the stats and stuff. I like knowing what stuff does and concentrating on not meta-gaming and all that. hahaha. Maps do annoy me though. When I first started playing (which was actually 3e or 3.5, btw -- I'm only 21!), we never had any maps. Sometimes, we might have a vague drawing of where characters are for battle-sake, but in general, we just imagined what was going on. It wasn't horribly important where everyone was. It was important where you wanted to be.