Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Notes on playtesting L16 Characters

Some commentary today. As a lover of game mechanics, I often playtest games by myself. In order to figure out how high-level 4th edition D&D combat works, I’ve been playing my playtest party in fights at higher and higher levels. I just had my first fight with the party at level 16, jumping them from level 11. I’m not using the quick-and-dirty rules for creating high level characters, I laboriously calculated every magic item they would have received under the guidelines during the passage to level 16.

I am very good at controlling and playtesting game characters, and in most games I have no trouble controlling 5 characters plus their opponents. But, wow, D&D 4th edition is not most games. These are the most complicated characters I’ve ever seen! Among the 5 characters I have a total of 195 combat-related powers and abilities. This doesn’t include abilities which simply factor directly into the combat values. And I gave the characters a very low number of consumable items, simply because I was getting overwhelmed. It is incredibly hard to remember all of these powers, especially since they tend to have little relation to one another or the character background (how am I supposed to remember the cleric is the one with the boots of swimming?). I guess these characters really are meant to be played by one person each who has controlled that character through 150-odd encounters and knows his abilities like the back of his hand.

Anyway, the fight was against a Rakshasa Noble, 2 Cambion Hellfire Magus, and 2 Rockfire Dreadnought. A lot of cool stuff happened, but it was 18 ROUNDS long! It just went on – and on – and on. I guess the issue is that the monsters have very annoying powers, and are extremely hard to hit while being super-accurate in return, but they only do about 2d8+8 damage. This just isn’t much against a level 16 character. The characters, in turn, used up their great powers to kill a few monsters, then they were all dazed or stunned, and with no effective powers left. So it just took forever to chip away at the remaining monsters. I hope this fight is an aberration, or I could be in for a long haul trying to playtest...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Rituals - part 2

Continuing from here. I was pondering Pilgrim’s comment that rituals don’t end up being used much.

To some extent, this is actually an advantage of rituals. In previous editions of D&D, every noncombat spell you memorized meant one combat spell you didn’t memorize. The spell lists were full of interesting-to-read but obscure spells that were highly unlikely to see use. For instance, a spell that detect secret doors in a given area. This spell sounds good, but doesn’t help the game much. An adventuring wizard is unlikely to memorize it, since he would have no idea when to use it unless the dungeon just happens to have an area where he knows a secret door exists and is vitally important to find, but for some reason no one can find it. The only real way to use this sort of spell is to find a way to abuse it (spending a month to explore the dungeon, perhaps), or to bump into the rare situation where it is useful, then rest for 8 hours memorizing the spell. In 4th edition, this is simplified by increasing the casting time to 10 minutes but getting rid of the memorization time. If you know the ritual, and you end up in the rare situation where it is useful, you can just use it. Presumably the gold cost is set so that it is very worthwhile to use when you know you need it, and not worthwhile to use frivolously.

So the ritual list does seem to be chock full of practically useless spells, but if they are very cheap to learn, this isn’t a problem game wise. They are useful in very rare circumstances, and once you know them, they don’t take up “space” – they will always be ready when you need them. If they aren’t cheap enough to learn, this would be an issue of execution, not of game design (i.e. you could just make them cheaper).

One problem is that it may be kind of boring if you are set on being a secret-door finding wizard, and the ritual you have for it is almost never useful. But this would just be a case where what you want is not a ritual at all, but an arcane power to find secret doors, something you actually pay for (i.e. sacrifice some other power or ability for) so that it is actually a significant part of your character.

On the other hand, the fact that rituals are a storehouse for colorful but useless noncombat spells may be a bit of a disappointment for the ritual caster. You would have to be very high level before the cost of these obscure rituals is trivial enough to be worth getting them, and at that point you are paying trivial costs to get trivial powers. Fair, but not very exciting. It is nice for game balance that the wizard isn’t using noncombat magic to trounce on all the skill-based characters, but when does he get to use his rituals?

Well, there are a few rituals of real interest, like “Hand of Fate” which tells you what course of action to take. A lot of the other rituals almost seem like they are not meant for the players at all; they exist for color, so that the players can identify them when the DM puts them into an adventure. It would usually be quite rare for a PC to want to create a magic mouth, but maybe the ritual is meant to provide inspiration to the DM to put one in a dungeon, and then the PC wizard can look at it and recognize what exactly it is. Otherwise, though, if rituals aren’t used very often it is OK with me – if everyone is using skills instead, the wizard has just as many skills as everyone else, and is just as exciting (or more) in combat, so everything is good.

One trap I do see with rarely-used rituals is that they have a certain similarity to rarely-used skills, which 4th edition D&D got rid of. Typically, the only way for such a skill/ritual to get used was for the DM to specifically put it into the adventure for the benefit of the player. But this could be a problem in the case of rituals. If the ritual isn’t really necessary, you are penalizing the players by tricking them into spending hard-earned gold. If the ritual is essential for the adventure, you can’t put it into a general-purpose adventure because the players couldn’t complete it if they don’t have the ritual, and that would be bad adventure design. But if you know the adventurers have the ritual and must use it, you would be punishing the players for having the rituals, since groups who have rituals would end up with less gold for other things than groups which don’t have rituals. This sort of thing is one of the problems with spending experience to take actions (and in 4th edition D&D, gold is a form of group experience points).

This particular problem can be solved with the same adventure design used for skills. Using the ritual should provide a tangible benefit, but you can still get on without the ritual. There are only 17 skills, so you can readily account for each one when designing your adventures. But there are as many rituals as they have time to publish. To really balance your adventure around rituals, you practically have to custom craft the adventure for the characters. For a general purpose adventure, you would be hard-pressed to account for every ritual that exists. Most rituals would never see use in a general purpose adventure, but if you are unlucky, some ritual could exist that totally defeats the whole adventure.

This would seem more likely with very high level characters, as it seems the stated idea in 4th edition D&D is that high level adventures are awesome events of godlike beings, and the charaters are expected to have incredible game-breaking abilities. But how do you plan a non-character specific adventure for characteres with stupendous noncombat rituals? If you give them an earthly challenge, they might just ignore it – you give them a mighty journey to go on, and they just teleport to the end. So you can give them godlike challenges – journey to the Xth dimension. But if you give them a godlike challenge, what if they don’t have the right godlike abilities? After all, there is no guarantee they have any particular ritual, or any at all for that matter. Oh well, I haven’t played to that level yet anyway.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rituals: Gold for Magic

One new idea from 4th edition D&D that I think is really great is the idea of making noncombat magic into long rituals that cost money.

In a fantasy game based around a world of magic, you want magic to be an amazing force that can do practically anything. But fantasy is also supposed to have a flavor of the medieval, and feature non-magical characters using their skills and abilities in a nom-magical world. This runs into problems when you also want to support wizards with stupendous powers. It isn’t very exciting being the world’s best cat burglar when your buddy the wizard can easily duplicate all of your abilities with spells to bypass traps, open locks, fly up high walls, or just teleport directly into the enemy fortress. Yet all of these are abilities that a wizard character might reasonably ask to have.

One way to cut down on the overuse of magic is to make it a precious resource. This fits a lot of fantasy material very well. When using typical magic systems, players can trivially use magic over and over again, as if they were using superpowers. In the actual fantasy genre, magic is often used sparingly, which is more appropriate and better for game balance. But figuring out how exactly to limit the use of magic is tricky.

The great idea of 4th edition is to transform these noncombat magic powers into a ritual, which basically acts as a form of consumable magic item, rather than an inherent character power. It costs gold to buy a given noncombat spell, and gold every time you want to use it. Gold becomes the precious resource that is being spent to use the magic. So you can make many amazing powers available, and players will not abuse them over and over again. The natural miserliness of players with long-term resources can make them covetous of their magic, just like in the source material.

Also, rituals now take a long time to perform. This helps differentiate rituals from normal skills. In many of the situations you would want to use skills that might be superceded by magic, using a ritual just won’t be possible. This helps prevent skilled characters from being totally overshadowed by magic.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Simplifying Assumptions in my posts

Something I should note with my posts is that, when I use a game or a rule as an example of some point I am making, I usually make simplifying assumptions that I may not spell out. For instance, in my last article, I did not mention that Champions has body damage, a form of long-term damage. Body damage can be a considerable annoyance when it occurs in Champions, but it wasn’t relevant for the point I was making, which was to analyze the concept and practice of total recovery of health between fights, without worrying whether any existing game completely meets that extreme. Simplification is particularly important with an game like 4th edition D&D, which is based on general rules with countless exceptions. When I describe the way healing surges work, I described them as representing health. Of course, D&D also has special ways of using healing surges to directly fuel offensive powers. But this would just be a distraction from my main point of how you can use the distinction between hit points and healing surges to create a combination of short-term and long-term health.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rate of Noncombat Healing

Previous posts (1, 2, 3) have discussed issues revolving around daily powers. A related issue is that of recovering from damage sustained during fights.

In a game using health as a long-term resource, the damage you take during a fight is recovered partially or not at all between fights, so that you start each fight weaker than you were in the last. 1st edition D&D is an example of this, at least if you played in the classic style of fighting many battles per day. Hit points could only be recovered by healing magic, which was in short supply (except at high levels). Basically, they were a resource that had to last you through the adventure, or at least one portion of the adventure. The biggest disadvantage of this form of recovery from damage is that each fight, until the very end of the adventure, cannot be strong enough to seriously endanger the characters. If you have to fight multiple battles per day, and you cannot recover a lot of health between battles, then the game balance requires that no one battle cause a lot of damage. The goal of the early battles is not to win, but to lose as few hit points as possible. If the GM tried to make the early battles tough enough that the monsters threatened to defeat the characters, he would be making those battles cause way too much damage, and there would be no way for the characters to last long enough to reach the later battles. This makes the fights seem less dramatic; instead of life or death struggles, they are a form of resource management.

The opposite form of game is one where health recovers completely between fights. In Champions, for instance, the normal form of damage taken by the characters, stun damage, recovers completely after every fight. So the PC’s can engage in a fierce combat, get battered all over the place, and still be ready for the next exciting encounter. This allows each fight to be more exciting. It also means that, when the big encounter comes, the characters can fight to the very limit of their abilities and go up against the toughest foes, rather than being so weak and damaged that they are only a shell of their former selves. The main disadvantage of total recovery between fights is that if the foes are not powerful enough to threaten victory, how well or how badly you do during the fight has no effect at all on the adventure. This means that characters cannot be “softened up” by sending minions at them. The GM can pretend to do so, but in reality it is a sham, the weak opponents don’t slow them down at all. So although total post-fight recovery allows you to have much more menacing foes than with limited recovery, it makes fights without menacing foes less interesting because nothing is affected by the outcome – no matter what happens during the fight, if you win you are OK.

In my experience, the advantages of total health recovery far outweigh the disadvantages, at least when playing with a cinematic style. In Champions, there were a lot of fierce fights against very dangerous supervillains, or hordes of agents with fiendish secret weapons. The purpose of weak fights against thugs was not to slow down the characters, but to give them some relief from the dangerous fights, a chance to be mighty superheroes and show off their abilities. The fact that they took no long-term damage was probably a good thing, as they were free to “act like Superman” and bounce bullets off their chests with impunity. Sometimes I considered creating a long-term damage system to allow certain types of adventures to be made, but most of the time it just wasn’t an issue. Whereas the advantage of having the players be able to fight full-out in every exciting combat was quite noticeable.

4th edition Dungeons & Dragons introduces a new method to try to simultaneously gain the advantages of both limited recovery and total recovery. In the new D&D, you essentially have a small amount of short-term health, and a large amount of longer term health. Between combats, you recharge your short-term health with some of your long-term health. At the end of a day, you gain all long-term health. You can essentially fight every battle at full health, but if you take too much damage in your early fights during a day, you won’t have enough long-term health to last until the later fights. This allows each fight to be challenging and badly damage the characters, while still allowing multiple fights during a day, so in some sense it has the best of both worlds. I’d have to say the idea is cool, and I like it much better than 1st edition. The disadvantage here is that the adventures have to be tightly crafted in a rather constrained manner for the rule to really work to its full extent. There has to be just the right amount of time pressure / encounter frequency. If there ends up being too few fights in a day, there is no difference from the total recovery method; too many fights in a day, and you have the issues of the limited recovery method. The method ties into the daily power concept discussed in my last few posts, which has its own drawbacks in terms of using the day as the key measuring point for everything. Actually, its is really only use of the daily powers that would cause a character to get “worn down” by waves of early monsters. Healing surges in D&D are pretty touchy; you are fine when you still have them, and rapidly get into big trouble if you run out. Since the party wouldn’t want to go on without them, the use of healing surges doesn’t so much weaken the party, as force it to rest more often than they would want to. And this is only interesting if you have the right kind of time pressure in the adventure.

Another form of healing I find very interesting can be found by looking at a portion of the Torg game. In Torg, characters can survive a small amount of damage with short-term health, but must often back this up by spending possibilities if they come under pressure. Possibilites are available in large numbers because they also act as experience points. Possibilities can be earned by completing adventures, but they do not renew with the passage of time. This means that spending a possibility is spending a permanent resource – you may gain more experience later on, but you will always be less experienced than you would have been had you not spent the possibility. Players care about permanent resources, so if the fight goes bad and they are forced to spend possibilities to survive, they care what happens even when they end up winning the fight. At the same time, there are enough possibilities for the characters to get out of really tricky situations. So the game balance is not so twitchy, and the GM can put in some really tough villains, knowing the players can bail themselves out, at a price, if they get unlucky or the GM has underestimated the difficulty. And because time is not an issue, the GM has great flexibility in designing adventures. One disadvantage of this method is that, if the players keep a large buffer of possibilities, they are pretty unlikely to ever get defeated, which can reduce the tension. I myself have noticed that it can be fun to limit the number of stored possibilities to make dramatic fights more exciting – though this makes the game balance tricky again. Another problem I find very troubling is that defense-oriented characters have a natural tendency to spend fewer possibilities, and thus gain experience more rapidly.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

New Open Forum

I've had requests for a way for others to post game design issues for discussion, so I've created an associated forum, If you want to post anything that is not a response to one of my blog posts, you can do it here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Daily Powers, continued

Previous posts here and here.

4th edition D&D ameliorates the daily powers problem in several ways. First, it has encounter powers, rather than having only at-will powers and daily powers. Encounter powers are really cool because they limit the use of a power without creating any of the problems associated with daily powers. With more powers being encounter powers, fewer are daily powers and thus the degree to which the characters get stronger by hoarding daily powers is reduced. Also, in previous editions you pretty much had to use up daily powers in a fight in order to make your character interesting (especially if you were a spellcaster). With encounter powers (and more interesting at-will powers), you can do interesting stuff every fight without needing to use your daily powers. This reduces the pressure to use up daily powers and the desire to renew them as often as possible.

4th edition D&D also has “milestone” powers like action points and magic item dailies, which are recharged with the number of encounters you face in a day. This makes it slightly easier for the characters to keep going during a day rather than rest.

A change which I find very helpful in giving the players a structure for how often to rest per day is the healing surge rule. Healing surges address the issue of character healing, which is slightly different from, but closely related to, the issue of daily powers. I should discuss that more in a future post. But the key point here is that healing surges create a natural stopping point for the day – you must rest when you don’t have enough healing surges to go on. Healing surges in general cannot be spent without limit during a battle, and are (for the most part) only spent to recover from monster attacks. So they cannot all be spent in one battle, and (ignoring certain powers) there isn’t really any incentive to try. This creates a natural flow for the game, where you adventure as long as you have enough surges, and spend your daily powers evenly over that time.

None of these changes, however, actually remove the basic problem. It is still most efficient to fight only one encounter per day. The changes just lessen the problem and make the regular solutions easier to employ. It seems to me that the rules work best when the characters choose when to rest, but have a strict time limit for the adventure as a whole. So now, whenever I create a D&D adventure, I put a time limit on the adventure. Usually my rule is that if you finish with only one extended rest, you gain maximum success. If you take two extended rests, you gain partial success. This sort of constrains the adventure design, but I’m happy with it right now.

The whole idea of “adventuring by the day” is rather D&D-centric. For other RPG’s I prefer to make adventures using the Torg concept of dividing into Acts and Scenes. Then you don’t have to worry about all of these nitpicky time details.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Solving Broken Rules by not abusing them

When the rules of a role-playing game are broken, one general purpose way of fixing the rules is to rely on the players to be reasonable and not to take advantage of the broken rules. I thought I'd give my opinion on the usefulness of this technique.

In general, this technique relies on having players who are not power gamers. A player who is a power gamer will naturally want to do whatever is most powerful within the rules, and will not normally want to hold back in any way, so this technique will not work (unless they agree to totally change their play style). You can try to make it work by threatening to punish the player for abusing the rules, but I find this sort of player-GM interaction to be highly undesirable. Power gamers are likely to be happier if you either fix the rule or let them exploit it. I will assume for the following cases that none of your players are power gamers.

Relying on the players not to abuse the rules works best when you have to perform unusual actions to take advantage of the broken rule. It works even better if the decision to abuse the rule can only be made during character generation. For instance, a classic way to break the rules is to find a combination of multiple powers, which, when taken together, become a devastating combination. If the players are not trying to power game and are just making cool characters, chances are that no one will ever choose this combination, and once play begins, this combination will not be available for use. Therefore it won't, in practice, create any problem at all for your game. If everyone in the group knows the combination is broken, they may even decide to intentionally avoid it for that reason.

Another case where it is very typical and useful to rely on the reasonableness of the players is when you have multiple choices with different game effects and different special effects, and you want the choices to be balanced. Ideally, each choice would be exactly game balanced with every other choice. In practice you cannot always achieve this, but if the choices are reasonably close to being balanced, it will not be a problem. Players who play "in character" will naturally want to do things that are fun and appropriate. If option A is more fun and appropriate than option B, and is not blatantly inferior, they will choose option A even if a deep analysis reveals that option B is probably a bit more effective overall. After all, the purpose of a role-playing game is to have fun, not simply to win at all costs. When designing game rules, I often rely on this. If a rule is close to being balanced, I can just assume the players won't try to power game and move on to the next rule, rather than agonizing over every little detail.

On the other hand, if option B is clearly far better than option A, you have a definite problem. There is no getting around the fact that the game balance is flawed. It is certainly possible for players to stay in character and choose option A anyway, but I think this is not as good a solution as fixing the rules. First of all, it puts a lot of pressure on the players. It can be awkward to make a decision knowing that it is making your character far weaker .Even if the players are not trying to abuse the rules, if the rules are not balanced, you end up with a situation where some characters and actions are far more effective than others for reasons that don't make sense within the story. For instance, it is very annoying when you want to make a character who is a mighty warrior, but because your character conception leads you to choose powers and abilities that are inefficient in game terms, you end up being a rather mediocre warrior who just tries to provide support for his more powerful buddies. Also, rules that are broken in terms of game balance are often (though not always) less fun to use. A power that is broken on the “too strong” side can seem bizarre and ridiculous; a power that is broken on the “too weak” side can be boring because it has no effect.

Another problem is when you have a slippery slope, which is the case with the daily powers problem I mentioned in the last post. If it is efficient for the party to fight fewer encounters per day, and there is no definition of how many you "ought” to be fighting and no real penalty for resting too often, then basically the players are being told to just decide for themselves how powerful and successful their characters will be. They can rest more or less often, and are always tempted to rest more often except for the feeling that it doesn't seem right. Giving the players total control can work under the right circumstances, but this seems more like interactive storytelling, where you don't really need rules at all. If you are going to use a game with rules, I usually I think it is more interesting if the game sytsem actually provides some sort of meaningful challenge to the players, some sort of framework that the players can interact with so that they are playing a game in addition to telling a story.

Of course the players (or the GM) can come up with self-imposed limitations – “we must fight 4 encounters per day”. Having guidelines can be very helpful in terms of reducing uncertainty about what is abusive. But to the extent that the guidelines are followed, this is really an informal way to make new game rules rather than a way to avoid having to make new rules at all. And to the extend that the guidelines are not followed, you still have the uncertainty of when and why you shouldn’t follow them.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Daily Powers – Part 1

A classic problem with earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons revolved around the fact that many important character abilities, most importantly spells, could be used once per day. This was presumably done to prevent the characters from casting unlimited numbers of spells. If you limit a spell to being used once per day, and the characters do many things in the course of the day, then a spell becomes a precious resource to be used at the best possible moment. Having a powerful but limited resource that you use at the most opportune moment can be a fun game mechanic.

This also allows you to imitate the “hero point” concept, which D&D does not have. Hero points allow you to rise to the occasion and fight more effectively in the big fights. If you have multiple fights per day, with a number of small fights and one big fight, daily powers allow you to “pull out the big guns” and use lots of daily powers when the big boss appears.

The problem is that D&D, being a free-form role-playing game, has no real rules to control how many encounters actually occur during a day. This creates a great deal of instability in terms of how effective daily powers are, especially when those powers are very important. If you have only one encounter in a day, and you use all of your daily powers in that encounter, then your daily powers are much more useful compared to your “at-will” powers, and you are much stronger than if you have to string your powers out over 5 encounters.

If the GM controls and announces the number of encounters that will occur in a given day, the use of daily powers should, in theory, work quite well and not cause any serious game balance problems. The GM can simply make the encounters more powerful when there will only be one encounter per day. In practice, there are some small associated disadvantages. First, it is harder to balance encounters. Even if you figure out how many monsters are required to challenge a party, you still have to figure out how much tougher or weaker to make the encounter based on the number of total encounters there will be that day. Also, if some players have lots of daily powers and some have few, the relative potency of the characters will vary based on how many encounters there are per day. All else being equal, a party with lots of daily powers is much better when fighting one encounter per day than one with few daily powers and more at-will powers. A second issue is that it can feel weird that weak monsters are hopelessly steamrolled when the plot of the adventure makes it clear that no other fights will occur that day.

In most adventures, however, the GM does not have total control over the number of encounters per day. The classic D&D adventure is a dungeon crawl, where the characters encounter an ancient dungeon and fight through it room by room. The character decide when to press on and when to stop and rest. Since the players are much more powerful when they fight only one encounter per day, there is a strong incentive for them to do so. This is usually not desirable. It ruins the feel of daily powers as a “precious resource” when you can use them in every encounter. If the powers were supposed to be used every encounter, they should be specifically designed that way. And it just feels wrong and weird for the characters to explore the dungeon for 15 minutes, then camp out doing nothing for the rest of the day (or however long it takes to recharge their powers). It hurts the atmosphere and believability of the adventure for character to do things which are so disconnected from both reality, and the works of fiction which define the genre.

There is no solution to this problem within the structure of the rules, but in terms of game play there are multiple solutions. Probably the best solution is to impose time pressure on the adventure. This has several forms. The most powerful is to make a “cinematic” adventure in which an external force is driving events in motion, and the players cannot avoid the encounters. For instance, an adventure where the players are defending a town from repeated attacks. In this case the GM is controlling the number of encounters. The players either participate, or fail the mission. This totally solves the problem of the “15-minute adventuring day”. However, this isn’t the typical style of a D&D adventure, where the players are the ones actively exploring.

A form of time pressure which is easier to integrate into a dungeon crawl is an overall time limit, where the players can rest whenever they want, but if they rest too many times, they will suffer consequences or lose the mission entirely. Perhaps they have three days to defeat the evil cultists before the princess is sacrificed. This is what I currently favor when playing 4th edition D&D. This gives the players more flexibility while still maintaining the integrity of the daily power system. It also seems to fit the atmosphere better – the players have plenty of time to explore, but they aren’t tempted to stop and rest until they are actually tired out and need to recover.

Another form of time pressure, encouraged in the old D&D modules, was to make the mission more difficult every time the players rest. If the players tried to rest in the dungeon, they would be beset by endless wandering monsters. If they left to town and returned later, the monsters might have left, or formed a civil defense league, or set up better defenses, or invited allies, or whatever. This can be an effective form of time pressure to encourage the players not to rest too often. As usually implemented, however, it tends to break down the more you have to put it into effect. It is hard enough just to come up with your perfectly laid out dungeon. Having to invent all sorts of things for the monsters to do to beef up their defenses is hard work for the GM! And once you do so, this may slow down the characters even more and make them rest even more often. How much can the monsters do anyways within the context of the adventure? If the players start to camp out after every fight and become far more powerful, you may have no choice but to have all the monsters flee, or band into an army and attack the characters.

This veers into my least favorite form of time pressure, the fear of GM retaliation. Instead of building a time penalty into the adventure, if the GM thinks the players are resting too often, he can correct the problem by using his limitless powers to punish the players until he thinks they are playing properly. This usually takes the form of extra events that could logically happen, but wouldn’t happen if the GM wasn’t ticked off at the players. Maybe the GM decides now would be a good time to besige the players with tedious “wandering monster” fights that he would normally skip. This is a drastic measure because the players are no longer trying to solve puzzles within the context of the adventure. Instead they are trying to figure out how much resting the GM will let them get away with. I don’t care for the sort of play environment when the players are fighting directly with the GM, rather than everyone working together.

Speaking of working together, this brings up the other solution to the 15-minute adventuring day. What if the players simply agree to “play in genre” and not abuse the rules? This, and the impact of 4th edition D&D on the problem, will have to wait for my next post on this topic.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Minion Balancing

I have previously discussed good and bad points of the minion rules in D&D (here, here, then here). Now I will mention the scale I am currently using to estimate how powerful a minion should be (in response to a blog post here).

Here are the basic statistics I am using for a heroic level melee-only minion:

AC: 14 + level
Fort/Ref/Will: total = 34 + 3*level
Attack Bonus: 5 + level
Initiative: ¾ * level
Damage: 3 + level/2

These stats are mainly based on a combination of looking at the DMG and looking at how minions are actually designed in the monster manual. The first three values are just what I use for the typical normal monster, and the initiative is just 2 lower (minions have low initiative). Damage is half that of a normal monster.

How minions scale with level is tricky, since I’ve noticed they become weaker as you gain levels and have more minion-killing abilities. I’ve been giving a 5% bonus to the minions for every level over 3 (meaning they have some special power or other perk that gives them that much greater offense or defense than otherwise calculated). I’m not sure that isn’t too weak of a bonus, given the trouble minions seem to have staying alive against high level characters.

As for the XP value, I’m currently estimating that a minion should cost 1/6 as much as a normal character, due to their extreme vulnerability to area effect attacks.

Heroic-level minions are fun. I haven’t tried a lot of minions at Paragon and Epic levels. I’m afraid the players will gain so many anti-minion powers that minions don’t work well any more.

Note, however, that ranged minions are much more powerful and less vulnerable than melee minions, since they can try to disperse as much as possible and avoid mass death from area effect attacks and a lot of minion-killing powers.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sphinx race writeup

Continuing previous Sphinx posts, here is the writeup:

Ability Scores: +2 Strength, +2 Wisdom
Size: Large
Speed: 6 squares
Vision: Low-light

Languages: Common, choice of one other
Skill Bonuses: +2 Arcana, +2 History, +2 Religion
Nonhumanoid Monster: You have no hands and use the rules for nonhumanoid monsters.
Natural Weaponry: +2 proficiency, 1d10 damage, Hammer group. Gains an additional +1 to hit when using two-handed fighting style.
Riddle Master: You gain training in Arcana, Religion, or History (your choice).
Immortal Origin: You are consider an immortal for effects relating to creature origin.
Sphinx Recuperation: When you take a second wind as a standard action, you may spend two healing surges instead of one.

Frightful Roar, Sphinx Racial Power
Encounter: Fear
Minor Action. Close Burst 3.
Targets: All enemies on the burst.
Attack: Highest of (Int, Wis, Cha) +1 vs. Will
Increases +1 every 5 levels above 1st
Hit: Target suffers -2 on attack rolls (save ends)


Darkvision: The Sphinx gains darkvision.

Flexible Fighting Style: When attacking with sphinx natural weaponry, the Sphinx may treat the attack as belonging to any melee weapon group, instead of the Hammer group. This does not change the accuracy or damage, but it allows use of abilities like Sneak Attack and weapon-specific Fighter feats.

Leaping Flight: As an encounter power, the Sphinx can move for one round with a flight speed equal to her speed + 2. If she does not end the turn on a solid surface, she falls. Note that this is normal flight, not clumsy flight.

Mighty Roar: The Frightful Roar power gains a +1 feat bonus to hit and is Close Burst 5.


Sustained Flight: The Sphinx gains a base flight (clumsy) speed of 8 and a base overland flight speed of 10. This is affected by speed modifiers as usual.

Tremendous Roar (requirement: Might Roar): The Frightful Roar power gains a +2 feat bonus to hit and is Close Burst 10.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Making the Sphinx, continued

Back to my posts on making the Sphinx D&D race:

To make a race, first we need to pick the 2 primary statistics. This was easy, I just looked at the highest statistics of the Sphinx monster and decided the statistics would be Strength and Wisdom, which make a lot of sense. Next, we need to pick the skill bonuses. The description of the Sphinx mentions that Arcana, History, and Religion are the most common skills for telling riddles. Since a Sphinx is of course supposed to be a master of that, I think a bonus in all 3 as appropriate. This is one more skill than usual, but we will just count that as one of the Sphinx advantages.

Next, the special powers. I will assume that the marking ability and the pounce ability are "class" abilities of the monster rather than racial abilities. The ability to tell powerful riddles appears to be more appropriate for a monster than for a player character. The roaring ability seems perfect for a once per encounter special ability. Close Burst 10 seems excessive, but I realize I can allow high-level feats to increase the area and start it at only Close Burst 3. How effective is it? Well, giving an opponent -2 on attack rolls until they make us save is clearly less good than giving them - 4 on attack rolls for his single turn but perhaps a bit better than – 3. The close burst is very effective, I'll estimate it catches about 3 monsters on average. So we have about -10 to hit, which creates a 50% chance of a hit becoming a miss. We can compare this to the halfling power Second Chance, which also has about a 40% chance of turning a hit into a miss. But the roar has to hit to be effective, which it only does about 60% of the time, so it really only creates a 30% chance of a monster missing. Of course there are many small differences, the roar takes a minor action and has a limited range and can be affected by vulnerabilities, but you don't have to wait for an enemy to attack before using it and it can affect multiple attacks in a turn. But they are at least reasonably similar.

The Sphinx also has the special power to take a second wind, which monsters normally can’t do. So maybe I’ll give the Sphinx a better second wind. I tend to think taking a Second Wind on your own action is of very little use, since it costs an attack action, doesn’t get any healing bonus, and takes away your ability to get revived with the Heal skill. So I might as well make it much better, like the dwarf ability does. I’ll do something different and say that it still costs a standard action, but you can spend two surges instead of one.

The Sphinx can also fly, of course. But flight is a very dangerous power which is generally not available at low level. So this should become available only through paragon or epic feats, or for a limited duration. Conveniently, the Sphinx isn’t a very good flyer. The tricky question is how stingy to be on giving away flight. I think a feat to give flight for one round each encounter is no problem (sort of a variant on teleport). But what about perpetual flight? Magic items that give permanent flight are epic level, but flying mounts are much lower level. Since a Sphinx is a clumsy flyer, I guess I’ll assume paragon level is OK.

The darkvision can also be a feat, we’ll start the Sphinx with low-light vision.

Now let’s see how balanced we are. We’ll compare the Sphinx to the halfling. They both have two useful stat bonuses. The Sphinx has a slight bonus in having +2 to a third skill, the halfling has a slight bonus in having +5 on fear saves. The Sphinx has fearsome roar, the halfling has Second Chance. The Sphinx has stronger healing surges, the halfing has the opportunity attack AC bonus. Similar so far, probably edge to halfling. But the Sphinx has Low-Light vision. The Sphinx can’t use superior weapons, but halfling is worse off in being forced to use inferior weapons. However, the Sphinx is Large, which is a real nuisance so still advantage halfling. And the Sphinx has no hands! So the Sphinx needs some help. I’ll give the Sphinx a free mental skill (to help them be lore masters), and assume that the availability of cool feats makes up the difference.

I’ll write up the feats and a prettier description next post.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Minion House Rules - Option E

Pausing my Sphinx entries for a moment to respond to an interesting comment by Neubert on Minion House Rules, suggesting that minions should get a saving throw to avoid being killed. Since I'm now extending the suggestions in that post, I thought I'd write a new entry that extends the earlier post.

Giving minions a saving throw against automatic attacks only is a very reasonable idea. I'll consider it option E. In terms of underlying game design, it is essentially the same as option D, in that it gives automatic damage a roll to destroy the minion, just like any other damage. The only difference is that the roll is completely fixed, rather than being an attack vs. defense roll. The big advantage over option D is that it doesn't require stretching D&D to invent rules about making attack rolls in situations where characters aren't making direct attacks. That is a very nice property. The disadvantage compared to methods B-D is that the roll has nothing to do with the amount of damage, the skill of the attack, or the defenses of the minion. Overall, though, a good option.

Giving all minions a saving throw wouldn't really address the issue of automatic damage very well, as it wouldn't change the fact that it was much more effective than a normal attack. This would be a rule with a different purpose, to make all minions harder to kill while still leaving them stateless. I've considered and analyzed rules of this sort in the past, for other purposes. This is in general a very workable rule for making things tough but stateless, though not without disadvantages. It could be used as a way to make a specific minion tougher. If you apply it to all minions, it certainly does make them more dangerous. But unfortunately it magnifies the underlying problem. Trying to kill minions with normal attacks would become so difficult as to be totally impractical; you would have no choice but to abuse your minion-killing powers to the maximum extent in order to get rid of them.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Designer's Notes for non-humanoid monster rules

My last blog entry was in the form of a new rule. In this entry, I shall attempt to give designer’s notes for the rule, explaining why exactly I made it the way I did, to bring out the game design and game balance behind the rule.

The issue is that in D&D, magic items are an integral part of the system and the game balance. 4th edition D&D puts tight controls on various types and slots of magic items, and it has a defined system for how you gain magic items with levels. The expected strength of magic items is tied into the expected strength of the characters and tied into the game balance. In addition to gaining powers from class and race, characters are expected to gain powers from magic items, and a substantial amount of power at that.

However, the magic item rules assume humanoid characters. A Sphinx is a quadruped without hands. She clearly cannot use a sword or a shield. It is possible to imagine a Sphinx wearing a belt or a helm, but it seems distastefully comical. A noble Sphinx should not have to festoon herself with out-of-place humanoid clothing implements.

However, if a Sphinx cannot use magic items, she clearly needs to compensate in some way. This brings up an interesting difference between fourth edition D&D and earlier versions. In earlier editions, the emphasis was on different characters having totally different powers which worked totally different from one another; you couldn’t really compare or balance 2 classes except by comparing them to very similar existing classes or just guessing. But a fourth edition D&D, the emphasis is on an underlying game balance, where at a low level characters work in the same way even though there are many higher-level differences.

So when I did this sort of thing in third edition, I would make a monster class and compensate for the lack of magic items by giving totally different “monster powers”. But for the fourth edition Sphinx, I felt it would be much more in keeping with the game to make them as similar as possible to other types of characters in terms of using magic items.

So my idea for an elegant solution to this is to allow them to absorb the properties of magic items without having to physically wear those magic items. Not only does this give them the right amount of magic item powers, but it has an additional advantage. If I were to simply give the Sphinx powers to compensate for not having magic items, this would mess up the treasure distribution for the party. The GM would have to give out less treasure to make sure that the Sphinx doesn’t give away her share of the magic items and treasure to other characters and make them more powerful than they should be. Requiring the Sphinx to actually use the items discovered or bought makes her fit nicely into an ordinary party.

Once I made this decision, it was immediately obvious that slots would work in the normal way. The only question was how a Sphinx would duplicate the ability of characters to swap items. For worn items, I normally would only swap between encounters (and very rarely at that). So however the Sphinx does the swap, it should have to be done out of combat. I chose the 10 minute imprinting ritual because it felt similar to the fourth edition idea of rituals. This is not the only way to do it; an alternate (equally good?) way would be to be able to change magic item selections after any short rest.

Now the tricky part is how to deal with items that require hands, and with weapons and armor. I could have given the Sphinx a fixed armor bonus, but I felt this would really limit the ability of the Sphinx to feel like a real member of its actual class. So I just went with the most “game balanced” approach and gave the Sphinx the exact same armor and shield modifiers as if it were a humanoid member of its class. One might argue that giving a – 4 armor check penalty to a Sphinx paladin is strange, but I figure she is just a fat, slow, tough Sphinx.

You could give this same freedom of choice for weapons, and I still think giving them some choice wouldn’t necessarily be unreasonable. But clearly, a Sphinx fighting style cannot imitate all weapons – reach and range don’t make sense. So I decided to go with the idea that the basic claw attack is just like a Warhammer. There is precedent for a race being specialized with a single weapon, such as the eladrin affinity for the long sword. To make sure I wasn’t too inflexible, though, I allow the Sphinx fighting styles to duplicate two-weapon fighter and two-handed weapon fighter (stats are like using a greatsword). Actually I pondered some other small game balance details between them that I don’t have time to write here. I will give a feat to allow limited imitation of other weapon types so that Sphinx rogues are possible.

Now back to the question of hands. A humanoid character has the ability to switch which weapons and implements it is carrying during combat. I decided that this ability, while useful, was not strictly essential for game balance. After all, if you have a heavy shield and don’t have Quick Draw, and you need your minor actions for your features and powers, switching weapons can be so inconvenient that you rarely actually do it during combat. So I decided to classify this as a disadvantage of non-humanoid monsters, that they cannot change what is in their “hands” during combat.

However, they still need some way to use consumable magic items which require hands. So I came up with the rule that they can do this once per combat. Note that this is actually a little trade-off. In return for only being able to draw one item per combat, she gets the advantage of being able to draw it as a free action instead of one or more minor actions. Since one of the normal drawbacks of a heavy shield is that drawing and switching weapons can be incredibly time-consuming due to the inability to free up that hand, I gave a penalty in that situation that you need to have a feat to use this power.

My new rules may look lengthy, but that is really because they are reiterating a core feature of the D&D rules in a slightly different way. You can consider them “advanced” rules as far as reading them is concerned. As far as playing the character is concerned, though, they should be extremely easy. The party obtains magic items, divvies them up, records them on their character sheets, and uses their powers in exactly the same way they would normally. The choice of a Sphinx choosing armor and a fighting style is no different from the identical choice that a normal character makes when selecting what armor and weapons to use and what will be held in the hands at the start of combat. The only difference is that the Sphinx is a little bit easier to control because she doesn’t have to worry about all of that finicky manipulation of items in the hands, which I always find difficult to keep track of. She just has a fixed selection and a very convenient encounter power to use one additional item for combat.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Non-Humanoid Monster Racial Rules (Sphinx part 1)

Since D&D is still new, I have generally been in the mode of analyzing D&D rather than improving or expanding upon the rules. However, my wife insisted that I allow her to play a Sphinx character, so I came up with rules for doing so.

First, rules on how non-humanoid monsters work:

A Sphinx cannot use, wear, or activate magic items in the normal fashion. Instead, she must imprint the item. This takes 10 minutes, as if it were a ritual (but has no cost or chance of failing). Once the item is imprinted, the Sphinx can use the power of the item as if it were in the appropriate slot, and the item does not work for anyone else. At this point the location of the physical item no longer matters (the Sphinx can leave it at home in her treasure horde if she wants to). A Sphinx only has the normal number of slots; when an item is imprinted in a given slot, the Sphinx loses the imprint on the previous item in that slot.

Example: A Sphinx can imprint a magical amulet, and will gain the enhancement bonus and properties of the amulet, and can use the daily power of the amulet as with the normal rules. If the Sphinx imprints a different amulet, she gains the powers of the new amulet, she loses the powers of the old amulet, and the old amulet can now be used by someone else. The Sphinx can still imprint a head item, two rings, and any number of wondrous items and consumables (but see more below).

A Sphinx chooses what kind of armor her hide will act as; she must have the appropriate armor proficiency (in reality, the Sphinx just has different degrees of toughness and fighting mobility, but for game purposes this is equivalent to armor proficiency). The Sphinx is treated exactly as a humanoid wearing armor of this type, and she has one armor slot which can be imprinted. The choice of which armor type to emulate can be changed only between levels. The Sphinx can only imprint armor of the type she is currently emulating.

Example: A Sphinx Cleric can emulate chain armor, and then has a +6 AC bonus, a -1 speed penalty, a -1 penalty to physical skills. She cannot emulate scale armor unless she takes the feat Armor Proficiency (Scale).

The Sphinx must choose what is being held in her two “item wielding” slots; this choice can be changed after any short rest. A wielding slot can be used for a wielded implement or another item which requires a free hand to use; this allows the Sphinx to imprint an item of that type. A Sphinx with shield proficiency can use a wielding slot to gain the benefits and penalties of a shield of the appropriate type, and the Sphinx can then imprint a shield in that slot.

If a slot is not used for any other purpose, it can be used for melee combat. A Sphinx must use at least one slot for this purpose. A Sphinx cannot use normal weapons, but automatically has proficiency with its natural weaponry, Sphinx claws. A Sphinx claw is treated as a Warhammer in combat, and can be imprinted with any magic weapon whose enchantment is valid for a hammer, and can use feats and powers meant for hammers. If a Sphinx has two free wielding slots, it is treated as if it were wielding a Warhammer in each hand, and had the Ranger ability to wield both at the same time. Each claw could then be imprinted separately, and the Sphinx could choose to take the two weapon fighting proficiencies. Alternately, the Sphinx can use both wielding slots for a “Sphinx rake”. This counts as a separate martial weapon which the Sphinx does not have automatic racial proficiency in. A Sphinx with the “rake” style can only imprint one weapon, but it counts as using a 2-handed weapon with d10 damage and a +3 proficiency bonus.

Example: A Sphinx wizard can choose “orb” in one wielding slot, and can then imprint a magic orb in that slot, and can use the orb implement mastery class feature. A Sphinx fighter can choose “melee” in one hand and “heavy shield” in the other, and can then imprint magic hammers in one slot and magic shields in the other. A Sphinx is somewhat limited, however, in that unlike a humanoid character she cannot choose “orb” in one slot and “shield” in the other, she must have at least one melee slot.

In addition, once per encounter, a Sphinx can use any imprinted magic item power which would normally require a free hand to use, such as a consumable or an extra wand. This power cannot be used if this Sphinx is using a slot to gain the benefits of a heavy shield, unless the Sphinx has the quick draw feat. Unlike a normal character, the Sphinx is otherwise rather limited in that it has no way to otherwise move magic items into or out of its virtual "hands", the only way to use a magic item power that requires a free hand is to choose it for a wielding slot or use this encounter power.

Example: The Sphinx can choose to use her imprinted Potion of Clarity. This costs a minor action, and consumes a healing surge as per the magic item description. The potion is now “used up” and this power is gone. The Sphinx won’t be able to use any other imprinted consumables in that combat (unless, before the combat, she chose “melee” and “Elixir of Dragon Breath” as her two wielding slots).

Wondrous Items which are purely physical in nature, rather than granting powers to the user, do not use the imprinting rule. They can be mentally commanded if that is specified in the description, but they cannot be imprinted and cannot be used if they really require hands. So a silent crowbar won’t be useful to a Sphinx and Pouches of Shared Acquisition are doubtful. However, a Golden Spade or a Skeleton Key can still be imprinted normally (the physical action is just a “special effect” of using the power).

Hmm, that took a while to write, I guess this is only part 1 of 2. And I would clearly need to write quite a bit more if I were writing this rule officially.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why I write a lot of critical comments

You may notice that I write a lot more negative things than positive things. Why? Well, I guess I like to try to make games better rather than just accept them the way they are. And analyzing negative points is more interesting than analyzing positive points. The positive points often boil down to “this feature was done correctly”, which isn’t too exciting to write. And the positive points are often fairly obvious, as they are the selling point of the game, while the negative points have to been hunted down and exposed. And the bad points need to be analyzed so I can determine how to fix them; the good points don’t need changing. Also, if I like the basic design of a game, I see it as “basically good with bad points” rather than “basically bad with good points”, so I want to enumerate the bad points. So I write more about the bad points of games I basically like. If I dislike the game, I don’t play it very often!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Minion House Rules

To follow up on my post from last week, I thought it would make sense to analyze some possible house rules to improve the D&D minion rules. By house rules, I mean trying to adjust the rule to fix problems while remaining as true as possible to the original rule and the spirit of the fourth edition D&D game, rather than trying to rewrite the rule from the ground up.

A. The simplest and most obvious rule is to make minions immune to automatic damage just like they are immune to miss damage. This would probably be best stated as "minions are only vulnerable to damage from attacks that hit"; that would make sure they can still be killed by cleave, which is one of the few powers that really, really should work well against minions.

Though simple, this rule would not work well. Minions would be totally immune to all sorts of things which they clearly should not be immune to. They could dance through walls of fire and so on. The other rules which follow are more practical.

B. Minions could actually have hit points like real monsters, but any damage coming from an actual hit still kills them automatically. Maybe they have ¼ as many points as a real monster, but this is only used against automatic damage. This rule is fair and solves the problem, and retains most of the simplicity of the original minion rules. The main disadvantage is that it also loses one of the big benefits of the minion rules, that you never have to keep track of hit points for minions. It also has the strange effect that softening up minions with automatic damage not only wouldn't kill them, it wouldn't even make them easier to kill with normal attacks. That is, whether a minion is healthy or damaged, it still takes only one real hit to kill it. Whereas against a normal foe, causing a small amount of damage early on makes it takes fewer attacks to kill later.

C. Minions could ignore automatic damage below a certain amount, as if they had “resist damage”. This would not require any bookkeeping, and would give minions a certain amount of dignity. The disadvantage is if the amount of damage ignored is low, such as level/2, a lot of things will still automatically kill the minion. While at the amount of damage ignored is high, such as level +2, they may become immune to some effects which are pretty powerful and which they should not be immune to. In either case, it doesn't do a very good job of solving the problem that many attacks will either always kill the minion or never kill the minion. But it does make the minions seem less pathetically puny.

In this case and the previous one, it would make sense that attacks which miss should be considered identical to automatic hits - they can still kill if they cause enough damage.

D. Minions can only be killed by a successful hit, and damage that does not normally require a hit roll is allowed to make a hit roll for the purpose of killing the minion. This is probably the best solution in terms of solving the underlying problem that automatic killing is boring. One disadvantage is that it requires extra dice rolling. The bigger disadvantage is that it strays much farther from the normal rules than the other options. In particular, automatic damage is often somewhat disconnected from the character who creates it, so would not always be clear what hit roll is being made and what the bonuses are. It would essentially open a "can of worms" where the DM would have to make quite a few house rules to support it.

All of these solutions have definite problems, none of them is an obvious replacement for the current rule and there is definitely room for argument over whether any of them are actually better than the current rule. However, if you wanted to make a house rule, B, C, and D all sound quite plausible.

Friday, November 7, 2008


I love the minion rule in 4th edition D&D. I think it is an absolutely fantastic idea to have low level mooks which are useful, but which don’t have any hit points or other wound statistics to keep track of – a single die roll determines their fate. This seems like a wonderful improvement over the agents in Champions, which were super-easy to hit but often took two attacks to defeat. I’ve seen the minion idea in other games, but they were either less simplified (as in Torg) or they were worthless cannon fodder. D&D minions are useful cannon fodder that can fit in to a challenging tactical combat. I plan to use some variation of the minion concept when I next work on new RPG rules.

However, while I think the concept is fantastic, in playing D&D I’ve noticed some flaws in the execution. The stated idea behind a D&D minion is that it is worth the same XP as a much lower level monster, but is designed to be much more fun to play. In effect, the monster has been “game adjusted” to replace much of his offensive powers with a higher attack bonus, and to replace his hit points with higher defenses. A level 12 minion isn’t really some frail, sickly creature that can be killed by one bite from the neighbor’s poodle. It is just that one good, solid hit from a paragon-level adventurer is enough to put him down. To make sure that this is the case, there is even a special rule that damage from missed attacks can’t kill a minions. This prevents attacks from instantly auto-killing minions.

Unfortunately, this rule is totally inadequate because there are so many other methods of causing damage, often in very small quantitites, without needing an attack roll, and there is no rule to prevent these from auto-killing minions. These powers really take away the flavor of minions. Minions are no longer real creatures that require one good hit to bring down. Instead they become some sort of infestation, to be dealt with using your “pest control” powers. Once the players have enough of these powers, minions start dropping like flies. For game balance, you can try to compensate by adding more minions, but flavor-wise, this only makes the problem worse; it really emphasizes the idea that minions are so numerous and puny, they aren’t worth wasting a “real” attack on. Also, the rule that that misses cannot damage minions begins to seem rather arbitary and unfair; why is it that 7 points of damage from my missed fireball has no effect, but the same damage from a flaming sphere is an automatic minion vacuum cleaner?

Looking for better software

I halted posting for a while, hoping to find better software. I'm not really happy with the format of this blog, it is too focussed on "blog entry of the day". I want it to be easier to see comments and old posts. I'm thinking of moving to a forum-style for my blog, but it is time-consuming trying to find and set up a forum.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Readying Actions

I’m not a big fan of the way that readying an action works in D&D. The trouble is that there seem to be an unlimited number of dirty tricks that can be performed by readying an action. If people start to use these tricks, they have to specify a trigger for the action to go off of. Then the opponents want to try to guess what this trigger is so they can avoid triggering. Then the players want to make the trigger as broad as possible so it can’t be avoided. But there are no rules for how broad the trigger can be, so the GM is on his own making these kinds of value judgments. And if people start to delay to make the ready actions not occur, or start to ready off of each other’s ready actions, then everything really gets extremely complicated. All of this seems much too slow and confusing for me to actually want to play. There are certainly legitimate uses for readying an action, but they don’t seem to come up all that often. It seems like it would be simpler just to remove this rule entirely, and use the delay rule when you don’t want to act immediately.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Spend a Healing Surge

For the most part, when I looked at the rules to D&D I made pretty good guesses about how the various rules would work in practice and how effective each maneuver would be. But it is interesting to keep track of things that don’t turn out how I expect. I’m discovering that the ability to spend a healing surge, by means other than the standard Healing/Inspiring Word, is far less useful than I thought. Say you are a 6th level party with a Warlord. You have a healing surge of 14 points. Say you have a power that lets you spend a healing surge when you hit the target. Originally, I thought this was really useful because it makes you 14 points harder to defeat in combat, a huge increase in your defenses. But I hadn’t noticed on first reading the rules that the Warlord can spend an unlimited number of Inspiring Words between combats. This means that when you heal noncombat, you heal an average of 21 points per healing surge. In addition, although 4th edition D&D is designed to make each individual fight scarier than in 3rd edition, it is still the case that D&D encourages multiple fights over the course of a day, each of which drains your resources, but all of which the players win. This means that in most fights the players are not in serious danger of losing, and the main measure of success is to spend as few resources as possible (that way you have less need to rest and can rescue the princess sooner, before she is eaten by the dragon). Each healing surge “represents” 21 hit points of damage that you can take over the course of a day.

If you spend a healing surge yourself, you get 14 hit points right away but lose 21 hit points that you could have gained later in the day. So you are basically causing yourself 7 points of damage by spending the healing surge. Of course, using the surge may prevent you from falling to negative hit points. But as long as the fight is not too hard and your healer has healing left, that is not necessarily all that bad. It is actually more efficient to let someone go negative before healing them, since all of the “negative” hit points are healed for free.

So a power that lets you spend a healing surge is really only useful when the party is under a lot of pressure in a really tough fight, or when you are personally in a tough spot where falling unconscious would be highly undesirable. There is a significant chance that such an event would not happen during the course of the day. This makes a daily healing surge power, like Comeback Strike, less often useful than a power which just does more damage, like Brutal Strike, since you're always certain to want to cause more damage at some point during the day. This isn't necessarily a bad thing from a game balance perspective, since otherwise those healing surge powers were looking pretty good.

The really significant effect this has is that encounter powers which give you healing surges aren't actually much better than daily powers, since in most encounters you won't want to use them at all. In particular, the dwarf power to use a second wind as a minor action looked quite impressive when I first read it, but now I think it is weak compared to something like Second Chance. In general, it seems that a non-dwarf character will almost never want to spend a second wind while still conscious, since you are basically spending an attack action to damage yourself. A dwarf ‘s second wind is more useful, he may find his resilience power very handy in the dramatic combat of the adventure. But a halfling’s power is generally much more practical, since he can use his power in practically every fight.

In comparison, the powers that give you temporary hit points, or that just heal you flat out, really shine in comparison.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Games Mechanics that I dislike

This is a list of game mechanics which are not necessarily bad, and which other people may like, but which I personally dislike.

I loathe the diplomacy game mechanic, where agreements between players rather than gameplay determines who will lose the game. The classic example is the 3 player game where 2 players agree to team up to destroy the third player before turning on each other to decide the winner.

I loathe the outguess game mechanic, exemplified by rock paper scissors, where each player's best action depends primarily on guessing what the other player’s action will be.

I don't care for the memory game mechanic, exemplified by concentration or gin, where it is important to remember which cards were played previously.

I don't like highly relative games, like chess, where each move has no independent meaning beyond what the future moves of each player will be. I much prefer games where you are performing clearly beneficial actions like building up a town or moving through a race or damaging another player, and the element of skill is in choosing the best move to make.

Similarly, I don’t really like games where it isn’t really clear whether a given move is good for you or bad for you without performing a deep analysis of both players’ future moves.

I don't like games where is futile to gain the lead because the other players will simply attack the leader until he is brought down to the level of the other players. On the other hand, I like games where the losing players can act to slow down the winning player and prevent him from snowballing into inevitable victory. There is no clear dividing line between these concepts, it is a matter of precisely how well things are balanced.

I don’t like “time-based” games where the first player to shout out what they are doing has the advantage. I like taking turns better. A corollary is that I’m not super-fond of the mechanic where it is beneficial for two players to trade with each other, and it is arbitary who trades with who, so the first player to agree to a trade wins out. But I guess I don’t really mind too much, it just isn’t my favorite mechanic.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Character equivalents of Monster Roles

I wrote a previous post about monster roles. This is a follow up to describe which roles the character classes would fall into.

Cleric: Controller (note this means they follow the monster role of Controller, not the player role called Controller). With the right powers, though, they can try to be somewhat like Soldiers or Dragons.

Fighter: Grappler, specifically a neutralizing grappler.

Paladin: A paladin who tries to defend the party is a Soldier (and a much better one than the average monster). A paladin who tries to trigger his challenge by running away from the opponent is more of a Skirmisher.

Ranger: A classic twin strike DPS ranger is a Brute or an Artillery, depending on his style. A ranger who avoids the pure DPS feats in favor of the mobility feats is a Skirmisher.

Rogue: The quintissential Flanker.

Warlock: The Warlock’s shadow walk is the only “pure Skirmisher” power the players have. In general, though, PC’s Skirmishers aren’t as devoted to that role as monsters are, so Warlocks can seem pretty close to Artillery.

Warlord: Pure Controller. A warlord can’t really do anything without trying to help his allies!

Wizard: Artillery, specifically area effect artillery.

None of the classes are inherently Dragons, but it is easy to make such a character if you want to (I quite enjoy making sword-wielding warlocks and such). It is also easy to make a Versatile character if you want to (such as dual blade/archer ranger). The new swordmage appears to work like a Paladin.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Initial Swordmage analysis

One thing that is very annoying with a lot of game systems is that whenever a new supplement comes out, the new classes or abilities in the supplement are better than the ones that came before, creating an endless arms race. Now that I have the forgotten realms players guide, I might as well try something risky and see if I can guess how good the sword mage class is before having a chance to play it. I'll perform a comparison with the other 2 defender classes. To keep my sanity, I'm limiting my analysis to level 6, comparing an Int/Str shielding sword mage with a Cha/Wis sword & shield paladin and a Str/Dex flail & shield fighter.

Weapon: All 3 classes are happy to use a bastard sword. The fighter is clearly best with his +1 bonus to hit. The sword mage may get a permanent +1 to damage if he is allowed to use his bastard sword 2-handed while attacking and one-handed while defending; I'm not sure how this is supposed to be interpreted. Even if he isn't allowed to do this all the time, he can still do it whenever he has no use for the extra armor class. The paladin is clearly last as he is nothing special in this department. Also, the fighter is best in terms of basic attacks like charging, and the paladin is the worst.

Defenses: The paladin beats the fighter with his free plate armor proficiency, extra point of special defense, and his extra healing surge. The sword mage is more different. He will probably have an armor class equal to or one less than the fighter with a shield. Compared to the fighter, he also has the disadvantages of not getting the shield reflex bonus, of having his natural bonus be in Will (the defense least often hit), and having one fewer healing surge. On the other hand, the sword mage has one higher movement, has no skill check penalty, can more easily upgrade to better armor, and has a free hand to do all sorts of useful things with (like using consumables). So maybe the sword mage is equal to the fighter and the paladin is best.

Skills: The fighter has one less skill than the others.

At-Will Powers: The best powers of each class seem roughly comparable, none seems overwhelmingly better than any other. But since you get 2 powers, the sword mage is clearly best since he has a richer and more versatile selection of powers.

Encounter Powers: The level 1 encounter powers of the fighter in paladin are both fairly mediocre, the sword mage is a bit better on average but not exactly devastating. All 3 classes have super powers (powers far superior to ordinary powers) available at third level (Rain of Blows, either paladin smite, and Transposing Lunge), but the sword mage power seems less good because it is less convenient to use. If the 3 classes don't choose to take superpowers, the conventional powers seen more or less comparable.

Utility Powers: The fighter has some useful but not spectacular utility powers at level 2, and a great power at level 6. The paladin has some crummy powers at level 2 and a good but somewhat restricted power at level 6, but he also has a really useful utility power at level 1 in the form of divine channeling, so maybe he compares favorably to the fighter. The sword mage has some really cool powers at level 2 and good powers at level 6 also. All the powers are so different that it is hard to figure out who is best overall.

Daily Powers: All 3 classes have normal daily powers at level 1, not much to distinguish them. The conventional level 5 powers look somewhat similar, but neither the sword mage nor the paladin have anything to match the awesome superpower of the fighter (rain of steel). However, the paladin has the very useful lay on hands ability, so I would say he is second and the sword mage is third.

Defender power: Who is the best defender? This is tricky. The fighter has the hardest time marking the target (he has to be both adjacent to an attacking the target), though at least it doesn't take a minor action. The sword mage has the easiest time marking the target, he doesn't have to do either. The paladin's power, however, goes off on misses as well as hits so it will probably cause more damage than the shielding sword mage prevents. But then, the sword mage is actually doing a better job of protecting the target. The fighter can have his power disrupted more easily. He also has this advantage that his power is an improved opportunity attack, while the other characters can use their powers in addition to opportunity attacks. The fighter can occasionally mark multiple targets, which the others can never do. But the fighter is the only one who has the incredibly evil ability to lock down the target so that he cannot even shift. The question is, how easy is it for the sword mage to avoid engaging the marked target and thus get his power to trigger? I'd say the paladin is the weakest of the 3, and I'm not sure but I'll guess that the fighter is still on top.

So it looks like they did a good job, it does not seem like the sword mage is clearly superior, it seems comparable to the other 2 defender classes. It remains to be seen whether my analysis holds up under play.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Average Fight Length

Since my last estimate of fight length seems to be off, I'd thought I'd try from a different tack. One of my L6 playtest parties does an average of 45 damage/round with at-will powers. 5 L7 monsters have 400 hp. Thus it takes 9 rounds to defeat them. Reducing this for encounter powers, action points, magic items, feats, and occasionally dailies could easily reduce this to 6 rounds.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Monsters Defeating Themselves

The question was asked, how long does it take an average monster to defeat itself?

This depends on the class of monster. My current estimate of the truly average monster is

HP 8 * (level +3)
AC 14+level
Attack Bonus 5+level
Average Damage 6+level
Initiative Bonus 2 + (3/4 level)
Speed (level + 10) / 3 [note: not a realistic estimate, just a balance factor]
Powers or other stuff equivalent to +65% offense

The tricky part, of course, is the last value. Most powers increase offense, but some increase mobility or defense.

If a level 7 monster's powers are neutral between offense and defense, he kills himself in a little over 10 rounds. If his 65% bonus is all offense, 6 rounds is about right. With a realistic 33% edge, he kills himself in 8 rounds.

However, this question is not very helpful in understanding actual D&D fights, because monsters and PC's are not at all built the same way. PC's are more offense-oriented than monsters. I don't really have numbers right now for a totally "average" character, but a character without using dailies can probably kill himself in about 5 rounds. If the players have 20% more offense and defense than the monsters, it may well work out the the players kill the monsters in 5 rounds while the monsters kill the characters in 8 rounds (or more since they are knocked off one by one). In practice I've been seeing typical fights last 6 rounds, so these estimates must be off a bit.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Monster roles

I perceive the monsters are divided into more roles than just the “classes” listed in the DMG/monster manual. I’ve classified the heroic-level monsters and listed the actual roles I see (excluding comment on Minion and Solo monsters). It was taking too long to add commentary, so I decided to go ahead and publish what I wrote so far.

For some of the roles I listed some styles within the role.

Brute: A hand-to-hand monster which specializes in just dealing and soaking up damage. This is the simplest and easiest type of monster to run, and is very popular.

A classic-style brute has low accuracy and armor class, but high damage and hit points.
A soldier-style brute has high armor class instead.
A mobile brute has an easier time moving around than a regular brute, giving it more tactical flexibility. But it still doesn't really need to move around, otherwise it would be a skirmisher.
A charging brute really enjoys charging when it has the opportunity. But usually it is tied up by the opponents and can't do so.

Soldier (Defender): A hand-to-hand monster with abilities that hamper or distract the characters so that they can't get past them and attack other monsters. This usually involves marking or slowing the characters. Monster usually have very weak powers in this department, so in practice most soldiers feel very similar to brutes.

A classic marking soldier actually does mark the opponent, making it hard for him to attack any other character.
A distracting soldier doesn’t explicitly mark draw attacks to itself, it just has some powers which tend to slow down the players.

Grappler: A hand-to-hand monster which concentrates on one character, usually immobilizing the character, then neutralizing or destroying that character. A grappler is similar to a super-soldier. The difference is that the victim of a successful grappler tends to be in serious trouble and in need of rescue, while the opponent of a successful soldier is forced to fight the soldier but not otherwise in any particular danger.
One could easily argue that the grappler is the true soldier role and the role I listed as soldier is just half way in between.

A devouring grappler threatens the target with massive damage if he doesn’t escape.
A lockdown grappler doesn’t cause extra damage, it just immobilizes the target, making some powers hard to use and stripping the target of much of its tactical flexibility.

Skirmisher: A monster which constantly moves around a lot. A skirmisher has powers which prevent itfrom being effective by standing still and fighting a single opponent. In theory, a skirmisher could make the battle more exciting by forcing it to be more fluid and move around the map. I haven't yet had the opportunity to try a lot of true skirmishers and see if this actually works in practice.

A full skirmisher fights in hand-to-hand but has to move around a lot - creating an unusual dynamic in the fight. Often, a melee skirmisher ends the turn at a distance from his target.
An optional skirmisher is similar to a full skirmisher, but is fully capable of standing still and tying down opponents if it wants to. It just doesn't suffer any penalty from moving great distances during hand-to-hand combat, so it often does so to gain maximum tactical advantage.
A ranged skirmisher is like artillery, but is forced to constantly keep moving. Since even normal artillery are free to move while fighting, I haven't so far found this to be an incredibly interesting dynamic. Mostly it appears to mean that the monster is even more hosed than usual when attacked by a fighter.
A charging skirmisher likes to charge so much that his powers make it desirable to move off then charge, even when the monster is engaged by opponents capable of using opportunity attacks.

Controller: A monster, usually ranged, which concentrates on doing things to help other monsters instead of causing damage itself. Controllers cause lots of confusion and problems to the players, but really like having powerful monsters near them to cause damage once the players have been weakened.

A Leader is not a true role. A leader assists his allies just by fighting in the normal way. Unlike a controller, he does not have to “try” to support his allies.

Artillery: A monster which specializes in ranged combat.

A standard artillery fires normal ranged attacks at the players. They are free to either stand still or move around.
An area effect artillery uses attacks with area effects, encouraging the players to spread out.
A sneaky artillery tries to hide and get concealment to protect itself while it fires ranged attacks at the enemy.

Flanker: A hand-to-hand monster which gains a major bonus by earning combat advantage, and thus tries very hard to flank the players. A flanker needs to work with other monsters to be effective. Although a flanker doesn't necessarily need to move around a whole lot in combat once he is in position, he needs to move enough to maintain his flanking position. Depending on the structure of the battle, it may be useful for a flanker to spend an entire turn trying to get to the other side of the opponents. This is likely to make flankers move around more than brutes, but probably not as much as true skirmishers since flankers have less flexibility about where to move - they have to moving to flanking position on the target they want to attack.

Dragon: This is the best name I came up with for a damage-dealing monster than cannot fight just in melee or just at ranged, but must switch between different ranges, possibly including close area effect attacks. Many controllers also have differing ranges, but the difference is that a dragon does damage all by itself and doesn’t have to concentrate on helping allies.

The following roles are very rare:

Lurker: A monster which makes a big attack, then retreats to hide for one or more rounds until it is ready to make another big attack. This type of monster is described in the DMG, but doesn't really seem to exist in the monster manual, except for the Imp. The gargoyle is a sort of lurker variant – it can leave the battle to heal very effectively, but this won’t work in conjunction with other creatures because the battle will be over before it returns.

Versatile: This monster can choose between more than one role – generally picking between brute and artillery. Unlike a Dragon, a Versatile monster has no need to switch roles if it doesn’t want to – if it needs to, it can happily spent the entire battle as either a melee or a ranged fighter.

Hazard: This monster has a huge aura or close burst attack that is just as dangerous to allies as to enemies. This will presumably dominate the entire tactics of the combat.

Other: The Trap Haunt is just interesting. Beats me how to classify it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

More on encounter balance

Testing more with level 6 characters, it seems like Moderate (level + 1) encounters are more or less the optimum level. Each seems to drain about 1/6 of the party's resources. Since resources are drained unevenly, the party probably wouldn't be happy with 6 encounters, but should be able to handle 5 in a day. Given normal player caution and the desire to be able to handle "wandering monsters" while sleeping, 4 encounters per day would be normal.

The proper mixture for throwing in harder encounters is a bit trickier. It is easy to make the big fights too easy or too hard. I'm still trying to figure this out. I think that when players are throwing around huge daily powers, a little bit of luck or toughness on the monsters' part can make a big difference in whether they survive the initial onslaught. The players can suffer a lot of damage if the fight drags on for a long time after they have run out of powers.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Analyzing effectiveness of noncombat skills

Although I've analyzed the combat effectiveness of many combat capabilities in many games, I rarely tried to analyze the effectiveness of noncombat skills. It is never been very tempting to try because the effectiveness clearly depends entirely on how the game master runs his game. However, in analyzing D&D, it occurs to me that it would be possible for me to try something new and perform a numeric analysis to compare noncombat skills with each other and with combat skills. Even though the effectiveness of a noncombat skills is based entirely on the frequency and manner of use, it should be possible to determine in a general way how it is based on those and under what circumstances the skills would be better or worse than combat skills.

My first step was to name categories for 3 types of skill checks.

Critical skill checks are essential for the adventure to continue along a successful path. Success or failure in the skill check is equivalent, at least in a limited way, to success or failure in the adventure. This type of skill check is equivalent to engaging in combat, and failure is equivalent to losing a combat. In either case, failing and encounter you are supposed to succeed in does not necessarily mean automatic failure on the mission, but it is very disruptive and often forces the GM to invent an appropriate way for the adventure to continue. For instance, he would be a critical skill check to disarm a bomb before it explodes and kills everyone.

Critical skill checks have a long history of causing trouble. They are very common in the source material, since in a book or movie you can create a problem that absolutely has to be solved and guarantee that the heroes can solve it. There are 2 key problems in a game. First, the fact that the game is random and you cannot guarantee that the players will succeed. What happens if they fail? You may be able to handle failure in an appropriate way, but it is likely to feel very forced if you have to do it very often. This would tend to mean that the chance of success has to be very high. But if so, how do you at the same time make skill checks seem challenging rather than trivial. Second, a fight that the players have a high chance of winning can be very exciting because it consists of so many independent actions that can succeed or fail, but a single skill check is anti-climactic.

Torg was able to solve both of these problems with the dramatic skill check. D&D’s version of this, the skill challenge, solves the problem of having only a single skill check, but since D&D does not have fate points, it is still not practical to require that you succeed in a skill check so the rules recommend that you do not use critical skill checks.

A major skill check has a substantial effect which gives a significant award or influences your ability to succeed or fail in the rest of the adventure. For instance, you earn an ally, or gain safe passage through dangerous area, or get an extra magic item, or gain a tactical advantage, or defeat a monster without fighting, or earn a significant amount of experience. You would like to succeed, but failing doesn't send you off course. D&D recommends that a skill challenge be a major skill check.

A minor skill check offers a very small, subtle reward. You may gain additional information that may or may not be useful, or make a friend that you could conceivably need in a future adventure, or be able to get to the next encounter more quickly.

What I'm wondering right now is, for a given noncombat skill, how often, in terms of encounters or levels, would you expect to make skill checks of the 3 different types?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Specific Playtest Results

Since I had a comment on my ratings, I thought I'd share my playtest results so far using Keep on the Shadowfell.

This shows the encounter, the listed encounter level, then my estimated actual encounter level. Setup is (+) or (-) if the terrain, positioning, timing, and such are in one side's favor or the other. Tactics are (-) if the listed monster tactics seem significantly disadvantageous for them. Playtest results are how I felt after the battle, according to my scale in the previous blog. A3 is one fight in two waves, so for interest I evaluated each wave. I then just guessed how strong the total encounter would be.

Encounter / Listed / Est / Setup / Tactics /Playtest Results
Initial /1 / 1 / / - / Easy
A1 / 2 / 3 / / /Moderate to Hard
A2 / 1 / 2 / /-/ Easy to Moderate
A3 1st wave / / 1
A3 2nd wave / / 3
A3 overall / 6 / 4 / / /Very Hard

(my table looked nice in the editor - oh well, not enough time to fix it properly)

To give more specific results of costs in terms of surges per character, AP, and daily powers:
Initial - surges used 1/1/1/0/1
A1 - surges used 1/3/1/3/2, plus 4 AP, no dailies (probably a mistake not to use any)
A2 - surges used 1/2/2/1/1
A3 - surges used 3/2/3/1/2, 5 AP spent, all dailies spent

So the fights were a tad easier than I estimated. But feel free to post the results of your own play results.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Meaning of encounter levels

After some play testing, I was trying to evaluate how powerful various fights are compared to your own level, to figure out what kinds of fights would be appropriate. Here is my analysis of what the fights feel like, assuming the monsters are rated correctly so you don't accidentally put in an overpowered encounter. The level refers to the relative level of the party compared to the encounter level.

Level -1: Trivial. The opponents aren't really dangerous at all. It is quite possible that you gain more resources from the half milestone than you spend in terms of healing surges.

Level 0: Easy. The monsters can threaten the players and get in some good attacks, but ultimately the players are not very damaged and probably don't spend much more than about 1 healing surge each.

Level +1: Moderate. The monsters make the players work for their victory, probably causing significant damage and possibly putting a single character in great jeopardy. The characters don't need to use daily resources in order to win, but they might find it helpful to use one or two. The characters are never in real danger of total defeat, but the fight is a definite drain on their resources.

Level +2: Hard. This is a serious fight, and the players have to take it seriously. The monsters are scary, and the players will probably have to pull out some daily powers in order to win. Although the monsters threaten to win, if the players are paying attention they should be able to survive. Although this is going to cost serious resources, the players can probably win this battle even if some of their daily powers have already been used up.

Level +3: Very Hard. This battle really puts the players to the test, and some bad luck or bad tactics could easily result in monster victory. The players will probably want some advance notice and a full selection of daily powers, because the monsters ought to be able to take just about everything that is thrown at them.

A caveat here is that I'm not sure the meaning of relative levels is really level-independent. It seems that first level parties have much less ability to "step up" to the challenge. They are normally pretty good, but am not sure it is really appropriate to put a level +3 encounter against a low-level party. They seem all too likely to get killed if they get a little unlucky.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Solo monster playtesting

Since I have a special interest in game balance and game design, I'm often interested in play testing and analyzing games. Now makes this especially interesting by being a full-featured tactical board game. Who needs role-playing, I'm just having fun fighting monsters!

I've done a number of fights against groups of monsters, now I'm looking at solo monsters. I have a group of 5 third level characters that me and my friend Erick constructed. First we fought the blue slime from the first module, using the same terrain. It is listed as a level 3 monster, and my numeric game balance calculations indicated that it is a level 3+ monster (on the high side of level 3). The fight ended up seeming appropriate for its level - it cost a fair amount of damage but basically we demolished the monster.

Then I had a fight against a black dragon. The terrain was favorable to the dragon: The characters had to fight on a 2 square wide path through the deep water of the swamp. The dragon is listed as level 4, but my calculations indicated it was level 6- (on the low side of level 6). Or rather, I calculated it was level 5- without the darkness ability, then I arbitrarily added one because the darkness ability looked scary but who knows how effective it would be. The players managed to squeak out a difficult victory, but then I realized I had totally forgotten about the dragon’s tail attack. I suspect it is quite possible the players would have lost the fight if I'd done it correctly.

The first thing I learned from the fight is a bit more about how lurkers work, and how the darkness field works in particular. The classic lurker is supposed to be a monster that spends much of the battle hiding, coming out periodically to launch a big attack. I've been very skeptical about this actually working very often in practice, because I know how difficult this is to achieve. Before playing a specter, I predicted that lurking would not prove practical, and I was correct. However, before playing the black dragon I looked at the darkness field and had a feeling that it could potentially prove very troublesome to the characters. As long as the dragon is sitting in his darkness field, there is very little the characters can actually do to the dragon. They cannot do anything to extinguish the darkness field, and they cannot enter the darkness field without giving the dragon a massive advantage. Blindly throwing ranged attacks at the dragon from outside the darkness field causes only a slight amount of damage, to the point that it seems like it might be very effective for the dragon to just sit in the darkness field until his powers recharge. And since the dragon is a solo monster, this doesn't hurt any of his nonexistent allies. So the dragon's lurker ability really works. The problem is, I'm not so sure it is entertaining to have a solo lurker. While the dragon is recharging, the characters are more or less waiting for the restart of the fight. Not very exciting. So I decided to have the dragon fight every turn and just use the darkness when it happened to recharge. This probably wasn't a great tactical idea for the dragon because it got terrible recharge rolls and was hammered while outside of the darkness.

So why did the dragon seem too powerful for the characters? The most straightforward reason was that it is a level 6 encounter. The DMG says such an encounter is a normal hard encounter. Maybe level +3 is just hard for higher-level characters, but for level 3 characters, this means the monster is about as powerful as the characters even if they have and use every daily power they have. Not very appropriate unless you want there to be a significant chance that the players are totally defeated. This is appropriate for comic books, but I don't think D&D is supposed to work this way. The monsters will just eat you.

One thing that makes a high-level fight like this even more difficult than it may initially appear is that the extreme toughness of the dragon dilutes the effectiveness of their encounter and daily powers. Even after you've used them all up, there is a lot of dragon to kill.

One thing I think is very interesting, though, is the idea that the tactical situation in D&D can be as important as the raw numbers. In particular, which side has the powers which totally hose the other side? For the party, it appears that the power which is really awesome effective is the fighter’s lockdown ability (combat superiority and combat challenge). The blue slime had no way to counter this power, so even though it did a fair amount of damage to the whole party, it basically felt helpless. It had no real tactical options, it had to just sit around getting beat on until it was dead. The black dragon, on the other hand, can counter this power. This left the warlock is the only character with powers that were especially effective against a solo monster. On paper, witchfire and dread star are unusually good against solo monsters. While this is true, the problem is that the only be used once each, and you are lucky if one of the 2 actually hits. While the monster is very annoyed for one round, there is no way you can even come close to killing a solo monster in one round. So when the next round comes, you are back to the same tactical situation you started with. This is totally different from fighter lockdown, which lasts every round for the entire fight - or black dragon darkness, which lasts as long as the dragon either lurks in the darkness or gets lucky with its recharge rolls.