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.