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.

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