Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Daily vs. Cinematic Timekeeping

Neubert wrote a good comment in an earlier post, suggesting that the problems with the daily powers mechanic could be solved by recharging the powers after a certain number of encounters rather than per day. This is basically equivalent to changing D&D from a daily system into a more cinematic system. When describing the ups and downs of the daily mechanic, I have not really written much about its main alternative, the cinematic approach.

The contrast to the classic D&D approach of pacing the adventure in terms of days and other units of real time is the cinematic approach, as exemplified by Torg and D6 Star Wars, where the adventure is more like a script and time is tracked in terms of Acts and Scenes. In a cinematic adventure, the passage of time has no great meaning to the game mechanics; if it has no signficance to the story it doesn’t usually matter how much time passes between encounters. Time is actually kept track of in terms of scenes, where a scene is one major element of the story – a fight, or a dramatic skill check, or a major puzzle or roleplaying event. A cinematic adventure is written out in terms of scenes, not in terms of maps and event locations, like a traditional 1st edition D&D adventure. Torg organized Scenes into Acts, but precise organizational details are not really important for the discussion.

In a time-based game like D&D, time is kept track of in terms of real terms. Powers recharge after 5 minutes, you can use your Might Swing twice per day, you heal one hit point per hour, or whatever. In a purely cinematic game, time is kept track of in terms of scenes. A power can be used once per scene, or you regain your stamina at the end of a scene, or you earn hero points at the end of a scene. Cinematic games can achieve this more easily by keeping track of resources using cinematic concepts like hero points (which deserve a whole article of their own).

Keeping time in the cinematic way makes adventures much easier to write, because the flow of time is not tied tightly into the game mechanics. The story can take place over one hour or several weeks, and the game mechanics still work the same way. There is no need to worry about characters filling time while they wait for things to happen – the way to recharge your powers is not to delay the action, but to make the action go forward. I always enjoy the cinematic style best myself.

4th edition D&D seems to owe a debt to the fun feel of the cinematic games in many ways – the adventures have a more structured, cinematic flow, the powers are exciting and have limitations that seem more dramatic than realistic. But the core time-keeping process is still daily. The milestone idea tries to put a little cinematic veneer on this, but it is a pretty thin veneer.

Transforming D&D to use the cinematic approach – recharging powers after every 4 encounters - is a fine idea, and something that I’ve been considering. I think it is certainly far superior to the “15-minute adventuring day” approach. But I should note that the technique of allowing the players to rest and recharge at any time, while keeping the adventure on a tight time constraint, has one advantage. Using the fully encounter-based recharge, if the players use up their powers after some bad luck in the first 3 fights, there is no way to get those powers back if they desperately need them for the 4th fight. With the time-constraint approach the characters can rest, accepting that they have to make up time later in the adventure of accept a less successful outcome to the adventure. With the encounter-based recharge, their options are less flexible. A real cinematic game has hero points to get the players out of a jam, but D&D doesn’t have that concept. On the other hand, the characters can probably figure out how to survive 4 encounters with one dose of powers, especially if healing surges are still daily. Or you could just give the players a certain number of “party recharges” per adventure, and let them decide when to use them.


  1. I took the milestone concept a little bit further, while still keeping things "daily".

    Essentially, resources steadily decline throughout the day:
    O 0 o .

    Milestones are a clunky, heavy-sounding concept that actually paves the way for a system that, in opposition to declining resources, makes you more awesome as you press on:
    . o 0 O

    My players are advised to ignore the milestone rules in the book, and for them it works like this:
    After one combat: you're not breaking a sweat
    After two combats: you can tap into an additional action point and item daily
    After three combats: magic rings become awesome
    After four combats: you can tap into an additional action point and item daily
    After five combats: one daily power chosen randomly recharges, and you have a +2 bonus to attack or damage with it
    After six combats: you can tap into an additional action point and item daily
    After seven combats: one daily power of your choice recharges, and you have a +2 bonus to attack or damage with it
    After eight combats: you can tap into an additional action point and item daily
    After nine combats: one utility power and one daily power of your choice recharge, and you have a +2 bonus to attack and damage with it

  2. The trick is healing surges. I can't just give them healing surges for their tenacity, but on the other hand they'll never want to do more than six combats, generally being too low on surges at that point. I've been thinking about letting them recover 1/3 of their surges by eating a full, hearty meal, but that also seems a little bit silly. "We can't stop fighting until the threat is eliminated! ...who wants lunch?"

  3. Sounds like a pretty cool idea to me, I think it would work. Here are my analytical comments:

    1) It isn't clear what level you intended the system to be used at. Recovering one daily power every two encounters is 100% of the daily powers of a 1st level character but only 25% of the powers of a 20th level character. I would suggest recharging 50% (at random) of all used daily powers, regardless of whether they are attack powers, utility powers, or whatever.

    2) Why not let them get healing surges from completing encounters? After all, D&D rules already say you take a "short rest" after each encounter. If you think a hearty meal is enough to explain regaining surges, I don't know why a short rest wouldn't be a good enough explanation. But, also, it is really the short rest that heals the damage, not the surges; the surges basically just represent how much punishment they can take during a day before being tuckered out. After each fight, adrenalin pushes them on! They could get, say, 10% (rolling off fractions) of their starting surges back after each fight starting with the third.

  4. Thank you very much for pointing out those issues to me; those are great fixes.

    I never think much about the low levels, admittedly. Our group discovered D&D in the 3e days, and our experience has always been that levels 1-4 are just something to hurry through or skip, 5-15 are important and fun, but somewhere between 13-16 the DM will experience burnout/overwork and shortly after the players will lose interest.

    It would feel, to me, that free surges make a 5 minute rest a little bit restful - I might require that players who want free surges must do nothing at all during their rest except rest. Not for any balance reasons, just supension-of-disbelief and all that jazz.

  5. Out of curiousity, what was your original intent with this article? Just disseminating information? (if so, thanks!)
    Or are you thinking of fiddling with mechanics in some way?

  6. My intent is to provide information and intellectual commentary, this is the general intent of the analytic articles on my site. I see or think of something and I want to bring out the underlying issues, make clear what is really happening in the game mechanics, and presents the pros and cons of various approaches.

    While I have many ideas for modifying and improving rules, I haven't implemented anything concrete for this. I've found that using the regular rules in combination with tightly time-constrained adventures works OK for now, and I feel there are more pressing issues to work on, such as focus fire and character balance.

    I've been concentrating my blogging time on analytic articles rather than making rules ready for publishing. But I've been pondering publishing some rules to control focus fire, since you brought that up. I take requests!

  7. I for one would like to see some of your rules - maybe they could be posted on the forum, to generate some interest in that?

  8. I posted the rules on the forum so they could be more easily re-posted after changes. But at least one reader has noted that the forum is invisible to readers who just want to "follow a blog", so I put the link on the main blog. Comments on the forum post might be best left to comments of less interest to the casual reader - notes of spelling mistakes, detailed playtest reports, a place to move lengthy debates.