Saturday, February 21, 2009

Encounter Powers and Front-Loading

I really enjoyed the idea of encounter powers in fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons. It solves a problem I've had in the past when trying to game balance characters with multiple powers (most commonly Champions characters). If you try to give a character a bunch of powers to select from, then in any given situation, there will often be one power which is clearly superior to the others. This is most noticeable when the powers are not balanced and one power really is better than the others. But even if you balance the powers so that, overall, they are equally effective, as long as the powers are meaningfully different, in any given situation one power will be better than the others. If the powers are balanced overall, then over the lifetime of the character all of the powers will be used frequently. Unfortunately, it is quite common that against a given opponent in a given battle, the same powers is always the most effective power. So the character tends to use the same power over and over again in a given battle, which is not interesting.

This isn't the entire problem, however. If a power is a conventional damage-dealing attack, using it over and over again at least works well from a game mechanics perspective. But some powers just don't work very well if you are allowed to use them without end. Entangle was a classic power of this sort. All it really did was allow you to spend an action to try to make an opponent lose some number of actions. If the opponent can break out of the entangle too easily, you wouldn't want to use it against them. But if not, after they have struggled and managed to dramatically escape from the entangle, it is very efficient to entangle them again. This is makes for exceptionally long and boring fights. It also does not match what happens in the comic books, even though from a efficiency point of view it seems like a very logical action.

What is worse, a balanced entangle power would cause the opponent to lose, on average, only slightly more than one action (after you have factored in the hit probability and so forth). After all, it is only costing you one action. But this typically isn't very much fun to use - you want your entangle be more powerful in order to “feel cool”. But if it is, you have the problem mentioned previously of wanting to use it over and over again.

I had been pondering a number of ways to solve this problem by limiting or preventing the character from using the same power repeatedly. But I must confess, I hadn't quite hit on the idea of avoiding untested and complicated solutions in favor of the simple idea of generally making powers work only once per encounter. As soon as I saw this idea, I was struck with the elegance of the concept, in terms of making a rule which, while perhaps not perfectly true to cinematic reality, would solve some problems in a straightforward fashion.

By making a power an encounter power, you have the liberty to make it powerful and exciting, without worrying about the character using it repeatedly. The power no longer has to be balanced with the other powers. It doesn't even have to be balanced with other encounter powers on the same character. You entangle the bad guy once in a display of power, he struggles and eventually gets free, and you move on to other powers.

However, in playing with encounter powers, I have noticed a problem which I did not immediately think about. They cause the characters to be "front-loaded". Encounter powers are more powerful than other powers, but you can only use them once per combat. This means that eventually you run out of encounter powers - often rather quickly. This causes some problems:

1) Traditional storytelling drama suggests that heroic adventurers should often start out barely able to hold their own against the ferocious monster attack, then rise to the challenge by “pulling out all the stops" and finishing off the monsters with a series of dramatic moves. But D&D works the opposite way - the characters pull out their best maneuvers at the beginning of the combat and peter out toward an ending anticlimax.

2) As the fight progresses, the characters become less powerful, which can make the fights more “touchy” and harder to balance. A lot of the player damage will be dealt early, then the players have to finish off the monsters with weak attacks. If the players get a little bit lucky, they may finish off the monsters with powerful early attacks rather suddenly. If the players have bad luck, they may not cause enough initial damage with their powerful attacks, and the fight could go on for a long time. Increasing the variability of fight duration is not desirable - fights with a normal duration are mostly preferable to fights which are over too quick, or which drag on interminably.

3) Since harder fights have tougher monsters which can do a better job about outlasting the initial burst of powerful attacks from the characters, it might be very hard to finish them off – while weaker opponents are likely to be killed all too quickly. Thus harder fights become harder and easier fights become easier. This is a minor issue since daily powers and adventure design can compensate, but it is not desirable.

4) Not only do the characters become weaker as the fight progresses, they also become less interesting, reinforcing the idea that a long fight will turn into a tedious slog.

5) If a fight suddenly takes a turn for the worse, it is possible to pull out your daily powers to try to turn things around. But since they are available at any time, and it is most effective to do your best maneuvers as early as possible, they are less effective when used this way then when you predict that a combat will be difficult and use the powers at the very beginning to make sure that the fight won’t turn against you. This is not a major problem, but it is kind of unfortunate that you would be rewarded for making the fight less interesting.


  1. I noticed my main blog page was blank for a while instead of showing the recent blogs. I'm not sure how long this lasted, or if it affected the feeds.

  2. Are you planning a post for solving the issue you mention here?
    What sprung to my mind was a sort of "unlocking" the use of encounter powers based on combat rounds. For instance, at the start of round 2, the players can use 1 encounter power. At the start of round 4, another encounter or daily. (Players that don't use an encounter power in the second round can obviously save it for later).

  3. The Endurance Rule I recently published deals with the front-loading problem by creating an opposing force in the opposite direction that encourages you to save your powers for later and makes the characters more powerful as the fight progresses. This is my current solution to the problem in D&D.

    An alternative is to create a different means for limiting repetitive use of powers. This is the sort of thing you suggested, the sort of think I'd been thinking about before I saw the idea of encounter powers. I'm playtesting a big new idea now, but it can't be reduced to a compact D&D house rule.

    The idea of unlocking powers as rounds progress sounds like a fine idea, definitely the sort of alternative game design that would solve the problem. I had pondered something similar - giving powers recharge rolls, and having most powers start uncharged.

  4. Giving players a better chance to hit later in the encounter, as you describe, is probably the simplest way to encourage holding on to some of their daily or encounter powers.

    The endurance rule you described sounded complicated to explain to players. Worse, it sounded completely "gamey" in my opinion. I couldn't envision how a situation like that could arise in real life, except for maybe the fact that in combat, one generally develops "tunnel vision" on a given opponent unless also being hit by other opponents, which forces you to spread your awareness more thinly. The word "tagging" itself sounds a lot like "marking". It personally took me 2 or 3 times to read the rule and understand it. Have you had more playtest experience with it that you can possibly describe?

    A discussion on Enworld led to a similar conclusion but a different solution. In the biggest, hardest fights, players need (or THINK that they need) their big powers to hit. But sometimes you don't realize that it's a big deal fight until a few hits have been traded.

    I believe I called the rule "flipping the fuck out", and several people described something similar by a different name and/or with slightly different triggering conditions. When half of your party members are bloodied, or one of your party members goes to 0 hitpoints or below, you and your allies can choose to "flip out". When you do this, everyone in the combat gets a +2 bonus to attack rolls. (Essentially you're "raging", getting a +2 to attacks and a -2 to defenses, but it's easier to say that everyone gets a +2.)

    I'm still not certain whether the monsters should be allowed to make a similar decision, or if your endurance rule would ultimately be a better overall solution once I get the hang of it.

  5. The "flipping out" rule is interesting. It is fairly weak in terms of its effect on the probable outcome of the overall combat. I think its main effect would be to make the characters feel better about the big attacks being able to hit - a not insubstantial benefit. Players often complain about their big attacks not hitting, since D&D has no hero point system to let the players hit when they really want to.

    Reading your comment on the Combat Fatigue rule, I'm thinking I may not have explained it clearly, because I don't understand the comment about "tunnel vision". The rule doesn't give the monster any direct benefit when attacked by multiple players. Perhaps I can explain better.

    If D&D were still played in rounds, there would be no tagging. The rule would simply be "a monster suffers a point of combat fatigue during each round in which it is attacked at least once." All the stuff about tagging is simply a way to express this in terms of 4th edition's "endless cycle" system.

    Come to think of it, an alternate way to write the rule would be to say that "at the end of a monster's turn, it gains a point of fatigue if it was attacked since the end of its last turn." That would be much more clear, though it has issues of its own. I am not super happy with the complicated tagging stuff, but it is difficult to structure a round-based rule into D&D, where players can freely delay between rounds or change orders with each other.

    I haven't had a lot of chance to playtest the rule. I presented the rule not as one that I already know works well, but as a new idea for one way to solve the focus fire and front-loading problems.

    Thanks for the comments!

  6. "Thanks for the comments!"

    Heh, thanks for answering questions and thoroughly explaining things I don't initially follow. You run a blog that discusses a lot of the things I like to think about in my free time, so I love it here.

  7. Hi, I just came across your blog and am enjoying reading your thoughts on D&D 4E.

    For this issue, how about not introducing all the monsters at the same time? If we separate the monsters into two batches for example, the first batch will take the brunt of the party's encounter powers, but they will have to deal with the second batch with their at-wills or dailies. Doesn't this solution encourage players to save some of their powers for later?

  8. Thanks for your comments, carl.

    There are a number of problems with spreading out the introduction of the monsters. If you look at the mathematics, it is not, in the most general case, likely to encourage the players to hold on to their powers. Imagine there are two equally powerful groups of monsters, without a short rest between them. If the players use their encounter powers on the first group, they won't have any for the second group. But the same is true the opposite way - if they save the powers for the second group, they can't use them on the first group. So it doesn't matter when the powers are used, against the first or second group. Now, if the powers were overkill against one group, it would be a reason to distribute them evenly between the groups. But encounter powers aren't usually THAT good.

    If the players knew the second group of monsters was tougher than the first, they would want to save their powers. But this brings up the question of player knowledge. If the players have any uncertainly about whether more monsters will be coming, they definitely want to use all of their powers against the first batch. Better to use your powers against a bunch of monsters you know are hurting you now, then to save them against monsters that might never come. Sure, the GM could surprise you with a bigger batch of monsters on you before you can rest. But from the player's perspective, if you don't know this will happen, it is out of your control; you just want to fight as well as you can against the monsters you see. Indeed, the last thing I would want to do is make the players afraid of using their encounter powers; encounter powers are fun.

    So the only way to really make the players hold on to their encounter powers in a two-part fight is when they know for sure that the second part is coming, and that it is tougher than the first part. Also, I am assuming the players have the time to kill off the first group before the second group arrives. If not, they really want to front-load against the first group, because if they don't do so the second fight becomes even more difficult with the addition of leftover monsters from the first group.

    Of course, if you know that your encounter power is inherently more effective against the type of monsters in the second group, you might hold on to it. But that is a special case, not the general case.

    Even if you set up the conditions for a two-part fight perfectly as I mentioned above, it still brings out another weakness with encounter powers. A multi-part fight takes more total rounds (over all the parts) than a single group fight with the same overall difficulty. So you have the same number of encounter powers, and a longer fight, so a higher proportion of your attacks are going to be at-will attacks and a smaller proportion your cool encounter powers. I find this less fun; encounter powers are cool. I might have a multi-part fight on occasion just because it is fun to do something different from time to time. But most of the time, I'd rather have two separate fights, with two chances to use encounter powers, and a higher "battle intensity" in each fight (since you can use more powerful monsters without increasing the overall difficulty of the adventure).