Sunday, August 30, 2009

Impressive features of 4th edition D&D

I was looking over 4th edition D&D and trying to summarize the things I really like and dislike about it. I actually found that, although I have various complaints about the execution of certain concepts, it is hard to find any major new idea I don’t like, and easy to find concepts I think are fantastic. So in this article, rather than concentrating on one aspect of the game, I’ll put down my overall list of the ideas I really liked.

First, concepts I think are my very favorite, ideas that would be good for any RPG. The weren’t necessarily first introduced by 4th edition D&D (I’m not keeping track), but when I saw them, I was really impressed, they made me think of things in a new way.

1) The tactical combat system. Although I don’t necessarily like every single element of the 4th edition combat system, overall, I am really impressed. I always liked how Champions allowed you to treat a combat as if it were a tactical board game, something interesting in and of itself. But I think 4th edition D&D does it much better. Combat is really fun! And making the combat system so good doesn’t seem to revolve around one new idea, but just a lot of hard work on a lot of things to make the system work so well. One of the features that really impresses me is how non-abstract the movement is, how important your exact position on the map is, in a non-trivial way. It allows movement-related powers to be really interesting, and allows characters to exert zones of control through opportunity attacks. This is something really different from most RPG’s I’m familiar with, where movement is just a way to go from “far away” to “close up” or vice-versa.
2) Taking ordinary monsters and making them distinctive and interesting. You know an idea is great when you think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” I can often remember thinking how much more interesting it was to fight a band of supervillains than, say, a bunch of mutated animals who just tried to bite you. I never really quite thought of just arbitrarily assigning interesting combat maneuvers and powers to different animals to make the combat more fun. The way 4th edition turns kobolds into many types of kobolds with different “powers”, even if they have no magic, is really cool. A bit wacky, perhaps, but the fun factor way outweighs that. I think the detailed combat system really supports this by allowing a wide variety of different powers; there is a synergy here, it would be harder to make interesting monster combat maneuvers with a less intricate combat system.
3) Minions. Although many games have distinguished between boss monsters and “cannon fodder”, there is something about the implementation of minions in 4th edition that I find really appealing and inspiring (article here). It is cool that the minion’s statistics are skewed for better playability – instead of being weaker overall, the minion has full accuracy and is not easy to hit, but does low damage and takes only one hit to kill. This combination seems great. I have some issues with the execution of the minion within the game – many powers are allowed that are too good against minions – but I think the concept is awesome. I would definitely use minions in other games I make.
4) Healing as a minor action. The way that healing works in 4th edition D&D, from a viewpoint of the underlying game mechanics, is quite clever. On one level, making healing a minor action is very nice because it allows healers to fight as well as heal, making them more fun to play. But on another level, by giving the healer two heals per combat that don’t cost attack actions, you are turning healing into an attribute of the group as a whole. It means that the group as a whole has some extra “group hit points” which can fill in where needed, in order to keep everyone conscious and fighting. A very good idea, I’ve considered doing something like that myself.

Next, I list things I think are generally good, and particularly great within the context of D&D, as compared to previous editions.

1) Game balance! In previous editions of D&D, the classes were so different from one another that it was practically impossible to compare them in a meaningful way to tell whether they were balanced with each other. Especially since they change dramatically with levels, and at a different rate than each other. If they were balanced, which is doubtful, it would be purely a matter of art and extensive playtesting. In 4th edition, the classes are all built with the same underlying mechanism, and go up with levels at roughly the same rate. It is possible to compare them, and they are pretty close to game balanced. I’ve always been a devotee of game balance, but making such a drastic change to D&D took guts.
2) Making martial and spellcasting classes work the same way. Certainly you can do this sort of thing in Champions/HERO system. But doing this within the classic D&D framework is not something that had really occurred to me as a possible way to modify D&D. But now that I see it, I think it is great, it really does feel like the martial classes are just as cool as the magical classes. It makes me want to use this concept more often. I should mention that the idea is not so much that martial and magical classes are indistinguishable – that would be boring – but rather that martial abilities are just as interesting as magical abilities.
3) Encounter Powers. Previous editions of D&D had at-will powers and daily powers. Creating encounter powers as an in-between is a great improvement, a way to allow potent abilities to have limited uses without all the problems associated with daily abilities. Actually, I was tempted to put this on the first list, seeing the concept of encounter powers put into play with such interesting power lists really inspired me. I just have some uncertainty about the execution, and whether once per encounter is really ultimately the best way to do the powers (as mentioned here). But I’ve no doubt that this is a great improvement over what preceded it.
4) Races. I just like a lot of things about the new races. I like the selection of races; more cool races and fewer small, cute races. I like the way the racial powers make the races more interesting. I like that races are designed in such a way that a 1st level character can belong to a race that normally produces high-level monsters, and it feels perfectly natural.

Some additional changes in 4th edition D&D that are not particularly novel, but which I approve of:

1) Switching hit points from a daily resource into a per-encounter resource. I’ve written an earlier article about this.
2) Having skills go up automatically with levels, and having skill training provide a fixed bonus.
3) Giving each class a certain type of armor proficiency and then assuming they will wear the best armor they are allowed to wear. Also, the way you add your Dex bonus to light armor but not to heavy armor.

And some more interesting things:
1) The skirmisher concept. The idea of giving a monster an arbitrary bonus for moving around the map, just to encourage it to move around, is pretty clever. I think I need a lot more experience to evaluate how well it works, but it is an intriguing concept.
2) Having healing restore a fraction of the character’s full hit points, by defining a “healing surge” value. A handy way to package and present a mathematically useful concept.
3) Rituals. Separating the noncombat spells from the combat spells seems like a great idea. I’d put this in my list of impressive concepts (article here), except that I haven’t actually been inspired to use any of the the rituals in my games.
4) Allowing inspiration to count as a legitimate source of healing, so that you can have fighters heal themselves and warlords as a martial healing class. Weird, but a pretty convenient way to use the healing mechanic without requiring a very specific type of character conception (the cleric).

Next related article

Friday, August 21, 2009

Game Transparency; Old School GM Style

I really like some of the gamemastering articles associated with 4th edition D&D. They often tend to say exactly what I’ve been thinking myself. This was basically the case when I was reading the article on Game Transparency in Dragon 375. It is close enough to what I would say myself that there isn’t much for me to add, just to say it is a good article. In particle, I quite agree with the idea that if the players have no idea that a monster has fire resistance, and have no way to find it out, then that fire resistance has no tactical interest or meaning. In order for the players to devise interesting tactics based on the opponents, they need information about the opponents.

What the article also made me think about, though, is that many of the suggestions in the new D&D material are a matter of style. It reflects the attitude that the GM is basically an ally of the players, working with them to make the game as much fun as possible. I’ve always had this approach to role-playing games, but in terms of D&D, this is basically the “new school” attitude. This attitude is opposed by the “old school” approach, which still has many adherents. I was thinking about how to define the distinction.

The tradition of the old school play style is that the the adventure is full of truly deadly hazards, and the players must be extremely cautious and devious while they try their best to defeat the adventure as efficiently as possible. Sometimes it seems like the old school approach involves the GM being the opponent of the players, but that is not how I would put it. I think the ideal of the old school approach is that the GM sets up an adventure to be very challenging to the players, then runs the adventure with total impartiality. If the players come up with a clever idea, they can kill the big boss in his sleep; if they fail to notice an important trap, they may all die. Everything is totally fair, and the players control their own destiny. If the GM decides the players are getting too powerful, he adjusts the adventures accordingly, but only in a fair way. It is sort of like how a sporting organization works. If a given tactic proves too effective, that tactic is banned for everyone, but only at the beginning of a season, not in the middle of a game, because that would be unfair. In old school D&D, if a player had a powerful magic item, it would be fair to send thieves to steal it, but only if the players had a fair chance to set up guards, place magical wards, and so on.

To continue with the sports analogy, I would say the old school approach treats the game much like a competitive team sport. The goal is to do everything you can to win the game within the rules, and the nature of the competition and the challenge it presents is what is fun. If you aren’t trying to win, you aren’t really playing the game. Whereas the new school approach is more like playing a party game, where you are ostensibly trying to win, but in reality you are just using the structure of a game to have a good time. If you have a choice between trying to do whatever it takes to win, and being more whimsical and entertaining, it would appropriate to choose the latter.

I’ve always preferred the idea that the GM and the players are working together to create a memorable story and have a good time, and the GM should mix a “say yes” approach together with the impartiality needed to create an exciting adventure. The old idea of RPG tournaments, with the party who achieved the most success in the adventure being the winners, always seemed strange to me. In my mind, this seemed to encourage exactly the wrong thing, a party of hyper-competitive rules lawyers trying to beat the dungeon, not the sort of fun role-playing I prefer. In my preferred style, not only is the GM friendly to the players, but the players work with the GM, trying to go with the spirit of high adventure rather than tapping everything in the dungeon with 10-foot poles.

Nevertheless, the old school concept is theoretically sound. Pure competition has been exalted in games since time immemorial. Why not take this approach with role-playing games? It reminds me of playing a Star Fleet Battles tournament. Commanding your starship correctly requires mastery of hundreds of obscure rules and capabilities; forget even one, and your ship is destroyed. Not the sort of thing I really enjoy. But if you love pitting your skill against the opponent in pure, ruthless competition, you wouldn’t want it any other way.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Comparing Champions roles with D&D roles

Previous related post: Identity of the character roles in 4th edition D&D

Last blog I discussed the relative purity of the roles in 4th edition D&D, and in doing so briefly mentioned the informal roles from Champions. So I thought I’d compare the meaning and use of the role concept in the two systems.

The 4th edition D&D role concept is a less concentrated form of the role concept in MMO’s, where every class has a specific purpose during combat. The ideal fight would seem to involve the defenders standing in front and absorbing damage, the strikers killing monsters, the leaders healing the defenders and boosting the attacks of the strikers, and the controllers hiding in back and helping everyone out by softening up the monsters with area effect attacks and inhibiting them with status effects.

The old role concept from Champions had a different purpose. It was meant to describe the kind of characters that would be found in a typical superhero group. Since Champions is a point-based game where you can design your character anyway you like, the roles might be seen as similar to D&D classes in describing what kind of character you appear to be. But they are also like fourth edition roles in describing what general capabilities the character is supposed to have.

The Champions roles have been formalized in different ways. The list of roles my playing group used to use was Brick, Martial Artist, Energy Projector, Mentalist, and Other. Other included some recognizable but less archetypes such as Gadgeteer and Speedster, as well as weird characters who defied description. Actually, I was never completely happy with the idea that Mentalist was on the list, since in the comic books this was not nearly as common a role as the other major roles (except among mutant superhero teams). But since Champions devoted a fair amount of attention to defining mental powers, and Mentalists are stupendously useful, it was sort of a tradition that the classic Champions group would have a Mentalist. Anyway, that is beside the main point of this article.

One difference is that Champions roles were totally informal. In effect, they were essentially stereotypes that characters tended to fall into; there was no particular need for characters to fit their role. Characters who fit the roles exactly, and characters who completely defied the expectations of the standard roles, were both equally valid types of characters and were equally encouraged. On the one hand, you had articles extolling the virtues of the “well balanced” super team. And on the other hand, you had people extolling the virtues of thinking outside the box when making your character. But regardless which you preferred, there was a general sense of what the completely classic version of each character role would look like.

Here is my description of the classic Champions character types. The Brick was super strong and super tough, but somewhat slow and not too smart. The Martial Artist was extremely skillful both in and out of combat, but couldn't take much punishment. The Energy Projector had a versatile array of ranged powers. The Mentalist wasn't too tough, but had a versatile array of mental powers. And who knows what the Other did, so we will ignore them.

The obvious approach would be to directly equate these Champions roles to similar looking D&D roles. So the brick is a defender, the martial artist is a melee striker, the energy projector is a ranged striker, and the mental list as a controller (Champions had nothing similar to a leader). But this doesn’t quite seem to fit. The brick was not only considered to be the toughest member of the team, but also the hardest hitting. This would seem to make him both a defender and a striker, which doesn't make much sense in D&D terms - what are the other classes for?

For one thing, the brick may have been the toughest member of the group, but that didn't account for the fact that the brick was easy to hit. After all, champions doesn't have the D&D peculiarity of merging armor and agility into the same value. The incredible agility of the martial artist meant that, potentially, he could be just as good or better defensively than the brick. But the 2 kinds of defenses had very different feels to them. The brick had the advantage of much more reliable staying power. If the martial artist was attacked in a way that he wasn't prepared to defend against, he could quickly get slaughtered, while the brick was just going to take a lot of punishment to put down whatever you did. And the brick could afford to intercept attacks against others, or run into dangerous zones of damage, or otherwise use his defenses in a more flexible fashion. But on the other hand, if the enemy had some sort of "control" power, it was quite possible that the easy-to-hit brick would be neutralized, while the martial artist would dodge the attack with ease.

And while the brick had the biggest single attack, his slow speed meant that he didn't necessarily have the best total damage output. And if he was being blinded or knocked around, he might miss a lot of attacks and even have a somewhat low damage output. But he could hurt guys who were too tough for the others to hurt. And when it came time to perform a group combination attack, it often ended up with a gigantic haymaker from the brick.

So in theory, the brick and the martial artist would have comparable total offense and defense but in very different ways. The energy projector would have somewhat less defense but the advantage of range. Also, the energy projector had a more versatile selection of powers, the ability to do things other than just blast the enemy. But the mentalist was the real master doing things differently, with the ability to ignore normal defenses completely and attack in ways that the villains may not be capable of dealing with.

In practice, though, it should be said that the brick very often was just flat out more powerful than the martial artist and energy projector. Bricks were often more powerful than energy projector is because, in Champions, they are more point efficient. And in games modeling the comic books, martial artists were often less powerful than bricks because they the party experts at noncombat skills, rather than masters of raw combat power. Similar to the thief in first edition D&D. Of course, fourth edition D&D made a conscious decision to delete the concept of a character whose special role is being good in noncombat.

Overall, it seems that the Champions role describes the combat style of the character rather than an MMO-style role. Although each role has certain expectations, they are more subtle than being a “DPS” or a “tank”. The Champions roles are perhaps more primitive, less useful for building a game where every character has a very clear role within the party. But on the other hand, I think they are more intuitive. The idea that a D&D paladin is an expert at forcing enemies to attack him is sort of a funny “game think” idea. The more natural idea to someone not familiar with the MMO role concept is that a paladin is a brave, heavily armored guy with a little bit of healing power. This would be more equivalent to the Champions role concept.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Identity of the character roles in 4th edition D&D

In 4th edition D&D, there are 4 official character roles: Defender, Striker, Leader, Controller. Each role is supposed to have a specific purpose within the party. I've observed that some of the roles have a clear, unified identity, while other roles seem to be a combination of multiple sub-roles which could potentially be separated.

The purpose of a striker is to deal maximum damage to a single opponent, and the powers given to strikers allow them to deal extra damage to a single opponent. This is the simplest and most pure of the roles. There is one clear purpose to the role, and one type of power which directly serves that purpose.

Actually, the description in the Player’s Handbook mentions that strikers also have powers to help them single out a specific target they want to attack. But in practice this doesn’t really seem to be a distinction, different strikers have a wide variety of powers that help them or inhibit them from attacking a specific target, or no such powers at all.

The purpose of a defender is to protect the party by absorbing the enemy’s attacks. Defenders have two powers to achieve this – the ability to force enemies to attack the defender instead of someone else, and high defenses to absorb that damage. This is slightly more complicated than the striker, since these two powers could mechanically be separated – you could have the ability to draw attacks without having high defenses. But it doesn’t seem like a good idea! If you have the ability to draw attacks, having high defenses is practically required, so really defenders have a single clearly identifiable focus.

Leaders have one purpose – to help out the rest of the party – and two sub-roles – healing and support (support referring to improving teamwork and making other party members more effective). In terms of theme, these naturally fit together as ways of helping out the rest of the party. But mechanically, there is no particular reason these two sub-roles need to be combined. It would work perfectly fine to have a character with healing and no support abilities, or vice-versa. The reason to fit them together is that both fulfill the leader’s purpose, so if you want to play your character as being the party’s support character, you would want both abilities.

Controllers are the real mystery. Controllers have strong area effect attacks, and the ability to place enemies under various conditions. What these two types of powers have to do with each other beats me. They don’t seem related in either game mechanics or theme. The controller role doesn’t seem very descriptive. When I see references to a class having “controller abilities”, I never know which type of power that refers to. The theme of the controller seems to be “the offense-oriented class that isn’t a striker”.

Maybe the purpose of grouping these powers under the controller role is based more on having a fair division of labor. 25% of the characters focus on concentrated damage, 25% on absorbing damage, and 25% on healing and support, and 25% on other forms of offense. By putting one of each role in the party, you know you have everything covered. If there were separate roles for area effect offense and true control, there would be five roles, and if players chose them evenly, then 40% of the party would be special offense. If 25% special offense is the right amount, then having 5 roles would lead to too much special offense and not enough of the other roles. So perhaps grouping multiple abilities under controller leads to a good distribution of classes.

This reminds me somewhat of Champions, where some of the classic roles were Brick, Martial Artist, Energy Projector, Mentalist, and Other. Other wasn’t very descriptive – it just referred to characters who had some sort of strange powers. You might have the power to control luck, or to turn into an energy-draining ghost, or to transform enemies into animals. It didn’t really say much about what exactly you were or what you did. But when it came to party composition, it was sort of fitting that a “classic” party would have a good selection of traditional superhero archetypes, plus room for one character who does something totally different, whatever it may be.

Next related post: Comparing Champions roles with D&D roles