Sunday, September 12, 2010, 6:04 PM
Well, it was nice to log into the community site for the first time in about a month and see messages waiting from people who missed me... nothing dire happened, and I didn't do a very quiet flounce. I just went and visited my (long distance) boyfriend in August, which kind of cut into my internet presence for a while. Of course this had the bonus side effect of letting me miss out on a few weeks of Essentials prophesizing... now that the books are actually trickling out through the premiere stores, it looks like the conversations are getting a little more reasonable.
I missed the mark on the extent of the new magic item rules, but at the same time I think I had a pretty accurate idea of their impact. DMs who don't want to give PCs the items they won't have a little more official backing than they did before, but it was always within the DM's power to say "no, you cannot has". If anything, the rules seem more geared towards "you cannot has a handy haversack full of identical copies of a magic item with an encounter power so you can use one every turn" (situations that led to items being nerfed into Daily that weren't really worth it under the old rules) than "you cannot has the one item that you feel would really round out your character".
I mean, the DM who does that is a jerk, and there's no ruleset that cures that.
But anyway: I said more than once that I would say so if time proved my wrong about the magic items, and so here it is: I was wrong. I'll comment more on what I think about the rules when I have the full version in my hands.
Thursday, August 12, 2010, 11:55 PM
Well, either you're closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a rule update in your community.
Ya got trouble, my friend, right here, I say, trouble right here in 4th Edition.
Why, sure, I'm a roleplayer, certainly mighty proud, I say I'm always mighty proud to say it. I consider the hours I spend with a die in my hand are golden. Help you cultivate horse sense and a cool head and a keen eye. D'y'ever go and try to hit the Demon Prince of the Undead with a min-maxed orb wizard?
But just as I say it takes judgement, brains, and maturity to hit with an at-will strike, I say that any noob can pick and change a stance for a bonus. And I call that sloth! The first big step on the road to the depths of degreda-I say, first utility stances for a Fighter, then tricks for a Rogue and the next thing you know your d00d is rolling for treasure from a random chart and listenin' to some grognardian DM hearin' him tell about wandering monsters.
Not a balanced encounter, no, but a fight where you pick 'em right off the chart! Like to see some rolled-up newbie Mage fighting an archfiend? Make your blood boil, well I should say!
Now, friends, let me show you what they nerfed: We had one, two, three, four five, six stats for basic attacks, stats that marked the difference between a Defender and a bum with a capital "B", and that rhymes with "E", and that means new rules!
Now I know all you folks are the right kind of DMs. I'm gonna be perfectly frank. Would you like to know what kind of conversions go on while they're updating all the rules?
They'll be nerfin' our Warlords.
Rolling out Red Boxes like they're Frank Mentzer and braggin' all about how they're gonna sell us on 4.5 regardless.
One fine night you'll leave the tavern headin' for a quest with the Red Box. Autohit spells, and striking Fighters, and Warpriests! Flexible stat bumps that'll boost your elf, your tiefling, right to the top of your class's optimal stat range... MASS-'STERIA!
Friends, the idle brain is chaotic evil.
Oh, we got trouble right here in 4th Edition with a capital "T" and that rhymes with "E" And that means new rules! We've surely got trouble right here in 4th Edition. Gotta figure out how to keep our best builds legal so we're cool!
Players of 4th Edition, heed this warning before it's too late! Watch for the tell-tale signs of corruption: the minute your DM signs on does he check the website for errata and rules updates? Is there a crayon stain on his die-rolling hand? A Gord novel hidden in the bookshelf? Is he starting to memorize traps from Grimtooth's Dungeon of Doom?
Are certain words creeping into his table talk?
Words like... "this update reflects an effort to restore the power to its classical form"?
And... "the baseline experience for the roleplaying game moving forward"?
Well if so, my friends, ya got trouble right here in 4th Edition with a capital "T" and that rhymes with "E" and that means new rules! We've surely got trouble right here in 4th Edition. Remember 3-0, 3.5, and how we got fooled?
Our children's children gonna have trouble...
Oho, we got trouble... we're in terrible, terrible trouble!
That box with the weird unleveled powers is the devil's tool!
Yes, we've got trouble, trouble, trouble!
Oh, yes, we got trouble here, we got big, big trouble...
...with a capital "T"...
...and that rhymes with "E"...
...and that means new rules.
Friday, July 23, 2010, 5:34 AM
So last night I ran my first encounter in 4E that used nothing but custom monsters. It was a troupe of Goblin circus performers. There was no story behind this... it was a sort of practice run for my campaign that's "going live" next week. We had some players of varying experience levels in the group, and only half the group had ever tried my abstract combat hack before, and that only once.
So I just wanted an encounter to throw at the group. The chain of thoughts that led me to "Goblin Circus" could be the subject of another blog, but I'll skip to the end of it, which is what's relevant here. I wanted to make pairs of monsters that would work together in a more concrete way than the various "Mob Tactics" style traits.
The first idea I came up with was a pair of acrobats who would be able to assist each other with their moves. When one started a turn adjacent to the other and ended it would gain a bonus to speed and defenses. They would also be able to use better move-and-attack combos when they started out next to each other.
The second idea I had was jugglers, who would have a special ammo schtick much like certain kobolds do. They would have no real melee attack, but would be able to do an "Around The World" attack by passing one of their juggling objects to their partner who then makes a ranged attack with it. It's useful for avoiding opportunity attacks, but even when not threatened with one the jugglers can use it for added flexibility in who and where they attack. In many ways they'd act like a single monster existing in two squares, able to make two attacks from either of them.
Once I had acrobats and jugglers... well, it seemed like a shame to let a good theme go to waste.
I had more ideas than I could fit in a single encounter, and so I only ended up using the acrobats... they received a very positive response from my players. As did the Goblin Magician, who pulled a rabbit out of his hat and threw it at the Goliath Warlord's face (it's a shame he missed, I was looking forward to describing the rabbit clinging on and gnawing for 5 ongoing damage). The Strongman who threw a weight at the party's Seeker was less of a stand-out, but fit in well with the theme.
The ideas I didn't use in this fight included a controller who could impose hit penalties with a pie to the face and throw a banana peel as an immediate interrupt when someone moved within a burst 5.
Leaving aside the issue of whether or not these particular monsters would fit into a given campaign, I think it must be said that it's so much easier to stat them up in 4E than it would have been in a previous edition. I don't have to find matching PC banana-throwing abilities. The pie in the face doesn't require some kind of called shot. I don't have to make incredibly difficult Acrobatics checks to have the acrobats be able to flip and tumble across the table... I just have to describe it as such when they use their power to shift x squares, ignoring difficult terrain and passing through enemy-occupied squares.
Think about all that would involved in just having the jugglers juggling in a game that demands rules that simulate stuff with no effect on combat with the same precision it adjudicates combat. That's before you get into passing an attack off to a partner.
All in all, the Goblin Circus was such a hit with my players that I'm going to be working it into my campaign... if only so I can get the rest of my creations "on screen". If the Goblin Circus is a bit too silly for you, that's no problem... because the same rules that lend themselves so well to circus antics will work just as well for anything else you can imagine.
After all, the Magician's Top Hat began life as the Goblin Delver's rummage sack.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010, 1:38 AM
Every once in a while I re-read the combat rules in the Player's Handbook just to keep them fresh and sharp in my mind, and while I was doing that most recently the part about knocking an enemy unconscious at 0 HP instead of killing it struck me.
Now this is the sort of thing that makes some people laugh about how cartoonishly unrealistic the game is: "What, so I put an arrow through the goblin's heart and then decide to take him alive?" Of course that's not what's happening. What is happening is that the game is acknowledging that defeating an enemy can take more forms than putting an arrow through someone's heart.
So this got me thinking about all the ways in which a person can be defeated in real life. All 0 HP means mechanically for NPCs is that they are out of the fight. What actually happens is largely fluff, with the possibly significant distinction that they may either be alive or dead.
If you assume that death is the most common or default outcome, there's not much reason to dwell on what exactly happens when an enemy is not slain. But for those who are playing less bloodthirsty heroes, or running less bloodthirsty games, here are some other possible ways to interpret the act of reducing someone to 0 HP.
This works best when players know when they're likely to inflict a "death blow"... I like to make the minions in any fight clear and update players as an enemy nears defeat. If you don't do those things then these options will be less relevant to your games.
Assuming that players do know when their next shot is likely to render an enemy unfit for continued duty, then they can describe their intentions at the same time they attempt the attack. Alternately they can amend themselves when they know the enemy has been defeated by their hand, but knowing up front what they intend can prevent micro-retcons if you're narrating things as they happen.
Some of the alternatives presented below might sound similar to things that can be achieved using specific Martial Attack powers, usually with more limited and narrowly defined effects. There is no conflict between the existence of such powers and the options presented below. The powers are about how one deals with an opponent who is still an active threat. The options below are about how one deals with a defeated opponent. They are as different in game terms as a fully-stat'd monster is from a small child in a village.
Disarming An Opponent
Some players grumble that 4E offers no disarm mechanism and is, in many ways, not at all built to deal with a disarmed opponent. In fact, for a creature that relies on weapons, it may be best to treat it as being out of the fight completely when it's been disarmed.
If disarmed is the same thing as defeated, then the state of being defeated can be used to represent being disarmed.
Imagine your Ranger is trading arrows with a group of minion archers. If the player says, "I'm going to splinter its bow with my next shot.", there are a few ways you can handle it: you can invent some kind of called shot penalty or use the rules for attacking an inanimate object, and then if it succeeds keep the minion in the fight but unable to make its ranged attack... or you can resolve it like a normal attack, with a hit meaning the Ranger's arrow has destroyed the minion's bow.
The minion then either surrenders or runs off. In either case the PCs can expend further attacks on it, but it should be made clear to them that at this point it's a non-combatant.
What about non-minions? Well, we must assume that an enemy archer will no more stand still holding its bow out as a target for enemies to snipe at than it would do so with its own body. Therefore the ability of the PCs to inflict a devastating blow on its weapon, the thing that keeps it in the fight, is the same as their ability to inflict a deadly blow on it: it depends on first whittling down its HP.
(As a sidebar, if I were to write a mechanic for disarming opponents before they're defeated, I would give it similar restrictions as Intimidate has... requiring a bloodied target and rolling against Reflexes with a hefty bonus, for instance... since it would have the same effect: "defeating" an opponent without removing all of their HP.)
Forcing A Surrender
Above I mention that disarming an opponent might force them to surrender, but so might getting the tip of a blade pointed at an opponent's heart or throat, or using an arrow to part the target's hair or put a hole in its hat, or otherwise demonstrating your ability to end the enemy's life at your leisure.
This is a similar idea to knocking an opponent unconscious: you could have made a killing blow but you didn't, and the target knows it.
This doesn't step on the Intimidate skill's toes because it's using a different approach: with Intimidate, it doesn't actually matter if you can carry out your threat or not because you're relying on your strength of personality and/or skill at intimidating to make your opponent believe you. When you force surrender with an attack, force of personality doesn't apply: you demonstrate that the opponent cannot hope to win.
Capturing An Opponent
This works best if the opponent in question is the last one left standing, because in in its simplest, least environmental-dependent form it would be similar to forcing a surrender but you'd keep doing it: keep your next arrow nocked and trained on the target, keep your blade to the target's throat.
If your character has ammunition or weapons to spare, it may also be possible to trap an opponent by pinning them to a wall, tree, or other object or surface.
Depending on the environment, other possibilities may exist: an enemy could be knocked into a basket or shoved into a wardrobe, tripped into some rigging, etc. All of these things are things that could possibly done with a Bull Rush or skill check or page 42 stunt of some kind anyway, but if you take "0 HP" to simply mean "defeated", then there's no reason you couldn't let a player take that defeat to mean forcing the enemy into a position where it can be inconvenienced in one of these fashions. It usually shouldn't matter if it would realistically hold them for long or not... fights tend to take very little "game time" to resolve.
In the middle of a fight, of course, the default non-lethal method of defeating an enemy can be the best way to take a prisoner: knock them out. This can be after they've been disarmed or forced to surrender, for added color.
This option may be less bloodthirsty than killing but may appeal to players who think of their characters as crueler or more pragmatic: an arrow to the leg, a bleeding wound that will require immediate attention... debilitating blows are ways of keeping an opponent from being a danger or a flight risk.
This choice does not necessarily make for a less lethal alternative to a death blow, but it can make for a dramatic or interesting one that ties the action to the environment. A defeated opponent may be knocked over a ship's railing or off a balcony, off of a ledge, and so on.
In roleplaying games that follow a heavy paradigm of "kill the monsters and take their loot", this can lead to suboptimal outcomes, but with 4E discouraging the notion that heroic adventurers strip the corpses of their enemies to sell at the next town there's rarely a downside to allowing for this classic exit for enemies.
The Dramatic Compact: Playing Things Straight
Encouraging this kind of thinking can add a lot of color to combats, as well as get players thinking more about the non-death option. But these things only work when you the DM not only allow players to do them, but you follow through on them. Simulationist DMs (or gameist ones who don't like "losing") might be thinking, "Okay, but the monster is still there. It's not dead. It's not unconscious. Why can't I just attack with it?"
You can't attack with it because it's been defeated. Defeated is a notional status that, like "minion" or "elite", exists only as a storytelling shorthand for more complicated conditions within the game world. Mechanically, a monster that's defeated... who surrenders, or is disarmed or entrapped by a final strike... is a monster at 0 HP and should be treated as such.
A monster with HP who gets knocked into some netting is still in the fight and can struggle to get free. A monster with no HP who's knocked in the same netting is out of the fight (because the fight has gone out of it) and can't. It's like the difference between being a character that's simply knocked prone, and one that is prone because it's unconscious because it was reduced to 0 HP.
Things that allow a monster at 0 HP to come back and make another desperate attempt to bring the PCs down are very rare in the game. Situations where a defeated monster takes another shot at the PCs should be equally rare. If you're the kind of person who would find themselves thinking, "But logically, in this situation, nothing would stop this monster from drawing its dagger and continuing the fight..." then these ideas probably aren't for you.
If you can handle a little more abstraction in your simulation, though, this might make it easier to draw a fight to a conclusion that is interesting and satisfying as it is decisive.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010, 4:37 PM
...with the Essentials argument. We have one character class preview that shows us how the "new" classes will work (and reveals no incompatibility between the Essentials build and the core version), which also contains a handy haversack full of information about how things will fit together in general. We have a Rules column now showing us what we can expect from the Rules Compendium.
And yet some people persist in insisting that the relationship between the Warpriest and the Cleric is more like that of the 3.5 Ranger and the 3.0 Ranger than that of Cleric and a specific build of Cleric, and that the Rules Compendium is going to constitute a new set of core rules rather than a convenient reference to the essential rules as they stand now.
Why did I think my words can sway people where mere reality is unconvincing? I don't know. But if I'm going to get my campaign off the ground I have to spend my D&D-related time doing something other than arguing on the internet.
I'd say that this will all be settled when Essentials comes out in September anyway, but I doubt it will be. There are still people who insist that 4E is "WoW for tabletop" or that it "forbids" roleplaying, after all.
Monday, July 12, 2010, 6:31 PM
The new player content article for today
deals ostensibly with the idea of characters who have been "corrupted" by contact with/servitude through various evil powers (Zehir, Vecna, Lolth, and the Illithids). For each race/group that might have "corrupted" a character, there's a small selection of feats and/or skill powers to reflect this background. The fluff sections all end with something like, "By choosing one of the options below, you signify that your character..."
However, the write-up for each component... the part that will appear in the Character Builder and Compendium... does not explicitly refer to or depend on that piece of background.
There's no actual prerequisite on the "Snake Blooded" feat that you must have been a servant of Zehir, so if you want to take the poison resistance to represent the fact that you spent time building up a tolerance to deadly substances, you can. If you strip away the fluff, what we have is a useful series of feats and skill powers that fit a wide variety of concepts.
Want to be a telepath without being a Psion or member of a telepathic race? Here's the feat that lets you do it. Looking for the utility powers that let you act more as a manipulator or charmer? Here you go... there's even a "Hannibal Lecturer" power that lets you sub Insight for Intimidation by sussing out your target's dark secrets.
Heck, any of a number of combinations of things all listed under different fluff-headings in this article could be used to take a member of any race and class and turn them into a "low-level psychic", who can communicate telepathically with effort, wrap people up in tangled knots with words, pierce people's innermost thoughts, fog up their memories... all without referring to the fluff. The skill powers would also work for a Bard or Rogue who wants to keep their class's "original flavor" but is just looking for more utility powers that apply to social challenges.
And yet the fluff is there to give players ideas for their characters' backgrounds, and the feats and powers can be used to mechanically represent these things.
These are the kinds of articles I like to see: ones that offer more options we can use to tailor any number of characters to fit any number of concepts. Sure, more options aimed at a given class or race are a good thing, too. I don't want them to stop doing Class Acts and Winning Races and Channel Divinity. But when this article gets updated into DDI, there will be new choices popping up on everybody's Character Builder screens, and these choices might be the difference between being able to make almost the character they envision and exactly the character they envision.
Monday, July 12, 2010, 1:05 AM
I'm preparing for running a campaign where I'm going to try to keep a strong focus on narrative and storytelling, even during combat. Yes, using the 4E combat rules. I've long been convinced that 4E is an ideal system for games with a strong storytelling element, but I'm interested in taking that to the next level. To that end, I've been thinking a lot about how to keep the storytelling momentum going even when there's a fight going on.
My previous post was about elevating a memorable, distinctive monster leader with interesting tactics to a starring role in your combats to make it easier to maintain roleplaying while you're DMing combat. My next post will be about running combat as a coherent narrative. But for some people, the divide between combat and story... fighting and roleplaying... is pretty deeply ingrained. If you want to overcome this, you need to make the transition between what they see as two opposites as seamless as possible.
To experienced players, an initiative roll means combat is about to begin... time to stop thinking theatrically and start thinking tactically. To neophytes it can mean that the low-pressure freeform part of the game that's relatively free of arcane rules and mechanics is over... it's time for dice and jargon!
If a game of D&D could be likened to an old console RPG, then the moment you tell everyone to roll Initiative is equivalent to when the screen gets all distorted or flashes and the normal background music stops -- the signal, in other words, that the exploration mode you were in has been put on pause and it's time for the combat minigame to start. As soon as the combat's over you can get back to what you were doing.
This might not be the definitive "HEY, COMBAT IS STARTING!" moment... in a tabletop game with maps and miniatures, that usually happens when you reveal (or assemble) the battle map. But in an abstract game, where the same medium--words and imagination--are used to represent what's happening whether there are hostile creatures about or not, the "combat is happening, prepare for something different" signal of rolling for Initiative can be unnecessarily jarring. The interruption caused by everyone rolling and then the need to compare scores and compile a list can be particularly anticlimactic.
Imagine you're describing a scene unfolding: the PCs open a door into the kitchen of a goblin stronghold and find it occupied... a pack of ravenous ghouls suddenly and silently appear over the crest of a hill the PCs were ascending. If you roll initiative, you have to stop what you're doing, roll, compile a list, and then jump back into the action.
What if instead you as DM simply finished your description with, "The goblin cook is reaching for its cleaver. None of them look happy to be interrupted at their work. Cara, you react first. What do you do?" No breaking the scene. The player's in the moment. There's still a transition from something completely freeform to turn-based and regulated, but because there's no abrupt interruption and no signal more jarring than a prompt to the first player.
But how do you know who goes first, without rolling for it? There are two main alternatives:
You can imagine how this works: each PC's score is equal to 10 + their Initiative bonus. The upside to this is that it's incredibly simple. The downside is it can be dull and repetitive, and that slower monsters (or PCs) never get a lucky break. It might be rewarding for the person with +10 to always go first, but it can wear on everyone else... and it's especially frustrating if you have a +2 feat bonus that never seems to do anything for you.
A partial solution to this is to use passive initiatives for players but roll for monsters. Ideally you'd do this in advance, when you set the encounter up, so you can move fluidly into the first round.
But if you're going to do that, why not go all out? Why not...
Roll In Advance For Everyone
For every encounter you have planned, roll Initiative for each player and each group of monsters. Make a list of the turn order in your notes for the encounter.
Of course, with this level of preparation you're losing some spontaneity. What happens if there's an unplanned encounter? If your goal is to keep things freeform and fluid, it can happen. You can have a series of extra Initiative lists, already put in order. Just roll quickly for the monsters or use their "passive initiatives" and slot them in as appropriate.
Now there can be some rough spots with this.
First, some players have abilities set to trigger "when you roll initiative". The power may or may not have anything to do with initiative rolls... it just uses that as a trigger because, as mentioned above, initiative rolling means combat is starting.
So read it as "whenever combat begins". As DM, you have to be aware if any players have such an ability and make sure they know the appropriate time to use it. Before asking the first player in the initiative order what she's doing (or telling the players what the first monster does), ask the player with the triggered power ifshe would like to use it.
And then some players just like rolling initiative. They might be superstitious about rolling for themselves. Or maybe they love combat and they like the excitement that comes with the familiar signal. You can't do much for the people who don't want you to roll for them (unless you let them roll a few dozen times and record the results in order, or something), but for the latter, all you can do is show them that combat can be every bit as exciting as they want it to, even without that moment of "hey, it's time for a fight scene".
Saturday, July 10, 2010, 11:56 PM
I've always felt like the last thing the DM should do is approach a game of D&D on the level of a player on the other side of a conflict from the PCs, not even in combat... but strangely enough, that's exactly what I'm planning on doing on a regular basis from now on.
I don't mean that I'll be treating combat as a wargame where my objective is to defeat the players using tactically superior mastery of the game system. That would be silly. What I mean is that I'll treat it as what it is--a roleplaying game--and I'll take on a specific character, as they do.
See, even for someone as enthusiastic about combat roleplaying as I am, it can be hard to do that and DM at the same time. You can get so bogged down in tactics, in the grind, in the minutiae of conditions and effects. Elevating one NPC to the starring role, taking it as your "Player Character", can make getting into the spirit of things a lot easier.
Now the only question is, who to choose?
Memorable Characters, Memorable Combats
Last night I did a test run of some thrown together "rule translations" for hacking 4E's combat system into an abstract/mapless environment. It was a mechanics-heavy session: no story, no roleplay, no narration except to set the scene.
And yet it revealed some things about what makes combat interesting as more than a tactical exercise. The players all seemed to enjoy the presence of the Shaman's Spirit Bear companion even though she did nothing more than use standard combat powers. Monsters who did something more than just attack stood out. The Goblin Delver with his sack full of random tricks proved both engaging and memorable. A Goblin Blackblade made less of an impression.
In a separate encounter, a Zombie Gravedigger attracted more PC attention than its one-encounter-trick-pony status deserved. I could speculate as to why, but here's a guess: zombie gravedigger. It had a shovel. The other zombies in the endless horde facing the players didn't.
While this test focused on the nuts and bolts, the reason I'm trying out abstraction is for a more narrative heavy approach to combat... not a rules set change, just a way of encouraging players to get into the spirit of things the way I like to.
And it occurred to me as I looked back on those two encounters that the players focused most of their tactical attention on the two most interesting "pieces on the board", so those would be the logical places to engage them from in an actual roleplaying game session.
In my notes I described the Goblin Delver as the leader of the goblins in the room... so obviously the thing to do would be to play him as the leader. When the minions move on their intiative, he's shouting orders. When an arrow hits him, he curses the Ranger for poking a hole in his sack, and on his turn, he lobs something nasty at the Ranger in return.
I've done this sort of thing before, of course. The boss, the Big Bad, the BBEG, or whatever name you prefer, of a scenario has always been well-defined as a character in my mind, someone with a personality and motivations and who can interact with the party. But those fights are few and far between, and they usually come after a series of fights where there might be periodic hisses and snarls and howls of outrage but very little real characterization.
So why not give more fights that kind of a linchpin character? Most fights?
Take Me To Your Leader
Monsters marked as "Leader" might seem like the natural choice for this role, but there are some Skirmishers in the Compendium who can really dazzle PCs with their moves, if it's described as something more interesting than a multi-square shift. Controllers have an ability to shape the course of a fight. All that's really necessary is for your "leader" to do something that demands attention, either on a tactical level or through flavor, or ideally both.
Among a horde of faceless zombies, even just holding a shovel is a start. But if I were to use such a set-up again, I wouldn't stop there. That character demands a bag of tricks just as useful and entertaining--if not as literal--as the one the Goblin Delver held.
And for that matter, the Delver can be improved. I don't just mean expanding the random table of things he can pull out of his sack (though I did that). If he's going to be grabbing the party's attention on purpose, you can bet he'll be taking more hits. So why not make him an Elite, so he can last longer?
This, of course, means we have to drop a regular enemy from the fight. Pick the least interesting one. Give some of its schticks, if desired, to your new Elite. Give the Elite some kind of multi-attack capability so it can (partially) perform the role of the monster it's replacing. This will make your newly minted team leader more or less spot-on target as far as the capabilities of a lot of printed examples of Elite monsters, and potentially a more interesting fight than you'd get with the creatures separate.
For instance, I took the Goblin Delver, gave him a leveled up version of the Goblin Blackblade's short sword, the Blackblade's combat advantage, and a means of fighting two opponents at once (one sword attack, shift, and then a sword attack or a sack-rummage against a second target) and now the Goblin Delver is a Goblin Rummager, sword in one hand and rummage-sack hanging from his belt.
His bag schtick is at least as colorful as anything players can bring to the table, and can be made more so by expanding the table, by improvising alternate descriptions each time (old boot, cracked mug, or skull in place of the rock, for instance). His melee schtick is dangerous enough to be be worthy of their attention, as well.
None of this makes him a character... that will be up to me when I play him. Nothing actually stops me from picking a random minion on the battlefield and doing the same thing. It just wouldn't be very interesting or last very long.
Of course, with so many reasons for the party to focus on my Rummager, even the double HPs might not last that long. Sure, his underlings can and will run interference for him, but unless they're very, very good or the PCs do very, very poorly, he probably won't be the last one to drop.
If your goal is to have interesting and challenging combats that don't devolve into a "squeeze out every last HP"-style grind, though, this can be a good thing:
Decapitation Ends Combats Quicker
Having a leader on the other side can make it easier to decide when it makes sense to have the minions and mooks think about fleeing. If things aren't actually over when the leader goes down, it can be used as a tipping point. You can halve the HPs of remaining enemies as their hearts go out of the fight. You can stop rolling saving throws for them if the PCs are inflicting ongoing damage or conditions... just declare that the ones who are stunned, dazed, immobilized, prone, whatever are out of they fight. They don't resist. They don't get up.
This is obviously situational. There will be times when one of the above ideas makes sense and times when none of them do. But if you're looking for a way to speed combat up after it reaches a point where things have definitely tipped in the PCs' favor, designating a leader on the enemy side is a good way to do it. And then making sure they can tell who the keystone figure is, that the leader acts important and feels important and that bringing him down feels like an accomplishment ensures that the combat has a very natural progression to it.
Also, while the rules for using Intimidation to compel an enemy to surrender are pretty harsh, it can be worth it if there's one high-HP character on the enemy side that you could change the course of the battle by getting to drop out of it.
This brings me to the next point...
"The Bad Guy" Is Easier To Interact With Than "The Bad Guys"
How many times have you heard the criticism (or voiced it) that in 4E there isn't any way to win an encounter apart from grinding away at every last enemy HP? This isn't technically true, but with no morale rules and the default mechanical effects of Bluff and Intimidate on battle strictly nerfed (and no default mechanical effect for Diplomacy) it can seem that the game is not predisposed for other resolutions. It's expected that the DM will resolve such things as they come up, using reason and imagination and common sense (and maybe Skill Challenges).
But it can be hard for players to think in those terms when in the thick of combat, with its tactical depth. The attack powers on their cards are so familiar. The rules for using them are so concrete. You know you can win the fight, eventually, probably, if you use those tools. And the DM might likewise have a hard time thinking outside of the little 1 inch boxes. It's easier to have the monsters keep fighting on, and it can be more satisfying, too, if the other solution feels anti-climactic or like a "Win Button".
Having a clear leader on the enemy side, one who is being treated (by you) as a character with personality and motivations on a turn-by-turn basis, can make your players more open to the possibility of finding an alternate solution to the conflict and make it easier for you to accept them. It allows an actual roleplaying back-and-forth to come about, with threats or promises or taunts or whatever on both sides. Negotiating a cease of hostilities can be treated as a Skill Challenge in the midst of combat... giving up a Standard Action to make a skill check is usually a bad deal, but if there's a bandit leader or an army captain or whatever who's obviously calling the shots (and obviously intelligent and possibly even reasonable) then it might seem like a better deal.
While some might fear that this would revive the Diplomancer, there would be no reason to allow the PCs to end a combat with just skill rolls. There would have to be something on offer, some reason for the NPC to have a chance of agreeing/backing down/whatever. The skill rolls represent the difficulty of overcoming the hostile circumstances. No amount of diplomacy or intimidation can force someone to stop fighting when they believe they can beat you and get what they want that way.
It's easiest to handle this with an in-combat Skill Challenge. A DM who really wanted to encourage it could allow skill checks to be made for the challenge as a minor action once per turn instead of requiring a standard action. It would still be a standard action to use Intimidation like an attack, or Bluff to gain an immediate advantage in combat, but to try to convince the Bandit Captain that yes, you do know where the duke's men are planning on ambushing him as part of a skill challenge to negotiate a cease of hostilities would be a minor action... after all, talking is a free action
Using one character among the NPCs as a focal point for your roleplay efforts gives you a place to start, but the rest of the combatants shouldn't be interchangeable automatons. (Unless they are, in fact, interchangeable automatons. It happens.) By putting an elite into the fight, you make this part easier: there's one less face you have to make distinct.
You don't have to give every minion a personality, but if there are only three or four Goblin Cleavers in a fight, you can give each one a different improvised weapon, or another distinctive trait. In an abstract game, this can make keeping track of who's where and fighting against whom a lot simpler. If a fight happens in a particular location, repurpose an existing monster... turn a brute with a club into a cook with a skillet or a smith with a hammer.
With your "focal point character" helping you get into the swing of things, it becomes easier to think of each NPC's actions in terms of a larger narrative. Describe the Goblin Archer going into a roll to pop up with a perfect shot that slips past the Fighter's shield. It's the Great Position power listed on the Goblin Archer's stat block. You just make it part of the scene.
(If you're the kind of person who considers a damage bonus for moving to a different spot or an evil overlord with a whip who can give hit bonuses to allies by spurring them on to be "disassociated mechanics" that have nothing to do with anything happening in the notional in-game reality, this part might be hard for you.)
Not every combat has to go the same way, of course. The chief of the bandit camp could just be a puffed-up bully, no more tougher or more capable than the others... in an easy battle the "leader" could just be a standard enemy who happens to be the mouthpiece/face of the group.
Instead of the cohorts surrendering or losing the will to fight after the leader's defeat, the leader could flee when bloodied (or reduced to 25% HP) leaving the others to fight on and cover the escape. In neither case am I proposing a rule or mechanic ("When leader is defeated, this happens." or "When leader is bloodied, that happens.")... just noting some ways that the presence of a leader can alter the course of a battle.
And of course, you can get fancy with the homebrewin'. D&D as written has nothing between "Elite" and "Solo"... but if you can double the HP and drop one standard enemy, why not triple and drop two? Super Elite. Elite Leader. If almost every combat has someone "special" in it, you might need to pull out something more special sometimes.
I'll admit, nothing up above is really all that revolutionary, and following the advice above will not lead your combats into a sort of roleplaying Promised Land by themselves. I'll have another post soon about how I plan to do "narrative focused combat" that I had planned on writing before this one. I just think that having one character (maybe two, in some cases) to focus on... a main antagonist for the party, a main character for the DM... is going to prove to be the key to actually making it work.
Friday, July 9, 2010, 1:40 AM
So, the new Essentials Preview is up, and it gives away way more than I expected. With a vocal group of players distrustful of the specter of a "re-editioning", Wizards of the Coast has evidently decided it's better to err on the side of openness than leave too many things open to speculation.
(Though I do think they're being a bit clever about how and where they stoke the fires.)
Anyway, there's a lot of info in the post and a lot more to be gleaned from it. It really does seem like we can say that Essentials will do the following:
- Create an easier "entry point" for new gamers. This is important for D&D and for the hobby as a whole, since D&D has always been the "recruiting grounds", as it were.
- Appeal to old school players' sense of nostalgia. The Warpriest certainly stirred my fond memories.
- Not change the game for those of us who like the established class system.
- Give us shiny new candy to play with, even those of us who stick with the pre-Essentials formulations.
For me, what it means is simple more choices for everybody. I liked the inclusion of the Invoker and Avenger in PHB2 and the Runepriest in PHB3 not just because of their mechanics or how they fit into the world-fluff, but because each one gave a whole new take (or set of takes on) the basic idea of "champion of the gods, empowered with divine magic". Hybrids, multiclasses, and paragon paths also give further variations on each of those themes. And now, in the Essentials builds of the classes, we have more still. I don't look at those as "Core Classes" versus "Essentials Classes". I look at them as options, and we can pick the one that most closely matches the character we want to play.
And with Mike Mearls confirming that a Cleric Power is a Cleric Power, available to any member of the Cleric class of the right level, this means that the options will multiplied for people who favor the older choices.
Essentially, I'm having a hard time seeing who loses here.
Saturday, July 3, 2010, 9:13 PM
I read a book once called Gamearth that was about people playing a fantasy roleplaying game, and the way the characters inside their game experienced the events of the game. The author, Kevin J. Anderson, writes a lot of expanded universe-style TV and movie tie-in novels, so I guess he's been around the geek block. The book had enough familiar notes that I wouldn't be surprised if he's a roleplayer, but the game depicted was also so very different from how actual roleplaying games tend to work that I wouldn't be surprised if he's not.
Anyway, the point of this post isn't to review Gamearth or to critique its portrayal of The Hobby. It's been so long since I've read it that I couldn't begin to do that with any accuracy anyway.
The thing is that when the story was being told from the perspective of the Gamearth characters, their reality conformed more or less exactly to the rules the game was played by. Their world was divided up into hexagons that formed sharp boundaries between things like grasslands and forests. The rules said that overland travel occurs at a rate of two hexagons a day, so people in the world could cross a hexagon barrier twice a day.
It wasn't that it took half a day to walk one hexagon width. It wasn't that walking the length of two hexagons was tiring. People could walk all over inside a hexagon, traversing a distance equal to many times its width, so long as they only moved from one to another twice.
If they brought horses with them, they could cross a third boundary. I don't remember if they actually had to be on the horses, but people didn't have horses because they could move faster or walk longer without tiring. They had them because horses could cross the lines in the skin of their world one more time a day than they could.
That kind of thing kind of works for me as comedy. I mean, that's what most of the early Order of the Stick strips were about. It didn't really work for me so much in a story that was supposed to be showing that the fantasy game the players were playing was omgreal and their actions had real consequences for real people. I couldn't get a real feel for whether or not the author thought this was a delightfully whimsical touch or whether he thought he was making a really good point about how arbitrary and unrealistic roleplaying game rules are.
I do know, however, that such attempts to take the abstract models employed by roleplaying game systems and apply them as something akin to the laws of physics inside the game world are often meant to be such a pointed commentary on the unrealistic nature of the game.
Examples of such criticisms I've seen leveled at 4th Edition over the years since its release:
- "Minions make no sense. If they die as soon as they take damage, how do they ever grow to adulthood? How do they survive training? How do minion orcs survive to be higher levels than regular orcs, if they die so easily? And why would anybody ever use someone who can be killed by a house cat as soldiers or guards?"
- "Encounter and Daily Powers for Fighters and Rogues? I guess that means I know how to do this really cool thing with a blade, but then I forget until I sit down for five minutes?"
- "So if a Warlord gives me an extra move or attack when I've already moved and attacked on my turn, does this mean that shouting at people can give them superhuman speed?"
- "Healing Surges mean a Fighter with no supernatural abilities can basically tap a button and then their wounds just vanish in a twinkly green light."
That last one, of course, combines another related trend: people who add video game elements to their description of what's happening so they can then complain about how much like a video game 4E is.
The same people who make these criticisms would probably snort in derision if somebody used Kevin J. Anderson's interpretation of overland travel rates in relationship to their favored editions or games. They would easily recognize how ridiculous it is to take a bare-bones literal interpretation of the game mechanic and assume it's an exact representation of the mechanics in the game world.
The game mechanics as a whole comprise a model that represents an imaginary world. The model isn't the world, though, any more than a globe map of the Earth is our world. Things are simplified, condensed, and abstracted away. Sometimes the manner in which they're modeled is for purpose of game balance, sometimes for ease of play, and sometimes for genre-related purposes: to encourage drama and opportunities for heroic deeds.
For instance, the first lament assumes that within the world of the game, there is a debilitating condition that any type of creature might have called "minionhood" that makes it so that any injury is fatal. Making this assumption does result in all sorts of troubling inconsistencies in the world. I could see myself running a joke campaign where it's true, and the reason that minions are the go-to guys for filling out BBEGs' armies is that they are angry at the world and have nothing to live for.
But outside that context? You're assuming something that doesn't make sense. You're assuming it in the same breath that you acknowledge it makes no sense. You're assuming it because it makes no sense so you can complain that it makes no sense.
The "baseline" assumption you should be using in all things is this, and just this:the combat rules are an inexact model of what's actually happening. That many facets of the model can't consistently/coherently be explained by any one single thing "really happening" isn't a mark against the model... it's just how the model works. Many complex things concrete things are pared down into fewer, simple, and often abstract things. If one explanation for what HP loss represents or what a Warlord power really does makes sense in one situation but doesn't in another, that's not a sign that the model is inconsistent... it's a sign that it's low resolution.
A higher resolution model... one that skews more towards simulation... can have its appeal, but it would be very different than D&D.