Wednesday, August 11, 2010, 12:36 PM
I ended the last blog post on this subject by stating that by 4e standards, the original Tomb of Horrors was the worst module ever made and wrote that OToH was essentially the best module ever made (or at least, the most iconic) for 1e. That's interesting, isn't it? I mean, it almost says everything about edition wars and the generation gap between 4e'ers and the Grognards. The best for the latter is the worst for the former.
But before the meditations get too deep, I want to clarify what I mean by the worst. First of all, Spoiler: I will be discussing the orginal ToH with specific references to the encounters in this article. I am letting you know. If you plan on playing that module and being surprised by it, do not read any further.
That said. Original Tomb of Horrors (OToH) teaches the players lessons and then punishes them for learning those lessons. Encounter 1 (THE VERY FIRST ENCOUNTER) is a room where, if you prod around with a 10' pole, you will be hit by 5d10 damage. The rest of the module all but requires constant prodding with a 10' pole, especially the great big sphere of annihilation. The first three encounters (two false entrances and one real entrance with a diversion, and said sphere) are likely to stymie characters for no good reason. You want into the tomb of horrors? You have to find the entrance. Sorry, it's hidden. Is it in room #1 where messing around causes 5d10 damage, room #2 where messing around causes you to be entombed until someone can cast enough "Stone to flesh" (disgusting!) to tunnel you out, or is it room #3 which is filled with totally deadly pits? Any guesses? Any? The entrance is behind a secret door down one of the deadly pits you've been trying to avoid--what? Wasn't that obvious enough?
And so the players are, sitting, being punished, essentially, for not understanding the strange logic of Gygax, for believing that the solution in room 2 has any bearing on the logic of room 3, in hoping that their spells will work as they should, and in one case, for not having the treasure table at the back of the MM memorized.
At one point there's a statue that turns into a four armed demon. Later, the characters find a similar statue. If they destroy the second statue (which is exactly what the players are likely to do), they are punished. Instead, they are supposed to put a gem in each of the statue's attached arms (one arm is on the ground) at which point it will crush the gems into dust. Do they do this once before they get their reward? That would make sense, but no. The statue gets three stones in its hands, crushes them, three more, crushes them, and then three more, and when it crushes these final three, an invisible gem of seeing appears in the final fourth arm. First off, who is going to keep putting gems in the things hands. Second, who's going to do it three times. Finally, who's going figure out that when all is said and done there's an invisible magic item in the fourth arm. Without the gem of seeing, you might as well go home: the adventure becomes impossible.
Let's be frank. The module is unplayable. It's just full of assumptions that are false, and it punishes players for not having a psychic link with the module's creator Gary Gygax. In terms of its Gygaxian biography, it was written relatively early in his career and it shows all the signs of an immature DM. It scoffs at the ignorance of players which it then uses to justify its sadism.
I forgive Gygax all this because he was, essentially, charting new waters every time he sat down to run a game. There wasn't really the same body of evidence about what players like and dislike about games as is available now. OToH promises to put the DM in the role of adversary, and it delivers on this promise. Perhaps I should add that, to his credit, his module is no less extreme then the new Tomb of Horrors--just in the opposite direction. OToH is ridiculously unaccommodating as a thing to be played. The new Tomb of Horrors is a pantomime lion (more on this in the next blog post).
But then, playability was never really one of the module's strengths, and quite frankly, it has no bearing on the module's success.
Wha, wha, what? Yes, I said it. OToH is the best of the 1e modules EVEN THOUGH it is utterly unplayable. In fact, one way you could find out, in all honesty, that one of your players had read the module was to simply try and run it. If they made it past the first three rooms, chances are they'd read the module already.
No, the real strength of OToH was in its capacity to challenge game play assumptions, especially regarding tricks and traps. Think about 1e for a moment. Think about the repertoire of spells available to players and what it meant to design a module that wouldn't allow a player to win by picking the right spell list. Imagine designing a module that wasn't combat centered when there wasn't ANY sort of skill system to speak of. There are three places in the module where the DM is asked to count slowly backwards from 10 to determine who is where when the trap goes off. That's McGuyver kind of stuff right there. That's Thomas Edison. Give the man credit, Gygax was a heck of an inventor.
We, the fledgling DMs reading OToH nodded all along thinking, "this is just great. This is precisely what I want to do with my games...except a lot less lethal." We learned at that extreme end of deadliness and came away understanding how to shape the non-combat portion of our games into sessions that became legendary. We liked the gem crushing statue, but we made it so that it crushed 3 gems instead of 9 (I'm using the statue as an example here) and the treasure, when it showed, would be visible. We learned how to manage player's spell books and how not to be surprised by astral travel and teleport without error. We took what was good about Acererak's tomb and we left out all that stuff that was over the top (we did similar things with Grimtooth's, by the way). OToH was boot camp.
And for players, has there ever been a better guide written since about how to explore a dungeon than OToH, a module that blatantly said, "if you aren't thinking of these kinds of things in your games then you aren't playing through exploration right" (and in that early Gygaxian and unforgiving way, "and thus, your character deserves to die")? OToH expanded the player's list of options to include the truly and meticulously careful world of serious dungeon exploration.
What went wrong? Well, isn't it obvious? If a bunch of us read OToH and thought, this is great but a bit too over the top, there were those who said this is great, period. There were many who read the work and simply decided that it represented exactly what a good D and D game ought to look like. They became the worst kind of killer DM: one who is justified by the game's designer. After all, if Gygax said it was okay, then it must have been okay. And if their players didn't like that kind of lethality, if they complained or became bored? Well, they needed to either play a different game or get better at this one.
At it's worst, OToH justified the worst excesses of bad DMing. It encouraged them not to tailor encounters to the player's power levels, it discouraged hints. It encouraged traps that murdered players outright, it discouraged teamwork. If 4e tells DMs to say "yes," Tomb of Horrors told its DMs to say, "no." At the same time, it told the players to min/max, to power game, and to dungeon crawl. Taken at face value, the module created horrible players and DMs that could not be dealt with within the game system as it stood.
Those of us who learned the lessons of OToH and then moderated them were baffled when 2nd edition came out, then 3rd, and now 4th. Looking back I wonder why any of us were surprised. Edition became the only way to deal with DMs and players who learned those same lessons and took them too seriously. The game could not teach these people moderation, so the rules began to increasingly prevent them. But the problem is that this moderation through rules does not just end. We who learned how to DM in moderation, found the game system itself increasingly telling us what could and what could not be allowed. The role of referee for the game increasingly fell to the game designers. So much so that now, OToH can be viewed only as a guidebook to what should not be done in a D and D game. It has gone from a positive example to a negative because it is easier to eliminate those tactics than to teach their use in moderation--easier to teach "always say yes," then to teach people when and why to say, "no;" easier to allow people to continue forward by succeeding in ridiculously easy skill checks then to have them sitting in front of those first three hallways trying to figure out which one has the secret door; easier to have them solve ridiculously easy patterns rather than trying to solve problems that were designed against cliche.
The problem, then, with the new Tomb of Horrors is that you can't make a module in the same philosophical vein as OToH, it would be like revising a view of the universe by Ptolemy according to Newton. Replace, sure. Revise, no way.
...But, and I think this is key, you can write a module that emerges from the game philosophy as it has since evolved and have it dofor 4e what OToH did for 1e. It will not be a great new Tomb of Horrors (it will not be impossible, it will not laugh as characters stumble into traps, it will not make the gem of seeing invisible), but if it provides players and DMs a chance to stretch their ideas of how to run a 4e game in the way that OToH once did for 1e, it would certainly be worth a careful examination. If it's playable this time, all the better. The new Tomb of Horrors has the benifit of playability. With a little help, it could be great.
More to come.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010, 5:56 AM
Reviewing a re-imagining of Tomb of Horrors is a bit complicated…and it doesn’t help that the modules been out for some weeks now (or years, depending on which version of Tomb of Horrorsyou’re reading). The task of writing this review has sort of opened up, a kind of question of game philosophy, game direction, and game history, with an emphasis in all three on motive. I say this because I think that ToH is perhaps the most iconic of Dungeons and Dragons modules. It, more than any other module, demonstrated to enterprising and imaginative DMs the possibilities for adventures available within the game.
Now, that’s a bold statement. So, let me back this up. Obviously, the series of modules devoted to the drow and to the slave lords are oft cited as iconic, as is Keep on the Borderlands (which I think is the most recognizable adventure of all), but each of these adventures concentrated on immersion, story line…the primary thing you remember about these adventures was not that they tested the boundaries of what one could do with the Dungeons and Dragons game but provided good standard for a normal D and D adventure.
Let me try this another way, most adventures taught DMs what an adventure in a fantasy setting ought to look like (dungeon crawl, cavern exploration, fortress assault, encounter with evil civilization, etc.). The S series of modules did something more. They actively stretched the bounds of the DMs function in the game. They acted as an example of what you could do in D and D that might otherwise have escaped your attention. Lost Caverns of Tsojcath said to DMs, “hey, this is what an adventure looks like when the majority of the creatures are custom made.” It even instructed DMs a bit about how to create custom creatures from thin air and make them balanced to their encounter. Mind you, this kind of thinking was in its earliest stages: it provided examples, not a rubric for game mechanics—but it was like designer’s permission to start making custom monsters.
White Plume (the lamest of the S series) basically explained how to put the menagerie of D and D beasties all in one place, how to create encounters from extremely disparate creatures. Outside the White Plume Philosophy, you’re in a module based on giants, and you fight giants. You’re in a module based on slavers and you fight slavers. In White Plume, the next room could as easily have had a dragon as a treant and White Plume provided a great example of how such an adventure could be designed logically.
Expedition to the BarrierPeaks stretched the definition of fantasy setting as far as it could go by changing the dungeon into a space ship. Forget game balance. Expedition balanced itself against itself. The weapons it gave out were fair only inside the module. Outside the shell of the ship, a character with any of those weapons was unstoppable. Ignoring that for a moment though, Expedition was the module that really said that anything goes, and meant it.
…But more than any others stood the Tomb of Horrors, S1, the first of the series which said to the clever DM, the puzzler and the trap maker, this is how you do it. As far as the craziness of 1st edition is concerned, it is Tomb of Horrors that set the standard for setting up a module that would challenge the veteran adventurer and the power gamer alike.
The thing is, though, Tomb of Horrors is, by all that is standard game philosophy in 4e, the worst module ever made. It is horrible from the point of view of 4e because it does EVERYTHING that 4e tells you that you should never do as a DM. One must ask, then, how does one moves from the best 1e module (and the worst 4e module) to what is, in my opinion, a shoddy remake (because a remake of Tomb of Horrors is, otherwise, impossible) and yet, still produce the best 4e module thus far? By answering this question in regards to the iconic status of ToH, I would like to try to explain the preconceptions of the various editions, and why edition was ever needed in the first place.
Stay tuned, more to come…
Wednesday, August 4, 2010, 4:43 PM
It's generally held truth that no one likes being rescued. I've been thinking about the ccavalry--that long tradition of the really powerful good guys showing up and saving the day. They are, of course, a great big no-no in D and D, but they are also absolutely necessary, theoretically, to the game in order to insure a realistic explanation for the survival of the world's various points of light. After all, what is it that keeps the 1st level characters safe in Happy Valley if the world is filled with horrible beasts who long to fulfill their greedy and sadistic purposes? Someone must be keeping the creatures from Monster Manuals 1-3 at bay, right?
And so, while we imagine the characters kicking around some old tomb, figuring out how to handful of zombies and maybe a wight, we must also imagine that the reason that the drow don't show up from below to turn the characters' brains into potions is because someone out there is giving the drow reason for pause.
...And yet, if that same unnamed and powerful hero steps one foot into the territory of your adventures, well, the whole thing's off. The players will feel bad. They'll suffer from magic weapon envy. I don't know, something. I mean, the characters are supposed to be the heroes, not the second string. And so the powerful good guys remain a theoretical force rather than an interesting encounter or a campaign shaping power.
I propose a different way of envisioning a campaign such that the cavalry is a real and tangible force in the characters' lives. I propose that there should be a few other good guys out there besides the characters and that a few of them should even be higher level. I think it's a good thing if the characters know who these other heroes and heroines might be--that they even be on first name basis with them, or even that they see them as competition. Likewise, I think it's good for the characters to know about threats that are beyond their capacity to deal with, and that they should actually be expected to leave some of the major problems in the campaign world to people more capable than they.
But then, how do we settle the most grievous problem surrounding the introduction of other champions of goodness besides the characters especially when that other team is higher level? How do you handle a campaign when the characters understand that the real enemy is a Far Lord when the characters are just fighting foul spawn? How do you make it so that the characters don't feel left out?
Okay, hear me out. Look at Harry Potter. Harry Potter is a fantasy setting where the principle characters are a few fledgling magicians who hang out with a number of arch magi including Dumbledore who seems to be the most powerful wizard in that universe. Realistically, Harry Potter should never have any fun, but strangely enough, Potter tends to be the lynch pin of the good guys defense against Valdemort. Why?
Because Valdemort is smart. Valdemort avoids the arch mages and the world's most powerful wizard by skulking down the back halls of Hogwarts. He's always aiming for the very places where the powerful good guys aren't looking. He sets up misdirection that keeps the big good guys constantly chasing after the wrong thing. In short, the reason Potter has to handle Valdemort is because Valdemort has managed to avoid notice by everyone else who matters precisely by heading for the weakest link.
Using HP as a model, in a world where you have other good guy adventurers, then, it's easy to keep them in the game without actually having them constantly one-upping the characters. Big good guys handle the obvious threats leaving the characters to mop up the lesser threats. Strong villains figure out how to disguise their threat level so as to seem like lesser threats and then they end up in the characters' jurisdiction and the characters, despite their lack of level, save the day. Meanwhile, the obvious presence of a strong force of goodness keeps ancient dragons and arch demons out of Happy Valley.
By introducing other heroes and heroines, you are creating great opportunities to bring campaign advancement to life. After all, what is more compelling than the understanding that the characters are earning their place in something bigger . They are being set up to become the next generation of protectors of Happy Valley? Plus, let's face it: heroes fighting heroes has basically kept Marvel Comics going for forty years; it's a great premise.
Lastly, and I hesitate to say it because it is soooo outside of 4e's philosophy, but here goes anyways: the characters can actually end up fighting creatures far past their resources and level through a supporting role. Big good guy X goes to fight big bad guy Y. Y is so powerful that the characters couldn't possibly expect to even fight him/her/it, but they learn that Y has a trick that will kill X. Now the characters are coming to X's rescue and helping him or her level the playing field against Y.
The real danger, as you can imagine, is in making it crystal clear that villain Y is out of the character's league without the help of X. It is on this point that 4e differs in philosophy from my own. I prefer to handle this in game rather than through game. In other words, I have always had the best luck simply telling the players that the fight they are hoping to enter against the dark god figure is foolhardy and will most likely end in their deaths. I do not rely on the rules to do this for me. Good players tend to respond well to that kind of direction, especially when they know they're playing in a world that has been designed with realism in mind...such as a world with other heroes besides the PCs. But of course, this means that the world has to operate with other heroes from day 1. Don't expect them to take a back seat to a new good guy they just met yesterday and don't expect them to turn away from a fight when it hasn't always been presented to them as a wise option.
Saturday, July 31, 2010, 2:10 PM
I began playing D and D when I was 8. The troubled kid who moved in across the street decided to teach the younger kids how to play and he sucked at DMing so I took over. At 8 years old, I made one of the characters give up a henchman to Asmodeous to prevent his killing the entire party. For an 8 year old, there's nothing wrong with people stumbling upon the devil. I am now 37. I have been playing role playing games generally, and D and D for 29 years.
I have now received two emails where people have suggested some kind of appreciation for my opinions on things D and D and game related because of my experience. I want to say something about this especially to younger players: I am coasting. I was at my best when I was 13.
It's true. You see. When I was 8, I had the kind of imagination that only an 8 year old can have and I kept up that imagination by playing D and D every day after school, pulling all nighters, having three day marathons of sleep overs where all we did was play D and D. At 16, I ran my first game at a con, Call of Cthulhu, to a bunch of Grognards who began completely skeptical and who ended the game shivering in fear of what the little boy/man had wrought upon their delicate psyches. At the last con I went to, I played D and D with 4 kids under 14 and one of their dads. It was great.
Among my game group, I was always the youngest, and was always exceptional irritable when some outsider would suggest that my age meant that I couldn't run a good game, come up with great stories, or produce crazy ideas. I was, by consent, our group's only DM until we were in our late teens. You see, being young, I (and you) have the kind of imagination that produces the enormity of fantasy that must necessarilly be tapped in order to create D and D scenarios that are over the top. Now, in order to tap those same energies, I have to meditate upon fantasy art, films, and books. I sit with a pad and pen, thumbing through the traps on the compendium and the monster manuals creating ideas that I once could have created on the fly.
I'll not lie to you, when I was young I was killer DM. I never used Grimtooth's but I owned it and it was well thumbed. I was not always supportive of my players, especially when they'd trigger obvious traps, but that same honesty compels me to tell you that last month I ran an adventure that I drew out at my kitchen table after school in the 5th grade (27 years later and it worked like a charm).
So, now I'm a Grognard, a veteran player, an old fart, whatever. What do I have over you? Well, I'm a lot more understanding of what players want at the table now. If it goes there, I can easilly produce a political game. I have wayyyy better toys (oh boy!). I have 4 precious hours a week to play. Young players, listen to me, you are playing amazing games. I know it. I may be a Grognard but I am envious of the stuff you have at your disposals in just your imaginations alone. I am not having better games than you--they're just different. I just write about it pretty well.
Part of what I am saying is precisely why I love this game. The puzzles and the problems are the same whether they are tackled by a 10 year old or a 40 year old, we bring to them wholly different sets of tools to solve the issues of running a game but nobody's tools are better than anyone elses. What an 8, 10, 12 year old brings to the game is as valuable as what a 37 year old brings to the game. I keep trying to figure out what I'm going to bring to the game when I'm 80. Will D and D halt the process of Alzheimer's? Can you even imagine the edition wars in 2053?
Thursday, July 29, 2010, 5:13 PM
#1 D and D. #2 How to Host a Murder. You disagree? Well, I'm with you that How to Host a Murder isn't the best RPG of all time. I'm not even sure it calls itself an RPG. Nonetheless, HTHAM is fairly popular. Almost everyone I know has played it at least once (as opposed to Vampire: The Masquerade, Rifts, Everquest, or World of Warcraft). HTHAM doesn't even have replayability. Nonetheless, you show up, you play a role, it's a game...Role Playing Game.
So, here's the deal. I am planning something in my campaign, something righteously awesome, something amazingly hyperbolic, but (and here's the difficult thing for me), it's closer to How To Host A Murder than to D and D...and I hate how to Host A Murder.
My campaign revolves around a group of characters who have been brought back from the dead. During the heroic tier, the characters have discovered A--the fact of their resurrection, and B--little tidbits about their pre-mortem lives (they did not know each other). Most clues seem to suggest that the characters were both powerful and none too nice. One character has been accused by her one time companion in the service of Bane of having betrayed him and his friends in order to become the favorite of the evil god (the nemesis has since switched to Orcus--he's a ghoul with a warlord template which is a combination I recommend highly).
In any case, the paladin in his past life was evidently the lover of a fey queen. She lost him, went crazy and all that, and he was struck dead. He has also learned that part of the reason he left was because she was attempting to ascend to a position as an avatar of a goddess and that somehow this ascension would have been very bad for him. He left, she did not ascend. Now she looks like techno-steam-punk-spider Eladrin. I use the Defiler miniature from Warhammer 40k to represent her if that gives you some idea.
Now the new hotness. I am planning on having our gaming session after this next one to work out as a live-action roleplaying through the events of the paladin's last night with the fey queen before he left and betrayed her to a fate worse than death. No combat, just role playing. It's basically How To Host A Murder.
But...I hate How to Host A Murder. I hate the non-sequitor clue delivery system of the game. I hate that you are rewarded for listening and saying your lines. Most of all, I hate that the only rhyme or reason to it is that you have to say your three clues before the end of the round. I mean, yeah it's role playing, but it's only role playing kinda. So, herein lies the problem: how do I fix How to Host A Murder so as to pull this badboy off? I mean, it's a great idea, but I'm basically going to be handing the other players clues and having them speak them aloud to the paladin player...which is the very thing about the game I hate. How do I do this so that it retains the cool that it so richly deserves? Anyone out there a live action role player?
Friday, July 23, 2010, 6:05 AM
This is part eight in a series. Parts 1-7 are: Acrobatics , Arcana, Athletics, Bluff, Diplomacy, Dungeoneering, Endurance, and Heal. This installment covers the skill History.
Wow, can I skip this one. Honestly. History isn't much of a skill for players unless the DM finds a niche for it (it is all powerful for monsters and second in importance only to Stealth). I'm going to go back to my beginning days with 4e when some poor player with a +12 history at first level kept asking, "can I use history for that?" The answer was a perpetual, "no." And not just in combat where the skill is virtually useless but in non-combat as well. So, first the problems then maybe some solutions. Don't count history out completely just yet.
Let's slog through this. First off, what is history? As a skill, history covers knowledge of previous events, cultures, cultural associations, and political associations. This is interesting because, in the real world, 99% of your non-scientific knowledge falls under the D and D heading of history. The key point here is that it isn't JUST history. Knowing how much a vase from the Slavian empire is worth is as much history as knowing why the Slavian empire fell in the first place (can you tell I don't play FR, I don't have access to a bunch of cool names). So, in a way, it's kind of sad that history has as few uses as it does.
In combat, the lack of an associated monster knowledge check with history is the skill's major drawback. This is, I think, kind of ridiculous since its fairly important to know that the goblins that you're fighting are of the kind that trade in Blackmoor over the hill instead of the one's that eat people down in the valley. A nature check with goblins is kind of pointless. They're goblins.
In non-combat, things don't get much better. History has an economical component (since heirlooms clearly fall under history, and economics clearly falls under culture), but who cares? In 4e, you give out treasure parcels and generally you just add the numbers up. Is anyone still saying, "you find an ivory statue but you don't know how much it's worth until you bring it back to town"? Too much bookkeeping. History becomes the skill you use to roll against historical puzzles--which normally means you get clues; history doesn't even solve the puzzle.
This is what I mean by DM intervention with the history skill. If the skill helps you learn motivations and general political attitudes, it has a lot of power to help describe why the enemies are fighting and even how to get them to stop. No history and goblins are goblins. Of course, if you do this, you have to be prepared for the characters to say, "hey, why are we fighting, I bought a rug from you last Saturday pal. It really brings the room together." How much experience are you going to give them for ending the battle by making friends? Yes, I know, that's diplomacy.
Note, a lot of what you end up being able to do with the history skill is help people with other skills. An Arcane roll to determine how the magical field works? History of the mage who cast it to help with that roll. Diplomacy check to convince the outriders of Streckhorn that you're not lawless outlaws? History check to know the secret symbol of the Outriders of Streckhorn (cross your arms, protect your core).
As far as history alone goes, it's most obvious use is to discuss addendum, alterations, and general augmentation of monsters. Arcane tells you that the Oni Devourer will eat you, history tells you that this particular Oni leaned the snare ritual from the last sorcerer it served so be careful getting up close and personal (or that it has magic items, or that last Winter's Solstice, it took an oath to protect the tomb of a long forgotten monster and thus now has a template on it: things that are good to know).
For monsters and master villains, history is far more important than it is for characters. This is because, in the hands of the enemy, history becomes character knowledge. Do they take prisoners? Do they have resistances or vulnerabilities? What are their magic items? Where do their loved ones live? History is justification for stacking circumstances against the players and a monster with a high history score is a builder of death traps.
Monday, July 19, 2010, 8:01 AM
This post is about group dynamics disguised as a post about paladins, or more specifically the paladin in my game. First, an observation. There is a general feeling when I read about D and D, 4e, and game balance, that everything is now stacked against everything else in a relatively stable system. It is balanced. No character is too powerful, a group of X amount of characters can take out X xp worth of monsters, everyone gets so many magic items per level, yadda yadda. There are, of course, a few points of contention: Solos suck and without AoEs minions and swarms hurt (especially swarms).
So, that being said, my group has two strikers, one controller/leader type (a Bard) and one defender/leader type (a paladin). The Bard is ranged, the ranger is ranged. The barbarian has a lot of shifty powers and has become a human ping-pong ball (which is awesome), and everyone's having fun. However, the paladin as the "come hit me" guy is just...how can I say this with all the subtle implications it deserves...DYING! We go through two, maybe three rooms and the guy is plain out of healing surges. I gave him mondo-heavy armor, he's got stuff to bump up his fortitude, he's got the charm that gives him +2 to his saving throws once a day. I mean, he's got everything a good little paladin should want and he's still just a bloody heap on the floor after 3 encounters. It's gotten to the point where the barbarian, who has an AC of like 15, is down 1 healing surge and the paladin has none left and thus becomes sleepy before putting in a full day's work of adventuring. The group's charged up a bunch of action points and damned if they don't have to take an extended rest because the paladin is about to need a life support system.
What's happened? Does the paladin suck? No. The problem with the paladin in our group is that he's playing a paladin in a group that just doesn't need one. Okay, the barbarian jumps into the thick of it and starts shifting back and forth. The monsters have a choice: club him or try to make for the striker and the leader in the back line. If they were smart, they would make for that back line, but doing so means being one of the bumpers in the barbarian pin ball game for the movement rounds it takes to move up while getting shot at by another striker and the leader. If they don't, they have to deal with the shifty barbarian raging and charging and just have to ignore twin strike, shadow wasp strike, etc., not to mention viscious mockery and a wand of psychic ravaging.
Now, of course the barbarian's defenses aren't very good, but you know that old addage about the best defense being a good offense? Yeah, that's the barbarian. I mean, he doesn't really have to worry about getting taken down by monster's he's killed. Whereas the paladin, no matter how high his AC has to sit there turn after turn after turn getting attacked by numerous monsters. They will, eventually, hit.
The paladin in the situation I've suggested actually gums up the system by doing EXACTLY what he's designed to do. He sits there saying, "hey everyone, come attack me!" A few creatures might go into combat with the barbarian if he and the paladin advance together, but if the paladin takes the initiative to be out in front pulling monsters in (aka his job), then just as designed, the monsters attack him. He takes 75% of the damage and then he falls. His compatriots, especially the ones in the back row, haven't lost a healing surge by the time he's out for the day. Majestic word, the bard's healing thing, relies on bloodying foes and so it keeps going to the Ranger and Barbarian.
How to solve this problem? Well, it's interesting because there's a good number of solutions to this problem. The best is for characters to simply design their groups, not just around the roles (controller, defender, striker, leader), but also around what each of the characters plans to do in the game. Part of the problem here is that the paladin is playing a monster cork--fine if someone is behind him popping temporary hit points into him, not so good if he's just relying on his +2 plate to keep him safe. A well designed group of characters is like a well designed group of monsters--every DM knows a combo of creatures that, when put together, feed off each others abilities in a horribly effective way. But the DM has the advantage of holding all the cards. Most players design their characters as individuals, not as members of a group. Cross your fingers that you never get a group of characters all trained in stealth.
The second solution, is the communicative one. Take the paladin player aside and tell him or her that their tactics are turning suicidal. If you employ this tactic, be sure to say why the tactic isn't working--it's a great tactic for a group with a different composition but this group doesn't have X to help you out. Don't make it about the character's choices--the player may be, like mine, playing the character absolutely correctly but now that D and D has over 30 character classes and hundreds of combinations of race and builds, some just don't support each other like they were once designed to do.
The third solution, and this is the one I favor, is to handle the problem in game. Either havean NPC veteran give out some handy free advice (one way, but comes off as the DM waving a finger) or supply the character with power to make themselves useful. Let's not forget D and D is a game of magic items and spells, curses and blessings. For instance, if I were to give the paladin an amulet that, once every short rest, he could be given a healing surge from a willing donor. Basically, I use an amulet to replace an artificer (off topic, but did anyone play in the game's day--MM2 release, I think--with the Warforged Artificer? We still call that character "The Slurpy Machine"). I could also design more encounters where there aren't traditional "lines"--though this can become dangerous too because it almost screams out 'Stealth round'.
Lastly, this article has been about my paladin, but clearly any character can become the odd man/woman out in group tactics. A wizard in a group of long rangers is going to take more damage than he or she probably wants. A two weapon ranger sent alone to the front lines is likely to get crushed. If you, as a DM, are finding one character dictating the extended rest for everyone else, you may do well to think about what it is about the way the group fights such that it makes one character sleepier than the rest.
Saturday, July 17, 2010, 2:17 PM
Ahh...the old familiar battle cry of one player at one table against another player at some other table. Have we all not heard ourselves utter (or think at the very least) this very phrase more than once in our game playing lives, and haven't we had to answer the charge that we have completely missed some integral point here or there about how we are to conduct ourselves and our games. Where in the world does this tension come from? Well, I've been giving it some thought and I believe I've arived at an answer.
In Dungeons and Dragons there are different views about what is most important in the game. Call them baseline assumptions--attitudes against which we check our gaming experiences (or the gaming experiences we hear describe) to determine whether or not what we see is worthwhile (or fair, or fun, or in the spirit of the game, or reasonable, etc.). Because these baseline assumptions are not the same for everyone, there can be little agreement between players of the game in determining what features of the game work and what features do not work. We may not even be able to agree on what a game ought to look like.
At the same time, I think, understanding alternative beliefs about those features can help us to understand how a rule or game feature is supposed to contribute to our experiences: what makes it worthwhile and when it might be best to switch sides, so to speak, to take on another viewpoints. Now, what I have to say here is simply my two cents. I've culled together this opinion from having gone on the dndi forums and talked (argued, received insults) with other users about not only their interpretation of the rules but also the values behind those interpretations and I believe I can divide these basic assumptions into four categories.
1--Realism: A realist believes that the game is meant to simmulate reality, albeit a highly modified reality. Sure, there are dragons, but jumping in the game ought to be the same as jumping out in the real world. The more closely the rules simmulate reality, the better they are. It doesn't matter that a wizard, in reality couldn't throw around fireballs--the realist simply pushes the question back a step and says, if in reality, there really were wizards and they could throw fireballs, how would that work, and does the game do an adequate job of describing this.
For me, my realist streak really comes out when I read the grab rules. A grab immobilizes a target. So when I grab a glass of water it is immobilized, if I then move it to my lips, the grab ends and I drop the glass. It isn't that the rules are wrong, it's that they are wrong when compared to how something would really work.
Realism is, I think, a very good viewpoint when you are trying to run situations where you want the players to have normal reactions. In order for players to decide on courses of action, they need to have a touchstone attitude from which to work. They need to know that jumping and grabbing and running are like their real world counterparts, and when they don't they lose their ability to intuit values, reactions, and repurcussions.
On the other hand, realism is realism, and reality isn't always fair. In reality, it is easilly possible to get stuck down in the mechanical knit-picky details that would be best not played through. So, while the reality principal has its advantages, its value as a deciding factor in game mechanic appropriateness is not absolute.
2. Rulism: Rulism is probably the diametric opposite of realism. It is the belief that the rules are what matter and that they are balanced against each other and not according to some real world example. For a rulist, it is perfectly fine that grab works the way it does because otherwise it would be too powerful. Rulist do not worry about how thing would really work, they worry about how things work in the game according to printed material. In a lot of ways, 4e is a rulist game. Its sense of game balance above all other values is a perfectly fine assumption for a rulist.
The advantage of rulism is that most of the game design work in 4e now goes into balancing rules. Monthly erratta, core rules, and now possibly the essentials line, are, as never before, attempting to make each piece of the D and D rule universe mesh with the rest of the rules so that nobody ever has an upperhand and everyone is always operating at the same level of threat.
The problem is, of course, that the pattern behind rules each based on another is hard to discern. Judgment calls by Dungeon Masters (an almost necessity for any role playing game) endanger the entire fabric upon which the rules are based. Also at stake is the concept of a fictional world that has to operate somehow according to some kind of mechanical laws. What does it mean if such laws are arbitrary? What does it mean, for instance, that my 20th level character has extraordinary DCs to overcome in order to defeat an easy lock, and that this same lock, faced by my 1st level character would be astronomically easier to pick (according to the DC for hard). Probably even more jarring is the strange notion that the universe seems to know what level I'm at in a rulist universe and knows to set its challenges according to my experiences.
3--Gamist: A gamist honestly doesn't care about the integrity of the rules one way or another. Game pace is the gamist's main concern. If the game is moving at a good clip, the DM can all but make the rules up. If the rules are slowing the game down, forcing it to be too intricate, too involved in areas that are of no importance, the gamist would prefer to avoid those rules.
One of the advantages of the gamist's philosophy is that the experience of play is everything. Thus, the real question of whether the players are having fun is centralized and made more important than even the integrity of the rules. A gamist does not have trouble fumbling over the rules to make a ruling, they simply make the ruling and move on.
The drawback of the gamist philosophy is that "fun" is a ridiculously subjective term. At his or her worst, the gamist is a Mauntey Haul, giving out easy "challenges" and "encounters" because players don't like to be frustrated or to take damage. Traps and secret doors are no fun unless discovered and so, the extreme gamist makes their discovery obligatory. Thus the pacing is always kept, something is always happening, some reward is always being earned.
4--The Genrist: Like the realist, the genrist wants there to be some world against which the game world and its mechanics can be compared to determine their usefulness and validity. Unlike the realist, however, the genrist compares these values against some preconceived notion of what constitutes the fantasy genre which Dungeons and Dragons is attempting to simmulate. The genrist knows, for instance, what fantasy heroes do and how they act? They know what kind of structure civilization is supposed to have and may possibly even have ideas about the structure of morality, magic, and of course, villainy.
The strength of a genrist lies in their ability to construct scenes, sequences, encounters, characters, and elements that are native to fantasy. The construction of these elements gives the game its magical feeling. A Genrist is essentially perfect for creating campaign mythology (and here I'm using the term in the way you'd talk about Joss Whedon and the various mythologies of his worlds). The genrist brings these things to life in the game and creates a more immersive game experience.
The problem of the genrist is like the problem of the realist only magnified. Some elements of fantasy are simply too far fetched or too powerful to fit in with a rule system. Note, for instance that I'm a genrist--I like death spells because they exist inside the genre of fantasy. A rulist, a realist, and a gamist would all disagree for their own particular reasons. I use curses to create all the crazy magical effects that I associate with a magical universe, a gamist would look at that bookkeeping and cringe. 3.5 magic is genrist in a lot of ways; even I can't defend its excesses.
The other problem of the genrist is that it ceases to be altogether clear what fantasy world will serve as the model for the Dungeons and Dragons world, and perhaps worse, what the rules of that world will operate like. Unlike the realist, the model world offers no stable ground against which other worlds might be compared. One cannot ask how something would really work, only how something would really work in Conan, Tolkien, or Dragonlance. That's not the same. If I say, for instance, that my vision of fantasy is based in medieval culture and someone else thinks utopian mindsets, we are going to be in disagreement. The ability to intuit reactions are lost as they might be with a rulist, but with no core set of assumptions to provide them backing.
Anyways, my two cents on this.
Monday, July 12, 2010, 10:29 AM
What is a normal combat supposed to look like? I mean, I'm sure that there is some standard that we all follow, game designers, players, DMs, that let's us know when things are unfair, too easy, or downright broken.
Looking back, I believe that at one time I had a grip on the idea of that normal encounter, but I think, even then, that it was based more in the theoretical than the practical. My general, theoretical view of what makes a normal game is that in difficult combat, one character might drop to 0 hp. But that's theoretical. In practice, the idea of a normal encounter, a normal combat, have gone totally out the window, and I'll be honest, it has done a real number on my ability to navigate what I see as the rough waters of errata, monster power level changes, not to mention, just plain new material.
Here are some things that are "normal" in my games:
1--2 out of 4 characters drop to 0 hit points. This happens in EVERY combat. Admittedly, I play a lot of wargames, but I'm not really trying to play my monsters smart. I just play them. Monsters with powers built around charging, charge. Controllers who can shift people around, shift people around. Nonetheless, two characters going to zero hit points is crazy, in my opinion, and normal in my experience. In one game, against an EL=party level against Dimensional Marauders, only the Barbarian's regeneration kept the encounter from being a TPK.
2--Each encounter destroys a 1/3 of the party's healing surges and rarely is this destruction parcelled out equally. After two encounters, the paladin generally makes the announcement that he has one healing surge left. He's a true soldier in that he doesn't require the party to slow down for him, but as the defender, he is extremely likely to force the party to stop for the night because he has no healing surges left at all (and is unconscious).
3--Roll ranges are between 4 and 32. The spread is so horrible that one character having a bad night can put himself in serious danger. My go-to DCs are 16. Last night, the ranger trained in thievery had to hit a 16 (3 success before 3 failure) with a 10 thievery, he rolled a 1, a 2, and a 4. This is about normal for the players. I say this because of course, whatever you do to the numbers in the 4e system, when someone rolls poorly over and over and over, there is no saving them. The dice kill them. The paladin last night missed 4 saving throws to end ongoing 5 damage, and he has the boon that grants him +2 to saving throws. My players roll abysmally low (for the paladin it has become a kind of running joke that he would do more damage if he marked his enemies and ran from them). I, on the other hand, roll extremely well. Their dice kill them, my dice kill them. You can't really errata that.
This is not a complaint, mind you; this is just how the game has run for me for over a year now. We have fun, but it is so obviously dangerous that it all but requires I put in fountains that restore health surges and one shot items that can be used as get out of jail free cards. This is, by the way, not because of poor role playing--my players are great. They are great explorers, great actors, and great puzzle solvers--it's just the random nature of the game is beating the tar out of them.
Again, this is not a complaint--this is simply an observation. This is NORMAL for my games. This is what all of the rules and their dedication to game balance create at MY gaming table. And if this is what a normal game is supposed to look like, I'm fine with that. I really am. My problem is that I know a LOT of people for whom the description of my game would not be normal and I have to wonder, how do all these things that affect game mechanics decide how they are going to work? Are they balancing themselves so as to produce or prevent games like mine? Are they balancing toward some other version of what a normal game is supposed to look like? In a party of 4 characters, should 2 drop to 0 hp every combat?
Let me try one last example. My group and I play at a hobby shop at almost every D and D premier, and when we play there. Same basic rules, same basic everything, nothing I have described above every happens, and it is clear to me that when I sit at that table, that the DM is playing with one hand tied behind his back. I know...detestable. And yet, the result is a game that I would think of as normal: my theoretical view. So, what do I do with that?
Ultimately, I'm torn. My games are fun, even if they are a bit deadly. So, maybe I don't have a problem. When I hear, though, that some rule has made a character impervious, or that some other rule needs to be changed because characters are now having to roll death saves, I am utterly baffled. No one's impervious in my games; death saves are as common as sunrods. I honestly think that maybe I've become a "killer DM" without doing anything other than following the rules.
And so, the question as the title of this post isn't hypothetical. Are my experiences normal? Because if they aren't, then how is that my game is a continuous near-death experience. If they are normal, then let's face it, the changes in the game that strip characters of their power are unnecessary. I'm thrashing them a bit too soundly as it is. The advantages they're getting are as likely the construction of DMs who fudge a bit to bring power levels back into the range of what-I-would-call Normal play, and no amount of errata or new material is going to "fix" that. Finally, I don't want to be a killer DM. I have been trying to figure out which rules to break so that my characters don't have to take extended rests after 2 combats, and to my shock, they've now raised the amount of damage that monsters do in combat. I'm baffled.
Friday, July 9, 2010, 7:12 AM
The "Sperm Song" by Monty Python, from The Meaning of Life, pretty much sums up my understanding of 4e's general philosophy concerning monsters. Every HP is sacred. It is as if any monster, if suddenly popped off the board, would disturb the fabric of the fake universe causing it to utterly fail and the gods of the game will scream, "unfair." I will warn you, this is my bi-annual argument advocating for "save or die" death magic. It is, I hope, an intelligent version of this kind of argument, and not simply an invitation to the kind of thing this suggestion normally incites. It's time we talk.
My question about the monsters is simply this: who cares? Is it such a big deal to be fighting three Otyuoghs rather than two? Especially when you know that after this fight, you'll just get to the next fight and you'll have to deal with those creatures (and after them some other fight); does D and D keep its monsters in a warehouse somewhere? Is that warehouse close to being empty? Then why this massive concern about the loss of one monster? Often I play games where the characters and monsters are swinging at wills round after round after round. What in the world is the point of that? The DM's guide tells me that, as a DM, I shouldn't make the players find the fun. Well, doing 4 hit points a round and trying to take out the last 60 hit points of a crippled creature isn't fun. With this in mind, would it really be such a big deal if the characters could just destroy one of the beasties that they're fighting. It would certainly make them feel like powerful heroes.
From my point of view, it seems like the worst part of Save or Die magic is that it is difficult to implement while keeping game balance. If a character can do it once an encounter, it makes every encounter potentially too easy (unless the DM compensates by taking the players' powers into account while designing the encounter). Even once a day is a problem since the idea of the iconic villain is immediately diminished when end bosses are beaten, not through cooperative effort, but by one guy with his cool spell. Earlier editions relied on an arm's race to keep death magic sane, but many people didn't get the arms race, and many DMs weren't willing to play the kind of game that the arm's race required (you had to be willing to, basically, kill any Magic User who didn't begin the combat with their defensive spell going--mirror image, sphere of invulnerability, spell turning, etc. and you had to target the magic user first before any and all other targets).
There are counter arguments to all this, and depending on what you want to do vis-a-vis the whole death spell thing, you should probably know them, but let's face it: if you know that your red dragon with its +5 to save is going to have to face a save or die effect, it might be good to surround it with healer minions to make it a +7 save (or +9). Chances are death magic, if it is allowed, is more likely to affect lesser creatures than big creatures just because they will likely be less protected. However, the combat to remove protection before casting the spell can make for an interesting encounter as well.
Nonetheless, to allow or not to allow it? My take on this is that 4e is actually the best of the editions to implement death magic precisely because it has created ad hoc magic systems outside of character creation: ways for magic to work that exist inside of multiple game mechanics (monster powers, class powers, rituals, nigh-random effects from traps and terrain: all these magics work a little differently even if they are all just chosen from separate lists instead of one master list as with 3.5...more on that here). I say this because "Death Magic" if allowed, need not be put inside of systems which are imminently available; it doesn't have to be a new encounter power, and to be fair, I don't think it should be. After all, these people are heroes--dealing with necromantic mumbo jumbo is a bit dark. But putting death magics into the ritual mechanic, putting them on scrolls, for instance, seems a great way to bring the powers into the game in limited and controlled supply. You can say that rituals such as these simply cannot be learned by players, or better (imho) the rites carry with them horrible side effects and repurcussion for using the forbidden magic. Sure you can suck the life out of the evil warrior, but tonight, when your armor has been removed and you're celebrating your victory with a warm bath, that's when the wraiths will come!
Controlling the use of death magic in this way, keeps surprises down in terms of its usage and keeps one character from becoming a game breaker. Nonetheless, I have heard the question: why have death magic at all. Ahem...because it is in Harry Potter. When the made for 12 year olds version of fantasy has death spells, it is time to toughen up. HP is not supposed to be too hard core for your game. Magic and the associated destructive power that goes with it arepart of fantasy. It's a genre thing, and for many people, genre supersedes game balance. Merlin may screw up game balance, but Merlin is D and D's great grandfather. His inclusion is compulsory.
Now the best part: "but Monstro, where will I get these death spells?" Well, you know all those 3.5 books you've been using as door stops or trying to sell as gag gifts on Ebay, they're just chock full of spells that, when cast, will kill stuff with amazing efficiency.
Final thought, death magic is fun, but its real benefit is in the stories it can inspire, and this is something that hasn't been possible, maybe in the entire history of D and D. If you imagine a spell that kills, say, some heinously powerful demon who would otherwise be fairly impervious to the characters, adventures and even entire tiers can be set up to acquiring the scroll with that spell on it. The final battle with the monster involves trying to kill off its healer minions and lower its saves to insure the spell's success. In short, it takes on a much more interesting mechanic than everyone doing a few points here and there and inspires a special kind of combat for a kind of iconic end boss (the enemy with but one weakness).