This is the ninth of my ten-part series of articles, in which I look at the Design & Development articles released in the early part of Fourth Edition. This article examines the articles penned by Stephen Radney-MacFarland. Please feel free to add comments below, or in the related discussion thread.
Stephen Radney-MacFarland worked (uncredited) on the 4e Monster Manual, Players Handbook, and Adventurers Vault 2. He authored a half-dozen of so magazine articles and the Save My Game series of articles from 4e's commencement until the series ended a year ago (which was well after he had been sacked by Wizards and began working for Paizo). But what really shaped this designer was the six years he worked as with the Organized Play group, specifically, Living Greyhawk, during the Third Edition era. During this time, he had to draft dozens of adventures, making him one of the few people with a real eye and ear for adventure design, as evidenced by his masterful adaptation to Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan to Fourth Edition, republished last month in Dungeon 209.
Here are the other articles in the D&D Before series:
TABLE OF CONTENTS
2. Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford
3. James Wyatt
4. Rob Heinsoo
5. Peter Schaefer and Matthew Sernett
6. Bruce R. Cordell
7. Chris Sims
8. Rich Baker and Logan Bonner
9. Stephen Radney-McFarland
10. Andy Collins
Stephen Radney-MacFarland authored three articles for the 4e Design & Development series: The Importance of Terrain, Traps!, and Paladin Smites. Let's examine each of these three articles...
The Importance of Terrain, by Stephen Radney-MacFarland
Summary: This article introduces the new emphasis that Fourth Edition would place on terrain. Radney-MacFarland describes the benefit of this emphasis as follows:
[A] canny use of terrain can transform good encounters into great ones. One of the goals of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide is to help the Dungeon Master perform just such transformations, which includes providing a bunch of evocative terrain types and advice on their placement and use.
The emphasis on terrain was part of a larger emphasis on the use of the grid. While all editions permitted the use of the grid, and often used the nomenclature of grid-based wargaming (such as inches to measure distance), Fourth Edition's emphasis on powers that pulled, pushed, slid, and shifted characters X number of squares brought that emphasis to an entirely new level. This was also part of a larger effort to make D&D a more tactically minded system, which would emphasis teamwork to overcome obstacles.
Evaluation: Terrain went through many manifestations in Fourth, starting in the DMG2, with the introduction of Terrain Powers. This subject is of particular interest to me as it was the subject of the first article I ever sold to Wizards. The shift from terrain to terrain powers was made necessary by a sad trend in Fourth Edition combat: it was slow. Although not universally experienced, many players reported that combat took a long time to resolve. And terrain, as presented in the game's initial release, served only to further slow things down. That is because terrain served only to hamper and hinder. It slowed you, grabbed you, maybe immobilized or restrained you. Occasionally, it would damage you, but that moved terrain into the realm of traps, which I'll discuss below.
Terrain powers replaced these hindrances with options. Terrain powers allowed you to take a situational action like pulling the rug out from under someone, or swinging on a chandelier. These option could help speed up combat by giving people something to do that was better than an at-will power, but not quite as good as an encounter power.
Result: The terrain as originally presented turned out to be a hindrance to the game as much as it was a hindrance in-game to the PCs and NPCs. The concept ended up getting reworked. In addition, the chess-like nature of Fourth Edition combat turned off a lot of players who did not like the heavy reliance on the grid... causing me to devise my own house rules for gridless D&D called SARN-FU. While I laud the developers for bringing terrain into the forefront in a way that it had not previously, the over-reliance on grids and the use of terrain, initially, simply as a tool to further hinder and delay combat, proved to be a mistake.
Conclusion: Not a lot has been written abut terrain in the playtest. Here's the best I can find, from a Rule of Three article from April 24, 2012:
[W]e also want to empower the DM by providing lots of different ways for the DM to alter the rules of the game to best fit the kind of campaign and gaming group he or she has. ... It could also focus on bending, breaking, and changing rules during game play. (Does it seem like that difficult terrain should be even more difficult than usual? Here's how to alter the properties of difficult terrain for this instance to best fit the situation.
It does not seem as though a lot of thought has been placed on terrain. The term "more difficult than usual" indicates the developers are once again seeing terrain is simply a hindrance, rather than an opportunity. If that continues, Next will fall into the same "trap" as Fourth Edition did -- using terrain to create a slog. I would suggest that terrain be looked at as a tool for improvisation more than just sticky grass.
Traps!, by Stephen Radney-MacFarland
Summary: This article represents a shift in the way traps were to be used in the new edition. Radney MacFarland writes, in relevant part, as follows:
Instead of trying to anticipate these flashes through design, we give you, the DM, the ability to react to player insight with a host of tools and general DCs that allow you to say "Yes, you can do that, and here's how." We think this is a better approach than shutting down good ideas from the players for interesting story and challenge resolution, simply because you lack the tools to interpret their actions. After all, you should have the ability to make the changes on the fly that reward interesting ideas and good play.
What the author appears to be pointing out here is that traps will have two new features. First, traps are meant to be used during combat, and are considered, in many ways, a new type of creature. They received an XP value commensurate to a creature, and this would be used to determine encounter building. Also, traps could be found in Elite and Solo varieties.
Second, you don't need to be a rogue to foil a trap, though rogues would be the best at foiling traps. This meant that traps came with a little section called "Countermeasures" that offered suggestions on how someone might foil a trap.
Evaluation: Trap design did not change very much. The DCs for skill checks did change as the designers rejiggered the math midway through the edition, but the basic design philosophy did not. I spent a lot of time studying trap design in 4e, and, in my Dungeontech series I created seven articles worth of traps (). I think it was great that traps received this level of attention. The problem, however, was that the resulting traps were often of limited utility. It often felt contrived as to why a trap would appear during combat. I have noticed over time, that traps were used less and less frequently. Most of the traps being used were in the form of obstacles (basically a form of super-terrain) because those were the easiest to justify. Traps became a less prevalent part of D&D, replaced by the skill challenge as the mechanic to represent puzzles presented out-of-combat.
Result: This was a sea change in the way traps had been presented. In prior editions, traps had two uses: (i) a puzzle for players to ferret out through role-play, or (ii) a spotlight for the rogue to give him a chance to shine. While you could have traps in combat in prior editions, it was not encouraged. And the most famous of trap-based dungeons -- Tomb of Horrors, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, Ghost Tower of Inverness, and Pharaoh (of the Desert of Desolation series) -- did not use traps in such a manner. In pre-4e D&D, in fact, traps were iconic as puzzles. Many groups I met felt that if you had to rely on the rogue's ability to disarm a trap (or, as AD&D put it "Find/Remove Trap"), you had failed in your roleplay.
It caused a lot of consternation and complaint and, in my opinion, was one of the reasons people complained that D&D felt too much like a wargame and did not "feel like D&D". I can understand that consternation. Fourth Edition was very concentrated on having mechanics for everything. Very little was left to pure roleplay. If you had a puzzle, you needed a list of skills that allowed you to surpass it. This is especially true when traps got XP like a creature. You rarely got full XP for talking your way past a creature, and thus, you rarely got full XP for roleplaying past a puzzle.
A diversion on Terrain and Traps: Let's take a diversion to explore how Radney-MacFarland used traps in his Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan adaptation. (Spoilers abound!) First, we notice how he adapted the poison gas that pervades the dungeon to encourage movement, not to hamper it. As was in the original dungeon, the poison served to prevent characters from resting. However, most of the traps and terrain still serve to slow people down. All the doors require a standard action to open. The mud in rooms 3 and 4, slime in room 5, rubble in room 6, flooded squares in room 14, stone block in room 21, ramp in room 26, all serve to slow people down (presumably to force characters to lose healing surges to the poison).
Some of the traps are not eve intended to be used during combat. The sleep gas in room 7 and the rush of water in room 12 occur before combat and the water trench in room 11 occurs after. The crushing jaws trap (room 17), sliding coffer trap (room 19), sandbox trap (room 24), millstone trap (room 27), and obsidian disk trap (room 32) have nothing to do with combat.
The classic pelota ball trap is really more of a skill challenge (though delightfully redesigned by Radney-MacFarland as a trap).
None of the traps in the Hidden Shrine adventure operates the way the Traps article recommends. They are not part of combat encounters. They are encounters themselves that do not follow the usual rules for combat. They offer a different type of strategy. It seems to me that Radney-MacFarland learned this lesson over the career of Fourth Edtion. (I learned that lesson myself.)
Conclusion: We have very little indication as to how traps will be presented in Next. The remove-trap skill is unlikely to disappear. But I am equally doubtful that Next will follow 4e's example where traps are concerned. There is a concerted push towards old-school style gaming, and the most iconic manifestation of that is that puzzles are solved by the players, not the characters. The DM as a puzzlemaster, I believe, is destined to return.
Paladin Smites, by Stephen Radney-MacFarland
Summary: The final article by Radney-MacFarland, while nominally about the paladion's smite, is, in fact, really a subtle way to introduce the concept of signature mechanics. Radney-MacFarland describes the smite mechanic as follows:
In 4th Edition, D&D smites really come into their own. Now a subset of the paladin's renewable (read, encounter-recharge) powers, smites allow a paladin to deliver a powerful blow with the character's weapon of choice, while layering on some divine effect (and I mean that in both meanings of the word) on allies or enemies. A divine defender, much of the paladin's smites are all about kicking the crap out of those they find anathema while ensuring that foes who want to hurt enemies have a harder time at it.
In truth, the smite became the way to distinguish the paladin from other defenders and from other divine characters. "Smite" is really just a code for "what makes a paladin unique". Each class -- except perhaps controllers -- got this sort of mechanic in one form or another. Barbarians got rages. Wardens got forms. Fighters got stances. This was incorporated as part of the AEDU system of powers.
Evaluation: The 4e designers really latched onto the idea of signature powers in a big way. Each subsequent class released accentuated the powers that made that class unique from any other. Assassins' shrouds, invoker's summonings, etc. In many ways, the signature power really identified the signature design of 4e classes.
Result: A lot of the signature powers felt sort of gimmicky. The person who plays a warden in my campaign has a habit of shouting "Wonder Twin powers activate" when she activates one of her warden's form powers. While they did serve to help differentiate characters (and thus serves as a useful counter to the critics who claim all classes play alike), it often did so in what felt like an arbitrary or clumsy fashion.
Conclusion: The "signature power" is being toned down in Next to a very great extent. Here's the most recent description of the paladin from the 11/26 Legends & Lore article Class Design Concepts by Mike Mearls:
The paladin's base weapon abilities might be equal to the fighter's, but the fighter has a class-specific ability (or abilities) that make it stronger with weapons. The paladin also has spells, though at a reduced power level in comparison to a cleric. The paladin's unique abilities, and the true source of the class's power, come from the power a paladin gains by swearing allegiance to a specific alignment. A lawful good paladin protects the weak and drives back the forces of darkness. A paladin of this alignment can lay on hands, project an aura of protection, smite evil foes, and detect the presence of unholy creatures. A chaotic evil anti-paladin might have the ability to sense weakness, ravage enemies with unholy power, and exert an aura that steals vitality from other creatures. A lawful evil anti-paladin might have the power to dominate other creatures, forcing them into slavery as it subverts law into tyranny. The paladin you create might mix and match some of these abilities, depending on your character's alignment and ethos.
I note the word smite is only described as one of several identifying powers, and only for the lawful good paladin. If a paladin gets a smite power, I don't expect it to be a defining power for the paladin. Rather, the paladin, as paladins of years past, get a variety of powers.
However, while there may not be a signature "power", I do note in class design, the penchant for giving classes a signature "mechanic". In the most recent packet, rogues get skill dice, fighters get martial damage dice. Spellcasters get unique spell lists while martial characters get maneuver lists. The signature power is being replaced witht he signature mechanic in an effort to go back to prior editions where the use of subsystems were used to offer differentiation.
Overview: Radney-MacFarland is an earnest developer with a real skill for drafting adventures. In Fourth Edition, his description of traps and terrain attempted to bring these encounter-buildign tools to the forefront. However, he did not anticipate how the other changes to the system would work together to make the changes to traps and terrain antithetical to game play. In Fourth Edition, combat fluidity became necessity and terrain as originally envisioned hampered combat speed without a commensurate increase in fun. This resulted in the development of terrain powers at first and then a slow shelving of terrain and traps as a feature of most encounters. In the next edition, we will likely return to terrain and traps being a minimal, ad hoc, or mechanicless feature of encounter design.
Next week we will conclude the D&D Before series with an analysis of the articles of Andy Collins!