Monday, January 5, 2009

Encounter4zation

I am not sure if I spelled the title of this post correctly. The term is used by many to criticize the approach Wizards have taken to the 4th edition D&D. A short summary of my opinion on 4th edition is that it is a fun RPG but it is not D&D. Over on the RPG Pundit's blog there has been a series of posts criticizing 4th edition.

Ryan Dancey had a long comment talking about the amount of playtesting 4th edition got. One comment stood out to me.

RyanD
I haven't played enough 4E to know - what's the community cosensus on the monster powers and abilities? Does it look like a rush job, or is everything really well balanced?

My initial was "So what why this even a consideration for monsters?"

The emphasis on balanced encounters and adventure paths are almost the antithesis of my approach on sandbox gaming. Sure it is nice to know the math behind the monsters and treasure so you design the various locales of your setting to your liking. Whether a Level 9 Orc Solider is really 8 or 10 is meaningless in my book. As long as it is in the ballpark is adequate to decide how to use it in my setting.

Wizard making this the core approach of their RPG is a mistake. Most gaming doesn't occur in conventions, or tournaments but rather with a group of players having the undivided attention of a

GM.
In the past 25 years of gaming both tabletop and live-action. I found that the players have the most FUN when it is THEY that set the direction, the goals, and the destinations. To able freely wander and explore exploits the greatest advantages of RPGs. The flexibility of human imagination is an advantage over computer MMORPGs will have difficulty doing for a long long time.

That is as long we make realizing what the referees imagine easy and quick. That where I feel the strength of 4th edition lies. In the history of RPGs there have been several approaches to this. Many revolve around rule-lite systems. Original D&D was very rules light and many continue to play it to this day because of this.

However many players like rules with a more tactical feel where the combat options are part of the rules rather at a referees whim and recall. Many try doing this and often wind up with less than stellar results. It takes a very good game designer, like Steve Jackson of SJ Games, to make a solid set of rules that is through and easy to play. Yet GURPS has a fatal flaw in that it prep time is enormous compared to that of Original D&D.

Therein lies the appeal of 4th edition D&D for me. That it combines ease of play, ease of prep, but a tactically rich set of rules. The reason it works for 4th edition is that it uses Magic the Gathering system of a simple set of core rules but a lot of exceptions spelled out clearling in the descriptions of the powers. So everything can be combined on one card or section and you can play it without looking at the rule book.

This is just a toolkit for a referee to present a vision of his setting and adventures for his players. Of course the parent company, Wizards, is going to use the toolkit to present their own settings and adventures. And here one of the areas that Wizards fumbles the ball.

I agree with the RPG Pundit that all of their adventures are setup like they are going to be used for tournaments. The adventures suffer for this. In terms of content vs price, plot complexity, etc. Oddly enough most of the 4e Settings I read, Fallcrest, Nentir Vale, are written very much in the older style with sparse stats and lost of good content vs page count.

The adventures simply don't need to be written that way. If you need 4 Orc Soliders, 1 Shaman, and 1 Leuitenant. You can just pull out their cards and have every thing you need. I found in refereeing 4th edition that the monster stat block have everything I need and I don't have to go diving in to the rule book. A section of the DMG guide even talks about solo adventures where you have a stack of monster cards and use that as a random generator.

What I would be doing is making everything a drop-in add-on. Designed work in some random referee campaign. Need a Orc Lair buy O1 Lair of the Orc Warlord. Need a slum neighborhood complete with thieves guild. Buy TH1 Skullgrave Quarter. Do this from the small scale to the large scale like my own Points of Light. Make dozens of interchangable pieces that referees can combine to create their own unique setting Make each piece easy to use and understand.

If they ever get the GSL revised I may do just that.

5 comments:

Viriatha said...

You know, the whole idea of game balance is one I pretty much ignore. I make an adventure roughly near something the characters can handle but I fudge enough rolls - both for an against the PCs, that exact balance is kind of meaningless.

For - you don't want them to die in one shot and have a miserable time. Against - you DO want them to be challenged and sometimes I write it to easy :P

Donny_the_Dm said...

Balance...at once so loved and reviled.

I keep hearing that the balancing of classes and monsters has hurt the game, and yet I have not heard a single coherent reason why this is so.

What is balance? What is imbalance? Not the silly webster's definition, but as relates to RPG's. Is balance having a reasonable idea of what kind of challenge a party can handle? Why is this bad?

Is imbalance a party of 3rd level characters being destroyed by a vampire? Doesn't sound like much fun :(

I see the balance as a starting point. A set point in the universe that you can wiggle around as you see fit...not the end of all things good :)

Rob Conley said...

Knowing the numbers is helpful to a referee. That not bad in of itself. However there is a very real presentation problem. One I seen happen in the 15 years involved in NERO live-action role-playing.

If emphasis is on balanced encounters, balanced encounters, over and over then that what the player come to expect.

If you try to do something different then the players react badly because you go against expectations.

And it brings down the overall campaign level because a setting is not balanced.

Mike Mearls said...

There are really two forms of balance in 4e.

Player balance means that, if a player has a list of character options to choose from, none of those options are significantly weaker or stronger than the rest.

For DMs, "balance" really means, "If we say a monster is level X, you can be assured that it will provide an X level obstacle to the players."

It isn't about forcing DMs to build certain types of challenges, but giving a DM the tools to assess the difficulty of an encounter. If your party is level 4, you can make a 9th level fight or a 2nd level one to throw at them. The rules don't really care.

(The DMG advice says that keeping the fights at around the PCs' level is generally a good idea, but keep in mind that's aimed at beginning DMs. It's a starting point that you can easily vary from, not an etched in stone rule.)

The key is that, as DM, you know that the 9th level fight should be tough for 4th level characters, and if you do a lot of them you're running a lethal campaign. What you don't want is to build a 9th level encounter, have level 4 PCs stumble into it, and watch them easily defeat it because the critter was badly designed or the characters' abilities are broken.

If they beat it because they had a good plan or got lucky, that's fine, but the idea is that we give the DM the tools to build the challenge he wants (lethal, average, easy) depending on his campaign.

To pull an example from a sandbox style game, balance ensures that if you place 9th level critters in the Forest of Doom, and describe the forest as a deadly, dangerous place for low level PCs, that's how it works in the world. If the PCs blunder into the place, they're in trouble.

That's the point of balance for a DM.

Rob Conley said...

@Mike - Appreciate your comments.

I do see much of what you are saying in how 4th edition presented and appreciate that it is there. And the DMG is the best since original 1st Edition DMG. My argument is not so much about the design but rather the presentation.

Thanks for the work you and the rest of the team put into 4th edition.