Author Topic: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours  (Read 7356 times)

Ron Edwards

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[D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« on: October 10, 2013, 04:42:49 PM »
So last night I had an unplanned chance to play some D&D in a more-or-less pickup context, at the Chicago game store The Wanderer's Refuge. It's an ongoing game which seems to be organized across more than one table or group, with regular attendance preferred but variable in practice. I was invited to make up a character but I asked instead to play one that might be "just lying around," so I got to play "Hank," a Vryloka unaligned Blackguard paladin. For your information, the only words I recognized in that description are "Hank" and "paladin." After looking at a completely unfamiliar character sheet, I asked and learned that this was straight-up, rock-solid fourth edition. (Cool - I had never seen even a bit of this in action before.)

Here are some thing which I might have taken as foreboding. I was not permitted Hank's actual sheet but a photocopy; I get the idea that he's being played by someone else more permanently and perhaps any bad things I did or had happen to him, i.e., death, would be confined to my photocopy and not extended to the "real" Hank. Apparently the others at the table were also somewhat not quite the core group, and the DM told us we'd be playing something peripheral to the current campaign/story - a one-shot, more or less. He asked us if we'd prefer a fight or a story/interaction, and after wrapping my mind around the difference, I opted for the fight and the others agreed. My request for a relevant fight was met by the concept that more of the group needed to be there for that.

In the event, however, I enjoyed myself immensely. Part of it was the welcoming atmosphere at the store, including one fellow who knew Hank's sheet well and although he was playing at another table, helped me go through the various interconnecting abilities. He was totally not patronizing and seemed genuinely excited that I spotted cool combos on my own. The three people I played with, including the DM, were really nice young guys whose social contract for play was functional, considerate, and enthusiastic.

Lesson 1: 4th ed is all about the bad-ass. If you didn't know this, my character was about as goth as you can get: a Vryloka is some kind of vampire hybrid with undead affinities, a Blackguard is (in this case) an ex-paladin with all sorts of necromantic and cold/dark/scary abilities, and this guy had all kinds of spear expertise and black plate armor. These characters were second level, and my guy can tell an opponent "you suck" and do damage by it, as well as Slow them, then hit with a Dominator Strike for insane bonuses, then levy that into some kind of necrotic poison which does ongoing damage, and so on and on. If he fought someone without anyone else in an adjacent space, he got way-awful bonuses; if he was swarmed by mooks, he got bonuses as a multiplier to their number. The others were almost as insane, with the sorceress who could cast lightning, channel it through her spear, and in a pinch, breathe it at people. It was totally D&D meets Champions. I repeat: second level! I cannot even imagine what tenth level 4th ed characters must be like.

Lesson 2: there's a learning curve, but a rewarding one. Damage hits hard and hurts, but you have all sorts of ways to restore hit points whether permanent or temporary, as well as to help out your buddies. My character was kind of a master at this, to the extent of burning his hit points for damage bonuses, but then bestowing to-hit bonuses on his allies after doing heinous damage, then doing something which restores hit points. But as a player, you can't slack off and trust to your pile of hit points and your armor class to hide in, because the bad guys have all sorts of nasty of the same sort. You have to assess your status, your position, your choice of attacks, and choice of abilities with care every round; the fun thing is that there's so much to choose from. Every round in our fight produced a unique visual series of events, especially when we started holding actions to set up a tactical order based on what stuff we wanted to use.

The situation was pretty simple. Our characters were staying with some gnome mage's weird house in Baldur's Gate, and we got our dreams combined and invaded by a "shadowy figure" who reeked of malevolence and mischief, eventually attacking us with minions. It turned out that it had escaped from one of the mage's experiments. The fight dice went very much our way, with no-cheat 20's showing up at least six times among us, and one DM-facepalm round in which all three minions simultaneously rolled 1's - one of them actually disintegrated itself in doing so. Even so, that attention to hit-point management was still pretty important, all of us were "bloodied" at one or more points during the fight. The guy playing the bard also timed his spell-backed Diplomacy roll perfectly, right after my character had cowed, frozen, and damaged the big bad guy with that scary-speak ability, and nailed it with a rolled 20 for a total of 35 - and then I demanded we be returned safely to our correct place and time with another 20 on a Diplomacy roll, so we were able to exit victoriously. Now legitimately awake again, we then told the mage to put her nasty little experiment back into its jar.

Color, descriptions, and role-playing in the character sense were ... minimal. My auxiliary descriptions or bits of Color and dialogue clearly raised the bar at the table, and the DM effectively refused to describe the dream landscape or to elaborate upon the opponents as anything more than "shadowy figures." The other players did provide decent one-line descriptions of their characters' personalities, but only because I asked for them. Given the Color practically dripping off the character concepts, combat mechanics, and every individual ability, I found that a little odd. It definitely leads me to add 4E to my list of "stuff to GM one day," although Lamentations of the Flame Princess will come first.

Any system thoughts? Sure! But you know them already. Mike Mearls was one of the original three guys including me who floated the idea of the Forge in 1999, and Rob Heinsoo was an active participant there. It's no surprise that I'm finding the game so appealing.

Best, Ron

Eero Tuovinen

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #1 on: October 11, 2013, 01:34:59 AM »
That's an interesting experience of the 4th edition. If you don't mind, I'll do a quick run-down of my own conclusions about the game for contrast. (I don't have any particular need to argue about what 4th edition is or isn't like, so feel free to ignore this if it doesn't seem useful.)

First, colorful fiction: this might be some sort of cultural thing, but 4th edition has consistently failed to grab me with any sort of literary value. To the contrary, I've tended to react with disdain for the materials and their calculated attempt at inoculating me with bog-standard, dusty D&D cliches. A big part of this is how 4th edition character builds are so inherently lacking in meaning, even much more so than earlier editions of D&D. There is no social positioning, psychological attitudes, ideology, or anything else to the building-blocks your character is made of: the only thing that matters is the skirmish combat, and how your character's particular power set interacts with that. The 4th edition definition of a "Rogue" is that he's a guy who "darts in and out of combat, looking for weak spots to strike". Not only doesn't this mean anything in realistic terms (this is not how a melee works outside of highly stylistically developed D&D-land), it is solely focused on a combat role and nothing else.

(It admittedly does not help that I have difficulty relating with video game fantasy fiction - a genre that 4th edition very much represents - aesthetically. However, even keeping in mind that I hate the artificial and calculated cliches, 4th edition is remarkable in how substance-free it manages to be. It's the single edition of D&D where being a "monk" matters even less in ecclesiastical terms - or even martial arts terms - than it does in the others.)

Well, fair enough, it's a skirmish combat miniatures wargame, then. However, my second stumbling block with the 4th edition has always been that the way the game is constructed makes it extremely difficult for there to be a strategic layer to the game at all; it is by nature a game that must be played as a chain of pre-planned skirmish encounters, with some basically meaningless GM narration tiding things over in between. Of course we can try all sorts of things to make player actions "matter", but the fact is that the beef of the game is in the fights, and the fights are borderline-impossible to manage without extensive prep. Consequently it is no wonder that the adventure model of 4th edition is completely railroaded: any and all adventure modules I've seen have consisted of numbered combat encounters with some sparse notes about the roleplaying encounters (which do not have any stakes, note, as the next fight gotta happen no matter what) in between.

One might think that I'm just complaining because I can't accept the game's nature, but I do think that I like and can enjoy a miniatures skirmish game. 4th edition is just so... ambivalent about how it deals with the strategic vs. tactical layers. The game's history and context as a supposed roleplaying game promises so much about the strategic layer that it is difficult in practice to set aside my expectations. It always annoys me immensely that the game makes it so infeasible to select our own vectors of approach to problems. Ultimately the combat has to occur in the prepared location (on the specific combat map) and against the prepared opponent, or the GM has nothing to work with.

The game does nothing to help with the strategic level, either, I think; there are no interesting strategic resources or choices available to the players, so choices made in between the fights don't get to influence things that way, either. It took me a bit to understand why this is the case, but ultimately it's pretty simple: 4th edition comes out of the 3rd edition culture that stresses game balance guaranteed by masterful game designers as a paramount value, so of course it is desired that nothing whatsoever can actually influence the tactical balance of a given encounter. This is why your typical 4th edition between-fights strategic challenge stakes healing surges instead of having concrete consequences; taking away a healing surge or two from a character is completely meaningless in tactical terms (the only thing the surges affect is whether you'll need to have a long rest after this fight or not).

The capstone problem for me has been the way the game deals with failure: there are no actually functional procedures for handling situations where characters lose their fights. Maybe this works for somebody else, but my experience, and the experience of the people I've played with, has been that we really, really hate it when we lose a fight in 4th edition. It just ruins the game, we might as well put it away again and try to forget that we got suckered by the colorful toys into trying it again.

Why is losing so problematic? It's because character death in 4th edition is psychologically awful: character-building in the game is complex and learning to play your character takes a bit of time, so the very last thing I want to be doing is to start from scratch when I've only just managed to figure out how this character of mine plays. You basically don't want characters to die ever, if you care about player enjoyment.

The other problem with losing is of course that it derails the proposed adventure something fierce. How is the GM supposed to continue from there? We've tried simply replaying the fight until we succeed (sort of like how a computer game in the tactical skirmish genre usually works) with or without fictional elaboration (that is, maybe the party can "come back" to try again, or maybe we'll just ignore the results and rewind the fiction), pretending that the fight was won when it was actually lost, taking the fictional stakes at face value and retreating from the adventure for good, and none of those is at all satisfactory and fun. The best approach is probably constructive narration with strong dramatic protections: the principle needs to be that a lost fight means waking up after the fight as a prisoner instead of dying, and the adventure needs to continue from there without significant deviation from the prepared material.

I've been known to characterize this difficulty 4th edition has with lost fights as the "tilt screen", because in actual play it feels exactly like playing a computer game that just crashes on you when you do the wrong thing. Unless you're carefully prepared and know exactly how you're going to proceed after a lost fight, the game leaves you quite helpless should the party lose their fight. And at least my experience is that a lot of fights will be lost; the game is random enough for it to be a regular occurrence. And no, I have no idea how people who play this game regularly avoid losing fights - maybe they cheat, or maybe they're just that much better than I in building characters.

The overarching problem that has made me slow to adapt the game so that it works for me is, of course, with creative agenda: is this supposed to be a gamist game, really? I'm not so sure. Reading the GMing advice and trying to figure out what works psychologically and what doesn't, it seems to me that for most people 4th edition is really merely an extended ritual for rolling around in D&D fantasy aesthetics. It is possible that the game is at its most functional when it is played as "simulationistic for real D&D"; the players constructively pretend as if they had a strategic goal and as if they were making decisions, but in fact everything's been preplanned to provide the classical D&D experience without the need for the players to actually perform their part. It's like watching a tennis match instead of playing one.

This ambivalence about the creative agenda strikes completely through the entire exercise for me: I react with disdain to the xp system, for instance, as it is so transparently meaningless, merely a call-back to old D&D where the xp mechanic was king. Ultimately the game just traps me into a massive catch-22 in that anything at all that might be done to give roleplaying context and fictional stakes for the individual skirmishes is necessarily either meaningless (in that it doesn't influence the core activity of skirmishing), or unbalancing, and the latter is actually not in any way useful for the skirmish activity: the fights that we actually waste our time on need to be reasonably balanced, or there's no point in setting up the map and the figures for it.

So as you can see, my reaction to the game is pretty different. The above impressions are based on about a half dozen scattershot sessions of the 4th edition proper and Gamma World (basically the same game, just a little bit streamlined) over the years; we tend to take the game out occasionally, as the tactical skirmish thing is a bit appealing, but each and every time has ended with frustration with the above issues. I know that I won't be trying it again before I develop an elaborate protocol for handling the macro-level strategic issues; the tactical skirmish works well enough, but we evidently don't have a clue as to how it's supposed to be used as part of a roleplaying game. I sort of know what I'm going to do to transform the game into a genuinely gamist exercise with concrete player buy-in and meaningful encounter balancing, but we'll see when I'll finally have the time to execute the Big Plan.

Callan S.

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #2 on: October 11, 2013, 05:36:32 AM »
Hi Ron,

Did anyone get pounded into the ground/neg HP? I played in quite a few of the 4e D&D encounters (material provided by WOTC) at a local gameclub and all the combats seemed to render someone unconcious. Indeed I rather suspect its the replacement for character death. Character death was pretty rare, through the encounters season. Though one time we fought a Kracken type creature, who's tentacles were all high level minions - and it kicked our arses! I mean bam, bam, bam! The funny thing was the same encounter was also being run on another table at the club, for a second group and as they had a wizard, they mopped it up quite neatly. Meanwhile our GM, left to reading the after text (which just assumes you won/lived), basically announces a deus ex and then replaces all the adventure text where the folk hail us as heroes and want us to go do X now into hailing us as having had our arses kicked and because of that, they want us to do X. Just ended up reveling in the absurdity.

Anyway, it always seemed the only way to really die is by a full TPK - and if you have a cleric, that's pretty dang unlikely. So being knocked into the ground (and having to knock your figure over to prone) seems the next closest losing condition. So, anyone get knocked out (however briefly)? >:)

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Every round in our fight produced a unique visual series of events, especially when we started holding actions to set up a tactical order based on what stuff we wanted to use.
It's just really nice to hear that! I hear so many threads elsewhere with people QQ'ing about why can their rogue only do his special thing once a day and rejecting imagining stuff, just based on that sort of thing. It's just nice to hear someone taking all the cues and having fun with it, imaginatively. I know I did!

glandis

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #3 on: October 11, 2013, 03:30:12 PM »
My very brief experience with 4th edition led me to summarize it as "d20 D&D meets Melee/Wizard" (note: NOT "d20 D&D meets The Fantasy Trip"). There's good and bad to that, and I can imagine enjoying play - I was disappointed that we didn't give it more of a try (though glad to avoid "investing in" [urg - I thought it, so I won't change it to the more accurate "spending on"] a bunch of books again). But for people who'd come through Talislanta to d20 and found ways to use and enjoy it for not-Gamist play - 4th edition didn't offer much.

I am somewhat excited by 13th Age, the Heinsoo/Tweet collaboration that many consider a 3rd edition/4th edition hybrid, and I think even my limited exposure to the (at least potential) virtues of 4e is part of why.

Ron Edwards

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #4 on: October 11, 2013, 10:05:57 PM »
Eero and Callan, I could not have asked for a better pair of posts in reply, each one arriving from a completely different orientation toward the standalone complex and 4th edition’s relationship to it.

Callan first. No one was quite knocked out or hammered into blithering ineffectiveness in any way, but it’s clear to me that the dice were responsible for that – we really did roll way too many 20s and the DM did roll that really shitty round. At the halfway point, I noticed how ripped-up the other two characters were and anticipated being the last one standing against the big bad guy. When the rolls started going our way so decisively, we were able to strategize with a fuller deck than that particular set-piece, with the same characters, would be expected to use at that point in the fight, in statistical terms.

As I mentioned, we did have a pretty good set of strategies for hit point recovery, especially for my character who beefed up by doing damage … and then could burn hit points to do more, if that seemed necessary. We did have to strategize thoughtfully about such things and if the rolls have been more average-y, we’d probably have had to eat at least one PC getting his or her ticket punched.

Unconscious, that is. I completely agree with you about unconsciousness being the functional replacement for insta-death in ordinary combat.

Your brief note about the story context in the game you mentioned ties right into what Eero was talking about, so I’ll kind of merge that part of your post with his in what follows.

Ron Edwards

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #5 on: October 12, 2013, 11:33:57 PM »
It might be hard to believe this, but stuff like World of Warcraft or even late-80s video games with dungeons & levels plays no role at all in my understanding of 4E. I never liked any of that stuff, still don't. What I think I'm seeing is a callback to the D&D which actually prompted that particular form of electronic entertainment. It wasn't my favorite D&D at the time (nothing was; I realized in 1980 that no extant D&D did what I wanted), but I did appreciate it even back then. I'm talking about really concentrated, no fucking around tourney play and its home-grown derivatives.

Of course your character could die. And of course, that meant you lose. And of course, by definition, that hurt. It was supposed to hurt!

Eero, you're right, in that any time someone tried to 'port this kind of play into an epic campaign with chapters and missions and stuff, it fell flat as a water balloon's contents when dropped from the fifth floor balcony onto the sidewalk. As thin a layer of water as physics allows, that's how flat. You can see it in the bogus attempts to "expand" the Slave Lords series into a campaign, as if you were supposed to be playing something day in and day out for the characters, where they go here and talk to some guy, and then decide to go over there, and omigod, look, it turns out we're right at the door to this fortress!

Where you're wrong is thinking that it's an added-on thing from electronic entertainment. Such bullshit. Back then, in 1978, you came to play in that dungeon. The term of the day was "running through," as in, "Yeah, I'm a DM, I can run you through my dungeon." This is one reason why sandboxy talk makes me snort beverage through my nostrils - you think most people were playing in sandboxes, as conceived now, back then? Maybe in Blackmoor. But not hardly in playing anything called "D&D." I played a ton of different tables of D&D, with everything from military guys on-base to the hobby store group to summer programs with adults teaching the kids to a confused bunch of junior high school guys like me to games I organized with women ten years older than me. Sure - fair enough, some of it was "wander about and make your own decisions." But you know what happened when you did that? People said, "That's not playing D&D!"

Yeah. This is 1978-80 I'm talking about, not 1985. The vaunted sandbox was widely considered aberrant play. The one touchpoint I can identify - and again, not all, but the majority - was what Moreno calls "pest control." You go into that fucking dungeon and let's see if you can make it out of an exit. Wham and bam.

Marshall, in the fundamentalism thread, you mentioned:

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... within a framework where players can always say "ok, forget this dungeon, we're going somewhere else" (a commonly-held tenet among various interpretations of  "sandbox" play)...

and I just snorted beverage out of my nose again, upon reading that. That's precisely what no one did. You came to play in that dungeon. Opting out = not playing = no guts.

So, you say, there's no story? Sure there can be a story. Sure there can be a framework. In the best games, there was something at stake that for purposes of play, mattered. A people's freedom, perhaps. A cosmic gate to be opened or closed. A dragon's egg to be found and then ... well then, decided what to do with. Any number of things like that which made the fights matter. You can see it all over the artifacts, the tourney-derived adventure modules. But the issue was decided in the fight and the loss was real.

Eero, I can see why you found losing this kind of play terrible. Because this kind of losing isn't what you bought into, and the grander play-on, play-on of it all appeals to you. Because you like Gamism with a lot of context and with a lot of emergent situation and it must be said, a minimum of personal pain. In some of the games I sat in in 1979, they'd have had you squirting tears ... and laughed. Raw meat Gamism, and not some wuss computer game where you get to do it all over. No do-overs here.

You played Tunnels & Trolls! Can you imagine doing so non-ironically? A lot of people did. I am pretty sure you're unaware of Bear Peters' dungeons for that game. Or that Grimtooth's Traps weren't parodies.

As for how people avoid losing the fights, all I have to say is, they care enough to get good at it. The learning curve for this kind of play is real, and it is flatly inaccessible to those who aren't inclined in the first place.

Eero, you wrote,

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Ultimately the game just traps me into a massive catch-22 in that anything at all that might be done to give roleplaying context and fictional stakes for the individual skirmishes is necessarily either meaningless (in that it doesn't influence the core activity of skirmishing), or unbalancing, and the latter is actually not in any way useful for the skirmish activity: the fights that we actually waste our time on need to be reasonably balanced, or there's no point in setting up the map and the figures for it.

I think you have it backwards: in this kind of play, you don't get through the fight in order to continue the adventure, you only do adventures so you can get into the fights.

Best, Ron

Eero Tuovinen

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #6 on: October 13, 2013, 03:29:28 AM »
To be clear, Ron, you're saying that 4th edition is about gamist challenges on the level of individual skirmishes, with GM narration bridging the gaps in between the fights?

The above is my interpretation of how the game is most naturally executed, assuming you don't cheat to keep the party alive (if you do, or just low-ball the difficulty so defeat can never happen, then it's more natural to consider the simulationist angle I speculate upon above). I've used a comparison to the miniatures wargame Warhammer here to clarify my point when trying to figure out the game with other people similarly confused: if 4th edition is all about the challenge of the individual skirmish, with narrative bridges in between, then its creative agenda is essentially identical to Warhammer's - it's a miniatures wargame!

Note that the reason I compare to Warhammer specifically is that the game has a rich tradition of reaching towards rpg-like fictional intricacy. For example, the type of structure a 4th edition adventure seemingly utilizes, with combat encounters stringed together by narrative bridges and occasional simple branching and alternate mission goals, that's exactly the same as the default Warhammer "campaign" structure, excepting the lack of the GM in Warhammer. It's right in the rulebook (or was in the last edition that I read): players wanting more depth of immersion may wish to, instead of playing unconnected battles, string them together with a preplanned campaign arc.

It hasn't been any great difficulty for me to understand the game in the above terms (at least not after I got over my initial disappointment in -08; as was the case with many others, I really wasn't that excited about an edition of D&D that focuses on the fights instead of exploration as the content of play), but it has proven surprisingly difficult for us to execute the game as a wargame, and make it fun. This has to do with very practical issues that might be easier to understand if I compare to Warhammer:

In Warhammer it's no big deal if you lose a fight, as that doesn't mean that you have to abandon your current army plan and start developing a new one. In 4th edition this is sort of strongly implied (the game speaks really, really rarely about what to do when the party loses fights, but it does have rules for dying and introducing new characters to the party), and it sucks as a practice: you have no time to learn to play your current character when he dies on you, and then you have to make a new one.

In Warhammer the challenge is usually symmetrical: the players attempt to structure a fair scenario that they feel is equally possible for both parties to win. Good gamesmanship provides a context for how to deal with the challenge both during and after the game. In 4th edition, on the other hand, a points-buy scenario balancing system exists, but it's at least implied by the rules that it is attempting to balance the encounters so that the party always wins, rather than balancing for serious 50/50 encounters. What is one to think of here, in terms of gamesmanship? What if you lose despite the system guaranteeing your win, what does that make you as a human being?

In Warhammer the campaigns are planned to account for both winning and losing. This is obvious, as both sides of a fight are protagonists, so someone who's victory we care about is always winning. Not so in 4th edition, which really doesn't have any advice or tools for the GM to react to it when the party loses and thus derails the adventure. The game just ends.

Those three are pretty serious pits in executing the game, at least for me. Now that I'm well aware of them (after our last attempt with the game about six months back), I think that I'll be able to fix the game so that it doesn't crash on us. Basically the above three points just need to be recognized and solved in whatever manner; it might even be enough to just warn ourselves carefully in advance that this shit's going to happen. After all, those points are largely psychological in nature, it's not such a shock to have to go through the boring chargen process twice in one session if you know what to expect :D

Also, if you don't mind, I'll say a couple of words about the lethality of the game, because I'm always astounded by how Internet accounts differ from my own experiences; I have no idea how people are keeping their adventurers alive in this game. I believe the people when they say that they apparently manage to survive indefinitely, but with us the game's fragile illusion of being fun breaks reliably within a single session as a total party kill or desperate retreat leaves characters dead on the ground.

So, to be explicit, my experience with the game is limited to roughly the following (I might be forgetting some sessions) over the last five years:

3 x attempting to play the Keep on the Shadowfell
3 x attempting to play the introductory adventure in Gamma World
2 x playing GM-generated stuff

In all of these sessions we had either general retreat with bodies on the ground or total party kills within the first three combats of the game. In the case of the Keep there's this kobold hideout behind a waterfall combat that kills pretty reliably unless you know just what you're doing; in the Gamma World introductory adventure the third combat of the sequence has some area-attacking enemies that'll get you every time, it seems.

I've played this game only with most hardcore gamers, people who have extensive experience with both tabletop and computer-based strategy games. Maybe we are just sucky players and that's why we can't finish a single session of play without losing a fight and derailing the game?

Ron Edwards

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #7 on: October 13, 2013, 11:38:10 AM »
I'm not the guy to judge your kill/loss experiences, as I'm almost completely inexperienced with the game.

I think your Warhammer analysis is completely accurate with the sole flaw of being unbelievably ass-backwards again. Warhammer, miniatures skirmish variant and all, is nothing but a re-furbished D&D of the kind I'm talking about. Which, again, was the closest thing to a "the" D&D in existence prior to the early 1980s.

Best, Ron

Callan S.

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #8 on: October 13, 2013, 10:29:52 PM »
I agree with Eero on the lopsidedness of (atleast current) roleplay vs table top wargaming - in table top wargaming, someone gets to win. Someone comes away with a fistpump! But the structure of roleplay has evolved to where the GM so consistantly has his side all die that - well, you give up on the GM trying to win anything. Thus when the monsters TPK the party, nobody wins! Which is indeed a sucky structure! However - as I understand it in warhammer battles the heroes you use on the table are not subject to death - or regardless of that you play as a faction, which is also not subject to death. Thus you can lose time and again and it's cool. While in roleplay, perhaps simulationist aligned desires would not allow such a 'boardgamey' conceit of just having main dudes who never die (of course the gamist 'die at any time' dudes have it because you can lose at any time).

On escaping from combats, I actually started a thread on that in the D&D next playtest general discussion forum about adding text on how to get away after combat, specifically just how plausible/possible that is (but they adjusted the forum structure and I don't know if I could find it again). Alot of folk just wanted to handwave the whole thing to 'The GM decides that when it comes up' - perhaps even trying to avoid any text on the matter? This possibly ties into Ron's stand alone complex idea, in that when you leave it so up in the air (can you even escape or is it really do or die/TPK?) people, despite the lack of instructions (or indeed BECAUSE of the lack of instructions) assume people have had fun with this thing, thus they start inventing stuff but treat it as if that's how it always was. People don't recognise the significance of leaving the gates wide open on what happens when you lose a combat.

Given all that, it seems some holy cows need to be slaughtered - it doesn't seem to be working out.

Also there's the question of tactical leverage of the SIS. Sure the combinations of powers in 4E spur the imagination, but such imagination wont be giving you any extra mechanical power in turn! A simple example of leveraging the SIS is perhaps you roleplay chumming up to the mayor and say you manage to wrangle him into giving you some of the healing potions you know he has. That's all imagination stuff, right up to the healing potion which indeed grants a mechanic power (so here imagination does grant mechanical power). While if the between battle stuff of 4E stuff is purely set piece and has no chance of, by speaking your imagination, gaining you further mechanical power and the actual combat mechanics don't really support imagination begetting mechanical advantage (note: the +2/-2 rule in the books is a kind of imagination to mechanical effect rule - it's just pretty weedy), then...well, while I dislike how people throw around 'you're just playing a boardgame' idly, it's essentially just boardgame play. One might say the GM builds the encounter from his imagination - I would agree. But I think for gamist play the players need to try and wrangle mechanical effects from the SIS or atleast have a chance to. Otherwise at best you have gamble play, where you don't interact with the imagined scene, you just hope it favours you (gamble). This is possibly why gambling gamist inclined players will often put up with sim inclined GM's and vise versa without a clash appearing for some time.

Just a side note, I've actually heard that keep on the shadowfell and the gamma world adventure actually have a ball buster encounter built into them. Possibly by mistake. But equally, mistake or not, that's the gauntlet that is thrown down. I know the fiction surrounding each game is the cuddley, fun fiction we all know and find cute - so when, like some oompa loompa suddenly drawing a bloody knife, eyes glowing red and showing cannibal teeth, it goes brutal - well, I'd agree it could do with some forwarning of the brutality level. But still, that's the gauntlet, all the same.

So I agree with some elements - but the base, problematic precepts don't seem to be dealt with by people - instead of dealing with the problem, folk adapt to them and build compensatory structures around the problem. One compensation method often seems to be to water down the capacity to die (found an old RPG.net thread on it: [4e] the day I tried to die)

glandis

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #9 on: October 14, 2013, 05:09:54 AM »
Some things I hope are useful: the guy from my extended Talislanta/d20 group who has most strongly taken to 4.0? One of the guys who shouldered a lot of the GM duties. Apparently, 4.0 is a simple joy to GM compared to the burden of getting our ver of d20 "right." Remembering my GM stints, and thinking about my attempts to run Pathfinder (with various levels of success), I can see that.

And while Ron is dead-on in his description of that late 70's/early 80's play style, oddly (or not - I mean, I know you acknowledge variation, Ron) my recollection is at slight odds, in that we specifically identified it as NOT "real D&D." Real D&D was an epic, long-term campaign thing - bigger than one dungeon. We actually played the style Ron describes more with T&T & Melee/Wizard than with D&D - though sometimes we did it with D&D. Creating the weird situation where we played D&D that wasn't REAL D&D. Although ... there was the option to bring your "real D&D" character into most any dungeon. That was the ultimate gutsy move - if your real D&D character died in that dungeon, his epic story ended then and there. But if you weren't willing to risk that, you couldn't carry the loot from that dungeon back to your campaign ...

(Text from a dungeon I started to write sometime before 1980 "... characters are provided, [as] losing your own character in a dungeon of this type is all too probable, and can be very upsetting." Aw, I wanted to keep players from being upset! How nice of me ... So did I just talk myself into more full agreement with Ron, or not? Not sure.)

Callan - Assuming that the play I remember actually is the play Ron's talking about, winning and losing are entirely about performance by the players, with the DM getting kudos for running the dungeon well no matter what. No such thing as nobody wins - pretty much the DM can always win. I mean, he might screw up, but the real question is, how will the players do? Which may be another aspect of why my friend became drawn to 4.0 GMing.

Eero Tuovinen

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #10 on: October 14, 2013, 07:16:55 AM »
For what it's worth, I don't have any personal issue with high lethality and enclosed dungeon environments in D&D. It is specifically the 4th edition which I find to handle high lethality poorly, and this has to do with the specific way the game sets up situations and characters when compared to older technology. Thus it's not that I cry when my character dies, but rather that it's fucking frustrating to spend two hours creating a character, one hour learning to play it, and then have it die despite best efforts to the contrary. I'd have to be some sort of moron to enjoy repeating that process.

Compare with certain older editions and styles of play, such as what we're currently doing with LotFP: you can kill my characters all day without it becoming frustrating, as there the gamist procedures work just fine: characters are generated (not created) quickly, they die as the outcome of choices and not because a certain killer encounter is mandatory, and the procedures for continuing play are clear when a combat ends in organized retreat, outright running, leaving companions behind, part of the party dying, all of the party dying - there is no encounter outcome that leaves us scratching our heads as to how to continue, and no outcome that means that we can't play anymore because we'd have to go through another three hours of character planning because we lost the investment in the last set of characters.

Perhaps my point would be easier to understand with a comparison: playing 4th edition is like playing Champions where the content of play consists entirely of the GM railroading you through combat encounters with opponents built on equivalent character points to your party, all in the interest of "balancing" the combat encounters. And unlike your average superhero comic, all the opponents are bloodthirsty barbaric demihumans who'll slit your throat if you get "stunned" or otherwise taken out of a fight - that's what you're trying to do to them, after all. The GM has prep tools that make it quick for him to create his enemy mooks, but you, you get to spend hours in the character design mini-game only to have that character die on you after 2-3 combats on average.

Many people don't like 4th edition because it's just a combat miniatures game instead of an exploration adventure game like older editions of D&D, but I believe that I wouldn't mind this - there's room for plenty of different games out there - if it only was more clear-cut how serious the game is about the real challenge, and how the GM is supposed to cheat to keep the party alive (I genuinely don't know the answer to that last point - it's not that I obdurately want to kill PCs whenever possible). In other words, it suffers from its history as a D&D game, causing it to leave weird lacunae for the GM to fill in how the enterprise is kept together. It's the same bullshit that the commercial mainstream of rpg design is always prone to, people afraid of writing decisive and limiting advice that might by its clarity piss off somebody who would like to utilize the game in a different manner. 4th edition is massively more focused than earlier games called D&D, of course, but it's still apparently not so clear that I wouldn't need to use an endoscope to get to its internal workings.

(Incidentally, the Gamma World method of character generation is explicitly intended to be more random, quick and less about character build optimization than the 4th edition proper method. Unfortunately it's still not enough to make the game compatible with high lethality in practice, I think: a big part of the enjoyment in this sort of candy store skirmish game is in learning to use your character, and you'll never get a chance if your character dies on you every third combat.)

RangerEd

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #11 on: October 14, 2013, 12:14:15 PM »
I find the changes made between 3.x and 4e strange. The color of both seems consistent, as the artwork and naming styles for options readily inspires my imagination. However, as a player of both, diversity is attenuated and complication is amplified as one transitions from 3.x to 4e.

As Ron pointed out, the game is fantastic at providing mountains of color and inspiring the imagination of players. Yet, my group found insufficient diversity among classes in the mechanics for players to explore. Moreover, there is little or no reward for actually anthropomorphizing a character with history, motivation, desires, social connections, and so on outside of the group and mission. To create such humanity risks the gameplay itself when one character lacks motivation consistent with the mission the DM has planned.

Of course, I remember a mushroom cave module a DM laid before our group in 2e in the early ‘90s. Me and another guy were playing elves with royal blood, so we passed on the adventure option. The DM said he had nothing else prepared, take it or leave it. Well, the blue blood, pointy ears got muddy and filthy for no good reason except to ride the rails provided. Gameplay is gameplay, and something was better than nothing. Railroading aside, the difference in my mind is that 2e had enough gaps in the rules to allow a DM to allow diversity of characters to affect the gameplay, whereas 4e has filled in too many gaps in the search for equality.

In the search for equality among combat participants, 4e leaves every character mechanically the same. Dividing in and out of combat roles, minions, minor combat powers, and major combat powers for every class and having something for every character to offer seems like a great selling point. However, roleplaying in such a system left me essentially playing the same character over and over, simply with a different skin and carrying different weapons to use a FPS metaphor. I saw through the fourth wall.

Strangely, the cornucopia of powers to bolt on is perfectly in line with 3.x and Pathfinder. The feat system seems to grow continually in complication without satisfying complexity. What I mean by complexity in this instance is the exploration of options that help actualize a character to fulfill a particular and useful niche in gameplay. Such a mechanic need not be difficult or require a lot of page flipping through a pile of source books. On a side note, I thought Hero Lab was worth the hundreds of dollars I spent to cope with complication of both 3.x, Pathfinder, and 4e. The dollar figure was cheaper than buying all the source material, was easier to search and build characters, and the software didn’t require a suitcase worth of books for every flight. I think the complication is unnecessary in the search for novelty of character.

Complexity can create novelty by combining basic building blocks in new permutations without generating complication. All of life on Earth is composed of permutations of very few organic compounds. Why game designers don’t use the idea is beyond me. Your Goth guy could really be something special then, even after many iterations of 4e gameplay.

glandis

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #12 on: October 14, 2013, 04:33:29 PM »
Eero, just to underline your point about character generation - as mentioned, modules/dungeons/whatever in the play I'm remembering frequently came with pre-generated characters. As far as "learning" how to use them though, while I see what you're saying and sympathize, the hard-core response would be a shrug; maybe an invitation to play more and learn faster.

Ed - I think some of the blandness you talk about springs from what I see talked about nowadays as designed-in "system mastery" opportunities. While you have all these options, there are certain end-states that are clearly the most useful/powerful/advantageous, so lots of players end up building towards the same goal and ignore sub-optimal options. This is true in 3.x, and is pretty well understood in 3.pathfinder - but being less-than-optimal seems like less of a problem in those flavors than 4.0 for some reason.

-Gordon

Ron Edwards

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #13 on: October 14, 2013, 05:21:33 PM »
So I wonder if you guys find the following interesting: my first notes on what I'd do if I were to DM D&D 4E. I have lots of one-page notes like this stuffed into game books at my house, and as the years go by, I get a chance to play more of them than you might think. All of the following would be fixed in utter stone; do it this way or don't play.

1. Race limitations: githzerai, shifter, minotaur, shardmind, wilden, tiefling.

2. Class limitations: ardent, battlemind, seeker, monk, psion. You can hybridize any of those with ranger, druid, barbarian, or warden. But you can't play any straight from that latter list, you can't hybridize between those on the first list, and there's no multiclassing.

3. Setting notes, from looking at the races & classes: wilderness, ruins, wastelands, old battlefields, vortices, strongholds, holdouts.

4. Role-playing influences subsequent set-piece creation substantially - more than one conflict is going on simultaneously, with concrete setting-affecting consequences, involving many different NPCs with varying priorities, so choices include which battle to fight in (or pick), what items to get or issues to investigate, which NPCs to support or try to defeat, what particular goal might be sought through a given fight (not the same as what the NPCs might want), and to what degree the player-characters ally or separate based on the conflicts of the moment. Which is to say that the enemy of your enemy may not only be a provisional friend, but could become a real friend.

5. Fairness is not adjusted to carpenter's-level evenness just prior to fights. It is very likely that the player-characters will be over-matched, either because they unfortunate bad decisions about that fight in the first place, or because the foes are simply that much better. Think as tactically and creatively as possible regarding player-characters' abilities and options. Perhaps another way to put it is that fights will be won most likely through second-order, cross-character thinking about abilities, not just taking turns having your guy point-and-shoot. Also, plan-B thinking is recommended.

6. No DM fudging either in player-characters' favor or against it. I play my NPCs honestly both in character and in combat. Which is to say, also, there is more than one way to defeat a foe.

RangerEd

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Re: [D&D 4E] My goth guy is much tougher than yours
« Reply #14 on: October 14, 2013, 06:14:23 PM »
Gordon,
I have a personal character flaw in that once I find a way to optimize in a system, I cannot bring myself to go suboptimal. Cases in point, 2e rangers and Pathfinder zen archers. It is my failing, but refer to it as breaking the system. Of course my form of optimization speaks to my personality interacting with the system as much as the game itself.

Ron,
I'd play it. I am less sure it would be well received by others. Not sure why, but the groups I've played 4e with pride themselves on their optimization stratagems and could buck against house rules that undermine their expectations. Your draft notes also seem to illustrate something I believe, in the face of system-matters-above-all commentary: a good DM with some well thought out house rules can make any flawed tabletop system fun. My thoughts stray to what you could do with games like The Helpless Doorknob or The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen.