Interchangeability and 4e

I had a good twitter discussion yesterday about the structure of adventures that lead to me chewing on what it would take to do a breakdown of a fantasy adventure (a quest, at the suggestion of gamefiend) similar to the one in SOTC. This lead to some paper brainstorming, which in turn lead to my realizing something about 4e (and to a lesser extent, D&D in general). Basically, I came to the question of “Why are _you_ the guys going on this quest?” and I hit a wall.

4E characters are, by design, somewhat interchangeable – at least in the context of published adventures. You might need five folks of a given level to clean out the dungeon, but which five folks those are doesn’t matter that much (except insofar as you might want a balanced group). Even more problematically, they are universally unexceptional except in their capability to kick ass. They may kick ass in different ways, and those difference matter on a tactical level, but in the big picture they kind of run together.

This is problematic in the case of the quest model where people are recruited based on talents, knowledge or other specific criteria. 4e characters do not have such distinctions, or more precisely, the system does not support such distinctions. And that’s rough. You can overcome it around the table in the specific, but that is an extra layer you add to the game.

So, there’s the problem: why do these characters matter in the eyes of the setting, other than as interchangeable ass kickers?

The first answer that springs to mind is one that 4e does not answer, and that is the role of classes in the setting. Specifically, is the simple fact that a PC is a member of a class something outstanding? In some games, the implicit assumption is yes. If you have someone in your group playing a ranger, he’s _the_ ranger, or at least one of only a few. There might be other guys running around with two swords or looking outdoorsey, but big R Rangers are few and far between. In other games, there are any number of rangers, and you are just one of them.

Curiously, older editions pulled an interesting trick of kind of doing both. There might be any number of rangers in the setting, but the game still gave you big props for being a ranger when it came time to do ranger-y things. Tracking? You rocked. Some big random outdoorsey roll? You got a big bonus. Even if you weren’t necessarily unique or rare, it was acknowledged.

4e offers no such acknowledgment, at least outside of the scope of combat, and that’s rough. It reveals (to me, at least) that the big problem with the skill system is not the shortage of skills but rather the lack of opportunity to be exceptional within their sphere (since that sphere is, by and large, most of the non-combat world). The difference that being trained in a skill makes is nice, but it does not really create a sense of “AND NOW I’M AWESOME AT THIS” which, I admit, I want at least a little of. I like rangers who can track anything, anywhere. I want a rogue who is the finest lockpick in the realm. Stuff like that helps bring a game to life.

This, in turn, casts a light on something I consider the most problematic dichotomy within 4e – awesomeness vs “zero to hero”. Something that probably merits its own post, but for the moment I’m left with the question: If the combat game is all about being awesome, why is the non-combat game about being kind of a schlub?

9 thoughts on “Interchangeability and 4e

  1. Mike

    I have also experienced this problem in my 4e games. I want my characters and the characters around the table to be able to do non-combat things, which they should be able to do, with more success. The guy with Strength 20 and 10 Athletics at Level 1 fails a roll and the DM usually makes it into a joke: “He fails the jump because he slipped on a banana peel.” Or the wizard casts a huge conflagration and envelopes the enemy, but ‘misses’ each one of them, failing to take out the minions.

    At that point, you have recourse within the system to try to make the fiction match the mechanics: The fighter failed because the ground was loose, not because he couldn’t make the jump. The wizard sees after the fire dissipates lifts that the enemies are protected by some sort of arcane veil, which begins to flicker. This is well and good

    I’ve toyed with the idea of having each character in my games take what amounts to Aspects or Stunts, and allow them to use them when it would be appropriate. So the Ranger could look at his Nature skill of 10, and decides that it is vital to be able to track the poacher’s trail, so he says, “The trail is cold, but I Can Track Anything”. Now instead of the roll determining success, the roll determines the degree of success. Hit the DC, you succeed spectacularly (surprise round when you catch up). Miss by less than 5, add some complication occurs (no surprise, more enemies). Miss by more and things will be difficult, but you are still able to track (takes much longer, so everyone loses a healing surge or hit a random encounter, maybe others tracking the poacher). The Aspect or Skill Talent or whatever should be tied to a skill the character has trained, and I might limit them to one or two until I determined how they worked out in play. I’d love to hear any feedback about it.

  2. Cam_Banks

    What about the option of Taking 10 on rolls where you should routinely be able to perform awesomely? Then you’re still going to want to roll the die on really hard challenges, but if you’re just trying to jump a gap in the dungeon with your Athletics bonus of +15, you really shouldn’t be making them roll the die if they’re supposed to be kick-ass cat burglars.

    I guess fighters might even be allowed this benefit for attack rolls. Why roll the dice when mopping the floor with these random mooks?

  3. Rob Donoghue

    @Cam I think that points to the biggest single problem with the naming of the fighter – how much sense does it make to have a fighter class in a game where no one _doesn’t_ fight? He is in no way more “fighty” than anyone else, so he introduces this weird bit of cognitive static that makes it hard to talk about other classes (which all have the benefit of being things that NOT everyone else is all the time)

  4. Mike

    @Cam_Banks Pinning down the challenge level is a part of the difficulty. If Kilamon the Leaper wants to jump across the short gap, there’s no problem, he just does it. But if the obstacle is so simple that there’s no chance of failure, why put it there in the first place, unless its flavor? Any die roll is an indication that the PCs might fail, either by circumstance or by their lack of skill. Looking at our cat burglar guild, the wizard-classed burglar trying to unlock the door via untrained thievery is going to get frustrated quickly, while the ranger-burglar trying to decipher the arcane sigils is going to be stumped nine times out of ten. A roll is appropriate in these instances, but could be frustrating, even taking 10. With proper staging, these obstacles don’t have to be insurmountable, but again, we can get a disconnect between the fiction and the mechanics. It feels like there could be an extra layer on top of the current mechanics, but still more constrained than eye-balling it, to say that this group right here is very competent in aspects of cat-burglary. For instance, this wizard, he can Unlock Any Puzzle; the ranger can Read the Signs; the fighter can lie in wait for the Surprising Attack or maybe even talk with the mark and Smooth Things Over.

    I really wish that each class was balanced to include a fairly equal level of skills. Even if I choose to play an Intelligent fighter, he still only gets to train a meager amount of skills, as opposed to a thief, who may literally be an imbecile in the fiction. What ends up happening is that during a skill challenge, I’ll allow any PC to declare the skill they want to use and give them a circumstance bonus based on the difficulty, creativity, or characterization they’re giving. But the game encourages badass cat burglars to have trained their athletics, acrobatics, stealth and thievery, to have the “whole” mechanical package. The way skills are set up, some classes can’t get to skills without feating or taking the proper background, especially the poor fighter. You could say that the wizardly cat burglar could use arcana for some of those checks, but if you allow certain skills to be catch-alls, the classes which default to those skills have some advantages in those situations.

  5. cwhite

    I play both 4e and Swords & Wizardry (an original edition clone), and love them both. Moving between them, though, makes me realize how incredibly different they are.

    You say that role doesn’t matter much outside of combat in 4e. I think almost nothing matters outside of combat in 4e. The more I play it, the more I come to the conclusion that 4e is a series of dungeon delves connected loosely by a story. I think it was basically designed for GM railroading.

    All of that might sound like criticism. It isn’t. Look at a game like Catan–I love it. I’d also love a game that allows me to combine resources in flexible ways, or build roads through mountainous terrain instead of alongside hexes. Catan doesn’t allow you to do that–does that make it a bad game? No! It just is what it is.

    The same is true with 4e. In S&W, I love it when my ranger can just look at the ground and know who’s walked by, because he’s a ranger. But in S&W, I can’t feel the thrill of manipulating precise rules in a specific way to dominate foes in battle, something that 4E does well.

  6. D.J.

    Mike’s comment got me thinking.
    Given how much potential there is in the Skill Powers, that gets lost because generally they’re not *quite* as good as “real” utility powers, I wonder if something could be done with those.

    What I’m thinking is, every even level for the heroic tier, each character gains a skill power in a skill they’re trained in; from 12 on up, they can swap powers out for higher level ones in the same sort of progression that Utility Powers have.

    Seems like it’d let folks add some “I’m awesome at this” distinctiveness without breaking the power curve.

  7. Paul

    This post makes unnecessary assumptions.

    First is that 4e ought to, systematically, enforce certain fictional elements. Everybody knows or should know that it’s completely trivial to reskin everything. That is not to say that’s a solution to a problem, but, rather, the reskinability IS the system, itself.

    So a character has whatever role in the setting that you figure out.

    Regarding skills’ not providing enough awesomeness, this is not a problem with being a schlub, but, rather, everybody you’re hanging out with is also a hero. So it’s about how good you are compared to other PCs or heroically powered NPCs. As a way around this, games that are not 4e have frequently chosen to make it impossible to do anything interesting if you aren’t trained or part of a particular class. That’s just moving the problem instead of cleaning it up.

    Instead, handle it through the fiction. Whether you stick with the stock fiction or determine a character’s role separately, use the mechanic in tandem with the color. Professor Ranger is arguably the best tracker in the world? Then, when he fails, he isn’t subject to complication, such as following a dummy trail. Plus, when he succeeds, give him more information, choices about how he finds his quarry, or allow him a supernatural level of success – catching up to something that’s days away in a matter of hours.

    4e gives you the building blocks for this kind of play without violating inherent mechanical balance. If you use the blocks as they fall out of the box instead of putting them together in a fun shape, you have no one to blame but yourself. I could understand a discussion about the pros and cons of this sort of game design; but I don’t see this as a con, just a note that some assembly is required.

  8. Mike

    @Paul To expand on your point, if we have the world expert on a task, say tracking, the normal scale looks like:

    Roll + Skill = Level of Success (LoS)
    LoS> or =DC: Success
    LoS< DC: Failure and per your advice, might instead move the scale downward, so that: Roll + Skill = Level of Success
    LoS> DC: Supernatural Success
    LoS= DC: Awesome Success
    LoS< DC: Normal Success
    Failure state not possible

    At this point, you’ve got an interesting outcome for the PC: You can only improve your ability to succeed by rolling. But then the question is, should the character’s statistics and internal mechanics match the above fiction? Should we require that the Master Tracker has taken skill training in Nature? Or can we divorce his aptitude for tracking from the present skill system entirely?

    There is a large amount of fiat for the DM to apply in this case. The DM could simply make you roll on every chance, with a high enough DC to matter for whatever your level is, or the DM could let you automatically succeed no matter what your level is despite your mechanical trappings, or they can do something in between. Defining how we choose to codify these exceptions into ‘houserules’, and work them into the system in a way that makes sense mechanically and in the narrative, is the trick.

    Personally, I’m starting to like the idea of extra Skill Powers, as @DJ states, to give the mechanical crunch to these story elements. Most of the Skill Powers only have Effect lines, meaning they happen automatically and cannot miss. That ties in fairly well to the description of @Paul’s Critical Success system.

  9. Paul

    @Mike Your general approach works. But I think the point is that you don’t need to houserule anything. Maybe it’s just semantics, but you can keep the mechanic the same, just make it in line with the fiction you prefer. Just as you cook up the fiction for a character’s role, you can cook up the fiction of a skill challenge. Everything they give you is a guideline.

    In a basic way, this is less about fixing skills and more about protecting what the players value in the game. If you’re going to be a super tracker, you only have so many mechanically-enforced choices, the main one being skill training. That doesn’t stop you from enforcing this in the fiction with or without the mechanic.

    This definitely gets into the zone of trust and fiat, but you can certainly agree to guidelines. Professor Ranger isn’t any better at the skill, but maybe he’s the only one who has access to the Professor Ranger’s Skill Challenge Minigame, which can produce more elaborate results without a houserule at all.

    Skill Challenges, after all, allow whatever the GM likes. The most basic three successes before three failures might normally mean a few moderate successes, but in the scope of a Skill Challenge, it means you accomplished an overarching task, which could explicitly include something supernatural. It’s a tiny bit of work, but basically arbitrary (and not different from the basic rules) to align the building blocks of 4e so that only Professor Ranger has access to this kind of skill challenge.


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