Monthly Archives: March 2011

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?

The New Shininess

So, the Ipad 2 comes out on March 11th, and we finally got to see what the fuss was about yesterday, in one of Apple’s now-standard presentations scattered hither and yon across the web. Engadget has a good summary of the details, but there are really few surprises. It’s thinner, lighter, more powerful, has cameras (front and back) and costs the same. Oh, and it now comes in black and white.

Now, I don’t want to sound too jaded about these points. They’re actually really impressive from a technical perspective, and the promised increases in graphical power alone seem to hint at fantastic future uses. I feel like Apple has re-asserted its place of prominence in the market by once again being the price leader, something I still can’t believe I’m saying with a straight face. I still look forward to other tablets pushing the market as a whole forward (and I’m definitely looking forward to HP’s WebOS tablet – that excites me much more than Android or RIM at this point) but I’m also glad Apple keeps coming out strong, because i think that creates necessary pressure.

Still, as a well documented ipad enthusiast who makes rigorous, daily use of his ipad 1, is it worth the upgrade? Honestly, probably not.

A lot of this is because I’m still incredibly happy with my Ipad’s performance and form factor, so incremental improvements in both aren’t going to move my needle much. As a practical matter, I’m fairly certain I’ll need to buy an Ipad3 when it comes out, if only because developers are lazy, and we’re going to start seeing games designed for the more powerful engine that will slog on the ipad 1, but I think that threshold is a ways down the road. Similarly, the addition of cameras are cool, but not compelling. Facetime will excite me more when its more widespread and, honestly, when I can run a game over it. Until then, I’m fine using my laptop for such things.

It may be shallow, but I admit the element about the ipad 2 that I find most jealousy inducing is the cover. Man, they put some thought into that, and as someone who has tried many covers, it really looks like it’s a good replacement for everything short of an otterbox defender. It’s pretty awesome. Not “buy a whole new Ipad” awesome, but awesome.

I look at the ipad 2 release and what’s scary is that it’s all about new customers. For folks who carefully avoid Apple’s initial releases (due to their tending to be public betas) it’s enough of an upgrade to justify the wait. For others, it has just created the secondary market for Ipad 1’s at a diminished price point. That’s good positioning.

So, barring disaster or windfall, I don’t see myself buying an Ipad 2. Though man, you can bet I’m going to get the new Garage Band for the Ipad (which BETTER be compatible with the Ipad 1) because it looks like the program I always wished Garage Band was.

5 Rounds of Nerdy Math

Someone made an assertion online that a 4e fight is designed to last 5 rounds. That’s an interesting assertion, and I’ve had people express that it both sounds too long and too short. If it’s true, it’s a very interesting point that allows you to crunch the numbers a bit harder, but it’s unsourced, so it’s pretty suspect. So I’m going to crunch the numbers a bit here and see how that holds up with the reality. To do this, I’m going to focus on damage dealt, and I’m buying into two strongly held assumptions. First, that a +1 to hit is always better than a +1 to damage, and second that damage is what ends fights. Thus, for illustration, I’ll be focusing on damage output. These assumptions are not absolute certainties, but accepting them makes decision making much easier.

Ok, assume a level 5 D&D character with an 18 in whatever stat we happen to care about. Erring on the side of generosity we’ll assume a +2 weapon, so with a basic attack we’re looking at, what, +2 for level, +2 for magic, +4 for stat, +2 or 3 for weapon accuracy, plus some random +1 for a feat. Baseline weapon is going to be +2/1d10 (battleaxe) or +3/d8 (Longsword). For illustration, I’m going with longsword because, hey, accuracy.

Given all that, that means a Basic Attack with an attack bonus of +12 and 1d8+7 damage (+2 for magic, +4 for stat, +1 for misc), for an average of 11.5 HP damage per round. However, on a crit, that’s 15+2d6, which we’ll call 22. However, Crits only happen 1 time in 20, so that contribution depends a lot on the hit range.

Ok, so given that, let’s look at a level 5 monster. default ac is roughly Level + 14, so that’s a 19 AC, so our hypothetical basic attack will hit on a 7 or better. Pretty good odds, 70%. That means that the real damage output (assuming basic attacks) is ((13*11.5) + 22)/20 = 8.575, so call it average of 8.6 damage per round. This, over our hypothetical 5 rounds, that’s 43 points of damage (which we will generously assume to be perfectly distributed). How does that stack up? Baseline for monsters is (8 + Con) + Level * 8. Since we’re talking level 5 monsters, then that’s about 58 HP, which is to say we’re about 15 points short of our hypothetical 5 round fight.

Still, since we’ve just been using Basic attacks to reach this number, that 5 round guideline does not seem too far out of reach with additions bonus damage from strikers, encounter and daily powers, action points, multiple targets and other random factors. There’s a lot of extra math I could do here, but I’m comfortable with a gut read here – that it’s not too hard to get up to the ~11 DPR necessary for a 5 round fight without excessively depleting resources.

I’m a little concerned at how well that scales though. Let’s look at levels 15 and 25.

At 15, we’ve gotten our key stat up to 22 (so, +6), we’ve got a +4 weapon, a +7 level bonus, and the feat bonus is now +2 to hit and damage, +3 since we still have a longsword, so +22 to hit for an average damage of D8+12 (average 16.5, 20+4d6=34 on a crit). Monster AC at this point is 29, so we’ve kept pace – we still hit on a 7+ so once again we calculate damage average as ((13 * 16.5)+34)/20=12.425, call it 12.4.

I’m already kind of worried. That’s 62 damage over 5 rounds. In contrast, our average monster is looking at 138 hit points. Where the level 5 fight required only about a 30% bump to make 5 rounds, this is more than 100%. I accept that we’ll be looking at a bigger bump (since the encounter and daily powers are more potent, and we’re seeing more feat synergy) but even if that’s 60% (which would be ~20 DPR) that’s a 7 round fight.

By the same math at 25 it’s +31 to hit and 2d8+16(25) on average and 32+6d6(53) on a crit vs monsters with an AC of 39, so we’ve dropped a little, hitting on an 8+. Damage output is ((12*25) + 53)/20=17.65 (or 88 in 5 rounds). Critters are looking at 218 HP, so the gap is even greater. With a 90% bump (to about 33), that’s about 6 rounds.

Obviously, this is pretty approximate, and I’m pondering the takeaways. It would be possible to crunch this further – assume a canonical party of 4, add in the bonus for fighter accuracy and rogue sneak attack, assume all encounter powers are used and re-run the numbers to see if it changes the result, but I’d be surprised if it was much more generous than my 30%/60%/90% progression. I admit, I was surprised that the distribution is as tight as it is – if you’d asked me, I’d have expected that Epic tier fights might be at least 2 to 3 times longer than regular ones given the HP totals.

More than anything, I think this gets me thinking about the impact of minions and elites/Solos on fight duration (and it also makes me all the more leery of high level monsters designed to exceed the specs). Elites seem the nastiest, since they’ve effectively got double HP for double XP, but also have an AC bump that stretches things out. Solos are not so bad, with effectively 4x HP for 5x XP, but the further bump in AC offsets that. To crunch the numbers a little, let’s look at the level 5 Elite. It takes 10-11 “man rounds” to drop 2 level 5 critters (that is, to do ~120 points of damage at 11 points per round). For the elite. we’re looking at an extra man-round as that +2 bump to AC about a 10% drop in damage, so now we’re looking at 12-13 man-rounds. For a comparable solo, we’re looking to do 240 damage against an even better AC, something like 29-30 man-rounds (more than doubling, though increasing in line with XP increase).

Minions, on the other hand, speed things up more and more as you level up, despite the fact that the amount of “wasted” effort increases. Consider, with 4 minions making a normal critter, the comparison for effort is to doing 25% damage to a normal critter in one hit. Thus, for example, if a level 5 monster should have 58 HP, then each minion is ~15 HP. Since average damage output is 12.4, that’s a good deal. It’ smote pronounces at level 25, when the monster might have 218hp – each minion hit is roughly equivalent to a 55 point hit. That’s a VERY good deal. It also backs up the intuitive sense that the pricing of minions may be a little askew, but that’s another topic.

Anyway, this is all back of a napkin math without any MM3 changes, so I welcome corrections. I’m not yet sure what to think, but I feel like I’m a little bit better armed to go forward. It occurs to me that one advantage of taking the deeper math plunge is that it might provide greater insight into what the “right” damage expressions are for powers. If fights are open ended, there’s no good answer, but if there’s a target duration (and, by extension, a target damage output) the suddenly there’s a potential for a real yardstick.

I’ll dig into this more when I have a combination of a spreadsheet and copious spare time, but it’ll probably be a few days.

How I Learned to Run a Fight

The Amber Diceless RPG (ADRPG) had a deceptively simple system: players in a contest compared the appropriate stat (there were only 4, so this was not hard) and the higher stat won. Simple as that, except for one small catch. See, while the stat established that baseline of victory, the GM took the fictional situation into account when figuring out the outcome. That meant that it was very much optimal to stack the deck in your favor whenever possible in hopes of overcoming your stat difference.

This absolutely reinforced a sort of backstabby theme by incentivizing betrayal, backstabbing, ambush and surprise, but it also shook up the static, predictable nature of the stats. Sure, everyone knew how a fair fight would go most of the time, but since fair fights were so rare, that only mattered so much.

This introduced some fascinating challenges to players and GMs. For players, it demanded creativity and an ability to really interact with the fiction. It also drove player descriptions towards advantage rather than outcome (something that translated well to the back-and-forth of online play). At the same time, it demanded a great deal of flexibility from the GM because the system provided very little in the way of guidelines for how much the elements of the fiction could really influence outcomes. That is to say, there was no hard and fast way to judge whether or not surprising that guy in his sleep was enough to overcome his badassery advantage. The information was not just obfuscated, it was entirely inaccessible, as it existed purely in the GM’s head. The only way to find out was to try.

Obviously, there were downsides to it. The system favored the player who could sync up descriptions with the GM’s sensibilities, and it could be arbitrary and unfair at times. Some GMs were entirely comfortable with that, but that possibility was placed front and center, so any GM with half a brain could grasp these risks and understand that she would need to rein in.

On the upside…man, it was a boot camp for how to run a good, engaging fight. Everything mattered, and every action was an opportunity to change things up, so you had every reason to bring your A game. As a GM, it forced you to develop a sense of how to interpret the fiction and the advantages it brought. You very quickly go “Ok, he has reach and better armor, but she brought the fight into close quarters, so that reach is less of an asset and may actually become a drawback. She’s crazy strong, but he’s willing to take a hit to hurt her.” then come to a conclusion regarding how all those factors should impact the fight [1], then dynamically update them in reaction to player actions, all while making sure the whole conflict feels brutally real and dangerous to combatants.

(Curiously, while the game had no real guidelines on how to judge the effect of advantages, it had a very nicely tiered set of potential outcomes which, so far as I know, no one ever used literally, but rather took as a lesson of the many ways a fight might end).

It’s pretty awesome. Totally subjective. Utterly subject to fiat. But awesome.

Anyway, the other thing this really taught you was to get a strong feel for advantage and diminishing returns, two things that are really essential for making a skill system feel like something other than a number crunching exercise. That, however, is a topic for another day.

[] 1- It’s actually because of this that I vastly prefer using relative advantage in combat systems, rather than modifiers for individual weapons, armor and such. Assuming a fair fight (zero bonus), you look at all the situational modifiers (which includes arms and armors) and just assign a bonus weighted by those things. It’s super fast, requires minimal bookkeeping, but requires enough practice that I’d hesitate to put it in any published book because I’m not sure how well it would be received.