Category Archives: 4e

Keeping 4e’s Skin

First, here’s an important qualifier. I like 4e a lot. I think the combat is a ton of fun, and it’s full of good ideas, so please do not take what is about to follow as a broad criticism of 4e. It’s not. It’s a solution to a problem I wrestle with at my own table, nothing more.

With that out of the way, let me lay something down. As much as I enjoy 4e as a miniatures combat game, if you were to remove that entirely, there would still be a lot that I really dig. In terms of pure color, I really rock out to a lot of what 4e brings to the table, from races to classes to paragon paths to epic destinies (and even, to a lesser extent, themes and feats). There is something powerfully essential about 4e classes that let’s me say “This guy is A Halfling Warlock, and his ladyfriend there is a Warforged Warden” and wham, I’m off to the races with ideas.

The rub is that none of those ideas have much to do with the crunchy bits. I care about their stats in an abstract way – I assume the Warden is strong and tough and that the Warlock is probably pretty cunning – but not in terms of specific numbers. I don’t care much about their equipment – it tells a story and has some practical considerations, but I’m not really asking for a laundry list. Even if I’m curious about their magic items, I’m inclined to think about them in more of a “one or two interesting widgets” sort of way. I’m not even that interested in their levels, except insofar as how that informs on other things (like their tier and whether Paragon paths or Epic Destinies are in play). I don’t care about their feats, except for ones that I can really see in the character, like an exotic weapon proficiency.

There are things I do care about, but even those are off kilter. I care what skills they have, but not at that numerical values they have them. They’re just important in terms of what they can do. I care what powers they have, but not in terms of the specifics of them – rather, I am interested in what kind of picture they create of the character and what kind of color they bring to the fight – a fighter with a lot of big heavy hit powers is different than one with a lot of tactical mobility, for example. Curiously, I care a fair amount about their respective power sources.

In this mode, I have a similar take on monsters, treasure and much of the rest of the game. I have at times spoken about re-skinning 4e for certain effects, but this impetus is quite the reverse. I’m inclined to do without the innards and just keep the skin.

Why would I do this? First, it frees me up to change the focus of the game a bit. Yes, 4e can do things other than combat, but it does combat SO WELL that it gravitates towards it. This is a sign of good design, but it creates a problem when the time and prep required for combat are too much for my schedule.

In a similar vein, it potentially eases the bookkeeping. The prospect of single page characters and not needing to dig through my buckets of minis and tiles has a certain appeal at times. This becomes doubly true when the reality is that some of my players will only play 4e if pushed into it. It’s just way more bookkeeping than they’re interested in.

Lastly, I find it a clarifying perspective. When I was talking about the academy game, I ended up really thinking about what play would be like when the only real mechanical differentiation between characters was race. It was far simpler than standard 4e, of course, but that very simplicity really made the differences FEEL more meaningful. The desire to shed certain mechanics is similar. It is not a desire to move away from 4e, but rather, a desire to move towards those things that I find most compelling within it.

Not sure if this will ever be more than an idle though, but it’s absolutely a more frequent idle thought these days.

Leveling Up To 1

There was a great discussion on twitter yesterday about what might go into a hypothetical RPG for new players based on changing 4e or Pathfinder. Lots of good ideas, but it also reminded me of another idea that I’ve been sitting on for a while, one that puts 4e through a lens of Harry Potter inspired school play.

The idea is based on a simple premise: first level 4e characters are pretty capable, enough so that it’s possible to create an arc from “zero level” to the place where a character starts play. This idea is that there’s some manner of academy for exceptional students who have the potential to “graduate” to being level 1 heroes. The exact details of the school are fodder for another post – maybe it’s a dungeon crawling academy, maybe it’s selecting future leaders of the land, maybe it’s a feeder to an even more elite school, maybe it’s something else. We’ll worry about it after the basics have been sorted out.

So how do you do this? First, start characters off with all their stats with one 8 and four 10’s and 1 12 (modified by race), 10 hit points and starting racial package of abilities.[1] All characters begin as trained in a single skill. This can be ANY skill, and this stands in lieu of a background bonus, and it is also the exceptional thing that drew the school’s attention to the kid.
Importantly, characters do NOT have all the capabilities of a first level character. Specifically, they cannot:

  • Flank
  • Aid Another
  • Bull Rush
  • Charge
  • Perform a Coup de Grace
  • Escape
  • Equip or Stow a Shield as an action
  • Grab
  • Second Wind
  • Total Defense
  • Perform any minor action (all require a move action)
  • Perform an Opportunity Attack

Characters are proficient in no armor or weapons, so even though the basic Attack action is available to them, they gain no proficiency bonuses. And, obviously, they have no class abilities, no powers, and just the one skill. Beyond that they’re basically a blank slate.

Play proceeds on that assumption, and the DC for pretty much everything the characters might do is 10, which means they’ll be really fantastic at their particular schtick, and capable at their racial ones

The model of play, then, is to follow a pattern of going to a class about some element of this (such as basic arms training) with a quirky and interesting teacher. After the class is done, they get the particular ability, and are then faced with a challenge (either an explicit school test, or some part of the plot) which makes use of that skill or set of skills. For example, after the characters have learned Aid Another, they may be faced with a challenge with an impossible difficulty (like a DC 21 for something none of them have any bonus towards) that they need to overcome.

Once the characters have gone through all the universally available things (like the actions above, as well as learning their initial feat) they may then choose a class as their academic focus, and the process will be similar, with characters learning class abilities, and eventually powers, in their classes. The goal is that, at graduation, the characters have all the abilities they would if they’d created the character at first level.

Now, exactly how many times you want to repeat this cycle is going to depend a lot on your group. Some groups might want to rip through this stuff, others might want to stretch it out. This can just as easily be a single night’s play as it can be an entire campaign, especially depending on how much you want to focus on challenges and play within the school. Whatever you decide, divide 20 points [2] among that many periods and let players spend them as they wish.

For example, a school with 4 years, two sememsters each, might do Basic combat training (Simple Weapon Prof, Equipping shields, minor actions ad flanking) semester one, Advanced training (Aid Another, Bull Rush, Charge, Grab & Escape) second semester, Focus exercises (Second WInd, Total Defense, Coup De grace, Opportunity Attack) third semester then Horizon broadening (First Feat and trained skill) fourth semester. Class is then “assigned” at the end of the second year (angst!) and we move onto more class-specific classes.

Now, part of the appeal of this is that school play is fun. It takes work to bring the school to life and bring in challenges that keep players engaged, but it’s a neat setting premise with a familiar literary base. But there is also some appeal in that you can make learning 4e a part of the process. Players can start with only a minimal understanding of the system, and with each successive challenge, they pick up a few more fiddly bits. Only after they’ve got a sense of the basics do they even need to start worrying about class abilities and powers, and at that point, they’ll probably look pretty darn awesome.

Anyway, this is obviously only half an idea. Without a solid pitch for what the school looks like, it’s got no wings. But I’ll be shocked if some of you are not already thinking “What does 4e Hogwarts look like?”

[back] 1 – You can actually start without Racial Abilities for all races and come up with progressions for them to learn them, but this requires that the GM work things out on a race by race basis, and requires some thought regarding what races are allowed in the school. This is easy to do, but it requires more bookkeeping than I can squeeze into an already long post. Humans are probably the easiest to do in this way – just delay their bonus stuff until after play has begun.

[back] 2 − 20, not 22 because 2 points bought the starting 12. And if you use some other method of stat generation, then just apply the idea rather than the specific mechanic. The improvements come steadily over the course of play.

Keeping Tempo in 4e

I often feel that the places that 4e falls down are often a result of false starts. The game may have the core of a good idea, but fail to pursue it far enough. One of the best examples of this is tempo – the pace of encounters.

Historically, D&D has had a problem with the “5 minute work day”, where players would load for bear and go into an encounter guns blazing, using all their big spells for a quick, decisive win. They would then withdraw and rest long enough to recover spells and repeat the process. Numerous GMing techniques have emerged over time to try to mitigate this behavior, and players have responded with more and more clever tricks. It’s simply such an effective technique that it will always have some allure.

4e took steps to reduce this by changing the power structure so there were fewer buffs (spells that enhanced a character over a period of time) and fewer one-shot abilities. Characters would always have their at-will powers and usually have their encounter powers, and that left only the daily abilities. This meant that there was no longer the problem of the “useless” magic user being left without options, and that was a big help, but there’s still some temptation to go whole hog with the dailies, then recover.

To offset this, 4e introduced a pair of tempo mechanics. First, you’d pick up one action point every 2 encounters, and if you took a long rest, your pool would reset back to 1 AP. Second, some of your magic items would get better after a certain number of encounters. The idea behind these mechanics was straightforward: to provide incentives to keep pushing on rather than just stop and replenish resources. It was a good idea, but fell short in practice. The magic item improvements were fiddly and rarely worth the effort, and the action point economy was…flawed. Setting aside spending limits and slow accumulation, there was a simple piece of math that if you used you AP in your first encounter, there were two ways to get it back: have another encounter or take a long rest. The optimal choice was pretty obvious.

But the thing is, I like the _idea_ of tempo a lot. I really want to give players a reason to conserve their dailies and push on without feeling like they’re being screwed.

One obvious fix is to change up the action point economy. Give more points, allow broader use of them and so on. This is an interesting enough topic in its own right, but I worry a little bit about it because decisions of use vs. stockpile always seem to work better on paper than they do in play. It tends to go to extremes of behavior very quickly.

So I’m now considering something much more simple: grant a tempo bonus equal to the number of encounters so far. That bonus applies to attacks and damage but not to defense. So after encounter #3, you’re at +3 to hit and +3 to damage.

Now, my first instinct was to back off from that as overwhelming, maybe cut it down to +1 per two encounters even, but I think that’s wrong. The bonus needs to be immediate and appealing enough to offset the loss of recovery, and by allowing it to escalate dramatically, you introduce some real choice. After the 5th encounter, you’re hell on wheels, but you are probably also very nearly dead on your feet. Do you take a break and give up that huge bonus, or do you push on and risk it? Remember, your defenses aren’t going up, so even though you can kill enemies more quickly and reliably, you’re still going to be taking hits.

To me, that feels like a more substantial choice. One with real opportunity costs, and one that invites more complex spending behavior than is currently encouraged. What’s more, once I get past that reflexive twitch against giving the players an ‘abusable’ option like this, I think about the things it invites (less whiffing, faster fights but with real risk) and the possibility that it moves the “sweet spot” a few encounters deeper into the dungeon, and I really like it. A lot. Enough that I wish I was running it right this second.

Breaking the Mould

There is no reason that 4e character classes could not be designed radically differently. WOTC has a clear template for them (a flawed one) and there’s a knee-jerk instinct to follow that same pattern, but I don’t think anything makes that necessary.

I’d suggest that all that is really required for a functional 4e class is that it have about the right number of hit points, about the right defenses, and about the right range of attacks and abilities. It’s not an exact science, but it’s not hard to ballpark. If all you need to do is hit those benchmarks, then it becomes much less important how you do so.
For example, you could greatly simplify the game by using each existing class as a means of creating numerous more streamlined sub-classes, by simply taking away choices. The Iron Tempest class begins with these two at wills, this encounter power and this daily, and the power choices (and other choices, perhaps) might be mapped out from level 1 to level 30.
On the other hand, this means that much more radical (or perhaps regressive) ideas could be supported. There’s nothing that keeps a 4e character from gaining abilities as he levels, the way that characters did in 3e. It need not even be encounter or daily powers. While those are the norm, it’s still entirely possible to adjudicate something that’s usable 3 times per day or the like.
Yes, any such model hits the big wall of all third party class creation – it doesn’t work with the character builder. That’s frustrating. But it occurs to me that it’s only a barrier because of the complexity of handling 4e characters as is. If you’re going to change the way you think about classes, is there any reason your new vision needs to be so complicated that it requires a tool?
It’s an open door. If it was only a little bit open before, I think it’s safe to say that Gamma World kicked it wide. No reason not to see where it goes.

Fiction, Fairness and 4e

In my discussion of the role of skills in spotlighting character awesomeness in 4e (or more precisely, the lack of this) the counterpoint of solving the problem in the fiction of the game was raised and I think this merited some attention. There are a lot of issues with games – not just 4e but any other games – that can be addressed in the fiction of the game rather than with rule changes. This is especially true of things that relate to the role of the players in the context of the game. How important and respected the characters are is only sometimes a function of rules. However, there’s a point where this breaks down. When you need to solve a problem for the group, then look to the fiction, but when you need to solve a problem for a character, it’s less reliable.

Let’s look at the specific case of rangers and tracking. If I want to respect the idea of tracing as a Ranger schtick despite 4e’s not doing so, there are a few fiction and technique options available to me. I can certainly have other people _react_ like he’s exceptional (fiction) and I can make his failures more reflective of his awesomeness (You didn’t fail because you sucked, you failed because it was SO HARD that only you even faintly had a chance of doing it! – fiction) but that’s a pretty meh solution. The reactions aren’t very compelling unless they hold water in play. The fiction of failure looks like a good idea on the surface of it, but it leads me to ask when you’re _not_ doing that? If respectful failures are only an exception in your game then I would consider that a red flag.

The last solution is, of course, to make the Ranger’s rolls inherently more potent, or increase the number of situations where I don’t call for a roll. I can certainly couch this in terms of fiction, but the reality is that at that point I’m making a mechanical distinction (whether I acknowledge it or not) and that’s where the ice gets thin. At that point, we have to deal with the reality that someone else in the party can make the roll too, and they (reasonably) expect that the outcomes of their rolls will be proportional. If the Ranger and I both roll a 17 but his outcome is much better than mine, I’m going to call foul.

Now here’s the important point about it being a rule that’s very easy to overlook. My objection is not going to be that Ranger’s shouldn’t be awesome at tracking. If you ask me, I’ll agree they probably should be. Rather, the root of my objection is that this idea has never been communicated clearly or usefully, and my expectations have been violated. I like to assume that most GMs are good enough to make smart, engaging, fun rulings on the fly, and that’s great, but it’s foolish to rely on that. Not because the GM is going to trip up or be a jerk, but because the players have no visibility into a ruling-based process. A rule is a means of communication, and in solving problems (especially problems between players) more communication is almost always better.

Now, obviously, some games call for more or less of this (The Amber DRPG is almost entirely ruling based, while 4e actively strives to minimize the need for such rulings) and more, some tables have radically different ideas regarding how this should be approached. Often, the “GM-As-God” approach has less to do with GM authority than with lack of GM accountability. And if people dig that, then awesome. Go forth and continue having fun.

But the bottom line is this: the fact that the GM can fix things in play does not excuse shoddy game design, and it doesn’t excuse shoddy GMing either.

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?

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.

The Fiction of 4e

An interesting discussion the other day got me thinking about the fiction of 4e. Not in terms of novels and the like (though I’m sure those would be an interesting subject) but rather in the fiction implicit in the game. This is not, to my mind, about the little map in the back of the DMG, or even about the idea of Points of Light. Both are good, interesting things, but what I dwell upon is the fiction as implied by the rules. That is to say, what does it mean that these classes, races, items and spells exist in the world, and how does that shape things.

Possibly the most profound change to D&D that 4e brought about was the introduction of symmetry. Characters are all roughly on par with one another in terms of capabilities. There are plenty of differences in the small details and between roles, but by and larger, two characters of the same level are in roughly the same weight class in almost every measure (combat ability, skills, stats, gear and so on).

This was not true of previous editions. The most obvious discrepancy was between spell-casters (especially magic users) and everyone else. At very low levels, the wizard might be a one-use wand, but at higher levels, he could reshape mountains with a single spell. Later editions worked to close this gap some, but it was always a baseline part of the game. If nothing else, the spellcaster was going to be more effective on the round he cast a potent spell than the round he didn’t, while the fighter would be pretty consistent in his damage. A similar problem existed for specialist classes (which is to say, thieves), and broadly speaking different classes peaked at different times (all to say nothing of potentially tragically drastic problems of gear disparity).

4e smoothed that all out. Everything’s on pretty much equal footing. And that’s great for gameplay, but a little rough for fiction. It’s a lot easier to build a story (or a world) out of a messy system full of odd discrepancies than it is from one where everything fits together neatly.

This is not to say it can’t be done. In fact, I think it’s possible to build a great many very interesting fictions around 4e, but the secret of doing so is to recognize that even if the mechanics push things to equity, the setting need not do the same.

The rub is that, as rules material, all races and classes (and to a lesser extent, monsters) are presented on fairly equal footing. When your group sits down to make characters, there is nothing that dictates that Dragonborn Paladins are rare or that Human Fighters are common. Some pairings might be suggested by the mechanics, but all options are equally available and equally valid.

For chargen, this is a great thing, but for fiction, it’s problematic. If you infer a setting that is simply a big melting pot of these classes and races, you are inferring a fairly boring, sloppy setting, and in turn, a dull fiction. Fiction depends on tension, which in turn depends on discrepancies. Some races need to be rarer or more common than others. Some classes need to have strong cultural roles, with baggage that varies from place to place.

Consider the Warden. I really dig this class, but there’s a strong implicit story to it – if there are Wardens, then there are things they protect. So what happens when you ask how many Wardens there are in a setting? If there are only a few, it might be a secret, elite order, or the remnants of an old tradition, clinging to the past. If there are lots, then there might be a warden for every place of importance in the setting. Those answers and all the answers in between mean a lot to any player who wants to play a Warden and to the game as a whole. And that’s just one axis – we haven’t even touched upon the role of race in the process.

By making these kinds of decisions, the DM is capable of determining what is anomalous or rare in a game. Perhaps there are only Seven Paladins in all the world at any given time. Perhaps Sword Mages are only trained in one tower off on this mysterious island. Maybe Shardminds exist only in a hidden valley where their worldship crashed. Maybe the Dragonborn have a vast mercantile empire, and can be found everywhere. Maybe there are no Dwarves.

But this does come back to the strength of 4e’s level playing field. Historically, if there were only 7 Paladins in the setting, that usually meant that no one could play a Paladin, because those slots were reserved for cool NPCs. By shunting the rarity of things over to the fiction, you can open the door to any character the players want to play, and allow it, with an understanding of how it fits into the world. While not every player looks to embrace the unique or anomalous, many do. Playing the oddball, outcast or outsider is a lot of fun, but it requires that there be something to be outside of in the first place.

It’s important to note that none of this is what one might normally think of as world building. It’s not about writing histories or developing factions. Rather, it’s about arranging the pieces you’ve been given in a way you (and your table) find satisfying. This means making the world less fair than the game, but that’s the only way you’re going to make a world worth playing in.

Building a Challenge

Ok, let’s do this thing:

Climbing the Mountain
Ok, the mountain. It’s big, it’s windy, it’s snowy, there are bad things living there that want to eat your face. You guys need to get to the top, probably because there’s some ancient city or something up there. I dunno. Make something up. For reference, let’s say this is about a level 5 challenge. I want to make it a big, but not hugem one, so I’m going to create a budget based off about 3 monsters. That’s 192 situation points to play with

The baseline challenge here is probably going to be the ongoing storm. I could probably do something complicated revolving around decreasing temperatures or the like, but honestly, it’s a to simpler to treat this as straight damage. So, let’s start from this baseline:

Winter Storm
Initiative: 0
SP: 192 (82 after budgeting)
AC: – Fortitude: 20, Reflex: 19, Will: 17[1]
Icy Winds (Standard, At Will)
+9 vs fortitude; 1d8+2 cold damage against all targets

With nothing more than that, the challenge would be simple: Every round the storm attacks, and every round the players make skill attacks, following this general logic:

Circumvent – Take risks to do cool things like cross ice bridges and otherwise look awesome, mostly with athletics or acrobatics.
Manipulate – Really, this is just a matter of sucking it up and struggling on.
Understand – Find paths and routes that minimize exposure to the storm, using Nature or perception.
Smash – Smashing isn’t really an option – you can’t fight the storm, so it’s not really on the table.
Powers – Using a power with a strong movement component counts as a skill use. If it has a damage component, then use that, but if not, then for an encounter power do 1d10+4 base, and for a daily, 2d8+4.

Base damage will be (1d6+4/1d10+4/2d8+4) + Stat + 1/2 level. Since I want to reward certain options and diminish the effectiveness of others. I want the rangers and such to get their chance to shine here, so use of Nature will get a damage bump of one step (Possibly up to the 4th level, 3d6+4). On the other hand, just slogging along is kind of dull, so I think it will drop damage by one step.

That’s enough to cover the basics, so now we need to jazz it up.

First, let’s start thinking about things that can happen to jazz it up. It’s a wintery mountain, so attacks by monsters and avalanches both spring to mind.

For monsters, I’ll throw in a pack of half a dozen wolves (Level 5 critters) using their stats as normal, so I’ll take 60 SP out of the challenge to budget for them, making them 10 HP apiece. And, actually, I’ll take another 10 to make the leader of the pack a grizzled, scarred old alpha with 20hp and +1s across the board (a poor man’s elite).

Now, I could do the Avalanche by making it an attack the storm makes (effectively an encounter power), but I want it to have a little more substance, so it’s going to be it’s own problem. I’m going to take another 40sp from the budget for it. That’s low enough that it’s not going to be too tough to overcome, but it’s not trivial.

Initiative: 0
SP: 40
AC: – Fortitude: 21, Reflex: 18, Will: 19
Wall of Snow (Standard, At Will)
+11 vs Reflex, 2d8+4 damage and target is Scattered

“Scattered” is a special status, indicating someone’s been separated from the group. On the plus side, they can no longer be attacked by the Avalanche. On the downside, if the wolves comes, no one can help you out. A scattered character cannot make any attacks against the storm. To remove the scattered status, a character (either the scattered character or another character who is not scattered) must make a nature check with a DC of 20 (effectively passing up a chance to attack the storm.

Attacking the Avalanche
Circumvent – Outrun it, or do something like jump from passing boulder to passing boulder (Acrobatics)
Manipulate – Ride it out! (Athletic or endurance)
Understand – Find Shelter! (Perception or nature – as with the storm, nature gets a damage bump.
Smash – No options
Powers – Using a power with a strong movement component or with a Wall component (something that might create shelter) counts as a skill use. If it has a damage component, then use that, but if not, then for an encounter power do 1d10+4 base, and for a daily, 2d8+4.

OK, I think that covers it. Does that seem playable?

1 – These defenses are about a point high for a monster of that level. That’s intentional, since skills are going to be a bit higher than attacks at this level.

What Doesn’t Work

I put out a call for challenge requests and got some interesting ones, but what struck me that that many of them were most interesting for why they don’t work, so I’m going to be doing counter-examples today. These are all things you might want to do in a game, but they’re not necessarily good candidates for the combative model of challenges.

1. Convincing a judge that the defendant is innocent
I admit I’d be leery of trying this on in play because it’s very hard to draw in the whole group. Legal arguments support tag teaming very poorly. However, you could make a larger challenge out of the investigation AND the case, especially if you were willing to go all Law & Order on it. That is to say, the investigation actions could diminish the SP of the prosecution’s case to the point where the lawyer’s arguments can do enough damage to the case to finish it off.

The problem with this is that it’s difficult to create any real sense of urgency to this. There’s potentially big stakes (especially if the player’s are arguing their own case) but it’s difficult to come up with ways for the investigators and lawyers to be threatened. Instead, you’d need to do something like put this on a timeline, allowing only a limited number of rounds. Mechanically, this works fine, but it overlooks one key element: If players are doing an investigation, then it’s probably because they _like_ investigation, so doing it entirely as abstract rolls probably removes some of their enjoyment of figuring it out.

So while I wouldn’t make a challenge out of it, I might steal a bit from the model to mix with an idea from Gumshoe, and put clues behind small challenges that generally don’t fight back. That is to say, players will always be able to find the clues, so long as they look for them. If the philosophy of this approach is uncomfortable, then there’s no need to use it. It’s just an idea for using clues to get to other things, rather than playing to get to clues.

2. Indiana Jones Escaping from the Rolling Boulder

Fred actually did this one very effectively in play. Putting the boulder on the map and simply moving it forward was more than enough of a threat to represent the idea.

3. Research something in a library

Research is pretty boring stuff under the best of circumstances, but unless the books are jumping off the shelves to attack the players, there’s not much back and forth to it. You’re pretty much just marking time to get the job done. Curiously, this is one of the tasks that a vanilla skill challenge can handle quickly and discretely, provided you think letting your players fail at research isn’t super lame. Which it is, if it’s plot-driving.

Of course, if the books ARE attacking the characters, then you may have the most awesome library ever.

4. Survive a Plague

This is an interesting one for a couple of reasons (setting aside existing disease rules, which are actually pretty good). First and foremost, are you _really_ going to let your characters die from the plague? I mean, I guess you might if you’ve got some crazed ideas about realism, but would that really make a fun game for anybody?

Second, it’s very passive. Unless you want to roll a lot of hand-washing and water-boiling actions, then this is not going to be a lot of fun or particularly interesting.

Both of these suggest that this might be a great _backdrop_ to something else (dealing with a dungeon while fighting off a disease is one of those ideas that’s good on paper, but has been lame in every published implementation I’ve scene). Alternately, it might be a good problem at a larger scale (protect a town from the depredations of plague) , but on a personal level, it’s just not engaging enough.

So why talk about what doesn’t work? Because I think that’s important to understanding a tool. See, here’s the thing: I _could_ use the combative challenge to model any of those things, and when I was younger, I had a sort of geeky machismo which would want to do so just to illustrate that this particular tool “can do anything!”. That was a little silly, because I wasn’t smart enough to distinguish between something you can do and something that’s not worth doing.

The purpose of this idea is not to create some sort of super-catchall replacement that keeps you from ever having to use another tool. It’s to add another tool to your bag, one that handles a different kind of situation. Yes, you might use this method and stop using skill challenges (or vice versa), but as a GM, you’ll be better prepared for play if you could use either, and can pick the tool that best fits the situation (or better yet, steal parts from both or either tool as needed).

This is one of those things that books and rules can only help so much with. They can help tell a GM how to use EVERYTHING, or how to use one thing really well, but the reality of play is going to take you somewhere between those points, and learning what not to use is a critical skill in navigating those waters.