Category Archives: 4e

Mapping the Challenge

Not every challenge needs a map (or equivalent) to work well. Often the challenge revolves around something large and amorphous which can be engaged by any character at any time. However, maps make challenges more interesting.

It’s possible that’s backwards. It may be more accurate to say that challenges with different fronts, which allow different courses of action, are more interesting, and it’s simply that those challenges also tend to want maps. But that gets enough into chicken and egg territory that I’ll stick with the simpler version: Maps are a way to make a challenge more awesome.

There are two things a map is going to do, in a purely abstract way, which drive play. A map reveals what elements of a challenge are in play at the moment, and it creates a geography of use. That is to say, if there are two seperate parts of the challenge, then that is roughly akin to there being two separate “rooms” for characters to enter, depending upon which part they wish to engage.

Implicit in both of these is the idea that there’s more than one element to a challenge. Mechanically, the GM has used the SP pool to buy one ore more problems (what I’ll call these sub-challenges) to harass the players. It’s important to be aware that the GM rarely _has_ to buy problems to run a challenge, but doing so keeps the challenge from being too abstract.

To illustrate all these ideas, let’s use a ship passing through dangerous waters. This is easy to model as a challenge – the ship has hit points which the storm attacks, player actions try to run out or weather the storm. However, this is kind of a dull challenge on its face. The level of engagement is kind of abstract, and when played at a high level, the fact that there’s no sailing skill (or equivalent) in 4e introduces a lot of skill confusion. If we want to make this a more exciting challenge, we want to make the actions more diverse and personal.

So, let’s say I take the SP I budgeted for that storm and I start dividing it off into problems. Thinking about it, there are three big issues on the ship: navigation, keeping the rigging intact, and manning the bilges. Right off the bat, I could use those to create three “zones” where players would need to choose to array themselves (The rigging, the wheel and the hold), so they can attack the problem tied to that area. From the players perspective, this calls for an allocation of resources because even if the rules for moving between zones are simple (change zones instead of making an attack against the challenge) you don’t want to waste time on that when things get tense.

From the GM’s perspective, this allows me to threaten different things in different ways. For example, let’s assume I’m designing the problem that the navigators are facing the same way I would a monster. Sure, it’s got a basic attack (storms buffet the ship, do some damage) but I can also give it other attacks that threaten other things. How about a rechargeable “Waves smash over the side of the ship” attack that threatens the players directly rather than the ship? Does some damage and forces them to spend some time (an important resource) tying themselves down, something that may cause complications later. With that, the guys manning the wheel and trying to keep the ship on course have concrete things to do and deal with which are anything but abstract.

That illustrates the separation that the map allows, but there’s also the element of the reveal. In my game, each of these “zones” would be represented by an index card or post-it for players to put their minis near to indicate where they are. After they’ve beaten one of them, I would then place another note on the table: “The Sea Monster” (because I love the classics).[1]

As GM, I know this sea monster has always been part of the challenge, but if I’d laid it out with the other problems at the outset, it would have changed the nature of the scene into “Fight, and also this other stuff”. By breaking the challenge into problems, I can control the sequencing, and only after the players are already invested in this “other stuff” to I roll out the monster, so that they’re facing a very real choice between keeping the ship safe from the storm and keeping the people on the ship safe from the thing grabbing people off the deck.

Obviously, you can get much more sophisticated than this illustration. A challenge might have lots and lots of small problems, with the problems scattered around the map or coming in waves, but the basic structure is easy to achieve.

Implicitly, problems also end up simplifying the issue of initiative. If problems act on their turn, like monsters, then multiple problems means multiple actions. This spares us needing to do any initiative tricks to maintain a sense of pacing, since that will just happen organically.

Now, I want to reiterate that not every challenge needs a map – the trap from yesterday, for example, can do fine without one – but if you expect the challenge to be large and engaging, then building ti as a map of problems is going to make things a lot more engaging than just build one big lump of trouble.

1 – Conceptually, you might also think of the challenge as a dungeon. It opens with doors into 3 rooms (Navigation, rigging and bilge) which all exit onto the large “sea monster” room, which you get to by beating the “monster” in the room you went through. You could, if you particularly like the idea, build entire challenges as abstract dungeons (because dungeon is just another word for flowchart).

How Challenges Hurt

It’s pretty easy to model a damage-dealing challenge. On some level, that’s what almost any trap is. Consider the classic “Hallway full of darts” – it makes an attack against each player after they act for some amount of damage and players try to dodge through, spot pressure plates or disarm the mechanism. Right off the bat this is something that’s pretty easy to model as a combat challenge, with the player’s able to inflict damage by trying to circumvent (dodge), Understand (find patterns, stay off pressure plates) or manipulate (disarm). Smashing is probably off the table since hitting the walls with a sword doesn’t help much, but that’s fine. Player might be able to use acrobatics or athletics to dodge, perception, dungeoneering or maybe even stealth to try to avoid triggering it, or dungeoneering to try to disarm it.

The DM sets the difficulty of these things by setting the defenses, which helps dictate the shape of the challenge. In many challenges, one path might be easier than others (so it may have a weak defense). Alternately, a challenge may have one best solution and many ok solutions, in which case the approach that supports the most skills will have the highest defense, while the specialized defense may be lower. In the case of the dart trap, Understanding supports lots of skills, so that might mean a high will defense, but only one skill is useful for manipulating, so the fort defense might be the low one.[1](It’s also entirely reasonable for the DM to give the challenge vulnerability to certain approaches. Vulnerability 10 (Disarm) might be a little awkward on the page, but the idea is pretty workable).

All very easy, but it gets more complicated when we get out into the realm of other challenges, ones with consequences that are less easily measured in hit points. This is where the GM really needs to put some thought into things because this is probably the single most important part of designing a good challenge, though this may not be immediately be obvious.

What the GM needs to decide is what this challenge threatens and determine how to measure that. The easiest way to do this is to express this in terms of some kind of currency. Just as Hit Points are a currency for the health and well being of the characters, there may be other currencies to reflect other important things.

There are a few existing currencies within 4e beyond hit points. Treasure (both gold and magic) and XP are both good examples. I’d be very hesitant to threaten a character’s XP with a challenge, but it might be reasonable to threaten money, such as with a challenge that imposes repair bills. Dark Sun also introduced the idea of “Provisions” as currency, and that makes for a GREAT currency for outdoor challenges over time.

However, there will not always be some existing currency for you to use, in which case the GM’s going to have to think of something to use that reflects the situation. This could be something concrete in the situation (like, each round, one of the seven sentinels falls) or it may be an arbitrary pool of points (the resolve of the citizenry has 100 points, but the propaganda of the cultists is doing damage to it every round).

As a math or game exercise, this is easy enough to do, but the trick is to make sure the currency is something more than an abstract exercise. The first trick of this is to realize that there are two main ways to handle currency and you don’t want to mix them. The first kind has intrinsic value, like gold. Every time it’s diminished, the owner loses out on something, and a near win is still going to be very costly. The second kind works as ablative protection for something else, like Hit Points do with health. The actual loss of the currency doesn’t cost much of anything, but if the currency is completely expended, then something very terrible happens.

Intrinsic currency is usually less valuable in total than ablative currency – that is to say, losing all your money may stink, but not as much as a sucking chest wound. That’s important for GMs to bear in mind when deciding how to structure the currency for a challenge. Intrinsic currency is useful when a challenge is supposed to be inconvenient and to burn through resources. Ablative currency is better for the all or nothing.

There’s a temptation to mix the two with a sense that doing so increases the stakes, and thus the excitement and tension of the challenge. COnsider launching attacks against the PC’s troops. If damage removes troops, that’s intrinsic (because it diminishes the resource) but it also feels like an ablative challenge because if they lose, all the troops are lost. That’s dangerous and tricky, since it is more likely to increase frustration – for players it can feel like they’re in a lose-lose situation. The currency loss hurts badly enough that the whole exercise feels pointless.

Sometimes that’s desirable, such as to underscore a very bleak situation, but that should be _rare_.

One alternative to consider in all this is to give the PCs SP’s, just as they have HP. That’s actually a very workable model, and if you can get the table to accept the idea that these all work as measures of how long the player can stay functional rather than concrete measures of health then you’re ready to rock.[2] That is a little bit of a weird idea, though, so I’m not counting on it.

Anyway, the question of how the challenge hurts you back is only one issue on the table. Tomorrow, we need to figure out when and where it gets a chance to do so.

1 – When building a challenge, the question to ask is whether you’re trying to engage the group equally or if you’re looking to give one player a chance to showcase his particular strengths (like the classic thief disarming a trap or wizard deciphering arcane runes). That can give you

2 – You can even keep them the same as HP. Yes, there’s a temptation to switch stat from situation to situation, but that invites bookkeeping pain. Instead, I would suggest that endurance is the one truly unifying element required for all human endeavors. It’s physical necessity is obvious, and for mental exertion I would suggest that while wisdom is all about that burst of will and focus that lets you shrug off a mental assault, constitution is still what you lean on to decide not to have that cigarette. (Yes, this is a rationalization of a mechanic. I’m ok with that).

The Challenge Strikes Back

If you spend time designing monster for 4e you will quickly discover that while some parts of the design are pretty standardized, like hit points and defenses, others are much more art than science. Specifically, monster abilities follow few hard and fast guidelines, and are instead something you come up with by mixing your ideas with a rough overview of the abilities of monsters at a similar level.

This is important because “combat-izing” challenges requires a similar mindset. The simple reality is every challenge will be a little bit different. In many ways, creating a challenge is more akin to creating a monster (where elements must be created from scratch) than creating an encounter (where existing elements must be arranged cleverly). This may seems like a very fine distinction, but it’s a critical one.[1]

We’ve already got some of the most important elements of making challenges feel more like combat – tools for pacing, acting and determining victory – but those are all from the perspective of the actor (in this case, the PCs). To handle the rest of the model we need three more tools to round things out: Sequencing, Situation and Consequence.

In combat, these handled by initiative, the battle mat, and the various monster attacks and actions. Ideally, we want some equivalency with these ideas (because they’re familiar and comfortable to players) but we don’t need to adhere so closely to them that we trip ourselves up.

Sequencing is the easiest to get out of the way: initiative is a very flexible concept since it’s ultimately just the order things happen in. There are basically 3 possible models here:
1. Roll initiative as normal (possibly for each challenge element)
2. Go around the table, then the challenge acts
3. Challenge acts after each player acts.

These are pretty self explanatory, especially the fact that #3 is much more dangerous from the player’s perspective. I’m not going to dwell on this for the moment because I think this is the easiest element to handle, but may also be the most situational. If nothing else, it’s just not going to make sense until we have the rest of the model in place.

Situation, on the other hand, is pretty critical. In combat, the map serves as a passive answer to a lot of critical questions. Yes, there’s range and counting squares and stuff, but there are also broader situational things like who’s in play or what areas are threatened (and by what threats). We probably would not want a literal battlemat, but at the same time, we want to provide enough ambient information to keep things clear for the players. That suggests that a more abstract model, such as diagram mapping or a card-game model might be in order.

Lastly, consequences are probably the most nuanced of these, in part because of their role. While we’re streamlining sequencing and initiative, we’re actually _enhancing_ consequences. Combat consequences are generally limited to hit points and death.[2] In a challenge, the consequences are far more wide ranging. Certainly, the personal health and safety of the characters may be at risk, but many challenges will threaten other things entirely. Whatever it is the challenge threatens, there needs to be a way to express it, probably through the depletion of some sort of currency (of which hit points are an example). So that introduces two issues: representing the currency at risk and then representing _how_ to threaten it (that is to say, how to damage it).

So, the next step is to break those elements out, and run through how to handle them.

1 – This is also fairly early thinking on this idea. If this gets some traction and use and there is ever a substantial body of example to reference (akin to a monster manual) then the dynamic will change, as challenges can be built out of various “problems” which have been used and documented.

2 – Statuses occupy an interesting niche here, in that they are consequences, but only in a very short term sense. They don’t get taken away from the fight, though they may have a profound impact on the ultimate outcome of the fight. Curiously, that’s more akin to a situational element – a status is not a piece of geography, but its impact on the fight is very similar. It forces decisions and drives the direction of action. I think there’s a place for statuses (and status-equivalents) in challenges, but for this reason I think it belongs under situation, not consequences. That said, games like Mouseguard have done a great job of illustrating ways to handle long term status-like effects, but that may be a bit too far out on a limb for this.

This Is Not A Science

First, 2 Realizations:
1) SP is also used for currency, but to heck with it, I’ll keep using it for the time being. This whole thing is going to need a big language cleanup by the time it’s done.
2) Rather than 1d6/1d8/1d0 damage progression, it probably makes more sense to use the light, medium and heavy damage progressions from page 42. I’ll still use the previous model for illustration because I can remember it, but at the table, I’d totally go with the other approach.

All right, so with the basic concept in place, let’s start with how to actually build a situation. Assuming a default monster HP level of 24 + 8 per Level, it’s pretty easy to do a quick XP/budget conversion. A single 7th level monster is equal to a situation with 80sp. That math is pretty easy. What exactly to do with those 80 points is a little more interesting. It’s effectively a budget with which to create problems, or to reflect player action. For example, breaking into the enemy camp might be an 80 sp challenge, or you might break it down into 4 20sp guards who need to be overcome.

Now, one fun part of this is that, in theory, SP can be converted 1:1 with hit points. That is to say, if I’m running a fight with an elite opponent with 250 hit points, I could take 50 of those points and turn them into SP and use them to make the fight more interesting. In strictly literal practice, there are some problems with this: monster hit points are not actually consistent with this and the budgeting will not always be intuitive. Much the same way traps can sometimes be turned against enemies, there are going to be time it makes sense to keep hitting the situation rather than the monster.

And here, right here, is the critical decision point. Those are real roadblocks, and not every player would be comfortable going past them, and as such, it’s entirely reasonable to say this model won’t work for you. No harm no foul. But if you can tolerate the loosey-goosey, GM improvisation this demands then stick with me. You can do some cool stuff with this.

First, don’t worry too literally about monster hit points. If you bring a monster in as its own encounter element then you know what the rules are for that. It has a certain number of hit points and costs a certain amount of XP. No problem. But when you throw in a monster as part of a situation, its hit points are just a part of the situation. To illustrate, consider the 20sp guard. We can “beat” him by doing 20 points of damage (progress) with stealth, but if it turns into a fight, he’ll have 20hp (or more aptly, 20 hp minus any reduction in sp from earlier skill rolls).

This rolls into the second thing: If you have a monster that also has a challenge component, don’t worry too strictly about distinguishing it’s HP budget from it’s SP budget because – and this is the kicker – really they’re the same thing. Consider, for example, the group being attacked by a goblin horde (treated as one creature). The players can fight – just keep killing goblins until they stop – but maybe they want to try to scare them off (Intimidation). If a player wants to engage the “situation”, then he might use intimidation to reduce SP, which comes out of the horde’s HP budget.[1] Something similar might happen when you try to reason with someone you’re fighting, trying to convince him not to fight.[2]

This interoperability with hit points would not work on its own, but there’s another important element of challenges – the difficulty. How hard is it to do this stuff? To answer that, I ask the much more important question: What are you going to do?

There’s an instinct to answer “Use this skill!” but that overlooks something important. The goal here is to open up _actions_, which skills represent and support, but do not define. That may not be immediately clear, but pull up to a higher level. When faced with a challenge, there are a few ways to approach it, but in the abstract, they break down into four different approaches:

First, you can try to circumvent it. You can elude it, go around or otherwise avoid engaging it on its terms.
Second, you can try to manipulate, control or wrestle with it. You meet it head on and try to bring it to heel.
Third, you can try to understand it. Study it, and use that knowledge against it.
Fourth, you can hit it. Hard. Possibly repeatedly.
Fifth, you can suck it up.
Sixth, you can run away.

Now, I want to set aside #5 and #6 right away. Both of these might call for skill rolls, but neither actually helps get past a challenge, so they’re outside of the scope. #6 might be a _different_ challenge, but that’s it own thing. #5 is the desperate hope that the other guy will get tired punching you. There are situations where it’s appropriate, such as when the challenge is on a time limit or otherwise constrained, but in that case, it’s under the auspices of what bad things the challenge is doing, and that’s another topic. So, in short, they’re off the table here.

#4 is easy. D&D already handles that really well.

#1-3 is the trick. You will generally use a skill to do one of these things, but there’s no 100% correlation between which skill is used what way. There are some logical limitations, but they’re situational. When you need to travel through enemy territory, Survival might be used to get around enemies (circumvent) or it might be used to try to find the best route (understand). Viewing actions through this lens of what they accomplish makes them more versatile and interesting, and definitely I smore satisfying than the “skill first” approach where a player says “I use Survival!” and upon being asked “Do do what?” has to scramble for an answer. [3]

Experienced 4e hackers probably have already seen where I’m going, but I’ll lay it out here. The 4 approaches correspond to the four defenses used by 4e. Thus:

1 – Circumvent – Reflex
2 – Manipulate – Fortitude
3 – Understand – Will
4 – Smash – Armor

While this creates a little bit of a shift in how to handle some situations (Stealth being an attack vs. reflex rather than a roll vs. Perception) it streamlines things a lot and, more importantly, makes it VERY easy to extrapolate a challenge from a monster (or to fold a monster into a challenge).

So, for example, If the Warlord of the Orcs is hunting for you, the GM could create the hunt as a situation, drawing from his HP to budget it (or just creating it), and set all the “difficulties” of the hunt (which is to say, its defenses) using the Warlord’s stats. In effect, by evading the hunt, they’re fighting him by proxy.

Now obviously, there’s more to cover. The big one is, of course, the bad things that challenges can do to you in return – without that they’re pretty toothless. But that, I think, is something for next week.

1 – Yes, this effectively “weaponizes” skills (which is part of why I want to sync up with the page 42 damage expressions. A strict mind could view these as repeatable stunts). This is an idea I’m fond of from its success in SOTC fights as a way to help all players feel able to contribute at all times 9and ot encourage them to find interesting ways to apply their skills). This is maybe a little less relevant to 4e where there’s less of an idea of a “non-combat” character, but it can still help.

2 – This may immediately raise some confusion of how to handle fights where a lot of HP and SP damage has been done, but 4e actually solves that VERY elegantly for us. If you take someone down to zero HP (or SP), you decide what happens to them. Often this is just used to decide “Dead or Unconscious”, but it’s a MUCH more powerful tool than that. The guy who takes his last HP could decide his enemy listened to reason and surrendered. , just as the guy who takes the last SP could decide he distracted the guy enough for him to get stabbed (or that he had just gotten through, just as he got killed, for maximum angst). The limiter on this is not a function of rules, but of what makes sense to the table, as it should be.

3- Important note: In all three cases, the activity moves towards action. That is, just studying something isn’t going to make progress against a challenge (unless studying IS the challenge) – the knowledge needs to be gained and applied. This need not be _strictly_ applied with each roll, but it must be part of the trend. That is, if you sneak past the guard and get him to down to zero, you should be taking him out (in whatever manner you see fit). If all you’re doing is going past him and not actually impacting the situation, that’s just a roll, not a challenge.

Fighting the Situation

What are hit points?

Historically, they were a measure of health and toughness, but over time (much like armor class) that got more and more abstracted until you’re left with some incongruous trappings (like tying them to constitution) and a simple reality: They’re a pacing mechanism. They measure how long something stays fighting, which in turn is a yardstick for scene length. If you need evidence of it, look at how monsters were changed with Monster Manual 3 – the change to hit points was not because monsters had somehow been written up as too healthy, it was to address pacing issues.

In fact, you could probably get away with really simplifying hit points by just tracking the number of “hits” a monster took over the course of a fight. Hit him with a basic attack or an at will, or do some real on going damage, it’s one hit. Hit him with an encounter power and it’s two hits. Daily and it’s 3. Strikers by and large do an extra hit. Simple, yes, but such a fight would be virtually identical to a normal one from a player’s perspective (barring some sort of math nerd tracking all damage at all times) provided the number of hits worked out close to those of a regular fight. Players would still track damage (because, hey, they have the bandwidth) but the GM could more easily tune fights up and down with this system.[1]

The problem is that players wouldn’t stand for it. We _like_ rolling damage. One of the most established truths of D&D is that the roll to hit and the roll for damage are separate things. “Margin of Success” is one of those idea that may find root in other games, but which has no home in D&D. There are crits, and that is good, and one or two feats that can bleed across a little, but by and large the damage dice are beholden to none. A great hit can roll crappy damage, or a minor attack can max out. It’s just one of those things that makes it D&D.

And that’s the inversion I think we need. The instinct is to expand the scope of skill challenges, taking advantage of their structure because it’s intellectually exciting, but I think that’s too far removed from what excites people about D&D. We want to hit things with axes and roll for damage: Why not solve all our problems that way?

Which is to say, my not literally give challenges hit points, and let skill rolls do damage?

It sounds crazy on the surface, I know, but it’s actually a surprisingly workable model. Obviously you’ll have to call it something other than Hit Points – Challenge Points abbreviates to CP, which is already in use, so let’s say Situation Points, or SP – and damage might be called something like “Progress” but we all know a damage roll when we see it.

So that guard over there? He’s a 20 point challenge. Every time you beat him with stealth, you inflict damage (sorry, ‘make progress’) on those points. Say a simple rule of thumb: Untrained skills do d6 + Stat + 1/2 level damage. Trained do d8, trained plus skill focus does d10. Easy peasy. Your stealth guy is gonna chew up that challenge in no time, but if he fails, the guard goes active, but his hit points are still based on the remaining SP (which additionally allows for the small, skirmishy fights we were talking about). That’s one example, but it’s easy to see others, with skill use being freely interchangeable with actual attacks when appropriate, it becomes easy to think of the difficulty of skill checks as a defense: you don’t just roll to avoid the storm, you roll to kicks its ass (which is to say, to maintain control of the situation. Players may not _be_ more proactive in these situations, but they’ll like feel like they are.

Obviously, this requires a pretty drastic reconsideration of how these encounters are built and budgeted, but I am confident it can be done, and more, it can be done in a manner that continues to stay within the rules and spirit of 4e. More on that tomorrow.[2]

1- In doing so, the GM would effectively have just turned fights into skill challenges. The “hits” model is essential the same at its heart.

2- Unless I get totally sidetracked by my inspiration of how to make Hawkman awesome.

Situation – The Problem

This all began with @sarahdarkmagic raising an innocuous question on twitter: how to run breaking into a castle in 4e. Specifically, the issue was that doing it as a skill challenge did not provide the right feel, which was more fast and skirmishy, taking out guards and such. Now, I could argue that a skill challenge can be made to do that, but I’ll concede it’s hard. Making skill challenges feel dynamic is a trick of its own, and not an easy one to master. When you add in combat, this complicates things even further, since 4e’s world of skills and the world of fighting are very far apart indeed.

A number of very good suggestions were put forward, including the incorporation of daily and encounter powers into skill challenges for bonuses (always a good practice) but that got me thinking about the nature of this specific problem and how I’d want it to go as a player. I’d be thinking in terms of stealth computer games like Thief or Splinter Cell, where play is like a montage of badassness. You sneak up on a guard, find some clever way around the complication, then take him out.

In practical terms, that’s an encounter in miniature – opposition + some interesting twist. And right off the bat, this reveals a lot of what makes this hard for a GM. While this mini-encounter may have fewer moving parts than a big one, it’s still a pain to design. The real work in encounter design is not filling in the details, it’s coming up with the hook that makes this encounter stand out. Coming up with a sequence of those would be work enough, and having to do it for a single skill-challenge equivalent (centered around one player no less!) is way too much work for the payout[1].

So you need to cut corners. Trim down the number of encounters. Maybe re-use some tricks. And then you bump up against the other problem, how to actually run it. Yes, you could make it purely skill driven, but the reality is our player wants to stab himself some guards (or snap their necks or something equally dramatic). That demands fast, brutal fights. No problem! Sounds like a job for Minions, right?

Well, no. The problem is that if you use minions, the guards are no longer a credible threat. Why bother to be stealthy when you can kill these guys with a forcefully thrown piece of paper? But if you make them full-on opponents, then this whole thing is just going to drag out impossibly long. You might think you could make do with lower level opponents, but even a level 1 enemy can have 20-odd hit points, and it’s easy for that to be the wrong number[2], to say nothing of the lameness of using weenie opponents like that.

So we need some way to tune the enemies more finely than they currently, and that’s what got me thinking that maybe we have the problem backwards. And that’s where I’m going next.

1 – Unless you also play stealth video games, and have a mental library of situations to steal and reskin. If so, awesome.

2 – That said, here’s a dirty trick that works only for rogues with daggers or shuriken. Their actual weapon damage is pretty trivial, quickly overcome by their bonuses and sneak attack bonuses. For them, figure out their minimum damage on an attack (all bonuses +1 for a 1 on the roll) and add 4 to that. That’s your perfect HP number. That opponent will probably survive the initial attack if it’s not a backstab, but will almost certainly die if it is.

Friday Night 4-Fight

Hit Points are weird. This is hardly news, I know. Entire volumes have been dedicated to providing some sort of logical justification for them as an abstraction of health, luck, mobility and anything else that comes along. They might literally represent progressive injuries, but more often they represent you slowly getting tired and generally roughed up until things get really bad.

We’ve trained ourselves to be comfortable with this in a lot of games, but it always hits a little resistance when we add in guns. We have a harder time abstracting away the effect of guns for a number of reasons, the biggest being that it’s very hard for us to reconcile the idea that a hit with a gun can be casually shrugged off.[1] That cuts to the core of the “health” component of hit points and makes it difficult to sustain. We can imagine the occasional grazing hit, but those quickly strain credulity. On the other hand, using hit point purely as luck or agility[2] to produce retroactive misses is pretty dull, and especially frustrating when players have guns to tell them their hit is a miss, but it’s really a hit, you see.

One solution to this (beyond making guns stupidly high-damage weapons) is to decouple the scariness of guns from HP damage and instead reflect it with effects or conditions[3], and that definitely works well, especially if you want to introduce guns into an existing game.

But if you want to do guns from scratch, as in to just do a simple firefight with 4e, a more drastic departure might be in order, one that’s been on my mind.

The idea on my mind is to turn Hit Points into a more generic pool, perhaps just called luck, reduce them, and make them a component of _defense_ rather than damage. The trick for this is the addition of Defense actions, At-Will interrupt actions available to all characters to represent things like diving out of the way or making a block. These actions do something descriptive, and also raise the character’s defense by the number of “Hit Points” spent.[4] In the fiction, the _action_ creates a miss.

Mathwise, the result is very similar – HP slowly ablate from hits – but descriptively it creates a much clearer sense of when a hit connects and does damage.

Speaking of damage, this would of course call for a slightly different damage system, some sort of injury model. Perhaps an injury threshold – if an attack that hits rolls damage in excess of the threshold, you’re out. If not, reduce threshold by the # of dice rolled, representing an issue.

It’s still a kind of loose idea in my head, but some part of me has been wanting to take the quick play of Gamma World and drop it into something closer to Feng Shui (except, perhaps, with Planescape cosmology). This is a bit too much of a departure for straight D&D, but for a departure in the same style as Gamma World, it might be reasonable.[5]

I may have to try out a firefight or two soon to see how this fleshes out.

1 – And, in fact, a cinematic shorthand for things being out of the ordinary is a target that shrugs off bullets.
2 – Which would also demand HP not be tied to Constitution.

3 – Including @Wm_Bounty‘s brutal “Shot” condition – make a death save at +4 each round, Heal check DC15 to end.

4 – Maybe fixed values. Maybe some # of dice. Need to play test what’s fastest.
5 – For straight D&D, @gamefiend pointed out the the Star Wars Damage Threshold (You have HP, but a single attack doing X or more damage has certain effects) probably works well.

Using Monsters

I talked a bit yesterday about how pleased I was with the Dark Sun monster book because it had the tools of play baked right in. That got me thinking a bit about monster books in general and how well (or poorly) they line up with how they actually get used. (This is all pretty 4e centric, but theoretically applies to any game with a bestiary.)

For me, monsters fall into two categories – reliable and stunt. Reliable monsters are ones that I’ll use a lot in any given game. Kobolds. Skeletons. Orcs. Creatures which I imagine existing in the setting as “monster races” or otherwise having a reason to exist in large, interchangeable numbers. 4e proved an absolute delight for these guys since it embraced the idea that there might be lots of creatures of that type representing a range of threats. That made them a lot more useful to me.[1]

Reliable monsters also have a substantial impact on the setting of the game because they don’t come from nowhere. The goblins live somewhere, and the undead were once not quite so dead. They become part of the fingerprint of the setting.

Stunt monsters are pretty much everything else. I pick them up to jazz up fights or to build fights around. They’re one-offs, and while some of them fit into the setting in a high level sense, there’s not necessarily a huge need to put a lot of effort into it. Ultimately, nobody really cares where that gibbering mouther comes from once it’s been looted and the party has moved onto the next room.[2]

Now, it’s possible this is entirely idiosyncratic on my part, but I think not. Consider the way adventures make use of new monsters – it is a rare adventure which does not have at least a few unique monsters which are unlikely to ever bee seen outside of the bounds of that adventure (and maybe DDI). These monsters serve some particular purpose in the adventure, and that’s much of the fun of them.

All of which is to say that this speaks to the importance of putting plot hooks right into the monsters. With reliable monsters it might be important to give some amount of background and social context, but for the bulk of monsters, it seems the thing to provide is guidance for how to _make_ it that interesting one-off.

Curiously, one of the most interesting examples of how to do this can probably be found in people’s write ups for their own version of New Crobuzon.[3] Since the basis of the writeup was (effectively) pick three reliable and three stunt monsters for your city, you get to see some really fascinating ways to handle both types. Because the stunt monsters are explicitly designed as one-offs, they get writeups that are all about play, not about bad biology essays.

1 – Birthright did this quite cleverly with their “Orogs” which basically were a single bucket into which a number of evil humanoid races were tossed, with the idea that you could run into small runty ones or huge, ogre sized one, but they were still Orogs. Given that they had a national presence in the game, this worked surprisingly well, though it only came up every so often – Birthright was usually about people and Big M Monsters. Handling Orogs this way felt suitably Tolkeinesque.

2 – There’s an exception to this in the form of Big-M-Monsters, monsters that are big enough that as individuals that they are elements of the setting. Named dragons are probably the best example of this, but things like the Beholder crime boss of Waterdeep count too.

3 – If you haven’t read these you absolutely should. They’re some of the best examples of how to take a small set of 4e elements and make something fantastic. I admit, I’m totally proud of mine, Vicidia.

The Sun is Dark

The new 4e Dark Sun setting books are pretty good. They’ve changed up their format a little bit, and rather than doing a GM’s book and a Player’s book, they just did one setting book and one monster book[1]. I was a little bit skeptical of this approach, but as it turns out, I like it very much. It made Dark Sun pop in a way that the previous settings hadn’t quite managed to.

Now, some of this may be all about legacy. The first two settings are both thoroughly documented beasts from previous editions which had to get distilled down into some manner of workable version for the much more minimalist 4e presentation. Dark Sun had different parentage.

For those unfamiliar with it, Dark Sun was one of the Boxed Set setting released in support of second edition D&D, along with Planescape, Birthright and Spelljammer.[2] Like Planescape, it was in large part defined by its art style (courtesy of Brom) and it was well-loved and mechanically interesting, trying to express ideas like tougher PCs, ubiquitous psionics and bone weapons without he fairly crude tools 2e provided. It wasn’t always a great match, but it more than made up for its shortcomings with its clear, brutal style and creativity in presentation.[3]

Dark Sun suffered a bad fate at the hands of a revised edition that showcased all the worst parts of novelization. Basically, the setting had been changed over the course of the books as a troupe of heroes had gone around and killed all the big bad guys who had a large role in defining the setting. Revised Dark Sun kind of hinged on how awesome those guys were and how much you were getting their sloppy seconds.

The 4e version kind of rolls back the clock on that, picking a moment of change (just after the death of one of the Dragon Kings) and taking a snapshot there. It’s a good choice because it puts a nice level of tension and potential change into things without mandating anything. Players could be at the center of changing the world, or they could just go off in their own direction without things changing drastically. That’s good design.

The art is…well, it’s maybe unfair to pick on the art. It’s ok – too clean in places but excellent in others. The problem is that in my mind it’s being compared to some truly iconic art, and much of it suffers by comparison. Still, the good is quite good, and some of the monsters really shine.

And monsters bring me to the part that I found most impressive. The monster book _is_ the GMs book. A lot of the hooks in the main book are fleshed out in one monster entry or another. There’s no easy way to document these connections, which is perhaps a bit frustrating, but at the same time the fact that the reader can make the connection as they go draws him in a little more, so I think it’s a net positive.

I’m not sure I can state strongly enough how good an idea this is. Putting the material in the monsters book basically imbeds the setting elements right into the tools. There’s no abstract layer between them required to bring them together – it just happens. These monsters are associated with this setting feature. Done.

I really like this direction for setting books. Where Eberron and the Forgotten Realms were well enough put together, they are not setting that lend themselves well to overview. There’s just too much stuff. Dark Sun, on the other hand, is actually a fairly small setting, for all that it contains bigness within. It’s a limited geographic area on a world that might otherwise be dead, with civilization clustered in only a few places. The volume of text in these books really feels like it’s just about the right amount.

Now, no books are going to be completely flawless, and a few weaknesses pop up in the main book. The bulk of the book is setting information, usually 2 or 4 page spreads on each area of interest, with a larger spread for Tyr, the theoretical hub of any campaign. Sadly, Tyr is probably the least interesting part of the setting. In and of itself that’s no problem – something has to be least interesting – but why it (and a few other entries) fall flat struck me as very interesting.

See, the dullest entries in the book are the most normal. The ones that fill in names of locations with a line or two of detail. They’re very clearly written in accordance with a specific format which hearkens back to older adventure design, and the weakness of it ends up standing out more strongly in a book that mostly eludes it. The pattern is this: where a writer assigns two lines apiece to outline five “normal” parts of a setting (shops, NPCs, stuff like that) it feels like filler. But when that same writer[4] takes 10 lines to talk about, well, almost anything, the setting comes alive with hooks and interesting elements.

It’s very curious to me, since it seems to be no shortage of talent on the writer’s part. Rather, I think the bullet-point location format proves to be a bit of a lead weight because things like the name of a cheese shop are the parts the GM can most easily fill in on her own. Giving the same writers a little more breathing room produces much better results.

So I’m filing that one away as potentially useful down the line. I don’t think it’s a blanket condemnation of short summaries – there’s plenty of evidence that you can put a compelling hook in a single sentence – but it definitely warns against small details purely for the sake of small details (at least for me).

All in all, I’m pleased I picked it up, and a little worried that just as WOTC hits their stride on a setting book, the entire idea of setting books is tossed up in the air by the emergence of the Essentials line. But such are the vagaries of the hobby.

1 – I believe there may also be a mega-adventure for it as well but I, er, kind of don’t care.

2 – Of these four settings, three of them were brilliant and evocative. One was very stupid, but evocative.

3 – Many of the Dark Sun adventures were physically unlike any other published adventures, including folders of flip-top books with information for players on one side and the GM on the other. Even if they weren’t great adventures they were bold experiments.

4 – And I mean that literally, some entries go from flat to snappy at the drop of a hat.

Essential Impressions

A small, heavy box arrived from Amazon today, containing the kind of distraction that guaranteed I would not be thinking about much of anything else. Inside were the two books for D&D essentials that I’ve been chomping at the bit to get my hands on.[1] I got the Rules Compendium and the character book, Heroes of the Fallen Lands.

Between these two books I theoretically have everything I need (less dice) to create characters and run adventures. Practically, the monster book would also be necessary to round things out, but I have that pre-ordered, so I won’t hold that against them. I did _not_ order the dungeon tile set despite the fact that it’s a great deal because I have enough tiles already, and because I ultimately hope to not need them. More on that in a bit.

So, right off the back, these books are a steal. $20, 6×9, 300ish pages, softcover, full color. This is not as flashy as the hardcovers of the 4e line, but it totally highlights the kind of production clout WOTC can bring to bear. If I wanted to produce a book in this format, it would be Black & White interior and I’d be hard pressed to get the cover price under $25. At scale I might be able to hit $20, but with color? Not a chance. Physically, the binding is very good, the paper is nicely dense and heavy, and the cover stock is ok. I will be curious to see how it weathers, but my fear is it’s going to curl. One way or another, this is now also a size that can be sold in places that won’t tolerate the big RPG book form factor, like department stores, and I doubt that’s a coincidence.

Layout-wise it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect if the current 4e layout went one column. Utilitarian with some recycled art[2] – nothing to complain about, but nothing to get too excited about either. All in all, I’m pretty pleased with the physical books, with one caveat – given the density of the books it’s a shame they did not take advantage of a full page bleed (which some of the art uses) to have chapter separators which can be seen edge-on, or thumbed through. Maybe a design oversight, maybe cost cutting – dunno which.

Either way, it is a little emblematic of my one worrisome impression of the books. The large size of the PHB may have made for a more expensive book, but it also made for a friendlier one. These books are dense. The data presented combines with the layout, size and weight of the book to be a little more intimidating than I’d expect. I would be intensely curious to find the opinion of someone whose first exposure to 4e is reading this end to end. My existing knowledge makes it too hard for me to truly judge, but it seems daunting.[3] That said, this is more of a concern with the Rules Compendium which, while it’s nominally for all players, will probably end up being the de facto DM’s book. The Heroes book has enough basic rules to probably be a decent point of entry.

All that said, I admit I was far more interested in the Heroes book, looking to examine the promised class changes. I did, and I was generally pleased, but I also came to a conclusion that utterly surprised me. See, this absolutely isn’t 4.5…

But I kind of wish it was.

There are great ideas in the book. The new at-will heavy martial classes is part of that, but other cleverness shows up in peculiar places, like more powers designed as free actions with a trigger of success. Stop and think about that for a moment, especially through the lens of missed dailies and similar frustrations – imagine using a power that you can pull the trigger on after you hit rather than before. And that’s just one thing; there’s more. Skill descriptions include ideas for improvising on the skills. Borderline effects that were previously just text have mostly become power descriptions.

It’s clever and interesting. I see this and I kind of wish they really had the freedom to make something newer, to shake off the oddly lingering bits (Armor quality is sort of subtly worked in without mentioning it. The layout is not designed for the kind of level tables the new class presentation uses) and run free with the lessons learned.

Now, the fact that it’s not 4.5 is a smart business move. the fact that you can treat all this stuff as optional rules for your 4E game (or vice versa) is actually quite brilliant, and perhaps necessary given the open questions regarding WOTC’s future publishing plans. Keeping their options open is pretty sharp.[4]

All of this falls short of the real question: Will I run it?[5] and the real answer to that is; I don’t know yet.

1 – I could technically have gotten them sooner if I’d gone to an actual store, but I cheaped out and went Amazon. Yes, I know, I could have chosen to support a local shop, and usually I try to, but I’m viewing this as more of an experiment than a real purpose, at least initially.

2 – While Essentials makes heavier use of recycled art, Heroes of the Fallen Lands seems to mostly be new stuff.

3 – The assumption may be that someone comes to this after they’ve played to read the Red Box. I’m sure that will often be the case, but it’s daunting all the same.

4 – It’ll be doubly interesting to see if they decide to expand the GSL to include this new stuff, of if that’s just going to wither on the vine.

5 – Because of course I’d _play_ it if someone else were to run it.