Inconsequential Combat

A while back I wrote a post on the inconsequential nature of most fights in D&D. Summarizing (and by all means, do read it, it’s probably the best post I have here), combat is inconsequential because its purpose is resource ablation. Originating in the dungeon crawling roots of D&D, this default approach allows the party to go through 4-6 fights a day, with tension rising as resources get expended. Only the last fight will carry the threat of killing a character or three, if things go well. Everything before was a prelude, with good tactics on the part of PCs letting them reduce the danger in that final confrontation. Troubles begin when your adventure doesn’t expect the PCs to have that many fights in a day.

This is the bit that many DMs stumble over: they consider threat of death being the purpose of combat, and therefore try to make every fight be a fight that can kill a PC. Since 4e wasn’t built for that, they have to use more and higher level monsters (or introduce drastic house rules like “halve the hit points and double the damage of monsters”, but that’s outside the scope of this post), which only serves to make combat longer. And since the PCs still refuse to go down, this results in DMs becoming even more frustrated as combat is now longer and still not doing what they want it to do.

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Duty is Eternal

On the heels of the previous posts, another bit of our long-running game. Not a play report or monster stat blocks this time, but a way out of a tricky situation.

The Patient One was defeated, and not everyone was left standing. Dead were two of the three characters who’ve been present since the start of the campaign, in fact. It would have been a fitting end, giving their lives to defeat the ancient evil against which they’ve struggled throughout their adventuring careers , players agreed, but the campaign wasn’t yet over! At the same time, having the PCs throw money at the problem and simply cast Raise Dead wasn’t much of an option either. And, having discussed this with the players for some time, it was clear that they weren’t interested in playing any of the existing NPCs. To them, the story of the game has always been about the story of their three characters. How do we acknowledge the sacrifice of the characters, yet enable the players to continue playing them? We don’t. Not quite, anyway. Here’s what I came up with. Continue reading

Patient Two

In the previous part, after months of preparation the party had delivered their oldest enemy, the lord of madness called Patient One, to the one place where it could be destroyed. They ventured down into its prison, dragged it out of hiding and watched it burn. Just as it looked like it was about to unleash some new hell on them it exploded, showering them in aberrant flesh. They have won. Or so it seemed.

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Patient One

In the interest of keeping up with semi-weekly posts as well as running my weekly D&D game, I’ve decided to post some of my notes for said game when there’s no other topic I’d like to discuss. They’ll probably range from separate monsters to encounters to adventures to house rules and system hacks. I’ll also provide commentary on the intent of each design, as well as whether or not it worked and reasons for it. The usual approach. So while I doubt you’d find much you can lift straight out (and you’re welcome to), hopefully the thinking behind these mechanics will allow you to adapt them to your game, if you so choose. Lets kick things off with one of the main bosses of the campaign, a Lord of Madness, the Patient One. Continue reading

Tactful tactics

The old dungeon crawl philosophy of going from room to room, kicking down doors and dealing with whatever’s inside one encounter at a time is very prevalent in the design of 4e. In some ways, it is even more pronounced. Whereas in older editions, to successfully overcome a particular encounter you might have needed something prepared beforehand – ropes, candles, 10-foot poles, particular spell, etc. (I’m speculating here, as I started playing with the release of D&D 3.0), in 4e pretty much any challenge PCs encounter they are expected to be able to overcome with just their innate abilities. Being perfectly spherical in nature as they are, they don’t need to bring holy water to a fight with a vampire. What happens if they do? Continue reading

Self-defeating strategy

The previous post was, in essence, about letting combat influence story. But, as a friend pointed out while discussing it, there’s another side to this issue: letting story influence combat. I can’t think of any other RPG where this comes up regularly, but it is definitely a problem in 4e. What happens when players outwit their enemies,  leading to their easy defeat? In most other games, this is a perfectly valid, often the preferable and only way to win. However, in 4e the tactical wargame part is its own distinct source of fun, around which much of characters’ capabilities are concentrated. Fighting only half of the enemy force because the other half has been engaged by allies elsewhere is not actually fun if the full force made up a proper encounter. When players find a hole in the plot which lets them circumvent 3/4s of it, they are left wondering: “is that it?” Likewise, if they devise a clever strategy to beat their enemies before the swords are drawn, they win the conflict, yet lose the fun they would have had otherwise.

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Collision of Perfect Spheres

This is the third part of the two-part series on interactions between characters and encounter elements. Having discussed in some length how DMs can design compelling terrain powers and how players can be encouraged to interact with terrain, I now move on to the other significant element of encounters – monsters. Unlike the aforementioned posts, this one won’t be about (what I feel to be) a deficiency in design, but rather about an opportunity that is not being utilised. The whole of 4e is, essentially, about characters interacting with monsters. Yet these interactions are remarkably one-sided, going both ways. Characters do their thing to the monsters while monsters do their thing to the characters until one side, preferably monsters, runs out of hit points.

When it comes to being chopped to bits, the process is fairly homogeneous. Monsters may have certain defences that are lower than others, they may have vulnerabilities or resistances, and that’s about it. Every now and then a monster has special vulnerabilities, like undead whose aura turns off when hit with radiant damage or golems who behave erratically when hit with particular energy type. Those are good, and they are the focus of this post. Most of the time though the monsters don’t get an individual approach as they get thrown into a blender that is adventurers.

A power that works on a goblin will work just as well on a dragon. This leads to a disconnect where characters easily trip and daze dragons, the source of many how-to-make-your-solos-not-suck fixes, and this is something worth thinking about – in a future post, maybe. But this stems from the exact same issue mentioned in the first post, the perfect spherical nature of characters. They have to fight goblins and dragons and stranger things, so they can’t have powers specifically for fighting dragons and powers specifically for fighting goblins. They can’t, but monsters can.

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I kick sand in his face!

In the previous post I’ve discussed a method to make environmental effects and terrain powers more engaging to the players, making the battlefield itself matter. Still, those are somewhat big things, and it’s not always easy to come up with an appropriate terrain effect to a given encounter. And not every encounter needs them. All too often, a battlefield doesn’t have any major features to it: it’s just a forest clearing or a tavern or what have you. Sure, there are moss-covered stones on which people could slip or furniture to be thrown around, but it just doesn’t seem significant enough to warrant a terrain feature. The DM has enough to work on as it is, so if a terrain feature doesn’t immediately spring to mind, they’re probably better off concentrating on something else.

Why not let players bring the scene to life? It’s a roleplaying game after all, shouldn’t they do their part in making terrain interactive by, well, interacting with it? Unfortunately, while every now and then someone at the table comes up with a flavourful explanation of how a particular power worked out in particular surroundings, most of the time everyone’s too preoccupied with what the game says matters: mechanics. It doesn’t really matter how you managed to achieve a given effect, as long as you have a power to do it. Tactical combat is complicated and enjoyable enough, and with no reward for thinking about anything other than powers and positioning inherent in the game, we prioritize. Battlefield becomes decoration.

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Perfectly Spherical Adventurers in Vacuum

4e adventurers can do a great many things on the battlefield, arguably more than in any D&D edition before. They dart, fly and teleport; taunt, pummel to the ground and plow through. Due to the nature of character powers, they can do so anywhere and anyhow. What works on a swaying ship in a storm will work just as well in a tavern brawl or at the heart of an exploding volcano. Adventurers are, by design, a thing in themselves, a perfect sphere in vacuum.

Which is why we use terrain powers and environmental effects to make encounters truly different from one another. That and enemies, of course. But while environmental effects are cool, they tend to focus on battlefields interacting with characters, not the other way around. Everyone may be forced to make an Acrobatics check at the start of every turn on a ship in stormy waters, falling prone on a failure. As for terrain powers, most of the ones I’ve seen allow characters to spend their actions on something they normally wouldn’t be able to do. Isn’t that what we want? Well, not really. Players have spent significant time on building up their perfectly spherical adventurers. They have likely thought out all sorts of little combos and contingencies. They have picked their powers to cover various tactical situations. They don’t need an option to do something entirely different. This is especially true for standard action powers. The character building philosophy of 4e doesn’t mesh well with terrain powers.

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