Thursday, February 2, 2012

Healing. Keeping the group alive.


The trick to making healing work isn't just having one character keep the other characters alive, it is making it work so that it doesn't kill your gaming group because the person playing the healer couldn't be bothered showing up. After all, this was the player who got most the blame when things went bad and none of the glory when  they went well.

For people not familiar with it here is a quick summary of how healing works in 4E.

Each character has a number of healing surges based in their class.
Each character has a number of hit points, and a surge value equal to one quarter of their hit points.
Each character can use an action to spend a healing surge and regain their surge value in hit points. This can be done once per encounter and recharges after a 5 minute rest. So with a long enough break a character could make themselves ready for battle again.
Healing characters can take actions to allow themselves or an ally to spend extra healing surges beyond the one they can do themselves, generally giving bonus hit points back. These are generally actions the healer can take in addition to their main action.

This had several significant improvements over all previous healing systems.

It put the onus on maintaining healing resources onto the person taking the damage. A fighter or barbarian would have more surges, so could take more damage during a day. A rogue or wizard would have less, which would mean they would need to be more careful.

This was important because in previous editions the person playing recklessly wasn't the one paying for that recklessness. They would take lots of damage, keeping the person playing the healer doing nothing but keeping them alive, until the healer ran out of spells and then it was the healer who was responsible for needing to take the break or letting someone die. The reckless player was rewarded by hogging all the glory while the other players struggled to keep them alive.

In 4E if a player does that they run themselves out of surges, and they are the ones who can't continue. The healer could heal them if they hadn't wasted their own endurance. It was a simple mechanic for having someone who has taken too much damage to just be worn out.

The hit point system was always an abstraction. It wasn't realistic even within a fantasy setting, it was just a mechanic for tracking if someone was alive or dead and allow them to engage in battle and not fall down to the first hit. Healing Surges brought a level of storytelling that worked, because it was a system used in action movies since the action serials of the late 40s. The hero takes damage, shrugs it off before the next encounter, and eventually has taken so much damage they need to recuperate. Excellent storytelling.

The other important thing 4E brought to the gaming table was classes who healed not being limited mostly to only healing. Cleric, warlords, bards and the other healing classes were all very different, because in addition to healing they got to do other things. They didn't just run in to heal and maybe cast a buff at the start of a fight like in previous editions. They would hinder enemies, assist allies, provide direction and even get to do some damage to their foes, all while keeping the party alive. They became a utility rather than a single use gimmick.

No longer was a player sacrificing themselves by agreeing to play a class that could heal. All of a sudden they were able to contribute in other ways, and they got to have a lot of fun. When someone ran themselves out of healing surges, they were blamed for not having enough healing, they weren't made to feel responsible for another players actions.

Healing Surges also worked because the use of potions generally required the person to spend a surge. This meant you couldn't overcome recklessness with gold or DM bribery. In 4E a character could be reckless when the story called for it, and had to be careful at other times. In previous editions this character trait never had to be tempered by caution, and it became repetitive and boring very quickly.

Healing is required in a fantasy game like D&D, so much that pretty much all gaming systems of all genres use it. If you have combat, you need a way for your character to recover from that combat. For too long Healing was something that someone had to volunteer to do at the expense of getting involved. 4E fixed this, and gamers everywhere need to hope that D&D Next doesn't return us to the days where someone at the table needs to have less fun in order to make the hit point mechanic work.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Half-Hearted about Half-Level

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about D&D and one of the things we talked about was the half-level bonus. I got very passionate about how awesome I thought it was and how it works really well.

I was right, and I was wrong. I sat down today and went over my arguments in support and realized I meant everything I said, but also that it really didn't matter.

The only thing I said that I feel strongly about was how it made characters who have moved on from local issues to grander adventures don't get bogged down by local issues again. But that is me.

My other big argument was that it helped characters who were stripped of their gear deal with threats, but that is just something that 4E was the first system to do right. It doesn't mean that D&D Next needed half-level to achieve the same thing.

So I stand back from my statements. Half-level is fine, and it works, but it is far from the importance I gave it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Location, Location, Location.


With all the talk about the new edition, I haven't done much talking about the topic that matters to me the most. Designing and running D&D adventures. I love telling stories, and I love sharing the creation process with my players as they get to change the course of the story. I love being able to being together disparate aspects of the story into a coherent picture as the story unfolds.

Monte Cook today expressed his feelings that D&D is a lot like episodic television, and he is correct. Each adventure is an episode with common threads in a common setting that reveals part of an overall story. It will be unique and different to the adventures around it, but will still be part of the same story.

Today I want to talk about one of the elements of D&D based storytelling that all too often gets overlooked or oversimplified. The location those adventures and encounters take place in. I will be going ahead with the concept that people will use a map during gameplay, especially for encounters. I have already expressed how using a map doesn't mean tactic or mini based play, just a better and more consistent method of communicating the location to the players.

Adventure Location

One of the things I remember about the 1E modules I read, and I read a lot of them, was the description of the locations. Most of them had a key concept and most of the adventure was designed around that. Then 2E came out and the adventures being published tended to become very setting focused, and you rarely got the same impact from the locations as they were diluted by the overall setting they tried to encapsulate. 3E had a mix, with some of the better locations coming from 3rd party publishers. 4E really hasn't impacted me much because it was the first edition that allowed you pure creativity, so I have focused more on writing than running published adventures. But the couple I have looked at seem to be similar to 3E in style, though better in presentation.

When I write I try to give each adventure a strong location, and ensure that every encounter adds to the flavor of that location. Coming up with a good location isn't too difficult, but making it more than description can be. In my current campaign, which is still in the Heroic Tier, the heroes have explored an abandoned dwarf city in preparation for recolonization, trudged through the city's overgrown and occupied aqueduct system, explored a chitine lair made of huge spheres hanging over a gravel pit and connected by webs, entered a slavers camp hidden in the hills and other locations of that ilk. All of these are locations I am proud of, they were simple but good enough to give a style to the story I was telling with the adventure. Some of my favorite locations are written down, but the players aren't there yet so I don't want to say too much.

The important point is the location is more than just the setting for the adventure, it should be something that is explored with every encounter the characters have while on the adventure. Try not to fall into the 2E trap of making your location feel unimportant because you keep referring to other places to define it, and try to avoid the all to common mistake of defining a location, and then designing encounters that could fit in anywhere and don't feel like part of the location you are trying to establish. Your players will remember your adventure for far longer if they can attach it to a detailed location, rather than a string of chambers. I know this from what I remember out of my 30 years of playing D&D.

One thing I recommend for most locations is make them special. Be fanciful and make them grand. One thing D&D has suffered from throughout it's history is keeping things small because of wanting to keep it all on a single map. Or making things large and then filling them with so many encounters that it gets very repetitive. One of the best things about the adventures I have read for 4E is locations are made as big or small as suits them, and then the encounter locations are mapped out in more detail, leaving the rest to the DM. You may have an island 10 miles across with only a half a dozen encounters on it, whereas I remember a small island in 1E that had over 40 encounters that were all quite similar. The island was great, it just felt too crowded to maintain the fantasy.

Don't be scared to make locations that extraordinary. If you want to put a city on top of a cloud, or have an adventure inside the body of a dead dragon lord, or want to go the other way and have a whole adventure inside a roadside inn, do it. Just try to make the whole story part of the location.

Encounter Locations

This is a much more complicated and controversial topic. Every edition of D&D has suffered from bad encounter location design, though 3E was better than earlier editions, and 4E tried to improve again. I want to state flat out that having 30 dungeon rooms on a map isn't designing good encounter locations, though it might be a good adventure location. Good encounter locations will contribute to the encounter or encounters that happen there, while feeling like part of the adventure location and telling part of the story.

This is why I have stated that I feel encounter maps are needed even if you don't put a grid on it and use miniatures. The information on a map will give your players ideas you never though of, and give them a lot more creative input than they will have from asking a lot of "Can I" questions. I will be moving forward assuming miniatures are used, because they really do add to the DM's ability to convey the uniqueness of any location.

But what makes a good encounter location? There is no definite answer to this, but I can express what I have found.

Firstly make the size appropriate, and by that I don't mean ensuring you don't put a dragon in a 20' x 20' room. You can convey mood very well by playing with the available space the adventurers have. A tight situation, where the players have to move around each other and get in each others way, will change not only the way an encounter is described but also the way it is played and the story it tells. An expansive room, where everything is far apart will tell a different story and convey a different mood. As a general rule I have found a 60' x 60' encounter map is a good starting point, and then I go bigger or smaller depending on the encounter that happens there. If I want to make it a multi-room encounter map I tend to make it larger to make up for the walls and corridors. Also try to think in three dimensions; adding a tower, a ledge, a pit or anything that gives three dimensions the adventurers can move in will add a huge amount to the encounter.

One of the strengths about thinking in three dimensions is the ability to control movement of both the adventurers and their enemies. If there are stairs up to an upper level, then moving up or down them can add a lot to a combat. Meanwhile your thief will be climbing over the ledge and using their skills to manipulate the combat in more ways than they ever could in a flat square room.

One last thing. You can make the location special by having it contribute powers to the fight. I recently ran a fight in a forge where anyone near one of the openings to the furnace could make an attack by pouring molten metal over people below. When an enemy did this the adventurers took note, and by the end of the fight they had turned the tables and were using it themselves. Locations can add as much or as little as you want them to.

I don't want this article to be about map design, I will cover that later. But when designing a location for an encounter, thinking about size, mood, features and movement will contribute more to the storytelling of any encounter than any amount of descriptive text.

Coming Soon: My Mapping Methods
My guide to designing and presenting maps, which is focused on well designed but simply presented.

Monday, January 23, 2012

An alternative to AEDU


The 4E Power system has a lot of haters. I am not one of them. As there are a lot of people who are against the AEDU system, I thought I would post some initial thoughts.

AEDU stands for "At-Will, Encounter, Daily, Utility" and sums up in four letters the current power system. There are At-Will powers that can be used every round, Encounter powers that can be used once per fight, and Daily powers that can be used once per day. The Utility powers fall into one of these three categories.

Most of the hatred seems to come from the idea that certain abilities can only be used once a day. Personally I like this for a mechanic, but I understand where they are coming from. While playing 4E I really enjoy the current power system, it is a whole lot more fun when you chose what to do based on what you are fighting and how the battle is going.

But for an alternative how about a system that replaces Daily with Limited. You can use one Limited power per fight, but you can choose which one and use the same power every fight if you want. On big fights where players need to pull out all the stops, the DM adds a time where the players get a second Limited power use. Eg. The boss becomes bloodied, and everyone gets another Limited power usage.

You could do similar for Encounters if you want, maybe starting with 2 per combat and then giving an extra Encounter usage for every 5 levels a character has. Personally I don't like this system as much, but it is a cross between AEDU and the Vancian system. One advantage this system could have us you could introduce preparation of powers at the start of the day, so if you wanted a wizard to have 100 powers in his spell book and only able to learn maybe half a dozen of each type of power in the morning and then select from them in combat for that day.

This would allow for some things that were moved to rituals in 4E to become powers again, which would be good as the current ritual system is flawed. But I am not sure that this single fact makes this suggestion an improvement.

As I said I prefer the current system than this suggestion, but it does start to address some of the concerns lots of people seem to have with AEDU.

Feats - can they work better?


No clever title this time, just a question that has been bothering me since their introduction in 3E. Feats are a great concept, but they have been implemented badly, and the next 12 months might be the only chance we get to get a solid fix in place.

So what went wrong?

The first problem with Feats is the variation in power level. Some Feats were so much more powerful than others that they were always taken in priority, others were so weak that I never saw anyone even consider them. Even in a role playing heavy campaign some Feats just weren't worth the paper they were printed on. I don't think it's because they weren't powerful enough, but because others were too powerful.

The second problem was with the requirements. Often a Feat would have a requirement that just wasn't feasible for the classes that would want it. Having to increase one of your stats only to meet a Feat requirement was annoying, especially if you use point buy stats.

3(.5) had out of control stat increases through items, which 4E cleverly eliminated; but the Feats weren't adjusted for this so many of them were nearly impossible to get, even if they were low in power. Neither system got them right, both tried hard.

So how do we fix it?

I don't know. I have some ideas, but not having spent time designing and playtesting an alternative I am almost certainly missing important things, but not expressing ideas because you don't know how they will turn out never gets you anywhere.

Some Feats are always going to be more powerful than others, so maybe we need tiers or classifications of Feats. I don't suggest going back to the 3(.5) system of having to buy feats you don't want to unlock the one you do, but rating feats by their power and function and allowing them to take Feats of different types at different levels. Adding this level of complexity is normally something I try hard to avoid, but Feats are something you only worry about during level advancement, so it wouldn't slow gameplay too much. As I expect the core rules not to include feats, and them be a modular option, it also should work as it would be part of choosing Feats as an available module.

So how would you do this classification of Feats? Maybe have four types. Combat, tactics, utility and flavor. Combat feats would give bonuses to hit or damage, or allow for armor proficiencies, things of that sort. Tactics feats would allow for movement or positioning benefits, and allow players who don't use maps to ignore this type of feat completely. Utility feats would provide benefits that don't directly effect combat, improving skills or maybe maximizing out of combat healing. Then Flavor feats would add customization to role playing, though they might include diplomacy type skills.

At first level you might get one of each type of feat, then at each level you get one of a specified kind, so you can't just stack the combat improving feats. This will reduce the urge for people who want to take flavor type feats but feel they need to take the min-max feats to either keep up with the player who does, or just as often to avoid ridicule from those players, who feel any feat that isn't 'the best' is a waste of time.

As for prerequisites, perhaps they shouldn't be based on Stats, but the bonuses from that stat so you get the half-level bonus, assuming that remains in the game (and I hope it does). That way as you progress through the levels you get more customization options rather than running out of options. At low levels only a Fighter might have the strength to get a Feat, but later on other classes would get access to them without having to spend too much time trying to meet weird prerequisites.

This would also remove the need for Paragon and Epic Feats, you would just be able to set the requirements so that you need some half-level bonus in order to get them. This may seem to go against what I said above about impossible restrictions, but it doesn't make them impossible forever, just until you get to the level where they become available. This would also give the people who desperately want a feat to work towards getting it faster, while not forcing them to make these decisions if they are prepared to wait a few levels. If you want more powerful Feats available for higher levels, you make them need a higher Stat bonus, so people don't take them too early.

As I said, there are almost certainly problems with this system I haven't thought of, but as a starting point it seems to address some of the most significant problems with the current Feat system.

Maybe we will see something like this as we hear more about D&D Next, and hopefully we will see something even better.

Defenses - Missing The Point?


There are several philosophies to Defenses in D&D, and unfortunately they rarely work well together. They generally require completely different stats and mechanics, and this means balancing something to work for different systems is very difficult. So the challenge for the designers of D&D Next is to come up with a system that will work for all players no matter what level of complexity and tactics they wish to use.

Who should determine the success of an attack?

In the past, hitting something with a weapon attacked their Armor Class and casting a spell required the target to make a Saving Throw depending on the type of magic used. This is an overly simplistic description, but holds true for most of the history of D&D.

This system worked for a long time, but that doesn't mean it was good. My biggest issue with it was the Saving Throw. Once a character attacked with a spell they then had to wait for a defensive dice roll to see how effective it was, this meant the resolution of the attack wasn't done by the player. They didn't have a target to hit, they just threw the spell at something and waited to see what happened. It didn't feel like their skill with magic or their actions really had much impact on the result.

In the current edition of D&D all creatures have defensive stats for different types of attacks. Then your attack will designate what defense you have to overcome to successfully hit. All of the dice rolls to resolve an attack are made by the player. I feel this is a better system because instead of the player waiting for the DM to tell them how their attack went, the player tells the DM. It's a small distinction, but has huge impact on player involvement.

Whatever system we get in D&D Next I hope it keeps the results of the attack in the hands of the player.

He current system used in 4E is great in this way, but in many others it really misses the target. The four primary defensive stats (AC, Fort, Ref, Will) work in concept, but they frequently failed in practice.

The concepts are:
• Armor Class (AC) is how hard it is to land a hit that gets through the armor of the target. Eg, hitting someone with a sword.
• Fortitude (Fort) is how hard it is to land a hit that strikes someones physical core. Eg, a disease or poison attack.
• Reflex (Ref) is how hard it is to land a hit that someone has to dodge. Eg, hitting them with a bolt of magic energy.
• Will is how hard it is to land a hit that effects someone's mind. Eg, a charm or fear effect.

These make sense and seem like a good idea, so how do they fail in practice? Well, the lines blur a little too easily, and way too often.

Frequently you get powers, either character or monster, that seem to attack the wrong defense. Other times you get monsters who's defenses don't match the concept they are trying to convey.

Let me try to explain with an example.

You are facing four monsters. One is wearing plate mail and a shield and is wielding a sword. One is in leather armor and had two daggers. One is in chain mail and has a mace and a holy symbol. The last is in cloth clothing covered in magical symbols. Pretty much the standard archetypes.

You would expect the plate mail and shield guy to have the highest AC by quite a bit, but in practice in there is likely to be very little difference in the AC of the monsters. You would expect the leather wearer as a rogue type to have a higher Ref than Fort defense, but generally they are almost the same. You would expect the cleric or wizard type to have a higher Will defense than the others, but again  not so much.

The reason for this was because of the limit to the type of attacks that PCs had, and the chase for the almighty balance point where everyone was on equal footing. In the DMG it goes as far as setting the non AC defenses for a monster as all the same when you create a monster, showing how little the defenses really meant. So every PC type had an equal chance, the defenses got closer and closer together, and the number of attacks that attacked defenses they shouldn't got more and more.

I can accept a fighter being able to use encounter or daily powers that target Ref and Fort, but mostly they should attack AC and maybe occasionally have an ability that targets Will; I know having a guy in heavy armor tossing around an axe dripping gore yelling at me would scare the hell out of me. But there should be a reason for these attacks to not focus on AC, and generally there isn't.

I can accept a wizard having different types of attacks that could target almost any of the defenses. A rain of sharp needles of ice could attack AC, a rolling ball of fire could attack Ref, a blast of freezing cold air could attack Fort and a domination spell could attack Will. But there should be some obvious reason for it, not just because they were due a power that attacked a certain defense.

What I feel a player should be able to do is look at an enemy and make some sort of educated guess as to which sort of attacks would be more effective, and have the person who has those types of attacks use them to exploit the weakness. A weapon against a wizard should be more of a threat than spells against him. A spell against a warrior should be more effective than a weapon. Sneaky attacks should work better against bigger foes. We all know the stereotypes, and those stereotypes exist for a reason.

4E, I assume in an attempt to maintain balance, broke all those stereotypes so you can rarely look at something and say what sort of attack would be most effective. And I feel this is one of the main things that breaks the concept of storytelling in fights.

So I suppose what I am saying is I hope D&D Next uses a system of target defenses, and that those defenses make sense to the concept of the enemy being fought. Balance the system, and allow for the moments for each character to shine to come from those characters having differing effectiveness versus different types of enemy. This should come as much from defenses that make sense.

One suggestion I have discussed with my players, and have used in a simplistic way is starting all the defenses at the same point, and then buying one point increase in one defense with a point from another. Generally AC buys Ref, or visa versa, indicating that the more armor you have the harder it is to move. Then Fort buys Will or visa versa, indicating the difference between physical and mental prowess. At the end of this process, AC goes up by 2-4 depending on the role of the monster, to indicate that 4E is currently balanced around AC being easier to hit. You only need 2-3 points each way for each enemy to feel quite different. Special enemies may trade in different ways, but this has generally worked quite well.

Still, I think that there has to be a better system than this possible, and I hope I see it in reality as the play testing materials come out in the coming months. For me I will look at what the designers have come with, compare it to me concerns listed here, and see if they managed to fix these issues. As long as attack resolution stays with the player making the attack.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I Keep Missing the Target

This started off being a post about damage reduction, but in writing it I was finding I needed to talk more and more about defenses, because really DR is a subtopic of Defenses, so I started again.

Then I realized that I was finding it difficult to express me feelings on the various defense systems D&D has used, because they are much more complicated in aspect than the rules that define them. So I started again.

Then I found that in trying to express the fundamental aspects that make this such an important issue, I completely confused myself and I had written a wall on unmitigated garbage. So I am starting again, and I expect that when I finally get it written it will be both too long and too limited in scope.

So I am still writing, and still have a lot to say. I am just having trouble saying it.

I have also been thinking about other topics I want to cover. The main one is how important a solid system for making you own fantasy stories is. I also want to write a piece on the importance if location for both combat and non-combat encounters. Then i want to write about the difference between different types of combat encounters, and the different types of non-combat encounters. Then there is the skill system, the ritual system, the utility powers system, the leveling system, the three tiers introduced in 4E, the planescape, the monetary system and lots lots more.

Of course, there is also the Power System, and wether you want AEDU, Vancian, or some other system. This comes with another whole set of issues based on balance, speed, ability, roles and storytelling. All of these things I have an opinion on and ideas that might make them more flexible while keeping them simple enough to be tools rather than obstacles.

Then I think of the problem I am having just expressing my feelings on Defenses and I do not envy the designers trying to make this game better again. My deepest wish with these posts is maybe in someway for these posts to help the people with the impossible task to do it a little better or a little easier; though I know that is an unrealistic hope.