Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Another 4e Observation

I'm not posting this to bash on 4e.  I actually play it sometimes.  It's just a very different game.  For me the jury is still out as to whether or not I actually like it.  I'm still working on that.

I'm posting this as a way to help "figure 4e out".

One thing that I'm figuring out is that "everything is relative" in 4e.  Character progression is merely an illusion.  You get better - the world gets harder.  Not just the monsters -- that I can live with -- I have more dangerous monsters in my game too.  Low level characters are well advised to know their limits.  Not in 4e.  There are no limits.  Everything is "manageable" and "comparable".

Let me illustrate by sharing a story.  I'm a teacher.  There was this other teacher who used to work on a different team.  One day, I learned a little about how she graded.  Every daily assignment was worth 20 points and every test was worth 100 points.  At the end of a 90 day semester, students in her class could reasonably expect to earn over 2000-2500 points during the semester.

One day, I shared with her that assignments in my class were 5 points per day and that my typical test or quiz was about 25 points.  Students in my class could expect to earn about 400 to 500 points during the semester.

She told me that I wasn't assigning enough work if the students only earned 500 points.   :)

We'll, in 4e it seems like with every level you earn; every skill that's improved; every bonus that's added to your character sheet -- even the mundane things get harder.  It's a constant battle for balance.  You have more HPs, so now everything does a little more damage to take your HP advantage away.

Here's a snippet from the 4e DMG and a table (click to embiggen):
Example: Shiera the 8th-level rogue wants to try the classic swashbuckling move of swinging on a chandelier and kicking an ogre in the chest on her way down to the ground, hoping to push the ogre into the brazier of burning coals behind it. An Acrobatics check seems reasonable. This sort of action is exactly the kind of thinking you want to encourage, so you pick a moderate DC: The table says DC 14. If she makes that check, she gets a hold on the chandelier and swings to the ogre. Then comes the kicking. She’s more interested in the push than in dealing any damage with the kick itself, so have her make a Strength attack against the ogre’s Fortitude. If she pulls it off, let her push the ogre 1 square and into the brazier, and find an appropriate damage number. Use a normal damage expression from the table, because once the characters see this trick work they’ll try anything they can to keep pushing the ogres into the brazier. You can safely use the high value, though— 2d8 + 5 fire damage. If Shiera had used a 7th-level encounter power and Sneak Attack, she might have dealt 4d6 (plus her Dexterity modifier), so you’re not giving away too much with this damage.
I think that it is safe to assume that if Shiera was 1st level, the Acrobatics check for that same chandelier would be 10 and the damage from the brazier would be 2d6+3.  Of course, she'd be fighting something weaker than an ogre so that the relative decrease in the damage from the brazier would be about the same effect on that creature (proportionately) as the damage that the ogre takes in the above example.

When Shiera is 30th level, that chandelier will be a check of 28 and those ogres whatever is stronger than ogres will  take 4d8+10.

I guess the chandeliers earn XP from all the adventurers swinging on them...


user@example.com said...

Actually, there is one very important way in which the maths does change as you level up. In epic tier, things get a little easier relative to the PCs. Even monsters of their level are a bit easier for them to fight compared to monsters of their level halfway through paragon or heroic. It's part of the defined endgame thing, because by that point they could literally be the raven queen's consort, or on their way to being the king of the fae, or Elminster only less of a pervy old man.

They still get to fight absurdly powerful things, mind. And absurdly powerful things, like Orcus, can afford chandeliers made of the ever-living bones of the damned, lit with hellfire. :P

Also, there are limits at first level - they can't hope to fight an ancient dragon. They probably can run like hell and even get xp for escaping if the DM does it as a skill challenge, but they can't fight it if it's trying to kill them.

(Please don't take this as at attempt to edition-war, it's really not. I just like the way 4e handles a lot of things and tells the DM how it's handling them. *hugs printed copies of legally-purchased OD&D PDFs*)

Jim said...

Yeah. I'm not interested in an edition war either. I just don't think I have the stamina to run 4e. :) It's dense. All those stat blocks too.

Serious question -- how many PHs and DMGs are there for 4e now? Three of each? I'm just curious...

user@example.com said...

The stat blocks are wonderful! At least, compared to 3e*... and I'd say, 2e.

3 PHBs, 2 DMGs. The 2nd DMG somehow manages to have even more awesome advice on DMing a campaign than the first, and has a bit more of a focus on paragon-tier play. The PHBs have the neat classes and extra character-building stuff, like hybrid characters (eh) and skill powers (ooh).

I want DMG3, but it's still probably some way off :( And DMG4, covering weird variant campaign styles, but I just made that up and it'll probably not see print. It's quite a few PHBs, but when you compare it to the number of books with extra classes in 3e it starts to look very small, and neatly contained. It's not OD&D, but, well, very little else is aside from that first Basic set.

I'd compare it to AD&D, but the A stands for "I have allergies to this edition".

I also really like the Player's Book/DM's Book split. Oh god, 3e, whyyyy did you spread classes out EVERYWHERE. Was it really that important to make every player buy every book. Bad WotC!

* Some guy on EN World wrote up a full, by-the-rules block for one of the big bad demons. It went on, and on, and on, and on. And had to be recalculated, all dozen pages or whatever, every time it used ones of it's many, many buffs.

Anonymous said...

If we're talking about how 4e gets the book split right or wrong, I feel like mentioning how dearly I'd have loved to see them split the tiers rather than the way they are doing it. I could buy a Heroic tier PHB, DMG and MM and be happy, without feeling that 2/3 of the material is stuff I'll never use. Do most gamers really make it to high level play? In my experience, including what I read and hear from other gamers, no.

As for this chart, I misposted my comments on it in the previous blog post's comments section (good ol' Annonymous!), so will refrain from spamming it here.

user@example.com said...

Mm. I'm not sure splitting the tiers would work well. Epic maybe, but heroic and paragon are too closely linked to split, and it would not be good to have to buy multiple books to get a single class. You could get away with that in BECMI and so on, where there were a limited number of classes, but to introduce a new class would require a new book for every tier. It's one thing to not have access to a class until the book's published, it's quite another to be able to play the first ten levels of it then have to hang back or use generic advancement rules while the rest of your party plays on to 15 because the second book your class is in hasn't been published yet.

Also, not everyone starts at first level. Some people want to play campaigns in the epic tier right from the start.


As far as the table in this goes, it's, well, another good DM advice section. If a player does something unexpected you can figure out how powerful it should be. It's easier than throwing out a random number, means that unexpected and improvised attacks don't automatically suck compared to powers if you'd default to assigning them lower damage, and if you want to give it more oomph, you still can.

One major side-effect of using set damage for pushing ogres into the brazier and the like is that it's powerful at low levels but becomes weak at high levels, and I'd rather have high-level adventurers still using cool tricks than have then decide that breaking a priceless diamond vase over someone's head is a waste of an action compared to just attacking normally, because it won't have much effect.

Bryant said...

I think about that table this way:

If Shiera wants to do 2d6+3 damage, she can use the DC 10 number. If she wants to use all her knowledge of acrobatics to cause more damage, leverage and force and so on, then she can go for the DC 14 shot.

user@example.com said...

That is a good way of using it. Fits into a player-driven model, and gives the player a chance to gamble and take a bigger risk (of wasting the turn) for a bigger reward.

Bryant said...

Thanks! In fairness, that's me applying a lot of DMing experience to the table -- I'm not sure you can get that from the text alone.

user@example.com said...

If you're a less-experienced DM you can probably just use it as suggested, though, and it'll give you and your players a better game than if you had nothing advising you. If you're experienced, it's nice to have, and if you're not, it'll let you keep the game running without pausing for five minutes to figure out how you want to resolve things. I've played in a couple of games that have had sessions derailed by a newbie DM hitting something unexpected and breaking it up while they try to figure out how the game wants them to handle it - the game told them to make something up, but they hadn't had enough experience to know what to make up.

The Lord of Excess said...

I have come to restrain myself on the version war ... I originally hated 4e and rejected it. But a few friends who are generally very intelligent people with damn good taste in games persisted in their recommendations of 4e. I eventually gave in and tried it and didn't like it ... but stuck it out. I had a few go rounds with it and finally hit the right group. I have come to see 4e like this ... its simply my own experience/observation so take it as one will. 4e is a great miniatures based tactical skirmish game, it provides very tactical combats that are balanced very nicely. It gives the party a nice vs. experience with the DM and provides for a really interesting minis game feel. Now for me, being an old wargamer who loves GW stuff ... once I had that kind of experience with 4e I really began to like it ... for that. I see many people out there reject it because they struggle to get good RP out of it, etc. I would simply say that perhaps consider other systems if you want deep RP. For one thing 4e combats are somewhat time consuming, the average group has a finite amount of time (usually a weekly 4 to 6 hour block of time) ... a big encounter can easily take 2+ hours ... so lack of 4e rules that aid in facilitating RP debate aside ... just by time alone ... 4e tends to hamper RP. Again ... just in my experience. So our 4e group focuses on rocking, gritty, tactical mini based combats and has light, usually comical, RP on the side. We look to other systems for riveting role playing. Again ... no offense intended here ... nor any desire to spark a version war. I have been saddened by the terrible anger that flies around the internets ... with tabletop/face to face gaming under horrible assault from truly awful MMOs, etc. I like to try to be open an accepting to people's individual choice for whatever version of D&D they prefer. To each their own ... if people are doing any form of pen and paper ... I consider them an honored fellow :)

user@example.com said...

One of the only significant* RPGs I've ever seen with rules that aid RP is FATE (and its variants <3 Diaspora <3). There are plenty with rules for RP, and rules about RP, but... they tend to negatively affect RP in play.

Setting's another matter entirely, of course, and some games are strongly tied to settings that promote and support RP in ways that others might not, but I don't really consider that part of the game itself when I'm comparing them to a game that isn't strongly tied to a particular setting. It's the rules that I'm thinking of here.

* Not commenting on a vast number of little indie games, because there are too many and some are good at this.

user@example.com said...

Oops. Forgot:

I can very clearly see what you mean about longer combats taking up session time that could be spent RPing. I do like 4e's longer combats - they mean you get to use your abilities and it's not just a race to be the first PC to save-or-lose the enemies away - but it does mean that combats break up non-combat RP. They are tactically interesting, though, and you can cut down on them by using morale rules (which more RPGs need to use...) and not pulling out the battlemat for every quick hostile interaction (knocking out a couple of guards doesn't require a full-blown combat).

Still... that's what the system sets out to do - tactically involving combats that go on for long enough that PCs and NPCs alike get to use their abilities, rather than ten-second duels. If you just want to RP, it's probably better to not get into significant fights, which should be easy enough to avoid if the DM wants to as well. If you [i]never[/i] want to have full combats, you'd probably be better off with a system that doesn't have long combats as a feature - I'd suggest using something like OD&D to resolve combat if you want something short. If you're primarily there for the RP but still want 4e character sheets with cool powers... I'd still say use something lighter to resolve combats. Just have a secondary, combat, sheet with OD&D-level hit points and AC, roll d20 to hit based on which class you're closest to of the classic 3, roll d6 for damage, if you have a cool teleportation power like the swordmage's stuff then just tell the DM "I'm teleporting here!" and move your marker on the map to stab someone in the back, if you're using a map, or "I mark the big guy, and if he hits my friends then I get to teleport to him and stab him in the face". Abstract, and very reliant on rulings and fiat and players willing to just make something up based on what their powers say, but quick and simple and mostly made up on the spot. And I mean, if you've been RPing all session, you should be able to handle that without someone breaking it.

(Or, y'know, lots of minions with maybe a single non-minion standard monster.)

user@example.com said...

Teal deer: I ramble too much, and someone should convert the swordmage to swords & wizardry.

Jim said...

Thanks to all for the lively conversation AND civility on this post. Very interesting and enlightening!

Jim said...

I think it will be interesting to read your future posts as you get some experience with the system under your belt. Like you, I have a stronger preference for other kinds of game systems, but one thing I see 4e having going for it is that "there is always something for everyone to do" which is quite the change from older editions.

It will be MOST interesting to see how the game goes as characters advance to higher levels and we get to see how all this "system balancing relativity" plays out in a real game.

I think previous comments about higher level traps not being the same as lower level traps is why they scale like that. Swinging from a chandelier is going to be the same no matter the level, though. But the strength vs. Fort check will scale with characters and monsters. That said, the charts you reference are referring to "traps" in particular, which do change in difficulty. As you would want them to do in any game.


But again, I am looking forward to see how all this stuff plays out over time as we progress through our game.