Oct 9, 2008

F*** the edition wars. Sometimes you just need to play, Part II

Faustusnotes from http://faustusnotes.wordpress.com/, better known as Compromise and Conceit, raised a point I have seen several times throughout my travels. His quote, (relating to my last post).

"The two times I have played 4e have been completely the opposite of that - zero description, zero flow, and books books books. Also indestructible characters and no sense of threat. Also the wizards were really really weak.So maybe you just had a really good adventure, and a DM who didn't care about the rules...?"

says a lot. I'd like to offer my thoughts here. Let's take this one part at a time.

1.)"Zero description, zero flow, and books, books, books." - I am not going to go into "yer doin it wrong". That's as non-constructive as hell. Instead, I will try and relate/describe how my experience worked out.

First, while I do lament the loss of the 500 word flavor text, I am sure most of it (at least for the iconics) is practically internalized for most of you. If I pointed to a bare stat block, and said, "It is 3 1/2 feet tall, green, talks in a squeaky high pitched voice, and is wielding a rusty short sword." What would be your guess? Of course, it's a goblin.

According to said stat block, they have a very limited set of abilities, depending on what type they are. The flavor is just that, flavor. Then again, why not make them blue, with rat noses, and lots of purple pustules? Use the same stat block. Now they are "Booglies" They can even be mixed and matched to keep the adventurers on their toes! I improvised that said minions had a belt pouch full of venomous "snacks" that they could throw (+3 vs. Ref.) for ongoing 3 poison damage (save ends). 3.5 had gotten us all used to being spoon fed EVERYTHING about said critter. This is no longer the case. The fluff and flavor is YOURS now.

As to the flow, this is a subjective thing I think. The flow was only a bit off during the first hour or so. Once the players got used to their character's abilities, it began to pick up FAST! We're talking 1 minute rounds here! Some of your problems are undoubtedly unfamiliarity issues, these will pass. Just follow the rules of fun and cool, and you will not fail.

A BIG help was using the Pre-Gen characters. They had all the 1st level selected powers printed right on the sheet. When they make their own characters, they plan on copy/pasting these: http://chadsblog.wordpress.com/2008/06/26/dd-4e-power-cards/ or doing as demonstrated for Magic:TG style flip/tap use. Hence the players only once referenced the PHB.

4E is a much more seat-of-the-pants style of gaming. It REALLY encourages improv within a loose and balanced framework of rules. Making the now brainless Inn patrons rise up during the last part of the fight was completely made up. The zombies as written don't do that. So what? I am the DM and I say they do! The looks on their faces were priceless though, EVERYBODY knows that victims of zombies rise again!

2.)"Indestructible characters and zero threat" - This was most definitely not the case for us. The poor dragonborn Paladin can attest to that! See, the trick is to challenge the party WITHOUT killing them. To do this, I had the main threats (the corruption corpses) and a bunch of piss-ant minions. The CC's are level 4 artillery. They had a nasty ranged attack, and guess what? In melee, they are truly nasty - their aura gives a -5 to attack rolls due to stench! They hid behind the wall of minions and pelted the party with chunks of necrotic flesh! The trick was to keep them shielded by their minions. The monster roles are VERY important if you want to challenge the party. Once you understand how they work, it makes it much easier to design a challenging encounter.

The goblin encounter later had 1 goblin hexer (lvl 5 controller) 4 goblin slyblades?(lvl. 2 lurker) and 12 cutters (minions) in a swamp clearing surrounded by thorny bushes, chanting and dancing around a bonfire. The party snuck up and killed a couple of minions before all hell broke loose. The hexer was actually a wee bit much for them, against a 2nd level party it would have been fine however. I had two party members down before the Cleric (DMNPC) was able to go around and revive them.

My experience is that combat is all or nothing. TPK or victory. Period. Dying in 4E IS hard, but is far from impossible. Remember, without help, you can only use 1 healing surge yourself & a second wind, per encounter. The cleric or Pally can help here, as well as healing checks, but that requires more teamwork - hence incentive based gaming. By using the wave tactics, I was able to work my way through those pesky Dailies and Encounter powers, as well as the healing surges. My new rule of thumb is "if the first encounter was too easy - throw another one at them right at the end." You'll see a little more desperation then.

3.)"The wizards were really, really weak." - Another throwback to the "old" ways of D&D. The wizard is not weak, per se, but re-tasked. See, his job as a CONTROLLER is crowd control. He influences the enemies movement, and causes a lot of AoE damage. Nobody else does that. Make sure that the word choice of "weak" is not just an instinctive reaction to his "colossal cosmic power" being curtailed to a point of balance. This is also a pretty subjective area. Remember that he is currently (IIRC) the only character that gets an extra Daily power, via staff or Orb too.

What it really boils down to is CHANGE. We have been doing it another way for so long, it is REALLY difficult to adjust. Personally, I have been drifting away from D&D for almost a year now. As a 31 year old full-time civil servant with a wife and two kids, a mortgage, and all the associated baggage, I simply didn't have the time to stat up a CR 24 Fiendish Red dragon / Disciple of Ashardalon. Much less it's minions, lair, and horde. 4E has been a god's-send to me. I also hear a lot of folks say that the players love it, but it's no fun to DM.

I hope my rambling helps to spur the creative juices in anyone who is having "issues" with 4E. It may simply not be your cup of tea. That's ok! Anybody else have these issues? Wanna chime in with homebrew solutions? Correct my hideous errors?


Anonymous said...

I thought about this a bit, and a lot of it could come down to bad DMing. I played in both adventures (well, really it was 3, but 2 were connected), and one was well DMd but one not so much. The not-so-well-DMd session was a big slaughterfest, the PCs against a horde, and everything just took forever. One minute rounds it was not.

The jargon use was dizzying too - "I use my minor to instruct a minion, then I make a move action to assume partial cover, and for my standard I'll..." "what, it's concealment not cover? Then I'll slide to here..." etc. None of this is adventure, it's management. So that may have been the consequence of the mix of players rather than the rules, and some of it at least is a hallmark of 3.5 play.

I shouldn't be too critical anyway - I cut my teeth DMing rolemaster, which I think I made quite admirably descriptive. 4e may be many things, but it will never be as horribly bogged down in detail as Rolemaster!

But I still maintain that the rogues I played were way way too powerful, and the mages we fought (or who I played alongside) were useless. We went to great lengths to identify the mages for early killing, and what did they do? A small area-effect spell with 1d6+2 damage...

Donny_the_Dm said...

lol! But that d6+2 is an at-will area effect! Makes a difference, as it becomes up to 9d6+18 total if applied to the maximum extent.

Power selection matters too. As to rogues, they are supposed to do boatloads of damage, their role dictates it. The balance is in the lower amount of healing surges, and the "glass jaw" of low AC plus low HP(relatively).

YMMV, lol. D&D is a different game to everyone. That's the beauty of it. I really do hope it works out better for you in the future.

Lastly, the terminology is terrible in it's immersion crushing glory. That's something I'm working on now.

In any event, thank you for coming, and not being disghusted at my rambling (hopefully not patronizing) post.

Anonymous said...

certainly not patronising! Clearly I don't know the 4e rules, since I have no idea about this 9d6+18 business. Sounds nasty. Mage didn't use it though, and moments later he was orc food.

The Rogue never gets hit, and always seems to dance around in battle. So I'm not sure he's as weak as the rules suggest.

My main gripe though remains that there is no out-of-combat material, or at least none that I've seen. But that could be the focus of the DM, rather than the fault of the rules. Anyway, I'm off to bed now, have to work in 9 hours...

Donny_the_Dm said...

Good night to you sir, and I hope a pleasant dreams isn't out of order :)

The astronomical number offered was a potential damage figure if said power (close burst or blast 1) was to be used in it's most effective way, i.e. an enemie in every possible affected square. It's not much to an individual critter, but IS a massive amountif added up in totality.

The out of combat stuff is a little more touchy. It depends heavily on the PC's initiating dialog, and is supported well by the skill challenge mechanic. A good rule of thumb would be to not have more skill challenges than combats, as they are treated as such in terms of XP awards.

I posted last week, a houserule version I am playtesting, allowing villains (named NPC's) to initiate skill challenges AGAINST the party as well.

See, Diplomacy, intimidate, and bluff are still there. What do you feel is missing?

Anonymous said...

The thing about 4e combat is that roles are hard-coded into the class, and especially for the controller, they encourage a bit of variety. For example, there are two "Wizard Builds" as WotC likes to call them. One does a lot of damage, one does helpful debuffing. The Rogue's role is to deal loads of damage. This doesn't change much between the builds. But the Wizard has one build that ENABLES others to deal more damage, by dazing, stunning, slowing, and so on – the Rogue just deals more damage.

So it really depends on the player. Personally, I like enabling others. In combat, I feel useful dazing and slowing and putting enemies to sleep, more than just spraying fire around. Though I think a variety of effects is best. But the Rogue is supposed to be throwing around the big numbers. It's his role. What the Wizard does is freeze enemies in place or make their arms limp so the Rogue can stab better. I think that's still an admirable job. But if the mindset of the player is to want the real ultimate power that 3.5 afforded, where you could clean house by yourself, that'd be a problem.

As for the out of combat material, there's skill challenges and rituals. Honestly, I treat skills like 3.5 treated them. You use them, and that's that. I don't "initiate skill challenges" except as a joke in the joke game I'm running, where a little scantily clad flying girl appears with confetti whenever a SKIIIIILL CHALLEEEENGE! is declared. But the 4e skill system is very broad, and you should expand it to fit your needs. For example, Athletics can be used as the roll for physical challenges. It takes some imagination, but we have that in spades, don't we?

In my Eden setting, I give +5 bonuses to attribute checks for certain things based on the background of the player – this effectively creates new skills without having to codify them. The DMG has DC target numbers based on level, for this sort of improvisation. However, I usually only allow one major "background skill" per attribute to prevent powergamed backgrounds (systems such as mine invite such things).

4e seems to place a lot of emphasis in that skills are for out of combat, and rituals are for out of combat, and that powers are pretty much in-combat for the most part. The line blurs in places, but I think if you want to talk about out-of-combat 4e, this is up to the player's roleplaying and the DM's handling of skills and skill challenges.

Donny_the_Dm said...

Well said, sir.

Thank you for the insight, we're all still just fumbling around in the dark here, as is common with a new edition.

Ironically, around late summer next year, the "new edition" talk will be about gone, and 3E will be the "olden days".

Makes me feel old already. :)

Anonymous said...

See this confuses me, because I thought a wizard was someone who cast spells and used magic to gain power; and a thief was someone who used the dodgy skills they picked up on the streets to rob people, do spying work, and get away without being seen.

I never thought of a magician as a "controller" who wielded buffs; nor did I think of a thief as a fragile character who did loads of damage. I think this perspective really limits the sense of what fantasy gaming is all about.

By "out of combat material" I meant spells, not skills - in my experience, wizards cast knock, magic mouth, whispering wind etc. I have had battles won or lost on the wizards ability to use magical communication, and whole adventures revolve around their use of a single non-combatant spell. Skills have an important place in this but spells like Tongues, comprehend languages, illusions... they're what make the world real.

(Also, I didn't realise that NPCs and monsters couldn't initiate challenged skill checks - mine do it all the time. How else does this system work?)

I think it's clear I don't know much about the 4e rules, though, isn't it... I should reiterate, I'm only going on the experience of 3 adventures over 4 or 5 sessions, and not always with good DMing.

Donny_the_Dm said...

Well, as it stands, the wizard has two possible "heroic tier" builds. There is a damage dealer, and a "support" model. The first is obvious, the second mostly sets up his buddies with buffs, and enemies with debuffs.

The rogue is a melee type that thrives on his mobility. Whenever he is in a position of "combat advantage" his powers REALLY shine. I.e. His opportunistic side comes out and his bonus damage becomes awesome. Think second edition backstabber.

As to the out of combat stuff, what has really happened, is that there is a clearer line drawn between combat/noncombat stuff. See, in 2e or 3e, if the party had to get through a locked door to escape a mob, it would require a couple of actions while the fighter bashes it down, or the wizard unlocks it, or the rogue picks it. You choose, make rolls, and adjudicate success/failure.

4E, in my understanding, gives the fighter an athletics check (samesame) to force it open (or a STR check), the rogue can make a thievery check(samesame), or the wizard can use a knock ritual(no book handy - an IIRC)again samesame. Not much has really changed. In fact, my understanding was that the DMG encouraged just letting it happen to keep the cinematic pace up.

As to skill challenges, in the RAW, the DM sets them up as encounters, and the party gains XP as such. I proposed allowing it to be a party/DM/BBEG initiated system - completely optional if the party is content to hack and slash. Otherwise the challenge IS the roleplaying.

I had to spend a weekend just sitting down and reading the PHB and DMG. I need to do it at least one more time still,as there is a lot to learn. Don't worry, you'll get it :)

Wyatt said...

"See this confuses me, because I thought a wizard was someone who cast spells and used magic to gain power...I never thought of a magician as a "controller" who wielded buffs"

These are limitations you are imposing upon yourself. The roles and designations are for the players to determine easily what their class can do. Beforehand, Wizard's might have printed a big paragraph talking about what the Wizard does from an in-universe perspective. Now they throw around the keyword "Controller" and give it a definition that's outside fluff text, so they can say it and move on with the rest of the rules.

Wizards are still people who cast magic to get power. Wizards get Ritual Caster and two rituals for free, and two more rituals every 5 levels – most characters can cast rituals, but they don't get them for free like a Wizard does. Rituals are the out of combat spells.

Rituals were designed with two purposes – remove limitations and impose limitations.

The limitation removed is set-up. You don't have to prepare "knock". You just know Knock, and if you throw around your silver dust and chant for ten minutes (or however you want to fluff it, the game doesn't care one way or another), you cast knock.

The limitation imposed is efficiency. Wizards used to be both extremely powerful and extremely efficient if they set up correctly. Now, to use Donny's examples above in order of efficiency:

Rogue (lockpicking) is most efficient. He does it faster than anyone else, more quietly and for free. So the tricky thief is better at opening locks than anyone else.

Fighter (Bashing) is second efficient. He does it relatively fast, but it's loud and taxing. He might need to use an encounter power to deal enough damage to the door to bash it down, or roll a number of Strength checks to be able to bash it down – the Rogue just needs one skill check.

Wizard (Knock) is a guaranteed success, but least efficient. It costs him spell components, and more time than the others. But if you can spare the time, that door WILL open, no questions asked.

But there are still many things ONLY rituals can do. For example, Divinations are still around. Information Gathering of this sort is still squarely in magic. And as more Rituals are released, Wizards can raise land off the ground, create portals, and so on.

Comparatively, other characters need to spend a feat to get rituals, feats to get the skills to cast rituals, and then money to learn rituals. Wizards don't need to spend anything to learn rituals. They come as he levels up.

So yeah, Magic is still plenty useful and powerful, and the Wizard still does it all plenty well.

DnDCorner said...

My experience with 4th edition has been extremely positive. As far as prep time and the ability to improvise it has been much improved. I really no longer have to worry about the accidental tpk, i.e. I don't find myself adjusting monster stats mid-combat to either scale the combat up or down.

The monsters are more balanced, combat runs faster, and I find myself able to get out from behind the screen and interact with the players.