Saturday, January 28, 2012

D&D 5e: Scaling Bonuses

While very little definite information has yet been released about 5th edition D&D, they've released some new information on mechanics in the past day or two that I want to comment on, based on some educated guesses made in the context of previous editions.

"Instead of the fighter getting a better and better attack bonus, he instead gets more options to do stuff as he goes up in level, and his attack bonus goes up at a very modest rate. I think it offers a better play experience that the orc/ogre can remain in the campaign, and people can know how the monster would work from a previous experience, but they remain a challenge for longer." - Monte Cook
So let's talk about scaling bonuses - Warning, this is about to get mathy. Let's say you're trying to pick monsters for a fun and challenging fight in a 4e campaign. A monster becomes too powerful to use in a fight when its AC and other defenses are high enough that PCs need to roll very high (natural 17+, I'd say) to hit. There's also a band, which I'll arbitrarily identify as requiring natural rolls of 13-16, where the game might be fair, but it's mostly frustrating. For comparison, I'll note that we're talking about ACs of 19 to 23 to challenge 1st-level characters. Based on the Monster Statistics By Role chart on p. 184 of the DMG, this represents 3rd to 7th level for soldiers, or 7th to 11th level for brutes and artillery.

Is this a valid way to judge what you should use to challenge the party? Not remotely, but the point I want to make is that 4th edition paid a lot of attention to likelihood of hitting an opponent, and scaling AC and defense out of reach is a primary way of signifying that an opponent is too tough for you right now. The same is true, of course, of low-level monsters threatening the PCs; once they need high rolls to hit the PCs' defenses, they should really just pack it in unless they are there to slow down the PCs while a boss of some kind does the actual damage.

You reach a point, though, where it just doesn't matter how many low-level monsters you throw out there, because hitting only on 20s is not a valid threat. PCs reach the point of sneering at orcs, even dozens of orcs; a little later, they can sneer at dozens of ogres, and so on. Obviously, you always have the option of creating a new stat block that is a higher-level orc - that's entirely beside the point. You've outleveled orcs as a threat. The same thing happened in a different way, at a different time, in 3.x D&D. We regarded it, in both editions, as the natural order of things; in heroic fantasy, should the high-level champions of the realm be threatened by orcs?

5e seems to be saying, "Yes, you should still have to worry about orcs, at least in very large numbers." Orcs and ogres "remain in the campaign;" they're saying (I presume) that you could have an epic war against the orcs, because orcs don't (or don't quickly - we'll see how the math plays out) reach the point of averaging near-zero damage per round against the party's fighters.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Encounters Per Day Design

The concept of designing D&D around a certain number of encounters per day first came to the fore in D&D 3.0. I think everyone reading this is probably familiar with the concept already, but I'd like to drill down on it a bit, because this approach completely changed D&D, and made it unlike any other roleplaying game I can name. I'll start by saying that I neither approve nor disapprove of this approach - I can enjoy a game that embraces this idea as much as I can one that has rejected it.

In 2e and earlier editions, the general idea of an adventure was that low-level spellcasters had very little spellcasting that they could do in a day. Fighters and rogues, on the other hand, could do their thing all day - as I've said in the past, "sword mana never runs out." At low levels, the casters need to work out another solution; at high levels, they'd be hard-pressed to run out of spells without purely wasting them. A big part of the caster's reward for gaining a level is increased staying power in encounters. At low levels, parties keep going with the adventure even when the wizard is out of spells. At later levels, it's a bit more tempting to stop what you're doing and hole up once the casters are out of spells; in particular, you've grown much more dependent on the cleric's healing to get you back to a safer number of hit points. Still, the designers had no concept of pacing the game around a certain number of encounters in a day; they expected players to play through the adventure, and gave DMs wandering monster tables to keep the PCs from resting whenever they liked. For want of terminology, I'll call this a story-paced game - its pacing is determined by the flow of the story at the table.

D&D 3.x is the strange middle-ground edition here: still using Vancian magic, with its per-day spells, but conscious of every spellcaster's desire to spend their combat actions casting spells, rather than holding back and conserving spells tightly. (An exception is made here for all the various types of casters who actually have significant physical combat ability, such as most clerics and druids.) One of the main reasons that the designers introduced 0th level spells was to give even the lowest-level casters a bit more staying power. I can only imagine that introducing bonus spells from high Intelligence for wizards was motivated by the same goal. I generally found that by around 5th level I had enough spells that I didn't need to look elsewhere for something to do during a combat round, unless we were pushing our fifth or sixth encounter in a day.

The concept of an "expected" number of encounters per day was used, in 3.x, as a very loose way to balance weapon-wielders and spellcasters in the early going. (To contrast it with story-paced games, I'll call this an action-paced game; that is, designed to work more like an action flick.) Weapon-wielders manage their hit point total, and that's about it; they essentially have the same amount of "fun" (that is, they are at their peak performance) no matter how many encounters there are in a day. Spellcasters can "go nova" (as the slang goes) if they don't think there will be more encounters in the day - essentially, they can perform above what we might otherwise regard as their optimum performance. This was especially true of psions and wilders. It wasn't until much later in WotC's development of 3.x that they did much with giving weapon-wielders any form of per-encounter or per-day abilities (here I'm thinking of the Tome of Battle), though they also experimented with various kinds of melee brutes who employed spellcasting as central parts of their combat style - psychic warriors, soulknives, and duskblades all come to mind.

The thing about a consciously action-paced game is that the phenomenon of the 15-minute adventuring day became widespread, and widely discussed. Maybe this was a major problem in other folks' 2e-and-prior D&D games, and maybe it wasn't; I don't particularly recall it as being a problem, but the last of those campaigns was, um, more than eleven years ago now, and my recollection may be spotty. Once the DM is particularly conscious of the idea that an adventuring day "should" contain about four encounters, it changes the way the DM tells stories. Yet if the DM ignores the encounters-per-day suggestions, other aspects of the 3.x's balance suffer. Specifically, the guidelines for Encounter Level go out the window, and the DM is pretty much on his own to figure out how much danger the PCs can handle in that day. This is one of those things that's obvious after the fact, but took me a painfully long time to figure out in running games: if you run fewer encounters, you can run 1-2 big encounters - just be very careful about how you increase the threat level of the enemy, because it's not that hard to just overwhelm the PCs. (Digression: be careful about that statement too, and remember that a big pile of enemies can sometimes just be vaporized by a single fireball. The best possible thing you can do for game balance when statting encounters is to just do a bunch of different things.)

After the cut: moving on to 4e, and how it changes everything; also, how encounters-per-day design doesn't factor into other games, from Mage to Dust to Dust.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

D&D 5th Edition: Design Thoughts of My Own

The announcement of D&D Next, 5th Edition, whatever you want to call it, has unsurprisingly lit a fire under the gaming blogosphere, and now that I'm past the DtD one-day, I'm certainly up for commenting on what I'd like to see and the problems that I hope they attack. Much of this has received direct or indirect comment from Mearls, Monte Cook, or one of the pre-alpha playtesters, and I'll try to include quotes where appropriate. All quotes are lifted from the ENWorld 5e page.

They've talked a lot about modular rules, even though it's not absolutely clear what this will mean in practice.
"The new edition is being conceived of as a modular, flexible system, easily customized to individual preferences. Just like a player makes his character, the Dungeon Master can make his ruleset. He might say ‘I’m going to run a military campaign, it’s going to be a lot of fighting’… so he’d use the combat chapter, drop in miniatures rules, and include the martial arts optional rules.” - Mike Mearls 
I would like to think that this is opening the game to genre emulation of many disparate genres, without promising to emulate all genres at once. As a DM, I feel that some campaigns need cinematic wuxia, some need just enough simulationism to achieve immersion, and some need to wallow in unrelenting squalor. Some campaigns need magic items to be common, such that the game's math expects them to be there and operates according to expected gear levels; some campaigns want magic items to be rare and significant, without the game's math collapsing into constant frustration (and, ideally, without invalidating the Monster Manual).
"With fourth edition, there was a huge focus on mechanics. The story was still there, but a lot of our customers were having trouble getting to it. In some ways, it was like we told people, ‘The right way to play guitar is to play thrash metal,’ But there’s other ways to play guitar.” - Mike Mearls

Let's run through a quick example in a little more detail. A huge amount of 2e's splatbooks were genre-emulation mechanics for various historical eras (books with green covers), often including the partial or complete removal of healing magic - but often ignoring any gameplay-level need to replace it. On one hand, this made the games gritty in the extreme; any damage was going to be with you for a few weeks. On the other hand, this is further along that spectrum of realism than I necessarily want - let's face it, it's as inconvenient to the DM as it is to the players when two party members are decisively out of the action one encounter before the climax. It wasn't until later editions that they really explored alternate, non-magical justifications for healing, but that's exactly the kind of thing I look to modular rules to handle.

In a related theme, sometimes a campaign needs complex and detailed rules for sea travel, naval combat, and negotiating trade values for captured goods (for example, a Pirates of the Spanish Main style), while other campaigns would be burdened by anything more complex than some travel times and a Diplomacy check. If the DM announces the modular rules that the campaign uses at the start of the game, the PCs have a much clearer idea of what to expect, and can build their characters accordingly - perhaps picking up feats, classes, or whatever that are only available as part of that rules module. (The point I'm making here is that rules modules can affect both the frontend and the backend of the system, and that's strongly desirable.)

After the break - commentary on many other topics.