Friday, January 27, 2012

Drama is Unruly

I've tried to show some of the interplay between armor class, hit points, and attack bonus in previous columns. Anyone who's played D&D more than once has at least an intuitive notion of how intertwined those are.

Those earlier columns addressed monster defenses but ignored offensive power. Offense is far harder to assess, at least for AD&D and other early editions. In 4E, monster damage is as reliable as monster defenses, with special powers to spice things up. In AD&D, trying to quantify a monster's "threat level"--its combination of attack bonus, number of attacks, damage per attack, and special powers--conjures up an image of Aleister Crowley intoning "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law."

Drama demands ups and downs, lulls and rushes, major and minor chords, easy victories and demoralizing defeats. A tough pitcher throws curveballs, changeups, sinkers, sliders, knuckleballs, screwballs ... and the occasional lazy meatball and skull-cracking beanball. 4th Edition seems to coach a steady stream of fastballs, and eventually they get easy to hit. What's worse is they get dull.

Monsters in 4E are too skillfully regimented. Special powers give them a lot of offensive flavor, but their defenses, attack bonuses, and damage output are predictable. It leads to a sense of flatness in combat.

Contrast that with a setup where some monsters have very low hit points but very high AC, or vice versa. Or where some monsters have pathetically low chances to hit but do tremendous damage while others hit almost all the time but their attacks are mere pinpricks. 4E's monster roles--soldiers, brutes, etc.--address this, but they don't go far enough.

To illustrate the situation, I've concocted two graphs of the "threat levels" mentioned above. The plots are hypothetical; they're graphic depictions of the difference between the linear math of 4E monsters and the chaotic math of AD&D monsters. I believe that they're accurate in concept even if the specific numbers aren't. The horizontal axis is monster level; the vertical axis is our hypothetical "threat level."

4E's line is easy to predict and manipulate, which is why 4E is a very DM-friendly game. AD&D's plot is elusive, unruly, even aggravating for DMs--and much more dynamic and dramatic. That dynamism is what I believe too many DMs and players missed from 4E, and what I'd like to see make a return in D&D Next.



  1. Don't just use monsters, and use monsters in interesting ways.

  2. Widely varied threat levels between nominally equivalent creatures is a bug, not a feature. Flying blind as a DM creates more variety, yes, but only in the same sense that not screening for botulism would create more variety in tomato sauce: there's the potential for a surprising, unforeseen death in every can!

    Worse still, it acts as an obstacle for the cultivation of good encounter design skills in DMs if the parts they have to work with are not simply, accurately, and honestly labeled. The DMs I've played under who created the most memorably challenging encounters were those who had best mastered the tools they had to work with, and knew exactly how to make the PCs walk the line between failure and victory. Without consistent standards, this sort of understanding becomes much harder to achieve.

    Put simply, obfuscation, misrepresentation, and opacity cannot be expected to result in effective communication, education, and understanding. Keeping the threat level of equivalently identified monsters equivalent is a necessary part of quality control, and cannot be abandoned.

    1. I'm not sure where the idea came from that I'm looking for obfuscation, misrepresentation, and opacity in monster design. I'm asking for greater range in stats at any given level, so that every level 8 monster doesn't have AC 22 and 80 hit points.

  3. I agree with Steve that 4e monsters are far too linear, and I'm a big fan of 4e. Battles in 1e and 2e were very swingy which did create a lot of drama which I began to miss when I felt 4e got into grind mode (level 5 - 15) When I DM 4e I always adjust monster defenses to reflect what I feel reflects the vision of the monster in my head. Likewise I'll often jack up or down monster damage.

    The only thing I don't mess with too much is monster attack bonuses. At most I'll adjust it +2 or -2. I find that missing too much is less dramatic than hitting and doing a small amount of damage. Hitting and never missing is undramatic because it takes the players out of the game as they begin to feel the DM is cheating somehow.

    With regards to "obfuscation, misrepresentation and opacity", I think that Erachima has missed Steve's point. Those terms imply some malicious intent towards players, whereas Steve's ideas are clearly meant to bring some unpredictable excitement back to the game which is actually trying to make the game more fun for players.

  4. The thing I dislike most about the predictability of monster stats in 4E is that they end up seeming divorced from the underlying monster concept in order to conform to the level-appropriate challenge standard. One ends up with giant bulky monsters that have insane reflex defences, or creatures that should probably be not very intelligent having very high will defences. Not only does this take away from verisimilitude, it also deprives players of a source of tactical information (because they should be able to infer that a big bulky monster will probably have a weaker reflex defence and act accordingly).

    The fact that such variation can be perceived as "cheating" by the referee (as mentioned by Style75 above) is unfortunate.

    The real problem is trying to assign monsters a level in a linear continuum. I think that is a mistake. There are too many dimensions on which a monster can offer a challenge.

  5. Now there's a very interesting thought! Not only do things get kinda boring, but also whenever I throw a special (read: improvised) threat at the players, they say "how come this thing's kinking our butts? This is 4E, right, so you've got all the tools to make this balanced!"

    I'm very curious how Next is planning to handle this.

  6. This is kinda shocking to me, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. The goal was to make things easier for the DM, and making all monsters roughly the same at all levels would do that.

    I'm kinda confused by erachima's objection. It makes sense to me that, at every level, you'd want creatures that were hard to hit but had glass jaws, and creatures that were easy to hit, but could take a lot of punishment in addition to your bog standard "balanced" monsters.

    As I understand it, 3e and 4e have mostly done away with the special weaknesses of powerful monsters, like being able to destroy a vampire with sunlight or the like. If so, that's a shame, because that made for some great play.

  7. @Trollsmyth As you understand it? What does that mean? Reading the monster manuals of either edition shows they still have their weaknesses and 4E DMG p.135 explicitly talks about villains' secret weaknesses.

  8. A way to abstract the dynamism would be to give the DM a couple of one-shot powers, ways to fudge the system "legally" against the players (generally when we fudge, we fudge in favour of the players, the older the DM the more they tend to fudge in my experience. I guess that's a side-effect of the old rules being so deadly.

    To make it more concise, say a DM has a daily, a couple of encounter and maybe even an at will power. It would be linked to the current adventure / campaign / villain and of course power level. Giving him options to sour the player's day.
    For instance the villain is a Vampire, a master of bats. And an encounter power could be that for one round as a reaction, he can send a swarm of bats giving a -5 on the skill check being rolled (just of the top of my head).
    It's thematically sound, gives a way for the GM to bring more drama and dynamism into the game.

  9. Pekka: It means I don't have a 4e MM at hand. So exposure to sunlight will still kill a vampire in a round or two, and renders it helpless in the meantime? That'd be good to hear.

  10. I'm with trollsmyth on this one, I think. More variety in many dimensions is good. My preferred style of game - both as player and GM - has a high level of naturalism. The internal logic of the world and its inhabitants is the important thing and (with some major reservations), 'story' or 'plot' or 'adventure' is constructed around emerging game events.

    So while 'balance' is a useful concept for me as a GM, I do not make much effort to ensure that any particular monster or situation is balanced: I aim for engaging, interactive and plausible. Variety is a very important ingredient and/or product of these aims. Sometimes the variety comes from situation, sometimes the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, sometimes the monsters, sometimes the players' (or the GM's) smartness or dumbness, luckiness or unluckiness.

    I understand that 'unbalanced encounters' can produce problems for play groups - possibly these are some of the most important potential problems in some modes of play - but that doesn't necessarily mean we should reduce the available variety to make sure balance is scientifically available.

    Would it be possible to design a system that allowed each group to choose which aspect to emphasise? For example, provide some kind of 'self balancing' core or starting point - maybe through adventure modules or tailored monster lists or whatever - for those who want that kind of thing, with something more 'dynamic' for those who prefer a less predictable game experience?

    In my experience you can't easily create a reliable tactical balance without restricting options (for both players and GM) and applying formulae at a whole lot of levels. But even a careful theoretical balance can easily be upset by weak play (players or GM), or (depending on your game system) bad dice. Unless your rules make the optimum move at each point obvious.

    As you may have guessed, I don't play a lot of D&D of any description, although I have been dabbling a little recently.