May 2008

PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4

"When creating house rules for a game you love, it's easy to get carried away."
"You sunk my battleship! In Irkutsk! With the candlestick!"
"I'm all in."
- Basic Instructions, "How to Create House Rules" by Scott Meyer

May 28th, 2008


I thought I was done talking about Keep on the Shadowfell for a bit, but as I was prepping the adventure yesterday I had some interesting thoughts that I felt like sharing. These should give you some insight not only into how I go about prepping an adventure, but also how I analyze game design issues (both in the design of the system and in the design of the scenario).


Let's start by looking at the pregenerated fighter character. As most of you probably already know, there are basically three different kinds of abilities in 4th Edition: At-will abilities (which can be used as often as you like); Encounter abilities (which require a short rest to recharge); and Daily abilities (which require an extended rest to recharge).

(Some at-will abilities will also recharge irregularly or in response to conditions on the battlefield.)

I've been kinda thinking of these different abilities like this: At-will abilities are the ones which define your character; encounter abilities are nifty; and daily abilities are awesome.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the at-will abilities that the pregenerated dwarf fighter has at 1st level: Cleave and reaping strike.

CLEAVE - Fighter Attack 1

You hit one enemy, then cleave into another.

At-Will - Martial, Weapon

Standard Action - Melee weapon

Target: One creature

Attack: +6 vs. AC

Hit: 2d6+3 damage, and an enemy adjacent to you takes 3 damage.


REAPING STRIKE - Fighter Attack 1

You punctuate your scything attacks with wicked jabs and small cutting blows that slip through your enemy's defenses.

At-Will - Martial, Weapon

Standard Action - Melee weapon

Target: One creature

Attack: +6 vs. AC

Hit: 2d6+3 damage

Miss: 3 damage

I'm very impressed by the ways in which the utility of these abilities interlock with each other.

First, there is the obvious situational advantage: Cleave is going to be preferable when you're standing in the middle of a minion mob; reaping strike is going to be useful when you're facing off against a single opponent.

But, there's also another trade-off point that happens because reaping strike is more useful than cleave when an opponent becomes sufficiently difficult to hit. Here's the math:

The average expected damage per round for cleave is:

(3.5 + 3.5 + 3 + 3 = 13) x probability to hit + (0 x probability to miss)

The average expected damage per round for reaping strike is:

(3.5 + 3.5 + 3 = 10) x probability to hit + (3 x probability to miss)

If the probability to hit is 50/50, for example, then you end up with cleave doing an average of (13 x 50%) 6.5 points of damage per round and reaping strike doing an average (10 * 50% + 3 * 50%) 6.5 points of damage per round.

So if my math here is correct, reaping strike is going to deal more damage to your opponents in any situation where you have to roll a natural 12 or higher to hit. (With a slight hiccup because minions aren't affected by missed attack damage like reaping strike.)

On the one hand, I'm impressed by how two distinctive fighting styles emerge quite naturally out of these probabilities. When you're using cleave you're swinging away like wild because your significantly superior to your opponents (you have a 50/50 or better shot of hitting them); in the other you're performing a variety of jabs and cutting blows against a more skilled opponent, trying to find the weakest spots in his defense.

On the other hand, I'm impressed because of the meaningful tactical choice that these interlocking utilities give you. Either utility, by itself, doesn't constitute a meaningful tactical choice: If one ability is merely better against multiple opponents and the other is better against solitary opponents, there's no meaningful choice to be made. If you're fighting multiple opponents you'd use cleave and if you're fighting a single opponent you'd use reaping strike.

Similarly, if one ability was merely better against difficult-to-hit opponents and the other was better against easy-to-hit opponents, there's no meaningful choice to be made. If you're fighting difficult-to-hit opponents you'll use reaping strike and if you're fighting easy-to-hit opponents you'd use cleave.

But once you combine the two, meaningful choices emerge. There will still be times when the decision basically boils down to running the math and figuring out what your best expected damage is, but in most situations involving multiple foes you'll actually be making a meaningful choice about what your immediate goal is and how you want to pursue it. (I also have a fair degree of confidence that, as tactical choices proliferate at higher levels, these choices will become increasingly non-trivial.)

Now, there is one caveat to this, which is that the minion rules pretty much muck it up.

For one example of this, let's look at reaping strike: Because minions never suffer damage from missed attacks, reaping strike is completely useless against minions. So if you're trying to hit a minion, there will never be any conceivable benefit to using reaping strike. The tactical choice has once again been rendered completely moot.

On other hand, if minions were damaged -- and, thus, killed -- by missed attacks, the tactical choice between cleave and reaping strike is meaningful: Do you use reaping strike for a guaranteed kill on one minion or do you use cleave for a chance to kill two minions? It becomes a trivial decision when you're only facing off against a single minion, of course (since cleave has no advantage over reaping strike) -- but that's true of any situation when you're facing off against a single opponent and minions are designed to come in large numbers.

(Of course, this change would make reaping strike more effective on average. And I hardly know enough about the complete panoply of 4th Edition abilities to know what other effects such a change might have.)

But, overall, these are well-designed abilities that give rise to a well-designed character. It'll be interesting to see what the other 1st level fighter abilities are and how they interact with cleave and reaping strike.

To be continued...

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May 29th, 2008



Go to Part 1


The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don't want to be spoiled, don't read it. And if you're in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn't be reading it.



One of the features of 4th Edition that has been widely touted in WotC's promotional material have been the new trap design focusing on active traps. Basically, the argument is made that traditional traps either (a) suck up a lot of time because they encourage players to make constant Search checks; (b) are nothing more than random dice rolls that deal out arbitrary damage; and/or (c) focus the spotlight on the player of the rogue while everyone else sits around twiddling their thumbs. The new 4th Edition-style traps will allow everyone in the party to participate in overcoming the trap.

This seems like a laudable goal, but the actual examples we were given turned out to be fairly lackluster. They still required skill checks to detect them. They were slightly more interactive than a simple pit trap, but were pretty tame compared to some of the stuff we saw in the Book of Challenges (a 3rd Edition supplement that came out back in 2002), Traps & Treachery (a D20 supplement from Fantasy Flight Games that came out in 2001), or Grimtooth's Traps (an entire line of supplements that date back to 1981).

(Which ties into one of the reasons I've been perpetually turned off by the 4th Edition preview material. They seem to be constantly shouting about how they've reinvented the wheel. I like wheels as much as the next guy, but when somebody asks me to get excited about them I tend to get turned off by the fake enthusiasm.)

As for the effort to make traps into something that everybody can take part in, that seems to have boiled down to: The rogue makes a lot of skill checks and, if that doesn't work, then everybody else can beat the crap out of it.

For example, here's the countermeasures for the Whirling Blades trap (the first example of their "innovative" 4th Edition traps):

- A character can engage in a skill challenge to deactivate the control panel. DC 22 Thievery. Complexity 2 (6 successes before 3 failures). Success disables the trap. Failure causes the whirling blades to act twice in the round (roll a second initiative for the trap).

- A character can attack the whirling blades contraption (AC 16, other defenses 13; hp 55; resist 5 all) or the control panel (AC 14, other defenses 11; hp 35; resist 5 all). Destroying either disables the entire trap.

Color me unimpressed. I mean, there's nothing wrong with that. But when you claim that one of the fundamental gameplay elements of D&D for the past 30+ years have "rarely had a positive effect on the game", then the examples you give of "fixing" the "problem" probably shouldn't look exactly like the stuff we've been seeing in our D&D supplements for the past 30+ years.



Keep on the Shadowfell has a couple of traps: There's a bog standard pit trap. There are some runes that cause characters to flee in panic. And then there's Area 16: The Chamber of Statues.

The Chamber of Statues is a two-part trap, but I'm only going to be talking about the first part. In this section there are three statues, starting with a large titan statue in the middle of the room which acts like a monster. On its initiative it uses its sweeping blow ability:

SWEEPING BLOW (standard; at will)

Close burst 3; +11 vs. AC against all non-Evil creatures in burst; 1d6+6 damage, and the target is knocked prone

In other words, the titan statue picks a square in either its own space or immediately adjacent to its space. That square is the center of an 7-square by 7-square area. It then makes an attack against all non-Evil creatures within that area.

The titan statue is accompanied by two dragon statues, each of which use a force breath ability:

FORCE BREATH (standard; at will)

Close blast 5; +7 vs. Reflex; 1d6+6 force damage, and the target is pushed 3 squares

In other words, if you try to circle around the titan statue's reach the dragon statues will hit you with their force breath and push you back towards the titan statue. It's a simple dynamic, but it has a lot of potential to be fun in play. Unfortunately, there are several design problems here.

THE WALK AROUND: One of the ways you can work your way through the trap is to make an Athletics check to jump onto the statue. This allows you to avoid the titan statue's attacks. So you could potentially jump onto the statue, avoid its attacks, jump off the other side and head to safety on the other side of the room (without ever getting close enough to the dragon statues to get targeted by their force breath).

The problem is that there's absolutely no reason to do that: You can simply walk right past the entire trap. Why? The titan statue's sweeping blow isn't triggered as a reaction -- its an action taken on the titan statue's initiative. Nor does the titan statue have reach (which would allow it to take opportunity attacks). That means, once the titan statue makes its first attack, everyone is free to walk right past it.

LACK OF COOPERATION: As with the sample traps posted on WotC's website, this trap features the ability to either whack on it or disable it. This theoretically opens up a bit more interactivity than the website samples because, in this trap, there are multiple targets that aren't dependent on each other: The thief could be working on the titan statue while the other characters are whacking away on the dragon statues.

Only that isn't actually true, because there's no reason to go anywhere near the dragon statues (even if you don't simply walk right past the entire trap): If you stick to the west side of the titan statue you're completely out of their range.

LACK OF COOPERATION 2: This trap also introduces the ability for non-Thievery checks to disable traps: The dragon statues (but not the titan statue) can be disabled by either four successful Thievery checks or six successful Arcana checks.

Setting aside the fact that disabling the dragon statues is completely irrelevant, there's a deeper design problem here: The Thievery and Arcana checks can't be used in conjunction with each other. Either you disable the trap using Thievery checks or you disable the trap using Arcana checks -- you can't mix-and-match.

Based on other traps in the adventure, this seems to be a frequent (but not required) feature of magic-based traps. However, it always requires more Arcana checks than Thievery checks, which means that you'll always see the exact same dynamic in play with traps of this type: The guy with the Thievery skill will try to disable the trap. If he fails, the guy with the Arcana skill will try to disable the trap.

This doesn't actually make the trap any more interactive, nor does it actually get more players involved in the process. (At any given time, there's still just one guy making skill checks.) It just means that the entire thing takes more time and becomes a lot more monotonous.

WotC claims that one of the problems with traps in 3rd Edition was that the rogue made a Disable Device check while everyone else sat around and watched him. So explain to me how this is "fixed" by giving us a trap in which the rogue makes 6+ skill checks in order to disable the trap while everybody else stands around watching them work?

(Why 6+ checks? An Athletics check to jump up on the statue. A Perception check (DC 25) to find the access panel. And then at least four Thievery checks to disable the statue. So it will take a minimum of 6 checks, but given the probable skill modifiers of the pregenerated rogue PC they'll probably be making 9 or 10 checks in total.)

JUST BEAT THE CRAP OUT OF IT: But none of what I've described actually matters because none of these statues can move and none of them have relevant ranged attacks. This means that the PCs will stay in the safe area by the northern door and use their ranged attacks to whittle away at the titan statue's hit points.



So this entire elaborate trap which, at first glance, appears to be filled with interesting possibilities, will, in fact, be resolved in one of three exceptionally boring ways:

(1) One of the PCs will suffer 1 or 2 attacks from the statue and then they'll all walk out of the room.

(2) The rogue will make a half dozen or more skill checks and then they'll all walk through the room.

(3) The PCs will engage in the most boring combat imaginable: Standing where the opponent can't possibly hurt them, the players will repetitively roll dice until they finally manage to rack up the magic number and can walk through the room unimpeded.

I honestly don't understand how such a lackluster encounter got designed. I also don't see how it could have possibly been playtested without such fundamental design errors being exploited by the playtesters. (And if it was playtested and the playtesters exposed its flaws, why weren't they fixed?)

Tomorrow I fix it.

To be continued...

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May 30th, 2008



Go to Part 1

Yesterday I analyzed the shortcomings in the Chamber of Statues encounter from Keep on the Shadowfell. Today I'm going to look at how we can fix this.


The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don't want to be spoiled, don't read it. And if you're in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn't be reading it.



We'll start by shifting the layout. I think there are two directions we can go with this.

CENTERPIECE: First, we can make the room larger, put the titan statue in the center of the room, and add some additional dragon statues.

With this layout, whenever the PCs try to circle around the dangerous sweeping blow of the titan statue, the dragon statues will push them back towards the center of the room.

ILLUSION OF SAFETY: This layout has a greater similarity to the original layout and doesn't increase the number of dragon statues.

With this layout, clever PCs will notice the limited range of the titan statue's attack and conclude that they can safely circle around it to the east. But if the try that, the dragon statues will use their force breath ability to push them back towards the titan statue.



The dragon statues in the original encounter already have a force shot ability that interacts with the second part of this trap (which I'm not dealing with here):

FORCE SHOT (immediate reaction, when a creature makes a melee attack against a cherub statue from the exterior of the arcane cage; at will)

Range 10; +7 vs. Reflex; 1d6+6 force damage, and the target is pushed 1 square

We're going to make an adjustment to this ability in order to stop the PCs from getting to a safe distance and then taking pot-shots at the titan statue.

DEFENSIVE FORCE SHOT (immediate reaction, when a creature makes an attack against any statue in this encounter or when they can't use their force blow ability on their turn; at will)

Range 15; +7 vs. Reflex; 1d6+6 force damage, and the target is pushed 1 square



We'll use the original mechanics from the encounter to allow a character to make an Athletics check to jump onto the titan statue or the dragon statue. But we'll add the following detail: The dragon statues won't use their defensive force shot against any creature in the same space as another statue (the designer of the trap didn't want to risk having the dragon statues damage the other statues).

So getting onto a statue makes a character effectively immune against the titan statue's sweeping blow and the force abilities of the dragon statues. However, there's a limited number of such safe zones in the encounter (particularly if you use the Illusion of Safety layout).



By making the dragon statues an active part of the encounter that can't simply be ignored, we've already encouraged a higher level of cooperation: The rogue can only be dealing with one statue at a time, making it necessary for the other characters to deal with the other statues (or at least take actions to avoid them until the rogue can deal with them).

However, we'll go one step further and make it possible for more than one character specialty to work on a single statue at the same time. For the titan statue:

Thievery/Arcana: Eight successful DC 20 checks before four failures to disable the titan statue.

For the dragon statues:

Thievery/Arcana: Four successful DC 20 checks before two failures to disable one of the dragon statues.

Now the rogue and the wizard can work together to rapidly disable the magical statues through the combined use of their skills.

If you really wanted spice things up, you could even make it possible for the statues to be bloodied and then add the following:

Mechanical Ruin: If the statue is bloodied, it counts as 2 successes towards disabling the statue.

Now everybody in the party can work to disable a statue together. Instead of having the characters race against each other (will the statue run of hit points, Thievery checks, or Arcana checks first?), all of the characters can work together towards a common goal.

This also creates a meaningful strategic choice for the group to make as they try to deal with this encounter: Do we split up and try to deal with the dragon statues separately to clear a path to the exit? Or do we all focus our efforts on disabling the tougher titan statue and reach the exit that way?

In this last section, it should be noted, I'm not just talking about adjustments to this particular trap -- I'm talking about house rules which, based on what I've seen of 4th Edition to date, would appear to fundamentally change some of the basic ways in which the game works. But the reward appears to be gameplay which is both more interactive and offers richer strategic and tactical choices.

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May 30th, 2008


This is closing weekend for Agatha Christie's The Hollow (in which I star as Inspector Colquhoun)! The show is a certified hit, playing to sold out crowds last weekend. So if you're planning to come -- and you should plan to come! -- you should make a point of making reservations.

Fridays - Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sunday Matinees at 2:00pm

Buy Tickets

Reserve Tickets: 651-645-3503

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May 31st, 2008


Earlier this month, I included some analysis of skill challenges in my essay on the dissociated mechanics of 4th Edition. Because the core rulebooks had not yet been released, I included a disclaimer in that essay saying, basically: "Hey, I might be wrong about this. There might be more details in the core rulebooks that will clear some of this stuff up."

Well, I've now had a chance to glance through the core rulebooks. I haven't even come close to reading through (let alone thinking about or analyzing) the 4th Edition ruleset, but one of things I did make a point of looking at were the skill challenge mechanics.

And having done so, I can now safely say this: I was wrong. The skill challenge mechanics are not as bad I said they were.

They are much, much worse.



So, here's a quote from the 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide:

Roll initiative to establish an order of play for the skill challenge. If the skill challenge is part of a combat encounter, work the challenge into the order just as you do the monsters. In a skill challenge encounter, every player character must make skill checks to contribute to the success or failure of the encounter. Characters must make a check on their turn using one of the identified primary skills (usually with a moderate DC) or they must use a different skill, if they can come up with a way to use it to contribute to the challenge (with a hard DC). A secondary skill can be used only once by a single character in any given skill challenge.

That's just one paragraph out of the 8 pages in the DMG dealing with skill challenges, but it boggles the mind to consider how many things are wrong with it.

ROLL FOR INITIATIVE: It's not just the rolling for initiative that's problematical, it's the fact that the characters "must make a check on their turn". In other words, if you're engaged in tense negotiations with the Duke the barbarian can't simply decide to stand back and let the diplomat work -- the rules mandate that they get involved. If the rogue is working to defuse a bomb, Joe the Bumbler can't just wait in the next room -- the rules mandate that Joe has to start yanking on the wires.

WotC claimed that they wanted to design a set of rules that made it possible for everyone to stay involved with the game during every single encounter. Apparently, however, the only way they could think of for doing that was to mandate that everyone stay involved... whether they want to or not.

BE CREATIVE... AND PAY THE PRICE: If a player comes up with a unique, clever, or unanticipated way of dealing with the skill challenge, make sure to hit them with a hard DC to encourage them to stop being unique and clever.

A little later, in a section entitled "Reward Clever Ideas", the DMG actually says this: "In skill challenges, players will come up with uses for skills that you didn't expect to play a role. Try not to say no. Instead, let them make a roll using the skill but at a hard DC... This encourages players to think about the challenge in more depth..."

Of course, it does no such thing. If the only "reward" for "thinking about the challenge in more depth" is that the challenge will be harder, why would you ever think about the challenge in more depth?

BE CREATIVE... BUT NOT TOO CREATIVE: And just in case we haven't already dissuaded you from trying to think creatively, let's hammer that final nail into the coffin by making sure that you can only use a secondary skill (i.e., a skill not defined in the skill challenge) once in any given skill challenge.

And it's worse than that:

When the PCs are delving through the Underdark in search of the ruined dwarven fortress of Gozar-Duun, they don’t necessarily know how the game adjudicates that search. They don’t know what earns successes, to put it in game terms, until you tell them. You can’t start a skill challenge until the PCs know their role in it, and that means giving them a couple of skills to start with. It might be as simple as saying, “You’ll use Athletics checks to scale the cliffs, but be aware that a failed check might dislodge some rocks on those climbing below you.” If the PCs are trying to sneak into the wizard’s college, tell the players, “Your magical disguises, the Bluff skill, and knowledge of the academic aspects of magic—Arcana, in other words—will be key in this challenge.”

"Be creative", they say. But you'll be punished for it with a harder skill check. And you can only be creative once per encounter. We don't want all that creativity to go to your head. After all, the DM has a script for you to follow and he's going to tell you what it is.

In virtually every roleplaying game I've ever played, the default style of play was for the player to tell the GM what they wanted to do and for the GM to figure out how to adjudicate that with the rules.

But the new DMG is telling us that, in 4th Edition, the DM is supposed to tell the players what they're going to do and then, if the players want to deviate from that narrow CRPG-style script, they're going to suffer the consequences and the DM will only let them get away with it so many times.

It's certainly true that, in other games, you could get a bad DM who would railroad the players and force them to do what he wanted them to do by making everything else difficult or impossible. The difference is that, in 4th Edition, making everything else difficult or impossible is what you're supposed to do. Those are the rules of the game.

In terms of the rules it's hocking, the philosophy it's espousing, the advice it's giving, and the style of gaming it encourages, this is some of the worst material I have ever seen in a roleplaying manual. It's literally right up there with World of Synnibar, which prohibited the GM from making house rules and informed the players that, if they caught the GM deviating from the official rulebook, they should chastise the GM and reward themselves double XP for that session.

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MAY 2008: 

PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4