Thursday, September 16, 2010

Combat can be fun!

(Another re-post from LJ, originally viewable here. Incidentally, you will sometimes see references to a gentleman called B. B is a fellow gamer, one of my DMs, and also my boyfriend ~K.)

Instead of the post I was going to originally make, which was a run-down of my problems with 2e and 3.x D&D, I am going to sum those up, and get to a topic about which I actually care a good deal more. To wit, earlier editions do not have 4e's barriers to player entry, obtuse and overwhelming character creation system, or near-necessary online program that pisses you off when you realise you need it after having spent a ton of cash on books. 4e does not have the huge vagaries and limitations of role that previous editions do, and adds economy of action to many different things, healing in particular-- plus you realise from the outset when you've built a character badly, instead of only figuring it out 6 levels later, after you've been convincing yourself this whole time that one day, you'd be awesome, really. Proponents of both systems argue that it is the other one which is actually limiting and frustrating-- I know that I do. So, I have come to the conclusion that it is a matter of A) what one is used to, and what sorts of limitations you are willing to accept in presentation, and b) What tools help you, personally, become immersed in the game. I would like to think that there are ways for those who love the old editions to share their preferred format with those (i.e.-- me) who have become spoiled by 4e, and for those who are skeptical or downright hostile to 4e come into it in such a way that they'll enjoy the new things that are coming out for the system.

First of all, let's talk about what not to do if you're running or playing in your first 4e game. Primarily, and while I have said this before, it bears repeating-- Start At First Level. When I ran 1/2e/3.x, I generally would start a game at 3rd level, particularly if there were any spellcasters in the party. 2 words-- Haste, fireball. Also, you might possibly have a hit point or two by now. This will not be so much an issue in 4e, so it's better to get used to the way things work from 1st, than to try to jump up. Also, this is easier on the DM, so that they can get a feel for how to stat encounters for this party.

Converting your current game to 4e and keeping going is a really bad idea for every possible reason. For one, you're still in the old game mindset, people are used to what they can and can't do, you have established mechanics and ways of doing things that are natural to the characters and the game. Suddenly switching to Powersets, condensed skill lists, magic items that work a lot differently (and this is huge-- changing up people's stuff is a really good way to tear them out of your world and make them angry, /especially/ if it is something they use all the time-- also, You Don't Want To Convert Them All, Trust Me), non-combat characters suddenly becoming Useful and Important in combat-- no no, is too much. Play out your current campaign in the way you're accustomed, and run your 4e game new. This will also give you, the DM, the ability to get used to the Monster Manual, and the way statblocks work for monsters.

I hadn't noticed, but a friend pointed out this weekend that the Monster Manuals don't physically describe the monsters. Spacewise, you see, it seems to make so much more sense to include blurbs about how the monsters fight tactically-- so that if you're say, throwing goblins at your players (this being the 1st 4e encounter that I've run, and yesh), you can throw a bunch of different kinds of goblins who all fight differently, and have powers that help out their allies and do horrid things to the players. This is pretty durned neat to me. Goblin Tactics is awesome. As players encounter more of them, they learn who to kill first and how-- and it isn't always the caster, though sometimes, ja (If the caster is a Goblin Hexer and there are other goblins on the board, OMG KILL IT FIRST, KILL IT WITH FIRE). Anyway, hit dice don't really exist-- all monsters of a given name and level are going to have the same hp. This is something, by the by, that the players a) don't know unless you tell them and b) if you really want to, you can modify. It is very easy to raise/lower hp if you really want to, or if you want to tweak fight length, but it's not likely to be necessary. Also, there's the matter of minions-- don't skimp on them. Your AOE casters will really like being able to mop them up, and they have some interesting strategic uses for the standard monsters in a given encounter.

Which brings me to another potentially problematic bit-- if you are not used to using minis and a map (grid, not hex) in your campaigns, in 4e you pretty much have to. 4e has a lot of forced movement, terrain with various effects, and variable ranges. This can be a roadblock for players who are either not used to those, or are not used to the sheer, laid-open mechanics of movement and move actions being so much a part of the game. When learning it, I completely understand it breaking one from immersion. Here's a place where the DM and Player aspect can fix this-- it is, like so many things, a matter of describing what you're doing. A lot of powers have wonderful descriptions, as for instance:

Forceful Drag
You dig your fingers into a foe and drag the struggling opponent across the battlefield.
Encounter Martial
Move Action Personal
Requirement: You must have a creature grabbed.
Effect: You move your speed. For each square you move, you slide a creature grabbed by you 1 square to a square adjacent to you. The creature remains grabbed, and you do not provoke an opportunity attack from the grabbed creature for this movement. At the end of the move, you can end the grab to knock the creature prone.
Published in Martial Power 2.

Here's where the roleplay part comes in-- and it is some badass roleplay, as your fighter, having grabbed ahold of some critter or bad guy explains how they are hauling their sorry ass across the field, and then deciding whether they want to knock dude to the floor or not. Hells. Yeah.

I really want to talk about limitation, and who can do things like grab monsters and how, and the differing roles of skills and their base stats and the like, but I have realised suddenly that this is a heap big topic that I'll have to maunder about at another time.

So playing with map and minis in 4e has convinced me that one of my big mistakes in previous editions was not using them for combat. The inclination to use very small spaces and non-specific locations made combat kind of arbitrary, like turn-based video game combat. This is not a problem with previous systems themselves, but it is a problem with how I played and ran them. In going back to 3.x or earlier, I might be tempted not only to go to map & minis, but to limit ranges on spells and effects so that their use is more strategic. But that brings me to another issue, which I guess I'll go ahead and bring up now. Since we're talking about straight up mechanics. Which, of course, is marking.

But before I get to marking, I have to talk about roles, which are another new thing, and which for me were difficult to wrap my head around initially. You have the Leader, which means, basically 'Healer'. That is to say, the classes that fill the Leader role are generally going to have some power, usable as a minor action, which allows them to drop healing, usually 2x per combat. And here I restrain myself again for going into what I feel is the biggest strength of the system-- economy of action. /ahem. So we've got Strikers, which are there to do huge buckets of damage, and are kind of squishy otherwise. Then Controllers, who are also squishy, generally work best from range, and move things around and set them up so that other people can do huge buckets of damage to them. Also-- AoEs. And finally, Defenders, who have a Mark.

Marks are excellent. Marks are what permit Defenders to truly protect the other roles from games of SmashCaster. Basically, it's an ability that punishes x enemy for attacking people who are not the Defender, so that if said enemy is standing next to a Wizard and a Fighter, and can only attack one of them, he's not going after the wizard for being all cloth-wearing and tasty-- except at a -2 penalty. No, he's going after the paladin-chick with the effing axe who has been hacking at him for the last 5 rounds. As it makes sense from a story standpoint for him to do so, it also gives a material benefit that is good for everyone in the party, and allows the Defenders to do what they're good at-- tank!

This is, however, an extremely visible gears mechanic that some folks might find a turn off. I think that it's a case of explaining why, from a narrative/simulation standpoint, that focused attention effects are cool. I think the best example is actually a first level bard power:

Misdirected Mark
You conceal your arcane attack, tricking your foe into thinking the attack came from one of your allies.
At-Will Arcane, Implement
Standard Action Ranged 10
Target: One creature
Attack: Charisma vs. Reflex
Hit: 1d8 + Charisma modifier damage, and the target is marked by an ally within 5 squares of you until the end of your next turn.
Level 21: 2d8 + Charisma modifier damage.

Once again, the description is what's important here-- in which our tricksy bard makes the ogre think that the paladin chick over there? Yeah, she totally smacked you upside the head while running past you. I am just an inoffensive dude with a mandolin. Now go away.

So hopefully, the Narrativist types (I am one of those, btw) will like this enough to accept it. This is Gameism at it's finest, so I assume that the Gameists are way ahead of me. But I can still see the Simulationists being somewhat dubious, and making arguments that marks are arbitrary. This is a harder one to see a good solution for, to make it more palatable to older edition sorts. I do think that it is something that can be simulated in 3.x with a generic mark, used as a minor action or something, that a fighter could use to hold the attention of probably a single enemy, if you wanted to make the argument that a fighter could probably only hold the attention of one at a time. But seriously, it's a mechanic I'd like to see done backwards-- I don't know if there's something similar previously, but I've never seen it.

All of this said, here's the hard part, and something that I could stand to keep in mind as I continue with my game-- run things straight before you start changing stuff. And the corollary-- once you understand how the mechanics work, don't be afraid to change stuff.

Game balance in 4e can be a sort of scary thing to contemplate-- as you play through encounters, you'll notice that, as written, they look ridiculously brutal on paper. Thing is, the player? Ridiculously brutal. Heroic tier is effing heroic. Go with the basics initially to get a feel for what sort of damage the party can do, and what of their defenses are strong and weak-- you only roll saves when you have a condition on you in 4e, generally, attacks are rolled against the appropriate defense. Yes, this means wizards can miss or fizzle their spells. But since they're not frying a spell slot, that doesn't screw them in the same way it would have previously. The experience point chart is a pretty good guideline for what you ought to be throwing, and you can always pad out the numbers with minions, or extra standards if say, you've got a party with 2 controllers who basically mop them up like crazy. The players will figure out fast that a lot of their abilities do things that help out their allies, or otherwise effect their allies. This means that there is likely to be a lot of mechanical table talk, as they try to suss out what they can and can't do, and how it helps their pals. The biggest difference in feel that I ran into in changing to this edition was that I didn't feel as though I was acting in a bubble. What I chose to do mattered-- not just to me, but to everyone standing next to me, and I might save a power that gives attack bonuses or resistances to adjacent allies till I was, say, next to the greatest number of allies. Effects look at the battle and apply only when certain conditions are met, so-- and here's another zap for you-- you've got to pay attention not just to your turn, but to everyone else, to see what they've done to the enemies, and how they're moving, so that you can adjust your actions accordingly. Versus getting up and wandering out of the room till it's your turn again, while the hasted et al fighter takes a bazillion actions.

Which brings me to another point-- in 4e, no seriously, don't play evil. Or even crazy-chaotic neutral. I know that people telling you not to do that was arbitrary and sort of lame in earlier editions, but in 4e, you won't have a good time. What will happen is that you could lose the 'ally' status with the other people in the party, which means their enemy only stuff will hit you, you'll be cut off from buffs and bonuses, the enemies still don't necessarily count you as /their/ ally, and the chances of you getting asked back sink to pretty much no. I cannot stress enough how much you /really/ want to get along with your party. And if you do, the more cohesive you are, the more awesome you are. Which is why most games will not use tribal and guild feats. The more cohesive you as a party get, the more powerful you are by orders of magnitude, even if your numbers don't look it.

So, what I want to know here-- how would any of you, as DMs or Players, build a similar kind of party cohesion in a 3.x or earlier game? How would you suggest that I, as a player, build my character so that I can support the party in combat, and not also be ineffective elsewhere? I suspect that the skills system might have some solutions, since they are fairly vague, but I am very open to suggestions.

And a 4e question to go along with that-- if you wish to run a game with intra-party suspicion and paranoia, the way that the party mechanics work, you seriously risk making combat situations un-fun if they party winds up disliking each other enough. In our Planescape game, for example, which is a pretty awesome game and my first intro to how much fun skill challenges could be, all of the PCs belong to different factions in Sigil, some of which, like my Sensate and B's Doomguard, are very much opposed to each other. Nonetheless, due to the nature of the game, we all wind up getting along much better than we perhaps ought. Now, some of this is that the histories written for the various characters are all sort of middling when it comes to faction loyalty-- but playing someone who was a hardline factionist would be /really/ difficult both from a story perspective, and from a game mechanics perspective. ETA: Well, admittedly, this game isn't the best example because it is Planescape-- if we are too fractious on faction lines, the Lady of Pain will personally send us all to the Maze. Bad times. Personally, I prefer in this instance just accepting that it's going to be collaborative and move on, but I can definitely see situations and games where one would really want to make party schism-- or at least suspicion-- possible, without completely screwing everyone.