Wednesday, June 8, 2011

4E meets AD&D, part 6: Getting Players to Think Outside the Dice

Last time in this series we talked about how 4E is TOO balanced for its own good, and I promised to talk about how to put some fear back in your players' hearts. To recap: the "balanced encounter" paradigm fosters a sense of entitlement in players and strains the bounds of verisimilitude.

How do we fix this? Can it be fixed? 4E D&D has a lot riding on big "set piece" battles. It rewards tactical thinking and battlefield stategery. Some might argue that, as a system, it doesn't support Old-School type gameplay, as it doesn't emphasize exploration, player inquiry into the environment, or randomness. On the first two points, I call Shenanigans. There is no reason a 4E game can't emphasize exploration or player inquiry and ingenuity. Hell, there's no reason you can't implement a hex-based wilderness sandbox grid in a 4E game.

In fact, I would argue that 4E would be great for that type of game! It would require a good chunk of DM prep ahead of time, but it can be done. Random charts for each hex, different warbands ready to go when rolled upon, with a range comprising the entirety of the heroic tier. Randomness is what allows a DM to Bring the Pain! Let the dice fall where they may. If the dice call for a pack of gnolls three levels tougher than the heroes, so be it. Throw it at the players. Beat the crap out of them! Once they learn they can't expect everything to be fair and balanced, they'll start thinking outside the dice. And isn't that kind of the point?

And... I just had a devil's advocate moment. In old-school mega-dungeons, wasn't it generally expected that the first level of the dungeon would contain first level monsters, and second level monsters for the next level down, and so on and so forth. Isn't that completely arbitrary, in pretty much the same way 4E pushes its "balanced encounters"? Do old-school DMs still run Dungeons like that? Just curious!

The final Big Thing about Old School Gaming is Resource Management. This is something that 4E can fully support, as long as that's how your DM runs the game. 4E actually has a lot of different resources that must be managed during play, both in combat and in exploration. The most recent Dark Sun offering is probably the best example of just how well 4E does resource management.

Anyway, this post has given me some inspiration to start building a hex-based sandbox for a 4E campaign. Gonna need a good map...


  1. I cannot help but approve of what you're trying to do. More power to you.

    One, more-apologistic, note. Yes, the popular conception of the "old-school mega-dungeon" is level-coded... mostly. But you're forgetting a few things.

    1. OD&D assumed that other adventuring parties were swarming all over. If a monster lived at the top level of a dungeon, it would logically have had everyone ganging up on it and be driven out or killed. Since in any logical ecosystem, smaller and less dangerous animals are always more common than larger, more fearsome predators (on account of how they're easier to feed), it makes sense that the upper level of a dungeon would be cleared out multiple times and always re-inhabited by the large numbers of less dangerous creatures living in the area. And by the same token, the larger creatures that live lower down are more likely to survive because adventurers that come against them have had to fight through a buffer of other foes.

    2. Human habitations also follow the "dungeon" format. If you were an alien invading Earth, you'd find that the closer you come to population centers, resource stockpiles, vital infrastructure and other important sites, the stiffer the resistance will be. Why would an intelligent monster be any different?

    --So of course a dragon, or whatever your final boss is, would keep their horde, and their own lives, deep where it's safer, and put as many obstacles as possible between their vulnerable points and any potential foe. And of course they want to have that defense concentrated around themselves: if you put all your heavies on the outermost radius of your territory, that spreads your resources thinner and makes them more likely to fall to an enemy attack.

    3. Megadungeons are hardly representative of old-school gaming as a whole. It had a lot of overland travel, random encounters, and fooling around (usually getting drunk) in town. Also there was a lot more emphasis on questing for the spells and equipment you wanted or needed, on finding and managing hirelings, on spending your money to build an estate and acquire land, titles, underlings, social status, laboratories, libraries.... This may not fit into your definition of old-school, but I remember a time when if you were a druid you *could not advance in level* unless you defeated other druids and took their place in the hierarchy! There's a lot more complexity there than just fighting 2-HD monsters on level 2 of a dungeon. And even in the realms of dungeons, the really good ones had lots of room for mobility, for finding secret paths and alternate routes.

    The real question, on average in the material for adventuring in OD&D versus 4E, which is more linear; which has that shiny smooth look and the stink of meticulous planning? I'm putting my money on the latter.

  2. Ah, I had assumed you're going to put up another post about how 4E can be good at resource management. But just in case that one throwaway paragraph was in fact all the treatment you had planned to give, I hereby formally request that you put data where your mouth is and explain, precisely and concretely, the ways in which 4E can match OD&D in terms of *strategic* resource management.

    Mind you, I'm not talking about tactical management. 4E is a tactical combat game. It demands a game board and pieces -- and counters and cards, if you want any hope of keeping track of all the little finicky pluses and minuses and conditional situations. So it comes as no surprise that there'd be a lot of tactical resource management in terms of when you want to use your daily powers, or your healing surges, etc.

    No, I'm talking about situations where players decide on their priorities in ways that have long-term consequences. Like balancing rations and oil flasks and so on versus encumbrance. Or torch duration versus time spent mapping a dungeon. Or magic-users deciding their very limited spell selections, and deciding when to cast, and deciding what to do when they've run out of juice. Or magic-users deciding whether to use a scroll for spell-casting, or for adding new magic to their spellbooks. Or deciding who should benefit from a given healing spell or potion.

    Long story short: You've made a claim. Now prove it.

  3. @Confanity: Thank you, thank you, thank you for your abundance of constructively critical comments on this series. I do not have the time on my meager lunch break here at work to respond to all of them, but every point you have raised deserves a reasoned reply, and you will get it in the next post on this little blog of mine. Thanks for reading!

  4. From what I understand, the idea of balance isn't so much "not there" in Old School games as it is supposed to be 1) more up to players than the ref to arrange for balanced encounters and 2) supposed to be tempered by the dice.

    So, say we've got a third level party exploring a megadungeon. If we aren't feeling terribly serious this session and don't want to think too hard, or if we're missing a few players, and so we want something a bit easier, we'll explore that area of the first level we haven't checked out yet, with the reasonable expectation that we'll be able to take whatever we find there with little difficulty, and with the understanding that there probably won't be much of a payoff, but that we'll have fun.

    Alternately, if we've got all our players tonight and we've been drinking red bull or beer or whatever else makes us stupid/brave and we want to pull of something that will make a great story to tell, we'll hop on that elevator we discovered a few sessions back and take it down to the seventh level with the reasonable expectation that we'll find something that will eat us all as soon as blink if we don't keep our thinking caps on. We'll probably lose a few PCs, but the PCs that survive (if any) will be rich, and we'll have some pretty epic stories to tell.

    So, the idea isn't that there isn't some kind of awareness about balance; it's that the onus is placed on the players to arrange for balanced encounters. The ref did his part to balance encounters when he placed the encounters in mostly regular layers of difficulty and danger.

    Of course, the dice come in here too. So lots of dungeons have encounter tables that will give a small chance for a monster from the third level to wander on up to the first level and meet a party of 1st level PCs on their first trip into the dungeon. Checking out the first level of the dungeon, then, doesn't become a *guaranteed* cakewalk for quite a while, but you can *mostly* expect for there to be 1HD or less monsters on the first level.

    Something I've found to be quite helpful in trying to do this with my own megadungeon is Sham's Bleak Beyond Random Monster Tables, on the right side of his Grog'n'Blog.

  5. @Staples: Great point! I hadn't really thought about it like that before, but I think you've definitely hit the nail square on the head there.

    I think one of the other things about balance is that there wasn't such a HUGE difference in the math between low level and high level characters in the old-school game. It was still possible for a high level character to miss a few swings at a low level monsters, and it was generally possible for a low level hero to get a hit in on a high level monster. What usually made higher level monsters so much tougher was that they often had resistances to mundane weapons, or could only be hit with silvered weapons, or what-have-you, as opposed to just the absurdly high defenses we have in 4E.

  6. Staples just brought up something that happened in my game. My group has a megadungeon that is the 'feature' of the campaign so far (Stonehell, which is excellent), but recently their hometown had been razed by goblins led by a gray skinned dwarf. They followed and found a new dungeon, of which they cleared the first few levels (this dungeon is Dyson Logos' excellent Dyson's Delve).

    Last Friday, only two players could attend (playing a lvl 5 cleric and a lvl 4 cleric). They explored the Delve until they found they didn't find it safe going any further. They went back to Stonehell. In previous sessions, they'd found two sets of stairs to the second level. Having found stout resistance from one of the stairs in the past, this time they chose the other stairs, exploring carefully, making sure they had a clear escape route.

    The players were responsible for the balance. I talk to them a lot about them having options, but I hadn't framed it in a term of balance, and reading Staples' comments help me see it like that.