D&D 4e and social conflicts?

21 September, 2009 at 10:49 pm (roleplaying-games) (, , , , )

Way back when 4e was previews and rumours I remember there was some talk of social conflict system. I haven’t heard much since, which is no surprise, as I don’t really follow most blogs focusing on 4e. Friend asked about the subject, so now I’m asking you:

  1. Is there a distinct social conflict subsystem in 4e? Particularly, distinct from skill challenges and skill rolls.
  2. If yes, is there some nice summary available somewhere? I have PHB and do not intend to spend any money on the other books and further I do avoid illegal (though morally justifiable) actions.
  3. If not, are there good examples of social skill challenges available online? I do not subscribe to the Insider and do not intend to do, so it is not very interesting for my purposes.
  4. Any good quality actual play reports featuring social conflicts that are handled mechanically would also be appreciated.

Thanks for help.

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Excellent D&D blog

25 February, 2009 at 11:42 pm (roleplaying-games) (, , )

Link: http://gastogh.wordpress.com/

I should warn people that is is about 4e primarily, though he also plays Pathfinder with mister Särkijärvi. Gastogh is a long-time friend of mine. There’s quite a few kilometers between us, so we rarely get to play together, but his commantary is amongs the most insightful I have read regarding 4e particularly. Besides, he is a good writer.

The first post is about the adventures of Korvakopla and is edited copy-pastings from a forum. URL: http://gastogh.wordpress.com/2009/02/25/the-chronicles-of-korvakopla-1/

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In spite of laser clerics, or not bashing 4e

21 August, 2008 at 10:30 am (game design) (, , )

I’m not exactly a 4e hater. (Even though laser clerics and astral diamonds and starblah armours are profoundly stupid. In my opinion.)

So, there exists a bunch of things that 4e does very right. I have not played it, so these are only from design perspective. (My bias: I like elegant game designs.) The following are not in any particular order.

Out of combat

Skill challenges are a development long overdue. They allow one to mechanically handle non-combat encounters in such a way that it takes some time, which focuses more attention on them. The challenge can be constructed so that it promotes using different skills, or at least accepts such use. The difficulty can be scaled arbitrarily by increasing DCs or the number of successful checks one needs to achieve a victory. (Two ways of handling difficulty are redundant, as one would have been enough, but it is easy enough to always look difficulty from a chart and only mess with the number of successes required. Or the other way around.) Skill challenges allow partial successes, which are essentially a form of “Yes, but…”. You track down the beast, but it has time to slay the residents of a lone farmstead. You find it resting atop a heap of slaughtered farmers. Good luck you did not fail two checks or it would have ambushed you. Or three, because it would have lead you to an ambush by an unfortunate band of orcs and slipped away in the fray.

Skill challenges are not actually mechanically interesting. To make them gameable, one would need to leave hints about the applicable skills in any particular situation.

The challenges are modular; if you don’t want to focus on a particular thing, just call for normal skill check and be done with it. Unfortunately the gamedoes not allow one to do this with combats, as of yet.

Character options

There are less options at character generation, and radically less options when advancing a character (no multiclassing). Both of these make the relevant process faster, which is good, but reduce playable options, which may be bad. The supplement treadmill is likely to greatly increase the number of options, given time (and money or illegal downloads).

At higher levels when getting a new level one does not so much gain new powers as swap old ones for new ones. This is good, because it reduces the number of options one has in play, hence reducing analysis paralysis and makes it less likely that some ability is forgotten (I have lost a 3rd edition character because I forgot he had one fifth chance of negating critical hits, and it was not fun to remember it afterwards). Also, swapping powers means that planning the character’s path 19/29 levels into future is less necessary, though not any less rewarding, which I think is a good thing.

Non-options, like 3rd edition caster/different caster or caster/noncaster multiclassing, have been radically cut down. This reduces the role of system mastery in character generation, which I think is a good thing. Nonfunctional archetypes are no fun.

Rituals

Rituals deserve their own entry. Personally, I think that rules which force one to make choices between combat and noncombat ability are a bad thing in a combat-centric game. For example: Preparing fireball or whatever third level utility spells there exist in 3rd edition. This is not a problem in games that do not focus on combat to such a degree. Actually, the problems mostly arise in games where combat encounter, as opposed to say an entire dungeon, is a discreet and central unit of game. Utility spells do not always or usually function within that unit, hence it makes sense to make them a separate resource.

The idea of rituals also fits my aesthetic preferences. Implementation not quite as well.

In combat

All characters have several, hopefully viable, actions to take during any given round. At least in theory. This is certainly an improvement from 3rd edition, where all characters have a number of theoretically viable but often practically useless options. And then there is grapple.

I am certainly intrigued by how well the roles and their special abilities actually function in actual play. Does the fighter pushing a target by one square as an at-will power actually make a difference? This I’d like to know.

Here’s a bit of game design philosophy I support: Rules are bad if they are not used in actual play. Hence, the simplified monster stats are, in my opinion, a good thing. They reduce unnecessary cruft from the rules.

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Laser clerics, or 4e bashing

19 August, 2008 at 9:44 am (roleplaying-games) (, , )

In which I shall be disgusted by the direction the feel of D&D is moving towards, not review it as a game, but rather describe why it is a new kind of game entirely.

If you’d rather read a third edition afficiando bashing 4e, go read Jukka Särkijärvi’s well-written and fun review.

I have, from reliable sources, heard that 4e is fun to play. I can’t really say without playing it, because it is an entirely new genre of games, much like Forge-games once were.

New kind of game

Some characteristics of 4e that are relevant: Extremely involved combat system, combat powers that make fluff a reasonable term in that they essentially have an arbitrary effect that the fluff tries to justify, actual coverage of noncombat encounters in a potentially interesting way.

So, essentially, there’ll be three different games you will be playing. The first is more-or-less freeform roleplaying parts, maybe with a roll or two of dice now and then. Second is structured roleplay in the form of skill challenges. Third is playing Magic: the miniature game. This is a valid genre of games. It has strengths and weaknesses, like any other kind of game. I am personally not interested in it, though I will grab any opportunity to play, should such a thing materialise.

One notable weakness is a result of the strict combat/noncombat division. Given that a cleric can probably shoot lasers or sacred flames or something, can I blind someone by using these powers in total darkness? How bright are they? My warlock also has a laser. Can I use it to harm objects? All the powers are targeted at creatures, according to their descriptions.

One can see the above as a strength, too, in that it will allow one to define how the powers work. The problem here is that the rules won’t start reflecting these definitions. If I define my warlock lasers as fiery missiles, they will still harm fire elementals. Can I light a campfire with one?

The two paragraphs above are me looking at 4e from a wrong perspective. The correct way to look at it is that combats are self-contained units of fun, and what happens in them is not necessarily indicative of what the characters can do outside them. That is the purview of rituals, skills, common sense, genre conventions and the mighty prestidigitation. Accepting this is likely to make the game a lot smoother.

Laser clerics

Philippe shows his evil side by making an attack on this post before I even had written this. He is correct in that lambasting 4e because it has laser clerics is not really valid criticism of the game, considering you can change the fluff at will, as it does not have an effect on anything, at least not in combat.

Be that as it may, there are few parts that are, in and of themselves, jokes. For example, the coin types: There is copper, silver, gold, platinum, and astral diamonds. Huh?

The setting implied by all of this material is awfully flashy. It has preciously little to do with any fantasy I enjoy. Even the D&D literature I have read is much less flashy. The Drizzt books have, in comparison, very little obviously magical stuff going on (though I am have not read the recent ones).

Maybe the style of the books comes from bad anime (defined as anime I don’t watch or like). Maybe it comes from WoW and its ilk. Wherever it comes from, it completely kills any desire I have for reading the books, running the game, or even playing it as anything except a glorified miniature game.

(A necessary disclaimer: The martial classes are an exception to practically everything I have written here.)

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Game design =/= rpg design

8 April, 2008 at 6:37 pm (definition, game design) (, , , )

During brief discussion with Phil I verbalised the idea of good game design not being the same things as good rpg design. This is obvious when discussing, say, Chess. I argue that it is also true when discussing roleplaying games, given the way I define good game design.

The definitions have my bias clearly articulated; they are there for all to see. If you have different base assumptions or definitions, your conclusions may also be different.

Definitions

Game design is building a (semi-formal) system where players can make mechanical choices that have mechanical consequences. Good game design makes this process of decision-making interesting: There are few null choices that have no effect and the best choice is often enough very hard or impossible to see, if it even exists and is unique.

Rpg design is building a fiction and a system that describes how the choices the players make affect the fiction. Good rpg design makes the process of play interesting: There are actual choices to be made, they are about something the player cares about, and there are several roughly as lucrative alternative ways of making many choices (in this paragraph several can be arbitrarily large, but not too small).

Good rpg/game design does not imply that the game itself is good, because there are numerous other factories related to that. As such, if one is only interested in how much enjoyment can be derived from a (roleplaying) game, fixating too much on the quality of the (rp)g is not advised. There is correlation: On average, well-designed stuff is more enjoyable.

Do note that the other kinds of design are immensely important (and not part of the above definitions): Designing the game so that it has a suitable social footprint (the time, effort and commitment gaming takes), building the game so that it encourages the creation of certain kinds of fiction, building functional character sheets, elegance and other usability issues, and doubtless other factors. I may someday extend this post to explicitly include some or all of those things. This is not that day.

The thesis

My thesis is that good game design and good rpg design, as defined above, are not very tightly linked. One can have an rpg that is well-designed game but not very interesting fiction-wise; likewise, a well-designed rpg need not have interesting mechanical elements.

What I am not saying is that the two design issues are orthogonal; they certainly affect each other. I am also not saying that they are independent; the quality of one factor tends to influence the other for the positive, because it is common to link certain fictional and system-level effects together.

Examples in the abstract

Assume a game with very complicated (and intense and fun) combat system. Assume the output of the system is the amount of hit points the participants have at the end of the combat. All other variables that change only affect the single combat encounter and any used resources are recovered with a moment of rest or such. This combat system is (one can assume) good an instance of game design, because it has many (mechanical) choices that are interesting. It is not good rpg design, because none of those juicy choices are persistent; all that remains is the number of hit points one is left with. To be honest, there are other potential choices one can make: Which opponent to kill, how much of one’s abilities to reveal, for example, but they are pretty minor and would work with almost all combat systems.

A game where each (player) character has a number of memories (some of which are utilitarian, some have emotional value, some both) and the character can sacrifice them to demons in order to get wishes or other benefits could be well-designed, rpg-design-wise; if the character sacrifices too much, that character can no longer enjoy from the achieved victories; if too little, something bad will happen. OTOH, sacrificing the utilitarian memories (where was the artifact hidden again?) can have much the same effect as sacrificing nothing: Failure at preventing the bad things. Game-design would only make this interesting if the memories with emotional value gave some sort of benefit; otherwise they are like spell points.

On D&D 4th

From what I have read, 4e is focused on encounters and the designer are doing game design. What about rpg design? No idea. Experience for achieving certain story points could do that, but I am more than slightly doubtful. This does not mean that “there will be no roleplay in D&D 4th”. The system just will probably not do all that much to promote the kind of roleplay I am looking for.

Bonus: Proof by antithesis

Assume that all good rpg design is always good game design. See the two example above. They are non-trivial counter-examples to the antithesis and hence the antithesis is wrong, from which it follows that the thesis is true. QED.

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