Thursday, April 17, 2008

Is You is, or is You ain’t, my 4e Baby?

If you go here, you’ll find info on devils in 4th edition D&D. As the succubus is not exactly known for her loyalty, it’s hardly a surprise that she’s gone over to the other side, having abandoned the demons and joined Hell’s Team. Actually, the 4e designers have said they wanted to clean up the devil/demon divide. They’ve opted to make demons more bestial destroyers and berserkers. The devils are the more human, suave seducers and beguilers. That being the case, making the succubus a devil is a no-brainer.

So far, I’ve got no problems with that. I’m not sure it was necessary, but cleaning up the devil/demon divide is a nice thing, since before there was no real theme to either bunch, and by looks alone it was impossible to tell who was on which side.

However, I’m having a bit of an issue with her powers. The 4e designers have stated that they wanted to get rid of things like level drain, which, admittedly, could be real book-keeping hassles. Since a level-draining kiss used to be the succubus’ “big gun” ability, that meant it needed to be redesigned. Here’s how it works now:

(m) Charming Kiss (standard; at-will) * Charm
+14 vs. AC; on a hit, the succubus makes a secondary attack against the same target.
Secondary Attack: +12 vs. Will; the target cannot attack the succubus, and if the target is adjacent to the succubus when the succubus is targeted by a melee or a ranged attack, the target interposes itself and becomes the target of the attack instead. The effects last until the succubus or one of its allies attacks the target or until the succubus dies.

If the target is still under the effect of this power at the end of the encounter, the succubus can sustain the effect indefinitely by kissing the target once per day. The succubus can affect only one target at a time with its charming kiss.

Ok, looks pretty straightforward, right? If you get whammied by a succubus’ kiss, you try to “catch” any swords or arrows that are flying in her direction with your face. Pretty cool power. But what else does it do?

Well, that’s the end of the description. And just from that, it appears that’s all the power does. The victim can’t attack the succubus, and will interpose himself against any attacks sent her way. But what about the long-term effects? Is the victim charmed? Or does the victim just find himself unable to let harm be done to her? If he hears about someone else planning to attack her, must he do something to stop it? What if she wants him to take up a life of crime? Or steal from his former comrades? Or sacrifice his children?

Doesn’t say. The description of the succubus herself hints, but doesn’t offer much more in the way of details:

When exposed for what it is, a succubus can be a deadly foe. It can manipulate the emotions of mortal adversaries, turning them against each other or making them slavishly loyal to it with a mere kiss.

Ok, that implies that free will goes out the window and the victim must do whatever the succubus commands. But here we’re looking at what wargamers call “fluff” or “flavor text”. This is the background, the context of the creature, and it may or may not be supported by the rules. A unit in a wargame like Warhammer 40,000 might be described as the best a planet has to offer, and made up of “battle-tested” veterans, but if it has a poor leadership score, the unit will break and flee when pushed, no matter what the flavor text says.

The problem is, we’ve got a description that’s geared almost utterly to combat encounters. We don’t know what, if anything, beyond a dispelling of the magic might free a character who has found himself ensnared by a succubus. There might be rules listed elsewhere that cover this sort of thing, under the description of charming magics perhaps, but they’re not here, and no page number is given as reference.

In 1st edition AD&D, the succubus’ powers were identical to the charm and suggestion spells. The spell descriptions made it clear to player and DM just what sort of action might give a character another chance to try to shake the succubus’ control. The descriptions also gave you an opportunity to differentiate your character; an unscrupulous character might have no chance to resist when a succubus tells him to steal something, while a law-abiding and virtuous character would get another saving throw, possibly with a bonus.

(This, by the way, was one of the ways we differentiated two characters of the same class. Some characters would rush into a burning building to save a trapped kitten. Others would take advantage of the distraction to burgle from nearby houses. And, as you can see from what I wrote above about the charm spell, how you played your character did, in fact, make a mechanical difference.)

Now, I’ll admit, I could be making a mountain out of a molehill here. Maybe there are rules somewhere else that explain how to handle PCs that have fallen under a succubus’ control. It’s entirely possible that some elegant solution is described, maybe in the Dungeon Masters Guide, for example, that allows for everyone to enjoy the game even when a few of the PCs are now working for the enemy. I dunno. But what I do see is a tad more vague than I’d like, and not very new-player friendly. It’s already started a bit of an argument over at about what, exactly the rules mean and how they should be used. Hopefully, these sorts of issues will be covered. This is the sort of thing that could really ruin a game, especially for novice players who might not yet have the right instincts regarding how to balance the needs of the players who require both a real challenge and the ability to make choices in order to have fun. Frankly, issues like this tie the brains of us old grognards into knots, sometimes.

Being vague can be a blessing, and having lots of room to play around and tailor things to the style you and your group prefer is a good thing. But one of the benefits of playing with rules should be a decrease in the number of “I-shot-you-nuh-uh-you-missed” arguments. Anytime you take control of a character away from the player, you have to tread carefully. If everyone knows what to expect, and knows what is, and isn’t, allowed on both sides of the DM’s screen, there’s much less chance of arguments and hurt feelings. Such situations are prefect places for more robust, firm rules that everyone can use to keep the game moving smoothly.


James Maliszewski said...

I'll admit that I haven't been keeping up on the intricacies of 4e's rules system, but, if I recall, many effects, including "charm," work differently in and out of combat. So the long-term effects of the succubus' kiss are spelled out somewhere (perhaps the DMG?), while the stat block deals specifically with combat concerns. From what I've gathered, the MM -- and stat blocks generally -- will deal solely with combat considerations, since they're the only times when the DM needs to have information quickly at his fingertips.

I don't have any particular objection to paring down the stat blocks to combat-specific info, but I do think it's a mistake to treat the MM primarily as a book of combat opponents. Likewise, D&D has always been rather lopsided in its mechanical treatment of combat vs. everything else. 4e looks like it intends to make that treatment even more lopsided by sharply distinguishing the way in-game effects work in combat vs. how they work otherwise.

I fully understand the rationale behind this design decision, but, frankly, I think it's terribly misguided. Like the emasculation of poison, level drain, and disease begun in 4e, WotC's designers seem to think that anything that takes a character out of combat "isn't fun." I find it ironic that earlier editions of D&D get tarred with the label of being "hack 'n slash" and yet it's actually the newer editions that prioritize combat as the epitome of "fun" far more.

trollsmyth said...

Ah, interesting. Thanks for that bit of info. It boggled my mind that something so simple might have been overlooked, but I'd seen odder things before.

As for the "hack-and-slash" focus, I feel it's another triumph for "conventional wisdom". Since "everybody knows" that people only play D&D for the combat encounters, it only makes sense to put your focus there. And heck, for all I know, that's exactly how most people play the game. But if there's a strong in-combat/out-of-combat toggle, that's gonna wreak havoc on my verisimilitude again... :/

James Maliszewski said...

Re: verisimilitude

4e is pretty unashamedly "gamist," to use the trendy terminology. On one level, I do approve of that, as I think too many RPGs forget that they are in fact games and are thus an escapist entertainment.

At the same time, I can't help but think that 4e is also too reductionist in its approach to D&D. It's selling the brand short in the name of "fun" and my guess is that that will drive a lot of people away -- maybe not enough to matter to WotC's bottom line but enough that the forking of Gygax's legacy will become permanent. I happily made the jump from Holmes to AD&D and then to 2e and then to 3e, but 4e? Not a chance.

trollsmyth said...

Yeah, I think you're probably right about that.

The funny thing is, they lost me at 3e, which is bizarre because it was the best edition for verisimilitude, I think. No demihuman level limits. No weapon prohibitions by class. But the overhead that came with that was just too damned much. We're still playing 2e with 1st edition sensibilities around the Troll Cave, and a healthy helping of house rules and a bit of the Book of Vile Darkness, one of only three third edition books I ever bought.

James Maliszewski said...

Funny thing is that, after playing it for so many years now, I was -- and am -- ready for something different, but 4e isn't at all what I want out of D&D; it's not even close. I think the next few years will be very interesting and I'd not be the least bit surprised if Pathfinder isn't the only game trying to pick up the thread of D&D's development and go with it in different directions. In fact, I can guarantee you'll see at least one and, if 4e fails to deliver on its promises, I'd not be the list bit surprised to see more than one.