Sunday, March 08, 2009

Old School, New School, Red School, Blue School

This started as a reply in the comments to Chatty DM's discussion of building a megadungeon with old-schooly aspects for 4e. First, let me say that I think his emphasis on a game that he and his crew will enjoy is spot-on. That's probably the most important aspect of any D&D game, in any edition.

I asked Chatty what he meant by “player psychology-driven controlled encounters “ and he replied:

I meant encounters designed to hit the motivations of each of the players in your group. My group has a strong butt kicking streak, so I need to put in combats. I have a few Tacticians so I need to let them plan in some encounters instead of having them react all the time. There are strong Storytellers so encounters need to make sense in the world around the PCs and so forth.

I don’t think old school dungeons were designed like that. Although I clearly recall reading about Gygax and Kuntz designing part of their respective dungeons to specifically challenge their players.

I do know that the infamous Tomb of Horrors was designed to thwart common strategies and certain kick-in-the-door-and-whack-everything-that-moves proclivities that seemed to be cropping up in the game at that time. Beyond that, I couldn't say. What I can speak to is the flexibility of dungeons from those days of yore. My favorite example is Shrine of the Kuo-toa. Every encounter, from the mad boatman to the svirfneblin to the shrine itself can go any of a number of ways. Does the party draw swords and charge in with spells flying? Do they attempt stealth? Or do they negotiate their way through the encounter? A smart, observant, and lucky party can pass through the entire module without ever having to fight, and emerge out the other side with extra treasures in their packs and maybe even some allies that might prove very useful in tackling the Vault of the Drow.

This flexibility is a bit of a challenge to reproduce in 4e. In the latest iteration of D&D, encounters are designed from the start as combat or skill challenges or whatever. But older versions didn't have this separation. Any encounter could be a duel to the death, or a tense negotiation, or something else entirely. This is why it mattered that kobolds hated their orc neighbors, or that the ogre had a toothache, or that the owlbear hadn't eaten in days. This is why 3e statblocks are such monsters; if the PCs might negotiate with a creature, it's important to know the necessary stats, skills, and feats that might apply to such an attempt. 4e attempts to thread that needle by making the DM decide ahead of time how the PCs will deal with the challenge, so you only need to worry about it as either a combat challenge or a skill challenge, and then you apply the appropriate rules, and only those you need.

That said, I'm sure a skillful 4e DM can swing one way or the other adroitly, without the players ever the wiser. I think it's a bit easier with Labyrinth Lord, but that likely says more about my personal preferences and strengths than it does about the games. I do know that this flexibility in older editions made it easier for the players to mold the game into the sort of thing they preferred. If they wanted to kick down doors and wade in, that was an option. If, instead, they enjoyed more a game of politics and shifting alliances, the game easily accommodated that sort of play. Players who were all about battle mats and miniatures could acquire hirelings and henchmen before entering the dungeon, marshaling their mercenaries to wage tunnel warfare against the dungeon. Granted, some encounters could better be tackled with certain strategies. In the Villa of the Poyma, there are a few encounters that are very tough for a straight-up, mano-y-mandible fight. Trickery or truce would work better in those situations. But I'm not dictating anything, and whatever method my players chose, I will give them whatever odds seem most just according to the situation.


Wyatt said...

I really think, as you touched upon, that this flexibility depends on the GM. All of my encounters in my 4e notes read like this:

"Combat Encounter


Or Skill Challenge

[Details including the phrase "wing it"]"

The skill challenge needn't be talking. It can also be running.

I tell my players that they can turn anything into a skill challenge if they can justify what they're doing to me. People could argue, I suppose, that I'm not playing 4e how it's meant to be played, or whatever, but it's never come particularly hard for me to do this. The game doesn't seem to encourage it, and I think that's a shame. Skill Challenges should get more push than Wizard's gives them. Virtually any encounter could also be a skill challenge.

ChattyDM said...

The thing is... while a typical 4e encounters is over-detailed and usually geared toward one of the two mechanically defined conflict resolution (combat/skill challeneges), nothing prevents us as DMs and players to play it like we did way back when.

I think that we more or less dug ourselves into a mental furlough where we automatically reach for rules first in any given RPG situations.

Older Games (or their clones) are not burdened with so many rules so by default you wing it and you got/get the typical scenes where PCs negociate with Kobolds or set up a fiendish trap made up of Rope, oil, mule dung and a broken cart to catch that wandering Owlbear.

Breaking that mental pattern is a probably one of the key pre-requisite to bring 4e closer to the older experiences. The designers took out monster skills and feats because the DM can take back control of non combat issues like they used to...

...Thing is, after 10 years of 3.X, maybe many of us don't know how to do that anymore.

trollsmyth said...

...Thing is, after 10 years of 3.X, maybe many of us don't know how to do that anymore.

And this, I think, is James Maliszewski's primary thesis in a nutshell.

As I surmised, and Wyatt confirmed, a DM skilled enough with 4e can probably pull it off. There's a lot of flexibility built into 4e, though I do think how the magic system got gutted in the name of balance has a powerful influence on the sort of outside-the-box play we're talking about. And I'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing, honestly. That could be the subject for a whole week's worth of posts, and they're probably better written by someone more familiar with 4e than me.

Oddysey said...

In the Villa of the Poyma, there are a few encounters that are very tough for a straight-up, mano-y-mandible fight.

Oh, indeed. Most amusing, sir. Frikkin' spiders.