Friday, April 10, 2009

A Battle of Wits

What makes for a really great encounter?
Arneson:
That the players overcame the obstacle by wit and not muscles.


Thus spake the recently departed Mr. Arneson in an interview with Kobold Quarterly. It's a sentiment I certainly agree with. I've been writing a lot lately about the need to challenge the players directly, rather than just their characters. I enjoy more a challenge I defeat with my own brain rather than just bulling through it with dice rolls. At the very least, choices need to be made with options weighed and abandoned, or else why bother having the other players there? Choice is an integral part of what makes games fun.

Obviously, an open, sandboxy game with lots of options for "lateral" action and thought invites nearly constant opportunities for exercising your wit. A key component in my games has been including consequences. Sometimes, no matter what the players do, there are negative consequences for their actions. This just spurs them on to make more choices and look for new clever ways to aggrandize their characters while thwarting their enemies. This sort of play keeps both the players and the DM on our toes.

But that's not the only way to employ wit in overcoming a challenge. 4e, for all its faults, demands wit from players and the DM in combat. By turning fights into mini battle games, where you must constantly weigh matters of positioning and zones of support and danger, ranges, and which powers to use when, 4e has transformed D&D combat from a quick flurry of dice rolls (or not so quick, as generally was the case in higher-level 3.x combat) into a tactical challenge, a ever-shifting puzzle that is both constantly new, but also based on simple groundrules. This creates a situation that remains fresh, even as it is repeated in its basics. Simple rules that yield complex play.

The two, of course, can be combined. I prefer my combat quick and dirty, but I can imagine a system more like 4e's that also embraced a more off-the-wall sensibility.

10 comments:

Donny said...

Never go against a sicilian when DEATH is on the line!

trollsmyth said...

LOL!

Man, am I slow today. That quote didn't even cross my mind as I wrote this, and I consider that one of the greatest movies ever.

Underminer said...

When D&D first came out there weren't stats for everything including one to determine blowing one's nose. Combat in RPGs nowadays reminds me more of a wargame than a individual combat. I think early D&D required more actual thought since a straight up slugfest would eventually wear down a party, and one's EP haul csn be seriously degraded when you have to carry half your party out of the dungeon rather than treasure.

Oddysey said...

I can imagine a system more like 4e's that also embraced a more off-the-wall sensibility.

If I was going to hack 4e, this'd be it. Szilard (http://neitherworldstories.blogspot.com/) made a comment a while back about running 4e without powers -- everything that powers do, you use the (actually quite excellent) stunt rules instead. You keep the neat math from 4e, but replace the power clockwork with mad crazy player ideas. That's a game I could get behind.

trollsmyth said...

You keep the neat math from 4e, but replace the power clockwork with mad crazy player ideas.

Yeah, I've toyed with the idea myself. But for somereason, Wushu-style make-up-crazy-stunts-for-bonuses bothers me. I think the disconnect for me is that for hacked-4e, I'd want to be sure that the stunts were tied to the setting and situation, where as in Wushu, bonuses are primarily granted based on a coolness factor.

I think. I'll have to keep knocking this idea around. The idea of making a magic system based on some sort of local mystical geography is teasing at the edge of my mind on this, but I've got nothing concrete that doesn't feel onerously complex.

trollsmyth said...

Oh, and thanks for all the links today, Oddysey. :)

Oddysey said...

Thanks for linking to me pretty much all the time.

I don't have the books in front of me, but I want to say that the "stunt" system in 4e is more of an "improvised effect system" than a true Wushu-style stunt system per se. It could certainly be used in that way, but (if I recall correctly) it's a set of guidelines that tell you "these are reasonable target numbers to set" and "these are reasonable bonuses against such and such a defense."

But I'd need to check. I refer to those books a surprising amount for a game I don't play.

And geography-based magic sounds cool. You mean local as in "within a mile or so" or "on the battlemat?"

trollsmyth said...

But I'd need to check. I refer to those books a surprising amount for a game I don't play.

Is that in the PHB or the DMG? Now you've got me curious.

And geography-based magic sounds cool. You mean local as in "within a mile or so" or "on the battlemat?"

No idea. Just a tickle of a thought, nothing really formed just yet. Probably primarily "within a mile or so" with room for "on the battlemat" extras, though those might be better treated as some sort of metaphysical "special terrain features" or something.

Oddysey said...

Okay! p. 42, DMG: "Actions the Rules Don't Cover"

Basically says, if the PCs do something that might fail, it's a check. Use common sense decide if it's an attack or a skill check, and if it's an attack decide what defense it targets. There's a table for easy, moderate and hard DCs at each level range for skills checks. For attacks, if it's a repeatable action you use a "Normal Damage Expression," and if it's non-repeatable or "massive damage" you use a "Limited Damage Expression." Both of which come with tables of Low, Medium, and High for each level.

And then there's some business about adjudicating other effects -- the example is swinging on a chandelier and kicking an orc in the chest, which, reasonably enough, does knock-back.

It's basically a system for building *slightly* sub-par powers on the fly. But that could be rectified easily enough by adjusting the numbers a bit on the charts. And it's obviously intended for physical actions, but I could see building a pretty decent improvised magic system on its skeleton.

trollsmyth said...

Cool, thanks. I may have to get myself a copy of the DMG to check that out.