Tagged: D&D

Bad Balance: Incarnum And Cognitive Load

One of D&D 3.5’s biggest problems was its magical system, which was by default bonkers and broken. Despite that, though, there was an almost constant attempt to expand the magic system, to fulfill every specific small variant visions of magic. The Expanded Psionics Handbook, the Tome of Magic, the Artificer and the Archivist, wings of spells in The Book of Vile Darkness and The Book of Exalted Deeds – there was a near-constant effort to expand the magic systems to do different things in different ways.

You can approach design from either a strong mechanical position, or a strong theme and Incarnum was a power idea that came hard out of a mechanical interaction. Magic of Incarnum brought its own system, called the Incarnum system.

The Incarnum system, as simple as I can explain it, is that you could create virtual items in your item slots, and then invest a small pool of points into these items to make them better. This could give you special abilities that got better, from turn to turn, and you could rearrange all these points every turn. When you needed lots of defence, you could sink those points into defenses. When you needed to kill something fast, you could put those points into offense. This system was pretty interesting and cool! You could really customise a character in a lot of ways, and there was this balancing act of choosing where your points were by default.

Incarnum however, was a really bad system, not because it was bad, but because as a player, you had to spend the bulk of your time juggling a small list of points for a small advantage. None of the Incarnum values were particularly large, and the niche utility of some of the shifting was as much a matter of pooling skill bonuses into your armour at the right moment at the right time, rather than really changing what you did. The system was designed to be careful enough as to not get out of hand like the existing spell system (which was broken), but still be an alternative worth playing (which was pretty hard, when the spell system was broken).

The real thing though that kills Incarnum is cognitive load.

Cognitive load is the concept in psychology that describes the amount of active memory you have to track to keep a task executed. It’s how you concentrate on something, it’s the work required in your brain to manage the information presented to you organised. Incarnum was a system that started with cognitive load problems, and it got worse as you levelled up.

You might sometimes hear a player describe a game as ‘smooth’ or hear a designer say something is ‘frictionless.’ Mostly, that feeling is attained by making sure your design does little to demand cognitive load without a reason. It’s one thing to concentrate on a complicated turn or a crucial strategy, but you don’t want the everyday operations of play to require you to make a lot of complex planning and contend with juggling information.

There’s a reason designers preach the idea of simplicity. It’s not for its own sake, it’s because you want to make it as easy as possible for the players to make decisions about what they want to do in your game, rather than have to do math on working out how what they want to do can work.

Bad Balance: The Problem With The Tome Of Battle (Which Isn’t What You Think)

Right at the tail end of 3.5 D&D, there was a book released that ruled.

There’s a lot of critical talk about the Book of Nine Swords. There were comparisons to Anime, as if that was inherently a dismissal point, as if Anime wasn’t regularly cribbing from D&D in the first place.

The Tome of Battle presented a solution to the problem of melee combatants in 3.5. As you levelled up, melee combat just didn’t keep pace with the kind of things spells could do. Spellcasters even in the early game had an edge on the melee characters, and increasingly, the game became about countering spellcasters rather than countering melee characters. You can view late-game combat as about trying to shut down the Wizard long enough that the Paladin could get some licks in.

But in Tome of Battle, melee weapon-wielders and armour-wearers got to stab things in the face real good. They touched on the core idea of 4ed, which is time spent in a turn is actually more valuable than hypothetical infinite options. It was a great book, created great characters, had a wonderfully varied lore you could use a little or a lot from, and mostly didn’t have total turkey prestige classes (as most books did).

Yet at the same time I am comfortable and confident declaring that Tome Of Battle is, as it stands, a mistake. Not because of anything the game did intrinsically, but because the book was released into a world with poor Tordek here. 

The Fighter in 3.0 D&D was a really rough sell. The fighter at level 1 was already comparable to another class’ class features, and their design scaled up very linearly. The best levels of Fighter were 1 and 2, because the class was frontloaded enough to let you rush up to some sort of mid-tier trick slightly early (like Whirlwind Attack, the game’s idea of an ‘End Game’ Fighter Feat). The next best one was level 4, because at that point you had unlocked access to everything the Fighter could get access to and you only had to take one level that Didn’t Really Do Anything to get there.

There were a lot of things wrong with how they updated it for 3.5, one of which is the removal of the ‘Fighter’ subtype from the way they presented feats in the Players’ Handbook. Back in 3.0, feats that the Fighter could take with their bonus feats had the subtype [Fighter]. In 3.5, this was removed in favour of the new line

Special: A fighter may select [this feat name] as one of his fighter bonus feats.

This was in my mind a blatant mistake. They could have made it so that Fighter feats had riders or bonuses if they could check the number of Fighter feats you had, but only if Fighter feats had a subtype.

Anyway, the thing is, the fighter was pretty weak and attempts to fix the fighter had almost all missed, usually because they approached the problem in the totally wrong way – Fighters got better on a linear, additive scale, while spellcasters and things balanced against spellcasters got better on a quadratic scale. A level 20 fighter could do a decent bit of damage to a dragon in one full round of combat, assuming he could close – but the wizard could disintegrate the dragon or take over its will entirely.

But if you wanted to play a character in armour, with a weapon, whose primary interaction with enemies was hitting them with the weapon in increasingly skillful ways, though, the obvious look for most players was that the Fighter was your jam. And the fighter, as a character class, was made totally unnecessary by the Tome of Battle’s inclusion. In some cases laughably so – the Warblade got some bonus feats, got Weapon Specialisation (formerly a Fighter-only benefit) and got all those maneuvers that let the Warblade hang at the level of the Wizard.

The Tome of Battle classes didn’t wholesale replace all the fighter-style classes. Paladins and Crusaders compared to one another. The Sword Sage could do a lot of interesting tricks, but the Monk could still do other things the Sword Sage couldn’t.

But the poor Fighter?

The closest thing the Fighter could do is spend their bonus feats to buy Maneuvers. Once you had Warblades there really was no reason to play Fighters beyond their simplicity. They didn’t quite measure up to threats the game thought of as reasonable, but you could cover that with your party. They didn’t give you the kind of options they thought they did, but you might never notice that either.

But when the Warblade sat down next to you, did most of what you did, and a host of exciting, additional extremely extra things as well, it was hard to not notice.

Painful Paladin Problems

It’s hard not to see trends in conversations about tabletop RPGs, and one enduring trend, for decades now, has been some form of The Paladin In Our Party Is Being A Butt, or its companion I’m Playing A Paladin And I Feel The Rest Of The Party Are Being Unreasonable.

I’m going to assume here I’m dealing with people who don’t need the basic idea of the Paladin explained to them. You probably don’t need a rundown on history that features Charlemagne and Roland and stuff. There is a sort of idea of Paladin-ness amongst players, but there doesn’t seem to be a single, easily-reached, agreed-upon example of what a Paladin is.

Paladins seem to almost be more of a D&D convention than an actual conceptual thing. A divinely empowered warrior, someone who’s turned the dial of ‘swords at people’ a little higher and the ‘casts spells’ a little lower, the Paladin is nonetheless a very D&D part of D&D. And they seem to be split, culturally, between two pretty hard binaries, one end of which is A bossy frictious dick, and the other is Inoffensively not that. Part and parcel of the idea of the Paladin is this sort of moral imperiousness. In 3.5 D&D it was pretty stringent – Paladins couldn’t associate with people who did certain things, which meant a Paladin in the party created a tension where the other players might be limited from certain actions.

Making this more complicated was the 3.5 D&D morality system that worked as a sort of omniscient snitch. In a narrative sense, there’s an interesting tension to a Paladin’s friend secretly doing things they know the Paladin won’t approve of, and the ways you keep that secret. When the moral fabric of the universe can shift you to an evil alignment for losing an argument, it simply dobs you in and you lose that potential complexity.

Now, I love Paladins. I love them since I first learned the word from Rakeesh.

Rakeesh is a Paladin from the Quest for Glory Games, games that were definitely informed by their designers’ D&D campaigns, or campaigns that derived from them. But he wasn’t a western sword-and-sorcery type, nor was his Paladin status informed by such. Rasha Rakeesh Sah Tarna was a man of African mythos, from an Egyptian culture. He may have used the word Paladin (which is kinda French) to describe himself, but he did not learn that way from anyone French or otherwise fancy. He learned it from within.

Rakeesh spoke of the Paladin as someone who conducted themself with honour, and whose moral framing was powerful enough to enact their will on the universe. They could heal wounds – both their own and others, light their sword aflame, damage dreadful foes and even cast some magic thanks to being a Paladin, and being a Paladin made the universe itself recognise your righteousness.

I also learned of the Paladin from Oriental Adventures. Which, yes. I know.

Oriental Adventures sought to write about the D&D system in the context of the Legend of the Five Rings setting, using the existing sets of clans and their families. The books said that if Paladins existed, they would be much more like the Akodo and Matsu family champions, individuals focused intensely on Honour as their strength. These families, when you look them up, are full of stories of people doing the right thing when it brought them low, holding to principle when it meant doing what they did not want to do, and also, expressing their values in the face of opposition with face-wrecking violence.

The principle these books outlaid for the Matsu, particularly, who are members of the Lion Clan

Which is the best clan, by the way,

Are the ones who describe the idea that honour is not imposed, given, or taken. It comes from within.

These two voices helped shape my conception of the Paladin in 3.5 D&D. The Paladin was not an expression of armour and rules – it was about an entity of principles, a warrior whose ideology informed their methodology. It’s really been bedrock to how I play my Paladins and why it never seemed to me to be interesting or worthwhile to treat the Paladin ruleset as if it was somehow a perfect template.

In 3rd Edition D&D, there were Chaotic Paladins (sometimes using the Holy Liberator prestige class, sometimes using the alternate path). There were evil ones and even Neutral ones – and sure, while Lawful Neutral paladins were boring, it was still able to present that shell of an idea; an ideology as expressed through a character. The alignment rules were so wobbly it wasn’t like being Lawful actually meant anything. Lawful was not the same thing as Law-Abiding. After all, ants are lawful – they behave in strict adherence to rules of their society. It makes sense that ants and ant-creatures are lawful. But do they know the rules of the city in which they live? Why would they follow them? Does not following those rules make you less lawful?

In the end, the Paladin doesn’t need to be the party Load or the party Conscience. They need, instead, to be a character for whom ideals and morality are much more tightly wound, fixed precepts of their worldview. A fighter may fight for money or love or rage or all three from day to day – but the Paladin always knows what they fight for.

The Paladin’s honour comes from within.

Rules are Stupid

The D&D Alignment system is nonsense.

This isn’t some deep wizardry here. This is just a really rudimentary fact. The entire system is phrased like it’s a moral judgement framework and there’s been a truly enormous quantity of writing trying to thread the needle of explaining a moral framework that is both simple enough that a game system can handle it, while also making a way of representing actual human interactions that can’t be exploited by the most sophomoric seventh-grade part-time evil dictator.

The main lesson of the morality system of D&D is a greater one for designing rules in general, though: Rules are stupid, or rather, rules cannot make choices or judgements. Rules are things humans interact with, they are not capable of making complex judgements themselves. What you want a rule to do is interface quickly with a player asking it a question: Hey, what happens when I do this?

The rule should, ideally, serve as a sort of curve bend in a pipe – player intention runs towards it, and that pipe just directs the player’s intention in the right way, with as little friction as possible.

How does this apply to the Alignment system? Well, largely it means you have to start acknowledging it as a silly rule, and accept that it’s not really going to be a good tool to use to direct player intention. If you have a Paladin who tortures someone and whose player expects their moral standings to stay Lawful Good, your problem there isn’t in game rules, it’s that you’ve got someone in your group who thinks they can justify torturing people as a good thing.

What it means is that you need to approach the morality system as a set of flags: Spells that want to ‘blast evil people’ can be used for dramatic reveals, or things that impede ‘good characters’ from entering should be as simple as a boundary or barrier… but you shouldn’t be using them as a moral system, just as a way to put simplified flags on things.

Or, you know, just ask yourself if it’s worth it to have spells that want to try and make complex moral judgements on the fly?

3.5 Memories – The Illumian Swordmage

It could be possible to think that, given the ease with which I point out design and balance problems in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, you might think I hated this system, or hated its power level or had some sort of fundamental problems with the way the game worked. This is – well, it’s a half truth. I absolutely wish the game was better designed, a more elegantly crafted toolset for the stated aim.

But I loved making characters in 3.5 D&D. I loved playing them, and I loved the busted stuff I could make it do

So let’s talk about that stuff! Continue reading

Bad Balance: Why Balance?

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons for designers to take on board when making your own RPG content.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Why Balance?

Inevitably, in this kind of conversation, someone will sit back, stroke their chin and say Yes Well, But Why Do We Need Balance Anyway? and then deliver a smug, eye-raised look as if they’ve just next-levelled the entire conversation. And sure, they’re kind of right – you don’t need things to be fair. You don’t. Heck, you don’t even need a rules system, man.

Setting aside the obvious Let’s Take It Too Far And Show The Point Is Ridiculous, the question of balancing 3.5 D&D seems to always bring up someone who, weirdly, echoes the arguments of 2ed D&D before them. It usually comes down to it’s a cooperative game and there aren’t any winners or losers and therefore, balance is a phantom that need not be pursued, as if somehow, the game’s function is inhibited by balance, and that balanced things impose themselves between fun and the players.

Problem is, someone has to run the game.

Balanced characters aren’t balanced against one another to meet some arbitary philosophical goal. They’re balanced against one another so the person running the game has a reasonable, handleable piece of information about things they can present to the party. Big deal, the response comes: the DM can just tailor-make the experience for the party, every time. All they need to do is know what those characters can do, how good they are at it, how resistant they are, any rare abilities they might not use often, and how well they hit things, what they attack.

Which is to say: You don’t need balance. You don’t! Knock yourself out. You do you.

But there’s a virtue to having characters with roughly comparable ranges of power and utility, because it means that the people running the game aren’t faced with an enormous different task of challenge construction. That means that when someone wants to run a D&D game, they’re not presented with a cliff face of learning. It means that there are going to be fewer situations where the players try a thing they’re meant to succeed at and fail because it so happens that the enemy’s abilities fall into a venn diagram of specialised, obtuse weaknesses.

If you’re playing D&D 3.5, a game primarily designed around tactical movement and combat, and you think it doesn’t matter that it has a decent tactical movement and combat system that is reliably testable, provable, and functional, then maybe you want to play a different game? There are a lot of great games out there!

That’s the next lesson: Balance can be valuable for games, even cooperative ones, because it allows the person or people making the challenge to construct meaningful challenges.

Bad Balance: Your Part In Failure

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons for designers to take on board when making your own RPG content.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Your Failure

You’ll find if you listen to any given D&D 3.5 player, they’ll usually have some memories of the things I talk about being total bupkis. I know I played alongside a cleric who wasn’t overpowered, and we had one game where the runaway behemoth was a telepath. As your friendly neighborhood min-maxer I had the game squealing under the heel of a bard, once. More often than anything else we’d see on the newsgroups players wondering about how they could play clerics well, because they thought their only job was standing by and healing, leading to an unfulfilling game of whack-a-mole. What’s more there are a lot of games where the wizard player felt worthless and ran away from goblins a lot with a terrible armour class. Once I heard the artificer dismissed as trash because a player could simply not imagine how to make it work.

This is one of the many ways D&D3.5 was unbalanced: It was entirely possible to play overpowered characters badly. Most of the characters who were busted were busted because of spells or magic items and that stuff was overwhelmingly available…

If you took it.

You could absolutely play a weak wizard! You could pick up the twenty totally worthless spells at every level, you could sink into the swamp of crap. You could take a level of sorcerer and a level of wizard, and then maybe level them up side by side and maybe you’d balance your stats and oh good god noooo.

You could be handed a high-octane chainsaw laser hammer and it was entirely reasonable for a new player, a player who had no reason to expect they were being given something totally broken, to sit down and tap nails in with the wrong end.

Perry’s Lock

Hey, I can use this blog for any old bullheck I like, why not use it for this.

I ran this D&D campaign called All The King’s Men, when I was a younger man with different pets and worse hair. The premise of the game was that in the great City-State Coalition of the Symeiran Empire, there were three orders of church knights, each compliant with one of the three law-chaos alignment axes. Lawful knights, neutral knights, chaotic knights. In this party of six, three players were knights, and three of the other players were the direct contact and friend of one of the knights. Three adventuring pairs.

The lawful knight of this group, Kyrie, had her offsider, a luvable cawkney thief called Perry, short for Peregrine. Perry was chipper and playful and had a luverly accent and Perry was great. I loved Perry to bits. Great dynamic with the other players, and also, the player is a great min-maxer. Now this is 3.5 D&D with a lot of homebrew content, alongside people who love to optimise buuuut aren’t as good at it as Perry’s player was. Perry, rather than be a dick about it, therefore dedicated himself to find the things nobody in the party did and do it excellently.

In the first major arc of the campaign, a door was locked before them, and the party were losing time chasing the person who’d locked it behind them. Perry then popped his knuckles and said hold my beer, before sitting down and cracking that lock with a truly grotesque skill check in the fifties. Bear in mind this was at level six or so! He pops this DC 15 lock with a skill check enough to do it as a free action, stepped through, and once the party were in, locked it behind him to keep others from pursuing.

Okay.

Fast forward a year and change and eleven levels, and the party have returned to this same site, to find it taken over by vampire nobility. The familiar zone they ran through at a dead run, chasing someone was now a sieged path they had to work through, a dungeon crawl, full of decadence and dangerous vampires. The party stopped at a door, and Perry, who by now is basically a Time Ninja or something, looked at it and said ‘well, I’ll check it.’

‘It’s locked.’

‘Oh, okay, like a magical lock?’

‘Not far as you can tell.’

‘Okay, I’ll just Open Locks on it-‘

‘Roll.’

‘I have a huge bonus, seriously?’

‘Yeah, there’s a chance you can fail.’

Perry’s player gives me a look, as he picks up his d20 and rolls poorly. A fairly low roll – a 4 or so. But he’s been so good at things so far that he’s convinced there’s no mundane lock that can actually impede him. A moment, – ‘Forty eight.’ I check the notes and…

‘Nope.’

‘What?!’

‘I said nope.’

Who the fuck locked this door?

YOU DID.

(He took ten and got the lock just fine, if you were worried.)

Bad Balance: Free Power

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Free Power!

A thing you’ll find in most games is there’s an opportunity cost to adding things to your character. Magic items occupy this space in D&D where there are slots, clearly recognising that there’s a good reason to limit the number of belts you wear, especially when those belts do magical things. Thing is, the item system isn’t the only place that came up.

In most games there’s an opportunity cost. Every choice you make is an option. In 3.5 D&D there were a surprising number of times when there were no such choices. If you were aiming for a prestige class at level 6 onwards, your first five levels could sometimes look like utter nonsense – fighter 2, barbarian 2, ranger 1, for example, would give you a grotesque fort save, a handful of benefits and lose you a single point of reflex and will, which was just not a reasonable trade. If you were building a wizard, prestige classes themselves could look ridiculous, as you cherry-picked the opening benefits of four or five of them because none of them had a meaningful late game reward.

When you give players an option for something, you need to make it so that they’re giving something up if they take it. Not that every option is punishing – that’s its own bad idea – but that every option is a choice, and choices should be meaningful.

Bad Balance: Paralysing Potential

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons for designers to take on board when making your own RPG content.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Paralysing Potential

Did you play a spellcaster back in 3.5? Did you play a Cleric? A Druid? A Wizard? God help you, did you play an Archivist?

The 3.5 spell list is an absolute swamp of bullshit, a completely festering mire of options that include procedurally generated X damage over Y area with Z range math-up messes that really form the basis for what you can probably handle, balance wise,  to spells which are unimpressive with one basic form, and totally busted if you think about them innovatively, spells designed to be worse versions of the former, multiple spells designed to fill the same space by designers working on different books, grandfathered together, spells designed to duplicate other spells just with a different flavour to try and keep the spell schools reasonably balanced, then some complete out-of-context nonsense that didn’t have any combat-or-existing mechanical application but suddenly changed the context of how combat even happened. Feel tired at the end of that sentence? Good, because it’s worse than that.

Spellcasters 3.5 were broken and it was easy to get a modest amount of broken just by paying attention to a few exploitable spells, but if you wanted to go deep, if you were the kind of player who was willing to marinate deep in the dank shit of supplemental sourcebooks or even just read through the ramifications of everything in the player’s handbook, if you were the person who bothered to use Scribe Scroll and stockpile every level 1 spell you didn’t wind up using in any given day until you had literally a library of the dang things, then you knew how broad, how busted, and how blinding your potential was.

There’s no surprise that players – despite the weakness – really appreciated Sorcerers. All sorcerers needed to know was a small handful of useful spells, rather than try to learn all of the spells present in the entire danging game.

The way I coped with it, myself, was to opt away from the full-bore spellcasters. My few times playing Cleric or Druid were times that DMs quickly started nerfing things on the fly. If you instead limited yourself to doing a smaller handful of things really well, you might be less powerful, but you’ll at least be able to make a choice on your turn without ever being stymied by the thousands of things you could do. Levelling up and building your character was still a long, agonising process, but at least that concentrated the wait.

These older editions would sometimes present you with complicated puzzles in the form of a combat arena and expect you to answer that question with a spell template; a line, a point, a single target, a circular template or maybe a chain. But then, the Wizard didn’t have to do that, they could answer it by teleporting away, by charming something, by becoming invisible, by summoning thirty tons of stone directly above the enemy, by becoming something else, by making someone else into something else, and all of these options were presented to you.

Now it’s your turn.

Pick something.

Go go go.

Bad Balance: Accidentally Overpowered

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

The Accidentally Overpowered

If you played D&D3.5 and you were into it, you knew you could spend hours working on a character, combing through dozens of races and classes and prestige classes, and even if you weren’t going to scrape through everything to milk every single possible advantage, it was still not uncommon to see builds like Wizard 5/Really Strong Wizard Prestige Class 10/Archmage 5.

That, however, is something you work for, something that comes at the result of a lot of system mastery, and, speaking as someone who had a lot of that mastery and really loved it, it was nice. It was good. I liked that. I don’t even feel that that was, itself a problem (though we’ll get to that).

The problem that cropped up in 3.5, and you could see it happen in people’s stories of their games and problems adjudicating how characters work, in that some characters could, completely accidentally, be utterly honking busted, and those characters could be wildly out of whack with their friends and party members without ever trying to be. If your party featured a composition of a fairly boring Fighter, Cleric, Rogue and Sorcerer, one of those four characters is absolutely in a league of their own compared to the others, and as players play, it’s going to come out and get noticed.

Or what about an arrangement like Ranger, Druid, Barbarian and Wizard? The barbarian is better than Ranger, the wizard is better than both and the Druid has a single class feature that’s better than the Ranger.

The issue isn’t that a player could work to be broken, the issue is that players could accidentally be so good that other people would completely replace another character in the party, and if anyone noticed, it was just straight up feels-bad territory. It was really obvious – and it got worse as people levelled up and you had more room, more opportunities to make mistakes! What makes it even worse still is if players went and did stuff that was redundant! Fighter, Ranger and Barbarian were all the most easily grasped, handleable classes, and if a party has two of them, one of them was going to notice the gap!

Well, if they looked.

So you had to hope they didn’t look.

That’s not a good solution to the problem.

Continue reading

Just Playing 4ED D&D

I was a holdout.

I loved 3.5 D&D. I really did. I was an active poster on the min-max forums. I had lots of work – I mean huge amounts of work – set aside for running 3.5 D&D campaigns. I was planning, in an odd and roundabout way, to make my living selling 3.5 D&D stuff, never once considering the transient nature of that industry period.

I remember sitting down and trying to make my case that 4ed D&D removed too many options from me, it made me do all this work all over again to make characters I liked, and now I didn’t even know if there was anything cool I could connect to. I even said ‘it doesn’t feel like D&D.’

Then at the table, one of our players – working on her research thesis – simply told me that the game let her play. The game meant there was less time for her spent correcting things, researching things, and that she could just play. The game’s dungeonmasters’ tools were there to make it easier to grab monsters, put them together, and just play.

http://www.rpgmusings.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/party1.jpg

I wound up falling into 4ed pretty hard after that. The first thing is that min-maxing 4ed is pretty good and fun – and I had misunderstood the aim of optimising. The thing is, optimising isn’t about making the most powerful thing you can hypothetically make – it’s about making the most powerful thing within the confines of the game. That’s optimising, it’s building to your limits!

With that in mind, 4ed D&D had really good DM’s tools. It structured enemies and their abilities as if you might have to gauge them. I don’t know who remembers what it was like learning 3.5 encounters but sometimes you’d have to double a monster’s HP on the fly as players spiked it out in one shot, or cut their lifespan in half because players couldn’t punch through their highly technical defenses. Enemies were designed, now. They were designed, not eyeballed!

http://www.aidedd.org/dnd/images/grick.jpg

Do you remember how 3.5 D&D monsters even worked? So many outliers! So many creatures that were ‘technically’ fair, because they were balanced around frustrating either/or mechanics, like the Grick. Remember the Grick? The Grick was a creature with 8 hp, and DR 15/+1. That is to say, they ignored the first 15 HP of any attack from any weapon that wasn’t enchanted at +1 or more. Which meant a Grick was, when you had your first magic weapon at level 4 or so, an absolute laugh – 8 damage was almost nothing to a character who knew how to try to do damage, but 23 damage was a lot for an early play. Dealing 16 or 17 damage five turns in a row was pretty tricky at level 2 or 3, and Gricks, you could fight four Gricks at level 3!

Without a magic weapon!

Anyone sensible would fix that, but 3.5 D&D kept these dang things more or less the same, which was extra irritating! They had a chance to fix them!

So on the one hand you could see D&D 4ed as a major enema on the DMing system, allowing the tools to be a lot more useful for people who were DMing the first time. But it wasn’t just that.

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The other thing is that the 4ed ruleset had a very broad, permissive attitude to things in the skill and story system. There’s this chart in the Dungeonmaster’s Guide about why you might want to make a story point a conflict – and it shows a story arcing in two directions: that you should only really make failures about sending the story in other, different directions, which is super interesting by comparison.

The Skill system – which is simplified, it’s true – represented a major change as well, where skills were made a bit more vague, so players could interpret their methods of solution. Suddenly, you could Arcana Things in the dungeon to make obscure systems stop working, but you could also Dungeoneering them or Endurance them to represent sustained effort to break them.

When a player wanted to run a game, when they wanted to sit down and represent the way that their story worked, nobody had to explain it to them. They could read the books, look at how the books talked about running scenarios and stories, and then, those players could make those choices as they started to run the game for the first time.

The Dungeonmaster’s books focused on giving you toolsets, and explaining them well. It was not about creating intricate systems that you had to feed data into, instead focusing on showing you results of those systems so you could easily grab them, but then also giving you the information of how those results were generated.

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Then there’s class roles. I know some people hate these, and those people are fine, but those players can just be wrong at me all they like. Class roles already exist in other games; they’re ways that two characters choose to make themselves different to one another so in any cooperative situation, they’re not just replicating each other’s efforts. I’ve done that in games – I’ve been the one player who could replicate another player’s efforts, and I’ve been that player worse when I could replicate another player’s entire character with a class feature of mine.

Class roles are a formal structure for enabling players to build cooperatively. They’re also mostly focused on combat, not on other toolsets; you can reliably point out that Clerics have access to healing type utility powers and skillsets, and Rangers have access to naturey type utility powers and skillsets, and Bards tend to have access to every single thing.

What about the handful of utility goofiness, like magically summoning up birds to talk to or stuff like that? Well, the game doesn’t even tie those things, those special abilities to characters’ classes or roles. Those are now rituals, which means if you want to have access to that kind of special ability, you can just have it if you’re willing to invest in the skills to do it!

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You might notice so far I haven’t really been talking about the way this game’s combat system worked, per se. Oh, sure, the monsters as DM’s tools, but not the combat system as players deal with it. I mean, it ties into the combat roles – but you can run a combat-less 4ed game-

Yeah, you can.

Don’t look at me like that.

I don’t know why you’d want to, the tactical combat in this game is one of the fun things it does well – but you don’t have to use it.

The thing is, the combat system, that? I totally understand if you want to take it or leave it. There are lots of games that don’t do combat well, and do other things really well, and you could totally use those. But I like running around stabbing baddies with my Paladin’s big honking axe, and I also like the downtime between those combats spent solving big puzzles and meeting strange people and managing my resources and yes, occasionally flirting with demons because that’s all very complicated.

I like 4ed because it plays well. It’s big, it’s solved, it’s searchable, and you can have a lot of fun playing it. If it doesn’t work for you and your group, that’s fine too. Nothing wrong with that.

But acting as if 4ed D&D is inherently bad? That’s really foolish. It works. It plays. It has inclusive rules that can handle a wide variety of things. DMs are rarely left with the answer ‘I have no idea’ to the question ‘hey, how could I do this thing?’

It just plays.


This blog post and subject was suggested, as above, by @Kassil on Twitter. If you’d like to suggest stuff you’d like to see me write about, please, do contact me!

Bad Balance: The Impossible Spectre of Balance in 3.5 D&D

I recently went back to some old content I made for 3.5 D&D and found myself considering that the flavour, the tone, the purpose were all sound –

A quick aside.

When I say the flavour, I mean the way the game objects are designed to represent things in the universe; a ranged attack that deals a decent chunk of damage and requires an action to refresh could be easily flavoured as a gun;

when I say the tone, I mean the kind of other things in the universe that are necessary for the thing to exist; guns don’t work in a setting without advanced metallurgy, for example, but they also don’t work in a setting where you want fights to be back-and-forth exchanges of force;

When I say purpose, I mean what mechanical end I want this object to fulfill in the world; this gun may work as a way to give players with less physical stats a meaningful ranged attack and to show this region as being more focused on distributable technology than on magical advancement

– but that without a lot of refamiliarising myself with the rules I could not say for sure how balanced they were, or were not, in a D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder game. I went back to read the Tome of Battle and Tome of Magic, two books I love but which have

Let’s say problems.

3.5 D&D was a game with a fantasy of balance. It had a lot of systems for creating ballparks, and if you bothered to explore all those ballparks you could wind up finding one where all your players could play together. You had to avoid the situation where one player was playing a totally different sport in a different field, but it wasn’t like you were being fundamentally reasonably by limiting sources. The whole problem of the CoDZilla (“Cleric Or Druid”) of 3.5 was that in the core book alone they were still totally broken and other sources only made them moreso.

There were other systems totally weirded up; like the Sunder mechanic was either useless or amazing, and its side effect of destroying treasure was either dreadful or meaningless. The trip and grapple systems could be pushed to breaking, the summoning system had its narrow holes, and every single expansion or splatbook you can find only adds either new options that are too weak to make any difference, or totally new broken things.

This is the conundrum of 3.5: Nothing is balanced, but things have gravity. Things suck together, and you can find a balancing point acreted around one general family of busted stuff. This is something I really found comforting about it in hindsight, but is also a trap: If players were not in a position, skill-wise, to pull towards those same common spots, if they were drawn towards other thematic thing, that player was set up to have a miserable time.

So what’s the solution?

My gut is to make it so the broken options are easy to get. To allow for elegant, simple power. Make the four-prestige class stack-em-ups a bother to get. Make small rules tweaks that keep those kind of complicated builds being total upgrades, but don’t try and push players away from the powerful toys that are cool.

Towards the last of my 3.5 days, the builds I looked for to make were, as an ideal, as few classes and prestige classes as possible; as a designer, if someone brought me a character splashing a single level of four or five classes on the way to a prestige class, I was left considering that the jankiness was a problem. When your build was full of different stuff that you picked up because there was no investment to do so, it meant your play experience slowed down (hang on, do I have a thing to do with that?), and it also meant the costs for joining a prestige class or taking a level in another class were too low.

Overall this is heartening though: I don’t think I can make anything that’s too overpowered, especially ‘overpowered’ is a moving target.