Tag Archives: D&D 4E

Meaning first

There has recently been another round of discussion about associative and dissociative mechanics. Here is Justin Alexander’s restatement of his original thesis, a post by Zak about diegetic and extradiegetic thinking, Carter Soles on healing surges, and Jeff on whether or not the d30 rule is dissociated. Zak doesn’t use the words “associated” or “dissociated” anywhere, but it’s really the same issue from a different angle. Are players reasoning about cause and effect within the game world or within the structure of the rules?

Consider two examples:

  1. The Labyrinth Lord spell “levitate” (LL page 33):

    For a number of turns equal to the casters level +6 turns, the caster can move up and down as he wishes. The caster mentally directs movement up or down as much as 20 feet each round. The caster cannot move horizontally, but could clamber along the face of a cliff, for example, or push against a ceiling to move laterally (generally at half base land speed).

  2. The Fourth Edition level seven fighter power “come and get it” (4E Player’s Handbook page 80):

    Every enemy (but not ally) within a 15 foot radius is shifted two squares (10 feet) and become adjacent to you do so, and then you get to make a weapon vs. AC attack against them.

In the first example, the meaning is primary. The caster is no longer subject to the limitations of gravity, and can move themselves around at some set speed. In the second example, the effect is primary. Enemies come to the PC to be hit. We don’t know why. Did the PC taunt the enemies? Did the PC lasso the enemies? Either might make sense in different cases, and many people don’t bother at all with narrative explanations. Obviously, it is not an either/or thing, but one of association or dissociation is usually dominant. In the first example, the duration in turns is somewhat dissociated (why would levitation only be available in game-convenient durations that are a multiple of ten minutes?), but unobtrusively so.

The common example of a limited martial resource (such as a daily power) as a dissociated mechanic is really just a special case of this more general “meaning first” or “effect first” principle. It is easier to make a balanced game using effect first design, which is why 4E leans so heavily on dissociated mechanics, as mathematical balance was an important goal for that system.

The examples above also show how this issue is orthogonal to realism. Levitating is obviously not realistic (at least based on my experience), but it is associated. Enemies moving toward you and then you hitting them is realistic, but it is dissociated. Why are they moving toward you? Why do you as a player have the ability to affect the movement of your enemies? You can come up with an after the fact narrative explanation, but the meaning is secondary and the effect is primary.

As has been noted in some of the links above, there are some dissociated mechanics in traditional D&D too. Hit points and experience points are notable. To elaborate, the effects of gaining a level are primary (more staying power, additional spell capability, followers, whatever), and the narrative explanation is after the fact. Was the PC training? Did a demon grant them extra power? We often don’t know. HP and damage are probably the most problematic. How can cure light wounds help with the loss of luck and fatigue? We can come up with an explanation, but it’s certainly not obvious. Weapon and armor restrictions are another common dissociated irritant that has prompted many house rules, my own included (see here for weapon damage by hit die and a system to do away with armor restrictions).

The major difference, as I see it, in how new school games and old school games do things is that the dissociated mechanics of old school games affect encounter-based problem solving less than they do in new school games. And when they do affect problem solving (perhaps equipping every character in OD&D with daggers because they are cheaper and all weapons do 1d6 damage) that is considered pathological, and either fixed with house rules or condemned as against the spirit of the game. From the standpoint of creative problem solving, if meaning is first, the potential effects are limitless, and this is in my opinion why many people are uncomfortable with the extensive use of effect-first mechanics.

Edit: I’m sure this post was influenced by On the Failure of Tactical Combat over at Hack & Slash (though his post focuses, unsurprisingly, more on combat). So go read that too.

Minor actions considered harmful

One thing I have noticed when refereeing my current Nalfeshnee Hack 4E game is that combat takes longer (this is of course a common observation regarding Fourth Edition). I think this comes down to three factors. The first is that HP has increased dramatically in comparison to past editions whereas damage dealing capability has not (and in some cases has regressed). The second is that the grid encourages pondering positional possibilities, much like chess. The third is that players need to make more decisions per turn due to the formalization of actions during combat, and the possibilities for each type of action tend to be heavily suggested by explicit power and maneuver lists (decreasing the need for action creativity). Compare player turn structure in traditional D&D to Fourth Edition.

In traditional D&D, a player’s turn was this:
  1. What do I do?
Sometimes this includes some movement, and there are limits to that movement in the rules, but the concept is not that of a resource to be spent (in my experience). Further, special powers are not used every turn, as generally they are scarce resources, so there is no obvious list to select from (though this breaks down somewhat for high level casters, as the number of spell slots increases).
In 4E, every turn a player must as ask themselves the following questions:
  1. How will I spend my standard action? (Check power list for options.)
  2. How will I spend my move action? (Move, shift, or charge/run?)
  3. Does it make sense to take a minor action? (Check power list for options.)
  4. Should I take any free actions?
  5. Do I want to make any action substitutions?
  6. What order will I take my actions in?
In practice it is of course more streamlined than that, as players develop common patterns when using certain characters, but this is itself something of a problem in my eyes because it acts as barrier to creativity (note that something similar can happen in traditional D&D also; we’ve all seen players whose actions are continually “I attack the monster with my sword”).

The action substitution step is also worth mentioning because it is quite complex in terms of decision possibilities. There is a hierarchy of action types: a standard action can be used for a move but not the other way around. A standard can also be used for a minor action. So, for example, some of the common possibilities are:

  • Move, standard
  • Standard, move
  • Minor, minor, move
  • Move, minor, move
  • Etc.
You can see that there are quite a few possibilities, and all of them also have implications for the spacial relationship of the grid.

Another blogger just mentioned a similar observation. Zombiecowboy wrote:

But I think the biggest problem is what I call the economy of actions. My players feel that they need to eek out every little last drop of potential from their characters, making sure that they spend every action that they can. Did I do something with my free, minor, move, and all mighty standard action this turn?

And, because of how interrelated the 4E rules are, it is very difficult to simplify this process through house rules without doing significant violence to the rest of the ruleset. For example, I considered doing away with minor actions entirely and moving back towards the traditional approach, or at least simplifying the choices to: move-move, action-move, move-action. However, many powers are primarily useful in combos (use minor power X in order to set up favorable conditions for the use of standard power Y; combos).

Healing powers also tend to be minor actions. This is kind of ridiculous in my opinion, as it allows the cleric to move, shoot a laser (ahem, “lance of faith” at-will power), and then heal allies all in one turn. So such a change would also affect some classes more than others (and some “builds” more than others). Players that are used to the 4E concept of class balance tend to be unhappy with such changes.


Unrelated complaint: damn it Google! Because I am in Canada, whenever I view a blogspot blog it rewrites the URL to .ca rather than .com now. Why? It’s so annoying. Whenever I want to copy and paste a blogger URL I now need to edit it because .com is obviously a more stable address. I wish they would stop redirecting me to google.ca from google.com too. When I type a URL into the URL bar, that’s really the place I want to go. Redirection should only be used for transitions where content is actually being moved.

Nalfeshnee hack monsters

The way Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons handles monster design is problematic for a game run in an old school style. There are a number of reasons for this, which I will explain below, and a few tweaks that I have come up with to make the system work better for the kind of game I am running while still working for players who are familiar with 4E rules. Hopefully, people who don’t play 4E directly may still be interested in the game design discussion.

In traditional D&D, armor class (the only defense rating) is not tied directly to level at all. A twentieth level character with no equipment and average dexterity has the same AC as a similar first level character. Characters do get harder to kill as they progress in levels (by accumulating hit points and getting better saving throws), but they don’t get inherently harder to hit.

In Fourth Edition, defenses are tied directly to level, and there are four of them (armor class, fortitude, reflex, and will). This is true for both for characters and monsters. Characters add one half of their level to each defense and monster creation guidelines also derive defenses from level rather than from concept.

This game design means that all four of the defenses have similar values for any particular monster. It results in absurdities such as high level giants having a reflex of 30 and low level pixies having a reflex of 15. What’s the point of having multiple defenses if they are all within spitting distance of each other? In general, AC will be slightly higher than the other three defenses, but (according to the 4E DMG monster creation guidelines) attacks that target AC also often have a slightly higher attack bonus! So it’s a complete wash. I actually like the concept of being able to learn about monsters and target their weaknesses, but as written 4E defenses don’t really allow that. They just end up being multiple numbers in the stat block or on the character sheet.

Here’s another problem. Hit points (both obvious and hidden in the form of healing surges) have ballooned tremendously in 4E. So players and monsters aren’t doing that much more damage, but they have a lot more hit points. This can make combat take a long time, especially if players don’t invest time in discovering the synergies between build options that allow for damage optimization.

This game design, as eloquently explained by -C over at Hack & Slash, comes from starting with the result required mechanically by the game entity (for example, a monster that is challenge rating N). Then, appropriate cosmetic details are are attached. This is what -C calls a dissociated mechanic:

Dissociated Mechanic: Result => Effect
Associated Mechanic: Effect => Result

This is also why most bestiary entries have several different “levels” of the same monster (often three: one for each tier of game play). These entries are generally not identical other than scaled numbers (the more powerful monsters will often have more abilities too), but they are close. Combined with the fact that monster defenses scale with PC attack bonuses, this means that balanced encounters are mathematically similar in all cases (this is what the 4E designers meant by “expanding the sweet spot” of D&D play). Further, because of the variance of the d20 and the level of bonuses (one-half level is a good default assumption, but in reality there will be more bonuses), we are talking about a 75% change from first to thirtieth level, which means though encounters are balanced, that balance is fragile. A little too low, and foes will be trivial. A little to high, and they will be untouchable.

Here are some of my techniques for tweaking monsters to dampen the above-mentioned dynamics without totally scrapping the system. If I’m using a monster from the monster manual, my default method is to cut the HP in half and double all damage dice (before bonuses). This makes battles of attrition less likely and also produces a credible threat. When PCs are equipped with healing surges and piles of HP, doing 1d6 or 1d8 damage is just not scary. If I use minions, I make their damage variable so that it is not obvious to the players which enemies are minions (though I have been using minions less recently; they end up just feeling like clutter).

This is how I create my own monsters. Required stats for a basic monster are hit dice, AC, primary attack, secondary attack, and movement speed. I ignore the other three defenses most of the time and just use AC. I also don’t bother with ability scores or skills. Hit points are around 10 to 15 HP per hit die, depending on the monster concept (and adjusted to taste). Equipment and treasure depend on the situation. I would like to experiment with treasure tables more, but so far I have mostly just been placing treasure as I see fit (or relying on modules). XP is 100 * HD + bonus for special abilities sometimes.

AC is based on the 4E armor bonus values, which are similar to AC values in earlier editions. The values are: unarmored 10, leather 12, chain 16, plate 18, +1 or +2 for a shield, and +1 to +5 for agility. I also add a one-half hit dice bonus to keep up with the Joneses. I would like to just do away with all one-half level bonuses across the board, in the entire game, but I think that the logistics of that would be inconvenient. I’m trying to affect the player interface to the game as little as possible, as my players use the published books and the character builder program.

Thus, a 15 hit die (level) dragon would have 225 HP and a AC of 25 (18 from plate + 7 from inflation). Primary attack: claw/claw/bite +10 vs AC (2d8/2d8/2d12, each +7 for inflation). Secondary attack: breath weapon (fire): 10×10 area, 15d10 (luck throw for half damage, no hit roll required). Speed 10, fly 20. For a dragon, I might add one more special attack as well (because, you know, dragon). XP 2000 (15 * 10 + 500 for flying and fire breathing). I’m still experimenting with the relationship between hit dice and attack bonus.

Compare to the Adult Blue Dragon from the Monster Manual (page 78), which is a level 13 solo artillery monster. HP 655, AC 30, XP 4000, claw +16 vs. AC 1d6 + 6, lightning breath +18 vs. reflex 2d12 + 10 (miss is half damage). The dragon created using my house rules is easier to hit and has fewer HP, but has much more destructive attacks. This requires more planning and less direct assault, and also cuts down on the time required for combat, which is exactly what I want.

A 4E player & OD&D

Wherein I comment on the discovery of OD&D by a 4E player and DDI contributor.

First, here are the relevant blog posts, in chronological order:

  1. From OD&D to Playtesting New Editions… and Back Again
  2. OD&D and the Challenge of Pleasing Everyone, Part 1
  3. OD&D and the Challenge of Pleasing Everyone, Part 2

It’s always interesting to see the reactions to OD&D from players of later editions.

Here are some quotes interspersed with my comments.

With five PCs (one charmed) and 10 Nixies, the result was a TPK. And yet, we were all laughing and having a blast.

Remember that thing about DM control? The PCs came to underwater, in an air pocket in the Nixies’ lair. After some fun interaction they allowed the PCs not to serve them for one year, and instead they had to go to the Temple of the Frog and end the threat.

Now, that might sound like he was being a pushover DM (there was, after all, a TPK), but I actually find myself enjoying the development. As a referee myself, I don’t like undoing PC death, but if I had decided beforehand that the nixies were just trying to subdue (even if before meant as I was rolling up the encounter at the table), I would have felt better about it. What a great lead-in to Temple of the Frog though: servants of nixies for a year.

Ian of the Going Last podcast, largely held to be a cheese monkey, cast Charm on my hireling. He then told my hireling to kill himself. Checking the rules, they had not yet added the errata to stop this. Ok, I figured I would let this one happen. Now Ian asks about XP. Sure. They get 100 XP, plus 100XP more for his equipment (since in these editions you get XP for gold). Well played.

I think this is pretty clearly against the spirit of the game, which gives XP for treasure recovered and danger faced.

My feeling is that 4E creates these big set-piece combats that are often inside rooms and consume a big part of a play session. Because of that, we lose all the other bits (the exploration, the movement, the empty rooms we still search, etc. The dungeon ceases to feel extensive, mysterious, holistic, ecological. Those other bits end up being important to the experience.

I couldn’t have said it better.

All damage was a d6, which led the players to have fun with unarmed attacks, throwing a crossbow bolt by hand, and other silly things that still do d6 damage on a hit. In general, combat was more descriptive.

An important assumption of OD&D, in my mind, is that unless otherwise stated things work relatively realistically. This is the wargaming context at work. In other words: I don’t think the rules suggest that a thrown crossbow bolt should be considered a weapon. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with running a cartoon game where thrown pebbles also do 1d6 damage, if that’s how you roll, but nothing in the rules compels such an interpretation. Taking a crossbow bolt and plunging it into an enemy’s eye? Cue Heath Ledger Joker voice: “Now we’re talking.”

(Why is it that 4E’s powers, so descriptive in nature, don’t result in players being more descriptive? I would love to see D&D Next find a nice balance between robust options and imagination.)

I have definitely noticed this in my 4E Nalfeshnee game. I think that is in part because many of the powers are just not very describable. Many seem out of place; a particularly egregious example being the bard power war song strike, which just becomes ridiculous ofter one or two uses (it is an at-will power). Also: perhaps player description has an inverse relationship with power description. In fact, I would argue that we can generalize this. Description and flavor are a fixed quantity. If the setting and rules supply more, the players (including the referee) will supply less.

no level is suitable for the rooms with 250 guards

Here I strongly disagree. This area is suitable for any level as an obstacle. Remember those scenes in the original Star Wars on the Death Star with the battalions of storm troopers? Han et al sneaked around. Same thing. The idea that everything should be fought head-on and killed is one of the more pernicious RPG trends (actually, I blame video games more than 3E and 4E).

Nalfeshnee hack


I am currently running a house ruled Fourth Edition game. Following Zak, I have decided for ease of reference to call this internally the Nalfeshnee Hack. I started this game right when I got back into the hobby (in fact, one might say that this game was the reason I got back into the hobby, and online research for it is how I discovered the OSR). At the time I had very little conception of the differences between 4E and earlier systems; I just jumped in, becoming familiar with the system as we played. Now the game is established. We are 14 sessions in, I have 7 players (all coworkers), and we play in the company board room every Monday evening that a quorum is available. I’m going to stick with it even though in a perfect world I would probably choose something like B/X or LotFP.

How does the Nalfeshnee Hack differ from standard 4E? Here’s a quick summary:

  • LotFP encumbrance rules (still easing this one in)
  • B/X initiative: d6 per side
  • The Big Purple D30 Rule
  • Skills & languages can be selected during play
  • No dragonborn (because they annoy me)
  • 2E “Hovering on Death’s Door” rules
  • Treasure, exploration, and monster XP
  • B/X movement and time rules (for non-tactical situations)
  • Firearms (identical to crossbows other than noise and form factor)
  • 1 March 2012 edit: the luck throw
  • 5 March 2012 edit: monster guidelines
I also have the following convenience rules because we don’t get very much time to play, and I also don’t know how these players might deal with interplayer conflict:
  • The party should stay together
  • No PvP
I have tended to choose the initiative system on a case by case basis. I originally tried using the official individual initiative system as specified in the 4E rulebooks, but I always end up feeling flustered in play when I use that. We’re slowly tending towards the B/X style of initiative as specified above. On the other hand, I do like the uncertainty involved in choosing an initiative system semi-arbitrarily.
I don’t think any of my players have taken advantage of the option to select skills & languages during play (this is a slight variation on the LotFP language rules). They are too accustomed to doing full “character builds” before the game starts. I will probably encourage this more directly the next time someone creates a new character.
The Fourth Edition PC death rules state that at 0 HP or fewer PCs are dying. At negative bloodied value (half of full HP), the character is dead. When in negative territory but not yet dead, a PC is unconscious and must make a “death saving throw” every turn (saves in Fourth Edition have very little relation to saving throws in previous editions; a save is a 55% success check unaffected by level, ability scores, or skills). Three “death saving throw” failures mean death, and a natural 20 on this check allows the PC to spend a healing surge and bounce back up. This system just seems clunky to me in play, and not dangerous enough. Hovering on Death’s Door (Second Edition Dungeon Master Guide page 75) has PCs unconscious at 0, dead at -10, and loosing 1 HP per round while in negative territory and not stabilized. Any cure spell restores the dying PC to consciousness at 1 HP.
If I were starting from scratch and using 4E again for some reason, I would also push for these rules:
  • Chargen from Player’s Handbook only
  • No use of the character builder
  • No eladrin (having both elves and eladrin seems redundant)
In general, my players have been good sports regarding my experimentation and divergence from the rules as written, and for that I am thankful.

8 January 2012 edit: added image.