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Title: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Patrice on July 23, 2009, 12:35:39 AM
All my D&D games since the 3.5 came out were boring. So much for actual play. Just boring. Boring to the point my players and I have just quit playing D&D altogether after having a long try at 4th Edition. And strangely, we've also quit playing World of Warcraft since WLK is out. And oh, Guild Wars since GW:EN too. No creative agenda clash, no social issues, no special reason: we're just bored.

But there must be a reason. There has to be. And there's a common feature in all these cases, these games have achieved balance, in the same way some planes fell under the reign of Law and Order in Moorcock's fictions: frozen in stasis. D&D4, for instance, lets you choose character builds, manage your powers, pick a careful choice among skills, and it's fun because you think it's going to let you shine, to show your guts and sense of strategy, much alike Talents points in WoW or skillbar builds in Guild Wars. But then, you play. And when you play you realize that the game has been so much balanced that whatever choice you make is, deep down, equal to all choices. As you level up again and again you realize another thing: you can't really die.

I have set a dire level of challenge in my late D&D4 adventures, and no player died ever. And I can tell you, I'm not a piece of cake when GM-ing Gamist. Not that I delight in PK, but if the engine of the game is driven by the risk of death, not being able to die makes the game a bit less interesting, don't you think?

The myth of competition between players seems to me as having been such a red herring to the 3.5 and 4th designers that nodding to this has flushed all life out of the game. When you have rules that emphasize cooperative play and fluff text openly disallowing competition, why would you want to reach a total balance in addition? So. Sounds like what is considered as "having an opportunity to shine" has more or less become "look, that's for your skill, Step on Up, bud!". This is not what I call Step on Up. I love combos, I love the slight discrepancies in rules that allow you to grin and say "look, I'm doing that, and that and now I use this and look, look... KA-BOOOOM, see you in Hell". I remember having designed a healing skill build in Guild Wars. This build allowed me to heal almost instantly 130% more than any other healers. During the two weeks before it was nerfed, I've had my share of glory.

Now, I didn't complain about the nerf, that's part of the sport you know. In OD&D or the totally unbalanced AD&D2, the nerf came as a GM's fiat or a new houserule bending and we all were happy with that. I have no solution really but I say, if all choices are equal, why is D&D offering a choice? It's not. And tell me, where is the Step on Up then? Gone. What you have as a spare notion of "fun" is waiting for your turn to shine and pray that the adventure has been designed good enough to provide your character its due "spotlight time". The result looks similar but gut-less, strategy-less and... Fun-less.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Jasper Flick on July 23, 2009, 02:30:58 AM
This reminds me of the recent thread [3.x/4e] Encounter XPs are not a reward, they are a pacing mechanism (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=28238.0). It touches the issue of non-challenge as well.

I see no "your chance to step on up, bud" in D&D 4e, I see "nobody is useless" and "you can choose a few different tactical flavors of combatant". Mind you, in that regard it works great. It's a well-oiled encounter machine, family friendly, without teeth. If you ask me, the engine of the game absolutely isn't driven by the risk of death or competition. It's driven by living the hack&slash fantasy dream.

Now I must add that the most straightforward way to rack up the difficulty is simply postponing extended rests. The first encounter of a sequence will never be tough. It'll only get interesting past the fourth encounter or so.

What's interesting is that your explicit examples of joy come from pre-game character optimization. Creating a character build that works great, then showing it off during play. Is this the focus of your interest, or just part of a broader scope?


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Callan S. on July 23, 2009, 02:42:39 AM
When I ran 3.x ages ago, it was primarily because I found an online maze generator that would roll treasures and monsters for me, along with a nifty maze. Hell, it was a fun toy in itself. And when I plugged in party level, I would put in party level, say, +3 or +4? And it was typically three players in the group, so a man lower than a standard party. And the map generator would actually add on some party levels as it chose from a range. I did massage the maze a bit, but basically I'd often look at a monster and go "Your hot! Your a keeper!". Ah, the first level party hearing the rasping breath of a flesh golem behind a door...and thinking better of it...I think flesh golems were CR 7 or something. Then again I put a red dragon in our only game of 4E so far, telegraphed something hot and horrible was behind the door, and they still went in. I think they knew it was basically a one shot, though (Wish I had a map, monster and treasure generator for 4E...)

Anyway, what I mean to say is - a dire level of challenge? D&D now almost literally has a dial you can turn all the way up to thirty in 4E. If there was no risk of death, no, it was not a dire level of challenge, dear boy! Turn the dial up another notch/spin the wheel on the rack one more time!

Or, watering that down, why are you certain you were giving dire levels of challenge?


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Patrice on July 23, 2009, 07:35:44 AM
I see no "your chance to step on up, bud" in D&D 4e, I see "nobody is useless" and "you can choose a few different tactical flavors of combatant". Mind you, in that regard it works great. It's a well-oiled encounter machine, family friendly, without teeth. If you ask me, the engine of the game absolutely isn't driven by the risk of death or competition. It's driven by living the hack&slash fantasy dream.

That's the bright side of the exact same thing. If you get to the essence of what you're saying, you're saying that D&D4 (or 3.5 as far as I'm concerned) is not intended to fulfill a Gamist Creative Agenda. We've actually come to the point of Simulating the Gamist oddity with such a broad aim at the casual audience and such a fear of the hard-core that... the game isn't even Gamist anymore as such. No more Step on Up but Right to Dream. Do you see the twist in it? It's "we have the right to dream upon stepping on up", in which the Step on Up standard had become the genre of the simulation. It's still labeled as Challenge/Build/Guts/Taking Risks but it's just a label since no strategizing, no risk-taking, no character creation build really makes a difference enough to shine. There's but two options here: either D&D3.4 and 4 are failed Gamist endeavours or they are Sim-oriented games built upon the cheesy rip of the brand's original tremors. Back when we were heroes.

I've played D&D3.5 and 4 by the book more or less. And when the book didn't provide enough challenge, I've set all the encounter dials to "Hard". I admit I've not gone beyond that. I didn't remove the extended rests, I didn't crash the ceiling with the challenge level but if I did, would I be playing the same game? I consider as a weak solution you both guys telling me "look, you didn't try to play the game as it isn't intended, so that's your fault". Huhu? Now character building isn't everything, Jasper, I wholly agree with that, it's just what came as examples since I was thinking about WoW's WLK at the same time.

This being said, I can understand how and why players like playing this version of D&D, the Sim game in which we dream about challenges, but how long? Won't at some point the players realize the illusion of it? Okay now that's maybe addressing Sim at large and that's a bit silly of me but... To think of D&D as a purely Sim game breaks my heart a bit.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Adam Dray on July 23, 2009, 08:08:48 AM
Man, I think you're doing it wrong. If you don't find surviving 4E games challenging, then either your group is way smarter than mine or the challenges aren't sufficiently tough.

Daniel ran a 4E mini-campaign of 4 linked one-shot adventures. I played Tobias, a young and ideal cleric. I made suboptimal choices when I built him. These choices put the entire party at a severe disadvantage and almost got us all killed several times. Because we advanced three levels between each game (the progression was 1st, 4th, 7th, 10th, if I recall correctly), I had a chance to learn from my mistakes and correct them as I went. By the time we reached 10th level for the fourth session, we were all pretty well optimized and fighting well together. We had to earn that, though.

Let me point out that I believe 4E optimization is as much about optimizing the party composition and riffing off each other's powers as it is building a singularly strong character. I have never heard this "myth of competition between players." When people say D&D 4E strongly supports Gamist / Step On Up play, they don't mean competition between players. They mean challenge, which is related to competition but is a different beast. Even discounting the character build portion of play, one must admit that the tactical game offers challenge as a core part of play.

When you talk about balance ruining the game, do you mean the inability to find winning loopholes? I think 4E has a few of those, too, if that's what is fun for you. In any case, I have had a vastly different experience with 4E than you, apparently. From building a character optimally to using my powers optimally to functioning as an orchestrated party to win encounters, all of the 4E play I have encountered has offered rich opportunity for our Gamist agenda.

I'm not trying to talk you into liking the game or anything. Play something that pushes your buttons. I'm just saying that my friends and I seem to have exactly the opposite reaction to 4E than you did.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Patrice on July 23, 2009, 09:49:26 AM
Mmmh. My group is basically made of old-timers. People used to the 3.0 tactical thinking and to cooperative teamplay. They're good tacticians. Yet, since the random factor used to be high, they faced several huge drawbacks with every "edition" before the 3.5. After the 3.5 was released, that was gone. On a side note, it took us about a dozen sessions to level up to the 10th level with the 4th. That maybe explains a bit of the tactical mastery, I dunno. That's 4 sessions you're talking about. After 4 sessions, we were pretty happy with the 4th too.

That was before we understood how little choices mattered and how weak was the influence of our "tactical thinking". I take your point about team-building vs. char-building and admit, of course, that the challenge aspect of the Gamist agenda seems to be addressed throughout the game. But I maintain that deep down, it's not. Because the level of risk you take doesn't really matter, it's just your routine facing the encounter's routine

Addressing challenges implies choices in my opinion. Tactical choices pregnant with tactical outcomes. What you consider as choices are just plain mistakes. The first 2-3 sessions you still make them, but soon you learn enough and you contend with the routine. From that point on, there's no choice anymore. That's what I mean by balance ruining the game. That's where I feel the same about WoW in which, for each given class, the game gives you dozens of options, none of them being useful except one. It's another way of ruining the Step on Up system. When you get there, the game doesn't provide any thrill anymore, but a railroaded version of tactics in which you pretend to Step on Up. My point is that you actually don't. It's like "and the winner is... E-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y! Three cheers for everyone, you're all fantastic!".


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Adam Dray on July 23, 2009, 10:09:24 AM
I will definitely defer to you on certain technical issues about play, since you likely have more actual play experiences than I.

My main point though was that the challenges in D&D (especially 4E) are a group thing, not an individual thing. The Step on Up components are largely doing your part in the group. Did you guys feel that the challenges your party faced weren't challenging? Were there no, "Hey, we really smoked that monster!" or "Wow, we barely got away from that dragon" type moments?



Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Jasper Flick on July 23, 2009, 10:17:41 AM
Hi Patrice,

Just to be clear: I'm not judging out. I don't say you're doing anything wrong, neither am I implying that character optimization or anything like that is bad. I'm just trying to get a handle on your preferences.

Me showing the other side of the coin is basically acknowledging what you expierence, trying to shed light on why this is the case. D&D 4e has the two conflict of interest dials, as defined in Rons' Gamism essay, set to their lowest ever, and the book doesn't provide useful guidance for turning them up. That's what I concluded by reading the book and playing the game. So if you want to tune things up, you'll have to do it yourself and yes, you might end up playing Drifted D&D 4e.

Getting back to you, you said D&D 3.5e and 4e ruined it for you. Does this mean that D&D 3.0 did in fact provide what you want? Or do you harken back to older editions of D&D? Did you play D&D 3.0 a long time, or perhaps short enough that the disappointment just hadn't surfaced yet? I don't know, that's why I'm asking.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Patrice on July 23, 2009, 12:15:36 PM
Sure, Jasper, I wasn't assuming you were judging nor was I willing to exhibit my experience as some sort of point, Adam. That's the problem with the written media, I'm fine with you guys pointing things but I just can't spill emoticons all over the text to show I'm happy with this debate going on :).

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My main point though was that the challenges in D&D (especially 4E) are a group thing, not an individual thing. The Step on Up components are largely doing your part in the group. Did you guys feel that the challenges your party faced weren't challenging? Were there no, "Hey, we really smoked that monster!" or "Wow, we barely got away from that dragon" type moments?

This happened a bit because I kept maintaining pressure and tension, but after a while, I couldn't sustain the illusion ever. At the beginning, none of us had a good grasp of the system, and everything was very challenging but that phase didn't last very long and that's after that we began to get bored. If you want to get a feeling of challenge, you need to believe in it. To believe some of your skill weighted the balance so much that you won victory. The problem is that, at some point, we didn't anymore.

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Me showing the other side of the coin is basically acknowledging what you expierence, trying to shed light on why this is the case. D&D 4e has the two conflict of interest dials, as defined in Rons' Gamism essay, set to their lowest ever, and the book doesn't provide useful guidance for turning them up. That's what I concluded by reading the book and playing the game. So if you want to tune things up, you'll have to do it yourself and yes, you might end up playing Drifted D&D 4e.

It's maybe as simple and straightforward as you say: dials are so low that for us they can't fulfill our Gamist needs, mostly because of the "belief" I have mentionned earlier. I've come to realize through all this rambling that I price really high combination mechanics in Gamist designs and games. That's, in my opinion, the difference between 3.0 and 3.5 (aside from the whole OGL thing that fully allow and acknowledge whatever Drifting you're doing, up to allowing publishing it). The 3.0 has loopholes, which as such doesn't interest me, but allow tactical combinations. There is a chance for the unexpected. Now, I've maybe not played it long enough - 20? 25 sessions? - and I'm maybe identifying too much "tactical skill" and "combination". Will I give D&D4 another "drifted" chance? Yes. If only because I want to see where it leads. But in general, I prefer to go for another game if the game I'm playing needs too much drift to be good for my needs.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Callan S. on July 23, 2009, 03:02:04 PM
Hi Patrice,

Do the rules say you can't go five levels (or whatever) over party level, or do they just say that would be hard? If it says you can't, yeah, to do so would be ceasing to play D&D. But if it doesn't, then you would be playing the game, just in a poorly documented way. One of the (perhaps devious) things about D&D (pretty much any edition) is that you can never pin it down and say 'Well, because of X, it's bad/not for me/not for an agenda' because the game leaves a whole bunch of ambiguous options that someone can come along and say 'well, you could have done Y instead!'. D&D has evolved, essentially, to avoid standard methods of critique this way - perhaps a bit like the AIDS virus, that keeps changing so the immune system can't keep up (oh boy, am I gunna get in trouble). Every time you say X makes it bad, a Y way of doing it comes up. It's the game which miraculously can never fail - supposedly. And probably every other traditional RPG that followed in it's mould, too.

I'm not so much saying it's your fault - I'm more prompting an improvement in critique/immunilogical responce, because the game text is essentially designed to defeat conventional critique. You have to nail it at a more sublime level (which a half listening audience probably wouldn't get). My own is that it's more like a programming language and thus is essentially stone soup - I'm putting all the flavour, taste and heartyness in and the book does fuck all to add any of those things. That's why when I found that map generator it prompted quite a few games - because it put in the effort and I just did a little massaging. Even then mine suffers from "You could have bought supplements" and then I counter with "Why would I buy more stuff when I got nothing from the original product?" which is countered with "It was never designed to do that, because of X, Y and Z" and so on and so on.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Patrice on July 23, 2009, 03:35:37 PM
Thing is, Callan, my issue doesn't lay so much upon the challenges being not deadly enough as it lays upon the options being too limited. One damn stupid thing D&D designers didn't quite get (yes, I dare :) is that providing endless lists of powers don't actually provide more tactical choices. It's just providing more color upon an existing limited framework of powers (okay maybe they've got that after all and just want to sell power-filled books or whatever, I dunno). If I raise the challenge level, I'll just outright kill my PCs without providing more possibilities for Stepping on Up and Challenge. That won't give us the belief in how our tactical skills allowed us to win.

I love your use of random generators and the massaging part, it's a great way to twist the game. Or maybe to play it as another game entirely. It'll deserve a thread of its own someday :).


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Ayyavazi on July 23, 2009, 04:05:07 PM
Hey Patrice and Callan,

So, I like 4th edition. But don't worry. I'm amused by the aids comparison. It is so accurate its scary. And Patrice, I don't care that you dare call the designers stupid. They can be. They have a very focused brilliance, and when made aware of the other 99% of design, I think their brains shut down. But this topic isn't about bashing designers.

No tactics or skill? Really? How much have you compared and contrasted the power lists for classes within their element? That is, within their role of Defender, Striker, Leader, and Controller. Yes, the difference between classes with the same role is certainly a matter of flavor, and the choices amount to the same basic framework. But the little differences in tactics define the class. For example, a cleric has a balance of melee attack powers and ranged attack powers. The warlord has melee attack powers and ranged attack powers in the form of granting attacks to allies, which is just different enough to change the way a group would handle a given fight.

Likewise, within the individual power use, the powers are subtly different. There is a lot of overlap to be sure, and you are right that the level of difficulty keeps pace almost the entire time. But here's where the real strategy comes in: choosing powers as a group and thinking as a group about how to use them and when. Some powers move monsters around, others take advantage of that movement. Some powers afflict an enemy with a status, others take advantage of it. The challenge in 4th is not individual achievement, but group achievement through group tactics, all the way from character creation up through actual play.

Another instance is in the limit to use of your abilities. You only get to use encounter powers once each encounter, and dailies once each in game day. So, as the game day wears on, dailies thin out and characters have to rely on their bread and better to see them through. And if they are trying to rest to get them back, give them a hard time occasionally. Interrupt their sleep, give them no good location, give them a story that has to be completed in the next six hours of in game time. So, when do the players use their dailies? Do you coordinate, or just wait for something tough to show up and blow 'em all at the same time? And what about encounters?

I have more but have to go.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Callan S. on July 23, 2009, 04:35:37 PM
Thing is, Callan, my issue doesn't lay so much upon the challenges being not deadly enough as it lays upon the options being too limited. One damn stupid thing D&D designers didn't quite get (yes, I dare :) is that providing endless lists of powers don't actually provide more tactical choices. It's just providing more color upon an existing limited framework of powers (okay maybe they've got that after all and just want to sell power-filled books or whatever, I dunno). If I raise the challenge level, I'll just outright kill my PCs without providing more possibilities for Stepping on Up and Challenge. That won't give us the belief in how our tactical skills allowed us to win.
Okay, here's another way the D&D virus adapts - it's not about the tactics, it's about the guts! Just choosing to face up to the odds is step on up! Of course, the design gives you a whole lot of 'choices' which don't add up to much (A +2 to hit is going to affect things...10% of the time...so 10% of the time you step on up...), so it doesn't quite make sense as to why all that's there if its about guts of facing the odds. But at the same time you can't say it doesn't have gutsy gamism!

Observe the meme mutate and adapt!

Ya gotta nail it in a more fundimental way than that.

Mind you, in another thread of mine I proposed making a program that generated 100 random rules and someone said groups could find a way in such a game. I was gobsmacked! If a hundred, genuinely random rules isn't by general consensus considered crap, can anything be considered crap?

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I love your use of random generators and the massaging part, it's a great way to twist the game. Or maybe to play it as another game entirely.
Nay! The monster tables are optional! Massaging their results does not mean I ceased to play the game as they are optional results! *sarcasm upon myself intended, even as I did this and as a group we enjoyed it for several levels*


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: contracycle on July 23, 2009, 05:35:20 PM
In a way D&D seems to me inversely gamist.  The toughest, riskiest, seat-of-your-pants conflict happens at 1st-3rd level.  Advancing an armourless mage to cast Sleep on a bunch of goblins is both risky and decisive.  Trading sword blows with anyone when you have say 10-14 hp is inherently risky.  By 10th level, not so much.  They've got +3 sword and stuff and you have 100hp.  If you roll 10d6 for fireball and lightning bolt, it is more likely to fall on the mean than if you rolled 6d6.  Things get steadily more aggregated, less decisive, more attritional as you level.  And then you take that and add a challenge rating system that scales opposition, and you end up with a largely pointless treadmill.  All that really changes as you level is the special effects; if anything the combat itself becomes more and more grind-like, with less and less opportunity for a single action, or even dumb luck, to change the course of events.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Patrice on July 24, 2009, 01:40:14 AM
Contracycle, I think you may be referring to former editions of the game here. What I've noticed with D&D4 is rather "it's too hard to grasp and too easy to master". The first sessions were slaughterhouses, mayhem, sheer player killing madness. But as soon as the players got the idea, with all the elements Ayyavazi is referencing (teamplay, synergic use of powers and abilities, timing of limited use powers), the game lost its interest. From a distance, it seems they match into strategy thinking, but they don't. When we got back into level 1 with this knowledge, the adventure wasn't a match anymore.

Your reactions, Ayyavazi and Callan, as well as the fact I've just stressed, make me think that, as Jasper pointed it, the game is maybe Gamist brand after all, but with dials set at such a low level that it loses its interest for more committed gamers. When you tell me, Callan, (and that's basically what Ayyavazi is also telling) that good tactics grant me 10% to shine and change the challenge facts, I lose all interest in it. Especially since this good tactics is a standard use of your powers, as easy to put in motion as if it had dropped straight from the book.

So, as I wonder why I lose interest I've come to think that the game prevents Gotchas! and doesn't rely upon combo logics. It's not just a matter of scope, it's the level of detailed thinking involved to refrain players (DM included) from anything able to swing more than this 10% change in the challenge. That's why I've called this thread "Balance killed my game". I think the Guild Wars engine (will you allow me to compare Tabletop RPG and video games engines?) is a good example of what renders the opposite choice in design: thousands of options that DO matter, much alike M:TG. It combines personal options and team options with full efficiency, even giving way to whatever cunning players will find to tweak it. D&D4 is a pretense of that, but the real thing doesn't even fall close to combination use, it actually forbids it (I have yet to check what the hybrid classes will open, though).

Granted then, it's probably just a matter of scale. I don't call a 10% change a change, others do. Mind, it's a matter of scale in Efficiency (Forge meaning).

One more thing, I'm not trying to tell the whole game sucks at all. There are a few brilliant ideas inside and if you take the whole tactical choice thing as a way to "style" your character and team, you sure have a lot to play with. What turns me off is that these choices eventually matter so little in the task resolution that, as far as my Gamist needs (habits?) are concerned, they're pointless.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Adam Dray on July 24, 2009, 06:15:19 AM
What design change would you make to 4E to solve this problem?


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Patrice on July 24, 2009, 07:28:45 AM
I would push the hybrid logics to an extreme and open the powers to a wider range of classes (maybe re-defining what classes are), allowing the characters to fully combine them. I would then link the powers to the level further than Increase damage to 2[W] + Stat modifier at 21st level and I would open up all the powers much earlier level-wise, or maybe even totally disconnect them from the level (and the class?) as far as the fact of gaining them is concerned (not their efficiency as you've read). You could also gain unique powers during adventures, why not? Given this, I have combos. I would then provide the GM more rules-based capacities to alter the flow of challenges without the whole thing resting upon her fiat. That would both reduce the GM stance and provide her more fuel for the challenges.

To make it short, I would use more M:TG logics in D&D, maybe up to the point of the character's capacities and the GM Gotchas! being a deck. The funny thing with WoTC is that they do head in that direction, but almost backwards: they provide a power deck but it's just a tool. My first instinct with the WoTC's power decks is to say to my players : "okay, now shuffle them and play" but it doesn't work like this.

Now, this is too much a gargantuan (to keep using D&D jargon :) task for me to do it just for my session's sake and that won't save my game at the moment. The single rule change I could make at the moment is to tell my players: "okay, you have no class, please pick your powers anywhere you like" but this would become nightmarish because of weapons, armors, hit points, skills, surges, class-based abilities and the like and the powers haven't been designed to be combo-friendly. GM-wise, it's way easier since it's just about adventure design in which you include the challenge alterations you wish. It can be handled with adventure design, given the tools don't exist at the moment to make it happen on the fly but it's still too much balanced, it's either "you win" if I set the proper dials or "you're all dead" if I crash them. So eventually, success or failure is almost up to me as a GM, which isn't satisfactory for anyone.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Callan S. on July 24, 2009, 04:30:39 PM
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that won't save my game

You know that movie, "The money pit", I think it was called?

I think, especially given the fictional level and what, perhaps quite deep, creations we might make, it easily ends up being a money pit. Keep throwing in good effort after bad, because there's this special creation at its heart that's too special to let go of. Do you think that's applicable at all?


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Patrice on July 25, 2009, 12:51:44 AM
Let me see if I've got you right: D&D would be the million dollar house bought for $200,000 only to realize the effort needed to maintain and upkeep it will cost a million?

If that is so, yes, it's a bit like The Money Pit. Historical reasons, a bit of nostalgia, a remnant of fandom and a cluster of habits kept us trying and trying a game which, eventually isn't satisfactory for us. If that is what you say, Callan, yeah, it's about time to let go because the level of effort involved to restore the game would make us unable to have our fun with it. Didn't that happen, at some point, for most of us here?


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Patrice on July 25, 2009, 12:53:12 AM
And yes of course, the "let go" thing is very strongly stressed with sentences like "MY" game on the other side. It isn't, you're right.

Sorry for double-posting.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Ron Edwards on July 27, 2009, 08:06:25 AM
Here's an older thread which speaks to this topic: The Grognard Speaks: System and Step on Up in OD&D (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=12288.0).

Best, Ron


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Guy Srinivasan on July 27, 2009, 03:33:28 PM
AFAICT you have the same issues I have with 4e's tactical combat minigame: when any single combat encounter is viewed as a board game (i.e. translating all narrative and non-narrative goals into the objective function of the transformed game and then looking at the result as you would look at winning Puerto Rico or Settlers of Catan or something), except possibly for some exceptionally well constructed encounters, it makes a pretty subpar game. All over the place there are decision points for which it's very easy to separate your possible actions into "superb", "good", and "bad", there are none in the "superb" category, there are lots in the "good" category, and choosing one of the "good" options rather than another barely changes the outcome at all. This setup makes for massive analysis paralysis problems with not a lot of emotional payoff (from the boardgamey part of play, not talking about story or premise or whatnot here).

Thus far I have thought of 3 fixes.

1) Do not view single combat encounters as a board game. Instead, view something larger as a board game, like stretches between extended rests, or something. That particular view is currently unsupported by the RAW since there are no guidelines on when extended rests should occur, just how long they must take when they do occur. The advantage to this is that if set up well it would change minor efficiency gains in a single combat encounter into major gains in the <whatever the larger thing is>. I think 4e has the capacity to make decisions leading to minor efficiency gains meaningful in the sense that you're talking about, but the visceral feedback might be too amorphous - while the fact that you saved your daily without much opportunity cost might make it 40% more probable you can survive 6+ instead of 5 combat encounters this <larger>, the feedback just doesn't feel as good as "hey look I can stack your action point bonus with my extra move action!" to me.

I haven't been able to come up with a good coherent set of houserules to make this work well.

2) Do not view single combat encounters as a board game. Do not bring the expectation of sweet combos or crafty tricks to the battlemat. While this would work to fix the problem (it's what I do now as a player), it's fairly hard for humans to change their expectations on a dime, and it certainly doesn't solve anything if you're looking for "sweet combos and crafty tricks in a tactical combat minigame" rather than "feeling good about 4e's tactical combat minigame".

3) Find a class of terrain features or non-kill-them-all objectives that reliably does translate to a game where 4e's options are meaningful. Again, I haven't been able to come up with something yet. My intuition is that if something like this exists then it will be in the realm of movement - for some examples, see here (http://at-will.omnivangelist.net/forums/topic.php?id=57). Most objectives I've thought about or tried are either movement based (boiling down to go here! then here! then there! maybe spend some minor actions!) or if played correctly (again, board game sense) are not interesting (save this low-hp NPC from dying is impossible without the enemies acting very suboptimally, save this high-hp NPC is usually trivial, naive escape is either double-run or if that wouldn't work just kill-them-all, etc).


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Frank Tarcikowski on July 28, 2009, 01:31:30 AM
It’s very true that when all choices are equal, choices are irrelevant. I’ve only played D&D4 once, and never read the rules, but I don’t think all choices are equal in that game. As I know WLK much better, I think I know what you’re really about. The point is not that choices are irrelevant. The point is that anyone can do it. Blizzard, with WLK, and Wizards, with D&D4, have made their games more accessible, and less hard.

Back in the day of Classic WoW, when levelling to 60 took forever and some classes could not be levelled sensibly at all, and you needed 40 people and tanks with full fire resistance gear to even begin thinking of raiding Molten Core, or six hours for a clear run of Blackrock Depths – that was a game for fanatics! The effort required was utter madness. And even in BC, when I first tried to get together my tank equip for raiding, I did a 12 part quest chain with a 5 member group quest at the end just to get a rare shield (in WLK, I’ll just spend a few hundred Gold on mats and get me a blacksmith to craft an epic one). The first heroes were really edge-of-my-seat, one-little-mistake-and-we’ll-wipe. I actually found it a bit too hard.

Now, I don’t know how well this translates back to older editions of D&D. When we played AD&D2 back in the 80’s we were kinda clueless so I can’t really judge the game. I never played 3.x. However, my point is, if challenge is part of a game design, you are setting a threshold for the amount of effort and dedication which is required to play the game successfully. Blizzard have lowered this threshold considerably with BC and again with WLK. They are making WoW accessible to more casual players, on the downside exhausting the content much quicker. However, they did provide some challenge for the hardcore players, by way of some very hard dungeon/raid achievements (like Sartharion 3D) or the Hardmodes in Ulduar.

In D&D4, such challenges for the hardcore players may be lacking. So maybe the very reason why it’s fun to many players who weren’t much into this sort of game before is also the reason why it’s not fun to you any more: It’s just too easy. I daresay balance is not the issue here.

- Frank


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Patrice on July 28, 2009, 05:28:09 AM
The threshold thing sure comes into what repels me but I want to rephrase it according to my experience: it's not so much about the choices being easy than about the choices being actually offering fake options. If you take the WLK example, you can play, say, a single class in two, maybe three different ways. Can you tweak it further? No. The game offers a vast gem and enchantment management system that eventually comes to the same conclusion: there's just one way to do it right and be efficient. In D&D4, it's a bit the same except that in addition, even bad choices are rewarded almost equally. I don't want my pain, nor the hardcore thing, I want to use my creativity when playing.

One thing we seem to forget a bit too often when it comes to Gamist roleplaying games is that... They're roleplaying games. In theThe Grognard Speaks: System and Step on Up in OD&D (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=12288.0)thread Ron is referencing, Sean underlines this when he gets to explain the underlying social mechanics of pre-2nd Edition AD&D and their negociated structure. That's where roleplaying actually hides. He eventually gets to say that:

Quote
I loved this style of play, but I realize now that what I loved was the social feedback loop of doing creative things and getting positive feedback for my creativity and giving it for the creativity of others. OD&D 'facilitated' this by essentially giving you nothing to go on for this part of the game. Yet without this stuff, the game is just a bad wargame.

Ron is adding there:

Quote
The guys I was playing with had never seen anything like this before. They were 18-21, all come to role-playing via Magic: the Gathering, and generally pretty skilled at picking Feat combos as they levelled up. They also understood bullying that went straight to Social Contract: "My way or I'll stop being your friend," basically. But this was ... by the rules! But it bypassed the rules! But it was by the rules! Sput!!

There's two styles of play here, both equally relevant: the former negociated play and the combo-based M:TG boardgame-like system. When D&D4 went straight into the second, as do most online RPGs, I thought that that would be an opportunity to test those combo mechanics applied to actual roleplaying. My expectations weren't met since the combo-based system is just a pretense of combo while 3.0 still allowed some good Feat synergy and the roleplaying side has been totally depleted by the extensive covering they've done of all the conflicts that were negociated before.

I've come to think that the whole inherited design idea holding sway upon the 3.5 and the 4th looks like "when the rules cover everything, when all shade is dismissed, we have a good design". I say, quite the contrary, you've lost everything that gave fuel and power to your game as far as the player's creativity is concerned. When I look back at the T&T save rolls, at former editions of D&D and AD&D or at Lejendary Adventures maybe, I fully agree with the conclusions both Sean and Ron shared in the aforementioned topic that a cleverness feedback loop drives the Step on Up system of those games. Roleplaying hid in the misty parts of the rules, but was core in everything.

Now, removing all creativity options and creative power from the players of a roleplaying game is the worst possible flaw ever, even if such creativity was intented for Step on Up only. Looking at it this way, I find the GSL consistent with this creativity denial. What's left is a board game or a wargame. Since I'm not a natural enemy of wargames, having played quite a lot of those during the years, I'm open to the idea but I expect a wargame to provide me, at least, with opportunities to put my wits in action. That's not the case with the 4th for all the reasons I've mentioned earlier.

Sorry to answer you that bluntly, Guy, your ideas sure look good but... They seem to me a bit like the Money Pit Callan was writing about. Why would you spend such an amount of time and energy to transform a game that, deep down, doesn't meet your expectations? Why wouldn't you design one yourself or just pick another, more suitable to your tastes and needs?

One funny effect of this long rambling is that it took me back into the retro-gaming systems blossoming these days: OSRIC, C&C, S&W, LL and LJ. I've always thought of retro-gaming as of a kind of nostalgia but what if actually, less was more? Ideas still linger in my mind that suit this media since they involve gaming fantasy more than sword & sorcery fantasy and for these ideas (and these ideas only), I'll take a long peek into these systems instead of trying to carve them in a system that obviously isn't designed for the kind of play I like.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Frank Tarcikowski on July 28, 2009, 06:11:39 AM
Okay, I see what you are saying. I think two very different kinds of creativity should be kept apart: There is one type of creativity that is all about the SIS, about plausibility/in-game logic, about clever tactics that make use of Situation (as in “Elements of Exploration”) via Positioning. That’s the one that gets sung all the “old school” hymns. Sean calls it “avoiding the rules” in the linked thread, I would rather call it “working with the fiction”. The other type of creativity is all about the games’ mechanics, about looking carefully at the mathematics and procedures of play, about clever tactics that make use of System via Resources. I would call that “working with the rules”. Both of these are rewarded through Effectiveness.

So, working with the fiction requires that the rules leave space for it. That doesn’t necessarily mean they do not cover it at all, but it means they build on the SIS. This has been called “the fiction leads”. Whereas working with the rules means that the rules lead.

From what I have read, in D&D 3.x you had the rules leading, but they were complex enough that rules mastery needed to be earned (and was rewarded). It seems that this effect was enhanced by the fact that finding a good build was the entire point of rules mastery, whereas applying that build in actual play was fairly straightforward. And if your build was weak, well, you sucked. In D&D4, it seems to me there are no “weak builds” as such, it’s more a matter of how you make do with what you’ve got once the minis hit the flip mat.

Yet another point you mention is the “obvious best build”. I would define the existence of such an “obvious best build” as a lack of balancing, but that’s a question of how you define balancing. The problem with D&D and even more so with WoW is the sheer mass of fanatic nerds who will have it all figured out in a matter of days and post it all over the internet. WoW as an engine is quite complex, but if you’ve got your Elitist Jerks DPS spreadsheet and some guys who will test various rotations on Patchwerk the very day the patch comes out, well, who can compete with that?

It’s a bit like Chess openings. You can’t be smarter than generations of grand masters. You play the first couple of moves by the book, full stop. That’s kind of like where WoW is today, and where D&D 3.x seems to have ended up, too. I don’t mind that, but you seem to.

- Frank


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Guy Srinivasan on July 28, 2009, 07:31:10 AM
Quote
1) View a combat encounter as part of a longer resource loop
2) Do not expect that 4e's combat is Magic the Gathering type awesome
3) Find simple, general best practices that make a single combat encounter crafty-combo-supportive

Sorry to answer you that bluntly, Guy, your ideas sure look good but... They seem to me a bit like the Money Pit Callan was writing about. Why would you spend such an amount of time and energy to transform a game that, deep down, doesn't meet your expectations? Why wouldn't you design one yourself or just pick another, more suitable to your tastes and needs?

See option 2. :D I am in a social situation which gives me decent-sized incentives to play D&D 4e, and I imagine it's not an uncommon situation. As such the path of least resistance, for me, is to figure out what 4e actually offers me and bring correct expectations to the table. The ideal outcome is that option 1 or 3 worked without money-pit effort, so I put some effort into it. Stalker0 (http://savevspointystick.blogspot.com/2009/04/avoiding-grind-in-d.html) has put more.

And of course option 3 is virtually indistinguishable from "design one yourself"...

But take a good look at option 2 again. I assumed 4e was at least in part as you described:

Looking at it this way, I find the GSL consistent with this creativity denial. What's left is a board game or a wargame. Since I'm not a natural enemy of wargames, having played quite a lot of those during the years, I'm open to the idea but I expect a wargame to provide me, at least, with opportunities to put my wits in action. That's not the case with the 4th for all the reasons I've mentioned earlier.

and came away with the conclusion that 4e is a terrible wargame (board game). But when I instead assume that those parts of 4e are not a board game, a very different picture emerges. First of all, outside of combat things seem fine. The GM (+players, depending) puts the PCs in interesting situations, you all describe what your characters are doing, the GM adjudicates the world's response, and if she feels like the fiction calls for it, can call for skill checks of various sorts. The rules don't give the GM a lot of assistance in prep or run, but those are different considerations, and as discussed partly useful from a fiction-leading stance. Now look at combat encounters through the lens of option 2. If all (okay, not all, but lots and lots) of my options in combat are acceptable from a standpoint of beating up the monsters, then why constrain myself to build a super-effective-at-beating-up-the-monsters character (or party)? I can trade away the minimal gains in Effectiveness for Positioning instead (or huge gains in out-of-combat Effectiveness). Same thing during play. My most fun 4e combat encounter experiences have all shared the quality that everyone at the table (as far as I could tell) didn't include beat-up-the-monsters-as-hard-as-possible as part of the Gamism going on, in direct contrast to my most fun wargame experiences.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Frank Tarcikowski on July 28, 2009, 07:58:14 AM
P.S.:

One funny effect of this long rambling is that it took me back into the retro-gaming systems blossoming these days: OSRIC, C&C, S&W, LL and LJ. I've always thought of retro-gaming as of a kind of nostalgia but what if actually, less was more? Ideas still linger in my mind that suit this media since they involve gaming fantasy more than sword & sorcery fantasy and for these ideas (and these ideas only), I'll take a long peek into these systems instead of trying to carve them in a system that obviously isn't designed for the kind of play I like.

Personally, I have found that Savage Worlds is a modern game with a very well developed design which supports the "old school" style of play (with the fiction leading) very well. I highly recommend it. It's not retro, though.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Patrice on July 28, 2009, 11:02:12 AM
I totally agree about clearly grasping the differences the two terms of Effectiveness I've brought in and you've explained (much better than I would). On one side we have making use of Situation via Positioning, working with the fiction and on the other making use of System via Resources, working with the rules. As a matter of fact, I like both styles, with different aims and ways about each. Thing is, opportunities to work with the fiction are pretty low in D&D4, for all the reasons I've put forward earlier, System coverage being the foremost ; and attempts to make use of System via Resources lead to such tiny outcomes in Effectiveness that, given my expectations (which I fully acknowledge), this doesn't lead to relevant Effectiveness at all. Of course, everything lays in the "relevant" part, which is widely a matter of taste and game expectations.

Build isn't the only point here, combat routine is also an issue. In most D&D4 Situations, the combat, the pushing the minis and grid play subsumes to an applied routine. Of course, encounter design makes a whole world of difference but eventually, you get caught again in a fixed series of patterns. I want my tactical mind to matter, or my Positioning and fiction-building, whatever, but I eventually want wits to matter at some point. In chess, there comes a point where you HAVE to think, in pre 2nd Ed AD&D, there came a point where you had to be cunning, or to have guts, or maybe sheer luck. Even in WoW, you still get that from some Achievements and from the Ulduar patch, etc. I keep looking and looking and can't find it in D&D4.

Except from Guy's perspective. Granted, Guy, the second options pays good enough to keep your game sparkling a bit. But this is mainly a game writer option. Looking at Stalker0 awesome examples, or at whatever the D&D Insider brought, I can see, of course, that extreme Situation tweaking can produce interesting encounters. My point  is that:

1. This is obviously rules-tweaking, almost a Drift since at some point, these Situations often involve side rules and new crunch.
2. This all lays in the designer's skill. You can GM this with huge prep, you can write like this (that's what I did actually) but you have no choice as a player whether to get this or not.

In summary, this is another way of saying "okay, let's play this game in such a way that it wouldn't suck". To me, this sounds very much like "this game sucks but I've got no other choice than playing it". And that's what you say when you talk about your social situation, I think Callan's thread about Warhammer! Chaos! Order! Molasses! (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=28222.0) might be handy here. Moreover, if you trade Step on Up for Positioning to that extend, you end up playing some simulation of D&D. This might be cool a few sessions, but this is also how I got bored to death at the end.

Yes, Franck, Savage Worlds is a great other option here, thanks for mentioning it.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Callan S. on July 28, 2009, 04:04:16 PM
The threshold thing sure comes into what repels me but I want to rephrase it according to my experience: it's not so much about the choices being easy than about the choices being actually offering fake options. If you take the WLK example, you can play, say, a single class in two, maybe three different ways. Can you tweak it further? No. The game offers a vast gem and enchantment management system that eventually comes to the same conclusion: there's just one way to do it right and be efficient. In D&D4, it's a bit the same except that in addition, even bad choices are rewarded almost equally. I don't want my pain, nor the hardcore thing, I want to use my creativity when playing.
I'll just note that a sedoku only has one way of doing it as well and that works.

What's happenening here is that with the enchantment system the answer has already been found. It's game over, except no big sign comes up to say congratulations, bravo, and this is the end ... because it's a mmorpg and they don't want your money going anywhere soon.

D&D (and many other trad RPG's) try and be without end as well. Can you complete D&D4E? No, and yet you give account of basically having figured it out. Perhaps it's the lack of being able to complete the game which is a major issue?



Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: JoyWriter on July 30, 2009, 05:55:39 PM
Patrice, imagine you design a brand new game for you and your friends. What parts might you want to rip out of D&D4e? I ask this because I hope it should solve all the money trap stuff. Just say your not playing D&D, but that it has simularities where it is good, then you can get right back into design.

Now on the design front, sounds like you solved the game as you played it. Just like Draughts becomes mechanical when it has been solved, so does this game. Now think about this strange idea; telling you how to challenge your players will tell them how to win, because it will make you predictable, so to an extent the game cannot support you much there! You need to inject the unpredictable, to dial up the complexity.

Now I'd keep all those parts of the game that could interact with that complexity, and allow you to make good moment to moment decisions, like the movement/grid stuff and presumably the stunting and ritual rules too. I'd add in more complex spatial arrangement stuff, so you're suddenly playing bejewelled or something with the monsters while fighting them. And I'd use the ebberon setting and play it like it's ocean's eleven meets shadowrun! With lots of planning and double dealing. And meanwhile there would be a mystery to solve. That should get the complexity up!

But on the analysis front, isn't it a tragedy that you can now make combat choices with almost no mechanical difference? Well not to me; I've been trying to make my own D&D-ish game for a bit and I wanted to even out "the stats" from various perspectives, so no-one would go "I am a ___ so I must always have high ____" I did this so that people had space in the rules to pick a multitude of different takes on the same subject. But I still made a basic paper scissors thing between the different types, although who knows if that will work out well yet. The point is that by "balancing" you make space for the choice to be about something other than the optimal for winning. So if those choices are not being used in your game, don't implement them, they are there for someone else, collapse them into one choice, or make the differences matter.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Patrice on July 31, 2009, 02:21:10 AM
There's one very interesting issue here. You tell me that, if I make the choices even, what I get is aimed at another goal than designing an optimal (whether build-based or situation-based) for winning. That's very true, I get color, I get background, I get flavor, I buy some limitations to carve my character's ways in a more specific way, a way that has no real consequence as far as the mechanics are concerned. This all screams of Creative Agenda-related issues!

More and more contributors here brought the same idea: choices are even and that's cool because it helps me to flesh out my character in what's specific to her peculiar style, to make her lively and special. Doesn't that ring a bell? This is Right to Dream logics! And what do you dream about? About your character facing challenges in a gaming fantasy setting. Do you actually really face the challenges in order to win? No.

This is looping back to D&D history. This is "let's dream we're playing D&D".

Of course, drifting it allows great content (look at your other Right to Dream Eberron/Shadowrun example) and even allows to push back winning logics inside as Guy explained it, with all the cool Stalker0 examples. Yes, I can find a way to design meaningful win-lose challenges in D&D4, I did it for some materials but eventually, I'm playing a game that readily supports another CA than mine. Your ideas to drift it with bare-bone simple mechanics is another track, taking the challenge back into the game with simple tactical frames. This is a great idea, which, as far as I'm concerned, is much akin to all the retro-clones I was highlighting. It's much easier to do this with, say, Swords & Wizardry White Box, than with D&D4 monty haul of rules.

So to get back to what Callan brought, its duration as far as win-lose is concerned is pretty short. There comes the Dream thing that might allow another extend. Waw, Eberron/Shadowrun and Ocean's Eleven! For how long? Or rather, for how many products?


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Callan S. on July 31, 2009, 03:38:08 AM
Quote
This is Right to Dream logics! And what do you dream about? About your character facing challenges in a gaming fantasy setting. Do you actually really face the challenges in order to win? No.
Oh yeah, I see alot of that! Having more complexity so as to dream more richly, rather than to directly face a challenge.


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: JoyWriter on July 31, 2009, 03:53:04 PM
I didn't really mean it that way Callan, I was saying that if the choice tree is expanded with strategically equivalent options to accommodate more "right to dream" stuff, then the strategic complexity is not as great as it first appears. So it can be solved by squishing equivalent choices together, and adding on new rules dynamics that make the choices mean more. In slightly more abstract language, you add an extra dimension to the strategy space, by attaching it to the unused degree of freedom we have observed in the rules set. And this additional level of strategic choice should not be a general and front-loaded one; "Pick your eye colour as green or you get half hitpoints" but which is attached to the various situations that the characters approach, such as ways of making spatial orientation more relevant, using the information already supplied by 4e's focus on a visible board.

That's the kind of thing I'm getting at, plugging consequence into the choice system in a responsive way. One of the reasons I picked Ebberron was for the density of plot based manoeuvring that can easily go on considering all the various groups, lots of different elements of what you do will mean something to some group, and so are imbued with tactical significance. I suppose another example setting might be over the edge, although I haven't played that, just because settings with that much density of moving structures are often easier to turn into whirling puzzles of incredible complexity, possibly to the point where you loose track of it, but mainly because you can be fairly confident players can manoeuvre themselves out of your more absurd traps, because they can use those interactions too.

One day, my game will actually do all that, until then I'm hacking whatever I can find to create rule support for it!


Title: Re: [D&D]Balance killed my game
Post by: Callan S. on July 31, 2009, 08:01:33 PM
I think if your attaching things more directly to some overall win condition, yeah, that fits. But if your trying to add tactical significance or meaning or consequences kind of as if they exist outside of win conditions, it's all just adding to the dream of tactical significance, meaning and consequences. What is tactically significant or meaningful is shown by whether you win or who wins - you might think somethings meaningful all game, only to find it pointless at the end in relation to winning. If you don't have a win condition to dispell that idea of meaningfulness...BING, there you go, the dream cannot be dispelled. That's dream support.