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Author Topic: Challenge the Player, not the Stat Block (D&D)  (Read 7018 times)
contracycle
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Posts: 2984


« Reply #30 on: May 22, 2009, 01:05:37 AM »

Here's my point of view: it's impossible to challenge a stat-block.

I disagree.  The bit I think you are missing is that the stat block can be so weighty, so significant, that player decisions matter very little.  If you do something that gains a +1 in D&D, this only a 5% change in the odds, almost all of which are determined pre-play.  Even with an active player making decisions, the sheer mass of the system calculations takes much of the outcome out of the players hands.

Many other systems are not so weighty, have more decisive and less attritional exchanges, and are more sympathetic to situational modifiers, which allows in-game events, player description and decision, to be much more significant.  That, IMO, really can be a challenge to the player in a way in which two stat blocks whittling each other down can not.

Quote
I guess I've GMed too many games that eventually turned gamist despite their promising beginnings.

And that's a Bad Thing, is it?
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otspiii
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« Reply #31 on: May 22, 2009, 08:55:16 AM »

This is actually something I've been struggling with, myself.  A problem I've had with a lot of my RP experiences is that the challenge is all at the start, during character creation.  Game-play turns into me watching the stat-robot I created make it's way through the challenge the GM has created.  Success or failure becomes a die roll, not a choice backed up by a die roll.  Obviously this isn't how the whole session goes, usually, but it can be a problem with the stat-heavy bits, like combat.  Non-magical fighters are especially vulnerable to this, as a lot of the time combat just turns into parking your character next to your opponent and seeing who runs out of HP first.  Even worse, these combats can take hours to resolve under some systems, during which the players really don't have any meaningful input.

I've come up with a few ways around this, but they're all risky in their own ways.  Giving the players multiple 'balanced' options can bring more of the challenge to the gameplay, rather than the character creation.  I think this is what 4th ed D&D is all about, and I think it succeeds fairly well.  The danger to this is that it only adds a bit of extra player-challenge.  A lot of the time the best choice is still obvious, and the player's input goes from strategy to 'not picking the obviously inferior choice'.

Re-enforcing cleverness with stat bonuses can work, but is tricky.  Let's say a character has a +6 to persuasion.  Giving the character another +2 on top of that +6 if the player himself gives a persuasive argument brings the strategic wiggle room into the present fairly well, but it's really difficult keeping this sort of judgment from being arbitrary.  Accusations of GM favoritism and other inter-player problems flow easy from this solution.  Over long periods of time, especially, it can be hard to be consistent with player rewards.

The type of 'old school' puzzle you guys have been talking about is another solution, where the challenge is a riddle or non-stat-based trap or even a physical puzzle to put together.  I feel like this solution, done badly, can be super dangerous.  Gameplay can easily degenerate into games of "read the GM's mind to figure out the solution to this puzzle he decided on or watch your character die".  I've heard horror story after horror story of games just completely derailed due to the players not being able to figure out a 'clever' riddle or puzzle.

The way I usually run my games is actually somewhat like Vulpinoid said earlier.  Throw some moral or non-stat-based strategic choices at the players, then make them back up their choice with some stat-rolling.  If they fail the stat-rolling it doesn't negate their choice, it just accentuates the potential negatives their choice entails.  The danger of this method is when the choices take 5 minutes and the rolling takes 3 hours.  The more stat-heavy the game is the grimmer this method works out to be.
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AzaLiN
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« Reply #32 on: May 22, 2009, 11:16:33 AM »

I agree a lot with Otspiii here: I want the challenge to occur during play. Otherwise, actual game-play is lacking one of the most important elements, and becomes more of a testing ground in a battle-of-the-builds scenario- suitable for MTG, but not for most RPGs.
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greyorm
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« Reply #33 on: May 22, 2009, 12:10:45 PM »

Heh…don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying JM’s blog is THE way to play.  I’m just saying I think some of his observations are right on…and I don’t think he’s presenting something as THE way to play...

That may be, I was just responding to the quotes provided which come off (to me) as sounding like "Back in the old days, we ALL did it THIS way..." And I distrust his observations on those grounds, though I think there is something to them in terms of reporting a particular style of game you've identified here as "player challenge", which I recall received a great deal of air time back in the day. However...

Quote
When I say challenge the player, I’m talking intellectual challenge…I mean, it’s an intellectual game right? Hitting monsters isn’t based on your ability to do push-ups and a bard’s charming ability isn’t based on YOUR ability to sing!

That's the question, though, isn't it? Is it really an intellectual game? Why is my character's puzzle-solving ability dependent on my puzzle-solving ability?

Truth-be-told, I hated puzzle-solving in our OD&D games. Every game I can recall that had any aspect of puzzle-solving to it, either as a player or as a GM, failed miserably, either in grumbled frustration or even where we lost players (I was rather quickly cured of trying to "intellectually challenge the players with cunning stuff" because it kept seriously back-firing in our groups. No one wanted it, no one enjoyed it particularly much).

Which has led me to think that what we're looking at here is a GNS sort-of thing: a different strokes situation. Yes, some people liked the puzzle aspect, the intellectual aspect of figuring out what you could do with that ten-foot pole and a few iron spikes. But some people didn't, and were there to role-play -- damn the puzzles, damn the combats, damn it all -- it wasn't about whether you could "think" your way cleverly through the dungeon, it was about "playing make-believe".

It seems we're looking at the different ways in which different groups used, abandoned, or otherwise altered the rules to provide for differing ways to play and achieve various goals. Historically, I'm thinking the style you're talking about is firmly a descendant of the war-gaming ancestor of RPGs -- which is all about the personal, intellectual challenge to the player, pushing little men around on a board, making tactical decisions, trying to figure out how to win the engagement.

Later, people said "Hey, let's pretend we are these minis running about and have personalities and everything" -- ie: role-playing the invented characters, because that was what they wanted out of the game, and changing its nature significantly from its war-gaming roots (there was significant flak spewed over this as I recall, with war-gamers calling role-players various icky names for polluting their hobby with nonsense and playing pretend when the point was pushing armies around and either beating the other guy or just seeing how things turned out on the board).

To me, it seems you want more of a war-game feel than an RP feel to play: sure, there are some stats, but they don't matter as much as the tactics the player is using in the engagement.

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You can stat up your character to the Nth degree, but I’m not sure it’s going to improve the “fun” quotient. Or to be perfectly blunt, I’ve found in my DND3+ games that it doesn’t.

See, now, I've had exactly the opposite experience. While there is such a thing as too much detail, too little detail reduces the fun quotient, leads to arguments, and lets DMs run wild with fiat. And it did.

Meaning the "fun" quotient you bring up is definitely a GNS issue: what part of the game do you find the most enjoyable. What are you sitting at the table to do? Clearly, you found that personal challenge bit the most enjoyable part.

So we have situations where Int or Wis or similar intellectual/social scores and associated challenges were discarded or devalued so the situational content could be dealt with by the player rather than the character, while in other groups, those scores were emphasized with added rules to fairly adjudicate those situations so people could get through them and into doing what they wanted to do with play (some loose kind of story creation, level grinding and looting, or whatnot), etc.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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Daniel B
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Posts: 196

Co-inventor of the Normal Engine


« Reply #34 on: May 22, 2009, 12:42:08 PM »

Here's my point of view: it's impossible to challenge a stat-block.

I disagree.  The bit I think you are missing is that the stat block can be so weighty, so significant, that player decisions matter very little. 
<snip>

Hmm, true

Quote
I guess I've GMed too many games that eventually turned gamist despite their promising beginnings.

And that's a Bad Thing, is it?

Not in principle. But when "gamist" = "the stat block can be so weighty, so significant, that player decisions matter very little", then most definitely yes.


On another note, I think part of the problem is that the same set of rules becomes different games for different people. (What's that called? Ephemera?) For some, it's a stat-block-sport, for others it's something entirely different.

Dan
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Callan S.
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« Reply #35 on: May 22, 2009, 03:41:39 PM »

As far as I can tell this whole stat block/build the deck in advance is basically gamisms equivalent to narrativisms 'story before'. All the step on up happens before the game actually occurs.

In terms of hideous, unsolvable riddles and puzzles, the problem typically is that play just stalls rather than the players losing or losing after X amount of real time if they can't solve it. Usually this occurs because the book didn't tell a new GM he'd have to set this up - and the new GM frankly isn't in the design mindset (lucky them) or roleplay is being treated merely as a social lubricant (like drinking coffee or booze together, play is used as a similar thing to 'sip') and the activity supposedly must go on in the name of the social activity, and yet its uncomfortable and unpleasant to do so. Gamism needs to be able to lose - not just sit in unpleasant limbo while people don't get a puzzle. But when it's punted to the social lubricant level of coffee or booze - well, theres no room for the idea of 'losing' when it comes to drinking coffee. So in that case gamisms been punted to a place that just can't socially support losing.

Quote from: ShallowThoughts
This is way off-topic but I couldn't resist. The world is no less shared than are the characters, and clearly the characters MUST be shared. The GM that asserts absolute authority over "his" world generates turtle-players.
Who's particular imaginative reflexes are tapped can be up for grabs as determined by a ruleset (universalis seems to offer that). But really, if I had described it that the person in question had to cut himself with a knife to facilitate the notion the world is shared, I don't think either of us would consider it still a good idea in order to avoid turtling. When I talk about someone tapping their deep, imaginative reflexes, the stuff that their dreams are made of, but then being socially burned because what they produced is 'wrong', over and over, simply because it doesn't match someone elses imaginative reflexes, I'm talking about cutting something a bit more important than mere skin.
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greyorm
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« Reply #36 on: May 22, 2009, 04:44:15 PM »

There is a lot of discussion of this "stat block" = "deck building" thing -- where the stat block takes over and nearly no player decisions are required -- and I'm just wondering if anyone has any actual play examples from their own games where this occurred, the circumstances, etc. I've never experienced such a thing or can think of an event I might describe as being similar to it.

I also ask because I play a lot of Vampire: the Eternal Struggle, another CCG, and even after building, there's a very significant amount of strategy, choice, and table-reading that goes into playing. Even back when I played Magic, I don't recall any examples of just sitting back and letting the deck do whatever. There was always trying to do something with your deck, using the hand you had, knowing how your deck worked, responding to the plays on the table with the cards available and strategizing. It isn't at all as...mechanical/robotic as what is being presented here.

So I'm asking because I really and seriously have to wonder if this is an invented bugaboo being chased and feared rather than a real thing that regularly happens around a table? Examples from actual play, please?
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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Callan S.
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« Reply #37 on: May 22, 2009, 05:48:08 PM »

Tons of times? There have been plenty of games I've been in where it's just unloading into the other side, roll after roll?

I'm sure I'm going to get t-boned by 'But you didn't see the other options!'. And then I'd get into whether I didn't see them, or they didn't exist. As much as the other two agendas like to make new rules on the fly, it's not exactly gamist to invent resources/options for yourself. Well, not for free, anyway. Anyway, I'm just reflexively cringing at a perceived t-bone that may not be about to occur.

And it depends what you mean by 'trying to do something' with a CCG deck? You can try really hard to control the outcome of a match, even when you have very little capacity to do so during play and most of your capacity to do so was before play even began. I guess if you don't plan the deck much and do most of your thinking in game, then it's playing in the moment. But really if its part of the design that your strongest influence on winning comes from pre game planning, then it's a game that supports 'game before' or however you might put it.
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contracycle
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« Reply #38 on: May 22, 2009, 07:17:07 PM »

My ol highschool game had a series of disputes which eventually resulted in D&D being abandoned in favour of a homebrew system.  There were two major issues, the first being the inability to punch someone in the head and knock them unonscious, the second being the inability to fatally stab someone with a single blow, short of being one of the classes that get backstab as an ability.

The former arose mostly in fistfights in bars and the like, and was not too serious, becuase the whittling of HP is not totally unlike the duration of a boxing match.  But it was also the case that high level characters had so many HP, and the unarmed damage was so low, that this would take forever.  Furthermore, resorting to cliches like smacking people with bottles or chairs made little difference.  You couldn't, really, do anything except roll dice again and again.

The second arose from the perfectly understanadable perception on the part of the players that if you totally ambushed someone, especially if they were unarmoured, its not unreasonable to think that you could just cut them down.  But D&D says no; armour only changes the likelihood of a hit, and damage remains fixed.  If the target has enough HP to survive the blow, it doesn't matter under what circumstances it was delivered.  This arose in a couple of cases, and resulted in unpleasant arguments.

Both of these problems got solved by moving to a system which was less attritional, and in which armour reduced damage, and that made for much better play in terms of setting up, engaging with a tactical problem, and being able to enjoy the challange presented.

ShallowThoughts wrote:
Quote
Not in principle. But when "gamist" = "the stat block can be so weighty, so significant, that player decisions matter very little", then most definitely yes.

But I don't think that's particularly "gamist" at all.  I agree with Callan that its like story before; at best, it's a KIND of gamism, and I'm not averse to spending a fair bit of time on character buillds, and have even been known to defend min-maxing.  But I certainly don't think that when it becomes the dominant factor, it means you are getting gamism at the table.
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LandonSuffered
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« Reply #39 on: May 22, 2009, 09:56:45 PM »


Raven: congrats on your placement in the EO art challenge, by the way…that was a cool pic!

We may have to agree to disagree on this point.  You don’t like mental challenges (for the record, I’m not talking about “puzzles” specifically…I’m talking about the ability…hell, the necessity!...of learning to improvise in order to overcome challenges), and I don’t like being constrained by limited skills and feats.  You want rules that “fairly adjudicate” Intelligence and Wisdom…I just can’t help but say, “gaaaah!!”

I KNOW there can be issues when things are left to DM fiat, yeah…it’s always possible to have a crooked umpire when you’re playing a game.  But failing to play by the spirit of the rules, is…well, against the spirit of the rules.  And DM fiat can play a part it even the highest statted games (doesn’t the DM get to assign situational bonuses and penalties in D20?). 

Okay, you asked:

Quote
There is a lot of discussion of this "stat block" = "deck building" thing -- where the stat block takes over and nearly no player decisions are required -- and I'm just wondering if anyone has any actual play examples from their own games where this occurred, the circumstances, etc. I've never experienced such a thing or can think of an event I might describe as being similar to it… So I'm asking because I really and seriously have to wonder if this is an invented bugaboo being chased and feared rather than a real thing that regularly happens around a table? Examples from actual play, please?

Um, I’ll give you a two different AP examples, both from D&D3:

1st As A DM: Players were asked to create an 8th level character (or thereabouts) for a dungeon adventure, using the standard building rules for creating an advanced character in the DMG (including gear allowed).  One guy shows up with some fighter or fighter-ranger wielding double two-handed +1 falchions of sharpness with his feats chosen to allow him to crit on a…what, a 12+ roll, I think?  Simple min-maxing, sure…did his min-maxing inform how his play would occur in the adventure? Sure it did.  Was he limited in how he could play based on his character choices? Sure he was.   But he made the best “stat-block” he could…he found his challenge, PRIOR to game play. His character was useless in the adventure except in melee combat where he utterly trounced.

2nd As a Player:
  I created a mid-level level wizard (I don’t remember now…somewhere between 5th and 8th level) to play in someone’s adventure. I based his character and spell selection off of Gandalf from LotR.  I tried to make him a bit of a utilitarian, kind of advisor-type.  Our party couldn’t even get into the damn dungeon!  Why not?  Because you needed to have access to the fly spell to get in.  It was assumed that any mid-level wizard would have the spell (or levitation), because it is so "useful" and "utilitarian." I didn’t even carry it in my spell book.  The entire party failed, because the one magic-user (me) failed at the “stat block” creation level. The DM didn’t offer any alternatives…he looked over my character sheet and asked something like, “why is your guy so sucky?” There was another adventure like this where we didn’t have the ability to build a raft…because no one had enough “craft boat” skill (or whatever the fuck it’s called).

Raven wrote:
Quote
To me, it seems you want more of a war-game feel than an RP feel to play: sure, there are some stats, but they don't matter as much as the tactics the player is using in the engagement.

To this I say: what the fuck?  D&D facilitates a gamist agenda (well, except maybe AD&D2, though 2.5 was definitely beginning the stat-block building exercise).  But I never even used miniatures prior to needing to count 5’ steps and full-attack actions and flanking and blah-blah-blah.

I do enjoy the occasional game of WH40K, but when I play that I want people spot on about the rules (ranges, line of sight, base-to-base, etc.). Wargaming is NOT about improvising…wargaming is about using tactics with the resources at your disposal. 

An RPG of the old school variety can be plenty gamist, but it’s a lot more open-ended than a war game. And I’m not saying, “oh it has more options,” ‘cause that ain’t it.  I’m saying you can choose to wine and dine your opponent or fight ‘em or run away (is there a “run away” skill in D&D4?  Maybe there’s a feat…). You can bait and bribe cheap monsters with food or reassure, you can create your own pit traps…the difference, though between the old school and new school is: do you need to make a “craft traps roll” to dig that pit?  And one question I have is: does a player think to TRY to dig a pit if they don’t have the requisite digging skill on their character sheet?

Contracycle: I echo your final sentiment.




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Jonathan
AzaLiN
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Posts: 44


« Reply #40 on: May 22, 2009, 10:16:33 PM »

Quote
There is a lot of discussion of this "stat block" = "deck building" thing -- where the stat block takes over and nearly no player decisions are required -- and I'm just wondering if anyone has any actual play examples from their own games where this occurred, the circumstances, etc. I've never experienced such a thing or can think of an event I might describe as being similar to it.

I guess our MTG experiences are different. In my experience, our entire group, and several players outside of it, play at a certain basic level of competence that, luckily, allows us to play competitively with strangers as well. We've played for years- We can all hold our own in tournaments, and with a strong enough deck, WIN. See, that's the difference though: how well we do in our higher-level competitions depends entirely on how strong our deck is against that opponent/opponents in general. It's like playing certain card games- your playing skill 'maxes out' somewhat early, and victory or defeat falls on other factors- in MTG, that would be luck and the occasional good guess.

Its not that player decisions are trivial- if you play poorly, even Tooth and Nail will lose- I've beaten it- its just that player decisions play a minor role very quickly because they mostly involve a small set of tactics and not making what you begin to recognize as blunders. Good play takes you only so far- it takes a build/stat block thats strong enough in the first place to win at all.

In Warhammer: Battle March, the computer version, the winner is 95% the person with the most appropriate army to counter the enemy's army; elves with a light mage and a giant will simply squish almost every orc player there is because of gameplay balance issues. Bring the wrong army to the field, and its not even worth fighting- if i have the right troops for it, and i see what the enemy has, all tension just floats away because i've won... or lost, as the case may be, even though i might put up a decent fight. The table top is quite similar to this as well, though i have less experience with it.

Notice that in 4e, a smoke bomb costs thousands of gold pieces (If i'm mistaken, PLEASE TELL ME THE ITEM'S NAME AND WHAT BOOK ITS IN! I WANT IT); that's about as blatant as you get for making stat block the determining factor. Tactics or no tactics, if the minotaur plays even half competently, he's going to split the orc's head open 99 times out of 100. There's even a character builder program that people spend money and hours of their time on- and when my rogue spars with my fighter, its not tactics during the fight that wins, since they both make the basically good choices- its the character build, followed by the dice that does it.
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greyorm
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« Reply #41 on: May 22, 2009, 10:49:47 PM »

b]Raven[/b]: congrats on your placement in the EO art challenge, by the way…that was a cool pic!

Thanks, man! I don't know if you've seen the big version yet, but it looks a hundred times better at full size. Can't wait to see it on the cover.

Also, thanks for the AP examples, but I think they added to my confusion.

Quote
To this I say: what the fuck?

OK: Huh?

I think we're completely talking past one another, or using utterly different languages, given you seem to think I'm saying something about using minis and straight-edge rulers and playing WH40K...but then go on to describe exactly what I'm talking about when I say "war-game feel".

I'm also looking at the examples everyone has provided and find myself saying either, "Seems like an issue of bad mechanics (or GMs), not stat blocks" or "Huh? What does that have to do with stat-blocks supposedly running the show?"

So, really, not sure what to say. That's a significant road-block both ways, it seems.

Quote
And one question I have is: does a player think to TRY to dig a pit if they don’t have the requisite digging skill on their character sheet?

Ok, like here: why wouldn't they?

It's ideas/questions like that which make me keep thinking this is a bugaboo, because from my perspective that's just a weird question. Sure, you wouldn't get a bonus to making the pit trap work because you're not trained in creating that sort of thing, but any idiot can dig a pit, throw some sticks and leaves over it, and hope their enemy falls into it.

But then, from my perspective, I would think it silly to assume that Fredrick the wizard who has spent his entire life reading musty books in a tower can set up a trap as well as Artie the thief, who has spent his entire life around traps, or Tom the mercenary "who has done this before". Which makes skills (of some sort, whether concrete lists like in D&D or descriptor-based assumptions like in Sorcerer) important to distinguishing the abilities and competence of a player-chosen character.

Same thing for building a raft (it actually isn't very easy to make a serviceable raft that won't sink, unless you know what the heck you're doing) -- but this is getting into well-traveled territory about tailoring games to the characters chosen by the players, not making assumptions as a GM about what characters "should" be like or just running them through any old thing. Flags, "Say yes or roll the dice", and etc.

And I'm not trying to say that as a counter, I'm trying to...explain why what you're saying sounds weird (to me) or, I suppose, surreal. As, I imagine, what I'm saying sounds to you.

Right now it seems like "freeforming vs. boardgame", which doesn't seem right at all from either side, as clearly you aren't really talking about freeforming it, and I know I'm not talking about just playing things like a boardgame (or bad CCG).

So I'm going to back out and listen a little more and see if I can make sense of your idea.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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contracycle
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« Reply #42 on: May 23, 2009, 08:12:14 AM »

Well, the bit I think you are missing is the weight issue I mentioned above.  It's not that the existence of stats of some kind is problematic, it is that when stats are so bulky and pervasive that they effectively supercede decisionmaking, then they become problematic.

Another problem we encountered from D&D was the issue of surprise.  In a surprise attack, you could get a free round of attacks, and then roll for initiative normally.  So far so reasonable.  However, with the attritional model in place, at moderate to high levels a single round of attacks just wasn't enough to make a difference.  If your opposition was decent match for you, they would either be of such a high level that your attacks couldn't drop them that fast, or there would be such a large number of inferior level opponents that dropping a few was of little import.  Either way, the surprise attack mattered little, and the issue would be decided by the usual combat grind. So, not unreasonably, the players stopped trying to stage surprise attacks, and made little effort to guard against them - they made so little difference they were barely worth worrying about at all.

At that point stats were not faciliting enjoyable play, they were impeding it; the characters had become the "stats robot" mentrioned up-thread, and very little the players did, very few decisions they made, would have much effect on whether or not they succeeded or failed.
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greyorm
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« Reply #43 on: May 23, 2009, 09:24:03 AM »

To me, Gareth, that is completely a "mechanics" issue, and has nothing to do with the stat-block. I agree with you that is a problem, I just don't see it as a "stat block weight" problem, because I don't see how that is about stats (except for HPs) and not broken rules.

Except I'm going to think about your last line, because that makes sense. Though...again, I'm not seeing how that maps to skills and feats and ability scores ala a "stat block", things which don't have the level creep problem of hit points and combat (making skill checks doesn't or shouldn't become more difficult as your level rises) and which it seemed the thread was initially talking about.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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Callan S.
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« Reply #44 on: May 23, 2009, 05:08:52 PM »

Greyorm, I think the 'RP feel' vs 'wargame feel' was polarising things. The activity is roleplay - to say something has a roleplay feel seems to indicate it more about the activity than something that is not described as having a roleplay feel. Perhaps if what you call a 'RP feel' you called a 'Diplomacy feel' then it's be more equal to a 'Wargame feel', rather than one seeming to be more about the activity than the other.

In terms of stat blocks, I had assumed everyone has been talking about mechanics when refering to a stat block - it's a bunch of mechanical stats. Gareths not mistakenly talking about another issue that's to do with mechanics - this stat block issue is mechanics. The issue is about broken rules, or atleast if your design goal is to do gamism now (rather than gamism before) they are broken rules. Were not just talking about the 'feel' of the game, were talking about what it actually, mechanically is. What it feels like because of what it literally is in this world, rather than a feeling which is based on an imaginary world.

Or alternatively, I don't know why your sidelinging this as a "mechanics issue" when it's been one from the start (as far as I can tell), and the above is me trying to grope for some reason for that?
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