My first go as a player in 4e

Started by masqueradeball, September 05, 2010, 06:43:35 PM

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Actual Play Report: D&D 4e Latecomer
   Last night I joined in a 4e group that had been going on for some 5 to 7 sessions before I joined. The premise was a little strange. Similar in concept to the show .Hack, the fantasy content of the game is happening within a video game that that the characters within the game are playing. So, are 4e statistics represent the character we are playing in the game-within-the-game.
   Now, it was explained to me before I made my character that there was some deeply disturbing stuff going on within the game, stuff that was negatively affecting the real world, so that I needed to make sure my character had a good and serious reason to be devoted to the game. By talking with the DM (Garrett), I came up with the idea that my character was a high school girl not likely to play an mmo (or any other video game) but that her younger brother, an obsessive player of the in-game-game, had gone missing and that she decided to go online in order to try to see if any of his (her younger brother's) in game friends had any knowledge of where he might have gone.
   So the first challenge was making a D&D character. I found this difficult, caring about the character that my character would make for a game within a game was tedious. Eventually  I picked a ready made concept from those provided by 4e that I would not normally be attracted to as a player. I ended up making a Shielding Cleric (from the Divine Powers book) who focused on de-buffs and heals with very little built in attack power. I thought the decision would help me gel with the other players, because my character would be very very heavily focused on support.
   What was play like... we pushed through three set piece combats that were long but fun enough, mostly, I think, because I wasn't very involved. It's was like playing monopoly with your family. You don't really care who wins or what happens, you just roll the dice when someone reminds you its your turn and try to pay enough attention not to get completely lost, its fun because you like spending time with your family. That was the D&D game, pick a power, roll a die, something might or might not happen, doesn't really matter. I should note that other players were definitely more invested in the combat, but that was fine too. I don't think I made the game any slower or harder with my level of disinterest, but I guess you would have to ask the other players.
   After the set pieces, there was a completely (or nearly completely, there were some meaningless dice rolls made here and there) rules free scene, that was a sort of info-feed with very little in the way of meaningful choice. This was also fun, it allowed the back story bit that I had come up with show up in play and provoked a little bit of in game conversation.
   So, what did I take away from all of this:
   I never really understood just how bad whiffing could be, in the earlier versions of D&D that I have had a lot more play experience with, I generally avoided characters that had to choose when to use limited resource powers. Rolling to see if your any time attack hits or misses was a reasonable, of rather bland, way of simulating combat, but when failing a roll burns through a resource your attempting to apply tactically, its just (at best) boring or (at worst) maddening. The fact that I didn't care (or at least didn't care very much) made this manageable, but considering I get to do one thing every three to four minutes (of real time), and that there's a 25-50% chance that the thing that I do in that time will be meaningless or effectively meaningless is pretty stupid. There has to be a better way to capitalize on randomness in combat.
   ... also, I am completely done with DM fiat as a valid mode of play. It was hard for me to care about the set piece combats, in part, because I didn't feel empowered, by the GM or the other players to attempt to avoid them, or to do anything except passively participate. A guess I didn't actively try, but that's because I just felt that it would be pointless (that and past experience with this group, if not this game).
   Like I said, though, I did enjoy the experience, if not the game. I like  the concept, I like my character, I like the fiddly combat it theory, but I feel like if I allowed myself to become invested in any of these things, I would get frustrated and quit...

   As a little aside: It seems like a lot of the mechanics in D&D don't represent anything beyond game mechanics, and that, again, makes it hard to care about the fictional content: examples from this game: grabbing and thus immobilizing a giant ape and a charge that consisted of running backwards 10 feet and then charging forward over that same 10 feet against an armed opponent, all within the span of some fraction of a six-second round. I want to know what this stuff looks like, and how it works. Is the charge some kind of three stooges move? Was the grab a comic book maneuver where Captain America can Judo flip the Hulk? How does this fit in with the tone of the game in general... not to mention all the complications offered by the "this is a game within a game" logic, which made me care even less.

So, what discussion points are there in all that:
How do you help players connect with combat, especially as player in a GM run game where you cannot control when or where combat happens without upsetting the other players?
How do you make whiffing a dramatically interesting event, especially when your committed to using a system where it cannot really be eliminated?

Callan S.

Hi Nolan,

I think more broadly it's a question of 'when will the game end', atleast session wise, or ideally, campaign wise. Otherwise each combat can be like pushing a boulder up a hill, but it always slips at the top and rolls down. Endlessly. Just a kind of hell. Further, once you get an ending time, it makes you realise that things wont last and that makes you appreciate them more. Without an ending time it's like asking 'how do you spruce up hell?' - in which case I'd point to world of warcraft's 'endless game' love affair and the amount of resources it takes to continue that puppy (though by fuck, they earn way more than enough money to pay for those resources).

I bet your game follows traditional gamer patterns and has no set ending time (hell, I've played plenty like that)?

On whiffing, it seems you have a problem with the resource expenditure (though perhaps if you played old D&D you might not even like no resource loss whiffs anymore - might have grown out of the whole thing). The only resources I remember are the per encounter and dailies? Why do you have a problem with losing these?

I might suggest instead of you being fussed by losing the resouce, you have a problem with going to the effort of thinking out a plan of some sort, then the dice making your plan moot and a waste of time to formulate. It's 'roll to see if your gamist skill is irrelevant or not'. D&D still showing it's roots (thought there seem to be a surprising number of automatic hit powers coming in with 4e - D&D is still evolving). Sound about right?


Thats exactly it, the in game content that your talking about, making plans and then attempting to in act them, is super frustrating. Thats why the expendable resources become an issue. Its like I have this one chance to use Power X. If I use Power X and you use power Y then we can do awesome tactic Z. Awesome! But then the dice rear their ugly head and I roll and... oh wait, never mind, nope, just hit him. It boils down to the same thing as the older editions, stand in one place and roll to hit, except now the game is filling in all the flavor text for me... lame.

Callan S.

My partner has struck that a bit as well with RPG play using dice. In a card game like lunchmoney she's fine with all the cards, which all do fixed damage when applied and fixed effects (the randomness comes from the shuffle and draw of the cards). She's not terribly fond of the dice rolls. I think it's the distancing the roll makes between player skill and what happens next, kinda shooting gamism in the foot. Not that I'm against gamist gamble, but asking for skill, then eliminating its relevance with gamble is pretty self conflicting.

So basically your saying you get this one chance with power X and then that's it for planning, not because of a fault in skill on your part, but because the dice simply eliminate you from the picture. Then it's back to the many rolls to hit, which a simple computer program could do as well?

4E is still pretty...slippy...with character death - it pretty much leaves the arrangement up in the air still. What was the arrangement with your GM?

You do still have the gamble of the rolls - enough bad rolls, and you get a big ressurection slap. Though 'gamble to see if you don't lose' is not as fun as 'gamble to see if you win something' I grant. In highlighting the 'gamble to see if you don't lose' I'm probably showing some habit of having grown into D&D's nuances like that.

Tell me, with the latter idea in mind, if roll of a nat 20 gave you 200XP or some such number, would it be interesting to roll in a slot machine kinda way? What if any roll got some XP, with it geometrically decreasing toward 1?

Just tossing some ideas around...


Would it be more interesting to roll and see how much XP I get, maybe... I think the best thing for me would be to say... okay, you failed the roll, so you can either except that or take X Bad Stuff and get the power through anyway.... and that Bad Stuff would have to mean something... what I want is for there to be decision points that encourage me to care, instead of discourage... in part thats an experiential thing, I mean, it has a lot to do with me and my mind set, so... I don't know how much this has to do with the game, but I feel like some games make it easier/more desirable for me to invest

Callan S.

Perhaps spend off X amount of hitpoints for it to hit? Or spend X number of healing surges for it to hit? Or perhaps if you do three laps of the house (the RL one!), hehe.

I'm basically bouncing around new game design ideas here. I'm assuming that fits your thread.


Yeah, for sure. I definitely like the idea of a game asking "How much is this worth to you." Being able to spend HP to make up the difference in the dice would be pretty nifty.

Also, I think this really hits the nail on the head for me and 4e combat: as far as I can tell there is no way to take risks. The risks are provided for you (by the GM) and there is a built in series of tasks you perform to address them. This isn't true on a bigger level, I guess, where you can choose whether to get into the fight or not, but if the game is played as designed, all potential encounters should be GM provided and planned risks that choosing to ignore would mean not receiving your mechanical reward...

Callan S.

Well, here I might turn the spotlight around to yourself. What do you mean by 'taking risks'?

I'll say that in video games like GTA, mercenaries and fallout 3 I've taken risks doing certain stuff in play that...had nothing much to do with the game. They did usually including collecting game currencies like cash, but as to the overall beginning, middle and end of the game, they weren't terribly relevant.

Then again in the card game 'lunch money' I've taken risks in playing a certain card, uncertain if the target player had a counter card to it that would instead trounce me. This had everything to do with the game.

So which do you mean?

And in regard to the former how enabled are you to simply go off as a solo player and attempt to pursue other things? Probably not a great deal if the GM's been influenced by game 'the party always stays together' culture, then on top the party design for play and the handling time of prep work on the fly. Though I think this whole 'miss out on a mechanical reward' thing is a red herring - if your ignoring the overall beginning/middle/end of the game, of course your ignoring it's rewards. That's you doing that to you. Though notably the games in the first example above have various other currencies sprinkled about.


As far as I can tell in this 4e game, powering up your character is how you reach the end game... there are things out there that we must confront in order to resolve our various personal story lines and the way to confront them is in combat and by getting more powerful in/better at combat...

What do I mean by taking risks? I mean, choosing whether or not to sacrifice or endanger something that is important to me as a player. I'm not sure I follow your examples, but I can provide a few of my own:

Cyberpunk 2020, when you choose to take on a new bit of cyber at the risk of getting cyber psychosis.
Legend of the 5 Rings when you attempt to insult a samurai subtly enough that he can't retaliate without losing face.
Legend of the 5 Rings when you choose to retaliate despite the fact that you'll probably lose face.
Exalted when I balance the increased difficulty of my action against the bonus that the stunt dice will give me.


In each of these I try to do something in order to gain some kind of benefit or reward but where I might lose something important to my me (up to and including my character). It has to involve me making a choice and it has to involve potential for failure but not guaranteed failure/

Callan S.

Well, I'll pose this - how's a game system going to know what's important to you as a player?

Adam Dray

Hey, Nolan.

Here's what I think is happening: You wanted to play one kind of game, and 4E can't give it to you but that's what you had. Worse, you had 4E but weren't even playing it for what it is. That made the rules powerless to propel your game forward, leaving the DM to push it--nay, force it.

Making a character with such a strong back-story like you did suggests a pretty strong creative priority, right? You have this young woman who doesn't paly games entering a game to find her brother. You want some kind of game that tests her to see what she's willing to do to find her brother. As you say, you want the game to ask you, "How much is this worth to you."

At the very least, the combats in the 4E game have to mean something. What happens if your character dies? Do they die in the "real world," too? or can you just make up a new character and come back in? At the very least, you need to start over at 1st level, so progress is lost, but that's only meaningful as a sacrifice if there's some penalty for taking too long to save your brother, right?

What you're looking for is a way to make a meaningful story NOW, through the process of play, and not wait until some victory condition to say "and then I saved my brother." Really, saving your brother is a vehicle, but the choices your character makes along the way are the real story. D&D 4E will not give you that out of the box. It takes conscious effort on the part of the players and GM to do that, because it's the wrong tool for that job.

4E is exceedingly good at making TACTICAL choices matter. It's a great tool for a certain kind of play, but you didn't care about it. The battles it set up, you called "set pieces" that were "like playing monopoly with your family." You went through the motions but weren't creatively invested in the choices you were making.

Now the thing to figure out: were the other players invested in those tactical choices? Maybe the rest of the group sees this game-within-a-game setup as interesting window dressing for their set-piece battles. Maybe they really enjoy the character builds, the battles, the tactical choices, the leveling up with more character build options. If this is what the game is about for them, then trying to change it is going to make you sad.

On the other hand, if they're not enjoying it either, maybe there's a way to fix it. Maybe they're frustrated players who have the 4E hammer and everything looks like a nail to them. Talk to them about what kinds of games they want to play, how they want to approach play, and figure out what kind of choices they want to matter. There are games that will reward the kind of play that you want. D&D 4E rewards clever tactical play and clever strategic character builds--that is, game mastery. You need something different (or you need to embrace the kind of play that 4E offers).

I suspect I understand what your play priorities are, but I'm not entirely sure. I'm comfortable saying that you went into 4E with one idea of how play should go but it can't deliver that easily. I'm not comfortable yet recommending specific games you might like better, and there's no guarantee that your friends want to play those games, or play that way. Are you interested in going down the rabbit hole and trying to figure out what games might help?
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777


Yeah, I mean, I knew going into this that this wasn't the game for me... I'm playing it for the company and so that I can be playing something and as long as the game is enjoyable I think I'll keep it up. I think my post failed to convey how much I knew/know what I was/am getting to.

Adam Dray

Oh! Well, my best advice in that case is to figure out how the other people want to play the game and play it that way. Embrace the D&D-ness of it. Get into your character build and make every combat count.
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777

Callan S.

Well, as I hypothesized before with the whiff rolls, D&D 4e actually undercuts clever tactical play (through it's 'make a plan - now roll to see if the plan is made moot' mechanism) rather than rewards and is something you can embrace. Gamism wise it's kind of 'thorny' to embrace - I think my partner found that as well, with the many rolls undercutting any forward planning. She really likes the card game lunch money, as a comparison. She even said that while the cards are drawn at random, she can plan with what's in her hand. In D&D, roll low, the plan is moot.

Nolan, at a guess I'd say you were quite naturally gravitating towards something gamey/gamist as your thing to do while enjoying company. I think that'd work, except the activity itself is counter gamist. Mind you, I think monopoly to a certain extent is counter gamist as well (like when all properties are bought but no one owns a set (which is quite likely) - so it's this slow, slow attrition game based on...fortune, again. Fortune...are you a bad puppy?), so perhaps I'm out of some sort of loop? Anyway, I think if you play your going to gamist gravitate, only to run into more thorns. Perhaps knowing that will help you avoid them - if not, I don't think the game is good for you. It'd be like eating a meal with them for the company, but you have a certain allergy to something in the meal. It's just mildly poisoning yourself for company. Except it's your brain rather than liver that has to work through it. Bit close to home, that.

Frank Tarcikowski

Hi Nolan, interesting thread. I only played 4E once, but I had the same "Captain America" feeling where the rules were leading so strongly that the fiction did not really seem to catch up, like, ever. Buffs, debuffs, marks, taunt-tanking, healing surges, shifting, encounter powers, it seemed just too disconnected. That's why I actually thought that the "game within a game" idea was pretty fucking cool. Kudos if they actually keep it up as a meaningful "second layer" of fiction, and not just a pretense for silly adventures that don't make much sense.

I know little of the edition war (old school vs. encountardization or how they call it) and it's probably not all that relevant to this discussion, but I did get the feeling that in 4E it was hard to introduce meaningful fictional situations. On the other hand, the combat system did seem fun enough, and I actually know quite a few Narrativist inclined players who are currently playing 4E. They claim it's not as fun, but also way more forgiving than a good Narrativist game, essentially they don't have to invest much, they can play with mediocre players, and it's still okay. I haven't really made up my mind about that yet.

Concerning the whiff factor, I think it's understood that with the number of combats you are going to play through, at some point the law of large numbers will apply. Only half kidding.

- Frank
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