Wednesday, November 18, 2009

4E and Power Cards

Today was originally going to be more Golden Century, but twitter discussion lead to a realization that I really want to talk about something core to D&D 4E and how that interacts with power cards.

The appeal of power cards is obvious in play with 4e - the number of powers and their exception-based design makes cards an excellent bookkeeping method, at least on paper. But there’s a catch: the actual fiddly numbers make pe-produced cards impractical - even with the description of the power it is necessary to look up the character’s attack and damage modifiers, often on a case-by-case basis. This means that the custom-generated cards from the character builder are really the only option, and even they need to be updated and re-printed regularly.

The rub is that it feels like it should be much easier than this, but the breakdown is hidden under a bit of sleight of hand. The practical reality of 4e is actually pretty simple - if you’re fighting something of your level, then you’ll probably hit on an 11 or more and miss on a 10 or less. There’s some fiddliness within the range - a 15 or more should pretty much always work, a 5 or less should pretty much always fail, but it’s really not much more complicated than that, whether you’re first level or thirtieth level. If your opponent is higher level it might be a little harder, if they’re lower level it’s a little easier.

The bottom line is that it’s all pretty much relative. Because the attack and defense modifiers scale up at roughly the same pace, they’re almost irrelevant. You could dispose of most of them and couch things entirely in terms of relative advantage, and it would greatly simplify things.[1] But doing so would strip away the sense of advancement that comes from watching numbers getting bigger.

Relative advantage would allow for the necessary information to exist purely on cards. When people imagine using power cards, they imagine something akin to Magic: the Gathering (with good reason - it’s a great model), but that’s just not practical with 4e. The number crunching not only calls for data external to the cards, but it also keeps the cards themselves from having any kind of elegance to them - a lot of what makes the magic experience work so well is that individual cards can be quite simple, with the complexity emerging in play.

But what makes it so problematic is that 4e is so *close* to being card-able that it invites frustration when the reality differs so much from the expectation. Arguably, this suggests that the space exists for someone to create a game which does fill that niche. Warhammer 3e might exist in a similar space, but it’s a big space and there’s lots to done in it.

1 - So, imagine the baseline of hitting on an 11+ against an equal opponent, and cards (assuming monsters are also covered by cards) simply introduce modifiers on that baseline rather than requiring the tracking of persistent modifiers. A particularily tough monster might be at +2 to its defense, a mook might be -1. That’s the basic shape of a pure relative advantage approach .


  1. Good points here. I don't know if this is part of why a little bit of the shine is off the penny of 4E for me (that may be more a side effect of the reasons why we shut down One Bad Egg), but it does show where some varieties of frustration could start to creep in.

  2. I've never quite bought the whole "bigger numbers are more satisfying" theory, but it's tough to separate my personal preference on it.

    However, I think what you're describing isn't a product of the use of power cards- after all, the problem might be even worse if you had to reference books for various abilities, then cross-reference them in game play. The problem falls upon the variety of conditional modifiers in the game.

    If the only bonus you could gain was combat advantage, it would be a lot easier to track (and power cards would be ideal in that scenario), but then you'd lose some parts of the narrative... somebody being illuminated and easier to hit vs. somebody whose defenses are down.

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  4. I totally agree ... I was initially excited the first time I saw the cards for sale in the local hobby shop. Thinking ... great ... I could use these ... but immediately having the forehead slapping moment of "what the hell good are those." If you use the character builder program you get those as part of your character sheet print out ... customized for your character including any bonuses from items and equipment. So really this is a very poorly thought out product that sadly some people out there think they can use :( What does one expect from Hasbro ... mountains of made in china plasticy stuff :)

  5. I hope Warhammer 3E fits in this space and they definitely seem to be aiming for it pretty hard.

    One thing they do to make cards work along with different scales of ability is that your die pool gets modified by, among other things, the defenses of the opponent and any ability training your character might have. And damage is a flat number that is modified by a flat damage resistance and your roll (the latter explained on the card you use) It seems to work pretty elegantly.

    I think the real trick with 4E is the damage. There are so many character dependent variables. You could consolidate bonuses so that when you see "Strength vs AC" or "Wisdom vs Will" you just look at your stat's attach bonus (which counts your weapon or implement and all that). But then there are the times when Constitution adds to damage, or you have 2[W] or 5[W]. Seeing 4d10+7 is just a lot easier, and prone to a lot of potential change.

    Thankfully, that with the character builder and monster builder, card play is pretty much how I play the game (the main difference between the two is that a monster is all on one card). I'm not sure that 4E needs a different solution.

    I'm very much looking for the full card solution in Warhammer, and hope to see it in other systems. I'd especially love to see Exalted redesigned completely with card based play as a core element.


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