Monday, March 7, 2011

Fiction, Fairness and 4e

In my discussion of the role of skills in spotlighting character awesomeness in 4e (or more precisely, the lack of this) the counterpoint of solving the problem in the fiction of the game was raised and I think this merited some attention. There are a lot of issues with games – not just 4e but any other games – that can be addressed in the fiction of the game rather than with rule changes. This is especially true of things that relate to the role of the players in the context of the game. How important and respected the characters are is only sometimes a function of rules. However, there’s a point where this breaks down. When you need to solve a problem for the group, then look to the fiction, but when you need to solve a problem for a character, it’s less reliable.

Let’s look at the specific case of rangers and tracking. If I want to respect the idea of tracing as a Ranger schtick despite 4e’s not doing so, there are a few fiction and technique options available to me. I can certainly have other people _react_ like he’s exceptional (fiction) and I can make his failures more reflective of his awesomeness (You didn’t fail because you sucked, you failed because it was SO HARD that only you even faintly had a chance of doing it! - fiction) but that’s a pretty meh solution. The reactions aren’t very compelling unless they hold water in play. The fiction of failure looks like a good idea on the surface of it, but it leads me to ask when you’re _not_ doing that? If respectful failures are only an exception in your game then I would consider that a red flag.

The last solution is, of course, to make the Ranger’s rolls inherently more potent, or increase the number of situations where I don’t call for a roll. I can certainly couch this in terms of fiction, but the reality is that at that point I’m making a mechanical distinction (whether I acknowledge it or not) and that’s where the ice gets thin. At that point, we have to deal with the reality that someone else in the party can make the roll too, and they (reasonably) expect that the outcomes of their rolls will be proportional. If the Ranger and I both roll a 17 but his outcome is much better than mine, I’m going to call foul.

Now here’s the important point about it being a rule that’s very easy to overlook. My objection is not going to be that Ranger’s shouldn’t be awesome at tracking. If you ask me, I’ll agree they probably should be. Rather, the root of my objection is that this idea has never been communicated clearly or usefully, and my expectations have been violated. I like to assume that most GMs are good enough to make smart, engaging, fun rulings on the fly, and that’s great, but it’s foolish to rely on that. Not because the GM is going to trip up or be a jerk, but because the players have no visibility into a ruling-based process. A rule is a means of communication, and in solving problems (especially problems between players) more communication is almost always better.

Now, obviously, some games call for more or less of this (The Amber DRPG is almost entirely ruling based, while 4e actively strives to minimize the need for such rulings) and more, some tables have radically different ideas regarding how this should be approached. Often, the “GM-As-God” approach has less to do with GM authority than with lack of GM accountability. And if people dig that, then awesome. Go forth and continue having fun.

But the bottom line is this: the fact that the GM can fix things in play does not excuse shoddy game design, and it doesn’t excuse shoddy GMing either.


  1. "If I want to respect the idea of tracing as a Ranger schtick despite 4e’s not doing so, there are a few fiction and technique options available to me."

    I think it's worth pointing out that D&D 4E makes specific mention of Rangers as trackers. This isn't buried somewhere in the fiction, it's made pretty explicit:

    "As a ranger, you possess almost supernaturally keen senses and a deep appreciation for the untamed wilderness. With your knowledge of the natural world, you are able to track enemies through nearly any landscape, using the smallest clue to set your course, even sometimes the calls and songs of beasts and birds."

    And on page 15 of the PHB, the first sentence you read about rangers calls them "Expert Trackers."

    "Find tracks" is also specifically outlined as a use of Perception, and the PHB makes specific mention of tracking as a skill challenge, and that it would likely use skills like Nature and Perception (both of which the Ranger has access to).

    Now, I agree that 4e has some problems with non-combat mechanics, and lord knows that skill challenges have issues of their own. But I don't think it's terribly useful to pick on tracker rangers as an example of a 4e failure. "Ranger trackers" have a lot of support in the fiction, and rangers have easy access to all of the skills that are used in tracking.

    If the party ranger isn't good at tracking, then it's because that player has decided to play a ranger that doesn't care about tracking. Or, if another character is just as good at tracking, then it's because that character has similar skills - which is pretty unlikely, as few other classes have both Nature AND Perception as class skills (and of those that two, it makes perfect sense that, say, a barbarian or druid could choose to be a tracker if they want to make that skill investment).

  2. So, what's shoddy or mechanically incongruous with allowing the Ranger to enter an Awesome Tracking Challenge voluntarily, but not allowing other characters the same access to it? Everyone can still make normal skill checks; simply add this on top - as a challenge.

    The very appearance of a skill challenge and what it accomplishes is 100% up to the GM, isn't it? Do you consider this a soft zone of accountability? If you do, I think at that point, you also call into question the GM's ability to fairly decide what is or isn't an encounter and when it happens.

    So I don't buy it. You're either criticizing the fundamental nature of games that have mini-games and rolls that are invoked and arbitrated by the GM instead of players, OR, you're missing that just about every other game out there is dominated by a lack of GM accountability.

  3. In the PHB, the fluff there is flavor, not mechanics. The skill niche protection doesn't FEEL mechanically supported, even if Rangers can train all the necessary skills. One of the issues is that the Tracker Ranger has a chance to fail on every roll, and the untrained, city born wizard has a chance to succeed on every roll, assuming appropriate DCs. The Ranger rolls a 2, plus his 10 trained skill, and gets a 12 for his Nature. The Wizard rolls a straight 18, adds zero, and somehow followed the trail that the Ranger could not. The skill bonus makes it more likely that the Ranger is going to succeed, and will succeed more over time, but in any specific instance, they are rolling straight against every other character who cares to make the check, and may lose to anyone.

    The issue with skill challenges in general is the binary success/failure dynamic. When you try to account for these failures as the DM, you're going to run into problems. The DM could simply turn it around and ask the Ranger's player, "Why did you fail, when you're an awesome tracker?" This gives the narrative power to the player, and they can explain away the difficulty in any number of ways, and it keeps them from feeling like they're being cheated out of awesomeness by fiat.

    Of course, you could go the other way and assign a certain narrative construct to each skill that a player trains, giving them non-combat automatic successes, like Master Tracker for following trails, or Beast Master, for identifying creatures, or Herbalist, for identifying herbs.

  4. @Grayson The PHB's writeup is what I would categorize as "Lip service". To illustrate, I'll simply ask - given the same stats and skills, is a PC ranger going to be a better tracker than, say, a Barbarian (or any other class, really?). I do not believe so. Not that the game _couldn't_ support that (A ranger tracking feat, for example, would be trivial to add), but it won't because doing so would violate the underlying thinking behind skills.

    @Paul - The answer's actually pretty simple. If two characters with the same mechanical element (say a skill) cannot use it in the same way, then it's a mechanical differentiation. To my mind, that seems quite straightforward.

    The GM can, of course, make mechanical differentiations on the fly if she is so inclined, and doing so in edge cases is an expected part of the process. But the GM must also exercise good judgment regarding what is an edge case and what's a recurring element. To make the same mechanical differentiation many times without expressing it clearly to ones players is failing to communicate with them, and I consider that less than optimal.

    I worry a bit that you're oversimplifying things in only seeing two possible interpretations, and I'm going to take that as rhetoric, since I doubt you're actually confused. Still, to clarify - To my mind, even if the model (GM initiated mechanical events) is sound - and I believe it is - then surely there must be bad ways to go about it (for example, granting mechanical bonuses for arbitrary reasons, such as the GM giving bonuses to his girlfriend). Again, I don't think that's a terribly contentious point.

    That, of course, raises the spectre of accountability. Now, that could be an entire discussion in and of itself, but in short I disagree with your thesis. There are many ways in which GMs can be 9and are) held accountable. Some of them are bizarre, hippie mechanics, but most of them are simple social dynamics. "Don't be a dick" is a tool of accountability.

    Where this gets interesting, however, is in the specifics of 4e. One of the genius bits of the game is that it puts so much more of the heft of the game right there on the surface that it puts a great many subtle yet effective limiters on the GM to "play fair". Certainly, a GM may break or ignore those limiters (fudging rolls, cheating on bookkeeping, rhino-hiding his monsters and so on) but doing so is not a gray area, it's problematic behavior.

    Now, to head off a discussion of specifics, I fully acknowledge that there might be a circumstance where a GM -would- want to break those boundaries (dice fudging being especially contentious), but that's unimportant to the underlying point. These are largely areas that were explicitly left to GM interpretation that have been mechanized in 4e. That's a profound and powerful change, and it's one of the things that I feel lies at the heart of the split in responses to the game.

    @Mike I'm a big proponent of such differentiations, but they will remain firmly in the arena of houserules for now, I suspect.

  5. "@Grayson The PHB's writeup is what I would categorize as "Lip service". To illustrate, I'll simply ask - given the same stats and skills, is a PC ranger going to be a better tracker than, say, a Barbarian (or any other class, really?). I do not believe so. Not that the game _couldn't_ support that (A ranger tracking feat, for example, would be trivial to add), but it won't because doing so would violate the underlying thinking behind skills. "

    A) Rangers HAVE to take either dungeoneering or nature, so on average rangers will be better trackers than barbarians. Note here that rangers still have an advantage over many other classes, since rangers can choose whether to be "wilderness (i.e. nature) trackers" or "dungeon trackers." Rogues, for instance, do not have class-access to the Nature skill. Rangers also have 5 total trained skills, compared to the barbarian's 3, or the druid's 4.

    B) Rangers use wisdom as a primary stat, which results in natural synergy between their combat abilities and the perception/nature/dungeoneering skills. (We could also throw Stealth in as a 'tracking' skill, and rangers also use dexterity.)

    "Given the same stats and skills," yes, a barbarian and a ranger are going to be equally good trackers. This is true enough, but ignores that the barbarian is paying a much higher cost for this. The only class I can think of that is going to have as easy a time is the druid, and even then the druid does not have access to the dungeoneering, meaning the druid can only be a "nature" tracker.

    The ranger, as far as I can tell, is the only class with easy access to all relevant tracking skills, and furthermore the ranger relies on primary attributes associated with those skills.

    In short, though the ranger does not have a specific "tracking" skill, the ranger is *easily* the best class to choose if you want to play a tracker character -- especially given that the ranger's combat abilities (hunter's quarry) fit very well into the tracker flavor.

    Now, this isn't to say that 4e is perfect. You're right that, when you get right down to it, all the ranger is really doing is rolling some perception and nature checks - and though the ranger is well suited for such checks, he isn't getting "tracking bonuses" or anything that mechanically says "I am great at this."

    But, again, I think tracking isn't a unique problem, and IMO if we're talking about the homogenization of abilities, then tracking is a bad example. It's still a fairly specialized ability that requires the synergy of several skills and ability scores, that the ranger is still *probably* the best at, unless another class (druid, barbarian) spends a LOT of resources to match.

  6. @Rob I think my point didn't come across. Let me try to explain it in a less confrontational way.

    I'm saying that one of the uses of skill challenges, as is the case with many rules, is to protect and promote the interests of the people at the table. In my case, I may not particularly care whether or not a character is AWESOME outside of combat. If you value awesomeness outside of combat, even if the game doesn't guarantee it when run by a procedural robot, the skill challenge is there to help promote and protect that interest.

    If you give the ranger a skill challenge with the potential result of success that isn't otherwise achievable through a single skill roll, you aren't breaking the rules. It seems that your stance is that this is fundamentally a bad design because the GM isn't held accountable and can alter the mechanical balance of the game by using skill challenges if there isn't some kind of constrained, predictable procedure. And if the group or GM comes up with such a thing, it's a house rule, so it's not really part of the discussion.

    My stance is that this fully fits 4e's pattern that specific trumps general. A specific power can bypass normal combat rules, so a specific skill challenge can bypass normal skill test results.

    If I present some players with a skill challenge just once (not some kind of repeat abuse), they necessarily get to use their skills for an outcome that's not available to other players with the same skills. This seems very deliberate as the intention as opposed to your characterization of it as an "on the fly" fix.

    So, if your criticism is that skill challenges, by their very nature, represent a soft spot in GM accountability, I can buy it. I don't think it's a gray area or remotely comparable to things like fudging rolls, but I see where you're coming from. The question then, is: Is that actually shoddy, or simply a feature? Most games hinge on a great deal of trust. If you trust a GM to be fair with all of their massive narrative powers, why not trust them to hold themselves accountable in that regard? That's another discussion entirely, but it's not trivial to this issue.

    So, simply as a point of advice, you'd say that because skill challenges allow a GM to override a player ability that mechanically protects their interests (skills), don't abuse it. I agree, but I don't see making exclusive skill challenges that allow the awesomeness you want as abuse. It seems to me that you're painting the system such that in order to get that awesomeness you want out of the game, it must be houseruled or abused. Skill challenges are the way to do it without either one regardless of what you think about the design philosophy.

  7. @paul Ah, I think I see the disconnect, so let me step back a pace for some context.

    I'm a huge fan of skill challenges. I've written more about them than is probably entirely sane. I think they're a super-robust tool and if I have a criticism of them, it is that I think their potential is poorly explored and explained in the text of the rules, but thankfully some very smart people have taken that as an opportunity to expand on them, to the benefit of all.

    So, please, take it at a given that I'm not busting on Skill Challenges (nor am I really busting on 4e - it's just that tinkering can look destructive at times).

    To drill this down to a specific case, suppose that on one hand we have a ranger who, fairly practically, focused on strength and dex in his build, so his wisdom is good, but not spiked. He still builds the character with outdoorsy, tracking stuff in mind. He's got N as his tracking skill.

    Int he same party we also have a cleric. He's got his wisdom spiked and maybe has a racial bonus on his nature skill. His nature skill is untrained, but between stat bonus and such, he's got a decent value. Say N-2.

    In the narrative of this game, the ranger is the tracking guy. Simple enough. But when the dice hit the table, the cleric is going to do as well or better often enough that it makes it very hard for the Ranger to seem exceptional in this regard.

    Now, broadly speaking the issue here is niche protection. Assuming tracking should be the Ranger's niche, we face the question of how to support that in play.

    Now, you're totally right that the GM can spin this to do so, but my concern is this: The cleric has every right to go "Hey, I'm not cheating here, nor am I being a bad sport, but my stats and modifiers are not being respected here".

    In other games, I might be more comfortable hand-waving it, but 4e is very well constructed, so much so that the Cleric is on pretty firm ground. His numbers deserve respect. And if all the GM does is give the ranger an invisible bonus, the cleric has every reason to get more and more peeved.

    And that's why I endorse a rules-based solution. If you think that ranger niche protection is important, then expressing that as a rule makes it something the cleric can speak to directly. He can say that the bonus seems to high, or perhaps make a case for having some sort of comparable niche protection for an idea that he considers important to his cleric-ness. Or perhaps the cleric might assert that this niche protection stuff is a bunch of hippie bull and the Ranger should play by the rules as written.

    To my mind it's not so much about the solution as it is about moving things to a forum where they can be discussed. Some things need to exist solely in the GM's head, sure, but issues of player capability have a bad habit of being perceived as issues of fairness by the players. Issues like that are hard to discuss because they tend to frame themselves as accusations of the GM being unfair, and that conversation rarely goes anyplace good.

    That make any more sense?

  8. That does make sense, and I know you dig 4e and skill challenges. This is what your previous post was all about. But it really doesn't address the fact that within the system, skill challenges are a fair way to accomplish what you want.

    Maybe you aren't doing this, but it seems like you're content with categorizing that use of skill challenges as an abuse that endangers player interests and/or character niches. That's the situation you're describing with the Ranger and Cleric, right? That the ranger is being allowed to enter a skill challenge which the cleric is denied? In this case, you're protecting the ranger's niche, but the cleric is complaining that the rules aren't being respected. But, sucks for him, because that's not just within the mechanical scope of skill challenges, I think that's one of the intended uses.

    Even more, what about a challenge that is presented to two of five party members because they're in a different location and involved in a different part of the story? Is it valid for those three other players to complain that they want to be part of those events? I certainly don't think it is and I find it hard to believe that you do. Then why is it abusive to divide up the story in basically the same way when all the characters are together?

    In your example, the cleric's belief that skills alone dictate what you're allowed to do is a crumby assumption. And that's the guy who is the problem in this scenario. Without that wrong assumption, there is no problem. The ranger's niche is protected, he's allowed to be awesome, and the cleric's ability to use his skills is NOT diminished.

  9. @Paul So, two things. First, the GM can reasonably gateway skill challenges. As you note, location is a reasonable limiter, and I could conceive of plenty of others provided there's some measurable yardstick. But if the yardstick is arbitrary, then it gets much more dodgey.

    To take the example of tracking, further, the GM could potentially gateway an SC with something like "Only characters trained in the appropriate skill can participate" (or, to construct it better, only characters with trained skills can get these outcomes). That's fair, in that the distinction is measurable within the game as the players can see it. It gives trained skills some implicit acknowledgment, which is nice. But it also means that Bob the Barbarian, who has an N-6, can do this while our cleric can't.

    Now, maybe this is good, maybe this is bad, but since there's an external yardstick, it can be discussed among the group whether that's really what suits the group's understanding of what training represents. Contrast that with an distinction based purely on the GM's sensibilities (such as niche protection) - there's no useful way to discuss it if there's disagreement with the interpretation at the table.

    And that comes around to the second point. Even if the Cleric isn't being a jerk, and even if the GM is well intentioned, smart (and needless to say, good looking) they may have legitimate disagreements of interpretation. If the GM can't move the discussion to a fruitful venue, then (intentionally or not) the GM is effectively imposing a viewpoint on the table without player input.

    Moving these things into rulespace is a sunlight solution. It makes them transparent, and while that might not be necessary for everything, it's useful for those things that could otherwise create tension.

  10. A ranger tracking feat, for example, would be trivial to add

    And in fact there is one -- Expert Tracker gives a +5 feat bonus to Perception rolls for the purpose of tracking, and is only open to rangers.

    This is a pretty clear patch. It requires a feat spend; it's also two points superior to (say) Skill Focus, which is just enough to take a ranger with 14 Wisdom who's spent one feat on being good at tracking to equality with a cleric with 18 Wisdom who's spent one feat (Skill Focus) on being good with Perception in general.

    But I wouldn't get too hung up on the one example, especially since you still have to spend a feat to get the effect described in the fluff. A better example is the poor rogue, who will typically be very good at disarming traps but very poor at actually finding them. So yeah, what Rob said.

  11. @bryant *laughs* When I said that, suspected there might be one somewhere, just couldn't recall it. But yes, it's just an illustration.

  12. @Rob Heh. I knew that one because I ran a game with a ranger and a cleric in it, and yeah, you know the rest.


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