Monday, March 21, 2011

Keeping Tempo in 4e

I often feel that the places that 4e falls down are often a result of false starts. The game may have the core of a good idea, but fail to pursue it far enough. One of the best examples of this is tempo - the pace of encounters.

Historically, D&D has had a problem with the "5 minute work day", where players would load for bear and go into an encounter guns blazing, using all their big spells for a quick, decisive win. They would then withdraw and rest long enough to recover spells and repeat the process. Numerous GMing techniques have emerged over time to try to mitigate this behavior, and players have responded with more and more clever tricks. It's simply such an effective technique that it will always have some allure.

4e took steps to reduce this by changing the power structure so there were fewer buffs (spells that enhanced a character over a period of time) and fewer one-shot abilities. Characters would always have their at-will powers and usually have their encounter powers, and that left only the daily abilities. This meant that there was no longer the problem of the "useless" magic user being left without options, and that was a big help, but there's still some temptation to go whole hog with the dailies, then recover.

To offset this, 4e introduced a pair of tempo mechanics. First, you'd pick up one action point every 2 encounters, and if you took a long rest, your pool would reset back to 1 AP. Second, some of your magic items would get better after a certain number of encounters. The idea behind these mechanics was straightforward: to provide incentives to keep pushing on rather than just stop and replenish resources. It was a good idea, but fell short in practice. The magic item improvements were fiddly and rarely worth the effort, and the action point economy was...flawed. Setting aside spending limits and slow accumulation, there was a simple piece of math that if you used you AP in your first encounter, there were two ways to get it back: have another encounter or take a long rest. The optimal choice was pretty obvious.

But the thing is, I like the _idea_ of tempo a lot. I really want to give players a reason to conserve their dailies and push on without feeling like they're being screwed.

One obvious fix is to change up the action point economy. Give more points, allow broader use of them and so on. This is an interesting enough topic in its own right, but I worry a little bit about it because decisions of use vs. stockpile always seem to work better on paper than they do in play. It tends to go to extremes of behavior very quickly.

So I'm now considering something much more simple: grant a tempo bonus equal to the number of encounters so far. That bonus applies to attacks and damage but not to defense. So after encounter #3, you're at +3 to hit and +3 to damage.

Now, my first instinct was to back off from that as overwhelming, maybe cut it down to +1 per two encounters even, but I think that's wrong. The bonus needs to be immediate and appealing enough to offset the loss of recovery, and by allowing it to escalate dramatically, you introduce some real choice. After the 5th encounter, you're hell on wheels, but you are probably also very nearly dead on your feet. Do you take a break and give up that huge bonus, or do you push on and risk it? Remember, your defenses aren't going up, so even though you can kill enemies more quickly and reliably, you're still going to be taking hits.

To me, that feels like a more substantial choice. One with real opportunity costs, and one that invites more complex spending behavior than is currently encouraged. What's more, once I get past that reflexive twitch against giving the players an 'abusable' option like this, I think about the things it invites (less whiffing, faster fights but with real risk) and the possibility that it moves the "sweet spot" a few encounters deeper into the dungeon, and I really like it. A lot. Enough that I wish I was running it right this second.


  1. I really would like to try it out. Could be very interesting. Especially if we have a big counter with current bonus on the table. :)

  2. @Rob: I love this idea! I'll suggest it to my friends who play 4E weekly.

    One idea we've considered:

    - Resting too soon increases your chance of encountering danger.
    - When you rest, roll 1d20 +5 for every encounter completed.
    - On a result of a 20, you encounter no danger.
    - After one encounter, you need to roll a 15. After two, a 10. After three, a 5.
    - A roll of 1 always triggers danger.
    - When you encounter danger, you still fully rest BUT:
    - You play out a skill challenge representing the danger, for example: wandering monsters.
    - To win, you need successes equal to the number of players -1 for every encounter completed.
    - There is no failing the skill challenge, you can accrue an unlimited number of failures BUT:
    - Every failure expends 1 healing surge or 1 daily power, player's choice.

    That said, I prefer your idea! It's so simple and strikes at the meat of what motivates play.

  3. This sounds basically like hot hands for fighting.

    With the caveat that I've not actually played 4e, it seems that this could also be handled by narrative considerations, but that would take away some of the choice-ness of it, which is a lot of what's appealing.

  4. I just recently discovered your blog, and read through a lot of the archives. I think this idea is particularly interesting though. My players are terrified of life without all of their dailies, which leads to them trying to rest at very odd times.

    I'm officially trying this idea next session!

  5. That's a really interesting change; I'd try it. My fiddly note is that you greatly benefit anyone with multi-attacks -- +X to damage is twice as much benefit to a typical ranger as it is to a typical rogue, give or take some fringe effects. If I was going to tweak it I'd remove the damage bonus and keep the to-hit bonus. I'd test it as is before trying to muck with it, though.

    I think your general thesis is dead on target. In particular, I'll note that 99% of the magic items that improve with milestones are rings, and rings are not available until around paragon tier. Which means that your players have ten levels without any magic item incentive to push further in the course of a day.

  6. I wonder how to pace the same effect to consider non-combat encounters. I don't like to be the DM arbitrarily choosing whether something 'counts' as an encounter or not.

  7. @atminn I'd probably limit it to 'any encounter where someone takes damage' as a good yardstick for what is an actually dangerous encounter.

  8. This might lead to issues with encounter balance. If I'm designing an at-level encounter and the PCs come with with an additional +4 bonus, they're going to walk over it. If I'm trying to anticipate the bonus and create a level+5 encounter, and the PCs decide to rest just before it, they're going to get creamed...

  9. I really like this idea sir, though I kind of feel that these bonuses over the course of play would maybe do best in a setting where there is some kind of phlebotium/fluff backing behind the party's increase in combat ability. Like something as simple as saying that in Forgotten Realms, the spellplague has permeated everywhere, and the longer you go causing death/destruction, the more influence it has on you and your abilities. It adds in with what you say, the players hit harder, but are also approaching that near-death point.

    Reminds me also of the old saying: "The flame that burns Twice as bright burns half as long." Maybe insert that quote in-game as an extra warning to the players of what those bonuses mean.

    Good stuff sir!

  10. @david that balance concern was exactly the heart of my initial flinch, but I think it's a paper tiger. Don't worry about rebalancing the encounters, just let the players press on or not. The damage they take should render things self-correcting.

    @Mikeloop86 actually, there's some great generic phlebotinum available in what Kit references: Hot Hands. It's an idea in sports that you can get in the zone on go on a hot streak. There are some problems with it in sports, but it's an idea I think we wall get pretty easily as people: as we dive into things and tension increases, we get more intense in our response. Adrenaline pumps, and we rise to the occasion (or at least we hope we do).

  11. Mike's comment does make me think that it might be better to call it "Tension" or "escalation" if you want to reflect it as a character-internal state rather than an external pacing mechanic.

    It may seem a trivial difference, but I acknowledge that such labels can make all the difference in the world.

  12. Wow, this idea is really interesting and more importantly SIMPLE to implement. I wonder if I would make the later encounters more difficult knowing that PCs would have the bonuses? Something to experiment with!

  13. One other note about escalating difficulty: As it stands, almost every adventure I've seen has the tougher fights near the end (bosses and such), so I think this ends up falling naturally into that cadence.

  14. Is there something to the idea perhaps of making each role provide a different kind of tension/escalation bonus? Defender = bonus to hit, striker = bonus to damage, etc?

  15. @cam maybe. Probably even, but for the moment, I'm drawn by the simplicity of it.

  16. I am currently experimenting with tokens.
    Each player gets a +1 token after successfully completing an encounter objective (without being dropped to 0 hp).
    The tokens can be spent to give any player a +1 for a single roll (before or after the roll) whether that is to-hit, damage, skills etc.
    All tokens are lost when an extended rest is taken.
    I cribbed the notion from another game, but it is interesting so far.

  17. Good stuff, Rob. I tend to create time restrictions and known consequences for missing timed benchmarks.

    That being said, I dig the idea. Maybe instead of making it an arbitrary mechanic maybe create a new type of magic item or ritual?

    - Don

  18. This is a great idea, I love it.

    One thought, though: what if instead of having it trigger from encounters, it triggered from actual resources spent. So, for example (off the top of my head, I'm not much good at balancing this): you get +1 to hit for a combat for each daily already expended when the fight starts. And you get +1 damage for every X already expended at the start of the combat.

    The surges would have to be balanced to reflect different class amounts. Maybe +1 for every 1/3 of your total? E.g. if your class has 6 surges, and you start a fight with 4 left, you get +1 damage for that combat?

    Basically, what if you tied it directly to the resources themselves. This might go more to the idea of pressing on despite tanks getting low, and would also prevent managing to save dailies then unleashing them in the last combat where you have +3 (although maybe that's just fun and not an issue).


  19. Sorry, my post wasn't terribly clear. What I meant to propose was:

    Combat bonuses:
    * +1 to hit for each daily that was expended when you began the fight.
    * +1 to damage for every X healing surges expended when you began the fight.

    I'm not sure how to balance the surge usage between classes, though.

  20. @Erik I think that's actually pretty doable. +1 per 2 or 3 surges spent is probably a conservative way to do it - call it a "Desperation" mechanic. The mismatch in pool size seems like it might end up offsetting the multi-attack issue, since multi-attackers mostly have fewer surges. However, while it's cool, I would worry it's a dangerous step, since at that point it's REALLY easy to start thinking about these things as an interchangeable pool, and that's tricky stuff.

  21. The main reason I would be reluctant to adopt this rule is that I regard tracking all of a character's mini-bonuses as one of the main problems of 4th edition in actual play. I feel like it would slow down every attack and damage calculation by another few seconds (or another rewind-and-correct) as players suddenly remember to add their tempo bonus. The amount of time spent is less of an issue than the amount of irritation caused by stopping me in the middle of a sentence of description as the player suddenly fixes his math.

    This is a gut reaction, though, not a carefully-reasoned one. I think that if you played with this rule from the start of the game, players would get used to it and forget their math less often. Also, a token system would help, as other commenters have mentioned.

  22. I really like this idea. It's got me wondering whether the new D&D Fortune Cards could be used instead of the simple attack and damage bonuses. Each player could build a deck of 5 or 6 Fortune Cards that suit their character, with no duplicates, and sort it how they prefer. In the 2nd encounter the hand size is 1, and the hand size increases by 1 card per encounter. On their first turn in the encounter, players draw their hand from the deck. They then play as many cards as they like from their hands as per the usual rules. At the beginning of subsequent turns they return played cards to their hand.

    If you felt that one Fortune Card wasn't powerful enough, you could make the hand size increase by 2 cards per encounter, but I think that would be more unweildy. It would also be possible to convert some cards into "+1 to all attack rolls this turn" and "+1 to all damage rolls this turn" and let players have a few of those in their deck.

  23. First: I like this idea. I may have to give some thought re: the damage bonus (as noted in an earlier comment) - but it's likely an easy fix: If nothing else, just specify that the damage bonus applies to only one damage roll per round if you think it's an issue (although this compromises the simplicity somewhat).

    Alternately, you could allow them to apply the bonus to either attack or damage, but not both (if they miss, apply it to the attack; if they hit, apply it to the damage.)

    But what intrigued me was the attempt to incorporate it with the fortune cards. I've been playing with them at Encounters for awhile now and I think their greatest disadvantage - aside from just being one more thing to remember - is that you rarely (arguably by design/ balance) draw the precise card you want in any given round (especially with tactics cards which often are dependant upon what your allies are doing).

    I have been already considering allowing players to have a two-card hand(drawing/ discarding/ playing one card per round) so that they could save a conditional (often tactic/defense) card while playing other cards. I hadn't considered increasing the size of this hand in later encounters - but it's not a bad way to 'keep tempo' (although I'm not sure I'd let them play more than one card per round and I'm almost sure I wouldn't allow more than one per turn).

    But I think there may be an easier way to combine this idea with the fortune cards: Allow a player to choose between the effect on the card or 'burning' a card for a bonus of +n (+1/enc) on their attack if the specific text on the card isn't relevant. Since they'll be drawing a card each round regardless, this amounts the same effect as the original article, except where the player chooses to pass on the generic +n benefit for the specific benefit on the card.

    Carl (Syrsuro)


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