Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ow Ow Ow

Gah, gonna be a short one today. Wrenched my back, and my attention span is SQUIRREL.

I am cautiously optimistic about some of the things WOTC has had to say about the future of 4e at Gencon, most of which I received via Critical Hits coverage of the new product seminar. The funny thing is that I'm not terribly excited about any product in particular (except perhaps Lord of Waterdeep - people I trust keep saying good things about it) but there seems to be a shift in emphasis in adventure, setting and material design that gravitates towards a little more setting buy in and dramatic focus. That's ambitious.

I'd be excited if it could work. Every now and again I get the urge to drastically crack 4e open to better support such things. It wouldn't be hard - the core engine is pretty robust, and it would be easy to make a handful of changes (Change skills, connection between stats and attacks, revamp rituals and try some different power ideas) to make a game that would probably be a lot of fun to try. However, it would be terrible to share and on sufficiently shaky legal ground that it's just not worth the risk. Still, there's a specific area where this raises my curiosity, and that is setting.

4e tends toward static settings. This Is not a failure of writing so much as a function of the way NPCs and powers are handled. Very little in 4e has much effect longer than scene length, and there is barely even a concept of recurring enemies. The result has been settings which are magnificent set-pieces but which don't necessarily have a lot of dynamism to them. Coupled with the fact that the system is a fairly abstract one (rather than representational) it's hard for a setting to come to life on its own.

While there's some criticism in this, I feel I should also point out the upside - 4e material has been much more focused on going from Zero to playing something cool in no time flat, and that's a pretty good goal. What's more, the desire that a setting be dynamic is directly at odds with a lot of the source fiction people draw on - settings are often static backdrops except where the main characters interact with them, and there's a lot of virtue to that. Like many things, it's a trade-off, and how well it works depends a lot on how you value the elements and how they're balanced.

But the thing is, while the mechanics exert a certain gravity, it's far from inescapable. I feel that encounter design has matured a lot since 4e came out, and it's mature enough that focus can now be shifted to setting and adventures. If so, I'll be really curious to see what comes of it.


  1. Where are you getting the feeling that encounter design has matured? I've been reading the exact opposite, people being quite critical of WotC's modules.

    I know it's therpgsite, but these guys seem to know what they are talking about:

  2. You might want to take a look through the new Neverwinter Campaign Setting, as it has some of these thoughts already in place. I'm only partway through it, but they call out their goals right in the introduction.

    Two things stand out in the actual material:
    1. The various factions in Neverwinter don't have fixed plans as much as they have goals they are working towards.

    2. Many new character themes were introduced that are specific to the campaign setting, and the campaign setting tries to use those themes to introduce specific campaign hooks.

    I'm reminded in particular of your "Get Villainy Done" post from back in April. I think it isn't hard to work from the goals the book provides to specific tasks. Some tasks are already described in a general way (with ideas about how specific PCs get involved in it).

    Anyway, Neverwinter feels like they've tried to build a setting book that GMs can more easily personalize.

  3. I definitely agree about 4e's power structure being built around short-term effects that are easily removed. About the only ones that last for any period of time are death and diseases, and even those stop being a problem at higher levels. In later monster books, even things like petrification have easy ways to be cured that don't involve rituals. The lack of lasting consequences really does change the feel of the game. More than once, I've noodled around on paper about introducing FATE consequences into 4e, specifically to add lingering effects.

    Another obvious answer is to just turn long-term effects into a campaign thing. That is, the game doesn't specifically inflict them, but the GM *can* introduce them as a story element.

    Some examples (actual play and theoretical):
    1. Actual play: In one game I'm in, the feywild is a lot more fantastical and vibrant; when we first entered the feywild, we had penalties to certain skills or against certain effects until we acclimatized ourselves to the area. Adjusting to the area was measured through extended rests. Mechanically, this isn't very different from the penalty for being raised from the dead. The penalty persisted through multiple scenes, but eventually went away.

    2. Inflict a long-term effect on a PC or an NPC; curing it becomes a quest. Obviously, in context, this usually means some sort of exotic spell, disease or poison. This is a more story-oriented approach; SOTC had similar ideas in its exotic poisons section.

    For either effect, it would be better if the initial problem was introduced in play, rather than through fiat. For example, perhaps the curse required a party member to be bloodied or reduced to 0 hit points. (Given how easy it is to bring an unconscious party member up to full health, 0 hit points is the new bloodied.) For a more story-oriented curse, maybe a PC gets bloodied during a fight and the NPC grabs hair and blood and tries to get away. If he gets away, the master villain can act on the PC from a distance.

    The downside with either effect would be determining how it interacts with mechanical benefits the characters already have (dwarves are notoriously resistant to poison). And in general, it means the GM has to be prepared if the PCs want to use similar tactics. "Oh, so Spider Rot Venom can kill a man slowly? Let's go shopping."

  4. @Olman That does sound like a piece of crap, and more broadly, I think the gameday adventures often suffer from the necessity to be GO GO GO kind of events. However, a lot of those concerns (Railroading, bad plots etc.) are exactly the weak spot sin my mind - when I say encounter design has gotten mature, I mean designers at large know how to design the fight piece of things as something more than just a pile of statblocks. Certainly, not every encounter will be as good as they can be, but I've seen enough good stuff to say the lessons have been discovered, even if not yet universally learned.

    SO the next trick is tying them together.

    @Codrus I keep hearing good enough things about Neverwinter that I may have to break down and grab it.

    And, yes. That's a great example of why I think this stuff _can_ work in 4e, there's just not much inertia for it at the moment.

  5. Thanks for the answer Rob. I hope your back gets better.


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