Sunday, January 13, 2013

D&D Encounters: War of Everlasting Darkness (Part 3: Magic-Item Mathematics)

This post is the last in a series of three discussing the most recent season of D&D Encounters. I've already posted my recap of how the season unfolded and a discussion of how the "adventuring day" math in 4th Edition affects the narrative character of the game. One of the conclusions I drew was that the math behind roleplaying games uniquely, and distinctly from most other categories of games, affects both the mechanics and narrative of the game.

If you were to distill the central mechano-narrative concept of just about any RPG, it might look something like this: when you do cool stuff, the numbers go up. Of course, every RPG defines "cool stuff" differently, and every one has its own method for making the numbers go up. In D&D, "cool stuff" might be slaying a monster, surviving a trap, or solving a puzzle. From there, you get two rewards, experience points and treasure. Finally, the numbers go up once you've accumulated enough experience points to gain a level or if you find a magic item in all that treasure.

Every edition of the game has worked like this, but the relative contribution of level- and item-derived bonuses to a character's statistics has changed with every incarnation of D&D.

3rd Edition

In 3rd Edition, at sufficiently high level, a character would likely have no fewer than half a dozen magic items that granted static, constant-effect bonuses to his numbers. The preponderance of such items gave rise to the derisive nicknames "Christmas tree" or "mannequin" effect, suggesting that the primary purpose of a character was to act as a stand to hang his magic items on.

There were two big problems with the Christmas tree effect, one narrative and one mechanical. The narrative problem was that a huge fraction of the magic items in 3E went entirely unused. Though the designers and developers tried their hardest to make items interesting enough to compete with bigger numbers, it just didn't work. As a 3E player, given a choice between outfitting your character with an intriguing though limited-use and situational item and one that boosts a number that your character uses often, it was the utilitarian "make the numbers go up" every time.

And the mechanical problem was that the math behind magic item contributions to character numbers was obscured to both players and DMs. There was presumably some internal idea of an "assumed magic item power" vs. "character level" graph, but we couldn't see it. We could posit a function's existence and set its upper and lower bound but had no idea what its shape or intermediate values were.

In that respect, DMing 3rd Edition was a bit like being an auto mechanic who was charged with taking care of a car's engine but couldn't lift the hood. You knew you needed to operate the car under a certain set of conditions, and you knew you needed to give the engine the right kind of oil. But you didn't know what kind, or how much, or how frequently, and you often resorted to making adjustments once things had started making too much noise.

4th Edition

As it was wont to do, 4E fixed most of 3E's problems by introducing some of its own. 4th Edition made two major simplifications to how the item structure worked. First, it reduced the number of types of items that could give a static bonus to a score from at least eight in 3E to only three. That change helped to alleviate the narrative problem from 3rd: no longer did you have to choose between a ring that granted you a brief moment of invisibility and a ring that enhanced your armor--because there was no such thing as a ring that enhanced your armor in 4th Edition. Instead, the ring slot was free to do all sorts of other interesting things besides just provide a numerical benefit.

So far, so good. 4th Edition's other big reform was to codify the exact character level for which each magic item was appropriate. In general, a +1 item (i.e., one that adds 1 to a d20 roll, or a 5% bonus to your attack or defense) was deemed appropriate for a 1st-level character, +2 for a 6th-level character, and so on up to +6 for level 26. So in 4th Edition, a DM had a much better idea of what magic items that characters should have at what time; for example, if your 7th-level fighter already has a +3 sword, he's slightly more powerful than average for his level.

But what if a DM doesn't give out magic items at that canonical rate? What if he built his world to be comparatively low-magic, or he decides there's not a situation where the characters realistically would have found a magic sword in the past few levels? In the original conception of 4E, he would have broken the game. It +3 vs. +2 doesn't seem like a big number, but for every "unit" of each magic item lower than where you "should be" for your level, combat becomes 10% more difficult.

The much worse problem was a newly introduced narrative one. As the magic item math became more transparent and more tightly integrated with the character power math, DMs and players alike began to think more acutely about the "correct" magic item to have at a certain level. As a result, magic items felt less exciting, less mysterious--frankly, less magical--and more utilitarian, more simple tools to make the numbers go up.

Essentials (and looking forward to Next)

Sometime when we weren't looking, but probably around the time that the Essentials rules started worming their way into 4E, the "inherent bonuses" rule showed up, and it's a much better addition to the game than most of the rest of Essentials. All the rule does is decouple the "numbers going up" function of magic items from their narrative interest. The "expected" numerical increases from magic items just get rolled into level-derived bonuses. The reason that "inherent bonuses" is good is that it frees the DM even more to give or withhold magic items as he sees fit, or to make them focus on their special properties instead of just what they do for the characters' numbers.

War of Everlasting Darkness was the first Encounters season to mandate the use of inherent bonuses rather than assuming a glut of magic item-based numerical increase, and it worked beautifully. Only a handful of magic items existed in the season, and all of them served a deeper narrative purpose than simply making the characters more able to survive combat. My players really got into it, getting more excited about the items' ability to break the eponymous darkness than about their game statistics.

And that seems to be a more authentic expression of what a magic item in D&D should be, dating back to its Tolkien-esque roots. Sure, Sting was probably a little sharper and better balanced than the average short sword, but that's not why we remember it. Sting is a notable installation in the fantasy repertoire because it glows blue when goblins and orcs are around. Orcrist wasn't interesting because it gave Thorin Oakenshield a bonus to his attack rolls; it was interesting because the orcs and goblins knew of its might and feared it.

Next seems to be moving back toward the "interesting effects" function of magic items instead of the "numerical bonuses" function; its most recent set of playtest rules limits the highest bonus from a magical weapon (even ones of legendary rarity) to +3. Meanwhile, the rules are full of neat descriptors of who created the item, what it's made from, how it's used, and what its properties and "quirks" might be.

That's exactly the direction D&D should be going: making the math behind magic items both transparent and decoupled from the game's core mechanics. The holy avenger sword is a part of D&D lore because of its epic history with the forces of good, not because of some number it adds to your attack rolls.