Thursday, January 10, 2013

D&D Encounters: War of Everlasting Darkness (Part 2: the Adventuring Day)

In the previous post, I discussed my experience DMing the War of Everlasting Darkness season of D&D Encounters. In this and the next post, I'm delving a bit deeper into the math behind 4E--and why some of the season's grand experiments worked better than others.

War of Everlasting Darkness's "schtick" was that it would play around with some of the "sacred cows" of 4th Edition, especially the concept of the fixed-encounter adventuring day and the contributions of magic items to character statistics. It was a noble experiment, attempting to feature the "exploration" and "interaction" pillars of D&D as heavily as the "combat" pillar, and using magic items more for their flavor than for their mechanical effect, two concepts that feature heavily in D&D Next.

4E (and to a lesser extent, every edition of D&D that has preceded it) is based around the concept of the "adventuring day," the idea that the characters have a certain slate of abilities they can use every day, and once those are exhausted, it's time to go to sleep and get back into it tomorrow. Therefore, DMs face a tight balancing act: too many combat encounters in one day, and the difficulty ramps exponentially with each; too few, and each is trivially easy. Most "adventuring days" in 4E are assumed to have four combat encounters, give or take, and Encounters has dutifully implemented exactly three to five combat encounters per adventuring day in nearly every season until this one.

It turns out that 4E is exquisitely balanced to handle exactly the right number of combats per day: characters have just enough powerful daily-use abilities to make it through the day, but not so many that combat becomes far too easy. When the system works, it works brilliantly: at every level of the game, combat has a flavor of peril and a sense that things could go terribly awry, but rarely does it become overwhelmingly and frustratingly difficult.

War of Everlasting Darkness, though, turned this assumption on its head, to mixed results. Each adventuring day had a number of combat encounters that could happen. But sometimes combat only triggered if the characters acted a certain way or said a certain thing. Sometimes a usually-hostile monster wouldn't be so bent on killing the characters if they'd handled a past situation particularly deftly. And sometimes, three branches of the same tunnel could lead to an easy combat, a hard combat, or no combat at all, essentially at random.

As a result, most adventuring days this season had too few combat encounters compared to the "four per day" heuristic. That typically resulted in one of two outcomes. In some cases, when the players knew they'd only be facing one or two combats of any significance in the day, all the characters could use their most powerful daily-use abilities at once, and combat was over practically before it started. On the other hand, sometimes the module over-compensated for this eventuality by making that once-daily encounter far too difficult.

In 4E, you gain around a 3-4% increase per level to the average d20 roll, not to mention increases in damage and new powers that let you do cool things. An encounter four levels above the characters' level is entirely winnable but on the order of 30% more difficult--since you're less prepared to deal with the monster, and the monster is simultaneously more prepared to deal with you. That translates into a lot of battles won or lost more on luck than on clever strategy or careful planning. Winning because of luck is the least satisfying way to win, and losing because of it is the most frustrating way to lose. 4E in its "sweet spot" is very good at avoiding those outcomes. It's clear that War of Everlasting Darkness saw 4E operate quite far from that comfort zone.

In other words, if your game is a heavily structured one, based on definite combats that will absolutely happen, then 4E is a fantastic rule set for your game. For other situations, it works less well. What if the characters are on a long journey and the DM wants them to have one single combat encounter in a given day, fighting some trolls in a roadside ambush? What if the characters are in some tight spots but opt to talk through them or run away rather than fight it out? Or what if the characters have a bellicose streak and create combat where you didn't plan on one existing?

4th Edition is much more poorly suited to running those sorts of games. And there's a lot to be said for those sorts of games: they appeal to players who are interested in non-combat situations. They give characters who are built around something rather than fighting a chance to shine. Most importantly, the game feels a lot more organic when the characters are working things out their own way rather than being conducted along the DM Railroad.

Being witness to this great experiment has led me to appreciate something unique about roleplaying games compared to other categories of games. When you alter the math in a board game, you're altering the mechanics, and that's it. If you make the starting cost of coal in Power Grid 2 Elektro rather than 1, all you've done is make coal power plants a comparatively worse early-game strategy. You haven't changed the narrative tone of the game.

In D&D and in other roleplaying games, though, when you alter the math, you've altered not only the mechanics but also the narrative tone. In making 4E so explicitly structured around the correct number of combat encounters per adventuring day, 4E became very much about combat encounters. That, in turn, encourages players to create characters best served to engage in combat encounters. A version of D&D less carefully balanced on the precipice of the perfect adventuring day would result in not only the (mechanical) change in how the adventuring day played out but also the (narrative) change in what the experience of playing 4E is like.

This isn't a knock on 4th Edition. To its credit, its balance really is very good, as long as its strictures about including the correct number and difficulty of combats per adventuring day are obeyed. But because in a roleplaying game, the math is intrinsically tied to both the mechanics and the narrative, 4th Edition is simply more capable of handling certain styles of gaming than others. In the third and final post in the series, we'll look at how another D&D concept, the math behind magic items and "inherent bonuses," and how it might affect the look and feel of D&D Next.