Eberron - Scarred Elf Campaign

A Realization

I’ve come to realize that in a very real way I am no longer playing 4th edition D&D.

I don’t mean I don’t follow the rules. I very much enjoy the balance and (for an encounter- and monster-designer) predictability of 4e’s rule set. And when I make houserules, they are nearly always a novel application of an already existing rule, with careful attention to game balance. No, what I mean is, the way I run my games is philosophically very different from the way I think a typical 4e game is run.

One concrete example of that difference relates to a difference in the relative merits of “crunch” and “fluff” in the game. In 4e, the flavour text of powers or other rules elements is expressly irrelevant to how they function. This can lead to a disconnect between the narrative depiction of the functioning of a power and the effects of that power in particular circumstances.

For example, a character has trained in a particular move, a sweeping blow that knocks the legs out from under a creature. Mechanically, the creature is now subject to the “prone” condition. So, how does this work on a gelatinous cube? The rules tell us that in these circumstances, the cube is not physically prone, but is “writhing or unsteady, rather literally lying down.”

I have two issues with this. The first has to do with the functioning of the condition. Among other things, the “prone” condition grants the cube “a +2 bonus to all defences against ranged attacks from attackers that aren’t adjacent to it.” That makes sense for a humanoid, who is lying flat, and makes a smaller target from range. But it makes very little sense for a 10′ × 10′ × 10′ creature. Knock it over, and it is still the same sized target.

So, maybe you squished it flat instead? But then there is a disconnect with the narrative – remember, the warrior trained in this leg-sweeping move, not a flattening move. So instead, we narrate that the character used an entirely different move, doing so proficiently despite the fact the PC has never encountered this situation before.

That may be fine for some people, but it isn’t for me. The narrative continuity of the world has established that the PC has trained in a particular move. He can use that power, as opposed to other powers that he does not know, because of that training. The physics of that power are now baked into the game. I dislike changing the physics, or narrative continuity, out of slavish adherence to game mechanics.

Now, it is possible that with sufficient application of imagination, I can come up with a solution that resolves all of these problems at once. But I haven’t yet, and certainly am unlikely to do so on the spur of the moment at the table, for this and a multitude of other similar situations that can arise.

A similar issue arises from the fact that the mechanics of a power do what they say and nothing more. Unlike the mechanical-narrative-game physics disconnect, this is more of a playstyle issue. As an old-time gamer, I prefer a game where the characters have the ability to resolve problems with the creative application of their existing abilities.

If there is a fire, and a PC has a power that is described as creating a whirlpool of water, I want them to be able to use it to put our a fire even though the mechanics do not specify that “any flames in the area are extinguished” (with a caveat that it doesn’t apply to zones that do fire damage).

My solution? The descriptive text tells us what the power actually does; the mechanics, on the other hand, are merely the recommended method of adjudicating the effect of using the power, which the DM can vary in appropriate circumstances.

For this to work, it is essential that both player and DM understand, and are in agreement respecting, the way a power works in the physical game world. Nothing is more frustrating for a player than when a DM vetoes an action that clearly works in the player’s mind. And the DM should not lightly interfere with the mechanic, but only in the clearest of cases, especially if the player has a reasonable explanation as to how the PC adapts to the circumstances.

On the other hand, you are not limited to the existing flavour text, much of which appears to have been written without a great deal of thought. Any physical description of the effects of the power that matches the mechanics should be acceptable, as long as both player and DM agree on it.

So what happens if the PC hits a gelatinous cube with a proning power? Well, with the power described, I can understand how damage to the base of such a creature would unbalance it until it rights itself with a move action. And I understand how that could make it harder for the cube to move, or attack, or defend itself. So you could retain all of the mechanical aspects of the “prone” condition, except the defence against ranged attacks.

Note, if the attack was against an ochre jelly, which is low to the ground anyway, slicing it up a bit might make it a harder target to hit from range. Maybe I’m reaching, but I would like to rule in favour of the mechanic working as designed whenever possible. And if it was some sort of shield bash attack against fortitude, instead of a leg sweep, I might rule that the cube had been flattened somewhat. Like I said, only interfere in with the mechanics in the clearest of cases.

All of this is contrary to the philosophical approach to 4e, as expressed in the rules. If my interactions with other 4e players on the internet is any indication, my approach is anathema to the average person who still chooses to play that edition of the game. But it is absolutely necessary in order to play the sort of game I want to play.

You Always Need A Map

One of the impediments I encounter to playing more frequently is the amount of time it takes to draw decent maps.

I had thought that the issue arose from the highly tactical combat engine associated with 4th edition D&D. Pretty much every scene in every published adventure has a – usually small – battle map, in full colour, with most of the relevant details placed right on the map. These maps are usually about 8 × 10 squares, or about double that size if large creatures are involved, and involve a lot of heavily contrived terrain features.

For a number of reasons, those maps don’t sit well with me, and don’t suit the way my group plays the game. To start with, they are not nearly large enough. My players are not content to be narratively railroaded into the “start” position on the map: they want to move cautiously through any area, and control their approach.

Moreover, battles often spill off the edge of the map, into corridors in a dungeon, or into the wild world in a town or the wilderness. NPC’s try to run for reinforcements, or PCs need to make a strategic withdrawal (and many monsters won’t stop at the door in pursuing them). When I play in my friend Brent’s campaign, maps that are 100 or 200 squares on a side are not uncommon, and we often use the whole map.

In addition, the maps need a fair number of terrain features to make them interesting, and for my own verisimilitude those features have to be naturalistic. Many 4e published maps are filled with contrived obstacles like acid pits, lava pools, and the like. Moreover, many of the mundane features are inappropriately scaled, like roads and bridges that are too narrow for carts, or rooms that are too large for their purpose and difficult to fill with appropriate furniture.

I run my games in MapTools, which theoretically allows for infinitely large maps. That part suits my purposes just fine, but drawing those maps takes a lot of time. Dungeons are not bad, since there are inherent constraints. I can put an entire dungeon level on a MapTools map. Once the tokens are placed it is obvious what rooms will naturally support each other for reinforcements, and if a battle spills out into a corridor, I know exactly what that corridor looks like.

But wilderness encounters or even urban encounters are not so easy. Wilderness encounters require the placement of interesting terrain features organically over a large area, and urban encounters require mapping out a significant portion of a neighborhood (to say nothing of if the PCs decide to randomly look for a building to duck into). That is a lot of work. I’ve begun making large wilderness and city geomorphs to mitigate the problem of running off the edge of the map in play, but city geomorphs in particular take time to produce and most of them are largely devoid of detail because I just don’t have time for it.

(Wilderness geomprphs are easier because Wolph42’s Bag of Tricks has a nice randomizer for MapTool that lets me populate an area with trees and terrain features).

So I have been looking for shortcuts for a while. Most of my players are still suffering from post-killer-GM-stress-disorder, and entirely distrust that the world that is described by the GM will have any relationship to the world that is actually going on in the GM’s head. They assume that at any moment combat can break out, and at least one of them feels a need to have a good idea of the physical layout for even the most innocuous social interactions.

This was not an issue thirty years ago, when we were playing as teenagers. By and large we played in dungeons of one sort or another, which are much easier to manage. We also had a lot of time on our hands, more than enough to draw lots and lots of detailed maps.

But the other reason we didn’t run into the problem was that we did not have the sort of unconstrained play that I am currently going for. For example, right now, Koln is in a small city, and he knows his sister has been kidnapped and is being held somewhere in that city. He has several clues about her whereabouts, but how he chooses to interpret those clues and where he goes for information is entirely up to him.

And because Koln can go anywhere in the city, and talk to anybody, and fight them or chase them or run away from them, it makes it very hard to plan encounters and have a battle map ready for each one. I really needed to find a way to abstract things. But now I am back to detailing my geomorphs. And, sadly, this is a unique city and I won’t be able to use what I create here anywhere else.

Since it appears that I am not going to be able to abstract encounters, and am going to need to detail every street, plaza, market and throneroom the PCs could possibly enter, I am moving to Plan “B”: how to simplify my maps and make them more quickly. But perhaps that is a topic for another post.


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