Monday, March 5, 2018

Balance, Challenge & Antagonism when Running Dungeons & Dragons

D&D Cartoon Dungeon Master - pretty friendly

The concept of Challenge Rating in D&D, a means of balancing encounters can detract from open world, location based, sandbox play - even if it is useful for tactical combat focused games.

The 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons has a system I find strange coming from playing earlier editions almost exclusively - the Challenge Rating ("CR").

It may seem odd, but I've never run a game where I tried to determine numerically if a combat encounter would be too dangerous for my players - this isn't to say that adventure design shouldn't require some consideration of enemy strength compared to that of the party, but really it's not an issue that older editions obsess too much on, even if it is treated as an absolutely core system to newer editions of Dungeons & Dragons. I fear that the reliance on a mechanical system to assure "balance" and "fairness" both shows a corrosive distrust of the Game Master and encourages a less open more competitive style of play.

It appears Challenge Rating started as a concept somewhere in the mass of publications that was D&D's 3.5 edition, but in 4th edition it really became a key component of Encounter Design, which itself assumed a place of prominence rather then being a small subset of Adventure Design.  It's also easy to see why Challenge Rating in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, and 3.5's offshoot Pathfinder, became such a profoundly important, and useful, element of running the game.  3.5 and 4th Edition are mechanically complex games where the locus of play (a term I use frequently to describe the type of play where the players are most engaged and which takes up the most time at the table) is tactical combat.  Combat encounter design becomes the focus for most GMs in these editions and games, as it is designed to be, and CR functions as a useful set of tools to provide the balance that the highly tuned, but straight-forward, combat mechanics require to make the combat encounters both challenging and potentially survivable.  4th Edition CR rules create "XP budgets" to build and modify encounters from a selected list of pre-designed (or built and modified via templates) foes, each with a combat role that adds complexity to combat encounters and defines their tactics to the GM. 

While it's popular among some who play older editions and styles of D&D to wring hands or complain about this style of play and the need for or usefulness of a CR based combat encounter construction system in 4E and Pathfinder, it's worth noting that these GM facing systems make sense for the game being played - a complex tactical combat system about direct grid based confrontation with fantastical creatures. While, no matter the system, a good GM or designer will always want to have some idea about how an encounter or string of encounters might deplete player resources, the more complex and mechanically defined those resources are, the more systems for checking if an encounter or adventure is properly challenging for players becomes useful - especially when the goal of a play session is combat, sidestepping other resource draining activities (puzzles, negotiation) as quickly as possible to assure adequate time for complex combats.  As the game itself puts it:

"[T]he D&D game is a series of encounters. Encounters are where the game happens—where the capabilities of the characters are put to the test and success or failure hang in the balance." 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide Deluxe. (2008, James Wyatt) pg 34.
It becomes clear that combat centered gameplay within the matrix of scene based adventure design can be a choice, and the designers of D&D's 3.5 and 4th editions chose to build a system whose mechanics supported this style of play.  Yet it's equally worth noting that in doing so they chose to remove or sideline other aspects of the game that made up a large amount of play in earlier editions.  This transformation of the game also has effects that go beyond mere mechanics and change the duties and conception of what a good Game Master should do and bring to the table - and they do so in a way that has the potential to be disastrous for games where the locus of play isn't tactical combat.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Fighting Goblins in a Creative Wasteland

D&D's Goblins Started Dull
Recently Cecelia D'Anastasio of the relatively mainstream web publication Kotaku published a long piece on the subject of Fighting Goblins in Dungeons & Dragons, and how it is "The Worst".  I don't disagree with her that the sort of tedious back and forth of melee attacks until the inevitable conclusion where the victorious party of adventurers stands atop a pile of dead goblins she describes is "The Worst" of tabletop gaming, and agree that the reasons she identifies describe the problem fairly well:
  • Annoyance at a mundane direct conflict and head to head combat where the opposition does not and can not bring complex tactics to the fight and where because of their perceptions about the enemy the players don't feel risk or excitment. 
  • Boredom and frustration created by a the lack of notable or intriguing elements about the monsters to make them wondrous, interesting, exciting or compelling. 
The problem D'Anastasio identifies is thus complex and two-fold (at least) both diegetic (relating to the story or narrative and how it's told) and mechanical (relating to how the gamified rules and procedures of combat function). In D'Anastasio's game, and many others I suspect, a goblin encounter is both boring and frustrating because there's nothing interesting to learn about goblins or the setting from the encounter and there is no risk or tension in the encounter.  This first problem is the one D'Anastasio provides a prescription to and her prescription, like her diagnosis is fundamentally right, but doesn't go very far.  D'Anastasio suggests that the GM "combine the cliched combat encounter with any of those other things [puzzle-solving or story development, discovery]".  This creative impulse is good, but might not get one very far as long as "goblins" remain two-dimensional known quantities that present no threat but can only be encountered in combat.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

A Map - but not the one you want

I jest, a reader asked for some maps related to my ongoing HMS APOLLYON
project - but I don't feel like publishing those, so here's a map of a twelve sided
folded unnatural space.

I am keying it up as a combination of the ruins of the folded city of an ancient
Carcosa imposed upon by the last bastion and hidden bunkers of the Iron King,
Hawberk I, who was deposed by its current Ragged King.

It's a bad place where refugees from Carcosa find themselves scavenging.

The project contains rooms like this: