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20 June 2010 @ 01:17 pm
D&D: Sandbox vs. Safety Rails  
ThadeousC on Twitter posed the following problem:
I really didn’t think my thoughts would turn into such a big deal; when I shared them on twitter they sparked a discussion spanning a few hours time. The frustration with the 140 character limit had driven me to bring the conversation here to my site.

What was said? I initially posed a question: “In OD&D running from monsters is often a valid option over fighting, does it ever happen in your 4e game?” and I followed up the question with my own reply: “In an attempt to run a more open game my players are allowed to go where they want. Which means they might end up over their heads.”
I'm joining the fray of his "blog carnival" with my two cents and my own rules. I can't understand theirs but you can read some responses to ThadeousC here and here.

The gist of the argument goes that players should be allowed to take their characters wherever in the game world they want, even if it means running into encounters that are grossly inappropriate (too difficult) for them. Some arguments given in favor of this are:
  • to create tension, "just by knowing that there are places too dangerous to explore" [ThadeousC]

  • to increase players' feelings of accomplishment, having defeated a monster that defeated them before

  • to create a world that doesn't feel like it's built to cater to the player characters

  • to create game play that feels more like fiction (the Tolkien analogy)


I think there are better ways to do all of these things.

If you want to create tension and make the world seem dangerous, tell the players how dangerous certain areas are. If they head off to Dragon Pass, just say, "Are you sure? It's full of 20th level dragons." If they go anyway, hey, it's their funerals. One of the articles argues that the DM should be giving clues to the players that they're about to enter a dangerous area. Why? Is the argument that these clues always exist? If not, isn't this just another kind of catering to the players (see below), especially combined with "if you run, you always escape successfully" DM fiat.

If you want to increase the players' feelings of accomplishment, just make encounters balanced but on the challenging side. They're not going to win every encounter. They will have to run every once in a while. Then they can go back and get revenge.

If you're afraid of making the world feel like it's built to cater the players, well... okay, I don't have a better solution for this. My feeling is "get over it." The fantasy world is made to cater to the players! But the concern is that it doesn't feel that way, which is some kind of illusionist trick, right? I sense this is some kind of "realism" argument couched in other terms. Can you have areas that PCs clearly are not ready for, and just tell players not to go there yet unless they're ready to face certain doom, and still maintain that realism? How much do you have to hide from the players to make it feel realistic?

Anyway, what is this idea that every encounter is built for the players to win? and not challenge them? I think it's a straw man. Every version of the rules I've ever read suggests that encounters should be a good mix of easy to very hard, and that if players are not smart, they could well find themselves in a lot of trouble. In many encounters, a few bad die rolls could easily spell death for our heroes, regardless of how the DM balanced things.

If you want to make game play feel more like the fiction, then you're going to have to make the escapes as exciting and as dramatically important as the fights. D&D has pretty crappy escape rules. Probably because escape isn't very interesting most of the time. In most versions of D&D, as far as I can remember, the success or failure of an escape is pretty much left to the DM to decide. So the DM is left with a few choices: a) make up escape rules, b) decide by fiat (with a chance that the PCs die) and risk angering players, c) decide the players always escape but make it seem more dangerous (basically illusionism) and hope they don't wise to the fact that you're not gonna let them die if they're willing to run away.

Let's face it, in old-school D&D, you weren't expected to escape. If you ran into a monster too powerful for your party, it was a total party kill and you rolled new characters. All this talk of realism and what-not never really mentions a TPK as an acceptable outcome. "Oh, you wandered into Dragon Pass. Two ancient red dragons swoop down and *rollrollroll* you all take 185 points of damage from the fire strafe. Too bad, so sad."

I would also argue that Tolkien's characters did not have to "level up" before they could face the obstacles that blocked them. They just needed to find another path, thus the obstacle was not too challenging for them. Still, it's folly to compare literature to gaming. Tolkien never had to risk his hobbits to a roll of the dice. He knew that they'd win in the end, because he held the pen. He also didn't have to share story creation with a bunch of other players or a DM.

One of the blog posts used video games as an example. Video games let players roam around and run into monsters they're definitely not ready to handle. At the same time, these designers also "zone" the world so that you mostly can deal with the stuff your character runs into. There are clear signs that you're entering a zone built for tougher characters. Video games also give you multiple lives, "save" points and restarts. Clearly, the analogy breaks down.

A lot may depend on the version of D&D you're playing, too. If you're playing an old-school version (say, AD&D 1E or before), it's probably appropriate to let the bodies pile up. Crunch all you want; the players will roll up more. If you're playing 2E, just stop. If you're playing 3E or Pathfinder, the game really isn't designed for easy balance of encounters, anyway. You might think an encounter is fair and the PCs wash over it without a sweat; or on the other side of things, an "easy" encounter might turn out to be seriously life-threatening for the PCs. D&D 4E is pretty well "balanced" compared to other editions, and the rules are definitely designed for tactical play. Is part of the challenge for players knowing when to run? Should this knowledge be based purely on in-character knowledge or can or should players bring meta knowledge to bear? "I read the MM and know this creature is 10th level! Let's get out of here!"
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( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Daniel L.dikaiosunh on June 20th, 2010 08:27 pm (UTC)
I have to say, I find the attempts at "realism" fairly uninteresting...

Case in point; before I took over at the main EE DM, we played a game with Chris DMing that had one challenging fight, and then we got jumped by an Ice Devil. After one whack, we realized this was a real no-shit Ice Devil and not some nerfed version, and decided to run - and Chris basically plays with a "if you want to run, I will let you," rule.

Now, I prefer that to, "I will randomly trounce you with no chance to escape," mind you.

Anyway, the point is that the encounter was fairly boring. There wasn't much tactical interest (When you roll a 19 and it doesn't hit, you run). We didn't learn anything fascinating about the world (and then I think we'd be better served with a non-combat, where basically Ice Devil shows up and talks at us and we run away, or something). The *only* interesting part of the encounter was when we debated whether the magic circles we saw might give us enough of an edge to eke it out - and decided not to risk it. *That* felt like a genuine choice.

Now, on the other hand, I lost my beloved Invoker to an encounter that was just 2 levels above us. There were moments when we considered running but didn't and things in retrospect we could have done differently - and those things were *interesting* because they were genuinely challenging/hard choices. 99% of the time, those hard choices are going too show up in encounters that are tough, but close, not because you have the uber-dragon randomly swoop in.

Finally, I hate all this "4E is lame b/c of the encounter balance" BS. As a DM, I can still throw a Level 34 solo at my level 3 characters if I want to be a dick. The better balance system lets me *know* though - in 3E I was constantly either creating cakewalks or hosing the players, and it suuuuuuuuucked and was frustrating.
 Adam Drayadamdray on June 21st, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
I happen to like the realism stuff. I'm probably way more of a Sim advocate than you are.

I agree that being randomly trounced sucks. There's no meaningful choice there, so no story worth telling. I think, in ye days of olde -- in some games, at least -- the story continuity didn't die because it was carried by the player, not the character. You made up a new character who had full knowledge that putting your head in the very dark hole was a Bad Idea, even though there was no reason the character should know that.

Also, re: edition wars, I'm not sure anyone (here) is saying 4E is lame because of encounter balance. Where'd that come from?
Daniel L.dikaiosunh on June 22nd, 2010 12:13 am (UTC)
I don't think it's about Sim (however that's understood). There's realism and then there's realism. Most real lives, even real lives of people who do dangerous, adventure-y things, make terrible stories (and would make stupid games). I mean, to some extent this is old hat territory. Does "realism" mean that there's a 1% chance that even if you stay in the Reef of Level 1 Monsters you get eaten by a Dire Shark Fleshtearer Xtreme? Does "realism" mean that my character can make a DC25 Nature check to figure out whether there are Dire Sharks here? Does "realism" mean that I, as the player, should have the ability to gain enough knowledge, and the ecosystem in-fiction should be coherent enough, that I could figure out that there must be some Dire Sharks around here as apex predators? I could imagine a fun and interesting set up that would have each kind of "realism" as an element of it... but the only way to figure out which one is right for you is to think about what kind of game/story experience you want, and not to try to figure out what's "more realistic." And all I'm saying is - generally randomly running into encounters I have no chance against (unless they're puzzles, like "you've got to use the magic circles!") makes for a boring game of D&D, for my values of "boring." And I suspect that figuring out what role escape, etc. should have is a matter of figuring out the local meaning of "boring," not the local meaning of "realistic." If the game was about being intrepid ecologists, it might be different.

I don't think I ever played OD&D like that, but I'm sure some people did.

And, well, the edition wars stuff was more elsewhere than here, but you started your post by contrasting OD&D with 4E. My general point is that I don't think (for many of the reasons above) the existence of a metagame mechanic for tactical balance affects the realism or randomness of your game at all one way or the other. What's left out of a lot of discussions is that, in earlier versions, the unevenness of encounter difficulty was often a function of the DM being as surprised as the players.
 Adam Drayadamdray on June 22nd, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
This is why systems like Burning Wheel are cool. The GM doesn't have to guess what the players will think is boring or awesome. The players have the responsibility to write what they think is awesome right on their character sheets, under Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits.
Daniel L.dikaiosunh on June 22nd, 2010 03:40 pm (UTC)
Well(1), it's great, but certainly not a panacea. I mean, you had trouble getting folks to write BITs, and in my 4E game I've amped up the personal quest system, thereby effectively letting players tell me exactly what kinds of quests there should be, and only one person has stepped up even to the minimum level of input everyone explicitly agreed to give. I wonder if many debates on this stuff aren't really about how much and what kind of responsibility players take - you could read "wherever we go, encounters are balanced" as a version of "GM, entertain me."

Well(2), even games like BW may seriously offend against some ideas of realism. After all, realistically, I may have strong pacifist beliefs and also never find myself in a situation where fighting is attractive (e.g.).
Raven Daegmorgangreyorm on June 20th, 2010 10:42 pm (UTC)
The whole "Escape?" option is really interesting to me, and your point about there really not being any good rules for it in D&D -- beyond fiat or maybe some kind of Movement thing comparison and skill rolls the DM has to hack together at the table to decide what works -- strikes me because of something I did with eXpendables without really thinking about it.

I wrote up Chase and Escape rules as complex as the fighting rules, which can also affect combat; and I expect them to be used as much as or more than the combat rules. I wrote them up because man-hunts, narrow escapes, being cornered, and hunter-hunted are all a big part of the genre I'm trying to emulate.

I hadn't really thought about their general lack in RPGs, especially the usual ones.
 Adam Drayadamdray on June 21st, 2010 02:07 pm (UTC)
I suppose, in a game where the characters are supposed to be epic heroes, running away does not fit the classic hero profile. That's too bad, as it only further calcifies the "violence is the only answer" cliche.

I think I need to read eXpendables. Is this somewhere I can glance?
Raven Daegmorgangreyorm on June 21st, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
Not really. There's a very, very old version around on the 'nets (but between it and the current version, there are more differences than similarities, even among the similarities).

I hit a writing wall some time back and put it on the back burner...oh, that's amusing. I just looked now, I stopped in the middle of writing the Hunt rules.
(Anonymous) on June 20th, 2010 11:44 pm (UTC)
A world for your players.
it's me Thadeous, I just don't have a live journal account so I get to be anon for this. I can understand that some or many players won't enjoy learning that the world isn't all with in 3 levels of their characters but many players do. I think this is a case of altering your world design to suit your particular group. I had a group who had a list of all of the NPCs and all of the villains who were too strong for them. They had a really enjoyable time of going back and beating the snot out of each and every one of them when they had leveled up.

Some players enjoy open worlds filled with danger, some don't. I would have made this point of view a major part of my post but then there wouldn't really need to be a blog carnival if I admitted I wasn't 100% right.

 Adam Drayadamdray on June 21st, 2010 02:12 pm (UTC)
Re: A world for your players.
I really didn't delve deeply into my feelings about hiding stuff from your players. My general feeling is that every player should be aware of how the game works. If they want to pretend it doesn't work that way after you tell them, that's fine, but they need to know up front.

I hate options like giving PCs script immunity while making the players think they escaped by the skin of their teeth.
Erik Amundsencucumberseed on June 21st, 2010 04:35 am (UTC)
Tangential to what you're talking about, but I can hope that this is a useful bit of info for you. After three sessions of weekly 4e while also playing a monthly 3.5 game I've noticed that I will put up with things in 4e that, in 3.5 (or any other game, for that matter) would have me walking out the door pumping my arms and making train noises. At the very least, that's how it is in my group - there is a strong social contract in place, already, that says we're there to play the encounters, and play them as they were planned. This is absolutely antithetical to the way I play every other RPG, where I am always trying to get the best outcome for my PC and my party and the NPCs we care for with the least amount of effort or risk on our parts (which is almost always plenty risky).

That said, the Star League "victory or death" mentality of D&D that infects all rpgs to one extent or another is a vexing one, and one I'm actually kind of grappling with in design now. Escaping usually feels like losing, and about the only way I've gotten it to work and make it fun at the time (escapes and TPKs are often fun *after* the fact) is to arrange a scene so the players either know they want to escape off the bat or that they realize three or four rounds in that what they were doing all this time is escaping.
 Adam Drayadamdray on June 21st, 2010 02:09 pm (UTC)
I'd love to see a game where escaping, or at least de-escalating and calming a violent attacker, was not only a viable option, but the best option. The winning option. Also a fun and rewarding option.
Erik Amundsencucumberseed on June 21st, 2010 02:21 pm (UTC)
I would too. So I will. I realized last night that scope crept far too far in Autumn War, and I need to go back the way I came (I'll use the other stuff for a different game).
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