Nerd Rage: A Response to the AngryDM

Nerd Rage: A Response to the AngryDM

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A couple weeks back, AngryDM posted an extensive and well-detailed critical analysis of the short rest mechanic.

This of course means I have to find fault with it. :)

Seriously, though, it’s far and away one of AngryDM’s best pieces and I highly recommend it to all 4E DMs and maybe even some players. The intent of this post is not really to rebut AngryDM’s post despite that my thoughts differ from his. His post simply inspired this one and you will have to read it for some of what I say below to make sense. For the purposes of playing on the same field as AngryDM, I will stick to pure mechanics and what the rules themselves say, not how the game is run at any particular table (sorry, Sarah Darkmagic!), which includes players taking whatever sort of rest they desire at their desired pace*.

Point 1: Because eliminating foes – and eliminating them quickly – is by far the most optimal strategy in the system.

If the goal of a combat scenario is just to defeat all enemies, then yes. There really is no good reason to do anything but deal damage. As an exercise, though, go through your rulebooks and find me the place where it says that combat ends when all enemies are defeated. Go on, give it a shot. I’ve done it myself and I’ve yet to find that statement. Unlike a tactical miniatures game, the goal of an RPG combat scenario is intentionally left open-ended.

Furthermore, look at all the effects powers can have! Restrain, push, slide, pull, daze, knock prone, blind, and deafen are just some of the possible results of a combat maneuver. That sort of variety just begs for varied combat goals. “Throw the bad guy through a portal” will be a lot harder without a Controller. “Hold off the Kruthik swarm for 10 rounds” is going to be about exceptional tactical positioning, deciding which threats should be eliminated and which should be kept around to hinder other, larger ones (see also “Escort fragile NPC to meeting point”). Buffing defenses and dropping timely heals will also be a much bigger deal since the battle will last a significant length of in-game time (not to mention real-time). “Escape the (insert wildly convoluted trap room) while dodging mechanical sentries will reward movement over damage. What if your enemies are unwilling – like thralls or coerced townfolk? Is eliminating them still your best option?

My point here is that the ‘damage (or threat elimination) is king’ mentality is not really a systemic issue. It’s the natural product of the narrowly focused combat encounter design that has dominated the 4E published adventure landscape. Having multiple Paths to Victory helps alleviate the problem in a way that is itself supported and encouraged (albeit not very explicitly) by the system.

Now you’re probably wondering why I’m harping so much on this whole damage thing? The difference between what the rules support versus what they emphasize are two very different animals. That distinction will be important as we continue the discussion; the damage assumption happens to be a clear way of illuminating the nuance.

Point 2: There are no degrees of success. If the fighter ends with 5 HP, that’s just as good as ending with 50 HP.

Assuming you can spend as many healing surges as you like between fights and then rest to regain all your surges when you run out, you effectively have infinite HP and the statement above is correct. The same can be said for your power suite, too. It’s a problem with all editions of D&D. If you have a pool of resources that renew over time, but the passage of time is not a threat or doesn’t meaningfully affect the game, you effectively have infinite resources.

Like AngryDM says, your HP value is only meaningful within the confines of a single encounter and if you aren’t dropped from full to dead over the course of any single encounter, you might as well be invincible. That certainly makes it more difficult to legitimately threaten a PC with death on a regular basis and exposes 4E as intentionally not being as lethal as previous editions. The game is built is to have a good chance at seeing a character go from 1st to 30th levels. Sure, there are deaths and TPKs, but not with the regularity of 3E and certainly nowhere close to 2nd or 1st editions. If you want to threaten your PCs with death by HP loss, limiting the number of surges spent during a short rest (honestly, I’d go with 1) might be a quick and efficient way to do that – if you can keep them from taking extended rests (read “progressing time”), which again is strongly discouraged by the DMGs. I feel, however, there is a better way that doesn’t alter the role of HP as “damage threshold over a very short period of time.”

Let me start, though, by saying I’m not a big fan of character death and it’s not because I’m some “wussy Care Bear DM.” Quite the opposite in fact – I can’t keep making your life hell if you’re dead. Killing off characters has always seemed like the cheap way out. Thus while I might occasionally throw a particularly frightful encounter at my PCs, if I’m really feeling sadistic I use a disease or at least something that functions on the disease track.

Diseases inherently provide what a regularly renewable resource system just never will – long term, continual but variable tension – because time (an infinite resource) doesn’t fix them. You must roll or possibly spend (via rituals) your way out. Money for rituals is a finite resource as are die rolls; fail enough die rolls and you don’t get any more because you are removed from play somehow (dead, unconscious, petrified, etc). Diseases can be injuries (see Ari Marmell’s Advanced Player’s Handbook), temporary conditions (Drunkeness from our own Dungeons and Flagons), curses, actual diseases, whatever. Give a PC a ‘disease’ whose final stage is “dead” and that’s a pretty hefty Sword of Damocles to hang over his or her head with a much better chance of actually becoming lethal. It may not matter whether your fighter has 5 HP or 50 HP but it DOES matter quite significantly whether (s)he picked up any lasting injuries, curses or illnesses during the fight. . Now combine that disease with the limited healing surge use and you’ve got a very sticky “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum. Should I continue forward with only a few healing surges or risk worsening my overall condition by taking that rest? That, my friends, is resource management.

4E purposefully does not deal with the long-term negative consequences of actions in a mechanical way effectively and consistently; I don’t think anyone would argue with that. The combat system is meant to reset each time to make things easier to judge for the DM and more “awesome” for the player. That is what the rules emphasize, but support for other situations is available, if limited.

Point 3: Together, the two rules [limited healing surges, limited daily powers] set up a conflict at the end of every encounter. “Do we push ahead and risk further injury and death so that we can face more threats with increased offensive power” or “do we stop and rest to recover ourselves, knowing that we’re going to lose the momentum we’ve gained and possibly have to face stronger fights with less offensive capability?”

I don’t like this idea at all. Too much of it rubs me the wrong way. Dailies really define the flavor of a class – the Warden’s Forms ,the Barbarian’s Rage, the Wizard’s iconic Stinking Cloud and Web – there’s too much lost doing that in my opinion. Plus, what happens if you only have one or two encounters per day for a couple sessions? I have this shiny new power that the game expects me to have available against monsters of my level but I can’t use it because of a choice made by the DM? No. I’m not doing that. That way lies madness.

The question I want to ask is “Why would a PC ever take on a fight with suboptimal resources?” because really that’s the whole problem**. If I can get all my normal goodies back with no real penalty why not always do it? Within the question lies the answer – “my normal goodies.” Players have an idea of baseline status. Modifying the baseline status by removing daily powers or whatever doesn’t really solve the problem. Players will just always seek to revert back to the new baseline. Instead, offer the players something permanent they can’t get any other way and they’ll seriously consider the tradeoff. Magic item uses or action points don’t work because “I’ll just rest and get it back” is a better idea than “push on ahead.” Your carrot can’t naturally refresh. Here are some other ideas that might tempt your players to knock off the short rests and keep moving.

1) Extra XP: An arithmetically increasing 10% per encounter beyond the first (so 100%, 110%, 120%, etc) would be a quick and easy add-on. Many groups don’t bother with XP nowadays and if your players have figured out that leveling up is really just a treadmill then this may not work too well, but it’s a thought.
2) Limit Breaks: This is better than daily powers because they’re not part of the normal game balance and don’t define a character class. They also play far more to the “awesome” factor than a mere attack power. Here’s a simplified mechanic for gaining them as well: when you first go bloodied in an encounter, roll a d10 for every healing surge you’ve spent so far today. On a 10, your Limit Break triggers. Booya!
3) Fortune Cards: I like cards. I really do. I just hate the bland way WotC introduced them to the game. What if the group gets a communal fortune card for every consecutive encounter but loses them all after an extended rest? Better yet, two or three per encounter but you can only keep one after an extended rest? What’s the value of a healing surge or a daily power versus a card? What if we really want that one awesome card for a battle we know is coming but the deck is random? Is it worth risking ourselves for that benefit? Count me in for this!
4) Extra Magic Items: Seriously, you ask? Seriously, I say. It is a fact of training that improvement comes when you “work to failure”. In order to get better at something, you must reach your current limit and surpass it. Also, if you read our Penniless but not Powerless series, you’ll be aware that magic items are really just character customization. So rip the daily benefit off the Armor of Sudden Recovery (turns ongoing damage into regeneration), make it a Boon and wave it in front of your players’ faces – “Spend all your healing surges over the course of this [dungeon, siege, etc] and you get this.” Then sit back and watch your players kill themselves (literally) to get it.

*This is to my knowledge, not in fact a rule but a strong suggestion from the DMG putting it into that sort of weird halfway space, though I will treat it here the same way AngryDM did.

**Note also that this is the same problem skill rolls/skill challenges face – “why would I ever use a suboptimal skill?” – and thus some of the ‘fixes’ overlap.

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Ryven Cedrylle was introduced to 2nd edition D&D by his father at age 8 and has been hooked ever since. When not out somewhere with his nerd-loving wife, he spends an inordinate amount of time staring at small objects - primarily beakers, stars, books about religion and virtual gaming miniatures. Follow him on Twitter for previews of upcoming material and random nuggets of wit! There's also a guy Ryven knows who's trying to adopt a baby. Take a look at the site, see if you can help him out.