Points of Articulation

Since I’m working on the new dice system for With Great Power, this kind of stuff is on my mind.

Just looking at dice systems, most of them have certain “points of articulation” like an action figure. Places where inputs from the fiction or from player decisions can affect the probability of the roll. One of the tasks of good design is to determine what those points of articulation are, map them clearly to their triggers in the game, and be certain you have a good understanding of what consequences each decision will have on the probability.

Let’s look for example at D&D 4th edition. The basic roll is d20 + bonus number versus a difficulty class or defense value. Where are the points of articulation in this single dice mechanic? Each item in that formula is its own point of articulation: the die roll, the bonus number, and the difficulty class/defense value.

The game puts in lots and lots (and lots) of different ways to change the three parts of this equation. For dice rolls, there are special abilities, usually race-related, that will allow you a re-roll, or allow you to add a d6 to your roll, or allow you to roll twice and use the better one. Access to these abilities is almost always determined in character creation, but their use is decided in play. The bonus number probably has the most ways to alter it: Level bonuses, ability score bonuses, special powers, weapon bonuses, and gaining combat advantage, just to name a few. The defense value will change through the use of abilities, and some powers allow you to attack different defenses than other powers.

In play, these points of articulation drive players to weigh the options when creating their characters, driving them to design characters that do one type of thing very, very well. In play, it encourages players to look for opportunities that combine bonuses of different sorts into the same attack. Movement is encouraged, since positioning can gain you multiple bonuses. This supports the kind of exciting, action-intense combats that D&D 4e was built to create.

As a designer, these exceptions can be the real meat of your game. They are where the players get to take fate in their hand and shape their own probabilities by the choices they make. Players love doing that. Make sure that the choices they make reflect the basic premise of the game. When your points of articulation do not match up with the tactical, exploratory, or thematic decisions that the premise demands, your game will earn the title “broken.” And deserve it.

Ten Favorite Mechanics – #7 The Four Roles in D&D 4th edition

#7 – The Four Roles from D&D 4th edition

For decades, if level was king of Dungeons and Dragons, then class was the power behind the throne. Cleric. Fighter. Magic User. Thief. What you could do in the world was sharply circumscribed* by what class you chose. Magic Users had to study their spellbooks. Thieves could climb walls when no one else could. Pages and pages of elaborate subsystems and class-specific spells and equipment. 2nd Edition brought class-specific handbooks and “kits” of even more specific abilities. Piles and piles of text about what your class would allow you to do.

But the game itself never addressed the question of what you should do.

Along comes 4th edition D&D, with its design goal of baking teamwork right into the system. And they do it with four little words: Leader, Defender, Controller, and Striker. Four roles that describe how a team functions. Four roles that explain why classes do what they do. Four roles that tell you how to play the game.

The four roles take the fundamental D&D notion of niche protection and breathe life into. They explain why each niche exists, and how they interact with other niches. And they offer guidance and structure for interacting with the game in several ways:

  • Character Creation. When navigating the vast options of feats, powers, and equipment, your role gives you clues about what will do the most good. If you’re a Controller and need to decide between an option that lets you do more damage to a single opponent, and one that lets you damage a great many different opponents, you’re probably better off taking the latter. The roles let you know that doing scads of damage is a speciality of Strikers, so leave that to your group’s Rogue or Warlock.
  • Tactical Play. Likewise, in the midst of an encounter, your role reminds you what you’re best at. If you’re a Leader, you know it’s your job to make the rest of the party shine. When you see an opening to grab for the glory at the expense of the party, your role reminds you that you’re there to help others, and can do that really well.
  • Sustained Interest. Since each role affects the game in different ways, and provokes unique synergies with the other roles, there’s greater incentive to stay interested in the game when it’s not your turn. Maybe the Leader will give your Defender a chance to heal, or the Controller will set you up for an opportunity attack on the bad guy. Best to pay attention!
  • Social Reinforcement. Roleplaying is a social activity, and the four roles provide a framework for helping one another within the game. When you help someone in the game, they say “Thanks” in real life. The teamwork in the game mirrors and reinforces the cooperation that goes on around the table. We’re all helping each other imagine this heroic battle against a malevolent beast, just as our characters are helping one another fight the monster as well.

Hardwired teamwork is the great strength of D&D 4th edition, setting it apart from previous versions. And the cornerstone of that teamwork are the four roles.

Up next: I am the walrus, you are Ancient of Stars

*Perhaps classes aren’t quite as “sharply circumscribed” as I was once led to believe. When I was in 3rd grade, I had played D&D once, but had no opportunity to play again. So when I overheard two “worldly” 4th graders arguing over the game on the bus, my ears perked up. One guy wanted his magic user to be able to use a magic sword the group had found. His brother, the DM, said “It says right in the book that magic users can only use a quarterstaff or a dagger. You can’t use the sword!”

The player responded, “Maybe I can’t use it, but I can still keep it.”

The DM countered, “No, you can’t even pick it up.”

The player was defiant, “What do you mean I can’t pick it up? What happens if a magic user picks up a sword.”

The DM had the last word, “You just die, man. You just die.

That’s quite a way to go around killing wizards. Simply hand them a sword and they fall over dead!

A dirty trick in D&D

I’ve taking over DMing duties for our Sunday D&D game. I noticed that all of the PCs, except for two, had 2 magic items apiece. So before the last session, I had those players browse the books and choose a magic item that they wanted. I said I would put it in that day’s scenario so they could find it.

Where, exactly, did I put it? In the hands of the cultists they would be fighting, of course! Bruce’s paladin even took a critical hit from the mage wielding Carl’s Staff of Magic Missles. Bloodied him in a single blow, I think!

I wonder what dirty trick I’ll come up with for this week’s D&D game?

Not what you normally think of as a “D&D movie dream”

I had this dream about running a variant of D&D 4th edition. Instead of fighting monsters to gain treasure and glory. You were fighting Hollywood movie executives to get your movie made and into theaters. It was like D&D meets The Player. It had classes, and all the same powers and whatnot, just reskinned for the Hollywood “development hell” setting. It had things like “I’m using Storyboard on the suit. It’s my daily power and he’s already bloody, so let’s hope I hit.” The maps were little conference rooms. In the dream, my friend Bruce, who plays D&D with us solely for the tactics, enjoyed it just as much because all the tactics and stuff. Weird.

On another note, I missed Bard’s Day again. Yesterday was Shakespeare’s 445th birthday. Four centuries ago, he was closing up his career, spending more time in Stratford. Only had a few more plays, and a few more years in him. Regardless, happy belated Bard’s Day!

Putting Teeth into 4th Edition

I’ll be posting a little more about our D&D game this week. Kat did an awesome thing in yesterday’s game. She inserted an encounter in Keep on the Shadowfell and gave the thing TEETH.

Here’s the setup: We’ve done two encounters in a row, and the entire party has used its daily powers. But, we’ve learned that there’s a damsel in distress being sacrificed RIGHT NOW. What else can we do but charge in and save her? We know with all our dailies and about half our healing surges gone, it’s going to be a tough fight.

Kat tells us right off the bat that she’ll die in 4 rounds if we don’t get her out. So Michele, playing our Eladrin rogue with high initiative and all kinds of teleporting powers gets to the damsel in the very beginning of the very first round. She uses two move actions to get there, and is about to use her minor action to cut the cords binding her to the sacrificial altar. Rescue is lookin’ good, right?

Then Kat says “If you *don’t* cut her loose right now, you can use one of your daily powers again.” That’s teeth! Michele, feeling impish, opts for the daily power, and the damsel continues to bleed. Kat uses this trick several times in the encounter on several players, and although we defeat the undead guarding the damsel, we almost *don’t* get her out of the room in time because of all the delays

4th Edition is so full of player resources, playing with ways to deplete and refresh them is fertile ground for putting choice–of both the gamist and narrativist flavors–into the players’ hands.

How have you played with resources to good effect?

Grappling with 4th Edition–Part 1

So, we’ve been playing a lot of 4th edition. I mean A LOT. Something like twelve sessions in the last eight weeks. For someone who hadn’t played an RPG at home for something like six months, and only sporadically for more than a year before that, this is is a whiplash-inducing change of pace. I’ve been enjoying the game. But, as a game designer, I find myself compelled to dig at the cause of WHY I’m enjoying the game.

Due to time constraints, I’m going to have to stretch these posts out over a number of days.

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If all my friends jumped off a bridge…

… I would evidently play D&D 4th edition with them on the way down. I gotta admit that being an “indie guy” playing the most commercial RPG out there, gives me little twinges of feeling like a sellout. But, it’s very much a “System Matters” game, to its core. Plus, fun play is better than no play, even if it comes from The Man.

Kat’s been running a group of six of us through Keep on the Shadowfell. It’s pretty fun. I think the Sons of Kryos said it best when they said that D&D has stopped trying to be like fantasy novels or fantasy movies, but it’s just being D&D. You fight monsters. The fights are interesting. The map and minis/tokens are essential. You get treasure and gain levels and the levels let you do more fun things. You and your friends are a team standing up to evil. Those were all the strong points of D&D.

We’ve only done two sessions of the Shadowfell game, with six players in the group. Kat made up the characters so they’d all have good solid reasons to be together. The intraparty chatter is fun. We haven’t quite got a handle on great team tactics yet, but I’m sure that will come with time.

After the first Shadowfell game, Kat and Michele and I were paging through the books and came across the bit in the back of Monster Manual about making player character monsters. It sparked some ideas, and so I’m DMing a game where Kat is playing a goblin rogue called Twitch, Michele is playing a kobold war wizard called Shifty, and there are two semi-NPCs along: a minotaur cleric named Ferdinand and a drow archer ranger called Twang. All of them are of good alignment and all are outcasts from their own societies. They had been taken in by human cleric who was lost in the Underdark. The cleric died, but made them promise to take his holy symbol back to his main temple … on the surface! Thus, they’ve started on their long, long quest to the surface.

The fights have been fun. But it has reminded me a few things I always hated about D&D: money and experience points. Tracking all that stuff drives me batty. In the “Out of the Underdark” game, money doesn’t really matter, because where are they going to use it, anyway? For xp, I looked at the section in the DMG where they talk about not tracking xp and just leveling the whole party up every X encounters. I thought 1st level might get boring pretty fast, so I said “Let’s level up after every encounter.” However, Kat and Michele said that was too fast. So, we reached a compromise. At the end of every session, we take a vote: “Do we want to go up a level?” If the vote is unanimous, the party goes up. How’s that for player empowerment? 😉