Monday, May 05, 2008

I which I offer a preliminary criticism (or two) about 4e encounter design...

I appreciate the fact that Wizards, in making 4e, took a long, hard look at encounter design and found it lacking.

I've written before about how big a difference numbers make in 3.x - a group of PCs against one powerful enemy has a disproportionate advantage due to the per-round limit on actions. This could make climatic fights against the big-bad at the end of an adventure somewhat... ummmm... anti-climatic. A great example of this was in the epic-gestalt-Greyhawk/Ragnnarok campaign Jeff ran. On our way to kill a dragon, we fought a bunch of mutant spider things... and it was an enormously tough fight that we barely won. When we got to the 'dragon' it was a half-dragon (x2), two headed Tarrasque. We took it down in, I think, two rounds (the fact that it rolled a 1 on the save vs. the monk's stunning blow made a difference).

So, yeah, encounter design is an area they ought to have considered.

Now, the two ways they could have fixed this can be fit into two large categories:

1) Increase the frequency with which enemies in an encounter take effective actions
2) Decrease the frequency with which PCs in an encounter take effective actions

They appear to have focused all of their efforts on (1), while ignoring the possibility of playing in the conceptual of (2). On a superficial reading of (2), I can understand why: playing someone who doesn't take actions in combat is boring. This option, however, allows for plenty of action. Just because you aren't swinging your sword and hitting the dragon every round doesn't mean you aren't doing anything. You could be maneuvering it deeper into the cave where it can't take flight. You could be climbing up onto its back so that you can (later) plunge your sword into the base of its skull. You could be drawing its attention away from one of your compatriots. There are a ton of possibilities that could make for a more colorful and exciting fight scene while decreasing the number of attacks PCs can make.

Instead, though, Wizards seems to be focusing on giving enemies more attacks through two methods: (1) Giving monsters more attacks (which I've already written about) and changing encounter design such that the default assumption is that there are a number of enemies equal to the number of PCs.

I can see a lot of problems with this. First off, it seriously limits the sorts of foes PC face. Most monsters won't be encountered alone. This will lead to PCs guessing that there's an ambush when they only see the single enemy who has been laid out as bait. It may well also ring false to players that they are always running into things in groups of four.

Mostly, though, it is the thought of this encounter design at epic levels that really bothers me. Most encounters past level 20 will be with 4ish foes of the PCs' approximate level. When the PCs are epic, their enemies are, as well. This leads to the creation of things like entire races of creatures of epic power. Such things don't make a whole lot of sense to me. Why haven't they taken over the world yet? The too-pat answer of "the PCs" isn't satisfying. Moreover, when I think 'epic enemy' I think of individual enemies of colossal proportions, not everyday baddies that just scaled up in power relative to the PCs.

It is unsatisfying to me.

Also, I am sorry, but this is not a worg.


Lawrence said...

Having played in a demo, it looks to me like they have decreased the number of effective actions and increased the strategic actions for PCs. For instance, my Paladin could do three things in a round with an action point: which was part of the fun. However, only one of those things was an attack. I haven't seen higher levels, but if they got rid of iterative attacks, it will work pretty much the same way (I think) all they way up to thirty.

Second, although I have a similarly bloody mindedness about campaign design, I always gave epic play a pass. The epic races haven't taken over the world because they effectively don't exist until they are a threat.

Epic threats have always just escaped from the dungeon dimension or have been created by an experiment gone wild or the death of a god. It's a sort of a quantum effect: a suitable challenge can't appear unless there is a protagonist, or will be a protagonist, of high enough level to stop them.

Just like there are only a few epic heroes around at any given time, there are never more than a few long buried and about to be awakened epic threats.

noahvale said...

Its been my impression that encounters are based on one monster per PC - as a benchmark. The 4e demo stuff that I've seen, as well as the pre-4e stuff that I've played with some, lends itself to fights ranging in scope from 1 mob vs 5+ PCs, to 10+ mobs vs 5 or 6 PCs. The XP chart- the way you can balance an encounter, is based on the premise that 1 monster of X level is equal to 1 PC of X level.

As far as epic races go, I guess its dependent on the group and the setting. This kind of stuff has always been around though. Rakshasa, Dragons, Giants, etc etc.