Speeding up D&D 4E
Much digital ink has been spilled on the topic of speeding up combat in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. I think at this point we can all at least agree that combat can grow a bit sluggish at times. The interesting thing is, and it’s something that some people have touched upon at various points in the 4E lifecycle already, that there seems to be a paradigm shift away from the simple “4E is slow because of combat”, and I think that’s a very good thing.
The “new” (and it’s not new, just only discussed by a select few in the past) idea is that the problem lies more in adventure design than combat sluggishness. @glimmthegnome on Twitter planted the seed of this idea for me a couple of weeks ago, @gamefiend pushed it along, and @neogrognard put it into words in his Save My Game column on the Wizards website last week.
My spin is that we need to stop looking at 4E as a series of combat encounters whose sole purpose is to level up. Looking at it now, this is probably the biggest support of the “4E is WoW” argument. It doesn’t have to be though. Sadly, I think the great strides Wizards of the Coast took forward with 4E are the same things that give people ammunition to trash it.
XP is a great mechanic. It allows everyone at the table to track their character’s progression, and in 4E it really gives the DM a lot of flexible power to create. Using an XP budget makes it easy to scale combat encounters up or down even on-the-fly.
The problem with XP in 4E is that the way it has been presented in the books, it almost appears to imply that the only way to gather XP is via combats and Skill Challenges. This makes 4E feel very mechanical, where now I realize it doesn’t have to be.
I want to preface this by saying I’m not trying to bad mouth Wizards of the Coast. That said, I do blame their initial presentation of fourth edition for this “problem.” 4E is a very deep and comprehensive system. I’ve heard all of the talk that 3.x was even more detailed, but I didn’t play that edition and don’t concern myself with the past. The feeling that 4E gave me while reading the initial PHB, DMG, and MM books, a year into the edition’s lifecycle, was that the game focused on character progression via XP hoarding, which appeared to be the province of combats and mechanical Skill Challenges.
That is why I think this paradigm shift is both good and important and I hope others join the march. Often we see nerdrage from both ends of the spectrum from “4E is a video game. RAWR.” to “Oh, I guess you think 4E doesn’t allow role-playing. RAWR.” The key is to be able to show people how character progression can be made through role-playing, rather than just dungeon-delving, and put a system in place to do so.
I think this is a topic that Wizards needs to put more effort into clearly addressing. Perhaps giving more guidelines on XP value for various plot motion. Let’s remember, Wizards spent a lot of ink telling us that PCs were expected to run through 8 to 10 encounters of their current level before advancing. Why? A deliberate number of combats/skill challenges for every level is silly at best, robotic and immersion-breaking at worst. The idea of Points of Light being everything was a misstep as well. It was another implied statement that “In order to level up you have to go out and kill bad guys”, rather than introducing plot items such as diplomacy, betrayal, espionage, etc.; the topics you’d expect to see in most role-play focused campaigns. I don’t think it was intentional, but nonetheless, it’s how it has always felt to me, and I’m sure others as well.
Looking at the orignal 4E Dungeon Master’s Guide, the chapter on “Noncombat Encounters” contains 3 sections: Skill Challenges, Puzzles, and Traps and Hazards. Yes, I believe Skill Challenges were supposed to represent the situation where the party implores the help of a duke, or runs around town gathering clues to unravel the mysterious deaths going on in the town they’re in, however, with the 4E presentation, it appears that the role-playing was replaced with the mechanic of the Skill Challenge. Honestly, as a 4E DM I’ve been demanding skill checks far too often, and it breaks the playacting within the scene. I’m going to work on that going forward, but it’s a problem that needs addressing officially. There should be advice for running the above situations without ever rolling a die, yet still granting a specific number of XP when the scene is resolved.
Again, the recent Save My Game column talked about this, about figuring out your players’ personalities and adjusting the situations you present to them. There is a distinction between situations and encounters and we need Wizards to tell us how best to reward players for non-encounter play. It’s easy to determine the XP reward for a party who just defeated a level 6 trap, but how many XP does the level 6 party get if through great role-play they discover that the flirty and sprightly daughter of the town’s mayor is actually the assassin killing her father’s secret enemies without ever having picked up a d20?
The recent Stronghold article sort of pushed the topic of boundary-pushing as well, though saying that people aren’t interested in details about strongholds cut me a bit deep. I am! That’s another example of WotC missing out on what some people (and I can’t speak to how many) are looking for. Yes, sometimes we all like to march into a dungeon full of kobolds and lay waste to everything inside. However, some of us look back at our old Rules Cyclopedia or Companion rule book, turn to the section on strongholds and mass warfare rules, and want to play with those details. Wizards should be encouraging the expansion of D&D rather than ignoring those they feel are on the fringe. None of us knows if we are or aren’t, but I assure you, we do exist.
Again, I’m honestly not trying to take stabs at WotC, but I think there is a market for things they don’t seem to believe there is. I’m honestly looking forward to Conquest of Nerath specifically for mass battle rules. I plan on there being at least one epic Helm’s Deep style battle in my current campaign, and hopefully that board game will allow my group to play it out with some structure beyond “Run it as a Skill Challenge.” I’ve debated expanding on @greywulf‘s mass army idea adapted from the Rules Cyclopedia, but I haven’t yet had the time to work with it. I have seen others on the web express a desire for mass-combat rules in 4E who were told to run it as a Skill Challenge. That’s not nearly as fun as leading armies into battle and watching plans come to fruition or ruin.
Interestingly, while I’m a big fan of dead-trees, I think many of these things are perfect for the DDi magazines. An expansion on Strongholds, mass-battle rules, even a framework for awarding players for role-playing could be great articles for the magazines. I’m a big proponent of Wizards putting material in print, since that is always viewed as more “reliable” than anything we pundits on the internet have to say, but I encourage my fellow bloggers to get involved as well. Let’s start pushing the envelope on character progression beyond “fight 8 to 10 groups of kobolds to get to level 2. Fight 8 to 10 groups of goblins to get to level 3. Fight 8 to 10 groups of hobgoblins to get to level 4. Etc.”
As many have said before, combat should advance the story. The problem with the 8 to 10 paradigm is that it’s very difficult to run 8 to 10 encounters over the course of 30 levels (240 to 300 total encounters) and keep every single one, or even most, “on-topic.” We need to find ways to reduce level advancement to a handful of tense, resource depleting combats and skill challenges alongside an equal number of plot-advancing story interludes; or more properly, a storyline interceded by a significantly reduced number of plot-relevant encounters.
If level advancement comes more fluidly (and often), and all combats, no matter how slow, are relevant to the continuing advancement of the overarching plot, people will stop complaining that 4E plays too slow. Right now, it’s a relevant and legitimate gripe. It can be fixed though, and relatively easily.
Talk to me in the comments below but I encourage you to write about it on your own blogs as well. Let’s get the momentum going on proving that 4E doesn’t need to just be a series of slugfests meant only to gather XP, GP and magic items.