The Alexandrian

Dissociated Mechanics

May 20th, 2008


UPDATE 2: This essay is the original use of the term “dissociated mechanics”, but it was written during a time when I was still trying to figure out what that term meant. If you’re looking for a better understanding of the term, I recommend reading the improved and updated “Dissociated Mechanics – A Brief Primer” instead.

UPDATE 1: This essay was originally written in May 2008, more than a month before the core rulebooks for 4th Edition were first released. My general analysis of both the design ethos of the new edition and many of the new mechanics to be found in the new edition were right on the money, but it should be noted that there are a few individual mechanics which were either previewed inaccurately or which I made the wrong conclusions about.

But these differences have no meaningful impact on the most important points being made here. Most importantly, the central conclusions regarding the nature of dissociated mechanics — they’re bad and they’re antithetical to roleplaying — remain as true as ever.

You can might also be interested in reading my thoughts on actually Playtesting 4th Edition.

Dungeon Master's Guide - 4th EditionSo the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is coming down the pike and people have recently been asking me what I think about it.

Well, I’ve written up some of my thoughts in the past. Those thoughts are largely unchanged: The design team at Wizards of the Coast has decided to design a really amazing tactical miniatures game. (Their motivation for doing so probably has more than a little to do with the reports that the D&D Miniatures game is the most profitable part of the D&D brand.) In order to design that game, however, they have apparently decided that:

(1) They are going to fundamentally alter the gameplay of D&D. (The short version: Yes, the game has changed considerably over the years. But playing a basic fighter in 3rd Edition was still basically the same thing as playing a fighter in 2nd Edition or a fighter in 1st Edition or a fighter in BECMI. Playing a wizard in 3rd Edition was still basically the same thing as playing a wizard in previous editions. And so forth.)

(2) It’s not particularly necessary for them to actually make a roleplaying game. (Don’t believe me? Go ahead and read my previous post on this. WotC’s designers are on public record saying the only thing that matters in the game is what happens during combat.)

One of the most pernicious results of this design philosophy, in my opinion, is the prevalence of dissociated mechanics in 4th Edition.

When I talk about “dissociated mechanics”, I’m talking about mechanics which have no association with the game world. These are mechanics for which the characters have no functional explanations.

Now, of course, all game mechanics are — to varying degrees — abstracted and metagamed. For example, the destructive power of a fireball spell is defined by the number of d6’s you roll for damage; and the number of d6’s you roll is determined by the caster level of the wizard casting the spell.

If you asked a character about d6’s of damage or caster levels, they’d have no idea what you’re talking about. But they could tell you what a fireball is and they could tell you that casters of greater skill can create more intense flames during the casting of the spell.

So a fireball spell has a direct association to the game world. What does a dissociated mechanic look like?


No Robin Hoods AllowedHere’s a sample power taken from one of the pregen characters used in the Keep on the Shadowfell preview adventure:

Trick Strike (Rogue Attack 1)

Through a series of feints and lures, you maneuver your foe right where you want him.

Daily – Martial, Weapon

Standard Action Melee or Ranged weapon

Target: One creature

Attack: +8 vs. AC

Hit: 3d4 + 4 damage, and you can slide the target 1 square

Effect: Until the end of the encounter, each time you hit the target you can slide it 1 square

At first glance, this looks pretty innocuous: The rogue, through martial prowess, can force others to move where he wants them to move. Imagine Robin Hood shooting an arrow and causing someone to jump backwards; or a furious swashbuckling duel with a clever swordsman shifting the ground on which they fight. It’s right there in the fluff text description: Through a series of feints and lures, you maneuver your foe right where you want him.

The problem is that this is a Daily power — which means it can only be used once per day by the rogue.

Huh? Why is Robin Hood losing his skill with the bow after using his skill with the bow? Since when did a swashbuckler have a limited number of feints that they can perform in a day?

There’s a fundamental disconnect between what the mechanics are supposed to be modeling (the rogue’s skill with a blade or a bow) and what the mechanics are actually doing.

If you’re watching a football game, for example, and a player makes an amazing one-handed catch, you don’t think to yourself: “Wow, they won’t be able to do that again until tomorrow!”

And yet that’s exactly the type of thing these mechanics are modeling. Unlike a fireball, I can’t hold any kind of intelligible conversation with the rogue about his trick strike ability:

Me: So what is this thing you’re doing?

Rogue: I’m performing a series of feints and lures, allowing me to maneuver my foe right where I want him.

Me: Nifty. So why can you only do that once per day?

Rogue: … I have no idea.


Marking Mechanics

This is a cheap shot.

Let’s take a more complex example of the dissociated mechanics cropping up in 4th Edition: Marks.

The effect of placing a mark on another character depends on the mark you’re using, but here are a couple of examples:

Warpriest’s Challenge (16th level)

When you hit an enemy with an at-will melee attack, you can choose to mark that enemy for the rest of the encounter. The next time that enemy shifts or attacks a creature other than you, you can make an opportunity attack against that enemy. If you mark a new enemy with this feature, any previous marks you have made with this feature end.

* * *

Divine Challenge (Paladin Feature)

You boldly confront a nearby enemy, searing it with divine light if it ignores your challenge.

At-Will * Divine, Radiant

Minor Action Close burst 5

Target: One creature in burst

Effect: You mark the target. The target remains marked until you use this power against another target. If you mark other creatures using other powers, the target is still marked. A creature can be subject to only one mark at a time. A new mark supersedes a mark that was already in place. If the target makes an attack that doesn’t include you as a target, it takes a -2 penalty to attack rolls and takes 8 radiant damage. The target takes this damage only once per turn.

Special: Even though this ability is called a challenge, it doesn’t rely on the intelligence or language ability of the target. It’s a magical compulsion that affects the creature’s behavior, regardless of the creature’s nature. You can’t place a divine challenge on a creature that is already affected by your divine challenge.

* * *

Combat Challenge (Fighter Feature)

When you attack you may mark the enemy, giving a -2 to attack targets other than you.

* * *

Besieged Foe (minor; at-will)

Ranged sight; automatic hit; the target is marked, and allies of the war devil gain a +2 bonus to attack rolls made against the target until the encounter ends or the war devil marks a new target.

There are two levels on which these mechanics dissociate.

First, just like any other mechanic, the basic mark itself can be dissociated. Look at the war devil’s besieged foe ability, for example: The war devil marks the target and the war devil’s allies gain a +2 bonus to attack rolls made against the target.

Mechanically quite simple, but utterly dissociated from the game world. In point of fact, no explanation is given at all for what these mechanics represent in the game world.

Let’s return to our example of the fireball spell again: If you’re the DM and you want to describe what happens when a fireball spell goes off, you can easily give a description of what the character sees. A wizard casts the spell, a bead of fire shoots out of his fingertip, and then explodes into a ball of flame.

But if you’re talking about this besieged foe ability, what would the DM describe? What is the war devil actually doing when it marks an opponent? What happens that causes the war devil’s allies to gain the +2 bonus to attack rolls? Is it affecting the target or is it affecting the allies?

(The name of the ability, of course, gives you no guidance here at all. The use of the term “besieged” would imply that the target is being overwhelmed by multiple opponents… but there’s no such requirement in the actual ability. In fact, the war devil doesn’t have to be anywhere near the target and the bonuses apply even if there’s only one guy whacking on the target.)


Of course the argument can be made that such explanations can be trivially made up: A ruby beam of light shoots out of the war devil’s head and strikes their target, afflicting them with a black blight. The war devil shouts horrific commands in demonic tongues to his allies, unnaturally spurring them into a frenzied bloodlust. The war devil utters a primeval curse.

These all sound pretty awesome, so what’s the problem? The problem is that every single one of these is a house rule. If it’s a ruby beam of light, can it be blocked by a pane of glass or a transparent wall of force? If it’s a shouted command, shouldn’t it be prevented by a silence spell? If it’s a curse, can it be affected by a remove curse spell?

And even if you manage to craft an explanation which doesn’t run afoul of mechanical questions like these, there are still logical questions to be answered in the game world. For example, is it an ability that the war devil can use without the target becoming aware of them? If the target does become aware of them, can they pinpoint the war devil’s location based on its use of the ability? Do the war devil’s allies need to be aware of the war devil in order to gain the bonus?

If the mechanic wasn’t fundamentally dissociated — if there was an explanation of what the mechanic was actually modeling in the game world — the answers to these questions would be immediately apparent. And if you’re slapping on fluff text in order to answer these questions, the answers will be different depending on the fluff text you apply — and that makes the fluff text a house rule.

(Why would you want to answer these types of questions? Well, some trivial possibilities would include: The war devil has used magic to disguise himself as an ally of the PCs. The war devil is invisible. The war devil is hiding in the supernatural shadows behind the Throne of Doom and doesn’t want to reveal himself… yet.)



So now we’ve established that any attempt to provide an explanation for this mechanic constitutes a house rule: Whatever explanation you come up with will have a meaningful impact on how the ability is used in the game. Why is this a problem?

First, there’s a matter of principle. Once we’ve accepted that you need to immediately house rule the war devil in order to use the war devil, we’ve accepted that the game designers gave us busted rules that need to be fixed before they can be used. The Rule 0 Fallacy (“this rule isn’t broken because I can fix it”) is a poor defense for any game.

But there’s also a practical problem: Yes, fixing the war devil’s besieged foe ability is relatively easy. But these types of dissociated abilities have been scattered liberally through the 4th Edition promo material we’ve seen. We can safely assume that they’ll be similarly found throughout the core rulebooks. This means that there will be hundreds of them. As supplements come out, there will probably be thousands of them.

And every single one of them will need to be house ruled before you can use them.

Now you’ve got hundreds (or thousands) of house rules to create, keep track of, and use consistently. Even if this is trivial for any one of them, it becomes a huge problem in bulk.

These massive house rules also create a disjunction in the game. One of the things that was identified as problematic in the waning days of AD&D was that the vast majority of people playing the game had heavily house ruled the game in various ways. That meant that when you switched from one AD&D group to a different AD&D group, you could often end up playing what was essentially a completely different game.

In the case of AD&D, this widespread house ruling was the result of disaffection with a fundamentally weak and inconsistent game system. House ruling, of course, didn’t disappear with the release of 3rd Edition — but the amount of house ruling, in general, was significantly decreased and the consistency of experience from one game table to the next was improved.

But now we have a 4th Edition which, due to its dissociated design principles, requires you to create hundreds (or thousands) of house rules. And, of course, as soon as you switch game tables all of those house rules will change.


Of course, you can sidestep all these issues with house rules if you just embrace the design ethos of 4th Edition: There is no explanation for the besieged foe ability. It is a mechanical manipulation with no corresponding reality in the game world whatsoever.

At that point, however, you’re no longer playing a roleplaying game. When the characters’ relationship to the game world is stripped away, they are no longer roles to be played. They have become nothing more than mechanical artifacts that are manipulated with other mechanical artifacts.

ChessYou might have a very good improv session that is vaguely based on the dissociated mechanics that you’re using, but there has been a fundamental disconnect between the game and the world — and when that happens, it stop being a roleplaying game. You could just as easily be playing a game of Chess while improvising a vaguely related story about a royal coup starring your character named Rook.

In short, you can simply accept that 4th Edition is being designed primarily as a tactical miniatures game. And if it happens to still end up looking vaguely like a roleplaying game, that’s entirely accidental.


Yesterday I talked about marks in 4th Edition, focusing particularly on how one particular mark — the war devil’s besieged foe ability — was dissociated and the problems that dissociation causes in terms of game design.

Today I’m going to talk about the dissociation of the marking mechanics in general. To understand the problem, let’s start by looking at the marked condition in 4th Edition:

MARKED: A particular creature has marked you. You can only be marked by 1 creature at a time. If another creature marks you, you lose the old mark and gain the new one. If you attack a creature other than the one marking you, you suffer a -2 penalty on your attack rolls.

The problem with this rule is that it forces an association between two mechanics where it wouldn’t otherwise exist.

Let’s look at three of the marks I listed yesterday: The warpriest’s challenge; the paladin’s divine challenge; and the fighter’s challenge.

The warpriest’s challenge allows them to take a free attack on the marked target if the marked target moves away or tries to attack somebody else. The fighter’s challenge causes the target to suffer a -2 penalty if they attack anyone other than the fighter. The paladin’s divine challenge is a magical compulsion that similarly causes the target to suffer a -2 penalty if they attack anyone other than the paladin and also deals damage if they do so.

Individually, all of these abilities can be explained: The warpriest issues a challenge and pays particular attention to one target. If the target doesn’t pay attention to the warpriest, the warpriest can take advantage of that and make a free attack.

The fighter uses his martial prowess to engage with someone, using his own attacks to distract them and interfere with their ability to attack other characters.

Paladin Motivation PosterThe paladin uses their connection with the divine to create a magical compulsion, forcing the target to either attack them or face the consequences.

The dissociation happens when these abilities start affecting each other. Take a simple sequence like this one:

  1. The fighter puts their mark on an opponent.
  2. The paladin puts their mark on the same opponent, causing the fighter’s mark to come to an end.

Imagine trying to explain what happened there to the characters involved. It’s impossible. There’s no reason why the paladin’s magical compulsion should prevent the fighter from using their martial skills to interfere with an enemy’s ability to attack their allies. It makes even less sense for the fighter’s martial skills to somehow dispel the magical compulsion. Yet this is what the marking mechanics say.

Why are the mechanics like this? Primarily game balance. Imagine two paladins coming up and both laying down a divine challenge on a single opponent. Now, no matter who this opponent attacks, they’ll be suffering at least 8 points of radiant damage each round. And if they attack anyone other than the paladins, they’ll be suffering 16 points of radiant damage each round.

Similarly, take the war devil’s besieged foe ability (granting their allies a +2 bonus to attacks against that opponent). Now, imagine an encounter with 6 war devils all dumping this mark on the same character. Suddenly all of the war devils have a +12 attack bonus against their chosen opponent.

This type of synergistic stacking is an issue and needs to be dealt with. In 3rd Edition, for example, the same ability wouldn’t stack with itself and bonuses or penalties of the same type wouldn’t stack with each other, either.

Another solution to this problem, however, would be to make it so that the ill-effects of a mark could be avoided as long as you targeted any of the characters currently marking you. Of course, this still leads to dissociation — if the paladin places a magical compulsion on me that requires me to attack the paladin, why does the fighter’s fancy footwork negate that?

Plus, the other reason the mechanics work like this is an effort to minimize complexity: There are apparently going to be lots and lots of marks in the game, and by limiting them so that only one mark can be in effect on a creature at a time you limit the amount of bookkeeping that needs to be done.

But all of this demonstrates that, at a fundamental level, 4th Edition is completely dissociated. The only way the PCs could possibly understand why their abilities interact with each other in this fashion is if they understand that they’re actually just characters in a roleplaying game suffering the consequences of the marking mechanic.

Breaking the fourth wall in Order of the Stick is pretty funny, but do we really need to turn D&D into a punchline?


Over the past few days I’ve been describing all the ways in which dissociated mechanics suck for a roleplaying game and why I dislike the fact that 4th Edition is using them.

However, dissociated mechanics can also be quite useful for roleplaying games. It’s all a question of what you do with them. Specifically, dissociated mechanics can be useful if the reason they’re dissociated from the game world is because they’re modeling the narrative.

This can be a little bit tricky to understand, so let’s break it down and then look at some examples.


There’s another long discussion that can be had about stances and goals that a player can have while playing an RPG, but I’m going to simplify things a bit for the purposes of this discussion and talk about just two broad approaches:

First, you can play a role. In this approach you get inside your character’s head and figure out what they would do.

Second, you can create a story. In this approach you are focusing on the creation of a compelling narrative.

The division between these two approaches can get pretty muddy. Not only because people can switch, mix, and blend the two approaches in various ways, but also because we have a natural desire to turn sequences of events into narratives: If someone asks us about our day, we’ll tell a story about it. Similarly, even if we approach the game by playing a role, the events that happen to our character will be almost immediately transformed into a narrative of those events.

The difference between the two lies not in describing the result of what happened (which will always be a story), but with the approach by which you decided what would happen. Another way to think of it, perhaps, is to consider the difference between an actor (who plays a character) and an author (who writes a story).

Since this is probably still confusing, let’s break out an example.


Traditional roleplaying games, like D&D, are based around the idea of players as actors: Each player takes on the role of a particular character and the entirety of play is defined around the player thinking of themselves as the character and asking the question, “What am I going to do?”

Because of this, resolution mechanics in traditional RPGs are action-based. In other words, the resolution mechanics determine the success-or-failure of a specific action. The player says, “I want to do X.” The resolution mechanics determine whether or not the player is successful. Can I climb that wall? How far can I jump? Will that gunshot wound kill me?

But there is another option: Instead of determining the outcome of a particular action, scene-based resolution mechanics determine the outcome of entire scenes.

For example, in Wushu players describe the actions of their characters. These descriptions are always true. Instead of saying, “I try to hit the samurai”, for example, you would say: “I leap into the air, drawing my swords in a single fluid motion, parrying the samurai’s sword as I pass above his head, and land behind him.”

Then you roll a pool of d6’s, with the number of dice being determined by the number of details you put into your description. For example, in this case you would roll 4 dice: “I leap into the air (1), drawing my swords in a single fluid motion (2), parrying the samurai’s sword as I pass above his head (3), and land behind him (4).”

Based on Wushu‘s mechanics, you then count the number of successes you score on the dice you rolled and apply those successes towards the total number of successes required to control the outcome of the scene. If you gather enough successes, you determine how the scene ends.

In practice, it’s more complicated than that. But that’s the essential core of what’s happening.


Clearly, a scene-based resolution mechanic is dissociated from the game world. The game world, after all, knows nothing about the “scene”. In the case of Wushu, for example, you can end up defeating the samurai just as easily by carefully detailing a tea ceremony as by engaging in flashy swordplay. The dice you’re rolling have little or no connection to the game world — they’re modeling a purely narrative property (control of the scene).

The disadvantage of a dissociated mechanic, as we’ve established, is that it disengages the player from the role they’re playing. But in the case of a scene-based resolution mechanic, the dissociation is actually just making the player engage with their role in a different way (through the narrative instead of through the game world).

The advantage of a mechanic like Wushu‘s is that it gives greater narrative control to the player. This narrative control can then be used in all sorts of advantageous ways. For example, in the case of Wushu these mechanics were designed to encourage dynamic, over-the-top action sequences: Since it’s just as easy to slide dramatically under a car and emerge on the other side with guns blazing as it is to duck behind cover and lay down suppressing fire, the mechanics make it possible for the players to do whatever the coolest thing they can possibly think of is (without worrying about whether or not the awesomeness they’re imagining will make it too difficult for their character to pull it off).

Is this style of play for everybody? No.

Personally, I tend to think of it as a matter of trade-offs: There are advantages to focusing on a single role like an actor and there are advantages to focusing on creating awesome stories like an author. Which mechanics I prefer for a given project will depend on what my goals are for that project.


And it’s important to understand that everything we’re talking about is about trade-offs.

In the case of Wushu, fidelity to the game world is being traded off in favor of narrative control. In the case of 4th Edition, fidelity to the game world is being traded off in favor of a tactical miniatures game.

So why can I see the benefit of the Wushu-style trade-off, but am deeply dissatisfied by the trade-offs 4th Edition is making?

Well, the easiest comeback would be to say that it’s all a matter of personal taste: I like telling stories and I like playing a role, but I don’t like the tactical wargaming.

That’s an easy comeback, but it doesn’t quite ring true. One of things I like about 3rd Edition is the tactical combat system. And I generally prefer games with lots of mechanically interesting rules. I like the game of roleplaying games.

My problem with the trade-offs of 4th Edition is that I also like the roleplaying of roleplaying games. It comes back to something I said before: Simulationist mechanics allow me to engage with the character through the game world. Narrative mechanics allow me to engage with the character through the story.

Games are fun. But games don’t require roles. There is a meaningful difference between an RPG and a wargame. And that meaningful difference doesn’t actually go away just because you happen to give names to the miniatures you’re playing the wargame with and improv dramatically interesting stories that take place between your tactical skirmishes.

To put it another way: I can understand why you need to accept the disadvantages of dissociated mechanics in order to embrace the advantages of narrative-based mechanics. But I don’t think it’s necessary to embrace dissociated mechanics in order to create a mechanically interesting game. There have been lots of mechanically interesting roleplaying games which haven’t embraced dissociated mechanics.

In other words, I don’t think the trade-offs in 4th Edition are necessary. They’re sacrificing value and utility where value and utility didn’t need to be lost.


Player's Handbook - 4th EditionYesterday I talked about the potential advantages of using dissociated mechanics to achieve certain goals and proffered the example of scene-based resolution mechanics.

4th Edition is, apparently, going to offer a scene-based resolution mechanic in the form of skill challenges. Since I like scene-based resolution mechanics, I must be OK with 4th Edition’s skill challenges, right?

Well, not exactly.

(DISCLAIMER: This essay is based entirely around the pre-release details of 4th Edition which have been posted to WotC’s website or otherwise revealed to the public. In the case of the previous examples I’ve discussed in this series, I’m pretty secure in my belief that the aspects of the system I’ve been talking about will still be there in the core rulebooks. However, in the specific case of skill challenges it is certainly possible that some of the problems I discuss here will be resolved by additional details in the core rulebooks. However, based on what I’ve read, I consider that unlikely.)

The important thing to understand is that I’m not just OK with scene-based resolution mechanics for the sake of scene-based resolution mechanics. I like certain scene-based mechanics specifically because they offer greater narrative control to the players (and the benefits that come with that).

(This is actually a fairly general principle: Just because I like a system that involves rolling dice, you shouldn’t conclude that I’m going to instantly love all dice-based mechanics.)

But in the case of 4th Edition’s skill challenge mechanics, it looks like we’re swallowing all the disadvantages of the scene-based mechanic’s dissociation without getting any meaningful benefits from it.


The core of the skill challenge mechanic in 4th Edition is, essentially, a complex skill check: You have to earn X number of successes before suffering Y number of failures. (For example, in a 4/2 skill challenge you would need to make 4 successful skill checks before failing 2 skill checks in order to succeed at the skill challenge.)

The difference between a skill challenge and a complex skill check, however, is that a skill challenge allows the players to use many different skills. You can read a sample skill challenge at Wizard’s website. In this example the PCs are trying to convince a duke to aid them in their quest, and they can make Bluff, Diplomacy, Insight, and History skill checks in order to earn the 8 successes they need to pass the skill challenge.


The basic dissociation of the skill challenge mechanics lie in their nature as scene-based mechanics. Because they still use skill checks, this can be a little more masked than it was in the case of the Wushu example we looked at before, but the dissociation is still there.

Basically, the skill challenge mechanics don’t care what the PCs are doing — they only care how much the PCs have done. This basic mechanical dissociation manifests itself in several ways:

(1) The skill challenge can report guaranteed failure even though failure has not been guaranteed. This is because it’s quite trivial to imagine skill checks which might help the PCs accomplish a particular task without actually harming their efforts if they fail them. In WotC’s sample, for example, an Insight check will allow the PCs to recognize that using the Intimidate skill will result in an automatic failure.

But what if the PCs fail that Insight check and that results in the failure of the skill challenge? How do you explain that?

You can’t. It would certainly make sense for the failure of that check to potentially lead to failure (if the PCs subsequently attempt to Intimidate the duke) — but if they never do that, then the failure should be irrelevant, not a deal-breaker.

(2) For largely the same reasons, the skill challenge can also report guaranteed success even though success has not been guaranteed.

For example, imagine a skill challenge in which the goal is to get inside a castle. There are several possible solutions the PCs could pursue: They could climb the walls. They could bribe the guards. They could unlock the back door. They could seek to gain an audience with someone inside the castle. They could dig a tunnel under the walls.

The DM decides to define this as a 4/2 challenge.

But now imagine that the PCs spend a good deal of time researching this problem: They make a History check to check up on historical attempts to break into the castle. They make an Architecture check to see if they can find any hidden entrances. They do a Gather Information check to see if they can find any blackmail material on the guards. They do a Diplomacy check to find out who they might be able to get an audience with.

These are all useful skill checks and there’s no good reason why the DM should veto any of them. But if they succeed at all of them, then they’ve achieved their four successes and the skill challenge system is reporting that they’ve succeeded… even though they still aren’t inside the castle.

(3) And, on top of that, the skill challenge mechanics can also fail to report success even though you’ve already done everything required for success.


All of the dissociations of the skill challenge mechanics arise because, for any given problem, there are multiple possible solutions. It is likely that each of these solutions will require a different set of skills.

For example, if you wanted to solve our “get into the castle” problem you could try:

(1) Diplomacy (to bribe the guards)

(2) Gather Information (to find out who works in the castle) and Diplomacy (to get an audience)

(3) Stealth (to reach the walls) and Climb (the walls)

(4) Architecture (to find out about the secret door), Stealth (to reach the door), and Thievery (to pick the lock on the door)

So here we see four possible solutions, involving completely different skill checks: 1, 2, 2, and 3.

If the DM sets the skill challenge to be 2/1 then the skill challenge mechanics will fail to report success despite success being achieved in one case and report success before success has been achieved in another.

Similarly, in the case of the fourth scenario a failed Architecture check would seem to bollox the entire effort and the skill challenge mechanics would seem to accurately report that. Of course, this is entirely acccidental… and not accurate, either. As we can see, even though solution #4 is no longer an option, the other three options haven’t become impossible just because of the failed Architecture check.

One way to solve these problems is to simply design the skill challenges so that they’re railroads. This, based on their web sample, is WotC’s solution: Instead of merely setting a goal (“get the duke to help us”), their skill challenge specifically tells the players how they will achieve it (“by getting the duke to trust you”).

Explaining why railroading is a Bad Idea(TM) is beyond the scope of this essay. But it’s a Bad Idea(TM).


You can also work around some of these problems by invoking the Rule 0 Fallacy (“this rule isn’t broken because I can fix it”). In this case, when the system is inappropriately reporting failure or success, the DM should simply ignore it.

But if the mechanics are so broken that we need to frequently ignore them, why are we using them at all?


You can also try to remove dissociations from the system by varying the number of skill checks you require to accomplish a particular task.

For example, let’s consider our castle break-in skill challenge again. Let’s say that the DM sets it as a 4/2 challenge and the PC decide to sneak up to the walls and then climb over them. The DM has them make a Stealth check (1 success) and then requires the PC to make 3 successful Climb checks. If the PC has a 50/50 shot of making the Climb check, then they only have a 12.5% chance of climbing the wall.

Now, let’s change the scenario: One of the PCs decides to distract the guards with a Diplomacy check while another PC sneaks up to the walls with a Stealth check and tries to climb them with a Climb check. The DM has them make the Diplomacy check (1 success) and the Stealth check (1 success) and then requires the PC to make 2 successful Climb checks. With the same 50/50 shot on any given Climb check, the PC now has a 25% chance of climbing the wall.

For some reason, talking to the guard has made the wall easier to climb!

You see similar probability artifacts arising out of the skill challenge system even if you aren’t padding the number of required checks in order to fulfill the arbitrary requirements of the dissociated mechanics.

For example, if you get to the point where you just have to make a single Climb check in order to succeed at the skill challenge, the difficulty of successfully climbing the wall will depend on how many failures you’ve accumulated getting to that point.

If it was a 4/2 challenge and somebody in the group failed on that Architecture check to see if they could find out about a secret door, then you’ve only got one shot at it: If you fail the Climb check, you’ll have accumulated two failures and the skill challenge will fail. With a 50/50 shot, you only have a 50% chance of climbing the wall.

But if your group never considered attempting that Architecture check, you’ve still got a failure to burn. If you fail the first Climb check, you’ll only have a single failure and will be able to try again. With a 50/50 shot, you now have a 75% chance of climbing the wall.

You’ll note that, in both of these cases, the scenario is identical: The PCs are unaware of the secret door (either because they never thought to look for it or because they didn’t find it). But in one scenario they have a 50% chance of climbing the wall and in the other they have a 75% chance of climbing the wall. Why? Because of a mechanical artifact that has absolutely nothing to do with the game world.

That’s the definition of a dissociated mechanic.

Some would argue that this type of probability shift is irrelevant because the PCs will only go through the skill challenge once: Either the wall is a 50% wall or it’s a 75% wall for them, it’s not both. But this sophistry ignores the possibility that this same wall can end up being part of many different skill challenges for the same set of PCs.

And do we even need to discuss why it’s ridiculous for a wall to become unclimbable by everyone in the group just because the guy with the lowest Climb bonus failed his check?


Okay, so we’ve established that the skill challenge mechanics are dissociated. Why is that a problem?

Because, unlike the Wushu mechanics, the skill challenge mechanics don’t seem to actually be accomplishing much. You’re making all the sacrifices inherent in the use of dissociated mechanics, but you aren’t gaining anything in return.

Most notably, the skill challenge mechanics aren’t giving the players any meaningful narrative control. The flow of gameplay is unchanged. In 3rd Edition, for example, gameplay looked like this:

(1) The DM describes a problem.

(2) The players propose possible solutions.

(3) The DM determines whether the solutions will actually work and asks the players to make the appropriate skill checks to resolve them.

With the 4th Edition skill challenge mechanics, gameplay will look like this:

(1) The DM describes a problem.

(2) The players propose possible solutions.

(3) The DM determines whether the solutions will work and asks the players to make the appropriate skill checks to resolve them.

Nothing has changed.

The only concrete benefit of the skill challenge mechanics, as far as I can tell, is that they codify a way for rewarding XP for overcoming challenges. This doesn’t even begin to justify the problems that come with dissociated mechanics, in my opinion.

It takes some real effort to find those Worst of Both Worlds solutions. WotC seems to have really nailed it with the skill challenge mechanics.

On the other hand, you could certainly adopt a system very similar to WotC’s skill challenge system and use it to pass a lot of narrative control into the hands of the PCs. I’m not personally convinced that mixing that type of player-driven narrative control with a combat system that doesn’t even begin to feature player-driven narrative control will make for a particularly effective game (it sounds more like mixing oil and water to me), but it’s certainly not a bad idea to experiment with.


Since I’m discussing skill challenges, I might as well mention the other major problem they seem to have: From what we’ve seen so far, the skill challenge system can’t handle any inputs which aren’t skills.

For example, what happens if I cast a fly spell instead of using a Climb check to climb over a wall? Should that count as a success for the skill challenge? Multiple successes? Or does the fact that I’m flying mean that I now have to make an extra skill check somewhere else? And doesn’t that create yet another weird, dissociated disconnect between the mechanics and the game world — encouraging me, as it does, to potentially climb a wall and make a Climb check even though I’m wearing boots of flying?


Okay, I’m almost done ranting about dissociated mechanics. This is the last post in this sequence.

But before I signed off on the subject, I did want to briefly discuss one area where I think the basic structure of a skill challenge works very well: Social encounters.

One of the reasons they work well is that human behavior is not easily quantifiable. If, all things being equal, a wall is harder to climb one day than the next, that’s inexplicable. If, on the other hand, I’m happy to take the garbage out one day and then get snippy with my girlfriend when she asks me to do it the next day… well, I’m just being grouchy.

In other words, the inherent dissociation of the mechanics gets lost in the chaotic intricacies of human relationships. In fact, things like the probability skewing we were talking about can actually end up being features instead of bugs when you’re dealing with social scenarios.

Of course, you’d want to sidestep the railroading WotC demonstrates in their own sample skill challenge. But once you’ve done that, even the basic skill challenge mechanics we’ve seen for 4th Edition offer a more robust — if still fairly simplistic — improv structure that is preferable to a situation in which the group is either left rudderless or in which the DM boils the whole thing down into a single opposed roll.

Ideally, however, I’d want to make the system more robust, dynamic, and responsive. A few ideas:

(1) Good guidelines for determining the degree of the skill challenge (how many successes) and the difficulty of the skill challenge (ratio of failures). Are the relationship and risk-vs-reward scales that I use for my current Diplomacy rules a starting point for such guidelines?

(2) Opposition. NPCs who are actively working against the PCs. Their successes count as failures for the PCs, but their successes can also be undone.

(3) Obstacles. These are tools for modeling more dynamic situations. For example, the main challenge might be 8/4 — but before you can start tackling that main problem, you first have to overcome a 2/3 obstacle or a 6/3 obstacle. (It might be interesting to define opposition as a specific kind of obstacle: You could eliminate the opposition entirely by overcoming the obstacle, or just deal with them complicating matters as you focus on the main challenge.)

(4) Tactics. These might also be thought of as templates or tactics. I’d be drawing generic inspiration from some of the material in Penumbra’s Dynasties & Demagogues (among other sources).

Over the past few years there has been an increasing move towards trying to figure out “social combat” mechanics in RPGs — with the general idea being that you’re bringing the robustness of combat mechanics to roleplaying encounters. In my experience, however, most of these systems end up categorizing all social interaction as a form of warfare. This has limited truth to it. And even when it is true, it usually ends up being a gross over-simplification.

In the ideas of social challenge mechanics, on the other hand, I find the nascent promise of a mechanically interesting system for handling social encounters that doesn’t try to ape combat mechanics.

I’m hopeful that something interesting might come out of this. If it does, you guys will be the first to know. (There’s also a part of me still hoping that I’m wrong about 4th Edition’s skill challenges and that the core rulebooks will, in fact, unveil something far more impressive than the lame and crippled examples they’ve proffered to date.)

Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on FacebookShare on RedditShare on Google+Digg this

7 Responses to “Dissociated Mechanics”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    Now onto the skill challenge. If your DM only allows for *one* way to circumvent an encounter, that’s railroading. There’s absolutely nothing in the skill challenge mechanic that requires any such thing.

    You want to talk your way in? That’s one possible skill challenge.
    You want to sneak your way in? That’s another.
    You want to fight your way in? That’s a combat encounter.

    Even using your own hypothetical skill challenge, which is unlike any other such encounter I’ve seen in its attempted breadth of coverage for a single encounter, isn’t nearly as strained as you make it out to be. For example, your rogue is attempting to scale the walls. You say it gets easier to climb because another character is talking to the guards. That’s actually quite easy to explain. That other character is distracting the guards, so your rogue can climb a bit more freely. He doesn’t have to try quite so hard to go unseen, so the climb is easier. That’s how a Diplomacy check can fit into such a skill challenge.

    As for the rest of your difficulty with designing the ‘get in to talk to the duke’ skill challenge, that’s mostly down to flawed encounter design. Just like you wouldn’t include combat with the duke’s unarmed, helpless, 5-year-old daughter in the same encounter with trying to convince him to come to your kingdom’s aid, you shouldn’t be including ‘sneak in’, in the same encounter as ‘talk our way in’, or ‘make an appointment’. Skill challenges are easy enough to put together on the fly that you don’t have to do *that* much prep work.

    Without the skill challenge rules, would you have set up a single encounter where some of the PCs were trying to talk their way in to the castle while others were trying to sneak in, and a third was attempting to research the castles design to find a secret passage? That’s a pretty slap-dash encounter design regardless of the mechanics behind it.
    Monday, January 10, 2011, 8:53:47 PM

    [Continued from prior post]
    The characterization you made later of a particular table’s *description* of how a power took effect as being a ‘house rule’ is simply mind-boggling. By that logic, describing a bog-standard 3.x fighter attack by saying, “Your sword skims across the orc’s chest, drawing a fine line of blood.” is a house rule because the book doesn’t explicitly say that’s what an attack with your longsword does. The flavor text provided with the powers in 4e is there to give you a mental picture of how it might be described. There’s nothing that says it *always* has to be described exactly like that.

    Robin-hood may well regularly attempt to try difficult (and rarely successful) feats of skill, but they’re not always going to be effective. Maybe he can’t quite pull together that level of focus at any given moment, but the player gets a chance to decide when in the chain of events Robin Hood has the focus needed to attempt it.

    You want to make an ability in D&D something which is uncommonly successful? In 3.5, it meant applying a significant penalty to the roll, which resulted in those abilities only ever being used against the *easy* targets. Great, I’ve got multi-shot. That means, barring a natural 20, I can’t hit the dragon at all. I’ll use it to mop up his kobold followers. That’s not a heroic scene, it’s an ability which speeds up mook-mopping duty. Woo hoo.

    Or, if you don’t like any of that, how about this for an explanation. I’ve done Trick Strike today. It had great effect. I’m trying it again, but it’s just not working out for me, and I’m having a lesser effect. In game-mechanics terms, I’ve already used my Trick Strike daily, so now I’m spamming Clever Strike. Fate is a fickle mistress, and all that jazz.
    Monday, January 10, 2011, 8:42:33 PM

    In regards to the Trick Strike example…

    Here’s a real-world example that should explain why it’s not *necessarily* dissociated to have Trick Strike as a daily power. In the real world, we have fighter pilots. In extraordinary circumstances some of those pilots have proven capable of incredible feats of concentration and endurance.

    For example, there’s a record of a dogfight which went on for over 5 minutes during the (Korean war, IIRC). A ‘typical’ dogfight lasts a few *seconds* by comparison (30 seconds is considered long). The feat this pilot succeeded at is, by definition, something he is capable of doing, but he’s unlikely to be successful at it terribly often. (This might be a ‘monthly’ or ‘yearly’ power.) He may well try to be that freaking good all the time, but he’ll probably fail more often than not. This doesn’t mean he isn’t using the same set of skills in the same way, it just means that it is having some lesser effect. That level of focus simply isn’t always there for him. From a mechanical stand-point, he’s going to go with his At-Wills more often than his Daily powers.

    These ‘dissociated’ mechanics *are* narrative control during the combat. I don’t have to wait for the GM to say, “Hey, these two guys are lined up in such a way that you can make good use of this nifty ability you have.” Instead, *I*, the player, get to say that. No, it doesn’t always work, but then again that’s true of just about anything.
    Monday, January 10, 2011, 8:42:12 PM

    Justin Alexander
    So the mechanic which is “not necessarily dissociated” becomes self-admittedly “dissociated” two paragraphs later in your post. Then you suggest that skill challenges should be handled entirely on the fly, but one paragraph later talk about prepping them. Not really sure how to respond to any of that disjointed text.

    You also confuse “description” with “explanation”. Your example (“your sword skims across the orc’s chest, drawing a fine line of blood”) is a description of a particular event. “How am I doing damage?” “You hit him with a sword.” is an explanation of how a particular ability works.

    And, yes, there is nothing limiting you from improvising a description of what the use of a dissociated mechanic looks like. It doesn’t mean the mechanic isn’t dissociatd. I can, after all, similarly improvise descriptions based on the mechanics of a game of checkers. This is explicitly talked about in the article you’re replying to. In fact, a lot of the things you’re saying are already completely refuted in the article you’re replying to.

    ‘Nuff said.
    Monday, January 10, 2011, 9:18:00 PM

    Two things. First, I didn’t say you *should* run skill challenges on the fly. i said they’re straight forward enough that you *can* run them on the fly. (Specifically, I said, “Skill challenges are easy enough to put together on the fly that you don’t have to do *that* much prep work.”) The point of the skill-challenge discussion was that your example was severely flawed, for the reasons I laid out.

    Second, I’m not sure where you think I admitted that the “not necessarily dissociated” mechanic was dissociated. I did have the term in ticks in one spot (the text equivalent of air quotes), indicating that I was discussing what *you* call “dissociated” mechanics which supposedly don’t provide narrative control. I’m thinking you missed the majority, if not all, of the points I made.

    In your first two paragraphs under “Explaining It All Away”, you call plain descriptive fluff text “house rules”. What makes you think that every war devil’s Besieged Foe power has to have the same flavor text? I guess the gist of the point I was making is that the mechanics don’t *require* the powers to have the exact same descriptive flavor text for every single character with the power. Fluff text isn’t a house rule. House rules impact the mechanics. Fluff text does not. Fluff text is descriptive not proscriptive. That is, it tells you what something looks or feels like in action, it doesn’t tell you how it works mechanically regardless of the rule system. (And for the record, no there’s no reason to expect that “a pane of glass or transparent wall of force” would block a “ruby beam of light”. After all, transparent objects, by the very nature of being transparent, don’t block light.) Your apparent inability to separate the descriptive aspect of the action inside the game from the mechanical how-it-works-as-related-to-dice-and-paper mechanics says more about your ability to analyze a non-simulationist game than it does about the system you’re attempting to analyze.

    (Also, It would have been nice if you’d put the skill-challenge response on the skill challenge comment, but that’s a minor issue.)
    Wednesday, January 12, 2011, 12:51:12 AM

    Justin Alexander
    Re: Kameron. I’m not sure why you feel that resolves the dissociated nature of the skill challenge mechanics, but it doesn’t. The basic dissociation of the skill challenge mechanics — the fact that it doesn’t care what the PCs are doing but only how much the PCs have done — remains. The probability skewing is also still an issue.
    Thursday, July 10, 2008, 2:46:59 PM

    Paul Melroy
    And that’s the sad part: it is indeed a fair tactical game, just like chess is. There’s nothing there for the people who want a framework for hanging their fantasy world on, or for the immersive role-players. Personally, I was rather hoping that 4’th edition would resemble Eclipse: The Codex Persona more: a freeform system where you can design your own “class” and character abilities. I’m sticking with that, especially since it’s available for free at RPGNow. Why should I spend a lot of money to add restrictions to the game?
    Monday, July 07, 2008, 5:13:53 PM

    So, 4E is out now. Skill challenges have primary and secondary skills, where primary failures count against the success/failure totals, but secondary do not. While that resolves the dissociation issue with skill challenges, I still have to agree with your assessment on powers.

    My stance all along is that 4E appears to be a fun game (I’m hopefully gonna see my first play this Saturday), but it’s a far cry from the D&D I grew up playing.
    Monday, July 07, 2008, 3:49:24 PM

    Justin Alexander
    @Malzizipox. Right. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. However, any of these skill checks could be the one which racks up the fourth failure and torpedoes the skill challenge.
    Thursday, May 29, 2008, 1:28:30 PM

    The way I read it, using the intimidate skill means they fail that skill check no matter what they rolled, not that they fail the encounter entirely.
    Thursday, May 29, 2008, 12:48:15 PM

    Hey Justin, my friend just gave me a link that I think you might find useful in perusing all the currently-released mechanics from all the preview material published.

    Maybe you’ll find more issues from here. I know I’m still wary.
    Thursday, May 22, 2008, 7:16:16 PM

    One thing I remember my friend telling me about 4th edition is how the modules created for it would be “universal,” and that there will be no modules specific to a campaign setting. This seems to greatly parallel WotC’s proliferation of dissociated mechanics. It also reminds me of the first set of interview videos that were done for Origins last year talking about the making of 4E. Never was it mentioned that the mechanics were modified in an attempt to better tell a story, but that it was all done to make combat fun and “more streamlined.” I know I also heard specifically that it was meant to have some degree of crossover with the Miniatures game, so I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised with the developments we’ve seen.

    Is it me or is the developers’ belief that NPC’s only last as long as a combat encounter really lazy and short-sighted? I’ll give one example in Return to Castle Ravenloft. Strahd is the final boss, but you encounter him plenty of times, and you don’t necessarily have to fight him each time. This also applies to other 3rd edition modules I’ve seen. Are any of the current makers of 4th edition people who once created 3rd edition modules? If not, then I can see why they’re so ignorant of the way NPC’s and monsters are generally used.

    Too much miniatures again…
    Thursday, May 22, 2008, 3:26:32 PM

    Justin Alexander
    cuba wrote: “The old method of waiting for a 20 and doing a critical let the dice decide the story.”

    I think this may be a crucial difference: I don’t think the question of “how much damage did this attack do?” is a meaningful part of the story.

    Draz wrote: “It is, of course, an abstraction, and abstractions can of course be broken if you put them under the right kind of scrutiny.”

    There’s a difference between an abstraction and a dissociation. The dissociated mechanics of 4th Edition don’t stand up under any scrutiny.

    Leland wrote: “When I am playing a game like D&D, I am imagining that I, personally (albeit with some nifty powers I lack in real-life), am in the situation depicted in the game.”

    Those trying to understand why we dislike dissociated mechanics should carefully consider what Leland is saying here. Very specifically, anyone who enjoys immersing themselves in their characters and making decisions as if they were their character is going to be completely disrupted by dissociated mechanics: When the decisions you’re making as a player have no relationship with the decisions your character is making, immersing yourself in the character becomes impossible.

    I’m rarely a deep immersionist, myself. But, nevertheless, I find that the inability to narrate the events of the game in a sensible fashion is completely disruptive to the creation of a world; of a character; or of a story.

    If the dissociated mechanics of 4th Edition were giving me some degree of narrative control, those wouldn’t necessarily be issues for me. (Although I suspect they would be for Leland, who wants control over his character — not the narrative.) But 4th Edition’s dissociated mechanics don’t give me any narrative control, either. There is a giant chasm between the mechanics of 4th Edition and the game world, the characters, and the story.

    That’s my problem with it.
    Thursday, May 22, 2008, 2:08:57 PM

    @Leland, expect 3.5E to become very prominent on bittorrent once 4E comes out, primaily due to WotC’s rule of stop-publishing old game editions. I may have certain issues with some of the 3.5 material (I’m sure everyone does), but I’ve grown so familiar and accustomed to it (and even 2nd edition to a smaller extent) that I don’t know how to adjust to a new D&D system that radically changes the worlds I play in. Greyhawk, Toril, Krynn, none of these will function with the same richness and history I’ve grown to love, and I’ll likely stick with 3.5 until I see what the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide looks like in October.

    One thing that came to mind to me this morning while I was thinking over Led Zep’s movie analogy is that the simulationist works more along the lines of episodic storytelling, something that creates a more sustainable world that can be enriched and rationed over long periods of time. I’m thinking that episodic play more likely adheres to the simulationist frame of mind than any other, because it does not necessarily have to overtly appear as episodic. Of course, the way groups assemble to play weekly or bi-weekly, and the way breaks must be taken due to outside circumstances, I think this reinforces my episodic concept. What do you think?
    Thursday, May 22, 2008, 1:16:36 PM

    Leland J. Tankersley
    > The old method of waiting for a 20 and
    > doing a critical let the dice decide the
    > story. The 4e way is to let the characters
    > have some say in the story.

    As I mentioned earlier, this difference breaks my personal suspension of disbelief. When I am playing a game like D&D, I am imagining that I, personally (albeit with some nifty powers I lack in real-life), am in the situation depicted in the game. I can relate to a situation where I am trying something difficult that might not succeed, and I must carefully weigh the decision as to whether or not to attempt it. But the notion of just being able to say “Okay, I haven’t yet used my one-shot kill ability today, so I will shoot the dragon through its heart and kill it instantly!” or whatever, (1) doesn’t match my expectations and (2) isn’t as much fun (for me — ymmv).

    > Who cares about hard explanations?

    I do.

    > It just has to feel right. What I hate is
    > rules that may have a hard
    > explanation but detract from the
    > heroic fantasy feel and don’t feel
    > right.

    We are different people and like different things. It sounds like you like games that are more along the lines of collaborative storytelling; I am more of a simulationist. Neither is right or wrong; you should probably rejoice, because it appears that 4e is aimed at your sweet spot, while what I’ve seen of it leaves me cold. (Or maybe _I_ should rejoice, in that I will feel very little incentive to spend money on 4e.)
    Thursday, May 22, 2008, 9:58:50 AM

    @Strange Person, the trick is that you’re looking at a single encounter. In this light it makes it more believable to have Trick Strike be a Per Encounter ability, because it makes sense that you may only have the opportunity to focus on a single opponent in an encounter in making them move; but to say that in every other encounter of the day you are unable to devote that same level of focus to a single opponent removes your character from any believable context of the playing world. Looking at it this way, the parameters of attempting Trick Strike should be different. It would be more believable to turn it into a 3E feat where you have to make a specific attack action every round and succeed in order to have an enemy move 5-feet each round. In this scenario you can attribute a higher difficulty to distinguish the trick attempt from a normal attack, as opposed to the 4E iteration that while using this daily power, moving the opponent is a given every time you hit them.

    Bah, more rambling from me…
    Wednesday, May 21, 2008, 11:37:45 PM

    @Cuba, there is varying degree of disparity between the events and actions of characters in the kinds of heroic fantasy evident today. One thing you’re overlooking that Justin is trying to illustrate in his critiques on 4th edition is that, through many of these dissociated mechanics, the heroic fantasy you advocate isn’t feasible. Much of the quality fantasy that we read and promote to others is constructed in a way that we believe in the worlds created and the characters developed. Usually it IS the explanations, whether subtle or apparent, that make the heroic fantasy feel right. You have to be given a reason to believe before you do. This applies to roleplaying as well. Your characters abilities and actions have to be put into context with the world you play in before you can claim their acceptability or rejectability. One of the large design flaws I feel that 4E has is the fact that the core ruleset is suppose to be universal and apply to all D&D game worlds. Rather than adapt the rules to fit the context of the game worlds (ie. Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance), they have warped the game worlds to reflect an abstact of rules that is hard to fit in any specific context to these worlds. This is what is leading so many people to feel that 4E will not be the D&D they have grown up with and come to love. More often than not your world will define your mechanics; to reverse this philosophy is to negate the implicit need of roleplaying at all.

    Also, applying the ruleset of a roleplaying game in parallel with a movie is rather impractical. Fantasy movies of today normally involve short timelines with immediate goals and a hero’s temporary removal from the future of that setting until the next crisis occurs. This is counteractive to the long-term campaigning that has been such a mainstay in the D&D franchise. It is also necessary to take into account the realtime constraints that players have, funneling gameplay into a segment of multiple actions taken within the shortest timespan possible. There is a flexibility in the “rest or endure” system of our current D&D that can adapt to a player’s everchanging schedule. My feeling is that the structure of daily/encounter/at-will power usage is going to make storytelling more limiting, as realistically, even in a fantasy book or a movie, you rarely have a “final battle” sequence once every day, and with the current setup of 4E powers you will likely exhaust your powers as often as possible in order to maximize the “cool factor.”

    Needless to say, my arguments here cater to a specific style of roleplaying, YMMV. I need to stop rambling…
    Wednesday, May 21, 2008, 11:29:51 PM

    Please note that Trick Strike also applies to every subsequent hit against that same opponent. You don’t just push the target five feet, one time. There could be a cliff a hundred feet away, and as long as you manage to stay engaged for the next two in-game minutes or so, you /will/ force him back, and back, and back, and ultimately over the cliff.

    You’ve got him exactly where you want him, you’re “in the zone,” Maybe you’re a fencer, and you’ve figured out your opponent’s style so completely that he has no choice but to give ground after every exchange; maybe you’re a sniper and you’ve learned the target’s body language well enough to recognize every move before it’s made, and discourage any line of retreat except the one you want. In either case, you’re focusing a tremendous degree of attention on that one target, and that kind of focus can’t be turned on and off like a light.

    At least, that’s how I understand it.
    Wednesday, May 21, 2008, 11:05:51 PM

    I can’t help but side with Justin on the flaw behind Daily Use powers. It is very hard to justify through in-game narrative or simple character action to say that a non-magic ability can only be successfully used once in a day. The Robin Hood example is a perfect setup to establish the difference between Many Shot from 3e and the 4e Split The Tree. The success of achieving such an action should be difficult, but a character can only realistically be limited in his attempt of this action by the amount of arrows he has. This doesn’t mean that by rule the archer should be limited to one success per day. Trick Strike follows this same dilemma in terms of realism and applicability. A skilled fighter possesses the ability to maneuver an opponent into a place of his choosing, though he may not always succeed in thie endeavor. However, this ability is not some mystic power that can only be exercised once in a day. It is an ability. Turning practical fighting tactics into “daily powers” for the sake of game balance takes away from any sense of world-immersion. Why even roleplay, in that case? Why not simply use these tactics in absence of a roleplaying world, since it’s not necessary to have one to explain the other?

    In regards to the critical hit applying to one arrow for Many Shot, the flaw is not in dissociation but in mechanics. It is hard to justify applying a single critical roll to two separate hits. One could claim from an ingame standpoint that while you accurately strike one foe in the heart, the second target was hit with less deadly precision. Honestly, though, I think Many Shot could be fixed with a simple caveat: roll once for both shots; if a critical hit is made, roll a second time to determine if the second arrow is also a critical hit. In this case, hitting two targets at once remains the same, and the deadliness of each hit becomes determinable (and justifiable through ingame narrative).
    Wednesday, May 21, 2008, 10:59:11 PM

    “I know what the game design rationale is: they want to give everyone expendable powers that they need to ration over the course of a day, to make all of the various classes and characters more or less equal in that way. But there’s no reasonable “real-world” explanation”

    There maybe no “real-world” explanation, but we aren’t simulating the real world. We are simulating heroic fantasy. Especially in movies, the heroes always seem to draw on their inner strength and pull off amazing feats for the final battle. This is what the game mechanic is trying to simulate and will do very well. The old method of waiting for a 20 and doing a critical let the dice decide the story. The 4e way is to let the characters have some say in the story. “This ends here!” as the say in the comics and the hero does his once a day kick-ass power. Every thing I have read of the preliminary play tests has people saying it plays like D&D should and I think it will.

    Your comment at the end “there’s no hard explanation for it, but we think it makes the game more fun” – I don’t understand why you don’t agree with it. We are simulating wizards, conan, demons!! Who cares about hard explanations? It just has to feel right. What I hate is rules that may have a hard explanation but detract from the heroic fantasy feel and don’t feel right.

    The marking mechanic I will have to see in play, put thinking about it – it feels right. In the fantasy literature/movies it often feels like that – the antagonist and/or protagonist mark each other.
    Wednesday, May 21, 2008, 9:02:47 PM

    Leland J. Tankersley

    The way such a power SHOULD work, I would argue, is: you can attempt a bounce-pass whenever the opportunity presents itself. But it’s a difficult thing to succeed at, so a prudent player won’t trot it out at every opportunity. But 4e is all about saying that “everyone has these powers and abilities that can only be used limited times a day, and there’s no hard explanation for it, but we think it makes the game more fun so we’re going with it.” I understand the point of view; I just don’t agree with it (in that I don’t think it will be more fun FOR ME, because these issues tend to break my suspension of disbelief).
    Wednesday, May 21, 2008, 9:05:29 AM

    Leland J. Tankersley
    My problem with the device of limited uses of given powers is: WHY? WHY are you limited in the number of times you can attempt them? I understand the goal is to simulate something that’s very special, and hard to accomplish. But there’s already a perfectly good mechanic for simulating things that are hard to achieve in the game: the core d20 mechanic itself. You roll a d20, add bonuses, and compare to a target number. If you want success to be difficult, you set a high DC on the check. What is the game-world explanation for just saying “ehh, you can pull this off three times a day, at will, but no more than that?”

    I know what the game design rationale is: they want to give everyone expendable powers that they need to ration over the course of a day, to make all of the various classes and characters more or less equal in that way. But there’s no reasonable “real-world” explanation. I don’t at all buy your defense of the “frisbee example.”

    > Because they’re hard, though, I rarely
    > attempt them in-game. To attempt
    > them in-game, I have to see an
    > unusually high-potential opportunity
    > for one, and feel at the moment like I
    > could actually possibly pull off this
    > maneuver without screwing it up.
    > Then I try it … sometimes it works
    > and it’s awesome, sometimes it
    > doesn’t and I reflect that I should
    > have done something easier.

    What you are describing is not at all congruent to the 4e mechanic. In 4e, the process works like this: an opportunity presents itself (the tactical situation is such that an air-bounce pass could be useful). Your character has the ability to do an air-bounce pass once a day. You haven’t yet attempted an air-bounce (or, for some power descriptions, you haven’t SUCCEEDED at an air-bounce) today, so you can attempt it. Let’s say you pull it off.

    The next round, a similar situation arises. The air-bounce would be useful — but you can’t even try it now. Why? If the air-bounce had you drawing on some limited pool of energy, or mana, or spell slots, or divine favor, or whatever, you could make a case for it. But in the real world, if air-bounce is some sort of essentially mundane (skill-based) talent, you can TRY it as many times as the opportunity presents itself. But if the difficulty is high enough (the probability of success is low on any given attempt) and there are downsides to failing an attempt (the other team gets possession of the frisbee) you’ll be reluctant to pull it out of your bag of tricks except in extreme circumstances — JUST LIKE your real-world example.

    The way such a power SHOULD work, I would argue, is: you can attempt a bounce-pass whenever the opportunity presents itself. But it’s a difficult thing to succeed at, so a prudent player won’t trot it out at every opportunity. But 4e is all about saying that “everyone has these powers and abilities that can only be used limited times a day, and there’s no hard explanation f
    Wednesday, May 21, 2008, 9:04:50 AM

    It is, of course, an abstraction, and abstractions can of course be broken if you put them under the right kind of scrutiny.

    Your Robin Hood example is a great sample of such scrutiny. You’re right, that doesn’t make any sense. In fact, Daily Martial Exploits in general should be usable at-will in Favorable Non-Combat Situations (e.g. the archery tournament).

    … come to think of it, there’s a precedent for something like that already. While Robin should be able to do the double shot as often as he wants in controlled conditions, he can be limited to 1/day in combat for the exact same reasons that he can’t Take 10 on his Tumble checks in combat (but can in controlled conditions).
    Wednesday, May 21, 2008, 2:14:23 AM

    You bring up some good points. Although I still think the frisbee example works better than you give it credit for. Sure, I could try to do it all the time in games, and most of the time it would be a pathetic failure. So I don’t *really* have control over when I try it — I have to wait for circumstances to line up, if I want it to have any chance of working when I try it. Sure, that *could* happen multiple times in a row, in theory; but if it happens, on average, 1/day, then why not simulate it in-game as 1/day?
    Wednesday, May 21, 2008, 2:11:57 AM

    Justin Alexander
    @Cuba: I stopped playing AD&D in the mid-’90s because my house rules filled a binder larger than the PHB and DMG combined. Most of my house rules were aimed at removing exactly the type of mechanics you’re talking about. (In fact, every single mechanic you mention hasn’t been seen at my game table since about 6 months after I started gaming.)

    I came back to D&D with 3rd Edition because the designers had pretty much fixed everything I’d been trying to fix years earlier. To this day, my house rules for 3rd Edition take up less than a dozen pages — and most of those are flavorful adjustments for my particular campaign world.

    So if 4th Edition’s dissociated mechanics require as much house-ruling as AD&D’s dissociated mechanics… count me out. My binder days are done and gone. And good riddance to them.
    Tuesday, May 20, 2008, 11:18:59 PM

    Did you ever play AD&D 1e? Talk about dissociated mechanics. Wizards can only use daggers and staffs? Even Jack Vance’s wizards carried swords at times. Elves limited to 7th level as fighters? Fighters that totally suck unless your DM was nice enough to leave Gloves of Ogre Power and a Girdle of Giant Strength in the loot. One minute long rounds… You kill the orc and just sit there for AN ENTIRE MINUTE while everyone runs these huge distances right past you because you had to thrust, parry and fient to kill one lousy orc.

    4e sounds like a blast with all these cool manuevers. If you had fun playing the original AD&D as lame as it was (I sure did), then I am sure you can suffer through fighters and thieves finally having some fun things to do in combat and still have a good time.
    Tuesday, May 20, 2008, 6:30:14 PM

    Justin Alexander
    Now, the circumstances are the same and Robin Hood should be able to use his skills to attempt the same shot a second time. Furthermore, it would be dramatically appropriate for Robin Hood to be able to make the shot a second time.

    But the dissociated mechanics of 4th Edition instead force Robin to meekly back down and just shoot normally.

    It should also be noted that the other reason Split the Tree is dissociated is that its probability is mixed up: When the supposedly “opportune moment” comes up, suddenly it’s easier to hit an opponent by simultaneously shooting two arrows at the same time than it would be if, in that very same moment, you only shot a single arrow at one of the targets. That doesn’t fit the paradigm you’re trying to build up for Daily exploits in the slightest.

    I can understand the appeal of trying to make some sort of logical sense out of the willfully illogical mechanics that the 4th Edition designers are giving you. But I’m afraid the mechanics are just fundamentally dissociated.

    If they happen to occasionally return results which can be interpreted in logical ways (using “rare opportunity” explanations, for example), that’s entirely coincidental.
    Tuesday, May 20, 2008, 12:25:53 PM

    Justin Alexander
    @Led Zep: Think about it in terms of, say, the Bull Rush mechanics from 3rd Edition. You can certainly do lots of dramatic and memorable things with the Bull Rush mechanics (including pushing a nemesis into a pool of lava at a critical moment) — but that doesn’t mean that the Bull Rush mechanics have given you any kind of narrative control.

    I think you’re making the basic mistake I talked about in Part 4: We, as human beings, have a natural tendency to take a sequence of events and turn them into a narrative. But just because an action-based resolution mechanic resulted in a sequence of events which makes for a compelling narrative, it doesn’t mean that the action-based resolution mechanic is, in fact, a narrative-control mechanic.

    Led Zep wrote: “Well, it’s the mechanic. But if Split the Tree is lame because “the argument that the ranger has been trying that all day and it only just now worked doesn’t seem to have much traction to it,” then how about critical hits? Aren’t they the same kind of thing?”

    No. A critical hit represents a particularly lucky or effective attack. Every time a character swings their sword they are, presumably, trying to get a critical hit. And, in point of fact, that’s exactly what the critical hit mechanics model.

    You seem to be claiming that assigning a probability of success to a task and then using a randomizer to determine the success or failure of the task is a dissociated mechanic.

    I’m not sure what definition of “dissociated mechanic” you’re using to reach that conclusion, but it’s certainly not the definition I’m using. And it doesn’t appear to be a particularly useful one.

    Similarly, the Hit Die mechanics (which randomize the number of hit points each character gains at each level) aren’t dissociated, either. They model — through a randomizer — the varying degrees of improvement the two characters have experienced. Do hit points represent an abstraction? Yes. Is that abstraction dissociated? When you’re talking about 3rd Edition, not particularly. (Unless you’re talking about the cure spells, which are dissociated.)

    @Draz: Your ultimate frisbee example is exactly the difference between Manyshot and Split the Tree, though. You don’t get the choice of when to use your Air-Bounce Pass ability — you have to wait until the circumstances are right for you to take advantage of your skill set. They might only happen once in a game, but it could just as easily happen three or four times.

    Here’s a contrived example for Split the Tree: Robin Hood is at an archery contest. He decides to show off by shooting two arrows simultaneously and hitting two adjacent targets at the same time. The crowd erupts in applause, but King John is furious and accuses Robin of cheating. He insists that Robin repeat the shot.

    Now, the circumstances are the same and Robin Hood should be able to use his skills to attempt the same shot a second time. Furthermore, it would
    Tuesday, May 20, 2008, 12:25:13 PM

    “Or take Split the Tree, for example. Here you attack two targets within 3 squares of each other with a ranged weapon. Make two attack rolls and use the better roll against both targets.

    That’s a nifty ability. Clearly something a little awesome. But the argument that the ranger has been trying that all day and it only just now worked doesn’t seem to have much traction to it.”

    Really? I can picture it that way. Not that he’s been shooting off two arrows every shot, and “finally” the second one actually hits; rather, he’s been watching, throughout several combats, for an opportunity where it looks, and feels, like his two-arrow trick he’s been working on might actually work, even though it’s difficult.

    To me, this sounds a lot like playing sports. I play Ultimate Frisbee. I practice throwing “air-bounce” passes. Because they’re hard, though, I rarely attempt them in-game. To attempt them in-game, I have to see an unusually high-potential opportunity for one, and feel at the moment like I could actually possibly pull off this maneuver without screwing it up. Then I try it … sometimes it works and it’s awesome, sometimes it doesn’t and I reflect that I should have done something easier.

    I’m sure similar analogies can be drawn with other sports.

    Why is the per-day mechanic a bad way to simulate this phenomenon? It’s a little abstract, but I don’t think it will bother me in casual play.
    Tuesday, May 20, 2008, 11:24:31 AM

    Led Zep

    (ii) Why does only the *first* arrow get critical damage, rather than all?
    — Out-of-game explanation: for game balance, this kind of maneuver would be overpowered if criticals applied to all arrows, rather than just one.
    — In-game explanation: I have no idea (and neither do you Smile )

    There are scores of feats like this in 3e. There is no in-game justification for why their described constraints are as they are. They just are.

    I guess what I’m saying is that Split the Tree doesn’t look anything too different from this. In fact, on your criteria (as far as I understand them), some pretty *fundamental* D&D mechanics are disassociated, and yet we’ve been employing them — and having *fun* with them — since the early days of D&D. First case in point: critical hits. What do they represent? Well, something you’re *trying* to do every round of combat, but something you’ve got only a 5% chance of *doing* in any round of combat. How do you explain this 5% chance via in-game explanation? Why do critical hits happen very rarely even though any sane in-game character would be attempting them all day? Well, it’s the mechanic. But if Split the Tree is lame because “the argument that the ranger has been trying that all day and it only just now worked doesn’t seem to have much traction to it,” then how about critical hits? Aren’t they the same kind of thing?

    Second case in point: leveling up. Two fighters, Ed and Fred, fight lots of battles together. The exact same series of battles, in fact. The time comes when Ed and Fred each reach 2,001 XP, and level up. Ed rolls a 5 on his d10, and Fred rolls a 10. How is this explained, in-game? Both Ed and Fred have the same experience (indeed, an *identical* number of points), but Fred gets double the benefit from his past experience as Ed does. Why? Whatever explanation we give here is going to be pretty much the same as what we say for the success of Split the Tree: Fred got lucky, the gods smiled on Fred, Fred managed to focus his skill in an extraordinary way (either on this occasion, to do Split the Tree; or over a series of combats, to learn enough about defense to get 10hp rather than 5hp).

    And here we’re talking about some pretty fundamental mechanics: critical hits and leveling up! It seems to me that D&D players have been willing to live with this, because these are very cool features of the game. Why isn’t leveling up a “dissociated mechanic” which “distances you from the reality of your character”? After all, you don’t *choose* to get 5hp rather than 10hp. It’s something that happens to you, and the mechanic is set up such that adding 10hp happens fairly rarely (10% of the time). Ditto for critical hits, except that there it’s 5% success rate. Don’t know why; it just is!

    Well, Keep on the Shadowfell just arrived from Amazon, so I guess I’d better take a look at that Smile
    Monday, May 19, 2008, 1:50:00 PM

    Led Zep
    Thanks for the reply, Justin. I didn’t know your essay had a “main body”. I thought it was a multi-part series. Part one focused on Trick Strike as its example, and in so doing raised the issue of justifying encounter and daily powers drawn from the martial power source. Parts two and three focused on marking. Part four didn’t seem to focus on any specific 4e mechanics. Parts five and six focused on skill challenges. Thus, you’ve discussed three distinct mechanics in 4e, and I’m just replying on the first one. I’m still thinking about marking and skill challenges.

    I’m not sure why Trick Strike (if used with success) couldn’t contribute to a *very* meaningful bit of narrative. Pushing an unwilling combatant into the lava, or (finally!) into the range of a fighter ally who demolishes him with one chop (perhaps by using one of *his* cool, daily powers) wouldn’t be meaningful? I mean, it could constitute the turning point of a very important combat, one the characters will talk about later. Whether the rogue got “a particularly significant benefit” from Trick Strike depends on context, I guess.

    I’m unclear on what the problem is with Brute Strike or Fox’s Cunning. Brute Strike “triples the damage dice” because “You shatter armor and bone with a ringing blow.” Fox’s Cunning lets you do a shift/basic attack +2 combo because “Using the momentum from your enemy’s blow to fall back or slip to one side, you make a sudden retaliatory attack as he stumbles to regain his composure.” That’s not telling a story about how some intrinsically difficult feats helped to turn the tide of battle? Perhaps I’m not grasping what you mean by “narrative control,” and the alleged disanalogy between Trick Strike and these latter powers. We’re talking about contributing to the narrative of a *combat* after all, right?

    Re: Split the Tree, you say that “the argument that the ranger has been trying that all day and it only just now worked doesn’t seem to have much traction to it.” But how is that different from Manyshot in 3e? Manyshot lets you “fire multiple arrows simultaneously against a nearby target.” Notice that “Both arrows use the same attack roll (with a -4 penalty) to determine success and deal damage normally.” In addition, “If you score a critical hit, only the first arrow fired deals critical damage; all others deal regular damage.”

    I assume you like the fact that this is a feat that the character can choose round after round, thus displaying the kind of actor control that avoids disassociated mechanics. You can tell a simple story as to why the archer tries it every round: because it’s cool, and he wants to. End of story.

    But wait a minute:

    (i) Why do the arrows get -4 penalty?
    — Out-of-game explanation: for game balance this kind of maneuver is only supposed to succeed occasionally, not every time.
    — In-game explanation: this is a difficult feat.

    Monday, May 19, 2008, 1:49:04 PM

    Justin Alexander
    @Leland: Right. I can completely see the tactical value of that maneuver. It’s the narrative value that seems minimal or non-existent to me.

    Which is fine. It’s not as if the Cleave feat or a fireball spell in 3rd Edition represented any kind of meaningful narrative control.

    I’m not arguing that you need narrative controls in your game or that all abilities should give you some kind of narrative control. My argument is that the only reason for using dissociated mechanics (which distance you from the reality of your character) is if (a) you’re gaining a meaningful benefit from it; and (b) you need to use dissociated mechanics in order to gain that benefit.

    Narrative control, for example, is fundamentally dissociative: The narrative has no reality in the game world, so if you want mechanics interacting with or manipulating the narrative then you’re going to need dissociated mechanics. There’s a tangible benefit from that.

    So the question is: Do you need dissociated mechanics in order to have an interesting tactical combat game?

    Clearly you can have an interesting tactical combat game which also features dissociated mechanics. There are lots of them. I understand that Chess has enjoyed a certain degree of success. Smile

    But do you need them? No. There are plenty of examples of games which don’t feature dissociated mechanics which still feature interesting and compelling tactical combat.
    Monday, May 19, 2008, 12:25:48 PM

    Leland J. Tankersley
    > Moving a guy 5′ in tactical combat,
    > though, doesn’t seem like a particularly
    > significant benefit, IMO.

    My guess is that, under certain circumstances, it _will_ be a significant benefit. Like, maybe it would allow other PCs to make opportunity attacks, or set up their own powers in other ways. This is why I think you’re spot-on with comparing 4e and D&D Miniatures (which I haven’t played, but with which I’m somewhat familiar). I believe that WotC has even gone on record as saying that one of the anticipated selling points of 4e is that the players will have fun building their party to take advantage of each other’s powers and abilities. Sounds a lot like crafting a warband for optimal performance in D&D Miniatures, doesn’t it? Identifying synergistic powers and abilities, and coming up with killer combinations. They’re probably right in that a lot of people will enjoy that — but it’s not my cup of tea.
    Monday, May 19, 2008, 9:25:34 AM

    Justin Alexander
    To expand on my last point there: The other reason I say that is that, frankly, very few of the non-magical Encounter and Daily powers have even the modicum of pseudo-narrative content that Trick Strike does.

    For example: Brute Strike triples the damage dice. Fox’s Cunning gives you an extra attack. These are just mechanical manipulations; they carry no narrative content at all.

    Or take Split the Tree, for example. Here you attack two targets within 3 squares of each other with a ranged weapon. Make two attack rolls and use the better roll against both targets.

    That’s a nifty ability. Clearly something a little awesome. But the argument that the ranger has been trying that all day and it only just now worked doesn’t seem to have much traction to it.
    Monday, May 19, 2008, 2:05:30 AM

    Justin Alexander
    It’s a good argument, Led Zep. And, actually, that argument is the reason I haven’t discussed those particular mechanics in the main body of the essay itself. (The mechanics I’m talking about there can’t be defended using that particular argument.)

    However, I’m not entirely buying your argument, either. While you’ve certainly offered a potential justification of Trick Strike as something being controlled from an authorial stance, I feel it still falls far short of giving any kind of meaningful narrative control.

    “I managed to move a guy 5 feet” is not, after all, a particularly meaningful narrative. Plus, narrative control would seem to imply something that involves both “narrative” and “control” — not the ability to perform a tactical maneuver with all the narrative content of “I move my pawn E2-E4”.

    Or, to put it a different way: Getting into an authorial stance distances the player from their character, but it can offer many other rewards as a benefit to offset that disadvantage. Moving a guy 5′ in tactical combat, though, doesn’t seem like a particularly significant benefit, IMO.

    Your argument regarding genre emulation has a bit more traction to it, although I can’t help but feel there are better solutions.

    But, yeah, I’ll grant you that the dissociation of Trick Strike is a slightly muddy affair. Which is why I was focusing on more clear-cut examples of the fundamentally flawed design ethos which appears to have driven the development of 4th Edition.

    And that, in itself, is probably the biggest counter-argument I could make: If Trick Strike happens to look vaguely like a mechanic that you can justify by putting the player into the authorial stance, that’s probably entirely accidental since so many other things about the system make it abundantly clear that they just didn’t care that they were designing dissociated mechanics.
    Monday, May 19, 2008, 1:24:44 AM

    Led Zep
    [continued from before]

    I don’t see anything particularly game-breaking about this. Why does the rogue use the At-Will power of Deft Strike, multiple times per day? Because the player has decided to “play a role,” and Deft Strike is a cool ability any trained rogue would want to use frequently. This is actor control, and it makes perfect sense from the standpoint of the character himself. Why does the rogue only manage to pull off a Trick Strike once a day? Because the player has decided to “create a story,” and although Trick Strike is another cool ability any trained rogue would attempt frequently, it’s the kind of thing that only succeeds very infrequently. This is narrative control, and again it makes perfect sense from the standpoint of the character himself. “I finally succeeded at it.”

    The distinction between At-Will, Encounter, and Daily martial powers can be understood in terms of the player exercising a bit of Wushu narrative control over how things “turn out” for his character that day. Yes, it’s different from what players playing martial heroes typically had available in previous editions of D&D, but there’s no need for in-game character motivations to change, or for the fourth wall to be broken for the character.

    This is why the following contrast in your part 4 is rather unfair: “In the case of Wushu, fidelity to the game world is being traded off in favor of narrative control. In the case of 4th Edition, fidelity to the game world is being traded off in favor of a tactical miniatures game.” I think the case of Wushu and 4e are parallel here. The way I’ve explained it above, even in 4e, fidelity to the game world is being traded off in favor of narrative control. Tactical miniatures is beside the point. If it’s OK for Wushu, why not here? Why not *enhance* the “stances and goals that a player can have while playing an RPG”? In addition, why not have a mechanic that ends up with a narrative that is more faithful to the frequency that ‘cool moves’ are actually accomplished in fantasy literature and cinema? As far as I can tell, Legolas only manages to pull off that incredible one-handed swing under, up, and onto the galloping horse one time in the trilogy, during the warg fight in _The Two Towers_ Smile
    Sunday, May 18, 2008, 10:05:22 PM

    Led Zep
    Brilliant series. However, I think you’re being harder on 4e than you need to be. In part 4, you say that “dissociated mechanics can be useful if the reason they’re dissociated from the game world is because they’re modeling the narrative.” This is exactly right, but it’s also why many of the disassociated mechanics you’re describing actually enhance the role-playing in combat. What 4e is doing is giving the player a bit of narrative control, in addition to the actor control they’ve always had. In other words, they’ve *added* to the “stances and goals that a player can have while playing an RPG” (to use your phraseology for a moment).

    One simple explanation for martial daily powers (which you critique in part 1) is that these powers are daily from a narrative stance, though not from an actor stance. From an actor stance, the rogue is attempting (or at least trying to position himself to attempt) “Trick Strike” in *every* round of combat. I mean, what rogue wouldn’t, if he really had that power? Ditto for Robin Hood with his special bow feats, the swashbuckler with his special feints, the football player with his one-handed catches, etc. — if the situation arises, of course he’s going to attempt it. But if he *succeeded* at every attempt, he’d be unstoppable. And, true to the fantasy genre (whether literary or cinematic), the protagonist only manages to pull off these special moves fairly infrequently. The cool combo move that finally does in the bad guy is the climax of the scene, and one of the reasons it’s cool is that it happens so rarely.

    Therefore, with daily martial powers, the ‘in-game’ explanation for why he only accomplishes the feat once a day is not, “I’m a character in a game, and that’s the mechanic,” but rather, “I’m *always* trying to do this, but I only manage to succeed on occasion.” The more detailed reasons for only occasional success could be twofold: (i) the right series of feints and lures is intrinsically difficult to pull off, and (ii) once you pull it off, your opponents are aware of this martial strategy and thenceforth guard against it, effectively reducing the chance of future success to nil. Notice that (ii) helps to explain encounter frequency, whereas (i) may help to explain daily frequency.

    The point is that it is up to the player precisely *when* his character will succeed (or have a great chance at succeeding) at the particular feat. This would be the player taking up a bit of narrative/author control for that extended combat, in addition to the actor control he usually exercises round-by-round. The player takes in the scene as a whole (the extended combat), and deploys a daily power. From the rogue’s perspective, he simply says, “I’ve finally succeeded! I’ve been trying a ‘series of feints and lures’ this whole time, but now I’ve managed to ‘maneuver my foe right where I want him.'”

    I don’t see anything particularly game-breaking about this. Why does the rogue us
    Sunday, May 18, 2008, 10:02:31 PM

    Justin Alexander
    I’m planning to run a session of Keep on the Shadowfell as soon as I can get my hands on a copy. My intention is to run it straight, keep as open a mind about it as possible, and then use that as my final judgment call on 4th Edition.

    We’ll see how that goes.

    But there’s definitely no way I’m going to fork over $70+ for the core rulebooks unless I see something that indicates the impression left by the preview material is inaccurate.
    Sunday, May 18, 2008, 9:44:52 AM

    After a long and involved conversation with someone on USENET, I’ve come to a decision about 4E. I’m going to skip it completely.

    I had originally intended to buy the core books. I am a collector of RPGs after all. But his statements and your lucid argument about some of the blatant flaws in the new edition have just saved me a bunch of money.

    This saddens me on one level though. I’ve been a player of D&D since 1978. I know I can continue to play 3.5 (my preferred edition). But knowing I will not be “on the edge” of the game is a tad depressing.

    Oh well. I guess I will just concentrate on picking up the 3.5 books I don’t yet own. Not to mention the dozens of other RPG books that hold my interest.
    Sunday, May 18, 2008, 3:00:36 AM

    Justin Alexander
    Yeah. There will be less interesting mechanical experimentation coming out of WotC. (And depending on what the final terms of the GSL end up being, we may not see any of it from third-party developers, either.) Instead they’ll take any given ability and just try to cram it into the rather limited design space they’ve created.

    This won’t be particularly difficult, since they’re embrace of dissociated mechanics removes the only real impediment from doing things that way.

    I think the only risk it has is that the customer base, at some point, might get fed up with it. But I think they’ll be able to get a lot of mileage out of it.
    Sunday, May 18, 2008, 1:54:15 AM

    Kevin Morris
    I hadn’t thought about the powers taking up the necessary chunks of space. That’s definitely true. I do wonder how many options they’re going to have for actual classes though, with this power sources and roles model they’re using. After a point, I think it may become difficult for new classes to be introduced.

    I doubt, for instance, that we’ll see books devoted to new subsystems like the interesting Incarnum system. We won’t be able to see new types of resource management like the Warlock. Design space is going to, eventually, I think, be limited by the fact that every class is going to have to have a set of at-will, per encounter, and daily powers.

    I could be wrong on that account, though. I just have trouble imagining something like the Incarnum classes or the Binder (from TOME OF MAGIC) working with their design philosophy.

    It’s also similarly going to be difficult to create something like the Factotum that won’t work within a single role.

    Individual classes are indeed going to be taking up a lot of space. Personally, I wish they had thought to have divided powers into schools or something, like TOME OF BATTLE, so that instead of having a section of powers for the Rogue and a section of powers for the Fighter, they could divide the Martial powers up into schools or disciplines and dole them out to the classes as appropriate, as they did for the martial adepts.

    In the end it allows for easier overlap of powers without having to reprint powers for each class with a different name, and would save space in the books.

    But as you’ve observed, they don’t seem to want to do that, or at least don’t plan to.
    Saturday, May 17, 2008, 6:40:27 PM

    Justin Alexander
    @Kevin: Regarding rules that directly contradict their earlier design statements, I can’t help but agree. They keep claiming that prep time has been greatly reduced, but almost every single rule they’ve previewed will actually increase my prep time.

    For example, they tout their simplified skill system as simplifying prep. But it doesn’t (all it does it remove optional flexibility). Simultaneously, however, they’re creating character creation mechanics which require you to make meaningful decisions at every single level — decisions which can’t just be ignored as optional customization.

    AFAICT, their claims of “simplifying” prep lie entirely in “you can just pull the stat blocks out of the MM and play!”. But, of course, I can do that with 3rd Edition, too. (Of course, stat blocks have never made up more than about 5-10% of my prep time in any case — so it’s an area where I just don’t understand the complaints some people have. I’m constantly asking them: “Why are you wasting time carefully customizing every single aspect of a completely throw-away mook?” And they never seem to have an answer to that question.)

    OTOH, I think you’re under-estimating the design space they’ve given themselves for supplements. Since they’ve removed a lot of the mechanics that allow you to truly customize your character (while drastically increasing the mandatory choices that have to be made between plug ‘n play options), it means that every time they publish a new class they essentially get to push out 25 pages of powers for it (even if some or all of those powers are virtually indistinguishable from similar powers in the core rulebooks).

    This means that they can fill a supplement up with a lot less material.

    You can already see the results: There are fewer core classes in 4th Edition, with those previously core classes being pushed off to the 2009 PHB2.

    Similarly, the Monster Manual will feature fewer types of creatures, but each creature will have multiple stat blocks designed for it. (And despite all that extra space, the actual roleplaying information for creatures is being specifically ditched because, as David Noonan says, NPCs are only important for as long as the fight lasts.) Admittedly, I like having a broader range of orcs to plug ‘n play with.

    So it’s not so much that the amount of material they’ll release will increase — it’s just that they’ll be able to fill up a lot more space with that material. (Particularly if they continue their current TSR-inspired trend of cranking up the font size and increasing the line-spacing every couple of years.)
    Saturday, May 17, 2008, 5:14:10 PM

    Kevin Morris
    I have to agree–4th Edition’s not going to be D&D in anything but name.

    Along with the game elements we’re seeing sacrificed, we’ve got whole campaign settings being gutted, and 30 years of D&D lore and settings being thrown to the wayside because of what the designers think D&D should be. We might even be seeing the end of Dragonlance as a direct result of 4E if all the indicators are truly pointing where they seem to be.

    They’re lucky in that, apparently, there are thousands of people that share their views (judging by Amazon pre-order statistics) on D&D. But I can’t help but wonder if the game’s going to taper off after release. Right now it’s the next big thing, but as more and more information gets released, we’re finding holes in the rules and other strange things, like mechanics and rules that don’t live up to or directly contradict their earlier statements of design goals for the system.

    Part of that may simply be hopeless romanticism in my corner. I’d love nothing more than for 4th Edition to not live up to WotC’s expectations (but to do well enough to make a new edition a worthwhile endeavor), so that the inevitable 5th Edition might be a return to D&D form. I suspect we’ll be seeing 5th Edition sooner than later, too–the inherent limitations on the design space for 4th Edition classes and powers (all in the name of balance, of course) are going to greatly constrict the amount of material they can release before they’re simply out of options and a new edition is the only viable business-oriented alternative.
    Saturday, May 17, 2008, 11:52:23 AM

    Justin Alexander
    @Kevin: Thanks for the kind words. This essay is actually the end-result of many different conversations and debates, and it took me a long while to realize that a lot of the problems I had with 4th Edition were stemming from a single root cause: The deliberate design decision to dissociate the mechanics of the game from the game world. The end product seems to have been primarily designed with the ideal of polishing up the D&D Miniatures game, and anything got in the way of that was sacrificed.

    The other source of my disquiet with 4th Edition is the fact that it’s not going to be D&D any more. I mean, we can talk all we want to about how the game has changed and evolved over the years — but whether I’m playing AD&D1, BECMI, AD&D2, or 3rd Edition playing a fighter has always felt like playing a fighter and playing a wizard has always felt like playing a wizard.

    That’s simply not going to be true of 4th Edition.

    Now what is true about D&D over the years is that, in a somewhat inconsistent manner, the gameplay has been extended in various manners: While I can play a fighter in 3rd Edition that’s virtually indistinguishable from the experience of playing a fighter in AD&D2 or BECMI, it’s also true that I can (through the selection of feats or magic items or multiclassing) play a fighter which is radically different from anything I could do with fighters in previous editions.

    Which is I can say, to Leland, that everything he’s talking about is awesome: I think there’s room for spellcasters who are little less spikey and little more “constant contribution”. I think there’s room for mystic warriors who have a chi pool — giving them non-dissociated spike abilities.

    As another example of this, 3rd Edition actually made rogues far more flexible than they had been previously: Rogues can either hyper-specialize in combat or they can hyper-specialize in non-combat applications of their abilities, although they usually end up blended somewhere in-between those extremes.

    So, yeah, I’m all for cool new options that extend the gameplay of D&D in interesting ways. The key word there, for me, is extend. What I’m seeing in 4th Edition is a complete abandonment of the fundamental elements of D&D gameplay: D&D-style saving throws are gone; Vancian spellcasting is gone; fighters now play like wizards and wizards play like fighters; and so forth.

    The D&D name will still be on the cover. But the game I’ve played for nearly 20 years in one form or another will be gone. And that makes me rather sad.
    Saturday, May 17, 2008, 10:24:19 AM

    Leland J. Tankersley
    It sounds like Monte Cook’s optional rules (which I haven’t read) are in part motivated by a desire to resolv

  2. urzafrank says:

    I have been playing 4E for over 2 years now and it seems to me that most of the above post are written by people who have no to very little understanding of how the game rules work in play.. just my two cents

  3. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    > written by people who have no to very little understanding of how the game rules work in play

    Can you articulate why you feel this way?

    If you’re happy with 4E, that’s great for you. Personally it leaves me cold. The archived comments above (which date back — 3 years, yikes) are based on reading (some of) the rules and making inferences based on them. I admit I have not played 4E. I’ve talked to people that have and what they tell me seems to tally with my analysis, though. So I’m curious in what way the game works in play that is different to what is discussed above? (Pardon that syntax.)

  4. Sir Wulf says:

    Urzafrank, how has your play experience differed from the people commenting? Have your games run “by the book”, or do you customize systems such as skill challenges?

  5. OgreBattle says:

    Marking is a term from sports (so is defender and striker). If you’re not familiar with team sports I can understand how it’s weird and disassociated to you, so here’s an explanation from a football wiki:

    -Man-to-man marking, or man marking, is a defensive strategy where defenders are assigned a specific opposition player to mark rather than covering an area of the pitch.
    -Zonal marking is a defensive strategy where defenders cover an area of the pitch rather than marking a specific opponent. If an opponent moves into the area a defender is covering, the defender marks the opponent. If the opponent leaves this area, then marking the opponent becomes the responsibility of another defender

    As for martial encounter/dailies…

    1) narrative, this is when the spotlight shines on you. When Conan swipes off the giant snake’s head in a single blow, Robert E. Howard was using his PC’s Daily. It’s the PC using his own token of agency to affect his fantasy world.

    2) ‘realism’. I don’t really want to use that word for Fantasy Dragon Dungeoning… but crazy athletic feats can get pretty tiring. Hitting a monster 9x harder than you normally can is one of those tiring things.

    If you want some scientific proof for it…. I remember reading something about how human muscles use 3 energy sources, the time it needs to recharge for peak performance, etc. (I’m a mixed martial arts enthusiast and was looking at training routines)

    So I did a little research and found it again. It’s about the 3 kinds of energy our muscles draw from and their limitations.

    Three systems produce energy in the human body, one aerobic and two anaerobic. They are:

    · ATP/CP system – anaerobic.

    · Lactic acid (LA) system – anaerobic.

    · O2 system – aerobic.

    The ATP/CP system.

    It is anaerobic because whilst using it, oxygen is not supplied from the air breathed in. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a compound necessary for muscular contraction. The compound is stored in the muscles and a very quick contraction, lasting only a fraction of a second uses it all. For an exercise lasting longer than this, another compound called creatine phosphate (CP) is used. CP can provide a muscle with virtually instant energy without the need for oxygen. It is the muscle’s emergency system, but it is stored in only very small amounts and so is depleted very quickly.

    In an untrained person ATP/CP is exhausted in about 8 seconds. Through proper training it can be made to last only a few more seconds. Anything requiring short bursts of energy at maximum intensity relies heavily on this system. (like an encounter or daily power)

    It takes about three minutes of complete rest to get a fairly full restoration of ATP (so, once per encounter). Proper training to maximize ATP/CP would be short bursts of 15 seconds or less at maximum intensity, with rest periods between short bursts of three minutes or more.

    2. The lactic acid system (or the anaerobic lactic system) – LA system.

    This system can also supply the muscle with energy in the absence of oxygen. But it uses glycogen and because of the lack of oxygen, lactic acid is formed. Intense activity of a muscle causes this system to operate at a high level until eventually the build up of lactic acid inhibits the muscles action and causes it to slow down. The blood system removes lactic acid to the liver where it is detoxified. During a recovery period the muscle regains its ability to function. The period of time that the muscle can support this type of effort is up to two minutes. An example of an activity of the intensity and duration that this system works under would be a 400 m sprint (or perhaps an Encounter with a dragon)

    3. The aerobic system (O2 system).

    This system utilizes breathed in oxygen in the muscle and thus interacts with the cardio respiratory system. The presence of oxygen in the muscle allows stored foodstuffs (mainly glycogen but also protein or fat for very long duration exercise) to be transformed into muscle energy by a series of reactions which avoid the production of lactic acid. The O2 process can therefore continue for as long as the energy demands of the muscle are within the capabilities of the oxygen delivery system and the food store. Lactic acid may well have been built up in previous work bouts because the LA system may have been used first. But in this case transferring from the LA system to the O2 system will allow the lactic acid to somewhat dissipate.

    This can be used to explain the difference between an At-Will and Encounter power.

    So we could say a 100meter dasher is somebody with a movement Encounter/Daily power

    a 400meter runner is someone who has an at-will movement enhancing power

    a marathon runner has skill training Endurance or some other power that enhances daily travel limits.

    As for dailies, well note that even with a 3 minute rest you don’t get absolutely 100% restored, nor is strain removed. Athletes have some pretty intense, lengthy recovery processes after games like massages and ice baths. The body can only take so much strain, and will fail when pushed too far (For example, power lifters have been documented crapping out their intestines when their bodies can’t take the strain of the weights they’re trying to lift). There is also mental fatigue to consider.

    Ask any physical trainer though, and they’ll agree the important part of recovery is to get a good night’s rest.

    *(In something as stressful as combat sports, it’s often months before the fighter’s next match to make sure they’re close to peak performance)

    I’m not saying ‘4e is completely super realistic’, but there is some real-world relevance to how it goes about things. If it helps in the immersion of your fantasy dragon murder-looting, then enjoy.

    what’s disassociated for you is a personal thing, that’s all. disassociation is just a long winded way of saying “I don’t like this”

  6. Confanity says:

    @Ogre Battle

    Re: marking. So what you’re saying is that marking mechanics make sense within the game world because it’s an imposition of sports terminology onto a situation that bears minimal resemblance to sports? Sports rules aren’t based on real-world concerns; they’re based on arbitrary decisions from the rules-makers’ ideas of fairness.

    In other words, your analogy supports Mr. Alexander’s point: that “marking” rules are an arbitrary system that increase the sport-like nature of D&D combat while reducing… if you don’t like the term “realism,” let’s say it reduces verisimilitude, immersion, and its usfulness to people who want a role-playing game.

    Consider: if I’m in a two-man team, and we attack a lone passerby, no amount of sports knowledge is going to prevent us from both “marking” our victim. If I, as a player, used my wits to set up a situation where two PCs are able to attack a lone foe, I want to be rewarded for my effort, not punished by being told “Oh, sorry, Bob’s mark erases your mark because of team sports.”

    Re: “scientific proof” of the dailyness or encounterness of some powers. The problem with this argument is that, if you pull your head out of Wikipedia and actually look at the powers, it still doesn’t explain, much less prove, anything! You make sweeping generalizations. But first, a casual survey of power descriptions reveals that your rationalization is applicable only to a small portion of them, and second, you’ve only created new ways in which 4E makes no sense.

    *Do all the “daily power” descriptions correspond to feature X of the cellular respiration cycle?
    *Why can’t characters with high Con, or more training, repeat them more often than characters with low Con?
    *If daily powers are high-impact adrenaline burst activities so stressful that they can’t be repeated until after a six-hour rest, why don’t they cause exhaustion when used, either immediately or as soon as combat ends and the rush fades? *If daily powers are modeled after real sports, then why can you use daily powers every single day for your entire adult life, instead of needing months to prepare for the next combat?

    And so on and so forth.

    In short, “what’s disassociated” being a personal thing is only true insofar as “paying attention to the descriptive text” is a matter of personality.

  7. Hank says:

    Wow, it’s like he’s psychic.

    Saturday, May 17, 2008

    Kevin Morris

    I’d love nothing more than for 4th Edition to not live up to WotC’s expectations (but to do well enough to make a new edition a worthwhile endeavor), so that the inevitable 5th Edition might be a return to D&D form. I suspect we’ll be seeing 5th Edition sooner than later, too–the inherent limitations on the design space for 4th Edition classes and powers (all in the name of balance, of course) are going to greatly constrict the amount of material they can release before they’re simply out of options and a new edition is the only viable business-oriented alternative.

Leave a Reply



Recent Posts

Recent Comments