COLLECTED EDITION OF AN ESSAY BY JUSTIN ALEXANDER
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.
So 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?
A SIMPLE EXAMPLE
Here’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.
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.)
EXPLAINING IT ALL AWAY
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.)
THE PROBLEM WITH HOUSE RULES
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.
ACCEPTING YOUR FATE
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.
You 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.
MIXING AND MATCHING
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.
The dissociation happens when these abilities start affecting each other. Take a simple sequence like this one:
- The fighter puts their mark on an opponent.
- 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?
USING DISSOCIATED MECHANICS
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.
ROLEPLAYING vs. STORYTELLING
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.
BENEFITS OF DISSOCIATION
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.
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.
HOW THEY WORK
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
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).
RULE 0 FALLACY
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?
UNFUN WITH PROBABILITY
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?
THE BIG PROBLEM
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.
THE OTHER PROBLEM
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.)