The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘4th edition’

A quick walk through the history of the saving throw mechanic:

(1) OD&D offered an incomplete, source/type-based array of saving throws. This created a couple of problems, one of which was that many effects would actually fall into multiple categories. Did the DM simply make a ruling for which applied? Did a character always use the best-applicable saving throw? Or should they always use the worst-applicable saving throw?

(2) AD&D eliminated that problem by establishing a fairly clear hierarchy of which saving throw category should be applied first. But it didn’t fix the other problem, which is that many effects which required saving throws didn’t conveniently fall into any particular category. There were two possible solutions: Create a new category every time you needed one or simply arbitrarily assign one of the existing saving throw categories. In general, designers and DMs did the latter. This assignation was often based on a rough approximation of “method of avoidance” (you avoid dragon breath by ducking out of the the way, this effect could be avoided by ducking out of the way, so let’s make it a save vs. dragon breath) or “similarity of effect” (dragon breath is a big blast of fire, this trap is creating a big blast of fire, so let’s make it a save vs. dragon breath). (These methods often overlapped.)

(3) D&D3 eliminated that problem by swapping to a universal system based on method-of-avoidance. In some corner-case situations, this system actually reintroduces the lack-of-hierarchy problems from OD&D (“do I duck out of the way or do I tough it out?”), but most of the time there is a clear and obvious saving throw for any given effect.

(4) 4E, of course, took the term “saving throw” and applied it to a completely different mechanic. But if you look at the mechanic which actually derives from pre-2008’s saving throws, 4E did two things with it: First, it inverted the facing of the mechanic. Instead of the defender making the saving throw roll, it’s the attacker rolling against the save.

This is an interesting choice. And to understand why, let’s consider the fact that they could have done the exact opposite with AC: Instead of the attacker rolling vs. AC, they could have swapped AC so that it works like old school saving throws (with the defender rolling against the attacker’s static score).

It’s important to understand that, in terms of mathematics and game balance, this change is completely irrelevant. It has no effect whatsoever.

In my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, however, the psychological effect of this mechanic is to make the person initiating the action feel passive: They announce the action their character is taking in the game world, but they take no “action” in the real world. Instead, the target takes the real world action.

Or, to put it another way: If you roll for an attack, the emphasis of the game becomes trying to hit people with your sword. If you roll for defense, the emphasis of the game becomes trying to dodge or deflect the blows of others. (If you roll for both, no such emphasis occurs. But this becomes too swingy with D&D’s d20-based mechanics.)

As a result, in 4E, you are always active on your turn and always passive on every other character’s turn. In 3E, on the other hand, the differentiation between the facing of attack rolls and the facing of saving throws mixes the experience up: Spellcasters generally feel more “passive” than fighters on their turn. Meanwhile, players frequently become “active” on other characters’ turns because saving throws will be called for.

Here, as with many of its design choices, 4E is flattening the game experience into something more “consistent”, but also blander and less varied. No player will ever feel as if they “didn’t do anything” on their turn, but the trade-off is that they literally do nothing while everyone else is taking their turn. (Theoretically this is then balanced out with the plethora of immediate actions that 4E adds. BID.)

The second major change 4E implemented, however, was to basically eradicate any clear connection between the action in the game world and the save/defense being used. (For example, a cleric can use his weapon vs. AC, vs. Fort, and vs. Will. Why? Because the mechanics say so.) They embrace this dissociation of the mechanics because it allows them to give every character class the ability to target different defenses without having them actually take different types of actions.

Laying aside the general effects of dissociated mechanics for the moment, this second change has the practical effect of watering down the actual meaning of the various defense scores. When Radiant Brilliance lets you charge your weapon with divine energy and trigger an explosion by hitting your target with a vs. Reflex attack and Holy Spark lets you do basically the same thing with a vs. Will attack… what’s the difference between Reflex and Will defenses? Absolutely nothing, of course. They’re just arbitrary categories that we drop various powers into for an interesting mechanical mix.

Technoir - Jeremy KellerTechnoir uses a simple core mechanic in which verbs are used to push adjectives onto characters. (For example, you might use your character’s Hack verb to push the adjective “exploited” onto a gunrunner’s security system.) That may look a little gimmicky, but it actually seems like a really slick little system.

What I find particularly notable about this is that it mechanically articulates and reinforces a procedure that I use almost constantly when I’m refereeing in virtually any system: When a player proposes an action with an uncertain outcome, the action is mechanically resolved using the rules of the game. Then I consider how that outcome has shifted the status quo and carry that knowledge forward as additional actions are proposed and resolved. I’m intrigued to see how a system that feeds directly into this process will perform in play: Will it piggyback it? Reinforce it? Interfere with it? Enhance it?

I’ll probably have more to say about Technoir once I’ve had a chance to actually play it, but my read-thru of the rulebook actually got me thinking about something completely different that I want to touch on today: Skill challenges in 4th Edition.

Technoir structures its core mechanic into Sequences using a very simple system of turn-taking. The trick to resolving sequences is pretty simple: Because adjectives are meaningful, the GM can use his common sense to know when a sequence ends (because the adjectives that have been applied will either result in the players being successful or unsuccessful in achieving their goal). This works because you can’t just slap adjectives on willy-nilly; you need to establish the proper vector by which the adjective can be applied. (In other words, you need to explain what actions you’re taking to achieve the objective.)

The result is that adjectives both arise naturally from the game world and also strictly describe the game world. As a result, sequences build organically and logically to unforeseen conclusions.

The system is, as far as I can tell, incredibly flexible and can be applied to almost any conflict (or what Technoir refers to as a “contention”): Hacking, seduction, combat, interrogation, tracking, chases, etc.

In other words, Technoir‘s sequences have the same mechanical goal as 4th Edition’s skill challenges (resolving discrete chunks of action in a structured format). But skill challenges are the polar opposite of Technoir‘s sequences:

First, whereas Technoir trusts the creativity and common sense of the players at the table to determine when a goal has been achieved (or thwarted), 4th Edition’s skill challenges hard-code a success-or-failure condition which is completely dissociated from the game world. Or, as Technoir puts it:

After any turn is taken and an action is performed, everyone at the table should look at what’s happening in the fiction. As I said before, there’s no score. You have to decide for yourselves when this ends. Each player should respect the adjectives that have been applied and removed and decide what her protagonist wants now — no matter what hse came into the scene wanting. You should do the same for your antagonists. You might find that one side got what they cam for and is done. Or that the two sides are now willing to compromise. Or that there are no good vectors for attacks any more. Look for new ways out of the situation. Maybe it’s time to stop rolling dice and cut to a new scene.

But if there is still something to contend over, go on to the next turn and play out the next action.

Technoir cares intimately and enthusiastically about what your characters have done, why they’ve done it, and what they’ve accomplished by doing it. 4th Edition’s skill challenges, on the other hand, don’t give a crap about any of that: If you haven’t rolled four successes yet, then your characters haven’t succeeded (no matter what they’ve achieved with those checks). And if you have rolled four successes, then your characters have totally succeeded (even if their actions haven’t actually achieved that yet).

Second, Technoir‘s system inherently gives freedom of choice to the players. They set their goals, determine their actions, and even demand their outcomes. (Of course, those demands may not always be satisfied.) Despite several years of constant errata and house rules attempting to soften 4th Edition skill challenge’s away from the rigid railroad presented in the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, the system is still inherently antithetical to player choice. For example, here’s a key quote from the presentation of skill challenges in D&D Essentials Rules Compendium:

Each skill challenge has skills associated with it that adventurers can use during the challenge. (…) Whatever skills the DM chooses for a skill challenge, he or she designates them as primary or secondary. A typical skill challenge has a number of associated skills equal to the number of adventurers plus two.

Incredibly, skills that players want to use that the DM hasn’t pre-approved can never be considered primary skills and are automatically considered inferior (they can count for no more than one success and may not count for successes at all). By default, 4th Edition tells you that ideas originating from the players are not to be treated with the same respect as ideas originating from the DM. It’s hard-coded right into the rules.

The two approaches really are night and day: Technoir trusts the creativity of the players. 4th Edition shackles the creativity of the players.

I was recently reminded of the clusterfuck release of the D&D Essentials line. (Designed to reduce the cost of entry to the game while reducing confusion over what books you need to buy in order to play, it has increased both cost and confusion.)

If a genie put me in charge of Wizards of the Coast, this is what I would have released instead:

D&D Heroic Tier

D&D Paragon Tier

D&D Epic Tier

Three boxed sets, each containing:

  • A rulebook with all the rules necessary for a complete tier of play.
  • An adventure book with a complete adventure path designed to take you through the entire tier. (Preferably using node-based or hexcrawl-inspired design. This would probably necessitate abandoning or modifying the delve format to make this work with a reasonable page count.)
  • A set of dice and a solo adventure pamphlet in the Heroic Tier box.
  • Whatever other goodies (character sheets, tokens, power cards, miniatures, handouts) I can get away with and still hit a price point somewhere in the $30-50 range.

I would release these boxes on a 6 month schedule. 18-24 months after the core set went on sale, I would release a new “Heroic Adventure Pack” which would contain everything in the core set but with a different adventure path. 6 months after that, a new paragon tier expansion would be released (with a new adventure path but the same rulebook).

Depending on sales performance, I might phase the old versions of the products out. But the goal would be to have:

  1. A single, consistent box that says “DUNGEONS & DRAGONS” on the front cover.
  2. All other products are clearly labeled “EXPANSION PACK”, making it clear which product you need to buy to start playing. (The one-and-only product that doesn’t say “Expansion” on it.)
  3. To have “all the rules” you just need to pick up any combination of HEROIC-PARAGON-EPIC.

The idea is to time your product release schedule to encourage people to play through a complete 1-30 campaign and then restart a new 1-30 campaign when the next sets starts cycling through.

And, yes, the scheme is specifically designed so that people end up with multiple copies of the exact same rulebooks. I would make it a point to not even change the cover art on them. I want you to think of them as duplicates, because that increases the likelihood that you’ll loan them to your friends or even give them away.

This sequence of box sets is the core of your game line. Everything else supports them as advanced options. For example, the Heroes of the Blank Blank line could offer new character class options (possibly tied back into the current sequence of boxed sets).

Dungeon’s DDI would be used to offer an alternative track of play: Each month should contain an adventure path scenario, a heroic tier scenario, a paragon tier scenario, and an epic tier scenario. Over the course of any 18 month stretch, you’d be offering 2-3 full tracks of 1-30 play (boxed sets, Dungeon adventure path, and plug-and-play Dungeon content).

This is something I started touching on a couple of days ago, but I decided it would be better served if left to stand on its own.

In the ’90s, the RPG industry embraced the supplement treadmill. Led by TSR, White Wolf, AEG, Pinnacle, and a host of others, publishers discovered that they could monetize their game lines by turning out a constant stream of supplements. If you’re cynical you can describe this as “greed”. If you’re realistic, you’ll realize that a lot of great games got produced and supported which would otherwise not have existed in a shrinking marketplace.

What most of these publishers realized was that player-focused content sold better than GM-focused content. (The simplistic explanation is that there are more players than GMs.) And that gives us the era of the supplement treadmill driven by splatbooks and the class books.


By 2000, however, there were clear signs that this supplement treadmill was a short-term solution that led to long-term burnout: Eventually you saturate your market (when your players have more options than they could play in a lifetime), and then the only solution is to burn it all down, revise your rulebooks, and start over again. After several cycles of this, for example, White Wolf eventually had to reboot the entire World of Darkness in an effort to restart their treadmill.

But, ultimately, this isn’t smart business: You’re needlessly tossing away thousands or millions of dollars in development costs every time you burn down your previous edition. And you’re risking alienating your customer base (or losing them altogether).

Right around this time, Ryan Dancey tried a radical new strategy for selling RPGs. The better known part of that strategy was the OGL, but let’s ignore that for now and focus on the other part of the strategy: Evergreen products. Dancey wanted WotC to get out of the supplement business and instead focus on the evergreen products — the products that produce significant sales for significant periods of time.

To cut a long story short, Dancey’s strategy failed: The first two evergreen products WotC launched (Psionics Handbook and Epic Level Handbook) were spectacularly poor in their design and landed with wet, dull thuds. So ’round about 2002, WotC discovered that their evergreen strategy wasn’t working and their B&W, softcover class supplements were being blown away in production value by third party developers.

So WotC did what every major RPG publisher had been doing for the last 15 years: They rebooted the rule system so that they could reboot their supplement lines. In 2003, 3.5 was released and it was followed by a line of full color, hardcover class supplements.


Fast forward a few more years and WotC discovers that the market for 3.5 class supplements has become saturated: Their second (and third) passes through the core classes just aren’t selling as well as the first pass did. Cue the rules reboot.

And this is where WotC made several missteps which has badly fragmented their former market. I’m not going to dwell on that again, but I am going to make a couple of points here:

  1. As long-tail economics and the digital era lead to creative material being available in perpetuity, the viability of rebooting your rule system every couple of years in order to reset your supplement market becomes increasingly problematic. The old stuff is still available. (Even if you pull all your PDFs off the market, the used market has become global. And, of course, there’s also piracy.)
  2. WotC does not want to risk a repeat of 2008: I’m guessing they would like to do absolutely everything in their power to avoid a 5th Edition because it runs of the risk even further balkanizing their customer base.

I’ve seen many people describe WotC’s recent actions as “flailing”, but I don’t think that’s strictly true. I think they’re experimenting. They are trying to figure out if there’s any way to make D&D profitable in a long-term, sustainable fashion.

And that, IMO, is a good thing.


Nor is WotC alone in this. There are a lot of publishers trying to chart a new course. Unfortunately, IMO, the solution a lot of those companies have found is settling down into a mindset of “produce little, coast on the marginal revenues from the long-tail of PDF”.

But there are other paths.

Paizo, for example, seems to be having success keeping their core system relatively contained while creating product churn through material which is inherently perishable: Not everyone needs adventure modules, but the people who do will want a new one when they finish the one they’re currently using.

Back at WotC you have the Essentials line as an effort to create a stable set of core products. You have boardgames tapping markets where long-term sales and stocking are more of the norm. You have Fortune Cards as a collectible (and as a way of monetizing organized play without, theoretically, seeming draconian).

Of course, you also have the DDI. Unfortunately, WotC’s execution of the DDI has also been infamously (and repeatedly) botched. The ideal would be charging a subscription fee for a set of useful evergreen tools (the most obvious of which would be the virtual table). In practice, however, it has been a digital subscription to the same burn-out content as the supplement treadmill (and may have arguably hastened the speed of that burn-out for 4th Edition). WotC’s decision to move the character builder online can be best understood as an effort to prevent saturated customers from saying “thanks, I’m good now”, canceling their subscriptions, and continuing to use the builder offline with the content they already purchased.

Personally, I suspect the most successful course would include returning to Dancey’s vision of evergreen products and studying what went wrong with those efforts. And I think a large part of that will be understanding that toolkits don’t sell unless people have projects that require those toolkits: It’s not enough, for example, to provide rules for ship-to-ship combat or mass combat… You need to offer people a mode of gaming in which ship-to-ship combat or mass combat are integral to their games.

This will also begin to tie back into open game tables. But open game tables will also be important because monetizing your existing customers won’t be enough; we also need to figure out how to grow the RPG market again. And I think a large part of the problem has been that the viral speed of the RPG meme has been reduced to molasses by the modern paradigm of gaming. Most games appear to get sold because of actual play experiences: You buy Monopoly or Arkham Horror because you played it with somebody else and enjoyed it. If Monopoly or Arkham Horror had an expected play mode where you got together with the same group of 6 people for 6-18 months before starting a new game to which you might invite new people to join you, then Monopoly and Arkham Horror would not be as popular as they are. Notably, D&D exploded during a time period when this wasn’t the expected mode of play.

Fortune Cards - D&DAccording to my e-mail inbox, this apparently needs to be said:

Yes, the new collectible Fortune Cards for 4th Edition are massively dissociated mechanics. But since this is already 4th Edition we’re talking about, I’m not sure that it really matters very much.

Poking around the web to see the full scope of this fuss, I have two additional reactions:

First, the cards are obviously going to create a power creep within the system. The effects on the cards are not even attempting to be balance-neutral, so the net effect of using the cards will be to essentially give everybody free one-shot magic items that can be used every session. I’m surprised to see anybody actually trying to dispute this; it’s like trying to dispute that water is wet. The only interesting point to consider here is that they just recently got done rebalancing the monsters because they decided they had been underpowered when they released the game. Did they rebalance with these cards in mind? Will they need to issue another sweeping errata to take the cards into account? Or will they simply live with the imbalance?

Second, it is absolutely true that WotC is trying to create an MtG-style market for D&D. Again, I’m not clear on how this could even be a matter for dispute: They are selling collectible cards.

Does this mean they’re trying to turn D&D into MtG? Almost certainly not. They’ve already got MtG.

But it does appear that WotC is trying to figure out how to make money from selling accessories for D&D. Or, to put it more accurately, how to get enough of their customer base to continue making regular purchases that aren’t part of the supplement treadmill that D&D can sustain a viable market without rebooting the rule system every 5 years.

And I think, on the balance, that’s a good thing. It’s something that WotC almost certainly needs to do: 2008 was a very bad year for them, and I suspect they’re trying to figure out how to avoid ever splitting their market like that again.



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