Monday, November 3, 2014

Control: How much is too much or too little

Longtime readers (Ha!) know that I focus heavily around control, in particular the question of how to address control as it pertains to solos. But control isn't just complicated (read: problematic) for solos.

Control adds a dynamic element to the game. But it can have an unbalancing element too. If you think of it like this, ignoring elements like -defense or vulnerability effects, fundamentally most control is about turn denial, or otherwise reducing the effectiveness of enemy turns. You use Icy Rays and you immobilize two orcs, if those orcs don't have crossbows, well, you've just negated two of their turns.

So, if we compare control to direct damage, how much "damage" is control worth? We can think in terms of denied monster rounds, and you can deny monster rounds through control or through damage (that is, by killing enemies that much faster). Put another way, if a controller stuns the entire enemy field for one round, and by virtue of having a controller instead of a striker, the fight takes one round longer (with no deviation in resources expended), the controller is equally effective as the striker.

In practice though, control is not consistent in how effective it is. If your go-to spell is Icy Rays, you as a controller are going to be vastly more powerful in encounters with melee only enemies than in encounters with non-melee only enemies. Of course, in ranged only enemies, you can immobilize enemies and then laugh as the strikers OA the crap out of them, but those encounters are the minority. Stuns are fairly consistent in effectiveness, however.

The bigger issue tends to be that controllers often (by the books) can deny more enemy turns than they miss out on denying through raw damage, at least at higher levels. Aside from that question, if encounters are balanced assuming a certain amount of enemy turn denial, then any action aside from enemy turn denial suddenly turns an encounter into a lethal scenario. It's basically "Press X to not die."

This is particuarly noticable when it comes to solos. Under traditional outlines of solos, a stun negates an entire round's worth of enemy actions. But let's say you're running one of those newfangled dragons that has a bonus action, and a stun (or daze) negates that action. Well, what's the incentive for the character to deny that bonus action?

Generally speaking, no matter how I design my encounters, one of the following occurs:

1.) Control just becomes too important.
2.) Control becomes impotent (due to blanket immunities)

Ironically, I often combine BOTH of these together, often by having control immune enemies with non-control immune add on creatures or the like.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Choke Points Revised

In an earlier post, I noted the tendency of attacks and defenses to hit choke points. However, the model I was using in order to address this tendency actually led to a higher standard deviation from the proper values than the actual 4E system.

Then I realized the issue that I was having, and have since fixed the math. To understand the issue at hand, let's create a model:

If we assume that attack bonuses and defenses are supposed to level up at a rate of 1/level, then by 30th level PCs will be at -2 to hit/defenses relative to the proper baseline, assuming normal rules (+1 feat bonus per tier, +6 enhancement bonus). To quantify the deviation from the baseline, we create a chart that shows the estimated values for each level, compared to the expected value (which is the level of the character):

Normal 4E rules:
I'm playing a bit fast and loose with the statistics terminology here, but "Variance" is what we're trying to minimize-that is, at any given level, we want to be as close to zero as possible. So, as we see, standard 4th edition rules gives a sum of Var of 38 over 30 entries. As an alternative, let's look at the revised method I've been using in my campaigns-that is, giving PCs a +1 bonus at 1st level, and a +1 bonus every three levels:

Level 1/2 level Ability Sum
Boon End Difference Var
1 0 0 0
1 0 0
2 1 0 1
1 0 0
3 1 0 1
2 0 0
4 2 0 2
2 0 0
5 2 0 2
2 -1 1
6 3 0 3
3 0 0
7 3 0 3
3 -1 1
8 4 1 5
3 0 0
9 4 1 5
4 0 0
10 5 1 6
4 0 0
11 5 1 6
4 -1 1
12 6 1 7
5 0 0
13 6 1 7
5 -1 1
14 7 2 9
5 0 0
15 7 2 9
6 0 0
16 8 2 10
6 0 0
17 8 2 10
6 -1 1
18 9 2 11
7 0 0
19 9 2 11
7 -1 1
20 10 2 12
7 -1 1
21 10 3 13
8 0 0
22 11 3 14
8 0 0
23 11 3 14
8 -1 1
24 12 3 15
9 0 0
25 12 3 15
9 -1 1
26 13 3 16
9 -1 1
27 13 3 16
10 -1 1
28 14 4 18
10 0 0
29 14 4 18
10 -1 1
30 15 4 19
11 0 0

As we see, the sum of the var in this instance is a mere 12-a vast improvement over base 4E in terms of avoiding chokepoints. On the other hand, perhaps the proper baseline is actually not advance +1 per level, but rather advance +1 per level -1; that is, you should have gained +29 by 30th level, rather than +30. The boon system in this case can be simply amended to be +1 every three levels, but the base 4E system cannot. On the other hand, consider what happens if the +2 bonus to ability scores that many epic destinies grant are considered "math fix" features, and we are operating under this "+29 by 30th level" system:

Level 1/2 level Ability Feat Item Sum Diff Var
1 0 0 1 1 2 2 4
2 1 0 1 1 3 2 4
3 1 0 1 1 3 1 1
4 2 0 1 1 4 1 1
5 2 0 1 1 4 0 0
6 3 0 1 2 6 1 1
7 3 0 1 2 6 0 0
8 4 1 1 2 8 1 1
9 4 1 1 2 8 0 0
10 5 1 1 2 9 0 0
11 5 1 2 3 11 1 1
12 6 1 2 3 12 1 1
13 6 1 2 3 12 0 0
14 7 2 2 3 14 1 1
15 7 2 2 3 14 0 0
16 8 2 2 4 16 1 1
17 8 2 2 4 16 0 0
18 9 2 2 4 17 0 0
19 9 2 2 4 17 -1 1
20 10 2 2 4 18 -1 1
21 10 4 3 5 22 2 4
22 11 4 3 5 23 2 4
23 11 4 3 5 23 1 1
24 12 4 3 5 24 1 1
25 12 4 3 5 24 0 0
26 13 4 3 6 26 1 1
27 13 4 3 6 26 0 0
28 14 5 3 6 28 1 1
29 14 5 3 6 28 0 0
30 15 5 3 6 29 0 0

We are then left with a variance of 30. Comparatively, a +1 every three level boon system, combined with the +2 to an ability score at 21st level gives us:

Level 1/2 level Ability Sum Boon Diff Var
1 0 0 0 0 0 0
2 1 0 1 0 0 0
3 1 0 1 1 0 0
4 2 0 2 1 0 0
5 2 0 2 1 -1 1
6 3 0 3 2 0 0
7 3 0 3 2 -1 1
8 4 1 5 2 0 0
9 4 1 5 3 0 0
10 5 1 6 3 0 0
11 5 1 6 3 -1 1
12 6 1 7 4 0 0
13 6 1 7 4 -1 1
14 7 2 9 4 0 0
15 7 2 9 5 0 0
16 8 2 10 5 0 0
17 8 2 10 5 -1 1
18 9 2 11 6 0 0
19 9 2 11 6 -1 1
20 10 2 12 6 -1 1
21 10 4 14 7 1 1
22 11 4 15 7 1 1
23 11 4 15 7 0 0
24 12 4 16 8 1 1
25 12 4 16 8 0 0
26 13 4 17 8 0 0
27 13 4 17 9 0 0
28 14 5 19 9 1 1
29 14 5 19 9 0 0
30 15 5 20 10 1 1

We are again given a variance of 12-far better than standard 4th edition rules.

So, what's the takeaway? Well, first of all, getting a new weapon every 5 levels is a lot less work than every three levels. Other than that, "epic" weapons being +6 corresponds with pre-4E rules, so perhaps there were legacy issues at work. My general math fix is as follows:

1.) Decide if you're using a +29 over 30 levels system or a +30 over 30 levels system.

2.) If using a +29 system, award a +1 bonus to attack rolls, damage rolls, and all defenses for every three levels; either do this through changes to the item system, or in the form of boons. (More info on heavy armor is discussed in a bit).

3.) Prohibit feat bonuses to attack rolls, damage rolls, and to defenses. It's up to the DM whether or not to allow Superior Will as a feat that gives no feat bonus to will or the like (I tend to think it's a bit too powerful of a feat, personally, but that's outside the scope of this post).

4.) Figure out how you're going to handle armor. The numbers used for attack under the basic system do not quite fit the numbers for AC, because rather than getting feat bonuses at a rate of 1/tier, characters instead get Masterwork bonuses (and potentially a feat bonus in the form of Armor Specialization). If characters get +1 AC per three levels, this value essentially includes the masterwork bonus-as thus, there's no need to include separate masterwork armor.

However, heavy armor characters obviously need a bigger boost. There are a few ways of handling this:

1.) Heavy Armor increases at a rate of +1/2 level, instead of at a rate of +1/3 level. If this bonus is staggered-such that the bonus is (Level-1)/2+1, you'll actually end up with a character with an AC that is exactly equal to the baseline, assuming you're using a +30 model, since you are literally increasing your AC by 1 per level.

2.) Heavy armor increases at a rate of +1/3 level, and also at a rate of +1/6 per level. This rate gives a higher variance, but more closely approximates non-heavy armor classes.

3.) Heavy Armor increases at a rate of +1/3 level, and also at a rate of +1/7 per level. This is the rate you should use if you do not consider epic destiny bonuses to be math fix, but on the other hand, it's a great deal clumsier than the other two methods.

A few other considerations:

1.) Some common magical items (Circlet of Indomitability, etc) give bonuses. Consider whether these are "math fix" items for the purposes of your campaign, and if not, if having them is appropriate.

2.) Epic Fortitude, Epic Reflex, and Epic Will are game changers in this regard. Here's my fix:
  Remove Epic Fortitude, Epic Reflex, and Epic Will from the game:
Great Fortitude now allows you to use a +2 bonus in place of your strength or constitution modifier when determining fortitude; this bonus increases to +4 at paragon, and +6 at epic.
Lightning Reflexes now allows you to use a +2 bonus in place of your dexterity or constitution modifier when determining reflex; this bonus increases to +4 at paragon and +6 at epic.
Iron Will now allows you to use a +2 bonus in place of your wisdom or charisma modifier when determining Will; this bonus increases to +4 at paragon and +6 at epic.

You may note that this system is similar to Perico's (author of the blog Square Fireballs), though using feats instead of items.

3.) The biggest difficulty in implementing the system described above is that it requires a total revamp of how weapons, armor, and neck slot items work. In particular, weapon changes require a change in critical hit dice. Other issues include the fact that armor, weapon, and neck slot features may be dependent upon enhancement bonus; therefore, a 12th level item in standard 4E goes from having a +3 effectiveness on special effects to having +4 or +5 effectiveness. I'm still working out these issues myself. For most "casual" campaigns, it's much simpler to simply stay with the baseline 4E model.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Solos Revisited

When last I approached solo monsters, I dealt with "status effects" as "give them a save to resist."

But players don't like seeing their effects go entirely to waste. Instead, I now endorse the following rules:

For any solo that gets two full rounds worth of actions each round (and increasingly, I think that should be the norm), any "short duration" effects end at the end of each of their turns. Thus, your ENT immobilization will in fact immobilize the solo, but only for one of its two turns. This is thus comparable to immobilizing an elite, rather than an entire encounter-so it's still a big change on the encounter, but it's substantially harder to totally lock the encounter down.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

DnD: The tactics of soul and possibly controllers

So, I was in an argument with a fellow player and Dungeon Master, over why his system of choice (Legend) isn't as "tactical" as 4th Edition. It's kind of an odd argument, as I'll concede that a lot of it is intuitive. But the biggest thing I took away is this: less is more.

If you think about Chess and you think about Dungeons and Dragons, which is more complicated? Rules wise, Chess is significantly less complicated. But the fact of the matter is that, the game is entirely based on positioning-where you can move. But where you can move is the counter-point to where you can't move. So, where am I going with this?

4th edition assumes a grid. Every game mechanic is built with this in mind, from the way auras and bursts are described to range and reach. And moreover, the simplicity of Square Fireballs (my apologies to Perico) ensures that the consequences of positioning are obvious, compared to circular bursts. The obviousness and simplicity of how game effects are defined allows for the implications to be defined-meaning that the mental calculus for how the game plays is something actuall doable. Certainly, in a "twenty foot radius" burst scenario, characters know to "fan out," but doing the square by square count of "are we safe?" is more troubling.

In 4E, positioning is a thing. It's not just a question of "are they close enough to catch them both in the same attack" or "are they in melee range." And it's this element of positioning that makes Forced Movement such a powerful effect. Drop "move an enemy five squares" into a previous version of Dungeons and Dragons, and it doesn't have the same level of effect. But the implications of 4th edition aren't merely about hindering terrain-they're about ensuring enemies are in the exact spot you want them to be.

In 4th edition, no one really understands "What is a controller" and "what does a controller do." Oh, we all know controllers have forced movement and area attacks and status effects... but so does every other class. As someone who has played almost exclusively controllers, I can tell you, there is a methodology behind control-the complete understanding of the arena. Whenever I start an encounter, I don't simply think "who am I going to attack," though that's certainly true as well. No, my first thought is "where are the enemy, and where do I want them to be."

More to the point, it's not just controllers that are tactical. Numerous monster abilities make heavy use of the grid as well. The "doughnut" aura effect is an interesting example, wherein an aura is more powerful at a longer range than at a short range, and enemies can have forced movement-or even forceful teleportation as well. So many of the better monsters are built not just in the concept of "how can we make this damage the PCs" but "how can we make it dangerous for the PCs to engage this enemy."

In summary:
1.) Positioning is more limited, which is paradoxically more freeing; tactics in games is intrinsically related to predictability.
2.) The game is centered around using the grid.
3.) Characters just have more options, from level one up. Sometimes those options don't matter, but even the simplest builds have at least two choices in virtually all circumstances, and often three.

Monday, April 23, 2012

D&D Next: Atomic Scaling

 UPDATE: It occurs to me I made a huge mistake here. In addition to DEALING less damage, since it takes less damage to fell an enemy, the damage they do over the course of an entire encounter is substantially less. Therefore, damage to be "equal threats" scales at a much slower rate than I noted here.

There've been hints (not exactly in great detail) of toying with the idea of what I call atomic scaling of damage. The idea, as I understand it, is that an orc is an orc is an orc; rather than having a 5th level monster whose "longevity" as a threat is done away with due to attack and defenses scaling, a monster's "level" is a function of its HP and its damage. Therefore, an orc at 5th level (I don't have hard stats so we're just talking in the abstract) is as dangerous as 5 orcs at 10th level (or 15th level, or whatever), not because it's suddenly a minion and thus has higher attack and defenses but less damage and the like, but because an orcs damage at 10th (or 15th) level is 1/5 that of 5th level. Here's my problem: the math quickly proves untenable. Let's assume that orcs are actually a 1st level threat-you think "Oh there's a party of five orcs. My party of 5 PCs will be reasonable challenged by them." Now, let's assume that there is a monster that deals so little damage that even a single PC can take out five of them. Let's say that this applies to kobolds. Thus, our atomic damage rating is measured in "Kobolds." Finally, let's assume that there are such monsters that we expect them to be able to challenge an entire party at 1st level all by themselves. Let's call them "Adult Dragons." We can define kobolds, orcs, and dragons, using kobolds as the common unit. 1 Kobold = 1 Kobold 1 Orc = 5 Kobolds 1 Adult Dragon = 25 Kobolds So, we're not past 1st level, and already, in order to keep to the "danger is purely a function of damage/HP" we have to have one type of enemy have 25 times the HP of another. If Kobolds deal 1 damage, that means that Adult Dragons have to deal 25 damage (on average) (orcs deal about 5, so, 1d10, or 1d6+2, or the like). On the other hand, if we want even Kobolds to deal variable damage, then we have to have them deal at minimum 1d4. This means that orcs would have to deal the equivalent of 5d4, and Adult Dragons 25d4 damage! We're at first level, and we're already throwing 25 dice? Of course, the raw dice problem can be easily avoided by simply using static values (for instance: 5d4+50), but this means that the variability of the dice becomes massively less significant for higher level threats. What's more crucial is that, we're still at the lowest level scale. We know, for instance, that Orcs will eventually become the new kobolds-which means it's necessarily true that Adult Dragons will become the new orcs, and SOMETHING will become the new Adult Dragons. This something (We'll call them "Wyrms") will have damage scaling of 125 times the damage of kobolds. Now, you can reduce this problem by eliminating kobolds entirely-let's say there's no monster on earth that's weaker than an orc. Okay, so now our wyrms-which you're not expected to face until you're well into the game (how well into it? Beats me)-only deal 25 times our atomic value. However, since Orcs are 1 PC threats, we presume we want them to deal more than 1 damage per hit, so that's still 50+ damage. The other question is, how many adult dragons equals a Tarrasque? If we assume a Tarrasque is "worth" the same as a single Wyrm, then that means that the answer is five-and only 25 orcs. Somehow, I can't see the Tarrasque being taken down by anything less than a massive army. So we can pretty much assume there's at least one more level of scale beyond wyrms-so instead of a scale of 25 orcs (or 125 kobolds), we're left with a scale of 125 orcs (or 625 kobolds!) Now, the fact that a monster is worth hundreds of times the damage of another monster is only a problem if we're talking extremely high damage values (moreover, it's a problem if we realize "how are we going to get PC HP to scale like that?") What is almost certainly going to happen is that damage will be measured by "After Resistance" damage values. Imagine armor that absorbs damage, rather than just sets your AC (sacriledge in Dungeons and Dragons I know, but I'm trying to give this system the benefit of the doubt). So, an orc may always deal 5 damage, but then your resistance reduces that to four at the same time that your net total HP has doubled, meaning that the percentage of HP is roughly 1/5. It's impossible to really say without the specifics-but if you want to avoid exponential HP, you need to have a resistance value that will, eventually (probably not quickly, but eventually)-reduce enemy damage to 0. My own fears are more along the lines that a Tarrasque won't be "worth" enough orcs. Because epic level play has always been problematic, I suspect there will be a push to more "traditional" gaming-which I've always seen means low level grinds. And if we're talking low level, we're generally not talking about a need for monsters that can single handedly take out entire armies.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

My thoughts on 5th edition

Don't kid yourselves. You can call it D&D Next all you want, but even if you add stat blocks for Phibrizio, it's still just Season Five.

Okay, that analogy was stupid and I apologize, but I'm going to continue calling it 5E-if only because I want my blogger domain name to remain relevant.

Wizards has links to a number of Q and A sessions with the staff on their site, so head over there and make a search check if you want the full context of what I'm ranting about.

So, my thoughts? Well-

1.) Roleplaying is not game balance. Seriously, when you break the game down into Combat, Roleplaying, and Exploration, if you're going to have some classes be better at Roleplaying than others because-hey-that's how the game is balanced, what you're really doing is you're disincentivizing those classes that aren't as good at Combat.

I have always had a problem with predominantly roleplaying game stats-things like charisma especially, but even Intelligence-because I feel it gives the wrong kinds of incentives for those of us that like to twink builds. I don't want to play a dumb barbarian because being dumb is the ability score economically feasible choice, I want to play a dumb barbarian because playing a dumb character can be fun. On the flip side, I'd like to be able to play a smart fighter without having to pigeonhole myself into intelligence score based fighter abilities.

The entire thing just creates a giant unnecessary conflict of interests. Roleplaying involvement should have to do with a player's active involvement in the game-how much backstory they have, how much they work with the DM, and how much they actually care about those things. When you reward certain classes with roleplaying benefits at the expense of combat benefits, you're saying some classes are better at being involved in the game than others.

2.) I'm not sure I trust their math. In particular, the Fighter versus Wizard scenario discussed here. I understand what Monte is getting at, but he gave a really bad example:

Monte: Fireball is a static 5d6. If you want more damage, you use a higher-level spell slot. Much more balancing. Monte: the play session that I envision with the fighter and wizard fighting together is that the figher is always better than the wizard. The fighter hits someone for 12 damage and then the wizard hits someone for 4, and the wizard wishes he was a fighter. Then that happens again on the second round, and the wizard feels the same way again. But then on the third round the wizard whips out his fireball and does 16 or 20 damage total and the fighter goes ahh, I wish I was a wizard. I want each class to shine and to have reasons to want to play that class.

Seriously Monte? In your suggested example, the fighter did 36 damage over three rounds, whereas the Wizard did a crappy 28. This is assuming that a Wizard has enough spells to use one every three rounds equivalent. At that rate, there's never any reason to play a Wizard-their peak may be higher, but their average damage is a whole lot lower, and consistency of play is a lot more useful in combat than having occasional novas that don't even deal twice as much damage as the guy who's being consistent all the time!

But, maybe I'm underestimating how many spells per day/encounter/full-moon that Wizards have in this newfangled old school Vancian magic system (which, BTW, I'm rather conflicted on-I like how the Mage uses spells in Essentials, and I'm not sure whether they're moving away from that from the discussions here). Maybe Monte forgot to note "Oh yeah, and the wizard is damaging two or three targets at once." Any number of possible justifications for the rather shoddy math. But those weren't there, which gets me to wonder if anyone really understands what they're talking about.

3.) Skills: You know me, I hate skill checks. So, when they're talking about things like "Oh, your strength is 17? Yeah, you can do that" that's a definite move forwards in my book. Kudos.

4.) Classes as themes: Works for me, but without knowing what constitutes a theme, I can't say anything particularly meaningful. The "kits" idea makes sense, but I question the game balance involved. After all, a lot of the things that end up being broken are mixing unexpected combinations with one another. 4E was nice in that there was a lot of mutual exclusivity baked into the game system, so it was a lot easier to balance-having some old style classes as themes sounds like it has the potential to break some of that. Still, I'm optimistic.

5.) Ability score boosting items: Meh. I know that our old pal Percio over at Square Fireballs seems to have a beef with these, but I'm a bit more conflicted. I like the idea of ability score boosting items, but I HATE the effective necessity of them. The idea that you can take a dumb character and make them smarter by, say, bonking them on the head with a wooden paddle (been reading Nodwick) is fun, but if ability scores are crucial to the game's balance, that means that any significant increase to scores is appropriately more useful for characters who are likely to already have high ability scores.

Thinking about 2nd edition (my experiences of which were mostly the various computer games and the like), we can remember that Gauntlets of Ogre Strength and the like tended to grant flat specific ability scores, rather than granting a bonus (excluding Manuals of Awesomely Overpoweredness).

Of course, the big thing to remember is that it doesn't matter if magical items can boost your stats if you don't HAVE them. But, well, it's hard to imagine that monty haul DMs aren't going to monty haul.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Concerns for 5th edition

I've personally been a fan of the direction Essentials took 4th edition, so structurally, I'm not too concerned. However, there is one thing that will inevitably suck:

A complete lack of content at first. After all, it took quite a long time to get the monk into standard play. The amount of content actually available not only shapes play experiences, it shapes campaign design. This is probably just a necessary evil of starting a new edition, but it still sucks balls.