D&D 4E Ben Riggs' "What the Heck Happened with 4th Edition?" seminar at Gen Con 2023

pemerton

Legend
So I used the Search function to find these posts of mine, about skill challenges and some related 4e-isms, from the first half of 2008:
Nearly all the posts that I've read complaining about the new power system, the new skill challenge system, the new damage and healing system, etc, are just special cases of a general complaint: that the poster prefers purist-for-system/sandbox simulationism over player-driven narrativist play. It seems to me that the 4e designers agree with Ron Edwards that more people will enjoy roleplaying if the system empowers them to create the stories they want to create, than if the system subordinates those desires to the imperatives of the ingame causal relationships in the GM's imagined world.
4e looks like the most narrativist-friendly version of D&D (assuming "narrativism" is being used in the Forge sense of the word). It provides rules which are clearly not about determining the story via a mechanical modelling of ingame causality, but rather are about providing a framework on which players and GMs can hang the stories that they want to tell.

<snip>

the action resolution mechanics of 4e are so obviously not intended to be interpreted in a simulationist fashion, they look (to me) nothing like video game mechanics. They are to support story telling (perhaps mostly lowbrow stories, but that's D&D for you!).

I am not a video game player, but 4e (from all that I have seen) is far and away the most attractive version of D&D to me, because it promotes rather than hinders player protagonism, and thus roleplaying (in one important sense of that word).
The notion of "the answer" here is unhelpful. A skill challenge is not about the players guessing something the GM is keeping secret (eg what skill to use). It is about the players, using their PCs as the medium, taking control of the storyline of the game.

<snip>

The system is a way of improving (for certain RPGing preferences) the way that non-combat challenges are resolved. No one has ever suggested (at least to me) that HeroWars would turn a bad GM into a good one - but this does not mean that the HeroWars mechanics are not better than those of 3E for facilitating a certain sort of play.


Are you comparing the mooted system for 4e with other known systems of this sort, such as HeroWars? If so, there is no problem in divorcing the goal from the precise skills used - and there is no such thing as "intended skills". The point of the mechanic is to allow the players to shape the story by narrating the relevance of the skills they wish to use.

<snip>

There is only a loss for those with simulationist preferences. But this is so obviously the case with 4e that it can hardly be a surprise that its non-simulationism extends to its non-combat mechanics.
I'm not as worried as I get the sense that you are that D&D is becoming a little more precise in identifying the sort of play experience its designers feel confident that it can deliver.

<snip>

If the net consequence of being expressive, from the point of view of action resolution, is nothing - I still just roll the d20 - then the game itself gives me no particular incentive to be expressive. I may of course choose to be expressive nevertheless, but that expression does not ramify into the game itself.

On the other hand, in a framework in which the degree and content of my expressiveness is actually relevant to the evaluation of my skill check - for example, it helps determine whether or not it makes a legitimate contribution to resolution of the challenge, and perhaps the degree of that contribution (by helping settle the difficulty of my check) - then I have a good reason to be expressive. By being expressive I am actually shaping the gameworld.

<snip>

I see the "skill challenge" model as giving the players much more scope to determine the success conditions, because (i) if we know that 6 successes are enough, whatever exactly they consist in, and (ii) the players get to choose which skills to use (provided they make a narratively plausible case as to relevance) then inventiveness and a rich player engagement with the broader context is unleashed without the players having to worry that their PCs will fall foul of the GM's predetermined matrix of possibilities.

<snip>

My feeling, however, from what I've read, is that there is intended to be a difference and that narrative control is therefore being redistributed. An earlier paragraph indicates why I think this must be so - it cannot be otherwise if (i) a small and pre-determined number of successes is sufficient and (ii) the players get to choose to any significant extent which skills will be used to achieve those successes.

I worry a little that the DMG may balk at the hurdle of explaining how it is meant to work, however. Hopefully I'll be proved wrong in this respect - traditionally D&D has had a lot of trouble expressly stating any limits on the GM's narrative authority, but maybe another sacred cow is going to be slaughtered.
The way that D&D plays means that the real time consumed by combat is almost always far greater than that consumed by scouting, trap finding and trap disarming.

It is possible that 4e's new "skill challenge" mechanics will change this, but this would itself create pressure to make all characters able to meaningfully participate in such challenges so that their players do not get stuck at the table with nothing useful to do.
It's good to see that nothing has changed in the intervening 15 years!
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Well, to be fair that’s what Healing Surge was representing. Pretty much every healing used a Healing Surge and once you get to zero, you can’t heal anymore. It was the body fatigue, the limit of each adventurers that forced the party to stop to rest. It was the real HP.
When I speak of a body-fatigue system, I mean that there's body points and fatigue points (the total of which are your hit points). Taking BP damage represents real injury that can't be easily cured up, but you're still functional and conscious until you reach 0.
 

Red Castle

Adventurer
I think "Healing Surge" suffered a lot for the name. It reads as "all characters have X healing potions built in" not "all characters have Y capacity to be healed daily." Calling it something like Healing Reserve or Healing Tolerance and separating out the surge value into some other term would have helped.
Heh, I think that regardless of how it’s named it would have get the same reception. Its a kind of concept/mecanic that you either love or hate, no matter how its called. It could have just been called stamina points, or endurance points. I know that’s how I interpret them since I like to make a player lose one after they fail an endurance check.
 

Red Castle

Adventurer
When I speak of a body-fatigue system, I mean that there's body points and fatigue points (the total of which are your hit points). Taking BP damage represents real injury that can't be easily cured up, but you're still functional and conscious until you reach 0.
Could work in a simulasionist game, but in a heroic fantasy one, I personally prefer HP to be an abstraction and not spend too much time recovering. Personally, I loved the introduction of short and long rest and not have the character forced to spend a month in bed to recover if there is no way to heal magically.
 

Kannik

Hero
A Skill Challenge for me never came across all that weird, as it’s really just a case of HP-ifying larger and more interesting challenges. The party has 3 HP, and the challenge has (N) HP depending on the difficulty. Each character gets a chance to contribute to solving/overcoming the current challenge, with each hit dealing 1 HP, or 2 HP if an exceptional success or something extra creative/effective. (I also would allow an automatic or extra hit for spending an appropriate resource of some kind.) And like HP it’s a pacing mechanism, and I can always change the HP on the fly should things warrant it -- some super awesome move by PC? Boom, challenge vanquished! I love watching the players get into it and come up with great and creative ideas that really let their characters shine.

My own preference for running was not to announce the start of a SC, just rolling into it and asking the players what their characters are doing. Usually they would flow from one to the other rather seamlessly, though sometimes I would prod one or two of the players or intentionally go from one to the next so all would join in. Not that it would have necessarily been a problem had I announced it was an SC – when using a “Challenge” in Cortex Prime we all know it’s a challenge, but just like knowing in D&D “this is combat” it doesn’t make it feel weird, stilted, nor does it automatically reduce RP/immersion.

But given other experiences I’ve read, book-wise they were not all that well expressed and explained, especially given they had to do it multiple times. :p How they were presented in the LFR modules als seemed to be an issue, with SC’s feeling quite rigid and even checklist-y. (Though that might just have been the result one of our rotating DMs, who ran just about everything that way. Enter a room? “Make me an [skill] check… ok you find/avoid/etc this [thing].) That could very much sour one’s impression, and I think works against their original intent for SCs.
 

Kannik

Hero
The intent that it "be played in a very specific way" - while great for a niche game - doesn't square very well with the big-tent game-for-everyone approach that, 3e notwithstanding, D&D had largely taken up until that point. The people at WotC clearly learned this lesson well, went back to the big-tent model with 5e, and have been rewarded with a very successful ten-year run.
I don't find 4e was all that 'niche' in its expected playstyle, and could support more game styles than it is often given credit for. Similar to, no matter how vehemently some 'old school' players will tell you exactly how 1e is meant to be played back in the day, and despite how much the 1e rules pushed for a particular style of play, 1e and then 2e games were quite broad and vibrant across their play styles.

At the same time, 4e feels like it was given the dictum by Hasbro to follow what they felt were the trends (both within the D&D fanbase as well as wider trends) and lean hard into them and emphasize them, probably with a requirement or three as well for what they perceived might be monetizable. Again, this is where a nice meaty section in the DMG would've been great to talk about and provide the options to support those playstyles. (Given how 4e combat is structured, though, Theatre of the Mind would likely have to be off the table. (And I swear that pun is only semi-intended.)) But even without such a section, or even the options that came out in the later stages of 4e, there's a good gaggle of campaign styles and tones that work in 4e as well as they do in other editions (even if, like other editions, they took a handful of house rules). The main types I think that would not work well are those where the characters are not expected to be competent or capable.
 
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Pedantic

Legend
A Skill Challenge for me never came across all that weird, as it’s really just a case of HP-ifying larger and more interesting challenges. The party has 3 HP, and the challenge has (N) HP depending on the difficulty. Each character gets a chance to contribute to solving/overcoming the current challenge, with each hit dealing 1 HP, or 2 HP if an exceptional success or something extra creative/effective. (I also would allow an automatic or extra hit for spending an appropriate resource of some kind.) And like HP it’s a pacing mechanism, and I can always change the HP on the fly should things warrant it -- some super awesome move by PC? Boom, challenge vanquished! I love watching the players get into it and come up with great and creative ideas that really let their characters shine.
The primary thing skill challenges did was remove the design incentive to write an action complete skill system. Instead of expecting the rules to lay out a procedure for all the actions a party might take when trying to get in to a castle, they offered a framework all action declarations could be fed into. If you strip them of their narrative context, skill challenges are a terrible game; select your highest skill and try to roll well. If the GM is completely transparent, you might be able to make a calculation that a skill other than your highest skill offers more success.

Eventually, you get some rudimentary game conceits, like allowing resource expenditure of a power/ritual/surge to grant a success, or serving as a cost on failure, which then get handed off to the GM. Interestingly I have never seen a compelling argument for what benefit this serves over a specified action system; instead, SC's seem to be an answer to a different kind of system, wherein players announce an action, and a GM must immediate resolve a game design task in figuring out the action's scope and an appropriate DC, essentially the modern state of 5e. The design task presented by SCs is certainly easier and provides less latitude to (through malice or incompetence) create an untenable situation for players, but I don't fundamentally think the gameplay provided by either of them is particularly good.

In many ways, framing skill resolution as a choice between those two models is the enduring legacy of skill challenges, and my biggest frustration with them. I think the best and most interesting game skills (and frankly, all non-combat options) should offer is in setting a goal, and then picking from a list of available actions what will most readily achieve it, with an option to tactically reassess as the situation changes round by round. Skill challenges are a container that prevents you from needing to actually write down all those actions and a resolution system capable of parsing them; their introduction and rejection means D&D almost certainly will not try to do so again.
 

Pedantic

Legend
So… you’re saying presentation was the issue? ;)
I don't have strong feelings about 4e's shift of HP as an encounter resource vs. a daily one, but I don't think the game went nearly far enough in explaining that was what it was doing. In practice something similar had already happened with CLW wands in 3.5.
 

Voidmoji

Perpetually Perpetrating Plots & Ploys
Supporter
I think "Healing Surge" suffered a lot for the name. It reads as "all characters have X healing potions built in" not "all characters have Y capacity to be healed daily." Calling it something like Healing Reserve or Healing Tolerance and separating out the surge value into some other term would have helped.
Something as simple as Stamina Points would have sufficed, I feel.
 

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