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D&D 5E How is 5E like 4E?

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I think this is where we have a difference of conception.

It's probably hard to pin down to the level of precision you state here ("exactly the same wall") because that almost never happens. Even if it's literally the same place, the pressures on the PC are probably different - eg you're fleeing yeth hounds rather than wargs rather than wolves rather than a pack of rats.

What I'm trying to convey, though, is that broad sense of change of scope/stakes is - in general - enough to do the work of carrying the DCs. Another way to put it, borrowed rom Burning Wheel, is that assignment of DCs is not[/i[ doing the work of conveying the colour, the tone and feel and detail, of the world. That work is being done prior to DC assignment, by everyone's sense of who these PCs are, what tier they are, what the stakes are, etc. One upshot is that the world of 4e is painted with in much broader strokes, with a much more neon palette, than the intricacy, subtlety and "grittiness" of BW or even Tomb of Horrors. I personally think this is a feature - of course history reveals that not everyone agrees.
I'd agree that it's pretty silly to consider that the same thing happens precisely again, but it seemed to me that your assumption about the 5e DC was that it would always have to be 15 if a climber's kit was used. This doesn't hold. It's a different situation, so the DC can change based on the GM's appraisal of how well the approach works with the fiction. Players should not be upset if a different DC obtains in a different situation.

I think your point is that the DC in 5e will be considering the fictional situation and the action declared to determine it, whereas in 4e, for your approach, the fiction is mostly orthogonal.
We agree on this. I've restated your point here just above, with my reference to "level of precision". But there is something in the neighbourhood that I'm trying to convey, pointing to games I'm familiar with that mark the difference.

I read your first sentence as referring to upset in 5e. I hope that's right.

My view is that in 4e, the player can never be upset (on reasonable grounds) about the maths, provided the GM is following the DC-by-level and monster/NPC/trap-building guidelines. So, for instance, s/he can never validly complain How come that bugbear had so many hit points? - which is a legitimate complaint in (eg) AD&D, if the GM just makes a bugbear arbitrarily tougher. (For related reasons, I think advice about "curb-stomping"/"roflstomping" encounters stated in the books and restated in this thread is not good advice - that advice presupposes that a monster has an "objective" mechanical expression. But showing the players that PCs with the maths of 10th level characters can defeat an encounter designed for 5th level characters, to my mind, has all the thrill of reminding them that 10 is greater than 5 - ie it can be done pretty quickly and trivially and is not worth even a minute's time at the table. The way to convey "roflstomping" is by use of minions, swarms etc in meaningful encounters which are devices that convey the change of fictional scope/stakes using the (non-DC related) toosl that a 4e GM has ready to hand.)

What a 4e player can legitimately complain about is that the fiction is silly/unpersuasive/repetitive/boring. This is one reason - not the only one - why I think discussions of what makes for good scene-framing, that come out of "indie" RPGing, are useful for 4e in a way that they're not for (say) AD&D.
I agree with this, with the possible expectation that a 4e player couldn't be upset that a GM has picked a +4 level hard DC for something the player felt was presented as an easier task. This is an edge case, though, an I think it goes to say that the fiction presented is, at least, a rough constraint on the selection space for DCs even more so that just tier. Fiction isn't entirely orthogonal to DC, just mostly.
I stick to the terminology of objective/subjective because (i) I've used it over many discussions for many years and so am comfortable with it, and (ii) it conveys - to me, at least! - that the purpose of the DCs is, or is not, to convey some "truth" about the fiction. I think in AD&D this is the case (eg 8 HD vs 4 HD tells us that a hill giant is bigger and tougher than an ogre) whereas in 4e I think that is not the case - the fiction prior to the mechanics which is based on D&D tradition, expressed thematic content, etc tells us that sort of thing (perhaps together with non-DC related mechanical elements like a size stat, the description implicit in a combat ability, etc); whereas the level and DCs and damage expressions (ie all the stuff for which there is a "by level" chart) are then wheeled out simply to make sure that the thing we've already conceived of will deliver appropriate game play.

Part of the reason I am keen to spell all this out is that I think it reveals, transparently, what so many RPGers disliked about 4e D&D without applying spurious labels such as "dissociated mechanics" or misleading ones like "treadmill" that - as this thread shows - some people interpret as an implausible denial that earlier versions of D&D never had scaling. Of course they did! But the relationship between mechanics and fiction evinced by scaling in AD&D is completely different from 4e D&D. (3E is much harder to comment on, and much weirder, as I said above.)
I agree again.
As you know I'm nothing like an expert on 5e, but I think it's return to more-or-less AD&D norms as far as DCs (both in combat and out-of-combat) are concerned is an important part of its success. It treats hit points a bit differently from AD&D, but I think leaning into the pre-existing slipperiness of hp/damage is a clever design decision, because hp already either conceal a multitude of sins, and have been forgiven for doing so. The cost for someone like me is that the combat game becomes far less dynamic than 4e made it, and the colour that in 4e was so rich (which I say without resiling from what I said above about broad brush strokes and neon colours) is much diluted. (In this thread, I think the term "mundane" is used by some posters to convey the same idea. I prefer my way of conveying it.)
This statement seems very odd to me, in that AD&D didn't have a mechanic similar to DCs, except the "roll under stat." I don't think 5e has moved towards this, which, using your definition of sub/objective, appears to be a subjective system -- it's roll under stat no matter what's involved. 5e is most certainly not this. 5e isn't 3e, either. It's more an outgrowth of AD&D "GM decides" with a bit more of a framework a la 3-4e. More 4e in framework than 3e. What 4e might look like if DC was more tightly coupled to the fictional situation -- if 4e was more objective. But not quite.
I say something different from this - perhaps I should say I go further than this. I assert that there is no alignment of DCs to fiction. That is a concept that presupposes, in some fashion or to some extent, what I am calling "objective" DCs.

I am asserting that there is the fiction, and then there are DCs and other level-dependent stuff like damage expressions, and the former has to stand or fall on its own merits and plausiblity/consistency/verisimilitude/thematic heft, while the latter stand or fall based on the technical adequacy of the maths. (This is why there were multiple maths revisions that did not require any fiction revisions; and conversely why you can have fiction variants - like Neverwinter cramming paragon theme into heroic tier, or (in my view, though unlike Neverwinter not expressly stated) Dark Sun expanding paragon theme into epic tier - without needing to change any maths.)

A comparison - imperfect but hopefully comprehensible - is to AW, where there is no alignment of DCs to fiction, either loose or tight. There is just a constant spread of probabilities, designed for pacing reasons (and mathematically much more straightforward and transparent than 4) with everything else being carried by the fiction itself separately from the mechanics/maths.
Yes, this is what I understood, apologies for my rough handling.
 

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I don't see how this is possible. Let me give an example:

The scene is a character is scaling a cliffside with reasonable handholds, but wet from recent rain. What is the DC of this climb? I'll be nice and set this in the heroic tier, although the basic setup can exist across all tiers of play -- it could the the cliffs outside the home village, or the cliffs surrounding the Dread Necromancer's Keep, or the cliffs of the Infinite Spire in the center of the Outlands. You do not get a level. Select a DC for this, not a range, and explain how that DC is correct instead of another based on the fiction.

To me, you cannot do this. This challenge is fictionally positioned across the entire tier, and the DC is going to be dependent on character level, the +/- level adjustment the GM determines this challenge merits, and whether or not the GM thinks this should be easy, medium, or hard (could think any of these). These considerations do not flow from the fiction -- the fiction is generically placed to support multiple answers. Nothing flows from it. At best, it's a constraint in that if you assign a DC that doesn't fit at all, it's noticeable, but that's about it.
Sure they do, because the 'cliffside' and the 'Infinite Spire' are simply NOT THE SAME. There is no such thing as "Oh, they're both just cliffs, I do the same thing to climb them." The cliffside outside town is in a clement climate, with calm air, good light, and some sort of familiar rock conditions. Even if I am not a climber I can at least apply my normal common sense about rocks which pretty much everyone possesses in SOME degree, right? So there might be medium level 1 checks involved.

The Infinite Spire is made out of some sort of entirely magical material. It sure ain't any sort of rock I ever saw before! We don't know how hard a material it is to climb on, but my guess is it holds a few surprises. Beyond this, the spire itself is in a weird zone of anti-magic and IIRC even normal life functions don't quite work right there (I haven't read 1e MotP in a few decades). Surely there is wild magical/elemental energy surging around it, the light is weird/bad, and I'm probably on the lookout for some sort of nasties that are lurking around, real or imagined.

Now, maybe the Infinite Spire is actually EASIER for the level 25 party that is climbing it. I don't know. Probably so in some sense since they are Epic and have lots of crazy tricks up their sleeves. I will grant that the effective DCs may be similar. The fiction certainly is not!

As for easy, medium, hard, I would again state that this sort of activity is CERTAINLY covered by SC mechanics, canonically. So they are medium, with possibly a few easy or hard checks involved. I would say this is true for analogous scenarios at all levels. While it is likely that the GM framed this challenge with full knowledge of the exact level of the PCs, in principle, and practice if it was say a module, the level of the adventure would be set, and DCs would be appropriate to that, as would the fiction. Yeah, I don't really dispute that its not always easy to say that a specific encounter like this must be level 21 vs 25, or 30. So if the GM suddenly frames this scene as an SC, probably the checks will, within some range, be set with consideration of PC level, but if you build an adventure (and this is what 4e envisages, not scene framing in a Story Now fashion) then you'd build the spire and all the associated elements to be consistent fictionally with each other and with other fiction that you create that is an equivalent challenge (IE equal in level).

However, I am still starting with the fiction, I am then looking at where I'm going with fiction for, say level 21. At this level the PCs are not capstone characters yet. They are just now establishing their Epic Destinies. They may well be literally just achieving them in the process of this monumental undertaking of climbing the unclimbable. There will be some goal which is appropriate to that context, and that is a fiction, from which is stemming a set of DCs! So, yes, level in a contextual sense, is there as a kind of starting point, or guidepost. By laying out the careers of heroes systematically, 4e has erected these signposts by which I can shape the fiction so as to produce the kind of campaign story that is 4e's design goal (and presumably what I want, since I am playing it).

Now, I think it COULD be fruitful to talk about the way this works in 5e! I'm not much interested in DCs though, TBH. They are just numbers, they don't shape anything. Remember, I started playing this game when it was 3 LBBs and you basically had to write most of the rules yourself! I am all about fiction. How does 5e tie a fictional progression and evolution together? Do the mechanics "do the right thing"? Is it really practically amenable to a more varied set of arcs? Is it extra work and is that extra work, if so, worth it? What if we are only playing in a narrow level range? These are interesting points, and they may be points that are similar or not between 4e and 5e, I'm not 100% sure yet.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Sure they do, because the 'cliffside' and the 'Infinite Spire' are simply NOT THE SAME. There is no such thing as "Oh, they're both just cliffs, I do the same thing to climb them." The cliffside outside town is in a clement climate, with calm air, good light, and some sort of familiar rock conditions. Even if I am not a climber I can at least apply my normal common sense about rocks which pretty much everyone possesses in SOME degree, right? So there might be medium level 1 checks involved.

The Infinite Spire is made out of some sort of entirely magical material. It sure ain't any sort of rock I ever saw before! We don't know how hard a material it is to climb on, but my guess is it holds a few surprises. Beyond this, the spire itself is in a weird zone of anti-magic and IIRC even normal life functions don't quite work right there (I haven't read 1e MotP in a few decades). Surely there is wild magical/elemental energy surging around it, the light is weird/bad, and I'm probably on the lookout for some sort of nasties that are lurking around, real or imagined.

Now, maybe the Infinite Spire is actually EASIER for the level 25 party that is climbing it. I don't know. Probably so in some sense since they are Epic and have lots of crazy tricks up their sleeves. I will grant that the effective DCs may be similar. The fiction certainly is not!

As for easy, medium, hard, I would again state that this sort of activity is CERTAINLY covered by SC mechanics, canonically. So they are medium, with possibly a few easy or hard checks involved. I would say this is true for analogous scenarios at all levels. While it is likely that the GM framed this challenge with full knowledge of the exact level of the PCs, in principle, and practice if it was say a module, the level of the adventure would be set, and DCs would be appropriate to that, as would the fiction. Yeah, I don't really dispute that its not always easy to say that a specific encounter like this must be level 21 vs 25, or 30. So if the GM suddenly frames this scene as an SC, probably the checks will, within some range, be set with consideration of PC level, but if you build an adventure (and this is what 4e envisages, not scene framing in a Story Now fashion) then you'd build the spire and all the associated elements to be consistent fictionally with each other and with other fiction that you create that is an equivalent challenge (IE equal in level).

However, I am still starting with the fiction, I am then looking at where I'm going with fiction for, say level 21. At this level the PCs are not capstone characters yet. They are just now establishing their Epic Destinies. They may well be literally just achieving them in the process of this monumental undertaking of climbing the unclimbable. There will be some goal which is appropriate to that context, and that is a fiction, from which is stemming a set of DCs! So, yes, level in a contextual sense, is there as a kind of starting point, or guidepost. By laying out the careers of heroes systematically, 4e has erected these signposts by which I can shape the fiction so as to produce the kind of campaign story that is 4e's design goal (and presumably what I want, since I am playing it).

Now, I think it COULD be fruitful to talk about the way this works in 5e! I'm not much interested in DCs though, TBH. They are just numbers, they don't shape anything. Remember, I started playing this game when it was 3 LBBs and you basically had to write most of the rules yourself! I am all about fiction. How does 5e tie a fictional progression and evolution together? Do the mechanics "do the right thing"? Is it really practically amenable to a more varied set of arcs? Is it extra work and is that extra work, if so, worth it? What if we are only playing in a narrow level range? These are interesting points, and they may be points that are similar or not between 4e and 5e, I'm not 100% sure yet.
Right, so, then, what was the DC for the heroic tier cliff with handholds but that is wet from a recent rain? The bits about the Spire were interesting, watching you guess what might be up there, but I don't see the point. I was interested when you said it was the Skill Challenge mechanics that will tell you the difficulty of the task. Remind me, where are those in the fiction, again?

ETA: Look, I don't want to bust chops or get into a headbutting contest. I see 4e as a great game, but, like most RPGs, it seems that people that are heavily invested into it often overlook it's nature and idealize it a bit. I don't see the select method for 4e's DCs as rooted in the fiction. Like @pemerton, I see that they're more up to the challenge structure necessary for good pacing in the game, notably inside skill challenges, or with monster stats. I think defining the fiction as the source of the DCs is a bit, well, hopeful. The game feeds you the DCs, tells you how to use them for best effect, and none of that depends on whatever fiction you're crafting. Just doesn't matter. The only thing the fiction has to do is keep up, and there's a broad band it can fit into. This is 100% cool, I'm not saying this is bad or whatever. It is, though.
 

pemerton

Legend
I'd agree that it's pretty silly to consider that the same thing happens precisely again, but it seemed to me that your assumption about the 5e DC was that it would always have to be 15 if a climber's kit was used. This doesn't hold. It's a different situation, so the DC can change based on the GM's appraisal of how well the approach works with the fiction. Players should not be upset if a different DC obtains in a different situation.
Your point about situations is not disputed, and there is nothing you say here that I disagree with. In both cases the situation is established having full regard to what the character is attempting to do, and how they're doing it. But I still think there's a difference between 4e and 5e in method/"spirit".

For instance, I posted above that in 4e we might "explain" the change in DC - the word narrate would really do better here than explain - by reference to nothing more than This time we're under pressure from yeth hounds, not wolves; I don't think that 5e really contemplates that sort of abstract/"stakes" way to thinking about setting difficulties. Or to put it another way, I don't think 5e sees the PCs, what their hopes and fears are, etc as part of the situation that is being expressed via the setting of a DC; whereas I think 4e does - or, to put it better, by using the DC-by-level tables and the techniques for levelling monsters up and down (mostly up, in my experience) 4e builds those things in.

I could try and point my idea using (notional) canonical locutions: in 4e it is this is how hard we find the situation, whereas in 5e it is this is how hard the situation is.

Admittedly, stock Standard monsters are not exactly something you need spend vast amounts of time describing and justifying. It may well be that said bugbear gets exactly 2 minutes in play and nobody gives a fig why he's level 12, unless it has some profound plot relevance. I still don't feel like FUNDAMENTALLY the DCs are subjective though. I just think they are not really the focus of play.
It's probably no surprise that I agree with the first two sentences. As for the third and final, it's not my place to tell you what you do or should feel - but I feel that once we have it that DCs are not the focus of play, and no one really cares why the bugbear was statted up as level 12, and what really mattered was the aesthetically satisfying resolution of the conflict with the bugbear, it doesn't convey any useful information to say that the DCs are not fundamentally subjective.

The Burning Wheel Adventure Burner talks about the important role that difficulties play, in that system, in establishing the feel and "truth" of the shared fiction. Here is that advice (I'm quoting from the reprint in The Codex, pp 132-33):

When a player wants to perform a task, the GM is obligated to set an obstacle. The GM can refer to the skill, spell or trait list in most cases. . . . Some tasks ask the GM to determine an appropriate obstacle using the rather loose guidelines on page 15 of the Burning Wheel. . . .​
What is not obvious behind this system is that these obstacles create setting. When a player acts in the game, he needs a difficulty for his test. The obstacle is the number, but it's also the object of adversity in the fiction. Obstacles, over time, create a sense of space and logic in the game world. When a player repeatedly meets the same obstacle for the same task, he knows what to expect and he knows how to set up his character to best overcome this problem, or he knows enough to find another way around. . . .​
[W]hen done right, changing the obstacle for the same intent and task can be a powerful signal that something has changed. . . . but this only works if the obstacle has been used consistently up to a point before the mysterious change is presented.​
And sometimes, you can change your task and use a different skill to get a whole different obstacle!​

I see this as a very clear statement of the rationale of (what I call) objective difficulties. Exactly the same advice could be stated for Classic Traveller, or Rolemaster, or AD&D. (Upthread @Ovinomancer posted "AD&D didn't have a mechanic similar to DCs, except the 'roll under stat.'" I wasn't thinking of roll under stat, which doesn't appear in any canonicl fashion in Gygax's AD&D. I was thinking of climbing walls (which has circumstantial adjustments to reflect the "objective" difficulty as per the DMG), searching for secret doors, listening at doors, etc - in all these cases the difficulty (typically expressed as a chance of success) indicates the "objective" nature of the situation.)

That BW advice is utterly irrelevant to Apocalypse World (no difficulties), to HeroQuest revised (difficulties are determined by reference to the pass/fail cycle - ie are a consequence of the past proportion of successes compared to failures; and changing the task and hence the ability used will not affect that difficulty), and to Marvel Heroic RP/Cortex+ Heroic (all checks are opposed, either by another character or the Doom Pool, and the GM can step up that opposing pool by spending Doom Pool dice without needing prior justification from the established fiction - an instructional text that was hosted on the publisher's web site described such expenditure as analogous to a film stepping up the intensity of the music and/or going into slow-motion).

Now it seems to me, also, that that BW advice is almost irrelevant to 4e D&D. The 4e GM reads the DC of the chart; or settles it by choosing the level of the creature/trap/NPC. As per the discussion of the bugbear, there is no pressure of consistency to establish the feel of the setting. A 4e GM can't generate meaningful signals that the situation has changed by changing the DC - that would have to be done in some other fashion, just as it would have to be in AW. The only bit of the advice that I can see having some relevance is that by changing task and hence relevant skill a 4e player might shift the column on the chart, from (say) Hard to Moderate.

If the BW advice is basically irrelevant, to me that's a clear sign that the system uses "subjective" and not "objective" DCs.

The fiction increases because the DC does. The DC does not increase because the fiction does. This is apparent -- change the chart to a different progression and you'll have to alter the fiction you're using. If you change your fiction first, it now no longer aligns with the chart, and the players will be seeing DCs outside of the range suggested by the fiction.
The last quoted sentence I disagree with (assuming I've understood it); and therefore possible the first also. The chart is just the chart. You use it to set DCs, and the game rolls along with the right sort of pacing. (Assuming the designers have done their job right. I found with the Essentials chart and the MM3 damage, the maths was basically sound. My table didn't use Expertise feats, which I think are an unnecessary "fix" to the maths. But we did use the Essentials non-AC defence feats.)

And the fiction is the fiction. It is what it is, getting its life and logic from the shared sense of the tiers of play, from the shared participation in the "story" of D&D (kobolds to Orcus), with nothing as silly as a threatening goblin at the upper end of Epic (unless that goblin is an exarch of Maglubiyet or something of that sort). The fiction can be changed without any failure to "align" with the chart - the only risk is that something as silly as the goblin, or a demigod slipping over on a patch of ordinary ice, will spoil the tone.

A lot of players seemed to dislike this, basically because of what I quoted @LostSoul describing upthread: if the only thing stopping the GM presenting a 25th level goblin is good taste, then there is a sense in which having a "strong" 25th level PC or a "weak" one makes no difference as to whether or not you can handle a goblin. Boosting your PC's numbers doesn't - in any "objective" sense - make your PC more capable in the fiction; because "the fiction" is whatever the GM says it is. (This is another point of resemblance to HeroQuest revised or MHRP/Cortex+.) That's not to say that having a "stronger" PC is irrelevant, but the relevance manifests itself (i) in showing off to fellow players, and (ii) in showing off to the GM about how much you can take on before needing an extended rest.

Having played 4e and 5e, I must say, there seems to be a lot more focus on this sort of justification, and on the minutia of what exactly justifies every DC in 5e. It can get rather tedious IME.
If I'm understanding this right, it is consistent with my sense that 5e - without clearly saying so - assumes an "objective" approach to setting difficulties, meaning (among other things) that the Burning Wheel advice would be useful.

My own reading of 5e in this respect is of course somewhat conjectural, based on both text and D&D tradition which 5e in some ways harks back to (and which I read 5e fans giving voice to). And my reading of 4e, while based on experience, is also a particular one - the 4e texts are not fully consistent at every point, and I'm sidelining some elements (like the apparently prescriptive "fixed" difficulties for some skills in the PBH) because they seem poor fits with more fundamental elements of the system, like skill challenges and the level-by-DC chart.

What I think runs in favour of my take on 4e is that it present a consistent conception of the game, with clear affinities to other systems that are more explicit about their methodologies; and it fits not just with the "treadmill" as that is evident in the PC build rules but also with the XP rules, treasure parcel rules, descriptions of tiers of play, etc. For me, it also helps capture what I feel is a big contrast with 5e even though many mechanical techniques in the two systems are similar (as per the overall theme of this thread).
 

pemerton

Legend
Right, so, then, what was the DC for the heroic tier cliff with handholds but that is wet from a recent rain?
Whatever the GM wants it to be! Within the constraints established by the DC-by-level chart. Until we've set a level for this challenge, we can't say; and there's no point talking about setting a challenge until we've concretely identified some PCs for whom this is intended to be a challenge.

(It's probably clear that in all my posts I'm assuming that the GM is the one who frames situations in 4e. I think that's consistent with the game text - of course players are expected to establish quests, but it's still the GM who is meant to be framing those scene. If someone departs from this textual approach, and eg runs "sandbox" 4e, then levels will have to be given a different function. @LostSoul did this - each setting element was labelled with a level that was PC-independent, and established its DCs. This sort of approach will affect the pacing that I see as fundamental to the maths of 4e's design and play.)

I think defining the fiction as the source of the DCs is a bit, well, hopeful. The game feeds you the DCs, tells you how to use them for best effect, and none of that depends on whatever fiction you're crafting. Just doesn't matter. The only thing the fiction has to do is keep up
What I would add to this is that all "keeping up" means is is acceptable to, hopefully fun for, everyone at the table.

We can see this by comparing default 4e - where epic tier challenges are (in fictional terms) the Abyss and divine domains and rogue stars (see MM3) and the like - with Dark Sun - where epic tier challenges are Sorcerer-Kings and hangers on who (in default 4e) would suit the fiction of upper paragon, not epic.

I think that 4e is fiction first, but by this I mean the PbtA sense of "beginning and ending with the fiction" - ie framing is first and foremost fiction, and resolution (skill challenge or combat - my claim re the latter is controversial, especially with some who dislike 4e, but I'm happy to explain it if asked) begins by engaging the fiction, and the consequences of resolution are changes to the fiction.

But while PbtA "begins and ends with the fiction" that doesn't mean that fiction determines DCs. In AW and DW, there are no DCs. 4e does use DCs, but they're not read off the fiction. They're read off the rules for setting level-appropriate DCs and damage. Which is why I call the "non-objective" ie "subjective". (The terminology is not fundamental; I'm just trying to explicate my usage.)
 

Right, so, then, what was the DC for the heroic tier cliff with handholds but that is wet from a recent rain? The bits about the Spire were interesting, watching you guess what might be up there, but I don't see the point. I was interested when you said it was the Skill Challenge mechanics that will tell you the difficulty of the task. Remind me, where are those in the fiction, again?
I don't think the Skill Challenge mechanics 'told' me anything. I invented a low epic tier conception of the Infinite Spire in my mind, based on decades ago reading of the 1e MotP and just general ideas of what would be cool and thematic for a Demigod, an Archmage, a Deadly Trickster, and an Eternal Seeker, all newly minted, to do. Given the casting of the task in terms of 'dangerous climbing' clearly Epic PCs are not going to be particularly challenged by mere crumbly rock and overhanging ledges (they can probably fly and teleport after all, and may well possess magic items or abilities that let them climb with perfect skill).

So, I thought, "what makes the Infinite Spire Epic?" Well, surely its an 'Epic Region', the conditions are harsh in terms of the survival of mere mortals. This also leads to the idea that whatever does live there, it must also be pretty epic in order to survive. Thus I imagine some sort of 'weather' or similar environmental aspect. That seems fairly thematic, though probably not excessively scary to 21st Level PCs. Still, it can serve as a basis, everything else gets a bit harder when the wind is howling around you, magical lightning is in the air, etc. Anyway, you get the idea. I am only thinking of 'level' in terms of thematics. The DCs are along for the ride.

ETA: Look, I don't want to bust chops or get into a headbutting contest. I see 4e as a great game, but, like most RPGs, it seems that people that are heavily invested into it often overlook it's nature and idealize it a bit. I don't see the select method for 4e's DCs as rooted in the fiction. Like @pemerton, I see that they're more up to the challenge structure necessary for good pacing in the game, notably inside skill challenges, or with monster stats. I think defining the fiction as the source of the DCs is a bit, well, hopeful. The game feeds you the DCs, tells you how to use them for best effect, and none of that depends on whatever fiction you're crafting. Just doesn't matter. The only thing the fiction has to do is keep up, and there's a broad band it can fit into. This is 100% cool, I'm not saying this is bad or whatever. It is, though.
Look, the exact numbers are clearly not the issue here. I suppose I could be unique amongst all GMs on the planet in having a conception of thematic appropriateness. Somehow, reading 4e, I am not impressed by that possibility since it reeks of such! Absolutely reeks! You pick elements for your Epic PCs BECAUSE THOSE ELEMENTS ARE EPIC. Even if you say to yourself "I want a level 21 dragon" the things that will show up in MM(n) in response to that search will have been devised by the authors to adhere to the thematics of those levels! So its ENTIRELY thematics, all the way down! Else why would the game not simply have orcs and goblins from levels 1 to 30? Surely you can see this, right?

When @pemerton talks about things having 'subjective DCs' I think there are 2 things he's pointing out. One is that the thematic 'regimes' of 4e, its distinct themes, are certainly a lot more course-grained than 30 different graded themes. That is, any given theme occurs across a range of levels, and blends with others. So yes, you could set the DCs of a given area, the Infinite Spire as you posit, within a range, level 21 seems cool, level 24 wouldn't exactly cause anyone to spit milk either. Secondly I think he's referring to the EASY/MEDIUM/HARD determination process, which 4e actually says very little overall about.

Frankly, IMHO, Some of the tiers have more different themes than others. Surely levels 1-3 feel distinct from about 4-8, which is again feeling different from 9-11, then maybe 12-16, and you have 17-21 (epic transition), and then 22-28 perhaps is kind of the meat of epic, and then you have 'capstone', levels 29-30 that finish out the game. Obviously this won't exactly be reflected in all games, but IMHO epic is 'shorter' than paragon, which is 'shorter' than heroic. In fact HoML reflects this, allocating its levels disproportionately to the lower tiers. Maybe that's a mistake, come to think about it, lol. Maybe I should do the opposite! Have to think about that...

Anyway, FOR ME, its all about thematics. Level itself is merely a tool. DCs associate to themes, only in that they align the mechanics to them, such that the distinct needs of each theme are supported by the mechanics. So, yes, the DCs, objectively, are arbitrary, but the same thematic material will get the same DC EVERY SINGLE TIME, because that is what binds it to the game system (and granting a small amount of wiggle room of plus our minus a couple points here or there, which is not exactly going to cause anyone a lot of head scratching IME).
 

For instance, I posted above that in 4e we might "explain" the change in DC - the word narrate would really do better here than explain - by reference to nothing more than This time we're under pressure from yeth hounds, not wolves; I don't think that 5e really contemplates that sort of abstract/"stakes" way to thinking about setting difficulties. Or to put it another way, I don't think 5e sees the PCs, what their hopes and fears are, etc as part of the situation that is being expressed via the setting of a DC; whereas I think 4e does - or, to put it better, by using the DC-by-level tables and the techniques for levelling monsters up and down (mostly up, in my experience) 4e builds those things in.

I could try and point my idea using (notional) canonical locutions: in 4e it is this is how hard we find the situation, whereas in 5e it is this is how hard the situation is.
I get the point, and I think that there's some merit to the thought, but see below.
It's probably no surprise that I agree with the first two sentences. As for the third and final, it's not my place to tell you what you do or should feel - but I feel that once we have it that DCs are not the focus of play, and no one really cares why the bugbear was statted up as level 12, and what really mattered was the aesthetically satisfying resolution of the conflict with the bugbear, it doesn't convey any useful information to say that the DCs are not fundamentally subjective.

The Burning Wheel Adventure Burner talks about the important role that difficulties play, in that system, in establishing the feel and "truth" of the shared fiction. Here is that advice (I'm quoting from the reprint in The Codex, pp 132-33):

When a player wants to perform a task, the GM is obligated to set an obstacle. The GM can refer to the skill, spell or trait list in most cases. . . . Some tasks ask the GM to determine an appropriate obstacle using the rather loose guidelines on page 15 of the Burning Wheel. . . .​
What is not obvious behind this system is that these obstacles create setting. When a player acts in the game, he needs a difficulty for his test. The obstacle is the number, but it's also the object of adversity in the fiction. Obstacles, over time, create a sense of space and logic in the game world. When a player repeatedly meets the same obstacle for the same task, he knows what to expect and he knows how to set up his character to best overcome this problem, or he knows enough to find another way around. . . .​
[W]hen done right, changing the obstacle for the same intent and task can be a powerful signal that something has changed. . . . but this only works if the obstacle has been used consistently up to a point before the mysterious change is presented.​
And sometimes, you can change your task and use a different skill to get a whole different obstacle!​

I see this as a very clear statement of the rationale of (what I call) objective difficulties. Exactly the same advice could be stated for Classic Traveller, or Rolemaster, or AD&D. (Upthread @Ovinomancer posted "AD&D didn't have a mechanic similar to DCs, except the 'roll under stat.'" I wasn't thinking of roll under stat, which doesn't appear in any canonicl fashion in Gygax's AD&D. I was thinking of climbing walls (which has circumstantial adjustments to reflect the "objective" difficulty as per the DMG), searching for secret doors, listening at doors, etc - in all these cases the difficulty (typically expressed as a chance of success) indicates the "objective" nature of the situation.)
Right, and what I would say is that, in 4e as I play it, this kind of 'sense' also exists and can be significant. If you meet an enemy at level 1, and thrash him to an inch of his life, and then he shows up again at 4th level, you probably want some justification for why this guy who couldn't beat your level 1 fighter in a fair fight, is now able to take on the more experienced party. The answers may be fairly "thematic" in nature. I am thinking of a case like this in one of my campaigns. The bad guy came back, and 'got tougher' and the justification was he hooked up with a higher level bad guy and got some 'power ups', which were prominently displayed in the ensuing fight (he got some new minions to throw around as well). It turned out this reprise was a bit of a fizzle, the party basically wiped the floor with this guy before round 3 (I don't recall exactly how this happened, clever play, dice, something). Their basic response was "Once a looser, always a looser!" and they sent the head back to his boss on a stick. lol. The point being, they absorbed the thematic element, and 'got' that "this is a powered up guy, someone sent him", so the structure of the game GUIDED the way themes were developed. Thus I push back a bit on the idea that there isn't a strong 'objective' element present in the numbers, they can push things! It isn't all a one way street where numbers are just stickered to things in any way that you feel like to create 60% success rates.
That BW advice is utterly irrelevant to Apocalypse World (no difficulties), to HeroQuest revised (difficulties are determined by reference to the pass/fail cycle - ie are a consequence of the past proportion of successes compared to failures; and changing the task and hence the ability used will not affect that difficulty), and to Marvel Heroic RP/Cortex+ Heroic (all checks are opposed, either by another character or the Doom Pool, and the GM can step up that opposing pool by spending Doom Pool dice without needing prior justification from the established fiction - an instructional text that was hosted on the publisher's web site described such expenditure as analogous to a film stepping up the intensity of the music and/or going into slow-motion).

Now it seems to me, also, that that BW advice is almost irrelevant to 4e D&D. The 4e GM reads the DC of the chart; or settles it by choosing the level of the creature/trap/NPC. As per the discussion of the bugbear, there is no pressure of consistency to establish the feel of the setting. A 4e GM can't generate meaningful signals that the situation has changed by changing the DC - that would have to be done in some other fashion, just as it would have to be in AW. The only bit of the advice that I can see having some relevance is that by changing task and hence relevant skill a 4e player might shift the column on the chart, from (say) Hard to Moderate.

If the BW advice is basically irrelevant, to me that's a clear sign that the system uses "subjective" and not "objective" DCs.
I don't really agree with the bolded part. That is exactly what I was talking about above, the change in DCs DOES signal something! It is associated with, I would say 'explained by', some palpable new/changed element in the fiction. The 12th level bugbear employs bugbearjutsu, advanced stealth techniques, etc. Sure, mechanically he may well be just a bugbear jacked to level 12. I'd have to go look at the statblock for a bugbear and imagine the exact situation, maybe I'd tweak something, not sure. Point being, yes, in the end there's a sense in which this is simply color, but you have to be careful with saying that. It might well be that the players latch onto this element and ask "where the heck did a bugbear learn martial arts?" and then off you go! Maybe the Monk PC asks "Can I tell who trained this guy?" and the answer is "your old master!" WOAH! I mean, this is kind of the forte of DW, as I run it, but 4e handles it well enough too.
And the fiction is the fiction. It is what it is, getting its life and logic from the shared sense of the tiers of play, from the shared participation in the "story" of D&D (kobolds to Orcus), with nothing as silly as a threatening goblin at the upper end of Epic (unless that goblin is an exarch of Maglubiyet or something of that sort). The fiction can be changed without any failure to "align" with the chart - the only risk is that something as silly as the goblin, or a demigod slipping over on a patch of ordinary ice, will spoil the tone.
Right, in the end it all devolves down to thematics and how the mechanical 'engine' of the game generates narrative which is appropriate to it (or not if it fails to work right/gets used badly). So, at some level I agree that there are no 'causes' that can be assigned within games (this is the essence of the 'Thermian Argument' that was exposited in a thread we were all on not so long ago). So, to call a DC 'objective' is in one sense ridiculous. OTOH there's a need for them to have some sort of objective reality FICTIONALLY, and I think this is something 4e should have explained. While it is very transparent, some of its conceptions were subtly at variance with other editions and kind of deserved to be discussed. I suspect the designers were a bit unaware of what they were creating!
A lot of players seemed to dislike this, basically because of what I quoted @LostSoul describing upthread: if the only thing stopping the GM presenting a 25th level goblin is good taste, then there is a sense in which having a "strong" 25th level PC or a "weak" one makes no difference as to whether or not you can handle a goblin. Boosting your PC's numbers doesn't - in any "objective" sense - make your PC more capable in the fiction; because "the fiction" is whatever the GM says it is. (This is another point of resemblance to HeroQuest revised or MHRP/Cortex+.) That's not to say that having a "stronger" PC is irrelevant, but the relevance manifests itself (i) in showing off to fellow players, and (ii) in showing off to the GM about how much you can take on before needing an extended rest.
Yeah, well, if you go back to AD&D 1e, then you find there's not really any hard and fast rules about what you can or cannot meet. A level 12 party (basically the top of that game's 'paragon' if you will) can surely meet a tribe of goblins. Its just a random encounter roll. While many people might not really bother to play out a fight like that, it does kind of serve to illustrate progress. Also there is a certain classification of monster, the Hill Giant is a perfect exemplar of this, which kind of 'span the levels'. In the AD&D version of my campaign (way back when) there was a lame old Hill Giant outside town that had 9 hit points. This is literally a perfectly legal 1e MM Hill Giant! (they are 8d8 + 1-2 creatures). They are AC4, so actually it makes a decent (very dangerous) fight for level 1 PCs! Likewise G1 is filled with this exact monster, pitted against 12th (I forget the exact level range recommended, something like that) PCs! I guarantee THOSE instances of a Hill Giant have 66 hit points (the highest legal value for a book Hill Giant). This sort of thing puts a heavy focus in that game on how your numbers have changed.

I never did quite this sort of thing in 4e, though I did rebuild that Hill Giant as a level 6 Solo, IIRC.
If I'm understanding this right, it is consistent with my sense that 5e - without clearly saying so - assumes an "objective" approach to setting difficulties, meaning (among other things) that the Burning Wheel advice would be useful.

My own reading of 5e in this respect is of course somewhat conjectural, based on both text and D&D tradition which 5e in some ways harks back to (and which I read 5e fans giving voice to). And my reading of 4e, while based on experience, is also a particular one - the 4e texts are not fully consistent at every point, and I'm sidelining some elements (like the apparently prescriptive "fixed" difficulties for some skills in the PBH) because they seem poor fits with more fundamental elements of the system, like skill challenges and the level-by-DC chart.

What I think runs in favour of my take on 4e is that it present a consistent conception of the game, with clear affinities to other systems that are more explicit about their methodologies; and it fits not just with the "treadmill" as that is evident in the PC build rules but also with the XP rules, treasure parcel rules, descriptions of tiers of play, etc. For me, it also helps capture what I feel is a big contrast with 5e even though many mechanical techniques in the two systems are similar (as per the overall theme of this thread).
Yeah, I read 4e pretty similarly to you. The objective DCs in the skill section are, at best, 'hooks'. I think they're a vestige of incomplete transition to a more theme-driven sort of game, but at the same time I believe there needs to be SOME part of the game which telegraphs what is thematically appropriate to each level range/tier. There's probably a much better way to do it though! I was considering 'scale' as a technique in HoML 2.0, so that in an 'action sequence' you would have a scale, like 5' per square is a good heroic scale, and then when you go to 'Paragon' (Legendary in my parlance) you would expand that to maybe 10x10 squares, perhaps being slightly more abstract and just saying that small rooms are a 'space', etc. Mythic scales would be more like city blocks! Notice that this achieves a sort of power scaling too, your heroic tier Fire Sorcerer tossed out 20' diameter fireballs, but a MYTHIC Fire Sorcerer blasts entire neighborhood sized chunks of realestate with a single wave of his wand!
 

pemerton

Legend
I get the point, and I think that there's some merit to the thought, but see below.

<snip>

If you meet an enemy at level 1, and thrash him to an inch of his life, and then he shows up again at 4th level, you probably want some justification for why this guy who couldn't beat your level 1 fighter in a fair fight, is now able to take on the more experienced party. The answers may be fairly "thematic" in nature. I am thinking of a case like this in one of my campaigns. The bad guy came back, and 'got tougher' and the justification was he hooked up with a higher level bad guy and got some 'power ups', which were prominently displayed in the ensuing fight

<snip>

Thus I push back a bit on the idea that there isn't a strong 'objective' element present in the numbers, they can push things! It isn't all a one way street where numbers are just stickered to things in any way that you feel like to create 60% success rates.

<snip>

the change in DCs DOES signal something! It is associated with, I would say 'explained by', some palpable new/changed element in the fiction. The 12th level bugbear employs bugbearjutsu, advanced stealth techniques, etc. Sure, mechanically he may well be just a bugbear jacked to level 12. I'd have to go look at the statblock for a bugbear and imagine the exact situation, maybe I'd tweak something, not sure. Point being, yes, in the end there's a sense in which this is simply color, but you have to be careful with saying that. It might well be that the players latch onto this element and ask "where the heck did a bugbear learn martial arts?" and then off you go!
I can see all this. I didn't have that many recurring combat opponents in my 4e game. Kas was one, who went from mid-paragon to upper-epic. I don't recall if anyone actually asked for explanation, but I think there was an implicit sense that first time round he had just been roused from a long slumber; and second time round I think he had his sword (which the PCs returned to him first time round).

I believe there needs to be SOME part of the game which telegraphs what is thematically appropriate to each level range/tier.
I see that part of the game being the descriptions of the tiers together with the lists of traps, hazards and creatures. On the player side, it's carried by the changing abilities/powers (not the damage numbers, which are just formulas, but the effects/abilities - some epic destinies are especially significant here, not just for what is explicit in them but also what they imply).

Departing from these creates a new fiction. I've already mentioned Dark Sun and Neverwinter as (different) examples of departing from the default lists on the GM-side. And in my own game I framed frost giants as extraplanar by using them (appropriately levelled up) at mid-to-upper epic on the Feywild rather than at the default level. And never used things I regarded as a bit silly, like swordwings, or some of those weird epic humanoids in the MM3.
 

Whatever the GM wants it to be! Within the constraints established by the DC-by-level chart. Until we've set a level for this challenge, we can't say; and there's no point talking about setting a challenge until we've concretely identified some PCs for whom this is intended to be a challenge.

(It's probably clear that in all my posts I'm assuming that the GM is the one who frames situations in 4e. I think that's consistent with the game text - of course players are expected to establish quests, but it's still the GM who is meant to be framing those scene. If someone departs from this textual approach, and eg runs "sandbox" 4e, then levels will have to be given a different function. @LostSoul did this - each setting element was labelled with a level that was PC-independent, and established its DCs. This sort of approach will affect the pacing that I see as fundamental to the maths of 4e's design and play.)
Right, so maybe my approach is a bit 'in between'. I would say "A small rough cliff face with many ledges and a good bit of plant growth" is probably a level 1 challenge to climb (maybe not even, but with a time constraint or under adverse conditions, etc.). We can spend an SC on this. The level 8 party won't do that, they are not really challenged by it, maybe it warrants a check as part of some SC regulating whether or not they cross the overall region swiftly enough to catch up with their quarry. So, there's an 'objective cliff' there, which presumably was established in the fiction by something at or before the level 1 scene where it was climbed. It will still be 'just as hard' to climb now, but its narrative function will change, and thus different mechanics are engaged.
What I would add to this is that all "keeping up" means is is acceptable to, hopefully fun for, everyone at the table.

We can see this by comparing default 4e - where epic tier challenges are (in fictional terms) the Abyss and divine domains and rogue stars (see MM3) and the like - with Dark Sun - where epic tier challenges are Sorcerer-Kings and hangers on who (in default 4e) would suit the fiction of upper paragon, not epic.

I think that 4e is fiction first, but by this I mean the PbtA sense of "beginning and ending with the fiction" - ie framing is first and foremost fiction, and resolution (skill challenge or combat - my claim re the latter is controversial, especially with some who dislike 4e, but I'm happy to explain it if asked) begins by engaging the fiction, and the consequences of resolution are changes to the fiction.

But while PbtA "begins and ends with the fiction" that doesn't mean that fiction determines DCs. In AW and DW, there are no DCs. 4e does use DCs, but they're not read off the fiction. They're read off the rules for setting level-appropriate DCs and damage. Which is why I call the "non-objective" ie "subjective". (The terminology is not fundamental; I'm just trying to explicate my usage.)
Yeah, again, agree that there's nothing non-arbitrary about DCs in 4e, or any other game! 4e also has a fuzzy side in which you can ask if a DC is a Hard level 1, or an Easy level 21! They are the same number (19). The columns skew exactly 1 tier (10 levels) per 'rank'. So, you COULD leverage this in the sense of "This cliff was hard to climb at level 1, which translates to a medium level 11 difficulty, and an easy level 21 difficulty." I'm not sure this was really the intent of that mechanism though. I prefer the idea of 'narrative significance' and tying that to types of mechanics, or the framing of the related SC.

So, when low level PCs face a certain challenge, it is narratively significant. Climbing that daunting cliff is how the level 1 PCs get out of the ravine before the flood which is coming sweeps them away. Its tough, the SC covers that, and its a big narrative, probably one of 4 or 5 action sequences in a game session. At level 11 the PCs are chasing some bad guys and have to decide if they will climb it, which is just an Athletics or Nature check or whatever, vs the Wizard casting a Phantom Steeds and dicing on getting flying mounts that will just waft them across. Some of the climb checks were hard at level 1, the same 19 DC at level 11 is medium, the default for an SC. Not really crazy different DCs.
 

pemerton

Legend
Here's another take on it: does the resolution process in a RPG system need a "credibility test" as part of the framing of action declaration and resolution?

In HeroQuest revised and MHRP/Cortex+, the answer is yes. Robin Laws's example in the former involves a cowboy trying to outrun his horse: while, for reasons to do with respective builds, the cowboy PC might have a Fast Runner ability rated at 17, while the horse has a Galloping ability rated at 12, that doesn't mean the player can make a test to have the PC outrun his horse. Because that makes no sense in the fiction.

MHRP has the same consideration: mathematically, it is possible (not very likely, but possible) for (say) Jean Gray's arm wrestling dice pool to beat The Thing's. But that doesn't mean she has a chance of beating The Thing in an arm wrestle (other than by using mind control or TK to beat him). Again, we first have to pass a credibility test before then building our pools and resolving the opposed check.

In Burning Wheel, on the other hand, the notion of "credibility tests" has no work to do in these sorts of scenarios (it might have work to do in some knowledge or discovery cases, as per other threads we've been party to). The obstacle is set and the dice are rolled. What is credible, or possible, is a downstream consequence of action resolution, not an input into it. AD&D and Rolemaster also work pretty much like this; so does Classic Traveller. (That last one, given the technical scope it covers, might have some cases where minimum stats are needed to try something - but that is still credibility/possibility is read off the mechanics, and is not an input into framing before any stats are consulted and applied.)

As per my post upthread about sealing the Abyss, I think that 4e needs credibility checks as a precursor to framing. Page 42 of the DMG suggests as much. This is another reason I think of it as falling on the HeroQuest revised "subjective" side of this methodological divide, rather than the Burning Wheel "objective" side.
 

Here's another take on it: does the resolution process in a RPG system need a "credibility test" as part of the framing of action declaration and resolution?

In HeroQuest revised and MHRP/Cortex+, the answer is yes. Robin Laws's example in the former involves a cowboy trying to outrun his horse: while, for reasons to do with respective builds, the cowboy PC might have a Fast Runner ability rated at 17, while the horse has a Galloping ability rated at 12, that doesn't mean the player can make a test to have the PC outrun his horse. Because that makes no sense in the fiction.

MHRP has the same consideration: mathematically, it is possible (not very likely, but possible) for (say) Jean Gray's arm wrestling dice pool to beat The Thing's. But that doesn't mean she has a chance of beating The Thing in an arm wrestle (other than by using mind control or TK to beat him). Again, we first have to pass a credibility test before then building our pools and resolving the opposed check.

In Burning Wheel, on the other hand, the notion of "credibility tests" has no work to do in these sorts of scenarios (it might have work to do in some knowledge or discovery cases, as per other threads we've been party to). The obstacle is set and the dice are rolled. What is credible, or possible, is a downstream consequence of action resolution, not an input into it. AD&D and Rolemaster also work pretty much like this; so does Classic Traveller. (That last one, given the technical scope it covers, might have some cases where minimum stats are needed to try something - but that is still credibility/possibility is read off the mechanics, and is not an input into framing before any stats are consulted and applied.)

As per my post upthread about sealing the Abyss, I think that 4e needs credibility checks as a precursor to framing. Page 42 of the DMG suggests as much. This is another reason I think of it as falling on the HeroQuest revised "subjective" side of this methodological divide, rather than the Burning Wheel "objective" side.
Interesting, but the question that IMMEDIATELY sprang to my mind is 'why'? I mean, what work are mechanics doing in HeroQuest if the speeds of horses and men are rated on completely different scales and given different names? AND THEN GET COMPARED TO EACH OTHER!!!! lol. It appears to be the same activity, physically pushing yourself to a faster speed for the horse and the man. As an engineer and tinkerer with game systems, HQ seems broken to me! Same with the Hulk/Jane Grey example, the mechanics are flawed! This is what they are FOR is to tell us this stuff. If we have to 'fudge it', then OK, its a poorly designed game (mechanically) and I can live with that, but I bet that gets a lot of negative feedback!

IMHO 4e doesn't have an urgent need for credibility tests. Maybe there's a limited sense in which the thematics of Epic is so different from Heroic that it tends to outstrip the DC chart a bit. I'm not entirely sure. My feeling is that the INTENT was that skills, by themselves, would simply be backstop kind of ways to do things. That is, they would represent relatively mundane or straightforward applications of a character's SKILL or whatever. This is another case where 4e kind of started out as one sort of game, and evolved into another sort along the way.

So, HoML also addresses this. 'Skill' is taken more as 'governing approach'. The fighter with Athletics proficiency approaches problems as physical challenges of strength and raw power. Via the use of powers (not to delve into the current terminology much, lets just say powers) he can apply this approach to things outside what would typically be thought of as athletic challenges. He might be able to intimidate people with his strength, or perform 'wire fu' or whatever. So, to 'Seal the Abyss' so to speak, this strength-based approach would require some sort of 'power' to bind it to the fiction. This could be improvised, it could be enabled by means of paying some other resource, etc. Those means simply wouldn't be available to a Heroic character, so the attempt wouldn't happen. Even the wizard, with his Arcana skill simply doesn't possess a power that can bring it to bear against an epic (Mythic) grade challenge.

I consider this a 'fix' for what in 4e is, IME, a pretty minor issue. It is just that I wanted more emphasis on the progression. There was a tendency for people running 4e to treat Paragon and Epic as just "Heroic with bigger numbers" and miss the POINT of it. You cannot miss the point of it in my game! lol.
 

pemerton

Legend
Interesting, but the question that IMMEDIATELY sprang to my mind is 'why'? I mean, what work are mechanics doing in HeroQuest if the speeds of horses and men are rated on completely different scales and given different names? AND THEN GET COMPARED TO EACH OTHER!!!! lol. It appears to be the same activity, physically pushing yourself to a faster speed for the horse and the man. As an engineer and tinkerer with game systems, HQ seems broken to me! Same with the Hulk/Jane Grey example, the mechanics are flawed! This is what they are FOR is to tell us this stuff. If we have to 'fudge it', then OK, its a poorly designed game (mechanically) and I can live with that, but I bet that gets a lot of negative feedback!
This is like saying that DW is broken because the resolution numbers for Hack & Slash are the same whether you're fighting Orcus or a goblin.
 

This is like saying that DW is broken because the resolution numbers for Hack & Slash are the same whether you're fighting Orcus or a goblin.
I don't think it is quite the same. As you said yourself, the speed of the man would seem to rate higher than the horse. Hacking and Slashing Orcus is different due to other factors.
 

pemerton

Legend
I don't think it is quite the same. As you said yourself, the speed of the man would seem to rate higher than the horse. Hacking and Slashing Orcus is different due to other factors.
But the function of a descriptor rating in HQ revised is to support resolution against what are mostly fixed target numbers determined via the "pass/fail cycle" chart. Opposed checks figure, but an opposed check can only be framed if the credibility test is first passed. Just as in DW you can only Hack & Slash a dragon if the credibility test is first passed (eg you're armed with a dragon-slaying sword). The parallel is almost exact.
 

But the function of a descriptor rating in HQ revised is to support resolution against what are mostly fixed target numbers determined via the "pass/fail cycle" chart. Opposed checks figure, but an opposed check can only be framed if the credibility test is first passed. Just as in DW you can only Hack & Slash a dragon if the credibility test is first passed (eg you're armed with a dragon-slaying sword). The parallel is almost exact.
Not really disagreeing with you on how it works. I just don't understand why you would design a game such that there are two different descriptors which mean the same thing, and use different scales.

Consider DW, armor means the same thing for all creatures, how much damage you avoid. Hit points mean the same thing, how much you can take (or something). You can compare the strength of one creature against a PC or another creature in a way that has some meaning. Also, even in D&D, any of these things needs to pass some degree of 'test'. In a D&D game your PC might have a STR of 25 (girdle of Storm Giant Strength) but wrestling an ancient huge red dragon to the ground still ain't going to happen. At most it is going to be a question whether you can do it or not.

I would just think, if I'm designing a system from whole cloth (HQ) why wouldn't I put the numbers on a single scale? What is gained by not doing that?
 

pemerton

Legend
Not really disagreeing with you on how it works. I just don't understand why you would design a game such that there are two different descriptors which mean the same thing, and use different scales.

<snip>


I would just think, if I'm designing a system from whole cloth (HQ) why wouldn't I put the numbers on a single scale? What is gained by not doing that?
It's a free descriptor system, and all abilities are rated from 1 to 20. (Scores above 20 cycle back round, but - in effect - get a free "hero point" expenditure every time which steps the result up by one (eg minor failure to minor victory, or minor victory to major victory). There are rules for managing broad vs narrow descriptors (eg "strong as an ox" vs "lifts heavy rocks") to ensure parity of utility, but that's explicitly based on considerations of (i) fairness and (ii) encouraging evocative descriptions even if they narrow the descriptor, not simulation.

The reason for keeping all descriptors rated on the same scale is much the same as the reason that AW or DW uses the same ranges for all resolution, with a maximum modifier (typically) of +3 or so: it makes the maths work. Just as one example: if my cowboy is racing back to the homestead to save his kid brother from the bandits, I might test my Care For My Kid Brother (which, let's say, is rated at 17), with an augment from my horse's Galloper (which, let's say, is rated at 12). The system doesn't use any sort of "simulationist" resolution, and doesn't care how fast the horse is going in mph. It cares about the salience of those descriptors, which are signalled by the number next to them.

Now my horse might have Galloper 12, while the hustler who is planning to win a bag of silver dollars in the local gift might have Sprinter 15. That doesn't tell us that the hustler - even if near-guaranteed to win the gift - is faster than the horse. It tells us that the fact that this guy is a sprinter is more salient in the fiction than the fact that my horse can gallop fast. And as I posted, the question of whether the hustler can outrun the horse isn't settled by making a check, but by considering genre-based credibility. An analogy to this in 4e would be something like the sealing of the Abyss that I described upthread; intimidating Orcus would be another example; or everyone's favourite hypothetical degenerate social action declaration, the PC who persuades the king to forfeit his/her throne (in 4e this fails credibility for a heroic PC, but in my view not at all for a paragon one!).

Consider DW, armor means the same thing for all creatures, how much damage you avoid. Hit points mean the same thing, how much you can take (or something). You can compare the strength of one creature against a PC or another creature in a way that has some meaning.
From DW, p 58:

Note that an “attack” is some action that a player undertakes that has a chance of causing physical harm to someone else. Attacking a dragon with inch-thick metal scales full of magical energy using a typical sword is like swinging a meat cleaver at a tank: it just isn’t going to cause any harm, so hack and slash doesn’t apply. Note that circumstances can change that: if you’re in a position to stab the dragon on its soft underbelly (good luck with getting there) it could hurt, so it’s an attack.​

That's the "credibility test" at work. To pick some contrasting systems, AD&D and 3E D&D and Classic Traveller have nothing like this: in each case the player can declare the action, the check is made, and the result compared to the difficulty (ie the AC in D&D, the 8+ needed to hit in Traveller). Credibility is an output of the system (and it's a legitimate criticism of the system that it produces absurd outcomes, like a single linkboy with a dagger being able to one-shot a dragon: traditionally D&D uses hit points to handle this, while in Traveller some modifiers just make hitting impossible without a sufficiently high skill bonus).

Here's another example, from Ironsworn (p 208):

You might be familiar with roleplaying games that give various tasks a difficulty rating or modifier. The flexibility to make each toss of the dice contextual, to adjust the chance to succeed based on the situation, creates an experience which helps simulate your imagined reality.

However, the Ironsworn rules do not utilize fine-grained mechanics for the difficulty of a particular challenge or the abilities a foe can bring to bear. Instead, the requirements to overcome challenges in your world are primarily represented through your fictional framing. . . .

A leviathan is an ancient sea beast . . . It’s tough to kill because of its epic rank, and it inflicts epic harm, but it doesn’t have any other mechanical characteristics. If we look to the fiction of the leviathan’s, description, we see “flesh as tough as iron.” But, rolling a Strike against a leviathan is the same as against a common thug. In either case, it’s your action die, plus your stat and adds compared to the challenge dice. Your chances to score a strong hit, weak hit, or miss are the same.

So how do you give the leviathan its due as a terrifying, seemingly invulnerable foe? You do it through the fiction.

If you have sworn a vow to defeat a leviathan, are you armed with a suitable weapon? Punching it won’t work. Even a deadly weapon such as a spear would barely get its attention. Perhaps you undertook a quest to find the Abyssal Harpoon, an artifact from the Old World, carved from the bones of a long-dead sea god. This mythic weapon gives you the fictional framing you need to confront the monster, and finding it can count as a milestone on your vow to destroy this beast.

Even with your weapon at the ready, can you overcome your fears as you stand on the prow of your boat, the water surging beneath you, the gaping maw of the beast just below the surface? Face Danger with +heart to find out.

The outcome of your move will incorporate the leviathan’s devastating power. Did you score a miss? The beast smashes your boat to kindling. It tries to drag you into the depths. Want to Face Danger by swimming away? You can’t outswim a leviathan. You’ll have to try something else.

Remember the concepts behind fictional framing. Your readiness and the nature of your challenge may force you to overcome greater dangers and make additional moves. Once you’ve rolled the dice, your fictional framing provides context for the outcome of those moves.​

Again, we see the credibility test at work. This can be contrasted with, say, Burning Wheel. In BW the leviathan would have Grey-shade Mortal Wound (ie numerically about double that of an ordinary mortal creature) and hence any normal weapon will at best have the chance to inflict a Superficial Wound. It would force a Steel check when confronted; and while its would-be harpooner is hesitating it would strike the boat using the Devastator trait to reduce it to kindling. In BW, unlike in HeroQuest, the numbers are "simulationist" measure of in-fiction capacity, sitting on a common scale; and unlike in Ironsworn or DW, the numbers provide the input into resolution with credibility being the output.

I'm not advocating for either approach; just noting the significant difference, and my opinion that 4e D&D sits on the "subjective" side of the divide.

To move from description to advocacy: I think it is hard to make a game that uses "objective" difficulties and resolution and produces a truly epic/mythic feel in play. I don't regard 3E as a success in this respect. BW pushes in this direction, but at least as I've experienced it has a natural tendency towards grittiness and details mattering. Whereas systems I know that do reliable gonzo are 4e D&D and MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic, and in both cases I think the "subjective" approach is part of this.
 

It's a free descriptor system, and all abilities are rated from 1 to 20. (Scores above 20 cycle back round, but - in effect - get a free "hero point" expenditure every time which steps the result up by one (eg minor failure to minor victory, or minor victory to major victory). There are rules for managing broad vs narrow descriptors (eg "strong as an ox" vs "lifts heavy rocks") to ensure parity of utility, but that's explicitly based on considerations of (i) fairness and (ii) encouraging evocative descriptions even if they narrow the descriptor, not simulation.

The reason for keeping all descriptors rated on the same scale is much the same as the reason that AW or DW uses the same ranges for all resolution, with a maximum modifier (typically) of +3 or so: it makes the maths work. Just as one example: if my cowboy is racing back to the homestead to save his kid brother from the bandits, I might test my Care For My Kid Brother (which, let's say, is rated at 17), with an augment from my horse's Galloper (which, let's say, is rated at 12). The system doesn't use any sort of "simulationist" resolution, and doesn't care how fast the horse is going in mph. It cares about the salience of those descriptors, which are signalled by the number next to them.

Now my horse might have Galloper 12, while the hustler who is planning to win a bag of silver dollars in the local gift might have Sprinter 15. That doesn't tell us that the hustler - even if near-guaranteed to win the gift - is faster than the horse. It tells us that the fact that this guy is a sprinter is more salient in the fiction than the fact that my horse can gallop fast. And as I posted, the question of whether the hustler can outrun the horse isn't settled by making a check, but by considering genre-based credibility. An analogy to this in 4e would be something like the sealing of the Abyss that I described upthread; intimidating Orcus would be another example; or everyone's favourite hypothetical degenerate social action declaration, the PC who persuades the king to forfeit his/her throne (in 4e this fails credibility for a heroic PC, but in my view not at all for a paragon one!).


From DW, p 58:

Note that an “attack” is some action that a player undertakes that has a chance of causing physical harm to someone else. Attacking a dragon with inch-thick metal scales full of magical energy using a typical sword is like swinging a meat cleaver at a tank: it just isn’t going to cause any harm, so hack and slash doesn’t apply. Note that circumstances can change that: if you’re in a position to stab the dragon on its soft underbelly (good luck with getting there) it could hurt, so it’s an attack.​

That's the "credibility test" at work. To pick some contrasting systems, AD&D and 3E D&D and Classic Traveller have nothing like this: in each case the player can declare the action, the check is made, and the result compared to the difficulty (ie the AC in D&D, the 8+ needed to hit in Traveller). Credibility is an output of the system (and it's a legitimate criticism of the system that it produces absurd outcomes, like a single linkboy with a dagger being able to one-shot a dragon: traditionally D&D uses hit points to handle this, while in Traveller some modifiers just make hitting impossible without a sufficiently high skill bonus).

Here's another example, from Ironsworn (p 208):

You might be familiar with roleplaying games that give various tasks a difficulty rating or modifier. The flexibility to make each toss of the dice contextual, to adjust the chance to succeed based on the situation, creates an experience which helps simulate your imagined reality.​
However, the Ironsworn rules do not utilize fine-grained mechanics for the difficulty of a particular challenge or the abilities a foe can bring to bear. Instead, the requirements to overcome challenges in your world are primarily represented through your fictional framing. . . .​
A leviathan is an ancient sea beast . . . It’s tough to kill because of its epic rank, and it inflicts epic harm, but it doesn’t have any other mechanical characteristics. If we look to the fiction of the leviathan’s, description, we see “flesh as tough as iron.” But, rolling a Strike against a leviathan is the same as against a common thug. In either case, it’s your action die, plus your stat and adds compared to the challenge dice. Your chances to score a strong hit, weak hit, or miss are the same.​
So how do you give the leviathan its due as a terrifying, seemingly invulnerable foe? You do it through the fiction.​
If you have sworn a vow to defeat a leviathan, are you armed with a suitable weapon? Punching it won’t work. Even a deadly weapon such as a spear would barely get its attention. Perhaps you undertook a quest to find the Abyssal Harpoon, an artifact from the Old World, carved from the bones of a long-dead sea god. This mythic weapon gives you the fictional framing you need to confront the monster, and finding it can count as a milestone on your vow to destroy this beast.​
Even with your weapon at the ready, can you overcome your fears as you stand on the prow of your boat, the water surging beneath you, the gaping maw of the beast just below the surface? Face Danger with +heart to find out.​
The outcome of your move will incorporate the leviathan’s devastating power. Did you score a miss? The beast smashes your boat to kindling. It tries to drag you into the depths. Want to Face Danger by swimming away? You can’t outswim a leviathan. You’ll have to try something else.​
Remember the concepts behind fictional framing. Your readiness and the nature of your challenge may force you to overcome greater dangers and make additional moves. Once you’ve rolled the dice, your fictional framing provides context for the outcome of those moves.​

Again, we see the credibility test at work. This can be contrasted with, say, Burning Wheel. In BW the leviathan would have Grey-shade Mortal Wound (ie numerically about double that of an ordinary mortal creature) and hence any normal weapon will at best have the chance to inflict a Superficial Wound. It would force a Steel check when confronted; and while its would-be harpooner is hesitating it would strike the boat using the Devastator trait to reduce it to kindling. In BW, unlike in HeroQuest, the numbers are "simulationist" measure of in-fiction capacity, sitting on a common scale; and unlike in Ironsworn or DW, the numbers provide the input into resolution with credibility being the output.

I'm not advocating for either approach; just noting the significant difference, and my opinion that 4e D&D sits on the "subjective" side of the divide.

To move from description to advocacy: I think it is hard to make a game that uses "objective" difficulties and resolution and produces a truly epic/mythic feel in play. I don't regard 3E as a success in this respect. BW pushes in this direction, but at least as I've experienced it has a natural tendency towards grittiness and details mattering. Whereas systems I know that do reliable gonzo are 4e D&D and MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic, and in both cases I think the "subjective" approach is part of this.
Hmmm, its funny you say this, because I just created extra dimensions of scaling to achieve something pretty 'gonzo'. Honestly I found 4e's scaling mechanically sufficient for this, for the most part. You didn't really need 'credibility tests' to any practical degree, nothing beyond what you would find in games like AD&D where, as I said before, wrestling a dragon is just not possible for a human-sized PC, regardless of things like strength (at least IMHO). In any case, if the game works by the rules, you wouldn't be a 5th level PC with 25 STR anyway in 1e AD&D...

And that's the point. So, anyway, I did a few things with HoML. I hold attributes to be highly non-linear. While you might only get a +5 bonus to checks for STR of 'Mighty' you really are in a different league from STR of 'Average'. The average guy might manage to beat you on an athletics check for some other reason, perhaps, but it is critical to note that there's nothing like 'opposed checks' or such. If an NPC represented a challenge to you, then the magnitude of that would be determined more by the GM and the structure of how conflict is architected. I see 4e as working the same way. There's numbers, which REALLY SHOULD fall out correctly. It should never be true that an Epic threat would be surmountable by a Heroic PC. He might pass a check.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Hmmm, its funny you say this, because I just created extra dimensions of scaling to achieve something pretty 'gonzo'. Honestly I found 4e's scaling mechanically sufficient for this, for the most part. You didn't really need 'credibility tests' to any practical degree, nothing beyond what you would find in games like AD&D where, as I said before, wrestling a dragon is just not possible for a human-sized PC, regardless of things like strength (at least IMHO). In any case, if the game works by the rules, you wouldn't be a 5th level PC with 25 STR anyway in 1e AD&D...
Credibility is also in the eye of the beholder but I agree. I grab the sensitive part of the dragons wing with the back hand of my axe just as it tries to adjust its position the way it has been and it smashes into the ground.... for piddly damage but it is definitely out of sorts (prone). Using an at-will prone inducing attack by the fighter in 4e. :p
 

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