D&D 4E Reconciling 4e's rough edges with Story Now play

pemerton

Legend
@andreszarta

Thanks for the link upthread to the Vincent Baker blog post. I've just finished reading through the comments. There's a lot in there that's interesting; here's one exchange that seemed relevant to this thread:

Vincent Baker: If we collaboratively address theme for three sessions in the middle of a campaign but not for the whole campaign, we weren't playing Narrativist the whole time, just for those three sessions. It's very important to note that it takes significant time to address theme: one character decision, one scene, is VERY RARELY sufficient. . . .

Narrativism, Simulationism, Gamism - they operate at a time scale you can generally measure in hours. They are not present in moment-to-moment decisions.

Thor Olavsrud: If it's impossible to isolate discrete decisions made in moment-to-moment play and determine whether they support one of the three CAs (and I don't mean to dispute your assertion that it's not), how can I possibly design rules that help make moment-to-moment decisions reliably create theme over the course of play?

Vincent Baker: Passionate character, turning point, fit opposition, rising conflict across a moral line, crisis, resolution. That's how.​

So in the case of 4e, how do we do this?

Passionate character requires using the right bits of PC build. I'm on record as saying that rangers and halflings are weaker, here, than (say) tieflings and warlocks. I'm prepared to accept that maybe someone could build a passionate halfing archer, but I've got my doubts.

Turning point - in 4e I think this most naturally comes from the setting rather than from the character's inner life. In my campaign it began as "order" (humans, settlements, victims of slavers) vs "the wild" (slavers, gnolls, threats to the human settlements, etc) and that gradually shifted to the Dusk War (is it here? and what does it mean?).

Fit opposition - I think Goblins, Gnolls, Duergar, Drow are great. I think kruthiks, Kobolds, swordwings and many fey are a bit weak. At least, they would require shifting one's conception of the turning point quite a bit from how the setting speaks to me by default.

Rising conflict across a moral line - this is the hard bit in D&D, I think. For D&D-ish epic fantasy, where it is the setting rather than the character's inner life that seeds conflict, I really have one well I keep going back to draw from (and these days I think of it in terms of Wagner's treatment in the Ring Cycle) - mortal choice in the context of the divine plan. I think 4e provides the material for this - see the creatures I mentioned above, the Dusk War, etc. And the ancient, and also recently fallen, empires, which record the working out of the divine plan so far and provide material for that rising conflict across a moral line.

On the other hand, every time a dragonborn NPC turns up to whom Arkhosia means nothing; every time the Nerathi ruins are mere colour but don't feed into some sort of choice about how the characters are oriented towards the working out of the destiny of things; the rising action across a moral line gets diluted, and we drift from story now into a type of high-action sim, or maybe some colourful gamism.

The 4e books - monster manuals, setting supplements, in my view the whole idea of the Draconomicon, etc - are full of this sort of crud that will undermine your "story now" play if you let it. The players have to build their passionate characters, but as GM I think you have to constantly be on the lookout, making sure you avoid this stuff that will just get in the way (even if it looks really fun and colourful).

I'm not saying things can't be done with it - because of some backstory (I can't recall now if I made it up or took it from a sourcebook) about the Raven Queen having reached a pact with some aberrant stars to hide her name, the star spawn took on a thematic resonance in my game that they don't necessarily bring by default. And maybe in someone else's game dragons could do that. But I'd still caution against getting sucked into the depths of the Draconomicon. (Open Grave and Demonomicon don't pose the same immediate risk, because the link between undead and demons (on the one hand) and the mortals-vs-divine-plan rising conflict across a moral line (on the other) tends to scream off every page.)

And finally, Resolution - the mechanical system will help make this collaborative, rather than "GM decides". But you have to be prepared to follow it where it leads. Big picture: let the players change things - the world, the planes, rulers, whether this Goblin shaman remains sworn to Maglubiyet, etc. Minutiae: follow the PbtA idea (which is also in BW and Torchbearer) of descriptive and prescriptive, even if this means changing PC sheets in ways the rules don't contemplate. Eg the human wizard multi-class invoker paragon path divine philosopher in my game, upon dying and being restored to life, was revealed as a deva invoker multi-class wizard paragon path divine philosopher, and in due course Sage of Ages. The rebuilt PC was mechanically legal, and closely emulated the old PC in many ways; but there is no rule of the game permitting this sort of rebuild. In due course I let his Sage of Ages stuff work with his invoker bits even though they're not Arcane because it would be pointless not to. When the PCs in our game chose themes (around 20th level - they weren't a thing in the rulebooks when we started) I designed two custom themes and adapted a third (Devil's Pawn) to make it a manifestation of the PC's Book Imp familiar.

Anyway, those are some thoughts prompted by reading Vincent and interlocutors!
 

log in or register to remove this ad

andreszarta

Adventurer
I don't think I've seen Detect Secret Doors in play. I like your idea of using it to convert, say, a successful Dungeoneering check ("this seems like a place where secret doors might be") into an auto-success on Perception ("yep, and here it is"). The rulebooks have some examples of one skill check opening up another in a skill challenge, but this is a bit distinct because of its "director stance" nature.
Yay! Then in that case I think I get it. :).
Anyway, those are some thoughts prompted by reading Vincent and interlocutors!
Brilliant!
in my view the whole idea of the Draconomicon, etc - are full of this sort of crud that will undermine your "story now" play if you let it.
Can we talk a little bit more about this? Do you mean stuff like this?

Screenshot 2023-04-16 at 10.36.25 PM.png
Screenshot 2023-04-16 at 10.35.56 PM.png
 

@andreszarta

Thanks for the link upthread to the Vincent Baker blog post. I've just finished reading through the comments. There's a lot in there that's interesting; here's one exchange that seemed relevant to this thread:

Vincent Baker: If we collaboratively address theme for three sessions in the middle of a campaign but not for the whole campaign, we weren't playing Narrativist the whole time, just for those three sessions. It's very important to note that it takes significant time to address theme: one character decision, one scene, is VERY RARELY sufficient. . . .​
Narrativism, Simulationism, Gamism - they operate at a time scale you can generally measure in hours. They are not present in moment-to-moment decisions.​
Thor Olavsrud: If it's impossible to isolate discrete decisions made in moment-to-moment play and determine whether they support one of the three CAs (and I don't mean to dispute your assertion that it's not), how can I possibly design rules that help make moment-to-moment decisions reliably create theme over the course of play?​
Vincent Baker: Passionate character, turning point, fit opposition, rising conflict across a moral line, crisis, resolution. That's how.​

So in the case of 4e, how do we do this?

Passionate character requires using the right bits of PC build. I'm on record as saying that rangers and halflings are weaker, here, than (say) tieflings and warlocks. I'm prepared to accept that maybe someone could build a passionate halfing archer, but I've got my doubts.

Turning point - in 4e I think this most naturally comes from the setting rather than from the character's inner life. In my campaign it began as "order" (humans, settlements, victims of slavers) vs "the wild" (slavers, gnolls, threats to the human settlements, etc) and that gradually shifted to the Dusk War (is it here? and what does it mean?).

Fit opposition - I think Goblins, Gnolls, Duergar, Drow are great. I think kruthiks, Kobolds, swordwings and many fey are a bit weak. At least, they would require shifting one's conception of the turning point quite a bit from how the setting speaks to me by default.

Rising conflict across a moral line - this is the hard bit in D&D, I think. For D&D-ish epic fantasy, where it is the setting rather than the character's inner life that seeds conflict, I really have one well I keep going back to draw from (and these days I think of it in terms of Wagner's treatment in the Ring Cycle) - mortal choice in the context of the divine plan. I think 4e provides the material for this - see the creatures I mentioned above, the Dusk War, etc. And the ancient, and also recently fallen, empires, which record the working out of the divine plan so far and provide material for that rising conflict across a moral line.

On the other hand, every time a dragonborn NPC turns up to whom Arkhosia means nothing; every time the Nerathi ruins are mere colour but don't feed into some sort of choice about how the characters are oriented towards the working out of the destiny of things; the rising action across a moral line gets diluted, and we drift from story now into a type of high-action sim, or maybe some colourful gamism.

The 4e books - monster manuals, setting supplements, in my view the whole idea of the Draconomicon, etc - are full of this sort of crud that will undermine your "story now" play if you let it. The players have to build their passionate characters, but as GM I think you have to constantly be on the lookout, making sure you avoid this stuff that will just get in the way (even if it looks really fun and colourful).

I'm not saying things can't be done with it - because of some backstory (I can't recall now if I made it up or took it from a sourcebook) about the Raven Queen having reached a pact with some aberrant stars to hide her name, the star spawn took on a thematic resonance in my game that they don't necessarily bring by default. And maybe in someone else's game dragons could do that. But I'd still caution against getting sucked into the depths of the Draconomicon. (Open Grave and Demonomicon don't pose the same immediate risk, because the link between undead and demons (on the one hand) and the mortals-vs-divine-plan rising conflict across a moral line (on the other) tends to scream off every page.)

And finally, Resolution - the mechanical system will help make this collaborative, rather than "GM decides". But you have to be prepared to follow it where it leads. Big picture: let the players change things - the world, the planes, rulers, whether this Goblin shaman remains sworn to Maglubiyet, etc. Minutiae: follow the PbtA idea (which is also in BW and Torchbearer) of descriptive and prescriptive, even if this means changing PC sheets in ways the rules don't contemplate. Eg the human wizard multi-class invoker paragon path divine philosopher in my game, upon dying and being restored to life, was revealed as a deva invoker multi-class wizard paragon path divine philosopher, and in due course Sage of Ages. The rebuilt PC was mechanically legal, and closely emulated the old PC in many ways; but there is no rule of the game permitting this sort of rebuild. In due course I let his Sage of Ages stuff work with his invoker bits even though they're not Arcane because it would be pointless not to. When the PCs in our game chose themes (around 20th level - they weren't a thing in the rulebooks when we started) I designed two custom themes and adapted a third (Devil's Pawn) to make it a manifestation of the PC's Book Imp familiar.

Anyway, those are some thoughts prompted by reading Vincent and interlocutors!
I'm not entirely certain what your criteria are for what adds or detracts from the 'moral line'. I found that 4e (basically inherited from previous generations of D&D) has a HUGE backlog of different thematic and lore possibilities and such. Even within the somewhat more focused scope of 4e vs earlier Great Wheel editions this can be a bit of a problem, yes. A lot of things CAN be used and can present some very nice support for 'moral confliction' and such, but you DO have to pick and choose. In my first campaign I pretty much left it open and kind of just grabbed stuff from across the spectrum as it struck me, often keying off something in character build/background.

It worked OK, actually. The campaign had a threat which I'd created (my version of a 'front' basically) that was a demon lord's machinations. Then one player decided to be a Starlock, so there was that whole sort of "plethora of icky other planar horrors with the trivial different backstories" thing, but we kind of kept the stars as more of a weird but unseen existential menace as opposed to something manifest. Later the character picked up a Hag Pact and then things got interesting, as a whole 'Hags vs Horrors' thing arose! Honestly, I think overall things kind of 'just worked', though you might consider that campaign more thematically diffuse than you prefer. Some epic vampires and a mysterious godlike being got hooked in, but I think it worked because each character had a very tight personal thing going. The thief had family issues, the wizard had a tragically flawed relationship with a paladin, the dwarf was trying to find his brother, the warlock had accidentally read his Dad's Necronomicon, and the cleric was a reincarnation of an ancient hero (whom everyone expected to be male, so sue her!).

Each of these conceptions arose, grew, and turned into new forms through play. The wizard (Eladrin) ran away from home, had various problematic family interactions, and then eventually met the Paladin. This was all great fun! And it got handily tied into more weighty themes like "when do you become responsible for someone else's actions because you didn't stop them" and such.

As I say, maybe our character arcs didn't go as much towards the grand themes, although the fate of the world did eventually figure heavily in the story!
 

pemerton

Legend
Can we talk a little bit more about this? Do you mean stuff like this?

View attachment 282144View attachment 282145
Yep. When I read that, the only bit that grabs me is the stuff linking a storm to a dead blue dragon; but straight away that makes me need to ignore the life span stuff, because I want my blue dragon storm to be in the ruins of Arkhosia, maybe with its "widow" dragon still living there, and I see nothing to be gained by committing to how many 100s or 1000s of years ago it was that Arkhosia fell!

I think it worked because each character had a very tight personal thing going.
It sounds like it might have been less setting-driven and more character-inner-life driven than my conception of default 4e.
 

Elements ... that allow players to make and express choices that impose their will on the shared fiction.

This concept of imposing will on the fiction was one that soured me on D&D back in about 1983 - it was clear that all the fiction was the product of the GMs will, as only the GM was empowered to make anything happen in the game.

It took a long time to find systems which did something different (because it took many years before they were written).
 

It sounds like it might have been less setting-driven and more character-inner-life driven than my conception of default 4e.
Maybe. I also set my game in my campaign world, which has a ton of junk in it from old campaigns of yore. This helps in one way, because I weed out a lot of 4e stuff that doesn't quite fit. OTOH it also brought in a lot of weird stuff, like the Paladin that the Wizard fell for was actually a PC from the 1990s! Well, he got trapped in a stasis chamber...
 

This concept of imposing will on the fiction was one that soured me on D&D back in about 1983 - it was clear that all the fiction was the product of the GMs will, as only the GM was empowered to make anything happen in the game.

It took a long time to find systems which did something different (because it took many years before they were written).
Indeed, the '80s was largely a wasteland for Narrativist style play. I mean, beyond the fact that (at least in my neck of the woods) none of us were actually smart enough to invent it back then. Probably there were a ton of wargamers in 1974 who felt the same way about the whole concept of RPGs when they saw D&D GOD I ALMOST THOUGHT OF THAT 10 YEARS AGO! But nope, didn't happen. I mean, Toon existed, it isn't really a narrativist game exactly, but it COULD have pointed the way... We played, but we did not make the leap.
 

andreszarta

Adventurer
I'm interested now to hear what tools are you porting for other games (if at all) to run the game towards your intended experience. I have read a lot of Burning Wheel mentions associated with this style over the years. Has anyone hacked beliefs into the system? Any other ideas from other games?
 

pemerton

Legend
I'm interested now to hear what tools are you porting for other games (if at all) to run the game towards your intended experience. I have read a lot of Burning Wheel mentions associated with this style over the years. Has anyone hacked beliefs into the system? Any other ideas from other games?
I found the BW discussion of framing, fail forward and let it ride, and related stuff - especially in the Adventure Burner (and now in the Codex) pretty useful.

I also found the discussion of how to run contests in HeroWars and then in HeroQuest Revised pretty helpful.

And I drew on the Maelstrom Storytelling discussion of "quick takes" to help me make sharpen my thinking about secondary skills in a skill challenge.

I wouldn't say that in any case I ported/hacked in a full-blown mechanic (like Beliefs). I did require each player, at the start of the campaign, to establish one loyalty for their PC, and to have a reason to be ready to fight Goblins - but this was purely to support me in framing/consequence narration, not any sort of mechanical thing.

Also, when we started a Dark Sun campaign, I used a version of "kickers" to establish initial framing. It worked pretty well!

TL;DR - for me it was more about GMing techniques and ways of doing framing and consequences, than mechanical hacks.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
I am really enjoying this thread

But

I played 4e, and ran a bit of it (Scales of War for my kids)... And then started to shift my attention to Dungeon World et al when tney came out... And I feel like what I read in the 4e PHB and DMG (tbh, like many, I only read the DMG for the magic items) doesn't exactly support this play.

I know I already asked about the Narrativist background text; but now I'd like to ask what 4e texts support this style of play? Hopefully they are among the texts I already have. Sadly I don't have any of the Essentials books (and probably won't seek those out...)
 

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top