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

pemerton

Legend
I'd like to ask what 4e texts support this style of play?
The description of the the GM's role in the PHB (around p 8 or 9).

The stuff on player-authored quests (in the PHB and DMG).

All the stuff in the PHB and DMG that presents play in terms of encounters (either combat or skill challenge; there is also a nod to puzzles), plus the mechanics that support this (short rest recovery, the general absence of durations and healing times and the like that get in the way of framing scenes and treating the scene/encounter as the basic unit of play).

The tight relationship between encounters, XP earned, levels gained and hence treasure parcels collected (which also allows a complete decoupling of treasure from looting): these allow the game to be approached in a scene-framed fashion without anyone needing to worry about how that will impact progression, rewards etc.

The capacity the PC builds give to impact the fiction, especially via choices about when to "go all out" (daily powers; action points).

The approach to setting, which focuses on key tropes, themes and concepts (the ancient empires, ancient rivalries, the Dawn War, etc, etc), which anticipates DW's "draw maps, leave blanks".

Probably other stuff too, but the above is a start.
 

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Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
The description of the the GM's role in the PHB (around p 8 or 9).

The stuff on player-authored quests (in the PHB and DMG).

All the stuff in the PHB and DMG that presents play in terms of encounters (either combat or skill challenge; there is also a nod to puzzles), plus the mechanics that support this (short rest recovery, the general absence of durations and healing times and the like that get in the way of framing scenes and treating the scene/encounter as the basic unit of play).

The tight relationship between encounters, XP earned, levels gained and hence treasure parcels collected (which also allows a complete decoupling of treasure from looting): these allow the game to be approached in a scene-framed fashion without anyone needing to worry about how that will impact progression, rewards etc.

The capacity the PC builds give to impact the fiction, especially via choices about when to "go all out" (daily powers; action points).

The approach to setting, which focuses on key tropes, themes and concepts (the ancient empires, ancient rivalries, the Dawn War, etc, etc), which anticipates DW's "draw maps, leave blanks".

Probably other stuff too, but the above is a start.
Awesome, thank you so much!
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Since there's a bunch of Forge fans here, if you want a book about that era, it's on sale right now...

 

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.
Yeah, here's what I remember from my 1st 4e Campaign:
Dwarf Fighter - his brother and father are missing and he wants to find them. They are weapon smiths, his family business.
Eladrin Wizard - she ran away from home and wants to do stuff, this was the shallowest of the characters I would say,
Half-Elf Starlock - the son of a 'wizard' from the far south, he read his father's Necronomicon and accidentally became a warlock. He is looking for his mother.
Human Rogue - has a long backstory about her noble family who specialize in 'special ops', assigned to escort the last PC.
Human Cleric - brought up as an orphan by monks. There is a prophecy that she is 'chosen', but we don't know for what...

This is really pretty typical stuff. We hadn't really sorted out the whole 4e process of play yet (also we had just PHB1, no backgrounds, no themes, etc.). This did work though. The Starlock was basically involuntarily pacted to SOMETHING, and he was often torn between the fun power he got from it, and the obvious horrible danger. That was fun, he just kept getting in deeper! The Dwarf had to choose between rescuing his brother and saving his country, a choice he wasn't very good at making! The Cleric had the most fun, but it was basically just getting decked out in the artifact-grade equipment of a long-dead hero, while constantly being told she was not upholding her 'monk' vows, that one turned a bit one-dimensional. The Wizard got into all sorts of rebellious boyfriend trouble and then got mixed up in Eladrin politics, which created some very fun allegiance problems.

I am not sure I would say this game really started out exactly 'story now', as I borrowed a bunch of old meta-plot from my '90s 2e campaign, but it all just ended up being thematic fodder, essentially, so it got there.

The other 2 long-running 4e campaigns were much lighter on prep and more driven by character build option extrapolation. The Elf bow Ranger pissed off the wrong people and got himself exiled from the tribe trying to help fix an incursion of ghost lycanthropes from the Shadowfell. The pixie wizard learned that there is more than humorous pranks in the real world (though I'm not sure pixies ever really learn). The other characters accidentally became a demon-worshipping cult when they stole a treasure from the pixies (and unleashed a bullywug plague to boot). They spent a whole bunch of the campaign after that trying to prove they weren't bad guys. There were a whole bunch of others. By the end prep was basically dead, I'd just show up with books and a few stat blocks I thought would work printed out. lol.
 

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...)
Well, think of a skill challenge as an encounter-level intent-focused resolution mechanism. First of all WITHIN the framework of an SC things work quite well in a Story Now kind of format, the PCs do something, someone makes a skill check, the story changes somehow, a success/failure/something gets tallied, and then the GM repeats the loop, describing any new/changed circumstance, etc. At the end you have either total success, success with some degree of complication/cost, or outright failure. I consider this whole thing to be narrativist at heart, with its 'try to say yes and roll the dice' structure, etc.

Beyond that, the characters themselves, naturally, have a pretty rich set of descriptors. I mean, you COULD say that about 3.x characters as well, but the 4e ones seem to be cleaner and better focused, and all of them are on a pretty equal footing in terms of narrative potency. You have keywords, which both the players and GM can use to associate things or key off of to drive situations, as well as all the feats, powers, rituals, class, race, theme, background, PP, ED, etc. Every one of those is tied into the overall lore, the framework of cosmic order and cosmic disorder that sits in the background and lets you throw up new story elements on the fly, and tie them to the characters very easily.

And the game is transparent. You know how encounters are constructed, you know what items are available and get to at least suggest how they will be factored in as a player. You can, and are encouraged to, author your own quests outright as a player. It is very easy to move narrative authority around in this game. The heavily scene-based architecture of play, with its 'skip to the fun part' ethos has a very PbtA kind of feel to it.

So, in terms of specific words that say "do this narrativist thing, this is a narrativist game" 4e doesn't really come out in so many words. There are bits here and there, but its not a game that is pushing an agenda, its just a game that plays exceedingly well when you look at it from a certain story now/narrativist point of view. And I cannot believe that was an accident. Its a very deliberate game in terms of designing to its goals, it didn't 'just happen' to work out this way. I'm also sure it was intended to work reasonably well as a neo-trad or trad sort of game as well, with the possibility for players to assume varying degrees of authority for different parts of what happens at the table. I mean, you can pre-plot entire story arcs if you want, along with exactly where the PCs builds will end up, etc. Or you can simply sit down at the table with zero myth and zero prep and 'see what happens' with total table transparency.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Well, think of a skill challenge as an encounter-level intent-focused resolution mechanism. First of all WITHIN the framework of an SC things work quite well in a Story Now kind of format, the PCs do something, someone makes a skill check, the story changes somehow, a success/failure/something gets tallied, and then the GM repeats the loop, describing any new/changed circumstance, etc. At the end you have either total success, success with some degree of complication/cost, or outright failure. I consider this whole thing to be narrativist at heart, with its 'try to say yes and roll the dice' structure, etc.

I haven't even read the rest of your post yet because my MIND JUST EXPLODED.

Here's why: This is exactly how I thought skill challenges worked, and how I ran them: You want to find out what's up with the rogue thieves guild faction? Ok, what do each of you do? Got it - bard you go chat some folks up at the tavern; fighter and druid, you go down to the docks and intimidate/rough up some sailors; rogue you try to infiltrate; wizard you go to the library to see if maybe there's a greater power behind things - Great! let's do some roleplay and then let's roll and see how it goes. Depending on the various outcomes, either you guys get what you want, you get what you want but there are some complications (there's a bunch of sailors chasing your fighter and druid across town and your wizard may be possessed), or you guys are pretty much hosed. After which I follow with of course: what do you do now?

So each player checks in with their intent, then we do a bunch of jump cuts to play out each scene and most scenes end up with a die roll which may lead to a cliff-hanger as I jump to the next scene - wash rinse repeat... And maybe we have some combats in the middle. Also the thing is - the players tell me what their characters do, not what skill check they are angling for. And then I'll tell them what skill check is required based on what the PCs do.

I didn't actually in my head think about whether the skill challenge is easy, hard, super challenging (or whatever the gradations are). But that framework seems like it would be helpful; and if I ever ran 4e again I might be more explicit in my head

But I can see how a lot of D&D'ers coming from 3e (which I never played) this may have not made sense to them. so, the reason my mind exploded is I never really understood why lots of people said they didn't understand skill challenges. Until today... until today
 

Pedantic

Legend
But I can see how a lot of D&D'ers coming from 3e (which I never played) this may have not made sense to them. so, the reason my mind exploded is I never really understood why lots of people said they didn't understand skill challenges. Until today... until today

Worse, such people (like me) found it very frustrating that they couldn't make function calls to specific skill usages, because previously the game was all about trying to find ways to leverage those to get what you wanted. Skills mapped to discrete actions, not to narrative approaches.
 

andreszarta

Adventurer
The Starlock was basically involuntarily pacted to SOMETHING, and he was often torn between the fun power he got from it, and the obvious horrible danger. That was fun, he just kept getting in deeper! The Dwarf had to choose between rescuing his brother and saving his country, a choice he wasn't very good at making! The Cleric had the most fun, but it was basically just getting decked out in the artifact-grade equipment of a long-dead hero, while constantly being told she was not upholding her 'monk' vows, that one turned a bit one-dimensional. The Wizard got into all sorts of rebellious boyfriend trouble and then got mixed up in Eladrin politics, which created some very fun allegiance problems.
Wow!! These all sound awesome.
I want to understand a bit more about how you as a GM managed the spotlight for all these storylines from a prep/procedure standpoint? Can you tell us a bit more about how many of these individual plots advanced within the same session? Was it that each session one of these threads got most of the spotlight, or did you jump around more freely? How closely did you follow the notion of "the party stays together"?
By the end prep was basically dead, I'd just show up with books and a few stat blocks I thought would work printed out. lol.
Ah! This is the dream.
 
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I haven't even read the rest of your post yet because my MIND JUST EXPLODED.

Here's why: This is exactly how I thought skill challenges worked, and how I ran them: You want to find out what's up with the rogue thieves guild faction? Ok, what do each of you do? Got it - bard you go chat some folks up at the tavern; fighter and druid, you go down to the docks and intimidate/rough up some sailors; rogue you try to infiltrate; wizard you go to the library to see if maybe there's a greater power behind things - Great! let's do some roleplay and then let's roll and see how it goes. Depending on the various outcomes, either you guys get what you want, you get what you want but there are some complications (there's a bunch of sailors chasing your fighter and druid across town and your wizard may be possessed), or you guys are pretty much hosed. After which I follow with of course: what do you do now?

So each player checks in with their intent, then we do a bunch of jump cuts to play out each scene and most scenes end up with a die roll which may lead to a cliff-hanger as I jump to the next scene - wash rinse repeat... And maybe we have some combats in the middle. Also the thing is - the players tell me what their characters do, not what skill check they are angling for. And then I'll tell them what skill check is required based on what the PCs do.

I didn't actually in my head think about whether the skill challenge is easy, hard, super challenging (or whatever the gradations are). But that framework seems like it would be helpful; and if I ever ran 4e again I might be more explicit in my head

But I can see how a lot of D&D'ers coming from 3e (which I never played) this may have not made sense to them. so, the reason my mind exploded is I never really understood why lots of people said they didn't understand skill challenges. Until today... until today
Right, I think the majority of classic GM-centered game GMs are simply going to look at it as a substitute for a combat, roughly speaking. And then they run into this problem, because a combat takes some arbitrary amount of checks to adjudicate, there's no fixed number. In essence it is like a clock, and you take a bit off it every time you hit. So there's this 'problem' where they've built a story, an SC, but now it has to go exactly a certain way, because they have essentially exactly as much story as there are successes required. Its kinda OK if there's a fail, they just say "OK, try again!" but then what happens when instead all the PCs decide to head straight down to the gang's headquarters and rough them up? Its a different narrative! The classic GM has to either railroad, or now figure out exactly how many successes to mete out, because he's making it all up, but it has to fit inside a certain plot 'box' that was this one encounter. I'm not saying it can't work, I think its still a pretty fair system, and quite good at anything where you can spin out the action, such as a chase.

But it really only comes into its own in a more story now kind of setup like you're saying. There was one 4e campaign that had a lot of action in 'pirate town' and a lot of it was along these lines. The party would split up, rejoin, try something, get in trouble, get out of trouble, and finally get what they came for, or sometimes they got run out of town (the Dragonborn Sorcerer was pretty much persona non grata in Pirate Town, he had to do an SC just to get in the gate!).
 

Worse, such people (like me) found it very frustrating that they couldn't make function calls to specific skill usages, because previously the game was all about trying to find ways to leverage those to get what you wanted. Skills mapped to discrete actions, not to narrative approaches.
Yeah, 4e doesn't REALLY worry about stuff like "do you know how to fletch arrows?" I mean, you CAN actually get that out of backgrounds, but you have to do a bit of deciding what exactly is worth a proficiency bonus from your background, can you actually fletch arrows, or are you more just a good judge of a fine arrow? But my feeling is most action-focused games are getting off into the weeds if you are spending much time on that sort of question. So, I think 4e is not really a game that is meant to deal with "an ordinary day in the life of" kind of stuff. That's also pretty typical of narrativist games, most of them 'bring you to the point of the action' pretty aggressively. So I think it was in terms of skills themselves that I first had the idea that 4e was this type of game, that they're more like 'knacks' or 'approaches' than actual skills and thus serve a radically different purpose than the 3.x ones. 5e puzzles me a bit, as it has a similarly short skill list, but lacks a lot of the rest of the narrativist traits. It almost feels like they might as well have gone back to the 3.x concept of skills. OTOH at least the short list is mechanically more robust.
 

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