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D&D 4E The Best Thing from 4E

What are your favorite 4E elements?


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D'karr

Adventurer
My take on transparency is rather simple. With 4e the framework gives the DM the tools to repeatably (that's the first important part) make sensible (the second important part) ad-hoc rulings that work. In addition, a creative DM can still take that framework and bend or twist it for other purposes. The disease track is an example of a piece of the framework that can be used in ways the game never intended and it still works well.

With the 4e framework the decision is still up to the DM, but he has a working tool. Whereas with other editions ad-hoc rulings still had to be handled by the DM but the odds for a particular task were either somewhat nebulous (randomly selected by feel), or fixed (static DC).

With nebulous odds the DM has to come up with the likely chance (either % dice, roll under, or roll above) from whole cloth. He uses feel for the likelihood of the task succeeding. In other editions I used percentage chance to determine success. Based on what I felt was the likelihood for success. This works well for illusionism because I can make the odds whole cloth. I can make the chance easy, hard or impossible totally by feel.

With fixed odds the DM comes up with the likely chance from a number that doesn't change for the task, or from a table that does not leave anything open to interpretation, possibly with a penalty or bonus modifier (DMs best friend +-2). This framework is better for stability as it does not rely on feel, but it hardly scales well as it does not take the ability of the characters or the opposition into consideration. For example using tumble to avoid an AoO has a static DC of 15. For a low level character that might be difficult, but the task soon becomes trivial, and it does not take the skill of the opposition into consideration. Instinctively, tumbling past a high level skilled combatant should be more difficult than against a low-level unskilled mook.

These inconsistencies are addressed within the 4e framework (page 42). To determine the chance of an appropriate challenge for a character use their level on the p42 table. To determine the chance against the opposition use the monster's level or it's defenses, which are already scaled by level. The DM can also assign a difficulty shift if the task if easy, moderate, or hard. He can still use the DMs best friend (+-2) or even assign the level completely independent of the characters and opposition.

The reason this framework is better, IMO, is that I don't have to make things whole-cloth by feel without a frame of reference. The frame of reference is very important to make it scalable - to keep the challenges viable for different groups, level of player experience (casual gamers vs. power gamers), and feel of the game. In addition, the players might have character side resources that stretch, bend or bypass this framework.

Using Tumble, as an example, with the nebulous odds I might assign 30% one time, but 40% another time, and if I'm feeling generous 60%-70%. This might, or might not take the character's proficiency into account. With static odds the chance is DC 15. This is soon trivial as the character's progress.

With the 4e framework the range of options available expands. The player might deploy character side resources to "tumble" that have no chance of failing (monk, rogue, and skill powers with shifts come to mind). This is where 4e provides player empowerment for the action as the DM is not involved in the decision (chance to succeed) for the tactic. As an alternative the player can describe the action and the DM can use p42 to assign a DC using the character's level, the encounter's level, the opposition's level, or even the action's level as a base. Alternatively the DM can use the monster's defenses as a base (Acrobatics vs. Reflex).

That is what I mean about transparency. A functional expandable framework that does not obfuscate the mechanics and that provides multiple balanced options to determine outcomes.

The first time I used the framework it seemed like more work, as I was getting used to the feel of it. Now it is almost instinctive. As a matter of fact the framework is such that a creative and experienced DM can run a game with the p42 table as the only resource. I've done it on several occasions where we wanted to play and had close to nothing. Even monsters were ad-hoc constructs based on experience and using the numbers on the table for reference.

The only change I would make to the 4e framework is to make it obvious to the players that this is also a resource. In my game I provide them with an at-will and encounter "card" that is directly tied to the p42 framework. That way they don't forget it exists.
 

pemerton

Legend
I guess 5e design is vulnerable to Illusionism, if you want to run it that way. Surely it ought not to require the same level of illusionism as RAW 3e/PF does if you want Fighter types to not keep dying, though.
That seems right. On the PC-build side 5e looks to me reasonably close to Essentials - asymmetric but rough mechanical parity under the right assumptions about encounters per rest.

I definitely find 4e to be player-empowering both as a player and when GMing. It gives a lot of mechanical protection to PCs, and its skill system strongly encourages improvisation and creative play - which can be derided as 'mother may I' (a phrase I hate) by some, but 4e strongly encourages the GM to set reasonable DCs and allow effective creative use of skills and powers, albeit generally not to the extent of 'I win' buttons - 4e assumes that an Arcana check to open a warded portal is pretty much exactly equivalent to a Thievery check to open a mechanical lock, whereas 3e/PF tends to treat magic as far more effective.
This all seems right to me, too, and I think your "reasonable DCs" are closely related to [MENTION=6696971]Manbearcat[/MENTION]'s idea of "transparency".

Also the lack of "I win" buttons tends to mean the GM doesn't have to manipulate the fiction in arbitrary ways to challenge the players. Which is also related, I think, to what Manbearcat was saying.

I find 4e to be very poorly suited for sandbox exploratory play
And it's a hat-trick!

I think that you can do exploratory play in 4e, though I don't think that will necessarily bring out the system's strongest features - four years ago now I deliberately ran an exploratory scenario, and posted about it here. But it wasn't a sandbox. It was improvised, which is what I think 4e favours with its robust but "subjective" framework for DCs etc, and it's leaning towards player empowerment.

5e's bounded accuracy should support a classic sandbox better.
 

pemerton

Legend
From the looks of the poll, if Heinsoo et al would have created 4e under a different brand, they should have named it "Monsters and Math!"
Monsters and maths both go to transparency of mechanical structure and ease of use.

Working on the theory that most respondents to this poll, in this sub-forum on this site, have a fairly serious degree of engagement with 4e, I think it's interesting and fitting that these features seem to be in the lead.
 

Aenghus

Explorer
Anyway, I just wanted to chime in on this "transparency" thing, and how it relates to play. This:


This was just not my experience at all. In practice, 4e pushed a lot of rules onto me, forcing me to make way more rulings than I'd like to in any given session. Having played 3.X for years, I can kind of see where people are coming from, but I just don't think it's nearly as clean or clear or player-empowered as I hear its fans call it.

But that's just my experience. And I don't mean to go off on an anti-4e rant in a pro-4e thread. I have a long thread about my sessions running a 4e campaign on this site that I've maintained for a while now (coming up on two years this September: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showth...rage-s-First-4e-Session&p=6180484#post6180484).

I've had a lot of fun with 4e. But I'm still a little baffled by the claims to wonderful player-empowerment. I get the transparency, but player-empowerment seemed quite intertwined in Manbearcat's definition, and that just doesn't ring true to me.

But the reason I bring this up is to not only share my experience, but also to get some perspective on it from outside my own. Anyone have any thoughts to my entire-too-long post? Am I missing something? Am I wrong? Maybe. And I'm open to finding out.

I think a lot depends on how much one cares about successfully accomplishing tasks in the game versus the procedure of how one achieves success. Myself, I'm invested in the former, not the latter. In most editions of D&D there isn't much in the way of system for larger macro tasks, the systems are mostly for subtasks. In these editions the most critical part of the process is persuading the DM that your plan is viable. The advice in the earlier DMG's for this sort of thing tends to be awful, I vaguely remember such adversarial ideas as not giving the PCs a clue of their odds or even if the task is possible in the first place, or the consequences of failure. A body of precedent would slowly be built up, at least the games valuing consistency, and that precedent could be used to leverage success in tasks step by step. If the process steps that made sense to the DM didn't make sense to me I was highly unlikely to guess at a path to victory. I have experience of such games, and they are exactly as frustrating as I have tried to indicate above.

Skill challenges in 4e give a framework where the players can expect success or failure within a certain discrete number of steps
The more cooperative, less adversarial advice I find excellent e.g. it's ok to just permit success when the stakes are low. A qualified guarantee that success is possible within the rules without having to resort to selling a line to the DM or using broken magic spells is something I find very attractive.

4e cares about the ends far more than the means, it is true. If you care a lot about the means, you may have to make lots of rulings on them, as the 4e rules can leave them ill-defined, because they vary so much from campaign to campaign and to allow for easier reskinning.
 

But the reason I bring this up is to not only share my experience, but also to get some perspective on it from outside my own. Anyone have any thoughts to my entire-too-long post? Am I missing something? Am I wrong? Maybe. And I'm open to finding out.

Hmmmmm, I don't know. I found 4e's rules very logical and easy to assess as both a DM and a player. The difficulties of things for instance were pretty easy to know. Yes a task might be easy or hard, but it wasn't really THAT tough to figure out which was likely to be which. Obviously the DM can bias things by making checks easier or harder, or making them higher or lower level, but the DMG and PHB actually spell out the actual DCs of a pretty fair number of the most common situations.

I don't understand your statements about stunts. In previous editions there were no really coherent rules about them at all. Certain classes had features that let them do specific things, and maybe there were in 3.x some slightly more generalized rules, but it was pretty much up to the DM and the tradition was you could just tell people to pick up any old dice and make a throw, it was basically open season on the players. 4e built on the d20 foundation of 3e and tamed it all. You have 17 specific skills, each of which covers a separate field and almost never overlap. You have a defined set of DCs and a recommended damage progression. DMG2 even formalizes this into 'terrain powers' for instances where the DM is pretty sure someone will attempt something. I don't think you could circumscribe things more MECHANICALLY and still be playing an RPG.

Which brings me to the only conclusion I can come up with, which is that you're not talking about mechanical certainty at all fundamentally, but about narrative certainty. 4e leaves the narrative much more up in the air, at least potentially. However I'm still unclear how this relates to the 'Illusionism' that was being discussed earlier, which IMHO was all about DMs playing fast and loose with the mechanics in order to rearrange the narrative to suite themselves.

Of course its a blurry line, such DMs also generally are controlling and keep the narrative situation in hand by other means as well. For years the main AD&D DM that I played with was like this. He was a great DM in terms of having a fun game and all, but you had to give up any notion that you were going to be allowed to affect the flow of events in an appreciable way. It just wasn't going to happen. At least it wasn't going to happen by the sort of usual means most players envisage. What your character did mattered, but more in terms of what the DM was inspired to do in reaction. If you were trying to bend his world to your will directly, it never worked. His style of play would just not work well at all in 4e. At least not without a good deal of evolution.
 

That seems right. On the PC-build side 5e looks to me reasonably close to Essentials - asymmetric but rough mechanical parity under the right assumptions about encounters per rest.
With the caveat that spells are MUCH more open-ended than in 4e, generally speaking, and that non-casters are considerably more circumscribed, relatively speaking. A 5e fighter is pretty tough and is relatively more capable than a 2e fighter, or a 3e fighter, but the overall 'plot' asymmetry is very evident, and even low level 5e wizards tend to dominate combat from a level of overall tactics (IE my level 4 wizard would hold the bad guys at bay or consistently bottleneck them and set them up for the melee types pretty easily in the majority of fights).

This all seems right to me, too, and I think your "reasonable DCs" are closely related to @Manbearcat's idea of "transparency".

Also the lack of "I win" buttons tends to mean the GM doesn't have to manipulate the fiction in arbitrary ways to challenge the players. Which is also related, I think, to what Manbearcat was saying.
I think this was the prime impetus at the detailed level of 4e design, was the removal of 'I Win buttons' from particularly the casters. 3.5 in particular is rife with them, but even in 2e I recall that my wizard could pretty much end most encounters or at the very least 'ramp up' from 'let the fighters take care of it' to 'beat this thing to a pulp and win this round' mode.


And it's a hat-trick!

I think that you can do exploratory play in 4e, though I don't think that will necessarily bring out the system's strongest features - four years ago now I deliberately ran an exploratory scenario, and posted about it here. But it wasn't a sandbox. It was improvised, which is what I think 4e favours with its robust but "subjective" framework for DCs etc, and it's leaning towards player empowerment.

5e's bounded accuracy should support a classic sandbox better.

4e more clearly scales everything, and generally challenges remain relevant only over about 1/10th of the level range, which makes true sandbox play a bit hard. The DM has to thoroughly telegraph the expected difficulty of each area of the sandbox for it to work. You can do it in a limited extent, but the game works best where you have a number of small sandboxes linked together by an overarching plot that drives the action along.

The characters explore the nasty woods where they can find level 1-7 monsters, and then they move on to the pirate town where they can mess with levels 4-10 monsters, and then they deal with the dragon's minions at levels 7-15, and the dragon at levels 12-20, and the land beyond the portal in the dragon cave levels 17-24, etc.

I think 5e probably would work better for an absolute sandbox, though the difficulty with gauging encounters might thwart it somewhat, much like the same problem dogged older editions sandbox play (you just get LOTS of TPKs, Gygaxian meat grinder play in effect).
 

4e cares about the ends far more than the means, it is true. If you care a lot about the means, you may have to make lots of rulings on them, as the 4e rules can leave them ill-defined, because they vary so much from campaign to campaign and to allow for easier reskinning.

Yeah, this to me is a very salient feature of 4e. If you think about the skill system for instance it is much less about what you know how to do, and much more about what you want to accomplish. You don't have a 'perform' skill that you use to convince the king to send you on the quest, you have a diplomacy skill instead, which you might employ by means of a performance. The skill relates to the character's modus, not his particular knowledge. A diplomatic PC convinces people of things and enlists them in his cause. An intimidating one cows them, a deceptive one fools them, etc. The exact means are pretty undefined. This leaves the actual narrative construction of the character largely up to the player in 4e. He picks skills that match his modus and creates a consistent explanation of his means out of narrative elements ("oh, I learned to play the lute as a child growing up in my uncle's castle. I will play the girl a song!") vs the 3.x simulationist version of that where you had to buy points in lute instead of pick locks.
 

D'karr

Adventurer
4e more clearly scales everything, and generally challenges remain relevant only over about 1/10th of the level range, which makes true sandbox play a bit hard. The DM has to thoroughly telegraph the expected difficulty of each area of the sandbox for it to work. You can do it in a limited extent, but the game works best where you have a number of small sandboxes linked together by an overarching plot that drives the action along.

I'm currently playing in the Kingmaker campaign from Paizo converted to 4e, which is a limited sandbox. It works well and we're having a lot of fun, but as you mentioned it is not a true open sandbox. Even in open sandbox play it is better for the DM to telegraph expectations ("Here there be dragons") rather than surprise the players.

However when I was running my campaign I was able to run an open sandbox by using the minion, standard, elite, solo progression of monsters, and that worked rather well. It is an artificiality of the game mechanics that a solo, or any monster role of much higher level is unhittable except on a 20. But there is a sweet spot variance that plays into the minion, standard, elite, solo continuum. So that an encounter 4-5 levels higher than the party is a very tough encounter, and by the same token an encounter 4-5 levels lower than the party is very easy. With that in mind you can adjust the existing encounter in the sandbox and still keep it interesting. I know that goes against the idea of a sandbox but it is a matter of what is going to remain interesting (mechanical illusionism if you will). The Elite Ogre the characters find a tough challenge at level 7 are really not much of a challenge to a 16th level party. So it is easier to make the adjustment from Elite to standard to minion than to do away with the encounter or to go for combat that might last long and still remain unsatisfying.

All IMO of course.

The characters explore the nasty woods where they can find level 1-7 monsters, and then they move on to the pirate town where they can mess with levels 4-10 monsters, and then they deal with the dragon's minions at levels 7-15, and the dragon at levels 12-20, and the land beyond the portal in the dragon cave levels 17-24, etc.

This is not much different than most sandboxes I've encountered. Even in 1e where most of our play was sandboxy most encounters were arranged in these concentric bands of difficulty. Similar to levels in dungeons, the deeper you went in the ground the more difficult the encounters, in the wilderness the further you strayed from civilization the more difficult the encounters.

I think 5e probably would work better for an absolute sandbox, though the difficulty with gauging encounters might thwart it somewhat, much like the same problem dogged older editions sandbox play (you just get LOTS of TPKs, Gygaxian meat grinder play in effect).

My limited play experience with 5e is that it follows a similar paradigm to 1e. However, gauging encounter difficulty has been a rather challenging chore.
 

DMZ2112

Chaotic Looseleaf
I thought the concept of power sources was extremely robust. I used to have impassioned arguments with folks that Wizards ought to fill out the power source/role grid.

Then Wizards made 84 gajillion arcane controllers and couldn't figure out a single martial controller and I lost interest.

The math and the tactical combat are both still a lot of fun.
 

4e more clearly scales everything, and generally challenges remain relevant only over about 1/10th of the level range, which makes true sandbox play a bit hard.
1/10th the level range is 3 levels. That's +/- one level. Or is that not what you meant. I've found +/- 4 levels to be workable (with MM3 monsters, MM1 elites being an entirely different matter).

I'm not sure how 'true' it would make sandbox play, but having a powerful monster statted as a Solo at lower level, an Elite 4 or 5 levels later, and a standard at the next higher tier has worked out pretty well for me. You can even toss the same monster in at the following tier as a throwaway minion (hey, remember when one of these guys nearly killed, us? I just cleaved through six of 'em!). The monster builder made that sort of trick easy. (Hm, another 'Other' favorite thing from 4e.)

But, yeah, widely separated sandboxes are a good idea. Whole worlds or planes work for that. Astral Sea? Mostly Epic.
 

keterys

First Post
I wanted to do a true totally sandbox 4E, and I'd even started on it; essentially the PCs had several directions to go, and knew roughly that deeper was harder, higher was easier, with into the Feywild and Shadowfell sidebranches from there, but then I got roped into running Epic for 3 years.

I definitely think keeping up on the minion-standard-elite-solo spectrum really gives you a lot more freedom, though, yes. You can also even just establish areas as bundles of XP. So perhaps an area at lower level is several encounters as the PCs move in and deal with it, but at higher level it's more likely that the inhabits call for help or run away to create bigger encounters, organically taking the same forces but reducing the number of rests to increase the difficulty.
 

S'mon

Legend
5e's bounded accuracy should support a classic sandbox better.

Yeah, that's my thinking - I'm starting my 5e sandbox online campaign tomorrow, to run alongside
my 4e & PF tabletop games. We'll see how it goes but I think 5e has particular strengths for sandbox play, just as 4e is very strong for dramatist play.
 

JamesonCourage

First Post
It seems unlikely that you're wrong. I think you might be missing something - or maybe two things.

The first is that you might be missing certain experiences. @Manbearcat's comments resonate with me very strongly, as they do for @Scrivener of Doom - including the description of the table atmosphere that accompanies illusionist GMing. It's something I absolutely associated with 90s RPGing, and with White Wolf and 2nd ed AD&D both as systems, and player cultures built up around those systems. I can see it, too, in the 2nd ed AD&D PHB, which is full of examples of PCs failing (but the players still having fun), of statements subordinating the players' agency to the referee's judgment, etc.

If you don't have those experiences from that time then the comments may not speak to you.
Definitely don't. But I'm in no way denying that others do, so I don't see how I'm wrong yet. But moving on...
I think the second thing that you might be missing - but maybe not, because perhaps it is in play in your brother's GMing that you describe - is what, for someone like @Manbearcat (I think) or me (I know), is at the core of illusionist GMing. It is not GM ad hoc rulings around DCs or damage in the 4e style. It is GM manipulation of the fiction in order to force outcomes. If this is what someone cares about, then a system of rigid DCs (such as 3E) doesn't matter, because the referee can just stipulate a fictional context which makes success impossible. Or can call for new checks, and new checks, until failure happens (in a combat context, this can be unlimited waves of foes; in a non-combat context this is a lack of what @Manbearcat often calls "closed scene resolution").
Uh... as far as illusionism and manipulating the fiction goes, here's what I wrote about my brother in the post you quoted: "His techniques have changed over time (as have mine, and probably all GMs), and he's met somewhere in the middle. He rolls in the open (rather than behind a screen or his hand) and uses those results, but still fudges non-mechanical stuff to make things more interesting (in his mind... but to his credit, his games are still fun)."

That is me pretty much explicitly stating that he changes the fiction (fudging the "non-mechanical stuff") in order to achieve certain results that he finds interesting (which, based on your GMing techniques, I'd probably argue you do as well). At any rate, I don't think I missed what you're saying I missed.
4e's transparency is in relation to these elements: closed scene resolution (via skill challenges for non-combat, and via transparent encounter building guidelines for combat), "subjective" DCs which are (at least in principle, and in my experience reasonably in practice) correlated to the feasible range of PC skill bonuses, and the like.

At least, that's my take.
I get that it's your take, but it's entirely on the GM to call for skill challenges or combats. The GM could immediately call for another skill challenge or throw more waves at you, just like before. You can argue quite coherently that it's bad GMing, but the same goes for doing that in any game (like the endless waves or skill check after skill check example you mentioned).

Also, I think the math on skill checks and 4e's Easy/Moderate/Hard kinda goes outta whack pretty early on in terms of keeping checks feasible for everyone, but that's just my experience as well. But again, those subjective DCs are set by the GM; what you can achieve with those subjective DCs are set by the GM. This isn't player-empowerment, to be sure. The math is transparent (which is part of why I can somewhat confidently say I think it goes outta whack pretty early on), but so are set DCs, so I'm not sure what the big difference is there.

My take on transparency is rather simple. With 4e the framework gives the DM the tools to repeatably (that's the first important part) make sensible (the second important part) ad-hoc rulings that work. In addition, a creative DM can still take that framework and bend or twist it for other purposes. The disease track is an example of a piece of the framework that can be used in ways the game never intended and it still works well.

With the 4e framework the decision is still up to the DM, but he has a working tool [page 42]. Whereas with other editions ad-hoc rulings still had to be handled by the DM but the odds for a particular task were either somewhat nebulous (randomly selected by feel), or fixed (static DC).
I agree that page 42 is incredibly useful. And I think your take on transparency in 4e is a great one. I agree with a lot of what you've written (but I still think static DCs are more player-empowering than subjective DCs), and can see why you like it. I think your "transparency" take resonates a lot more with me than Manbearcat's, but that might be because it involves a lot less player-empowerment stuff in it. Anyways, good post, have XP :)

I think a lot depends on how much one cares about successfully accomplishing tasks in the game versus the procedure of how one achieves success. Myself, I'm invested in the former, not the latter. In most editions of D&D there isn't much in the way of system for larger macro tasks, the systems are mostly for subtasks. In these editions the most critical part of the process is persuading the DM that your plan is viable. The advice in the earlier DMG's for this sort of thing tends to be awful, I vaguely remember such adversarial ideas as not giving the PCs a clue of their odds or even if the task is possible in the first place, or the consequences of failure. A body of precedent would slowly be built up, at least the games valuing consistency, and that precedent could be used to leverage success in tasks step by step. If the process steps that made sense to the DM didn't make sense to me I was highly unlikely to guess at a path to victory. I have experience of such games, and they are exactly as frustrating as I have tried to indicate above.
I'm following you so far. This does sound frustrating to my style.
Skill challenges in 4e give a framework where the players can expect success or failure within a certain discrete number of steps
This is also my experience from skill challenges in both 4e and my RPG (an extremely modified homebrew version of 3.X which also uses a different take on skill challenges [X successes before 3 failures]). In both systems, when I use skill challenges, I run them openly, and players know how many successes / failures they need and have. However, in my system, the DCs are static and explicitly called out in the book, and thus players can plan for them, making it seem more transparent than 4e from my experience in both.
The more cooperative, less adversarial advice I find excellent e.g. it's ok to just permit success when the stakes are low. A qualified guarantee that success is possible within the rules without having to resort to selling a line to the DM or using broken magic spells is something I find very attractive.
I missed something here. Is this still about transparency?
4e cares about the ends far more than the means, it is true. If you care a lot about the means, you may have to make lots of rulings on them, as the 4e rules can leave them ill-defined, because they vary so much from campaign to campaign and to allow for easier reskinning.
I think much of 4e is ill-defined, and I've tried to use that as a strength to make the system fun for the players. And it's worked well. I just think that it sometimes makes it less transparent, and I certainly think it takes away from player-empowerment. But that's just my experience.

Hmmmmm, I don't know. I found 4e's rules very logical and easy to assess as both a DM and a player. The difficulties of things for instance were pretty easy to know. Yes a task might be easy or hard, but it wasn't really THAT tough to figure out which was likely to be which. Obviously the DM can bias things by making checks easier or harder, or making them higher or lower level, but the DMG and PHB actually spell out the actual DCs of a pretty fair number of the most common situations.
Right, which helps. Anything that spells it out to the players and gives them concrete rules they can rely on is player-empowerment, and transparency for the players and GM. That's why I'm a proponent of that kind of thing happening a lot more often.
I don't understand your statements about stunts. In previous editions there were no really coherent rules about them at all.
Ah, I get why you might not get where I'm coming from then. Well, I'm coming at this from a mixed perspective of practical and theoretical. On a practical side, I'm not playing previous editions. I run basically one of three RPGs, and I've authored two of them (though one is only four pages long, and is used for one-shot superhero games once every few months). In both of my RPGs, stunts are mechanically accounted for. The rules are spelled out, ready for players to use.
4e built on the d20 foundation of 3e and tamed it all. You have 17 specific skills, each of which covers a separate field and almost never overlap. You have a defined set of DCs and a recommended damage progression. DMG2 even formalizes this into 'terrain powers' for instances where the DM is pretty sure someone will attempt something. I don't think you could circumscribe things more MECHANICALLY and still be playing an RPG.
Don't get me wrong, I love page 42. I just wish it was open access for players to use without GM consultation. It's transparent, but it's not player-empowering. Which seemed strongly tied into Manbearcat's definition of illusionism and transparency, which is what I responded to.
Which brings me to the only conclusion I can come up with, which is that you're not talking about mechanical certainty at all fundamentally, but about narrative certainty. 4e leaves the narrative much more up in the air, at least potentially. However I'm still unclear how this relates to the 'Illusionism' that was being discussed earlier, which IMHO was all about DMs playing fast and loose with the mechanics in order to rearrange the narrative to suite themselves.
I feel exceptionally confident that I could play fast and loose with the mechanics in orderto rearrange the narrative to fit my whim with 4e. Easily. As GM, I get to set most skill DCs, choose when and what you're up against (and what level it is), choose when and how hard skill challenges are, choose who you meet and how they feel about you, and on and on it goes. It's easy to railroad in 4e. Just like any traditional RPG.

But, I do think mechanical certainty combats this to some degree. In my RPG, you can mechanically use skills (with set DCs) to affect how NPCs feel about you, to convince them to do things (or not do things), trick them or lie to them, etc. While these set DCs take into context the situation (if they're enemies and your request is outrageously bad for them, the DC might be very high and you might have to Intimidate them to bring it down or convince them you're not an enemy with Bluff, for example), they give the players a lot more control over the narrative in those areas.

No, this doesn't stop the GM from sending wave after wave of enemies, or calling for skill check after skill check (though getting the Consistent Skill feat means you can literally always take a 10 if you want to, so that one might not work either). But the more transparency and mechanical solutions you put in the hands of the players, I think the more the GMs hands are tied when he goes to railroad the PCs.
Of course its a blurry line, such DMs also generally are controlling and keep the narrative situation in hand by other means as well. For years the main AD&D DM that I played with was like this. He was a great DM in terms of having a fun game and all, but you had to give up any notion that you were going to be allowed to affect the flow of events in an appreciable way. It just wasn't going to happen. At least it wasn't going to happen by the sort of usual means most players envisage. What your character did mattered, but more in terms of what the DM was inspired to do in reaction. If you were trying to bend his world to your will directly, it never worked. His style of play would just not work well at all in 4e. At least not without a good deal of evolution.
Can you expand on why this wouldn't work well in 4e? My gut (after non-trivial experience running 4e, but only levels 1-11) tells me that it would be easy to run a game in that manner. I'm curious if you can expand on how you think the 4e mechanics in particular would combat a GM from stopping the players from affecting the flow of events in an appreciable way.
 

S'mon

Legend
I think 5e probably would work better for an absolute sandbox, though the difficulty with gauging encounters might thwart it somewhat, much like the same problem dogged older editions sandbox play (you just get LOTS of TPKs, Gygaxian meat grinder play in effect).

That was not my experience with pre-3e; I've only ever seen meatgrinder play in 3.0 and 3.5, and that was with PCs around 10th-12th level (I called them the 'death levels'! - the Lose a Level from Raise Dead really bit hard there, creating a nasty death spiral). In pre-3e the PCs get much more durable over time compared to any conceivable threat. Status Quo wildderness sandboxing works great in pre-3e from about 3rd level (the minimum level for such adventures as X1 Isle of Dread) up to Name Level, 9th or so. The GM doesn't need to worry about tailoring encounters, the system IME is self-regulating and very robust.
I don't have much experience with Gygaxian megadungeon play, but I would think that the defined
threat-by-dungeon-level paradigm would make it even more robust than Gygaxian wilderness play.
 
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S'mon

Legend
The characters explore the nasty woods where they can find level 1-7 monsters, and then they move on to the pirate town where they can mess with levels 4-10 monsters, and then they deal with the dragon's minions at levels 7-15, and the dragon at levels 12-20, and the land beyond the portal in the dragon cave levels 17-24, etc.

In 4e the sandbox PCs are mechanically incentivised to stick in the nasty woods with the level 1-7
monsters even after they are 8th+ level, because the monsters will still generate decent XP while
posing less and less of a threat. Of course the easy battles will likely get dull and boring.

My own approach has been when the 15th level 4e PCs go through the EL 1-4 goblin woods, I recount "the
goblins tremble in fear at your awesome presence, and cower in their holes as you go past" - which
is cool enough, and reminds me of stuff in the Silmarillion how Orcs would hide from the mighty Noldor
Elves. 4e does Silmarillion type play pretty damn brilliantly IME.
But like I said, 4e is not good at sandboxing IME.
 


Aenghus

Explorer
I missed something here. Is this still about transparency?

I think much of 4e is ill-defined, and I've tried to use that as a strength to make the system fun for the players. And it's worked well. I just think that it sometimes makes it less transparent, and I certainly think it takes away from player-empowerment. But that's just my experience.

There's more than one sort of transparency. Giving lots of step-by step instructions is one sort of transparency, but that's not the sort of transparency 4e uses outside of combat.

The primary transparency in 4e is powers working as listed with very little qualification or special cases. The more reliable powers are the more they can be used to solve problems without worrying about the referee using fiat to prevent it. (obviously the DM can use fiat that way, it just will be obvious and likely a violation of the typical 4e social contract)

I wouldn't use the term "ill-defined" in relation to 4e non-combat rules. All too often in previous editions extra detail ended up roadblocking the party, obscuring how to address the task. Players could waste huge amounts of time with recalcitrant DMs, asking twenty questions, or a hundred questions, until they stumbled on the one that allowed the task to be started. The transparency in 4e in relation to non-combat play is precisely in leaving out picky, messy details that slow play up and just generate lots of skill checks and extra chances for failure. The skill challenge mechanic tries to give a system so players can rely on resolving tasks, succeed or fail, within a few skill rolls. Attempts by the referee to sabotage the skill challenge, consciously or unconsciously, will be more visible due to the system transparency than in previous editions.

4e outside combat is zoomed out, unfocused, generalised, abstracted, I think by design, as different groups don't agree on the weightings to attach to various factors. To those tired of the "thousand steps to failure" that often happened in previous editions (check after check after check until a single failure ended the attempt) this is a great boon.

Right, which helps. Anything that spells it out to the players and gives them concrete rules they can rely on is player-empowerment, and transparency for the players and GM. That's why I'm a proponent of that kind of thing happening a lot more often.

Detail isn't always an ally of the player, sometimes it's used as a weapon by the DM to obscure valid paths in a maze of red herrings, throw up roadblocks of arbitrarily long skill check chains etc. This can happen by accident when the DM is very invested in certain game directions that may not be obvious or attractive to his players.
 

Can you expand on why this wouldn't work well in 4e? My gut (after non-trivial experience running 4e, but only levels 1-11) tells me that it would be easy to run a game in that manner. I'm curious if you can expand on how you think the 4e mechanics in particular would combat a GM from stopping the players from affecting the flow of events in an appreciable way.

OK, just to be clear, we both agree, a DM in ANY game can simply railroad events in any direction he or she sees fit, either by mechanical means (fudging dice) or narrative means (rearranging the goal posts). I would argue that even in your own RPG, which I have to imagine has a VERY long list of specific DCs that there are situational modifiers and questions of whether or not an action is feasible, what its actual results will be, how the NPCs react, etc. So IMHO the idea that this is system dependent is hard to justify. It may be that different systems are more or less encouraging different things, but you cannot fight City Hall, the DM wins every time.

So, of course its easy to run a railroady 4e game. What my friend the railroady DM did was often reinterpret the way something would work. So you'd assume that a particular spell would do X, but today it might do Y, something a little bit different. He'd explain it in terms of the situation, but somehow it was always a case of however it worked out made his plot work. You won't get away with that in 4e. Every power is very cut-and-dried, skills do quite specific things, etc. Of course there's a world of leeway for things outside of effect clauses and such to be fudged, but you can be pretty darn sure that in 4e when you use 'Rain of Blows' that a specific thing will happen. This is what people generally mean when they talk about the level of 4e player empowerment through control.

I get where you are coming from, but IMHO its an unachievable goal, and 4e, by setting down precise mechanics for things, did the achievable, which was to eliminate a lot of messy grey areas in PCs abilities. You may not be able to predict how many orcs will come through the door, but you can sure predict exactly what Hunger of Hadar will do to them!

And personally I find all the figuring out what DC something is at the table to be the easiest and most fun part of DMing. I don't have an agenda myself, so I just run that part of the game as it was designed to run. I found it the most effortless of games to run in that respect. In fact I went back and ran a CoC game and I was truly dismayed at how much more work it was than 4e, and CoC is a pretty simple system.
 

Balesir

Adventurer
I'll chime in to agree that 4E isn't at its best with sandbox play, but the solution already mentioned by [MENTION=43019]keterys[/MENTION] of scaling solo - elite - standard - minion and concatenating encounters (effectively thinking of encounter areas having a "level" that describes the density of XP with encounter space - and make higher level encounters take more space) can work tolerably well. I have also been experimenting with "swarms" or mobs of lower level creatures at higher levels. I even think that reasonable battle scenarios should be possible with units of troops having damaging auras and Area and Close Burst attacks with their weapons; character "leaders" could even "ride" these swarms using the rules for Mounts with the odd tweak.

On the 'stunts' being "player empowering", I have three thoughts:

a) The way 4E works is revolutionary in D&D terms, but in the context of the myriad other systems "out there" I can see space for [MENTION=6668292]JamesonCourage[/MENTION]'s scepticism

b) I think the Powers system actually plays a big part in adding to the player-utility of stunts, simply because if using the stunt system is appreciably worse than just using powers, players will use powers

c) The inclusion of "Page 42" in the DMG (rather than the PHB) was arguably unfortunate and was possibly a knee-jerk from previous editions. Various ideas (like [MENTION=336]D'karr[/MENTION]'s "stunt cards") to make the system more visible to players can help, and it's quite possible to run the system in a player-controlled way, to some degree. Each level is associated not only with DCs but also with damage (or, more loosely interpreted, "effectiveness"); allowing players to pick a level of stunt to attempt (with increasing DC giving increasing damage) would be quite straightforward.

With regard to skill challenges and this latter, I think the concept of an "XP economy" is worth exploring and contemplating. Any sort of challenge to the characters in 4E has a value measured in XP - be it combat, skill rolls or whatever. Exploring ways to exchange and parlay one form of XP gain against another I find a fascinating way to think of scenarios and challenges. Skill challenges to minionise foes, gain (or prevent) surprise and choose starting positions has proven a good way, IME, to develop challenges where the characters can earn their XP in a variety of different ways (and at different costs, in game!)

Oh, finally, a suggestion for those GMs tired of picking magic items for 4E - leave them up to the players. In our game the Wizard has had Enchant an Item and such like since around Level 5 (they are now Level 23) and it has worked fine with me giving pretty unlimited capacity per the rulebook. For my next campaign I am seriously thinking of going more radical and just having "Residuum" as a non-perishable resource that the players can mould as they wish (using cash, probably - I will likely make Residuum and cash only exchangeable to a limited degree). I actually think this is a fantastic feature of 4E as originally written; magic items being divided between "magic items" - made with rituals, freely bought and sold, effectively a player resource for party character development/design - and "artifacts" - cannot be made or changed by PCs (without huge effort, at least), exist as plot devices, inanimate NPCs or just GM-controlled McGuffins or gimmicks to add spice or be handed out as "rewards". Add in Inherent Bonuses and you can have a game that uses more or less of either type of item as you see fit. Different rules and different functions for two classes of item where in the past we have seen tension and lack of clarity because of these two quite distinct roles played by magic items in the game - genius!
 
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