D&D 4E Weekly Wrecana : The world is not made of numbers

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
An Homage For Posterity:
wrecan.jpg

THE WORLD IS NOT MADE OF NUMBERS

In the 6th century B.C., the philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras declared "The World is Made of Numbers". Ever since, and until 4e, developers have been trying to convert his statement into RPG form. One of the ways in which 4e is different from pretty much any prior version of the game is that it has dislodged numbers from the center of the game. Like Copernicus declaring that the Earth is not the center of the universe, this has caused some consternation, often because most people (and at times, I think, even the developers) have not realized how the game has changed at a fundamental level.

I think dice-based role-playing games can be divided into two categories, which I have labeled (in my most unweildy manner), numerocentric and protagonocentric.

Numerocentric Games
Most games are numerocentric. In such games, the game revolves around the numbers primarily, and the PCs must fit the numbers. The numbers, in fact, become a sort of set of physical laws for the world. They are objective, and unchanging and anything that has an impact on the world must have some sort of number or mechanic associated with it.

Protagonocentric Games
Protagonocentric games, in contrast, revolve around the player characters. The numbers do not reflect objective reality, but rather a subjective reality that simply defines how the world interacts with the characters in the specific moment of time in which that slice f the world is relevant to the characters' ongoing shared story. In a protagonocentric world, the numbers are malleable.

A solo creature that escapes the PCs at level 5 might be encountered as an elite creature at level 10, a standard creature at level 14, and a mere minion at level 22. The creature's powers might be altered at each encounter to reflect the relative threat level that creature poses to the PCs at the specific encounter. Does this mean the creature has changed? No. It only means the way the characters interacts with the creature has changed because the characters themselves have developed over the course of the game.

Adjusting to a Protagonocentric World
The shift in 4e from numerocentricity to protagonocentricity is sometimes subtle and often jarring, particularly for players accustomed to numbers as king. Here are just a few of the many ways in which the shift has manifested:½ level bonus: Many players are troubled by the fact that every adventurer gets good at all adventuring abilities with XP, even if their character is utterly disinterested in the endeavor. (My wizard could care less about Athletics -- why should he get a bonus to it?) But the bonus need not represent your character getting better. It measures your ability relative to the other PCs; there's no cause to compare a character's bonus at level 20 to the character's bonus at level 10 -- the two characters don't interact and do not exist in the same encounter.Minions: Some players are confused by the existence of minions. How do they survive in the world with only one hp? Do they understand that they cannot be damaged on a miss? But minions are fragile only in relation to the PCs in the encounter in which they meet. They don't die when they nick themselves shaving. To the extent the PCs understand the enemy to be a minion, it only means they have observed the enemy and realize that the enemy is dangerous, but easily dispatched.Statless NPCs: In prior editions, all NPCs received the same stats -- AC, hp, attacks, etc. In 4e, you are encouraged to give an NPC the stats that are needed in the encounter. If the NPC is a village healer, it only needs to be given a Heal Skill bonus and the rituals the PCs might hire the healer to cast -- everything else can be described narratively. The NPC is now primarily defined by her place in the story, not the numbers on her sheet.Artisanship: Prior editions had numerical representations for skills like blacksmithing and baking -- skills that were improved by garnering XP to be used on non-weapon proficiency slots and skill points by slaying creatures. Now, such artisanship is to be described narratively, without numbers. To the extent that a character's background involves an artistic ability, that too is to be handled narratively between the PC and DM, based on the background written by the player and approved by the DM. To the extent that NPCs and PCs must compare relative skill, it will be handled by its relative importance to the story. How does the NPC's background stack up against the PC's background?

The Ongoing Gravity of Numbers
While 4e has traveled a long way from pure numerocentrism to protagonocentrism, it has not utterly eliminated the objective nature of numbers. Here are a few of the many ways in which numerocentricity still pervades 4e:The Effect of Altitude: Damage from a fall is still objectively based on the height fallen, even though hit points are the most subjective mechanic ever developed. Also, the length and height of a jump is objectively determined from an Athletics check. I believe that these should be tailored to the game. If the DM does not want epic characters confidently jumping off earthmotes knowing the fall will not even bloody them, he should be able to determine falling damage by the threat level the fall represents to the characters.The Hardness of Objects: While monsters are malleable based on the threat they pose to the PCs, objects remain universal. A fomorian might be an elite, solo, or minion, but an iron door will always have the same hit points. Traps are given mechanical representations based on the party's experience at the moment the trap is encountered -- other physical objects should as well.

Living in a Relative World
The purpose of this article is to encourage DMs and players to embrace the protagonocentric nature of 4e. When designing an encounter, the question should not be "how many hit points does a heffalump possess", but rather "how difficult should this heffalump be to the PC?" When a PC is interacting with the world, do not use the math to conclude objective facts about that object or creature; understand that the numbers only reflect the object or creature's qualities subjective to your character.

I think protagonocentrism is a great development in RPGs. It places story over the numbers. I understand why some people prefer to imagine the rules of RPGs operating like physical laws. But for me, the narrative benefits that come from a game built for the characters outweighs the universality that comes from a world made of numbers.
 
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Rolenet

Explorer
I think I see his point, but I find the terminology confusing. It seems he's coming very close to Ron Edwards's distinction between a gamist and simulationist outlook. (link)

Most games, esp. in the 80s, are simulationist: rules try to simulate reality, even when fantastic or magical. (that's numerocentric, I think)

A gamist outlook develops rules that make sense as an enjoyable, balanced game first, and only that.
It's much like a boardgame: Agricola or Stone Age people can only mate one at a time. That's absurd - but makes sense game-wise and nobody objects. Same for many video games: e.g. you can press a key and drink one of the 28 potions that's supposedly tucked away in your pack. Absurd, but works.

4th ed, in my opinion, took that gamist approach to the tabletop RPG, and it was a bold and innovative move (which wasn't very much appreciated, too!).
 

I have little use for the 'gamist, simulationist, narrativist' parsing of the game world. What is OD&D? It provides a set of numbers and charts and dice that govern the outcomes of uncertain events in an objective fashion, but it is NOT in any sense a 'simulation' or an attempt to be a simulation. Its a game. Much of its mechanics are unabashedly intended to be playable. It approaches generating a narrative from a specific standpoint, that it will emerge from a process of conflict between DM and players (or at least characters vs npcs/nature/dungeon).

You can most effectively talk about where games give different participants control and what their agendas might be. Pre-set categories don't really work though. I mean, we all use these terms, they have become ubiquitous, but its a good idea to remember they're not very closely tied to the actuality of game design.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
4th ed, in my opinion, took that gamist approach to the tabletop RPG, and it was a bold and innovative move.

Hit points were called so gamey back in the day... and spell slots incredibly gamey nonsense, I mean dailies from the beginning terrible... now ritual casting alah 4e is much closer to a simulation of the myths.... wait which is gamey?

I mean I want to simulate a genre and that is what hit points help and the healing surge allowing a turnaround simulates fantasy combat with its warriors making big come backs after being beaten down
and rituals are a better sim of legend/myth .... There are problems with them words me thinks ;)
 
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Rolenet

Explorer
Sorry didn't want to resurrect undying debates here. Besides, I'm pretty confident that I don't get the GNS thing right anyway. In fact I think that the first time I ever mentionned this in a discussion.
And I don't want to derail a thread simply because I don't get the initial idea right!

PS: btw not sure how my post was understood, but for me a RPG that takes boardgames, or even video games, as an example of game design, is a good thing.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Sorry didn't want to resurrect undying debates here. Besides, I'm pretty confident that I don't get the GNS thing right anyway. In fact I think that the first time I ever mentionned this in a discussion.
And I don't want to derail a thread simply because I don't get the initial idea right!

PS: btw not sure how my post was understood, but for me a RPG that takes boardgames, or even video games, as an example of game design, is a good thing.

No, No we are just fuss budgets about things not a biggy and your connecting the concept to that bit of game design philosophy isn't a derailing.

I think numbers and mechanics help create player expectations within the game play and cannot be divorced from it myself.
 

pemerton

Legend
The idea in the OP goes back at least to Maelstrom Storytelling, an indie RPG from the mid-to-late 90s:

[F]ocus on the intent behind the scene and not on how big or how far things might be. If the difficulty of the task at hand (such as jumping across a chasm in a cave) is explained in terms of difficulty, it doesn't matter how far across the actual chasm spans. In a movie, for instance, the camera zooms or pans to emphasize the danger or emotional reaction to the scene, and in so doing it manipulates the real distance of a chasm to suit the mood or "feel" of the moment. It is then no longer about how far across the character has to jump, but how hard the feat is for the character. ... If the players enjoy the challenge of figuring out how high and far someone can jump, they should be allowed the pleasure of doing so - as long as it doesn't interfere with the narrative flow and enjoyment of the game.

The scene should be presented therefore in terms relative to the character's abilities ... Players who want to climb onto your coffee table and jump across your living room to prove that their character could jump over the chasm have probably missed the whole point of the story.​

(Which is not to say it's a bad idea!)
 

The idea in the OP goes back at least to Maelstrom Storytelling, an indie RPG from the mid-to-late 90s:

[F]ocus on the intent behind the scene and not on how big or how far things might be. If the difficulty of the task at hand (such as jumping across a chasm in a cave) is explained in terms of difficulty, it doesn't matter how far across the actual chasm spans. In a movie, for instance, the camera zooms or pans to emphasize the danger or emotional reaction to the scene, and in so doing it manipulates the real distance of a chasm to suit the mood or "feel" of the moment. It is then no longer about how far across the character has to jump, but how hard the feat is for the character. ... If the players enjoy the challenge of figuring out how high and far someone can jump, they should be allowed the pleasure of doing so - as long as it doesn't interfere with the narrative flow and enjoyment of the game.

The scene should be presented therefore in terms relative to the character's abilities ... Players who want to climb onto your coffee table and jump across your living room to prove that their character could jump over the chasm have probably missed the whole point of the story.​

(Which is not to say it's a bad idea!)

Right, in my own 4e (and not-quite-4e) GMing I don't really hold with concepts like "A check result of 24 means you jumped 4 squares!" anymore. Instead a DV (I never understood the acronym 'DC' BTW, its a 'difficulty value' or maybe 'difficulty level', what does it have to do with 'class'?) of 19 might represent the number you need to achieve to leap across the 'dangerous chasm' (exact definition of which, in terms of the battle map in a combat for instance being dependent on tier and genre/tone of the game in hand) successfully. Achieve this number, you're good; fail to achieve this number, you got problems, maybe you've set your feet on the other side, but you're teetering on the brink; fail by 5 or more and you've got REAL problems (which the GM might implement in a few ways, could be a fall, could be hanging onto a ledge, etc depending on the dramatic needs and entertainment value of different options). If you succeed by more than 5 points, maybe you end up in an even better situation, your momentum allows you to keep moving, you are perfectly positioned for an attack with advantage, etc. Maybe you can up the stakes too, attempting to land on your enemy's back, but failure could then put you in an even worse situation, so choose wisely! You might also be able to trade your bad result for something else, maybe you tumble forward and twist your ankle instead of teetering on the brink, now you're slowed, but not about to be pushed off the edge!
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
The scene should be presented therefore in terms relative to the character's abilities ... Players who want to climb onto your coffee table and jump across your living room to prove that their character could jump over the chasm have probably missed the whole point of the story.[/indent]
(Which is not to say it's a bad idea!)

Reminds me of highschool roleplaying where we figured out how slow the D&D characters were moving and changed the melee round very promptly.
and I started using square cube laws and physics to compute movement and jumping vs strength and similar things....

LOL blast from the past
 

pemerton

Legend
Right, in my own 4e (and not-quite-4e) GMing I don't really hold with concepts like "A check result of 24 means you jumped 4 squares!" anymore. Instead a DV (I never understood the acronym 'DC' BTW, its a 'difficulty value' or maybe 'difficulty level', what does it have to do with 'class'?) of 19 might represent the number you need to achieve to leap across the 'dangerous chasm' (exact definition of which, in terms of the battle map in a combat for instance being dependent on tier and genre/tone of the game in hand) successfully.
I've ended up stuck with the RAW jump rules, by dint of use and a somewhat fetishistic concern that they contribute to the balance of the combat action economy.

I regard this as one of the (several) places where the different approaches 4e takes to combat and non-combat resolution is a source of weakness/incoherence rather than strength.
 

S'mon

Legend
I quite like the battlemap telling me what the jump DC is without me having to make it up or look it up. The actual results from "d20 roll = feet jumped" are pretty silly, though, but thinking of it as DC "5 per square cleared" works a bit better, so 5-9 = 1 square/5'; 10-14 = 2 squares/10', 15-19 = 3 squares/15'.
 

I've ended up stuck with the RAW jump rules, by dint of use and a somewhat fetishistic concern that they contribute to the balance of the combat action economy.

I regard this as one of the (several) places where the different approaches 4e takes to combat and non-combat resolution is a source of weakness/incoherence rather than strength.

I quite like the battlemap telling me what the jump DC is without me having to make it up or look it up. The actual results from "d20 roll = feet jumped" are pretty silly, though, but thinking of it as DC "5 per square cleared" works a bit better, so 5-9 = 1 square/5'; 10-14 = 2 squares/10', 15-19 = 3 squares/15'.

Seems to me the "1' per point of check result" is an OK guideline, at least for most heroic tier play. I understand why they set it up that way, as it dovetails well with the very nailed-down power stuff. You always know what you're going to get when you try something and you don't have to play the 'GM permission game' at all. It just becomes a bit too prescriptive and, as [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION] notes, doesn't cohere well with the rest of the more relativistic and fairly abstract aspects of 4e non-combat.

I think my answer is to always describe any situation like this in terms of what 'level' it is. I don't specify DVs, I specify level of challenge. So I can say "its a level 12 leap" and a player with a 4th level character knows he's a bit out of his league, but I can still describe to him the math of what his chances are. If he then looks at the battle map (assuming its a combat and there is one) he can relate that back to a specific distance. I'd note though that this means I don't have to be 100% consistent, although obviously I should be ready to explain why THIS 40' leap is harder than THAT one if it comes to that.
 

Rolenet

Explorer
A DV of 19 might represent the number you need to achieve to leap across the 'dangerous chasm' (exact definition of which, in terms of the battle map in a combat for instance being dependent on tier and genre/tone of the game in hand)

There's that table in the 4e DMG which tells how high falls should be according to level, to keep players safe, but on their toes. This is one of the many things that sold me to this game: so refreshing compared to other more classic "physics" rules. (I remember a 80s French game which had complex derived stats for long jump, high jump, standing or running, measured in centimeters...).

Sadly, some published encounters didn't stick to this idea. (and don't get me started on the hilariously Bruce-y cliff reference in the Warlock-29 Curse of the Dark Delirium)
 

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