Tuesday, November 7, 2017

5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons: The Action Economy "Problem" Phantom

Blah blah, haven't posted in forever because of real life stuff, etc. etc.

I recently started following a bunch of D&D subreddits (because I'm clearly an old man in this digital age), and a "problem" with 5th edition that I have seen discussed on multiple occasions is the action economy.

The first place I heard it spoken of was on Matt Colville's Youtube channel, in this hour long video, I think.

Colville didn't say it was a "problem" so much as he simply made an observation: 5th Edition D&D math stacks the odds in the PC's favor when it comes to single-opponent boss fights, especially later on in the levels.

Essentially, what makes the difference in 5E combat is how many opportunities each side has to act. Single, powerful monsters have a comparatively limited number of actions to do each round when fighting a party of PCs. Even with the "legendary action/resistance" powers available to the truly dangerous enemies, their ability to capitalize on any advantages in the flow of combat are cut short by the sheer number of PCs that get turns in between each true action the enemy can do.

So let's say you, the DM controlling a dragon, really smash one of the characters with a critical hit. That character is now close to dead...

In the early levels of the game, one of the PCs would have needed to spend their entire turn healing the characters to make sure they survived. This means the dragon is effectively facing one fewer enemies this round. Do that every round and the PCs have a dire situation on their hands.

But in the later levels of the game, the party can save that PC using only bonus actions (namely Healing Word). So even with the same level of damage output, the monster in this circumstance has a much lower chance of winning a straight fight because it is (effectively) fighting an extra PC every round.

The legendary actions allow the DM, in this case, to have the dragon do a tail swipe or some such attack out of turn to try and further complicate that PC's life and, hopefully, take a PC out of the fight temporarily to relieve some of the pressure.

But there are other ways to slow down the PC's action economy. Here are a bunch, briefly listed:

  • A flying creature battles the PCs on a crumbling mountain side. Random PCs must Dex save each round or slide down 10ft. The monster regularly tries buffetting the PCs off balance to inflict falling damage.
  • A hyper intelligent enemy has an ever-shifting rubiks-cube-esque boss chamber that it can command to move with a thought. Every round the PCs are slid into walls or each other, out of formation and into spell areas, etc.
  • The BBEG runs away, with the intent of being chased, to lure the party into a secondary trap/encounter/difficult terrain, etc.
  • The bad guy is rather alchemically inclined, and throws tanglefoot bags and alchemists fire and acid vials as bonus actions.
  • The BBEG has a dancing weapon that they reveal in the second round of the fight. Now there are two sources of attacks each round.
  • The evil wizard casts polymorph on his familiar in the first round of combat and makes it into a crazy monster.
  • The fight occurs in a room full of portals that interconnect. Run into one and you pop out of another. Only the BBEG knows which one leads where.
  • Your smaller evil guys can stealth! If they hide behind a tree, they can move away and attack again from a better vantage point.
  • Make use of semi-permanent choke points. The bad guy leads the party into a tight alleyway, but faster and athletic characters can take a different side street or climb up a building's siding. Either way, it distracts certain PCs for a round or two.
  • The fight occurs in the swamp, which is waist-high water (difficult terrain for medium creatures, swimming only for small ones) that doesn't slow down the BBEG cuz he lives here.
  • Start the fight with the PCs in a hole or down a level or two from the bad guy. Let the BBEG shoot magic or arrows or bombs down at them as they climb for the first couple rounds.
  • Big enemies grab PCs. They grab them all the time and throw them into other PCs. They use PCs like makeshift clubs, or toss them into spiked pits or out windows, etc.
  • Make the point of the fight to stop a ritual or destroy an item, so that if the PCs focus completely on dealing damage to the monster they will fail the main goal.
You get the drift. Change the playing field every round. Keep the PC's on their toes. The monster rules will not give you everything the villain should have at their disposal. If your PCs are using crazy ideas and tactics, your villains should too.

And ultimately, the easiest way to make sure that your PCs don't trounce a big baddie because they get waaaaaay more actions each round is to add more enemies. Evil duos are awesome. Evil leaders (bard, clerics, etc.) with a small battalion of mooks are awesome. A wizard with a golem for protection and a pet chimera makes sense, and makes for crazy combat.

The books have the rules in them, but the real challenges you present to your players can't be found in the books. The challenge is in the way you design the fight and force your players to shift gears multiple times before it's over. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Where is the Drama?

Simple post this time around: death rules and how they relate to what people believe about the game.

If you play with instant death at 0 HP ("Save-or-die" effects would fall in this category too), then you believe the drama occurs in two places:

  1. Before the fatal blow is struck, and...
  2. After the character has died (e.g. What do we do now that party member X is dead? Can we resurrect him? Should we? etc.)
If you play with death or stabilize at 0 HP (or less), then your system splits the drama into 3 categories:
  1. Before the potentially fatal blow is struck, and...
  2. In the moment a character could stabilize or die, and...
  3. After the character is dead
If you play with unconscious at 0 HP with follow-up death or stabilize check, you add a fourth category:
  1. Before the potentially fatal blow is struck, and...
  2. In the round the allies have to potentially save the character, and...
  3. In the moment a character could stabilize or die, and...
  4. After the character is dead
If you play with unconscious at 0 HP with 3 follow-up death or stabilize checks, you add a two more categories:
  1. Before the potentially fatal blow is struck, and...
  2. In the first round the allies have to potentially save the character, and...
  3. In the second round the allies have to potentially save the character, and...
  4. In the third round the allies have to potentially save the character, and...
  5. In the moment a character could stabilize or die, and...
  6. After the character is dead
If you play with unconscious at 0 HP with bleeding-out/negative death totals, you add an indeterminate number of categories:
  1. Before the potentially fatal blow is struck, and...
  2. In the first round the allies have to potentially save the character, and...
  3. ...
  4. ...
  5. ...
  6. ...
  7. ...
  8. After the character is dead
What's the point of extrapolating this?

My theory is that there is only so much drama a narrative/game can contain. A good session builds drama and then dissipates it, ebbs and flows, so to speak. Without clear and concise climaxes, the drama gets spread too thin. Players can only keep their feeling of excitement going for so long. If your character takes five rounds to finally kick the bucket or get back up, it isn't dramatic anymore. It also sucks the drama out of actually hitting 0 HP, because you are still multiple rounds away from a verdict on your character's fate.

The faster the rules allow you to resolve something, the more the drama is pointed and powerful. If the situation calls for a little gray area between an event and its resolution, that can be ruled on ad hoc. Adding all the extra layers between life and death a priori takes away from the immediacy and the danger.

"But I don't want my games to be that deadly!" You say.

Easy. Give your players more healing potions.

Extending the moment between life and death robs it of it's power.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Disappointing Combat in D&D

SPOILER ALERT: I'm writing this while watching the newest episode of Critical Role (ep. 88). If you don't want to have minor combat details ruined for you, wait to read this until you've seen the episode.

Read at your own peril.

In this episode, the party engages in an underwater battle with a kraken. The setup is short but sweet, and then, as much D&D combat is want to do, the play slows to a crawl as soon as initiative is rolled.

Now, given that this is all submerged, I understand slower movement speed. But that's not what is going on here. Each player's turn takes one of two forms:

1) excruciatingly long because they are trying to figure out how the rules apply to the unique circumstances.

2) breathlessly short because they are grappled and fail to escape.

The short turns are effectively not turns at all, they are just more pauses in the action. Here is an example of an excruciating turn: Grog is swallowed by the kraken and he is blinded, restrained, and slowly burning in acid. When it comes to his turn, he doesn't have anything to do but "swing his weapon" to deal damage to the kraken from the inside. Of course, the whole reason he is restrained is because he is being squeezed by the kraken's insides. He doesn't have nearly enough space to swing an axe or hammer, but because the rules tell him he can do nothing else, he is forced to make nondescript attacks that don't reflect the narrative reality at all. Needless to say, the turn is slow and uninteresting.

Worse than that, it's how you are supposed to escape. If you deal enough damage to the kraken from the inside, you might get puked out. But as we've already established, that makes little to no sense. Like I've said before on this blog, if there is a rule for how to do something, people are much more likely to use the rule rather than make something up, even if the rule is lame. We think within the box most of the time.

I can't think of an opportunity for more dynamic and exciting play than when a player in swallowed whole by a huge creature. Unfortunately, that's not what happened on that turn or the next. It took an incredible leap of logic by Grog's player to pull out his magic jug that makes oil. Then, when Keyleth the druid is also swallowed immediately after, the big risk of setting off a fireball and purposefully igniting the oil in the jug pumped life back into the encounter. The kraken pukes them back up and the real battle begins.

About an hour later, the real battle has ground to a halt again (before the actual encounter ends) and it becomes a game of how to escape through a portal when everyone keeps getting grabbed and restrained by the kraken. The party's goal is to leave without killing the beast, but it's "stickiness" and the underwater environment make this goal extremely difficult. After several rounds of the party trying to break free and getting pulled back, Vax the rogue is swallowed while unconscious.

This is followed by another grueling turn for poor Keyleth who is barely able to keep the all the alter-self, animal shapes, and druid beast-shapes straight.

The issue here is not Critical Role, the players, or the DM. It's the rules. The rules are designed in such a way as to punish any "get-in-get-out" encounters. Every enemy is sticky in D&D, and the kraken is the king of sticky things. It has two average parties-worth of tentacles which auto-grab and restrain after dealing damage on a hit. The party members that are restrained lose approximately a third to a quarter of all their actions during the fight. They just fail their escape rolls and do nothing. That's not even counting the swallow ability, which is essentially a nigh-inescapable grapple.

It's painful to watch the party members on screen look utterly exhausted by their lack of options. The combat ends in an intense way, but that's all thanks to the roleplaying and DMing that are superb. They were succeeding in entertaining themselves (and us viewers) in spite of the rules, rather than with them.

I haven't thought about D&D from a design standpoint in a while, but these same issues are always on my mind when I do. There's got to be a better paradigm for handling combats like this, where everything devolves into repetition of two or three optimal actions until math saves the day for one side or the other.