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.

No comments:

Post a Comment