Friday, January 13, 2012

The 'Other Planet And Don't Know It' Phenomenon

The Other Planet phenomenon...

I know people who are not like me exist.

I also know it's not because they aren't all lunatics who just don't know what I know.

Do they?

One of the strange things to me about the latest spasm of WellHere'sWhatIIIIIIThinkAbout D&D going around is how many Type IV players who are used to the newest edition of D&D do not seem to even be aware that not everybody rolls like them--like as if they think other people don't appreciate the features of the game because they didn't notice they exist.

Somebody on G+ linked to one of these folks and we had an interesting discussion about the nature of this gap...

I said:

This is one of those "we live in a different world" things. describing encounter balance as if it's always a good thing and describing changes to the game as "advances" just suggests this person's from a different planet. I know he's on a different planet--does he know how many gamers aren't on his planet?4:23 PM - Edit

Guy Who Posted The Link- Encounter "balance" is a good thing to me, because IMO it's easy to make an encounter easy or hard, but it's quite difficult to make one that's challenging mechanically without fudging the dice.

I do think that some of the "advances" of 3 and 4e brought up their own issues, hopefully this D&D NExt thing can reconcile some of that.4:50 PM

Zak S - See, that's totally alien to me. I find it really easy to make a challenging encounter and I never fudge dice. This is what I mean. I can't even figure out how it would be hard. Give the monster a high "to hit" and lots of hit dice. next problem...4:54 PM - Edit

Guy Who Posted The Link-So you're telling me you've never had a party either steamroll an encounter or get TPK'd unexpectedly in O,1 or 2e that you thought was going to be a challenge? I can't imagine that. Then again, maybe I just sucked at making encounters in those systems.

Zak S - Sure they sometimes steamroll or get TPK'd (maybe 10% of the time) but I do not see how that's a problem. Those things are vital parts of the game for me.
I think seeing a TPK or instasuccess as a disaster to be avoided is a hallmark of the "different world" syndrome.
5:11 PM - Edit

Guy Who Posted The Link-OK. I can see that. THe way I see it is, I want to have maximum control over the encounter difficulty so that when my party fights a BBEG or other major battle, I can be reasonably sure that they're not going to end up steamrolling it or being TPK'd unexpectedly. In my experience that's not really fun for the players or the DM. To me a lot of the drama from combat is sometimes coming down to the wire. Who is going to win? I want to be able to play my NPCs and monsters to their fullest without either wiping the party or being slaughtered, unless of course that's the purpose of the encounter.

The difference here that we're having right now is the biggest wall that WotC faces with D&D Next. Unless they come up with some great modular ways to give us both what we want. 5:18 PM

Zak S - Exactly! I want to be able to play my monsters and NPCs to the fullest knowing It MIGHT lead to a TPK! That way my players are genuinely scared and therefore genuinely, desperately inventive. Although that carries the risk of TPK, it also carries the reward of them maybe surviving knowing there was no "safety net".

I just feel like what's weird to me is it seems like half the 4e peeps posting don't even know this playstyle exists or is considered fun.5:23 PM - Edit

Guy Who Posted The Link-I agree, I'm not saying there should never be TPK's, I'm just saying I want to be able to better gauge the results. For my past groups, 2e was pretty swingy,which I think what 3e and 4e designers were trying to get away from. However, in the process they sometimes make it too safe. The 4e Healing Surges is an "advance" that I'm not a fan of because of this. Additionally when you're healed up to full every day my brain rebels as "unrealistic!

It's surprising how much of it is all down to a few numbers really:

Adjusting the numbers increases or decreases the chance of Unexpected Immediate Party Success or Unexpected Total Party Kill.

Unexpected Total Party Kills and Unexpected Immediate Party Successes both lead to the GM having to improvise to fill up the rest of that 2-hour session.

And being ok with improvising is the difference between a GM who has a story to tell and a GM with no planned story.

And the difference between a GM who likes a planned story and a GM who is ok without one is pretty much all the difference in the world.


Norman Harman said...

DMing 3.5 and then going back to Labyrinth Lord, then some 1ED I noticed this.

The emphasis on character building, the number of combinations, all the crazy "broken" and "one trick" combos, the large power creep since D&D, all made it very hard for me (and players) to get feel for party strength vs encounters. This is noticeable starting with 1ed, rocketed in 2ed, and continues today.

Also, the growing emphasis on power creep and character building transformed game to be 90% about **winning** in combat. Which in turn pushes for balance and appropriate encounter challenge level.

Old School D&D seems much more about exploration, doing cool stuff with your character and even avoiding combat if possible.

Zak S said...

while alotta that may be true, i do think some people will take it as an excuse to edition war in my comments and i am pre-emptively telling them--if they are reading--that if they do that it will be considered boring. there are other places to do that, not here.

Erik Tenkar said...

I think the play style is as much a reflection of the DM (if not more) as it is of the system. 4e might bee more geared towards "balance", but I'm sure with the right DM it can be an edge of your seat game. Might be harder to do then in earlier editions, but I'm sure it's possible.

It's also very easy to turn LL or any of the older versions of D&D to a "balanced" type of game once you know the systems.

The key is a strong GM that knows the type of game "they" want to run. If 5e gives you the tools to run it easily either way, or somewhere in between, it should be a hit.

It's just so damn near impossible to please all the people all of the time.

Syrus W. said...

As far as story GMs and improve GMs, can there be a between state?

Like I usually naturally come up with a way I imagine a game will go and develop possible story lines for the player's to pursue.

Often times of course things go differently than what I expected and here's where I improvise. I feel I do a good job of not railroading the players but when I need to think of something my mind often goes to the stories I created before sitting down to play. And there is my key inspiration.

Zak S said...

i think the line is: Do you want the mechanics to support you in making the story happen in a certain way or are you just like Hey whatever?

Deadhorse said...

One vote for hey whatever from me. The story is what happens as you play

Lon Varnadore said...

I agree with Deadhorse!

Changling bob said...

I run dice as they lie, potential TPK or no. On the other hand, you can do this with modern editions, just by ignoring the guideline difficulties and doing what feels right. Part of the downside of this is that due to the menace of encounter balance, a more difficult than targeted combat tends to slog a lot.

On the gripping hand, sometimes I want a set piece encounter, and they sometimes want a little more mechanical support towards not ending instantly one way or the other, which otherwise tends to involve metagaming against the players, arguably worse than mechanical gameplay fixes!

Nagora said...

I think there has always been a regrettable trend (amongst players) away from "parley" and "surrender" as options in combat from OD&D onwards. Many players see combat as a "we either kill them or we're losers" deal and the fixation on balanced encounters actually encourages that because what is being "balanced" is always the conflict aspect.

An encounter with an invulnerable being from the demiplane of quarks may be a totally guaranteed TPK if the party attacks and a steamroller success for them if they start talking to it. Is that unbalanced? Are the tools normally used for determining "level appropriateness" even capable of understanding the question?

Put things where you think they should be and then let the players decide what to do about them. Balance only matters if the players can't think in terms other than "try hitting it with a BIGGER axe this time". At which point you may as well be honest about it and just play a tactical combat board game, because that's what you've reduced every encounter to.

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

The thing about types 0-II is that you can more or less approximate whatever playstyle you like by cobbling together your own house rules over the framework and selectively ignoring bits you don't like. It's not very clean, but you can get pretty close to what you want out of it.

Type IV is a lot more streamlined and coherent, which makes it good at doing what it's focussed on but makes it a lot harder to get it to do anything else.

For me to buy a type V book I think it would have to be more like the DMG: a big weighty compendium of rules that I can use, modify, or ignore at my discretion, more like a bag of toys than a jigsaw puzzle. It would need to have options to accommodate both the old school and the new school crowd, of course, mix-and-match style. And, because I already have the DMG, it would need to have enough new, cool, useful stuff to be worth shelling out the asking price. That's the only way I can think of for WoTC to "reunite" D&D players.

Zzarchov said...

Personally I favour "here is a setting, it just is, do what you want with it" as I sit back and see what happens.

But I know a lot of people like a more cinematic game. I can see their point about it being more "advanced" or "evolved", I just see it as advancing down another evolutionary branch that I don't have interest in.

You can keep your highly evolved chicken, it is delicious and goes good with everything. I shall keep its unevolved T-rex ancestor because its a T-Rex and that's just needs some laser eyes..and a cyborg leg..and..and..

Nasira said...

My experience possibly excludes me. My DM had a wonderful story and only the most creative mind but combat seemed a personal thing, like we were playing against the DM. That made combat a grind that wasn't fun. Learned, experienced players regularly left feeling inadequate. Some of that is fine but as an umbrella to play under - makes me consider concepts like fudging and "extra" balance as I DM.

richard said...

I toe the OSR line on encounter balance etc: my most memorable RPG experiences are not those where our die-rolling was superior to the vampire's, but those where we outwitted the enemy, or made a tough decision, or got in way over our heads and had to think fast to escape. But I've never played type 4 and I'm intrigued by the idea that small unit tactics might actually be mechanically supported in it. So I have 2 questions: do co-operative tactics and taking advantage of terrain and so on play a big role in 4e combat - how smart is the combat, I guess? And it seems from writeups I've read that The Party tends to fight as a unit in 4e: how much does it also play as a character? Is great party cohesion assumed? Because IME, playing b/x and 1e, TPKs are pretty rare, since at a minimum the thief and MU have legged it long before the last fighter's gone down - the idea that you might stay around getting pasted is fairly alien to me - that happens more in GURPS gunfights where it can all go wrong in 2 seconds. Are there built-in mechanics discouraging disengagement? Sorry if this provokes edition warring, but if the difference is in play culture that would be really interesting.

Zak S said...


co-op tactics are often (obviously) the most effective in 4e
taking advantage of terrain and novel opportunistic attacks are often (not always) not supported
basically because there is very often a "best move" that's fairly clear and awesome and doing anything else would require convincing the DM that (say) shoving the goblin into the sprung pit trap should somehow do more damage than using your abilities to give the paladin another Mighty Strike.

Kinda like Voltron: Just Fucking Form Blazing Sword and be done with it, why are you messing with putting a bucket on the guys head and then punching the bucket so he's blind and deaf etc. etc.

Great party cohesion is maybe not assumed but it is created by the tactics since so many of the powers obviously are "set up the next PC to kick ass way more than you could by yourself" powers.

I can't think of too many mechanics discouraging disengagement, but every Type IV game I've personally played has (due to circumstance, not necessity) been played under the default "all encounters are probably beatable because otherwise it woulda been a pain in the ass to build this encounter and whole battlemat and then use it for only 2 rounds" but I don't really see any reason in the rules themselves that discourages cutting and running.

Nagora said...

My impression from reading the rules and talking to some players is that 4e short-circuits such things by just giving certain classes special magic powers which essentially boil down to "you do a clever tactical thing without you (the player) having to think of what this bonus actually represents". So the DM can narrate the said bonus as if the player was being clever, but in fact it's just a special power that only an idiot wouldn't activate at every chance.

The good aspect of this, of course, is that it levels the playing field amongst the players at least when it comes to tactical play. As a design goal I can't say it's an inherently bad one but it doesn't appeal to me as someone who routinely plays fighters.

I think a lack of disengagement is a universal trait of fantasy RPG players and no one needs to add rules to enforce it, frankly.

About The Columbia Beet said...

Different strokes for different folks. I'm planning on throwing a village full of peasants mutated into chaos spawn at my players during our next game. If they're smart they'll run and hide. If not they'll most likely die and it will be a hard lesson learned.

Verdancy said...

"Unexpected Total Party Kills and Unexpected Immediate Party Successes both lead to the GM having to improvise to fill up the rest of that 2-hour session.

And being ok with improvising is the difference between a GM who has a story to tell and a GM with no planned story.

And the difference between a GM who likes a planned story and a GM who is ok without one is pretty much all the difference in the world."

I guess the usual response to this is that, if you're playing world of darkness or D&D4 or whatever you also end up dicking around with their rather elaborate character generation things, so there's a tendency for games with complicated character options to make death predictable.

I think the less mentioned flipside of this is that if you aren't at risk of dying randomly you need something else to gamble - so there has to be plot stuff riding on your battles. Which means big already mapped out worlds and characters; games where you're trying to become fairy queen of london, so getting framed for murder and setting the town on fire trying to escape is your tpk equivalent, rather than an excuse to go wandering off into the sunset and the island of the *rolls dice* Mind Eating Man-Apes.

Zak S said...


you are correct

richard said...

@Zak - your answer really helped clear up some questions I had, thanks. It sorta sounds like the PCs work to build an attack, lego-like, and try to make it "taller" than the enemy's attack. I guess I'm still waiting for my ideal SAS house-clearing game...

Callan S. said...

You do know this guy is trying for the illusion of death/a TPK, by having a system which is so fined tuned it appears your going to die, but actually it's so fined tuned you wont. He just can't admit that, he has to say "I want to better gauge the results". And why does he need to better gauge them/know them in advance? So he can pick the one where the group doesn't die.

It's a recurring phenomena in gamers. I've had this chat with a friend of mine where he was doing everything to stop a PC from dying, yet when I suggested we just acknowledge PC's can't die, just defeated, he couldn't stomach it. And here's a link to another, with the guy quoted. He has a million reasons why killing PC's sucks, yet he can't get that that means PC's will never die (the system certainly wont force him to kill a PC - so if he hates killing PC's, when are PC's ever going to die? Never. But he couldn't admit that).

Not that your own approach isn't potentially problematic
Sure they sometimes steamroll or get TPK'd (maybe 10% of the time)
So let's say a TPK happens 5% of the time. So after, on average, twenty fights the whole party dies and everyone makes new characters? Predictably? So you'd never really make double digit levels, let alone top level. That kind of conflicts with the high levels. Which if your cool with that, okay.

Or does TPK mean one guy actually gets away and arranges some recover or resurrection? Or even if no one gets away, res's can still occur? In these cases the K in TPK stands more for Knock Out than kill. TPKO.

The death thing is a problematic issue (which leads to gamers like the linked guy, who can't admit they are attempting to have the illusion of being able to die, while fiercely demanding rules which will avoid death occuring (always by an apparent skin of the PC's teeth though (though on serious analysis, its not at all skin of the teeth)) or you just get a TPK predictably after X amount of combats. It doesn't matter if it's a 1% chance of TPK, if you do around 100 combats, you eventually die.

It depends - low level play with a reset quite often is a viable way to play. As long as you don't think you'll ever get to top level or as long as you don't think the goal is to get to top level.

Zak S said...


I don't think I can be sure what this individual human means and am not going to just put him in a stereotype box because of a short conversation.

also: because of the nature of my campaign, a TPK does not mean all members of the group have their PC die. it's possible only 3 people showed up that day and it's also possible that they have more than one PC (most of them do. It's also possible to do a ton of work and get dead PCs resurrected.

richard said...

what Callan posits here reduces combat to a roulette spin: once it begins there is some weighted probability of winning or TPK. So, 2 observations: 1, roulette's a highly successful game: it's sticky and attracts a behaviour exactly like the one Callan doubts - that is, plenty of roulette players hope to get to "high level" using its system, which is designed to screw them, and their high level dreams don't go away just because they're repeatedly frustrated; 2, unless there's some locked-room, steel cage deathmatch situation going on, disengagement often remains an option as a way to help balance your encounters, or pick your battles. If only you remember to use it. Which is kinda what my earlier comment was about: bravely running away seems to be a dying art in 4e.

Zak S said...

mabe I'm just really tired but
i don't really know what you two are talking about here.

and since there's 2 of you and one is referring to a third person who isn't even posting here I don't know if it'll ever get explained.

Callan S. said...

I don't think I can be sure what this individual human means and am not going to just put him in a stereotype box because of a short conversation.
With 'from another planet and doesn't know it' not being a stereotype box?

At the least, I'll say you might think he was talking about X, but perhaps he's actually talking about something else. The different planet might be even further than anticipated, which seems fair to suggest if were raising the 'different planet' idea to begin with.

Richard: I'm not doubting the method you describe? I'm doubting, specifically, the desire for a ruleset that makes it appear it comes down to the line and PC's were going to die, when really they wont. Your not describing that as far as I can tell?

Zak S said...


This may be simply a third example of "Callan, read the post more carefully"

I and my interlocutor in the post are in turn discussing a 3rd person who IS on a different planet.

richard said...

I'm loath to pursue this now, because it's off the point and because in my previous comment I was speaking for Zak, which is neither smart nor polite of me (sorry Zak).

To clear things up, my roulette comment was only responding to Callan's description of Zak's "problematic" methods, here:

>> Sure they sometimes steamroll or get TPK'd (maybe 10% of the time)
> So let's say a TPK happens 5% of the time. So after, on average, twenty fights the whole party dies and everyone makes new characters? Predictably? So you'd never really make double digit levels, let alone top level. That kind of conflicts with the high levels. Which if your cool with that, okay... As long as you don't think you'll ever get to top level or as long as you don't think the goal is to get to top level.

I did not read Zak as saying it was predictable, or a design goal, to kill the party any known percentage of the time - rather simply that this tends to be how it works out, given the actions and choices of his particular set of players, and more generally that both steamrollering and TPKs are acceptable outcomes. So I think Callan's representation and analysis here do not fairly represent Zak's methods.

The point of my own comment was that even if Callan does have Zak's intention exactly right, still this would yield a game in which players could legitimately hope - very rarely - to reach high levels, just as they might hope to win at roulette. That's the seductive magic of probability: the roulette player is very unlikely to win a fortune, but it's not impossible.

Callan S. said...

Three times a charm! Seems I'm just sent for a loop when the subjects X, but the post describes Y in long detail? Like talking about dyslexics when it's a post about aspergers, or about some gamer from another planet, but it's all a conversation between two other people. I'm just not used to context jumps like that, so I'll keep that in mind in future.