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Monday, June 4, 2012

The Grumpy Dwarf Digs Into D&D Next and Pulls Out LotFP Weird Fantasy!


Not a Dwarf, But Apparently the Source of This Article's Inspriation

Yep, The Grumpy Dwarf here.  I know, I've been missing since shortly after the DnD Next Public Beta released.  Hey, everyone is entitled to go off on a bender once in a while.  This article is by Rodney Thompson.  

Conventional D&D wisdom tells us that the maxim "the numbers go up" is an inherent part of the class and level progression in D&D. (uhm... it certainly has been since the dawn of D&D) While that might be true, in the next iteration of the game we're experimenting with something we call the bounded accuracy system.  (is that like "a bounded servant"?  cool!  I call dibs on the first slave!)

The basic premise behind the bounded accuracy system is simple: we make no assumptions on the DM's side of the game that the player's attack and spell accuracy, or their defenses, increase as a result of gaining levels (o-kay.  I know the whole thing about assumptions and asses, but are we really going to forego combat progression?). Instead, we represent the difference in characters of various levels primarily through their hit points, the amount of damage they deal, and the various new abilities they have gained. (so, no more equal progression advancement chart like in 4e?  is that "Taps" I hear in the background?) Characters can fight tougher monsters not because they can finally hit them, but because their damage is sufficient to take a significant chunk out of the monster's hit points (wasn't that usually how it worked?  at least for fighters.  everyone else kinda fell behind in the THAC0 chart) ; likewise, the character can now stand up to a few hits from that monster without being killed easily, thanks to the character's increased hit points (but shouldn't the monsters' damage be increasing at the same rate as the PCs?). Furthermore, gaining levels grants the characters new capabilities, which go much farther toward making your character feel different than simple numerical increases. (interesting in theory at least)

Now, note that I said that we make no assumptions on the DM's side of the game about increased accuracy and defenses. This does not mean that the players do not gain bonuses to accuracy and defenses (urh?). It does mean, however, that we do not need to make sure that characters advance on a set schedule, and we can let each class advance at its own appropriate pace. Thus, wizards don't have to gain a +10 bonus to weapon attack rolls just for reaching a higher level in order to keep participating (i think i see where were are going with this, and it is most certainly not 4e); if wizards never gain an accuracy bonus, they can still contribute just fine to the ongoing play experience. (BINGO!  They have decided to lift the core concept from one of the newer OSR games - LotFP Weird Fantasy!  Fuck D&D Next! - grab the original here for free, or get the whole thing with art and probably the best Referee book full of GM advice offered ANYWHERE!")

This extends beyond simple attacks and damage. We also make the same assumptions about character ability modifiers and skill bonuses. Thus, our expected DCs do not scale automatically with level, and instead a DC is left to represent the fixed value of the difficulty of some task, not the difficulty of the task relative to level. (i never understood the scaling DC anyway, as it offered a net sum increase in chance to succeed compared to the character's advance of ZERO)

We think the bounded accuracy system is good for the game for a number of different reasons, including the following:

Getting better at something means actually getting better at something. Since target numbers (DCs for checks, AC, and so on) and monster accuracy don't scale with level, gaining a +1 bonus means you are actually 5% better at succeeding at that task, not simply hitting some basic competence level. When a fighter gets a +1 increase to his or her attack bonus, it means he or she hits monsters across the board 5% more often. This means that characters, as they gain levels, see a tangible increase in their competence, not just in being able to accomplish more amazing things, but also in how often they succeed at tasks they perform regularly. (this is all fucked up.  it should scale with level based on class and increase at a slower rate than most gamers are accustomed to.  and i still expect more powerful creatures to be harder to hit, just as players are going to be gathering new armor and magic to make themselves harder to hit)

Nonspecialized characters can more easily participate in many scenes. While it's true that increases in accuracy are real and tangible, it also means that characters can achieve a basic level of competence just through how players assign their ability bonuses. Although a character who gains a +6 bonus to checks made to hide might do so with incredible ease, the character with only a naked ability bonus still has a chance to participate. We want to use the system to make it so that specialized characters find tasks increasingly trivial, while other characters can still make attempts without feeling they are wasting their time. (you know what?  i'm not even sure what this all means.  chance to participate?  why do i feel we are in the NEW Little Leagues, where everyone gets a trophy.  there may be times where your character doesn't brin gthe right skills to the table.  so be it.)

The DM's monster roster expands, never contracts. Although low-level characters probably don't stack up well against higher-level monsters, thanks to the high hit points and high damage numbers of those monsters, as the characters gain levels, the lower-level monsters continue to be useful to the DM, just in greater numbers. While we might fight only four goblins at a time at 1st level, we might take on twelve of them at 5th level without breaking a sweat (listen, large numbers of low level creatures should always put the party in fear.  Ever hear of "overbearing" at WotC?). Since the monsters don't lose the ability to hit the player characters—instead they take out a smaller percentage chunk of the characters' hit points—the DM can continue to increase the number of monsters instead of needing to design or find whole new monsters (awesome!  "Hey guys!  Guess what's for dinner?  Orc!  Yep, just like the last few sessions.  I like Orc.  It does a body good! ;) Thus, the repertoire of monsters available for DMs to use in an adventure only increases over time, as new monsters become acceptable challenges and old monsters simply need to have their quantity increased. (amazingly enough, this is how it work in previous editions)

Bounded accuracy makes it easier to DM and easier to adjudicate improvised scenes. After a short period of DMing, DMs should gain a clear sense of how to assign DCs to various tasks. If the DM knows that for most characters a DC of 15 is a mildly difficult check, then the DM starts to associate DC values with in-world difficulties. Thus, when it comes time to improvise, a link has been created between the difficulty of the challenge in the world (balancing as you run across this rickety bridge is pretty tough due to the breaking planks, especially if you're not a nimble character) and the target number. Since those target numbers don't change, the longer a DM runs his or her game, the easier it is going to be to set quick target numbers, improvise monster attack bonuses and AC, or determine just what kind of bonus a skilled NPC has to a particular check. The DM's understanding of how difficult tasks are ceases to be a moving target under a bounded accuracy system. (i think once a DM gets a handle on any RPG system, his ability to improvise improves.  I suspect this will make little difference for improvisation purposes over the long run, but it certainly may drive certain 4e players absolutely insane.  Pull up a chair and watch the excitement!)

It opens up new possibilities of encounter and adventure design. A 1st-level character might not fight the black dragon plaguing the town in a face-to-face fight and expect to survive. But if they rally the town to their side, outfit the guards with bows and arrows, and whittle the dragon down with dozens of attacks instead of only four or five, the possibilities grow. With the bounded accuracy system, lower-level creatures banding together can erode a higher-level creature's hit points, which cuts both ways; now, fights involving hordes of orcs against the higher-level party can be threatening using only the basic orc stat block, and the city militia can still battle against the fire giants rampaging at the gates without having to inflate the statistics of the city guards to make that possible. (is the dragon's AC really going to be that poor?  what ever happened to their AOE Breath Weapon?)

It is easier for players and DMs to understand the relative strength and difficulty of things. Under the bounded accuracy system, a DM can describe a hobgoblin wearing chainmail, and, no matter what the level of the characters, a player can reasonably guess that the hobgoblin's AC is around 15; the description of the world matches up to mechanical expectations, and eventually players will see chainmail, or leather armor, or plate mail in game and have an instinctive response to how tough things are. Likewise, a DM knows that he or she can reasonably expect players to understand the difficulty of things based purely on their in-world description, and so the DM can focus more on the details of the world rather than on setting player expectations. (so, that dragon is wearing chain mail?  how about that grey ooze?  what is the ghost wearing?)

It's good for verisimilitude.  (does anybody EVER use this word in a normal or even abnormal - conversation?) The bounded accuracy system lets us perpetually associate difficulty numbers with certain tasks based on what they are in the world, without the need to constantly escalate the story behind those tasks. For example, we can say that breaking down an iron-banded wooden door is a DC 17 check, and that can live in the game no matter what level the players are. There's no need to constantly escalate the in-world descriptions to match a growing DC; an iron-banded door is just as tough to break down at 20th level as it was at 1st, and it might still be a challenge for a party consisting of heroes without great Strength scores. There's no need to make it a solid adamantine door encrusted with ancient runes just to make it a moderate challenge for the high-level characters. Instead, we let that adamantine door encrusted with ancient runes have its own high DC as a reflection of its difficulty in the world. If players have the means of breaking down the super difficult adamantine door, it's because they pursued player options that make that so, and it is not simply a side effect of continuing to adventure.

This feeds in with the earlier point about DMs and players understanding the relative strengths and weaknesses of things, since it not only makes it easier to understand play expectations, but it also ties those expectations very firmly to what those things are in the world. Now, we want to avoid situations where DMs feel bound by the numbers. ("Hey," says the player, "you said it was an iron-bound wooden door and I rolled a 17, what do you mean I didn't break it down?") We hope to do that by making sure we focus more on teaching DMs how to determine DCs and other numbers, and letting them adjust descriptions and difficulties based on their needs. (dude, it's made of pine, not maple - sorry!)

Listen, you want to see D&D done right, with the core idea of this article?  Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy - its linked up above.  Raggi did it 2 fucking years ago.

9 comments:

  1. I am sure Mike Mearls has read Raggi's work . . .

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  2. Its too bad Raggi didn't have a marketing team.. That's gotta be the worse title ever.. I know its good but I just can't see past the name.

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  3. Though you can get hold of LotFP:WFRP as a no-art PDF for free (the beauty of the OSR movement), I have recently splurged a bit of cash on Raggi's latest 'indiegogo' project. I'm not sure, but I think two D&D variants (LotFP and Crypts and Things) and one D&D-alike (Dragon Warriors) are fulfilling my D&D needs more than straight D&D (Rules Cyclopedia or LL). And with all that, I can't see myself buying Next (even if I did buy the 4e Red Box, but that was for the Red Box...)

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  4. Yeah because we all know how DCs give us that warm fuzzy D&D feeling...no, wait, that's just bile.

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  5. I think that the open gaming license works both ways. It lets D&D 5th edition take the good ideas from a broad range of products and combine them into a single system. I am definitely seeing echoes of both Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Castles and Crusades.

    Since these are two of my favorite retroclones, I can't really complain.

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  6. Yeah, if they're learning from the crowd of OSR games out there I'm not going to complain. I'll play the one that gets closest to what I prefer. Unfortunately LotFP is a bit too simple for what I want in D&D, but it is a damned fine read otherwise.

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  7. Believe me, I'm not complaining. It gives me what little hope I have for 5e.

    That being said, I don't want to hear Mike or Rodney claiming they thought of new ways to do things when they didn't.

    Borrowing from the OGL is a great thing, so long as they give credit where credit is due.

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  8. Good point....I would be very surprised (and impressed) to see an Appendix N or something similar in DDN that actually cited inspirational resources including other game designs. Pipe dream, but it would earn them some kudos. I guess they have time to surprise us, though, but I'm not betting on it.

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  9. 1 - I do use the word verisimilitude, once a year at the very most...

    2 - This "non-scaling" DCs thing is what bothers me. Maybe it's because I never played 4E other than my group trying out that first adventure, but I've never done that. A wooden door is a wooden door, no matter the level. I just don't get it...

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