Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Taking the Safety Padding away from D&D4e

A couple of days ago ThadeousC posted a seemingly innocent tweet that
asked the following: “In OD&D running from monsters is often a valid
option over fighting, does it ever happen in your 4e game?”. The
ensuing discussion was spirited and occasionally intense. I wanted to
get involved, but 140 characters was far far too limiting for a topic
such as this. So as part of a blog carnival, here's my own feelings on
the subject.

Here's your blog carnival rules.

1. Your post must be on topic.

2. The first person in the list of bloggers who are participating who
replies to each post will be responsible for writing the next piece.
(Don’t reply if you are not ready to write it with in the next 24

3. You must ad a link to all of the previous authors carnival posts at
the end of your post.

4. No name calling.

What the question ultimately boils down to is that do you, as a DM,
ensure that every encounter is level appropriate for PCs to fight? Or
do you allow for there to be places, encounters, or situations where
the PCs are over their head? It further begs the question of ~should~
you do one or the other on a regular basis.

To me, in D&D4e there's a definite feeling that the game wants you to
use level appropriate encounters. Every fight should be one that the
PCs can win. To that end they've even made some of their most iconic
or interesting monsters available at a wider variety of levels so
that, for instance, your group of level 5 PCs can fight a beholder or
dragon without being in over their head.

This isn't a bad thing, necessarily. In many ways it's a good one.
However, I think that in the end it makes for better storytellng,
player immersion, and tension if you take away the safety rails and
let players know that the world does not revolve around them. The
campaign might, but the world does not. When a sign says "Here there
be monsters", PCs should be appropriately cautious. Players should be
nervous when they head in to a cave to negotiate with a dragon, not
knowing if they're powerful enough to come out alive if things go
badly. The tension and fear of the unknown can really make a good
session into a memorable one and a solid campaign into a great one.

I'll use an example from an old 3e game I was in about 8 years ago.
Our party was investigating a ruined city that was being used by an
evil cult for nefarious purposes. Our goal was to get in, rescue
someone, kill the cult leader if we could, and get out. We learned
early on that if we were to try and fight our way through, we were
going to end up stone dead very very quickly. So we used stealth,
trickery, and well placed ambushes to make our way through the city,
knowing that if we screwed up we were toast. The tension was
incredible and the sessions were memorable, all because of the threat
of doom hanging over our head.

I think that taking the safety padding off a campaign nudges some
players to attempt things that they otherwise might not. After all,
why would a group try to sneak through an orc stronghold if they can
just kill everything in it? Why try diplomacy with the chief of the
barbarian raiders if you know you can take him and everybody else in
the camp in a straight up fight? It also brings up scenarios that
might not come up as much in other games. The heroic sacrifice where a
PC valiantly holds off a group of powerful monsters to let the others
escape. A fighting retreat from an overwhelming horde of creatures. If
every fight is balanced around the idea that the PCs should fight it
and win, all of these things might never come up in a game.

However, even though I think it's a good idea to make a game world
more of a living place that poses danger to the PCs, I think it
shouldn't just be done on a whim. Not every group of players is going
to take well to the notion that there are some places they shouldn't
go until they're more experienced. They may not want that immersive
quality, they may just like to kill things, or they may just want to
feel more like high fantasy heroes. Not every campaign even needs to
add the more sandbox styling that this adds. If your players are
content to follow your campaign well and explore where you intend for
them to do so, you may never need to consider what happens if they
stray from that story path.

If you're going to do it anyway, make sure you give the players all
the information they need to make good decisions and encourage them to
gather as much of that information as they can. Let them know before
the game even starts that you're going to have this sort of campaign.

Don't try and trick them or give them misleading information. If you
throw a beholder at a level 5 party, don't try and make it seem like
it's a level appropriate monster when it's really a much higher level

If they're going to stumble into the hunting territory of some horrid
creature which would feast on their eyes and dance on their corpses,
let them make skill checks to notice this. Let them make rolls to
learn from a local village that the cave they're planning on going to
is inhabited by an elder dragon.

Further, make sure to have an "out" built in to any particular
dangerous encounter or area. Something that the PCs can do to emerge
alive and (hopefully) wiser. To use the negotiations with a dragon
example again, maybe if the PCs absolutely blow their diplomacy they
can be spared only in exchange for doing an unpleasant or difficult
task for the dragon. Powerful humanoid monsters or enemies may very
well capture the PCs instead of outright killing them, allowing for
daring escapes, rescues, or other plot twists. As Thadeous pointed out
in his post, maybe the monster beating up on your players becomes a
target by something even bigger and nastier. This will get the message
across as to how dangerous an area they're in quite well.

If the players really are going to make a run from some big nasty that
they've stumbled across, let them get away. Make it tense and seem
like a close call, but let them go. Running away is a humbling
experience in and of itself for most players. If you run them down
while their characters are fleeing, there's a chance that people might
get upset.

Even though you're making a world where PCs very well might run into
something far too powerful for them, you should be careful to limit
how many of these hopeless encounters the PCs get into. If players are
running away or getting their ass kicked all the time, they'll feel
less like adventuring heroes and more like a DM punching bag. The game
is still about having fun after all.

Let me repeat that last phrase as my final point. The game is about
having fun and everybody, DM's and players alike, should be on the
same page before making such a change to what I feel is a primary
assumption to D&D4e.

Here are the rest of the blogs on this topic.
Never Fear: Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by ThadeousC
Taking the Safety Padding away from D&D4e by WolfSamurai (here)
Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by Obsidian Crane
Safety Padding or Just an Illusion by dkarr
D&D: Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by Adam Dray
Know When to Fold’em by Tracy H.
Sandbox vs. Safety Rails: A Mini Blog Carnival by Deadorcs
Blog Carnival: Deliberately Overpowered Encounters by Brian Engard
As the World Scales by NewbieDM
Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails by DM Samuel
Setting The PCs Up to Fail by the Angry DM
Sandbox v Safety Rails by Colmarr
Unwinnable Encounters by Azaroth
Beneath The Raven's Wing by Ryven