Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A hard fight

DnD Next is out to some extent.  The starter book is live and people have begun playing the game albeit with a somewhat condensed set of rules and very little in the way of charts and information for the GM.  In a way this is actually a good thing since I find that DnD Next still has too many charts and lists and such though I will concede that it seems to be far better that its predecessors in that regard.  It does not have seventeen different polearms, say.

One thing that really concerns me is their guidelines for building encounters.  I don't have all the information yet of course but what I do have seems troubling.  Encounters are meant to be designed by adding up the XP values of all the enemies and then comparing those to the XP budget for the party.  Here is one line of the guide for a level 2 character:

Easy - 20
Moderate - 50
Challenging - 140
Hard - 210

The thing that is crazy here is the scaling.  When you have ten times as many monsters in a battle they last ten times as long and do ten times as much damage.  Obviously AOE effects can change this equation but amping up an encounter from an Easy encounter where the characters expect to take a tiny amount of damage, say three, to Hard you could reasonably expect the characters to now take three hundred damage.  That is, if the Easy encounter is the most trivial thing imaginable then a Hard encounter on this same scale is absolutely lethal, no possibility of survival.  Going from a Moderate encounter to a Hard one increases the number of monsters fourfold and even this is enough to mean certain death.

I have a vaguely similar system for Heroes By Trade where I wrote up the character's chances for victory based on how strong the monsters were relative to them.  It was based on both actual play experience and thinking about real life - if I have to fight a random dude the outcome is very much in doubt.  If I have to fight two dudes I get absolutely mauled, no question.  If I get to fight a dude with a friend helping me I win trivially.  This sort of thing happens similarly in tabletop games - doubling the numbers one side has guarantees their victory if the outcome was even remotely interesting beforehand.

They try to deal with this by suggesting that you can't just add monsters in because their effective cost is increased if they outnumber the party.  This blatantly says that they don't have the scaling of XP values for creatures in the right place at all.  If an orc is with 10 XP and an ogre is worth 40 XP then a fight against eight orcs should be about as hard as a fight against two ogres at 80 XP each.  According to their system though the eight orc fight should have a multiplier on it because they outnumber the party, but that multiplier wouldn't come into play if the fight was four orcs and one ogre even though the XP total for all three encounters is the same.

The issue here is that the game designers are trying to stick to old ideas about XP in the face of new math.  The new flatter progression of attack and defence bonuses mean that orcs are relevant forever.  A volley of arrows from a bunch of orcish archers can be devastating even to a high level party.  The reason this is an issue is that instead of making orcs worth 10 XP and a Lich worth 70 XP they are stuck in old school mode where high level monsters have to be worth orders of magnitude more than low level monsters.  It almost seems like they decided that a lich has to be worth 1000 XP and an orc 10 XP and then tried to put together a encounter balancing system from that standpoint instead of actually playing the game to figure out how many orcs a lich was worth.

If you keep this is mind it explains the scaling craziness above pretty nicely.  The fact that they expect you to multiply the XP budget by four for a Hard encounter over a Moderate is because monsters worth four times as much experience aren't four times as hard.  Not even close.  This means that any time you have a fight against a single opponent that has a reasonable XP budget the fight should be incredibly quick and lethal because the enemy can't possibly be appropriately tough and if you are fighting a horde of dorks you will get mulched.

If you sit down and play with the various monsters it is entirely feasible to figure out how strong they are relative to one another.  Not with perfect precision of course but you can come up with a good ballpark.  When you decide what the numbers are before actually doing your homework you end up with convoluted systems that are barely better than 'just eyeball it'.  Unfortunately this is what the encounter system in DnD Next amounts to - XP values are little better than wild guesses and encounter building is left as an exercise for the GM.

Not that every fight has to be balanced of course.  Having fights just be there in whatever way makes sense in the world is a perfectly fine way to play.  However, if you are going to build a tool for the GM to figure out if a given encounter is winnable you should make that tool properly.  GMs should feel free to ignore the tool and roleplay but the thing should *work* for those who intend to use it, especially if you are including it as a guideline for new GMs who want to make a fun adventure that is challenging but winnable.  We don't want to go back to the good old days of building encounters randomly and hiding dice rolls behind the screen so you can cheat when you accidentally make a fight the players can't win.

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