Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 15, 2012
Group power

In many roleplaying games combat is handled as an exchange of blows until one side reaches zero health. Who wins depends on the ratio between what one side deals in damage divided by the health of the other side. Group combat is somewhat more complicated because damage can be concentrated or distributed, but the basic principle remains the same: Who wins depends on who deals a higher percentage of damage compared to the health of the other side.

This is also true for Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition. But D&D, unlike most MMORPGs, doesn't have a maximum group size. And if you do the math, you find that the power of a group goes up exponentially with group size, not linearly. Any additional group member adds both his damage to the damage pool and his health to the health pool; and thus he both increases how much damage the group deals as percentage of the monster's health pool, and decreases how much damage the monsters deal as percentage of the group's health pool.

Yesterday somebody remarked that the upcoming fight against Irontooth is a tough one. Which it is, theoretically. But the average D&D group has 4 or 5 players, and my group has 6 players. Plus one NPC, Lord Padraig of Winterhaven, a paladin of Bahamut. Thus right now I'm more worried that the fight ends up being too easy, not too hard. At least the part outside the kobold's lair was rather on the easy side. Fortunately I can tweak things a bit by playing with the kobold's tactical options. It wouldn't be fun if the fight ends up not being dangerous.
One good trick is to prepare an extra wave of attackers. If the fight is proving difficult, you don't have to use them. But if the PCs are finding it easy, the appearance of more enemies part-way through, perhaps outflanking them, can bring some danger and interest.
Honestly, this was my biggest problem as a DM, and one that is kinda unsurmountable.

I was HORRIBLE at...providing adequate danger to a party. It doesn't matter how tough I set an encounter up to be, when I am sitting there facing the characters they put so much effort into I can no more kill their characters than I could kill them. I chicken out, and anytime someone becomes injured I'll suddenly have monsters ignore them til they get killed, or fudge dice rolls away from crits or into misses.

A terrible trait for a DM to have. Eventually everyone I played with began to realize they were invincible with me around and I had to give it up.
Balancing fights is near-impossible, unless you use dice rolls which are very non-flat (i.e. a very narrow normal distribution), otherwise a balanced fight turns into a luck game of dice rolling.
One possible approach is make the fight CLEARLY impossible from the start if the players choose a frontal assault. Then you provide ways for them to "soften" the opponent (diversions which pull away a part of the group, finding specific weaknesses, etc.). This way even if the final combat ends up being easy, in reality they feel like they have overcome a tougher opponent by cunning.
This prevents killing player characters (which is always annoying, as it means one player twiddling his thumbs) without making the experience meaningless.
Yep, a six person group is more than 20% more powerful than a five person group, just because of synergy. Still, I often find that what this really does is open me up for more intelligent monster play. Adding some defenses, using cover intelligently, aggresively using "slide" and "push" options -- monster difficulty can really be scaled nicely just by being tactically sound.
This is why I never roll dice where the players can see them. Behind the screen I can play with hits and misses and make the important fights more cinematic. It also covers me when I go overboard. It's a great tool to be able to suddenly roll minimum damage or a fumble when you realize your about to wipe out your party and it's not thier fault it's yours. Or inversely to buff the bad guys or give them a crit or two to make the encounter more memorable.

As DM if you give up the idea that you have to take what the dice give you life gets a lot more fun for everyone if you can be a good storyteller. I generally stick to the rolls for the mundane stuff but on the big things I want to make sure if the players get themselves killed it's not because of a poorly designed encounter.

but you do have to be willing to let them die when they mess up. Otherwise as some have said they begin to realize they are invincible.
Just think of it as being a movie director.
Agreed with Sam. Whenever I DM, I have a tendency to fudge numbers behind the wall if I want to sway the flow of battle. A few extra hits here or there, or a convenient miss. On occasion to add to the intrigue If I legitimately roll a crit hit or miss I'll even lift the screen to show them they lucked out (or had bad luck). It may seem cruel to manipulate your players like that, but I find it results In a more satisfactory experience overall.

There also one more thing you forget with more people: 6 heads are generally smarter than 5. Your players are smarter than you in aggregate, and will almost always outsmart you. As DM, you're playing an aggregate intelligence of all the monsters. Sometimes you need to fudge things to make up for that fact. Don't punish them for being clever, but you're handicapped out the gate as a DM because you don't have as much brain power at hand.
Honestly, I head the other way. I tend to roll my dice where everyone can see them. D&D 4 gives plenty of opportunities for players to recognize that they are in over their heads, so I generally find that I don't need to fudge things for them. And with them knowing that I'm not fudging, my rolling the dice is a very nice tension inducing moment.

Does that mean that sometimes they find they need to run away? Yes. Does that mean that sometimes they just roll over an encounter I thought would be tough? Yes. But on balance (having DM'd both ways, for many years) I think that for my group, open rolls work best.

Your Mileage May Vary, of course.
What is a balanced fight anyway? When is a fight considered to be too easy or too dangerous? An easy fight might consume some resources, the loss of which might cause trouble later. It's not just hit points. For example: the adventurers lose their rope in the fight, now how are they going to climb down that cliff?
Four decades later, I still remember reading an article in Newman's The World of Mathematics which said that power went up quadratically with the number of units.
The problem with intelligent monster play is that you can't really count on being more intelligent than your players, and you certainly can't count on being more intelligent than all of your players combined.

Fortunately 4e makes it pretty easy to make encounters harder. If there is one more first level character, just add one more first level monster to the fight. It's not perfect but it's really easy.
I disagree that 4e, and many other RPGs in general, can be boiled down to a formula of total damage vs. total health. Irontooth is a perfect example.

4e assumes that players and monsters have somewhere near a 50% chance to hit with attacks (though this actually ranges quite a bit). Still, the numbers skew in very significant ways once you get into the 80/20 range in either direction.

Similarly, though players and monsters contribute to their side's total HP, they do so in disparate chunks that can be eliminated in pieces. And if individual instances of damage are large enough to overcome those disparate chunks of HP, you can whittle down one side's resources.

Because of 4e's use of levels, Irontooth shows off both of these issues. It's very hard to hit Irontooth as an average level 1 PC, so his HP total is much larger than the actual number. He easily hits PCs, so while normally PCs have "twice" their HP (including the 50% miss chance), instead they're left with closer to their actual HP total. Also, Irontooth's damage is large enough to kill PCs in 2-3 hits as opposed to the normal 5-6. And once he knocks out one PC, it's harder for the rest to successfully fight back.

So yes, there is group power. But there is also power in the individual, and the relationship between the two does not behave regularly.
It wouldn't be fun if the fight ends up not being dangerous.

If it isn't fun, that's atleast partly, if not entirely either the modules and/or the system not being fun.

Or you can try and claim your entirely responsible for fun at the table, which seems a bit odd since you're using a bought product.
Tobold made it pretty clear the bought product wasn't nearly good enough or at the least suitable for his groups style. Like most GMs, he has woven bought products into a much larger quantity of his own work.

If you are putting the responsibility for fun on an inanimate object...must be a riot there. Clearly like any group activity it falls on the players. Is it up to the deck of cards to make your poker game fun?

Are there really people who play through modules straight up? Is that even possible with real life PCs who might go the opposite direction of the dungeon??
What is fun fight? Is balance really necessary, is it the only way to make the fight fun? Is it even the right way?

I'm always rambling about drama and narrative and stuff, and today will be no exception :] Even completely unbalanced fight, where you know your character is invincible, can be utterly dramatic, when you know something else is at stake.

Avoiding spoilers as much as possible, I'd say Commander Shepard from Mass Effect series is definitely unkillable, but I actually cared about his missions. Not because he could be killed (obviously, with save/load, he couldn't), but because the things he could lose. NPCs, unlike player character, are perfectly mortal.

So why not put all those 36 stories to good use? I guess you could try to make combat something more than "these guys try to kill those guys", if you put at stake something different than PC's lives.
J. Dangerous,

Tobold made it pretty clear the bought product wasn't nearly good enough or at the least suitable for his groups style.

I think I'd probably have to have it clarrified whether he's worried how the module will turn out or whether he's worried about how his own design experiment will turn out (which is a bit hard to say when you refer to a creature that someone else authored).

I know it's dreadful to suggest someone is shouldering too much responsibility and does not have to.
The bought product and the rules give guidelines, not more. The adventures are designed for "standard" group sizes of 4 or 5 players. So if I know my group deviates from that standard, it becomes my responsibility to make sure the combat encounter is still balanced and challenging enough.
How do you mean 'just guidelines, not more' or 'my responsibility'?

If you buy soup and there appears to be a fly in it, do you just say it's up to you to scoop it out and eat that soup?

I just wonder what other product you buy that you give the same latitude to? Buy a TV, it doesn't work? Well, get the soldering iron out because it's your responsibility?

Did someone tell you they are just guidelines and the responsibility is on you and you have to take it that way? If someone didn't tell you, how did you come to know this?
You seem to have trouble understanding the difference between a MMORPG and a pen & paper RPG. In a MMORPG I would say that things like whether the game is balanced, "too hard", or "too easy" is very much the responsibility of the game developer. It is, to use your example, canned soup, and the customer can expect the vegetables in that soup to be clean and free of bugs.

A pen & paper RPG is not canned soup. It is a recipe on how to cook your own soup. That means that cleaning your vegetables and making sure there is no bug in your soup becomes the responsibility of the cook, not the responsibility of the guy writing the recipe. Thus whether the encounters in D&D are well balanced versus the capabilities of the group is the responsibility of the DM, not that of the guy writing the rule book or adventure module.
A recursive responce then - I say it's a fly in the soup, well, then the reply is that it's really about the recipe. And if there's a bug in the recipe itself? I wonder what the next recursive is?

Anyway, so it's impossible for someone to write an RPG that handles balancing the encounter VS the PC's and the GM doesn't handle that? Probably through the route of designing characters around balance and the encounter budget to be scaled to party size - which 4E does?

If you WANT to take the responsibility, okay. I just question whether your labouring under a impression you just have to take responsibility always, in any RPG ever.
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