Tobold's Blog
Monday, March 26, 2012
A problem of layout

The 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons provides excellent rules for what I would call a turn-based tactical RPG, in pen & paper form. In fact it is a pity that turn-based games have fallen out of favor on the PC, because 4E would make for an excellent turn-based tactical RPG on the PC. Instead we get lame real-time and action RPGs calling themselves "Dungeons & Dragons" but having very little to do with it. But also on the pen & paper side of things 4th edition doesn't have the best of reputations. And I think that might be a problem of layout.

4th edition Dungeon & Dragons adventure modules have a very distinctive style, very different from previous editions. Every encounter takes up 2 pages, on which everything a DM needs to know is described: The map, the monsters and their stats, tactics, terrain effects, descriptions, treasure, everything. The DM just opens his adventure module on the double-page for the encounter and he can run the whole thing without ever flipping a page.

Thus if you try to read a typical official 4E adventure, flipping through the usually 32-page booklets, you will see one encounter after another. Mostly combat, with a few skill challenges mixed in. And it is easy to imagine that somebody with not much experience as a Dungeon Master would run the game exactly like that: Set up the map for the encounter, run the combat, hand out treasure, and proceed to the next map with the next tactical combat encounter. And as good as the tactical combat rules are, that makes for a rather dry game.

More experienced Dungeon Masters will notice that at the start of the booklets there is all the other information to turn the game from a dry sequence of tactical combat encounters into a real role-playing game: Description of NPCs and their motivations, story outlines, lore, sequence of events with decision points, and so on. If you prepare the adventure properly and fully read and understand the part printed before the encounter descriptions, you can combine the two parts into a good adventure: Role-playing dialogues with NPCs, decision making, telling the story of a coherent and believable world in which the actions of the players matter. All the stuff in fact where pen & paper games tend to shine and computer games tend to be somewhat weak.

Unfortunately you'll need to good DM to turn the printed adventure into a great story. New Dungeon Masters receive a lot of help on how to run the tactical combat encounters, but very little help on the story-telling side. That is somewhat understandable, because it is easier to write down the instructions for the technical side of the game, while the story-telling is more of an art, and art is hard to teach in writing. Nevertheless I think that the layout with double-page after double-page of combat encounters is kind of a trap. It is what you will see if you randomly open an adventure booklet. And it contributes to the false impression that 4th edition D&D is just tactical combat and nothing else. While helping the DM to run a combat encounter without flipping pages, the DM is forced to flip pages and search for information whenever the players do anything but combat. If the role-playing information was better organized and presented, the information linking the encounters printed between the encounters, people wouldn't get the impression that D&D wasn't about role-playing any more.
"Nevertheless I think that the layout with double-page after double-page of combat encounters is kind of a trap."

This is exactly why I left 4e and went back to earlier editions.

Combat as sport or the Tactical Game has never interested me as much as combat as war or the Strategic Game does.

Earlier editions of D&D have many clever rules designed to encourage the players to never, ever accept a fair fight and only engage when the fight is completely unfair.

This is a good thing, IMO. The players are not playing against the DM, and setting up innumerable tactical encounters encourages that faulty line of thought. They're playing with the DM.

This post really illustrates the difference you're mentioning very well:

Two notes:
1. Despite the title, no, it's not very long, really, you write longer posts frequently.
2. The poster over-hypes the 'combat as war' analogy a but unnecessarily in my opinion, even though I tend to fall on that side of the equation.
I love a good turn based game, but its really not why I play pen and paper games - the roleplaying is key, and hopefully the story comes along with that as well. There have been times where even i the most basic and illogical story the roles were entertaining.
A friend of mine said that if dnd4e had been released under a different license and title, it would have been a smashing success. I agree - what it does is appealing and done well, just not enough to meet the wide range of dnd styles.

Er, well, I suppose, and yet...

Well, lets compare the 4e starter module "Keep on the Shadowfell," thought of mainly as an RP-less encounter fest, with the generally well thought of 3e starter module "The Sunless Citadel." Both are by the same author, Bruce R. Cordell, and both sit in the same position in the game line, first WotC released module of the edition, for newly created 1st level characters. Pretty much as close as you can get to an apples to apples comparison between the 3e "good for RP" set and the 4e "just a minis game" set, right?

"The Sunless Citadel" is a 32-page adventure, with maps on the inside covers and credits on page 1. It starts on page 2 with some notes on prep, an Adventure Background section that takes three paragraphs, a brief synopsis, a section of character hooks and rumors on page 3, a standard stat-based town entry, and some notes on time of year, darkness and mapping on page 4. "Sunless Citadel Keyed Entries" starts at the bottom of page 4 and continues through page 28, comprising almost entirely room descriptions, monster tactic notes, and treasure. Page 29 is devoted to "Conclusions" (with two sections titled "Failure!" and "Success!" and then three pages of appendix and monster stat blocks. Ignoring the credits, "The Sunless Citadel" is 3 1/2 pages of RP and background with 27 1/2 pages of keys and stats... 89% "crunch."

"Keep on the Shadowfell" is 80-pages long with color maps on separate sheets. Credits and the background start on page 1, with the background continuing through page 4 with plot hooks. Pages 5 - 15 are an introductory rules section for new players and DMs. The first two-page encounter, "Kobold Brigands", is on pg. 16, 17, including full stat blocks, setup, tactics, and a tiny "What's Next?" section. There is then a one page DM advice section specifically targeting "Handling Scenes Between Combat." Pages 19 - 23 is "Interlude One" where the town of Winterhaven is detailed with multiple locations, several possible RP discussions, and a set of "Next Steps" choices. Then there are a set of four two-page encounters covering the Kobold caves and Irontooth, covering pages 24 - 31. Page 32 covers another DM advice section ("Add More Story") while page 33 is another RP oriented interlude "Shadow of the Keep." Pages 34 and 35 cover the backstory for the keep. The remainder of the book is two sections of keep overviews (level one on pg. 36,37 and level two on pg. 62, 63), an combat encounter interlude back in town on pg. 60, 61 and 19 more two page encounters for the keep itself, with a brief wrap-up at the end of page 80. Skipping the credits and rules recap, "Keep" has 15 1/2 pages of RP, background and DM advice oriented towards RP and story, with 50 pages comprising 25 two-page encounters. That's 76% crunch.

I keep hearing that 3e was so much more RP oriented in the modules. I'm just not seeing it.
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