Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 09, 2014
Handling transition into encounters in 4E

I consider 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons to be the best available rules system to play tactical battles between a group of fantasy heroes and monsters. But as I wrote yesterday, the D&D 4E rules aren't very explicit on role-playing and interactive story-telling. And some of the rules that make total sense in the context of a tactical tabletop game don't make sense at all in the context of a role-playing game outside a combat encounter.

The example I recently had problems with is the rule that unless a character or mob is both out of sight AND specifically making stealth skill checks to become hidden, everybody always knows the position of everybody else on a  battlemap. As I first played that wrong and then the group and enemies not seeing each other any more caused quite some chaos, I can say with confidence that this rule makes sense for a tactical tabletop game. But it would make no sense at all outside combat.

Imagine a tavern fight. The rules say that if for example there is a cook in the kitchen who is a possible combatant, the players would be aware of his presence, even if the kitchen door was closed. But if I used the same map of the tavern for a non-combat role-playing encounter in the tavern, it would feel strange if the players could sense the presence of the cook in the kitchen behind closed doors. I would not have any problem of them trying to listen for noises from the kitchen, if they were interested. But I wouldn't assume that the players always know the exact number of people in a building the moment they enter it.

That gets especially tricky if you plan an ambush. Rules as written would require you to roll a stealth check for every ambusher. That isn't all that obvious. On the one side you wouldn't think of let's say a skeleton as being a monster that is particularly stealthy (all those rattling bones). On the other side, being undead and presumably very patient, a skeleton hidden in a closet shouldn't make any noise at all. So what is the stealth skill of a skeleton in a closet, or the difficulty rating to detect it? The rules say to use its give dexterity modifier plus half level, but that results in a rather low value which would make an ambush from a skeleton jumping out of a closet practically impossible.

My solution to this would be to use the rules as written (group passive perception vs. single stealth skill check for the monster), but to give the ambushers a bonus to the skill check depending on the situation. A kobold hiding in the foliage next to the road probably wouldn't get one, but a mummy in a sarcophagus would. And I wouldn't hesitate to make that bonus a big one, if the whole scene depended on it. In the end the goal is a story-telling one. A failed ambush by kobolds who couldn't keep still while trying to hide next to the road makes a good story. The group hearing the mummy in the sarcophagus doesn't.

Given the typical tactics of the group I am playing with, with most players preferring to stay as far away from monsters as possible, I might need those rules more often. When I put a battlemap on the table with monsters on, and ask the players where they are on the map, their answer is always that they are on squares a good way away, outside the door, off the map (apart from the person who opened the door). I have a blank battlemap just for the purpose of displaying those off-map squares. Thus the question of how far the players went into the room before they noticed the monsters is an important one for my campaign.

You make me so angry!

For a good roleplaying campaign the game master, and all the players really, needs to bring some semblance of verisimilitude to the table. Immersion makes roleplaying easier.

To help the game master adjudicate what happens in his world the rule set should provide some degree of simulation. Something like line of sight should work the same in and out of combat.

D&D 4e was a tactical battle game, and as such was a poor simulation and thus a bad roleplaying game. Just about the worst I've ever seen.

Anyway, the edition wars are over and 4e lost. Pathfinder has mostly ascended and D&D Next is on the horizon.
@Elmo Snard 4E was not actually any worse for role playing than prior editions; it was just problematic because it let us go "behind the curtain" and spend too much time there pulling levers. However, it was a terrible RPG for actually teaching role playing; I could run 4E like any prior edition just fine (and I started gaming in 1980) but when I played in 4E games with newer, younger DMs the games were just horrible...there was simply no role playing, and what little was there was just handy-waivy fill between combat encounters. In that sense 4E was a bomb from my perspective, because it's fundamental strength (very clear and effective tactical mechanics) were so overwhelming in terms of focus that newer players and DMs had no frame of reference for moving the game beyond the combat.
You make me so angry!
edition wars ...

I am feeling really sorry for you, that you can feel so angry about a group of people you have never met having fun with a game you don't like. I would recommend psychiatric help!

Edition wars are utter nonsense. Every edition is perfect for a different group of people. And whether some other group of people prefers some other edition has zero effect on the game at my table.

By the way, you statement about "4e lost" is simply not true. 4E sold quite well, better than some previous editions. And it is in no way certain that D&D Next will sell even remotely as well. The future of pen & paper games might not be dominated by any edition of D&D, especially if WotC continues to botch marketing so badly.
I think one of the biggest responsibilities of a GM is to cover the game beyond the rules, if it is to give a bonus to stealth and making up parts of the plot on-the-fly because things didn't went as planned.

A lot of the newer systems that borrow heavily from the indie-RPG crowd actually actively encourage that and in addition involve the players in offloading the more mundane tasks from the GM.

Even for d20 systems, there is 13th Age or Numenera. And nothing stops you from houseruling good bits in.
Brandon Sanderson wrote about different ways to write "magic" in novels. One technIque is very rule based. The reader knows what will happen in certain situations and what is and is not possible. In the other technique, magic is unknown. It's a mysterious force of nature and a vehicle for transformative events in the story. Lord of the Rings used the second technique.

As a DM, I always felt my first responsibility was as a storyteller. If the story demands it, taking liberties and having a skeleton ambush occur regardless of rule checks is appropriate and acceptable. If you need to take liberties with the rules to get the story right, them take the liberties.
Tobold, kudos to possibly the greatest piece of snark on the internet.

Still cleaning up the chili con carne I snorted through my nose.

Psychiatric help, indeed!
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