Monday, July 23, 2012

Rules vs. Imagination

Commenter kensan-oni made the following comment in response to my previous post on x.p. budgets. I thought it was an important enough point that I wanted to make my own response to him as a post unto itself.
I think one of the things that should be noted is that while I agree with you on a level, the "Encounter to be Avoided" is something that doesn't work if you stay by rules as written, ever since 2nd edition. The movement speeds are codified, the halfling's hide in plain sight ability negated, and a lot of monsters are just plain faster than PC's. Since Move Silently has been a real proficiency and the default sneaking ability, you just can't sneak past that Giant anymore. Oh, you can turn away, and maybe, if you have horses or a teleport, get away, but the Giant moves faster than you do, and typically has attacks with great reach. 
The only thing that lets the party not be detected by monsters is DM Fiat. Which is something which you may do, but players will know that it's because you choose not to notice them that they got away with sneaking or moving past a unbalanced encounter. 
Running away has been something that has not worked for decades now, under the AD&D system. While I *like* the idea of an encounter one shouldn't fight, actually getting out of an encounter if you accidentally stumble upon it is just not likely. 
I realize it's a playstyle issue, but by the mechanics, I've given up trying to run away or sneak a whole party by something long ago. 
While I can pull off what you are searching for with other systems, or 1E, I can't so that with any version of D&D post Proficiencies.
First off, I take issue with the idea that "avoiding the encounter" begins and ends with "sneaking past" something.

Avoiding the encounter is just that-- seeing a danger and then moving around it or not encountering it in the first place. This is why thieves are there, sneaking and hiding in front of the party. Or why magic-users have spells like clairaudience, clairvoyance, and wizard eye, and magic items like crystal balls. Or rings (or spells) of invisibility. You don't have to sneak past the trolls if you just back away quietly before they know you're there.

If your group is just going around busting in every door they see, then perhaps you have a point (but even so, see below). But if so, then they're doing it wrong from an old school POV. It's all about taking stuff, not necessarily killing monsters.

But that doesn't even address the issue of dealing with encounters in a non-combat way.

What ever happened to *talking* your way past an encounter? Trying to convince the ogres that you're really envoys of the necromancer, here to inspect their guards?

What ever happened to distracting enemies? If you really, absolutely, must get past something, then perhaps you should consider luring them out of where they are. That's why there are spells like ventriloquism and dancing lights. Draw out the ogres (or even just some of them) and deal with the rest.

What ever happened to running away? You say that some monsters are faster, by the book, than characters. Well, maybe those characters who are weighted down with loot might just have to drop that bag of coins to speed themselves up. Or maybe you could use caltrops, or oil, or illusions, or spells like wall of fog, ice, or iron... If you think running away is only about speeds written in the Monster Manual, you're just not using your imagination.

And therein, I think, lies the real crux of the issue. When someone says "the rules don't let me do X", I say either:

  1. the rules aren't a straightjacket; use your imagination, or 
  2. use your imagination; the rules aren't a straightjacket.

RPG rules should allow and encourage creative thinking by the players (and the DM). Kensan-oni's comment exemplifies why I don't like the all-encompassing approach of 4E (or, for that matter, 3.x). He says it's a play style issue, but then in the same sentence complains that the rules don't let you do something.

Let me challenge you thus; my play style says I can do things the rules don't explicitly say I can. It says that if the rules throw up a roadblock, I can use my imagination to try to overcome that roadblock. Will I succeed? Who knows? But I'm going to try.

That's the sort of culture I want rules to encourage. DnD Next started off strong in that score, but seems to have backed off lately as they move to appease the 4E players. I hope that trend doesn't continue.

On X.P. Budgets

The following quote caught my eye from today's Legends and Lore by Mike Mearls, talking about monster design in DnD Next:
When it comes to combat, the math that our system uses assumes an adventuring day that lasts a number of rounds and involves a total experience point value for monsters based on the party’s level. Higher-level parties fight more and face tougher creatures. 
The adventure design guidelines give an XP budget for an entire day, a range of XP values for easy, average, and tough fights, and a suggested maximum XP value for a single monster. In other words, you have a daily budget you can spend, guidelines for how much of that budget to spend on a given fight, and a limit of how much XP you can spend on a single monster. As with everything that focuses on the DM, this is all advice to use as you see fit.
Except for that last sentence, everything here looks exactly like it did in 4th edition, which is one of the many reasons I really didn't care for 4th edition. The question becomes, just how significant is that last sentence?

Old school gamers would say that it's entirely superfluous. Nobody needs to be told that the DM can ignore something that happens to be in a rulebook (even-- especially-- the Dungeon Masters Guide). That's the argument some make in favor of 4th edition; so what if it has x.p. budgets for encounters? The DM can just leave that part out.

The flip side of the coin, of course, are the many non-old school gamers who take exactly an opposite view. One of the great things about 4th edition, they say, is its finely wrought mathematical balance. By ignoring rules that enforce that balance, you're turning it into a different game, and that's not fair to the players who come into it expecting to play the game as it was written.

For myself, naturally I fall on the side of the old school in this debate. As DM, decisions as to how difficult to make an encounter are entirely mine, and nothing is going to change that just because there's a formula for balancing encounters in the book. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of old school play is that some encounters aren't there to be overcome-- they're there to be avoided. 

It will be interesting to see just how far the "just because it's in the book doesn't mean it must be used at the table" attitude is translated into the next iteration of the DnD Next playtest rules, and of course the final rule set. But they seem to be moving the pendulum back in the direction of 4th edition, which will most certainly turn me off if it goes too far. It's one thing to take a stab at a new game if it is compatible with my style of play; it's quite another to have to bend and twist it to do so. In that case, there's no reason to leave what I've got now*.

* Please note: I don't want the comments to turn into a dozen variations on "I don't see any reason to leave what I've got now anyway". Please keep comments on the topic of x.p. budgets. Offenders will be deleted without warning. Well, other than this warning, of course.