Thursday, June 25, 2009

Endowment Effect

Thunderspire Labyrinth must have been getting sick of Duergar (I know I was) because suddenly we get a Ruined Chapel full of wights.

This is the Horned Hold's "secret passageway". Once players have reached the western guard post, they can choose to come here via a neglected and disused corridor as an alternative to fighting through orcs, ogres, and a very grumpy paladin of Asmodeus.

The Duergar apparently avoid this area because they're too lazy to clear out the undead that infest it. The undead in question are wights, described here as "long dead human warriors in tattered black mail".

This, of course, doesn't make a lick of sense. In case we've somehow forgotten, the Horned Hold used to be a minotaur fortress. More recently, it's been run by Duergar. How armed undead humans managed to make their way to this single room of the complex is a mystery mortal minds were not meant to solve. The obvious improvement is to make the creatures here either Duergar wights (meh) or minotaur wights (highly awesome).

Players of previous editions know wights as monsters to avoid. That's because of their energy drain, also known as "level drain". That is to say, by merely touching you they could strip you of a character level. Recovering that level by any means other than re-acquiring the XP called for one of several medium to high level cleric spells. Those are spells, naturally, that PCs don't get until many levels later.

The level drain was scary. It was a longstanding tradition. It was one of the memorable things about fighting undead.

But, importantly, it was bollocks. Losing things is not fun. We hate it. In fact, we hate it disproportionately.

In 1980 a man named Robert Thaler noted that, contrary to standard economic theory, people seemed to place a higher value on items that they own than an equivalent item that they didn't. That is to say, people would ask for more money to sell an item that they currently had than they would pay to buy an identical item. He called this the "endowment effect".

In 1990, Tversky and Kahneman went on to demonstrate this as a result of a specific form of cognitive bias called loss aversion. Humans, they argued, are essentially averse to loss. We find losses more distressing than equivalent failures to gain. We are much happier about missing the opportunity to gain $100 than we are about losing $100 we thought we had.

What does this mean for game design? It means that taking things away from players is a big stick. It is a disproportionately big stick. It means that people will make bad decisions when a loss is a possible consequence. It means that people will get irrationally upset when a feature or resource of their character is deleted.

You only need to look at the forums to see this. People hate having their favourite class nerfed. They're not nearly so worried about missing out on being buffed, though. People scream loudly about cancelled D&D Insider features they thought they were getting; they're not quite so vociferous in requesting additional features that haven't already been offered.

D&D 4th Edition has taken loss aversion to heart. Classic "progress eating" game mechanics have been dramatically changed. The Rust Monster, for example, no longer deprives players of thousands of gold worth of magical items without offering commensurate reward. Enemies with "weaken" powers no longer lower stats, and being raised from the dead won't permanently erase a point of Constitution.

And the wight, our feature monster here, doesn't drain levels. He instead knocks off his victim's healing surges. A horrifying permanent loss has been replaced by a temporary elimination of the PC's ability to regain hit points.

It's an improvement. I can tell you, I am absolutely never going to miss having one of my levels drained. That is an experience I am overjoyed to see in the past.

But at the same time, I kind of miss knowing that there were things out there that could steal levels. How are DMs going to terrify low level players now?


By The Sword said...

The very idea of "level drain" is kind of idiotic when you think about it. I mean, do I suddenly forget how to use my sword when the wight hits me? Or that skill that have been studying for the last few months? or a feat?

Ability score drain makes much more sense and when they started using that in 3rd edition, the undead were still terrifying yet somehow, logical. Of course it still sucked big time when you lost points off of your stats.

One wonders how a game like "Call of Cthulhu" would maintain such a high following, since it is based on constant loss and attrition.

Greg Tannahill said...

The rationale for level drain to me has always been the wights are siphoning off that spirit and heroic energy that empowers PCs to be great and memorable; their will to triumph is being sapped, turning them back into regular plebs.

The real mystery of Call of Cthulhu's following, to me, is its reliance on percentile trait rolls. It's just absurd trying to DO anything in that game.

The Commish said...

The more I play 4e and learn about it the more I feel that it really does coddle players. Definitely can't say that on the official forums. Part of the fun of D&D is the risk. Where's the risk at now? Its harder to die, your ability scores are untouchable pretty much and you don't ever lose levels.

If the players aren't afraid for their character then what are they feeling really? Sure, it did suck when the unfortunate stuff happened and what it really did was make things more difficult but when you & your group manage to pull through regardless of all the setbacks the triumph we felt was that much better.

Mowing down minions without worrying about losing anything at all is basically "blah". Not fun or exciting.

The Commish said...

& before I get flamed 4e is a fun game on some aspects and an improvement on prior editions on certain aspects as well.

FalconGK81 said...

I don't think you have to worry about getting flamed here. I disagree with you, but no fires incoming.

I like healing surge drain instead of level/ability loss. My problem with this encounter is, as Greg points out, the "human" wights, the fact that there is little practical reason for their being in here in the first place, and that this encounter feels like little more than trying to assure that the PCs have reached their xp budget to be on track for leveling (which some say Thunderspire Labyrinth doesn't get right ayways).

Also, I got E2 yesterday, and with a skim, I've determined that Kalarel does not appear in E2 either. That means that after his "defeated but dragged away for future use" ending in H1, he doesn't show up in H2, H3, P1, P2, P3, E1, or E2. Just what the hell are the people at WotC thinking? This is beyond amateur.


Kelly said...

Why does WOTC have to include a return of Kalarel? What would Heroes, Lost and the X-Files be without loose ends? Just more options for DM created adventures.

Doom said...

But if it was intended to be a loose end for DMs, the module should have SAID as much.

A DM doesn't dare use Kalarel...what happens if he does, the players kill him and stuff his body in a bag of holding which they carry around forever, and he appears alive and well in E3?

By The Sword said...

What entity would bother wasting energy and effort to bring the incompetent Kalarel back? Orcus might make him a suped-up zombie as a sort of jest to the players but what could Orcus expect of Kalarel except to screw up yet again?

The Commish- It is harder for players to die than in previous editions, but a "creative" DM could still wipe out a party.

FalconGK81 said...

What Doom said. The fortunate news is that my players only meet once a month, so we're only a little over halfway through H2, which gives me plenty of time to write Kalarel in on my own.

It is amateur because of Chekhov's Gun. Look back in Greg's blog for a great article on the topic.

Basically, if you rip the BBEG away through a portal to the Shadowfell, which gives the impression of "he is gone... for now" then he better show back up later, or why couldn't we just have him fall over dead?

It is bad writting. And I'm paying $20+ for this product. If it were free, then ya, it could be amateur. But it should be professional. As Doom says, if they wanted the DM to be able to freely use Kalarel, why not say so??? Just say "feel free to bring Kalarel back in whatever way you choose, his future is up to you". But they don't, they just make a big point that just as he gets dropped to 0 hps "The Thing" rips him into the shadowfell. That says to me "This guy needs to live, we're going to use him later".

Hugemelon said...

It sounded to me like they left kalarel open in case someone wanted to create their own campaign involving him. He was definitly not a memorable enough character to warrant any sort of significant return. At least not the way the module used him.

FalconGK81 said...

@By The Sword, then they could have him being tortured in the Shadowfell, forever in agony for his failing his dark master. And he could plead to the characters to be rescued, maybe even redeemed. The fact is, they CHOSE to make a big deal of the fact that he gets pulled into the shadowfell, forshadowing his return, and then not a word about it since. It is super weak, and as I said earlier, it's amateur.

When I bought into the concept of H1-E3, I thought they would actually make an effort to hang the modules together. I guess I'm disappointed at just how little they do.

FalconGK81 said...

@hugemelon then why not just say so? Why make a big deal of ripping him away, with no payoff later. If you intend to leave it completely and solely up to the DM, then why not say that?

BTW, you have a huge melon. =)~

Kelly said...

When in the history of D&D have modules of a different Alpha prefix ever tied into each other?

Hugemelon said...


H1 and H2 seem to be relatively poorly done, like they were rushed. The end portion of H2 seems to get a little better (but still lacks giving the final mob significance). H3 and P1 both looked vastly improved to what i've experienced running so far.

I've glanced ahead a little to see what types of stories are coming, and from what i've seen things get better quickly.

That being said i'm new to D&D so i don't know how it all stacks up vs. the campaigns from previous editions.

FalconGK81 said...

@Kelly read the modules, the back covers or inside them, and they specifically say they can be used standalone "or as part of a series". They specifically call out that the modules can be strung together to play out a story arc. The idea was, you could play any of the modules individual, use any three to create a string that covers an entire tier (H1-H3, P1-P3, E1-E3) or do an entire campaign (H1-E3).

So I guess to directly answer your question, it would be since these modules specifically claim to.

Hugemelon said...

I wholeheartedly agree that they seem to waste a potentially decent story arc they've set up for themselves.

After i finished H1 i was hoping they would have h1 and h2 build up a continuing story that would wrap itself up in h3 in a dramatic fashion, tying up any loose ends like Kalarels. Unfortunately though, you're right, it's amatuer story righting (from what i think i should expect).
Instead, we get 3 stand alone "adventures" to hack and slash our way through. H1 and H2 have almost no story that gave my characters any sense of excitement towards the last guy. Even making an effort in H2 to show paldamar more, is not working out.
I guess it kind of feels like an extended dungeon delves... I really hope H3 improves on the signicance (or lack thereof) of the last encounter.

Unfortunately, i'm letting one of the players try his hand at DMing taht one, so i'll get to watch from the otherside..... which may help me to improve my story telling when i return to dming in P1.

Mark Langsdorf said...

I almost hate to derail this thread back to the original, but wights are still scary in 4th edition. Losing healing surges in any quantity directly impacts a PC's ability to survive the fight, as well as your ability to win later fights that day. They're very, very scary.

Consider that most non-defender classes will only have 7-9 healing surges. If a member of one of those classes (say warlord) fights some wights on his second fight on the day (when he's down 2 surges after betting bloodied) and gets hit 5 times by those wights... then he can't heal. At all. He's out of surges. He'd best hope there's a Paladin in the party or someone can grant him a regeneration effect.

Most of the undead in 4th edition are nasty: ghouls, phantoms, wraiths, bloodkiss beholders. But I think wights are worst of all.

Greg Tannahill said...

@The Commish - I'm happy with 4E being, on the whole, a safer game. I run campaigns that go for many months to years, I like character continuity, and my games were being damaged more by having to regularly save players from campaign-destroying accidents than they were by a lack of risk. I've always held that the perception of risk has nothing to do with the actuality of risk and good storytelling can keep players on their toes just as thoroughly as intimidating stats. But I can see the other view.

@FalconGK81 and Mark - while the encounter here doesn't make any sense, I neglected to say it's nevertheless kind of fun (or at least we enjoyed it). The wights make a refreshing change from dwarves and orcs and they really are still kind of scary; my guys panicked a bit when at the end of the first turn two of them were bloodied and they'd lost four surges across the team.

@Kelly - What would Heroes, Lost and the X-Files be without loose ends? They'd have been better shows. Mysteries are good because the audience feels that there's an answer that they don't know. If you hold off on closure too long the audience loses faith that there's an answer out there to know. Eventually you have to give closure, or walk away.

@Kelly, again - Against the Giants through to Queen of the Demonweb Pits all tie together despite having different alphabetical codes. But those aren't exactly character-based masterpieces of storytelling, I'll grant you.

@Everyone, re: Kalarel - I'm not expecting Kalarel back. There's nothing else in this series of modules that enjoys significant continuity except for the Raven Queen and Orcus, and even for them only from P3 onwards. But yes, it's definitely a missed opportunity.

@Anyone else I missed - thanks heaps for the comments! It's awesome to have such an active comments thread.

FalconGK81 said...

@Greg re:Kalarel I don't expect him back either, now that I've read through E2 that he isn't back. But isn't leaving him out violating Chekov's Gun? Since I let him get sucked through the portal, don't I owe it to my players to bring him back in some form or fashion? I know they've gotta be thinking about it, they thought it was really awesome how they were able to kick him into the portal (in my game they shoved him into it after he was bloodied, rather than reducing him to 0 hp).

Xtian said...

Both @ The Commish and in general -

I think that threat manifests in 4e in different ways. Parties now have a soft limit as to how much they can do in an adventuring day. If the party is out of surges and dailies, they will be significantly challenged by what were once easy encounters, and the hard encounters are likely out of their reach.

Thus, if the party doesn't complete their adventuring day's goals by the time their resources are depleted, they lose. In my experience, the DM needs to tell the story such that failure is pretty clear - if the PCs don't clear the dungeon in one day, the ritual is completed/the mastermind escapes/the monsters fortify/etc.

With this in mind, suddenly there are many more dangerous foes out there. It used to be that level and ability drain were the ONLY real lasting ways to threaten players (outside of TPK). As long as any given encounter wasn't a TPK, Wands of Curing could patch up people for the next fight. I found this made endurance adventures much harder to build than they are now.

Granted, there still aren't that many ways to threaten the party with a combat encounter: TPK; encounter attrition in conjunction with loss of end adventure goal; and encounter-specific goals (like keep the ambassador alive). I think most of the design space for good encounters is in that third category which is left mostly unchanged from edition to edition.

Still, I think the lack of random ability/level drain overall opens more content than it closes. With a side helping of "reduced character sheet math," I'm pretty happy with the change.

Hugemelon said...

Personally, i really liked the drain that the wights had. The party had been running low on healing surges as it was, and then started to get the few remaining surges taken away. It really scared them, and i think it's taught them to be more aware of their surges.

Again, 4e is my first time with D&D, but i can't imagine a lvl drain being accepted easily. If i were a player, i would be really upset by it. I could see huge arguments coming from this, and would probably change out those mobs for another type.

Bryant said...

I've completed H1 and most of H2 -- we've got the final Tower to do yet. H1 ended with a dead character, two characters down, and two in single digit hit points. We had a near TPK in H2 as well.

I'm feeling pretty comfortable with my ability to scare players.

Re: Kalarel -- it isn't a sure thing that he'll be dragged through the portal. It's very likely, but it's not a sure thing. If he was a key plot point later on, there'd be slight problems there as well.

It's not like it's actually difficult to stick him into the plot if desired, anyhow. Here's a freebie for you. Use him in P2, as the NPC in encounter V2. You can either rework the NPCs background a tad or you can decide that Kalarel was always more than he appeared to be.

I mean, review the actual text. "This development also allows you to use Kalarel, perhaps in undead form, as a future villain." It doesn't say "He's going to be important later in the storyline." It says exactly what it means: you can use him if you want.

FalconGK81 said...

@Bryant You are correct that it says you could use him for future villain if you want. I took this advice to be aimed at those who were running H1 without running the whole series of modules. I expected that if I ran the series of modules he'd make a return in them, as they went out of their way to setup the dragged into the Shadowfell ending. I don't accept the argument that "he might not have gotten dragged in", they do everything up to and including teleporting him right in front of the portal to get him dragged in. The very specifically wanted him to get dragged in.

No, it isn't difficult to write him in. I can and will do just that. That's not the source of my frustration. I know I'm a competent DM that can (and has) modified the modules. The frustration is that I shelled out $20+ a module for this series, and I don't think it is unrealistic for me to expect high quality. I think it would be just AVERAGE quality to bring Kalarel back somewhere. Not bringing him back at all, and not mentioning him anywhere is, IMO, terrible. They just don't care. That is what frustrates me.

If the module writers just left him out because they wanted me to be free to insert him in if I chose to, why couldn't they at least put a sidebar in one of the module books and suggest some possible places to bring him back? Why not a Dungeon or Dragon article with tips for running the modules, including some uses for Kalarel? I think they just got lazy and didn't even think about it. And that is what frustrates me. Is it too much to ask for a little bit of quality?

Maelora said...

I'm late to this party, but getting back on topic...

I'm glad 3rd edition removed instant-death poison and level drain. These weren't much fun for players. And few toxins in the real world are instantly lethal, anyway.

I'm NOT so pleased they removed ALL negative aspects of the game in 4E. A rust monster that is essentially a vending or slot machine, spitting out money to the value of the items it rusted? No cursed items? No double-edged feats or skills? Low-level Ressurrection spells with no penalty? No negative ability scores? No deterrent that lasts longer than an Extended Rest? No disarms or sunders? Animal companions that come with a free Raise spell?

It means you can't play classic scenarios like 'escaping from jail' because the cossetted little darlings can't ever lose their 'kewl warez'.

It's good that they cut back on things that frustrate players. No player likes to be irritated or humiliated. And level drains were vastly out of proportion for the risk, lost levels representing months or even years of play.

But once again, 4E wields the surgeon's knife too deep. The concept that players can NEVER operate at anything less than optimum capacity harms the game.

Anonymous said...

Level drain scares the players, so the PCs act accordingly. There's really no way to make PCs afraid of undead unless the players are afraid too. It's one way of modeling the fear, and it works, even if you don't like it.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Anonymous - The argument that "you can't scare characters unless you scare players" gets trotted out a lot, along with the corollary that the only thing that scares players is mechanical setbacks.

They're both, I think, weak arguments, and akin to saying that the only way to make a scary movie is to endanger the lives of the audience.

The fear response in humans can be triggered by any number of keys that have nothing to do with imminent personal danger to the person experiencing the fear. It's a DMing cop-out to say that you're limiting your emotional toolbox to the direct threat of personal violence.