Thursday, August 6, 2009

Minimum Threat

I think the statblock for the Barlgura changed between Thunderspire Labyrinth being conceived and typeset.

There's a couple of reasons for that belief; one is that the writers don't seem to know how 4th Edition Barlguras work, mechanically. The other is that they put a lone Barlgura up against a five-man party.

Barlguras, for those not aware, are a type of brutish low-level demon. They're a natural fit to a location called the "Well of Demons" and indeed they feature throughout the area.

The Well of Demons utilises a system of random encounters, much like the ones I've described earlier. Rather than providing interesting sidequests, these encounters are designed to discourage adventurers from slowing down while assaulting the Well. The Well works best when it's blown through in only two harrowing adventuring days, and the random encounters are a rather clumsy way of expressing that.

It works like this: you roll on the table each time the adventurers take a rest, whether short or extended, and apply the resulting events. Consequences range from the spooky (ghostly minotaurs haunt the players) through to the disturbing (a rift opens to the Abyss), with a dash of the oddly helpful (a quasit shows up and offers to answer the party's questions in exchange for cash).

One of the encounters is a lone Barlgura.

The Barlgura is a level 8 brute. It's got a lot of HP and it hits hard, but it's got a very narrow range of attack options, isn't very mobile, and has defences that would look poor on a monster two levels lower.

A fight against a lone Barlgura goes like this: the defender tanks the Barlgura, and then everyone else drops their highest damage encounter power into it. It lasts a maximum of two rounds and doesn't move or do anything interesting. It gets two attacks a round, each of which is at a less than 50% chance of hitting a level 6 defender's AC, for a maximum of 62 damage if all four crit, or a more likely output of about 20 damage if two hits land and do average damage.

The average damage over its lifespan is only slightly higher than a healing surge, and that's assuming it doesn't roll badly and the PCs don't drop dailies.

In short, the Barlgura doesn't reach the minimum threat level - it's simply not capable of costing the PCs any meaningful resources that won't renew at the end of the enccounter. Rather than actually running the combat, the DM is better off just asking players to describe how they think the fight is going to go, and letting them off unscathed providing they describe an awesome enough battle.

Minimum threat is something 4E struggles with. The line between a weak encounter and a pointless one is very fine. Smart, optimised parties can find same-level battles so trivial as to be dull. Newer groups or ones with deliberately gimped builds will often struggle with those same encounters. It causes problems for module writers - how do you write an encounter that challenges a good party without making it a TPK for a more casual group?

It's not a question that Thunderspire has good answers to.


Oscar said...

Honestly, I think I skipped this one when I rolled it. Really slows down pacing of the adventure and wastes time. It might be a quick and easy fight, but it won't net any loot or exp for the players, it won't be much fun, and it could blow twenty minutes of play time if you include in all the dice rolls and what have you. And that could be the difference between another great encounter for the evening, and going home an hour early because you don't think there's time for the great encounter.

What might be a better idea is have the Barlgura appear and stalk the party, coming in during another encounter to turn the tables on the PCs. Any combat during which the battle lines disappear, regardless of threat, feels like it's more frantic and desperate. And some groups, mine included, sorta like that feeling.

Anonymous said...

Random encounters during each short rest? Wow, that's silly. Isn't it standard PC procedure to take a short rest after clearing each room? And if the PCs roll badly during the RE, they'll have to take another short rest...

"It causes problems for module writers - how do you write an encounter that challenges a good party without making it a TPK for a more casual group?"

To be fair, this is a problem with all standardized products - the majority of well-coordinated parties will have a fun time, but the rest will find the encounters either dull or frustrating. The solution lies in making the modules, well, modular. EXP budget problems aside, for each encounter, certain monsters could be downgraded to minions for weaker or inexperienced parties, while monsters could have stronger attacks or better positioning (or be replaced entirely, as with one poster's suggestion of changing the lv2 hyenas to krenshar) to up the difficulty for min-maxed groups. Not that I expect a module to put the work in; it's something GMs will have to do, and good GMs have been doing for a long time, by themselves.

Maelora said...

I'd say the issue runs deeper than that. 4E seems the first edition that actually expects optimized munchkinism to be the default and baseline.

In an earlier edition, if you had high stats or better magic items, you were a bit ahead of the curve and could expect an easier time of it. Low stats or few items meant you'd have a tougher time, but should struggle through.

4E seems set up assuming you have the maxed stats for your class, the correct race and items. Do this and you'll have the right balance for the encounters.

However, even a 'standard' character with the default array, and the 'wrong' class combination (even if it suits the fluff, like a dwarf warlord or a tiefling infernal warlock) seems to be considered weak or to use your lovely word, 'gimped'.

I recall the outcry over how 'useless' the Keep pregenerated characters were, simply because they weren't munchkinised.

Randy said...

Is it really munchkinism to simply increase your attack stat every chance you get and starting with at least 16? Items are the DM's responsibility, more or less, but there are clear guidelines there and following them isn't munchkinism. And is anything else strictly required to build a character that can handle level +/- 1 encounters regularly?

Of course it's more of a balancing act for module writers, because a very wide array of groups could face the encounters they are designing, from those who forget items to those who go above the guidelines, etc. But I don't think it is so much a problem if one designs their own encounters or is comfortable modifying pre-written ones.

But I have noticed that the default stats in the CB have been modified to give more weight to prime stat of the class (I believe it defaults to 2 pts. higher than the books standard array). I don't know if this reflects the encounters in modules or giving advice to players that matches what most already do in practice.

Brian said...

I haven't made it to the Well yet, but does it matter in this case at all that the barlgura shows up during a short rest? Given that, your party shouldn't be at full hp, might be short a bunch of encounter/daily powers, etc.

I know my group typically burns through all of their encounter powers in a given encounter because there's generally no sense in leaving them on the table. To have something pop up when they think the encounter is over? I don't know... it could be meaningful.

hvg3 said...

@Greg - Something you might be missing with that Barlgura fight is that it happens *before* the party can rest.

If it were much more threatening, the party might be in danger - as they are most likely already wounded, have spent a lot of encounter powers, are out of healing, and are wanting that rest to recharge. And then all of a sudden, another enemy comes in.

I know my group often has at least two bloodied characters before a rest, and has usually used most of their encounter powers. So, when it comes to this one, I guess it will be either time to use a daily, or try to slug it out wiht at-wills.

If, fo course, they just passed a minor encounter, which they breezed through, then it might be little more than a road hump, but after a particularly challenging encounter, it can be very threatening.

Greg Tannahill said...

@16lettersonly - You'll note I don't give the answer here either. I'm not holding the writers to account for this one; it's an honest problem and while it would be nice to see a clever solution I'm not going to drag them through the mud for not having it.

@Maelora - 4E expects optimisation; I don't think you can say it expects "munchkining". The powerful optimised builds necessary are both deliberate and intended, and don't create any consequences that inhibit characterisation and storytelling. It's probably most true to say that 4E expects you to attempt to play well.

@Brian & hvg3 - For a party with no encounter powers whatsoever, it's still only going to take three rounds to drop the Barlgura provided you have a striker. So that brings the Barlgura's damage up to two healing surges worth - still not a huge deal. What's more, the process of losing those surges won't be interesting - because the Barlgura won't be able to move usefully and only has one mode of attack - and in the unlikely event that that loss of HP drops a character (a) he'll be back up during the short rest and (b) getting beaten up by a random encounter when you were completely out of resources is rarely very fun.

Mr Co-Op said...

I think you may in part be missing the wood for the tree, Greg.

The appearance of a lone Barlgura during a short rest may or may not be a problem for a party in the Well of Demons. Whether it is or not will depend on the status of the party prior to them attempting to take that short rest.

However, the fact that the DM is even rolling for encounters during a period when the party can normally expect to be left alon is a MASSIVE change in tone and really ups the ante of the area.

A lone Barlgura may not be a challenge for a 4e party, but the party doesn't know what the next random encounter will hold. It's a harbinger; a none-too-subtle way of saying "don't assume you're safe here".

Perhaps the module is only bluffing (I don't know what else is on the random list), but the party doesn't know that...

hvg3 said...


Also - many parties might only be level 5 here. With second winds spent, and still being bloody from their last battle, that damage could still take down their defender, and cause considerable concern!

As to "interesting", I guess we jsut differ on that :) Anything that is risky, dangerous, or challenging can be made interesting. A surprise encounter when you are already bloody and weakened is indeed interesting.
Though, your complaints here seem to be against each other:

Either it is too weak, and does not pose a challenge, or it is too strong for a dmaged party, and you see it as 'rarely fun'. I, personally, think it is strong enough to be a challenge, without being a threat to wiping out the party. It is dangerous, but not out of their power. It is a hazard, it should keep the party on their toes, but it shouldn't end with a TPK. Your argument seems to be wanting to be on both sides of that, but not touching in the middle ;)

Greg Tannahill said...

@Colmarr - That's a fair point.

The Barlgura is the only random encounter which is a straight-up combat. There's also a minotaur ghost that attempts to possess one of the characters. The rest of the encounters are either spooky-but-harmless or genuinely helpful.

I still think it's a clumsy way of making the Well seem dangerous and time-critical. You could get the effect more efficiently by just putting out a "Doom Track" - a strip of cardboard showing the numbers 1 through to 10 (there are 9 encounters in the dungeon), with some ominous red colouring up around the "10" mark - and ominously moving a slider one step up it each time the party rests. Don't explain it to the players, but do use the words "Doom Track" when referring to it.

hvg3 said...

@ Colmarr

Actually, the Barlgura is the only 'encounter' on the random encounters. Other things are being possessed (attack an ally when bloodied), the forementioned quasit helper, or the abyss (imposing a will penalty for an encounter...or not at all, if read literally...)

The worst one is really the noisy spirits, which can alert a nearby encounter group to the PCs presence, and cause two encounters running on from each other - a lot more deadly!

Doom said...

This actually highlights one of the most serious design issues of DnD4.0: the non-major event.

Remember in Dungeons and Dragons, you might trigger a trap, and take d6 damage or whatever? It wasn't serious damage, but it might well cost a CLW...a real resource when the party isn't in a position to take an 8 hour rest every five minutes.

That sort of thing is completely gone now, either it's a long drawn out fight, or nothing, 'minor' damage is now too minor to count for anything with the excessive surges characters get (what really matters is the ways they can trigger the surges during combat, after all).

I ran a party through a DnD4.0 conversion of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and it really was just amazing how so little of what goes on there can even be remotely translated into the pseudo-DnD of 4.0. One aspect of many was the 'minor event', common to Dungeons and Dragons, and impossible to make any sense of in DnD4.0.

Maelora said...

Excellent point, Doom. Most of the past adventures don't convert well to the pace and playing style of 4E. The system seem to have insurmountable problems with anything that isn't a combat (or can be squashed into a 'skill challenge').

Again, I don't even think it's best to consider this an 'edition' of D&D - it's a seperate game with a wholly different way of playing.

sebmojo said...


That's just syntactical gobbledygook though isn't it?

4e's a dungeon-crawling focussed RPG, as it has been for the last 5-6 iterations. It has iconic spells, stats, monsters and associated fluff. Lots of stuff has changed, but it's all directed towards a particularly 'platonic' style of play, and that style of play is pretty damn fun.

Calling it 'not-D and D' might make you feel better about playing it, but it's splitting some pretty small hairs. Particularly since exactly the same comments were made about 3rd ed (a similarly huge departure from D&D tropes in many ways).

In my experience, 3e wasn't really playable as written once you got outside the 6-9 sweet spot - we fudged the hell out of it. For instance, we got a level every 4 sessions or so rather than counting xp, and a tenth level monster would have attacks, hitpoints, defences and a selection of appropriate attacks rather than being made from the ground up.

Put like that, it looks rather like 4e - tool the system to a playstyle rather than creating a fantasy universe in which a play style can occur. They're both perfectly usable (and 3e definitely has the edge in grittiness and verisimilitude) but saying either 'isn't D and D' is ... a little desperate.

Naturally the 4e approach presents some problems, but they're reasonably easy to resolve with sensible DMing - as suggested already in the comments above.


Greg Tannahill said...

@Sebmojo - I follow Maelora's point about "not D&D" in that it's one I've made myself. It clearly IS D&D in that it bears the brand logo, and I'm not in any way trying to disparage the game in making this argument, because it's quite excellent at what it does. But in fundamentally shifting its focus away from general exploration and onto combat, and in dispensing with a lot of the flaws and imbalances that gave earlier editions some of their character, it's really hard to read it as a heir to what came before. In a more profitable marketplace, Wizards might have released this as "D&D Ultimate", a kind of side-product aimed at a new market, and reserved the right to release a D&D 4th Edition more firmly in the tradition of earlier systems.

I like this 4th Edition - it's the one I'd choose to be playing - but the demi-success of titles like Pathfinder and the Dragon Warriors revamp suggests there's at least some market for the kind of mechanically-inept preschool-simulationist shenannigans that D&D made famous and that we all have memories of loving.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Doom - sorry, got carried away in replying to Sebmojo but I wanted to take a moment to say your point about non-major events I think cuts right to the heart of it. We're just as able to do minor encounters as we always were - but doing it mechanically is now very different. There's no mechanical gradation between being untouchable, and genuinely endangering your life.

That might be a deliberate attempt to say we shouldn't be rolling dice for non-significant events, which in a way is commendable, but if that's the plan then it's not followed through on by the rest of the system.

Paul S said...

As regards the triviality of "costs you a healing surge". I do not agree.

I am Currently reffing 2 new groups. Both of which are not good "techinical" players. They are learning and their technical play is improving.

I have them both running through "Time Critical" Adventures - so they know going in that they won't be having a long rest before they leave the dungeon.

As a result their "Healing surges remaining" is their success/fail criteria.

One of the groups got to the entrance to the final encounter (Rescue the Victim/kill the boss - you know the thing) and there was a debate just before they charged in whether they were really up for it. They had been worn down by so many things that their main striker (Rogue) was out of healing surges and almost bloodied. They deliberately modified their tactics to have him in a more supporting role

This is something that didn't used to happen previously. The party healing was one large bucket rather than individual buckets. Currently taking a lot of damage consistantly will mean that that character will suffer (rather than the healer running out and whoever takes the next big lump of damage is the one to suffer)

aside:It annoyed the main striker that they had a second striker (Warlock 20 con) who had been playing more cautiously and still had 8 healing surges.

The Second adventure, the rogue is being a lot more cautious and not leading the charge. As a result, they are "tank and spanking" much better. Every now and then they are messing up, but generally there has been a large jump in their "technical" play.

Kudos for D&D4 that my players are finding the learning curve very productive. (I'm amazed at how quickly they are improving)

The reason I brought all this up is that an extra encounter that results in "Spending an extra Healing surge" seems to me to be fairly significant still, particularly if it was avoidable.

As regards the move from general exploration to combat based. Is that because it is a better "combat game" than previous? Now that my players are getting better at the combat side of things, I'll bring back the old "general exploration" things and see if that is still fun.

I'm wondering whether I should scale Healing surges based on how long the adventure is going to be (ie:if there are only 5 encounters - they are all halved) to maintain this scarcity

Sebmojo said...

Interesting, thanks Greg. A problem with hanging on to 'endearingly crap' as the core value that makes D&D what it is (rather than a brightly painted simulacrum) is that it opens you to criticisms of nostalgia.

Personally, 3e bought me back to the fold - it 'fixed' what was wrong with 1 and 2e by making an internally consistent fantasy reality and wiping out a whole bunch of absurd little rules (negative AC, spending money to level, racial level limits, multi/dual classing, psionics etc etc).

In that sense, on your criteria, 3e also was no longer D&D - because it removed so many of the wacky eccentricities of the old system.

In fact, as it turned out, creating a self consistent fantasy universe wasn't the best way to foster bigfun dungeon romping - so the pendulum swung back the other way.

The centreline around which that pendulum is swinging is the 'ideal' D&D - pulpy adventure with improbably monikered heroes and heroines, wapping down absurd composite beasts for Gods, goodness and rampant self-enrichment.

To be clear, I don't actually run that kind of campaign and I'm finding it an interesting challenge to make 4e work with the involved city-based gaming my players are doing. But the exclusory language is misguided, in my view.

Mr Co-Op said...

@ Maelora:

"The system seem to have insurmountable problems with anything that isn't a combat (or can be squashed into a 'skill challenge')."

Care to give an example?

I played BECMI. I played 3e, 3.5e and 4e. I've read the rules for AD&D.

I haven't played the editions that I haven't mentioned, but I am yet to find anything "outside the rules" that 4e handles less well than a previous edition.

Bear in mind that when discussing what a system does and doesn't handle well, "you can make it up" is not a valid answer. At that point, you're not discussing the system at all.

@ Doom:

On what basis are you saying that a CLW is a resource but a healing surge isn't? They both serve exactly the same effect gameplay effect: they limit the survivability of characters and the length of the adventuring day. If anything, Healing Surges are a more limited research, because you can't buy wands/potions to stockpile near-unlimited uses of them.

A minor event in pre-4e is still a minor event in 4e. I honestly don't see this distinction that you suggest exists.

Mr Co-Op said...

@ Greg: I should have replied to this in the same post I replied to Doom.

"There's no mechanical gradation between being untouchable, and genuinely endangering your life."

I disagree with you, for two reasons:

1. Losing a CLW and losing a healing surge are analogous as I mentioned above. They're even analogous to the extent that you can say in relation to each "if spending this X brings a PC to full hp, then you're still at full fighting effectiveness. If not, or if it was your last X, then you're at risk in future encounters".

2. There appears to me to be a much bigger "buffer" between alive and dead in 4e than there was in 3e. There's no save or die, releatively few true save or sucks, and most PCs have enough hit points to be able to take a 1-round bollocking and survive. PCs have more chance to run in 4e than they did in 3e.

If the "TPK-waiting-to-happen" bar is higher in 4e, there must by extension be a greater mechanical gradation.

Doom said...

Alot to adress in these the guy that had guys running out of surges, yes, that is a problem until the players get a bit of system mastery (especially rogues), happened in my groups too until they learned the game a bit better. Not much I can say but, "come back in half a dozen levels, and see if your opinion changes".

To the others, "CLW" and Healing Surges are not even remotely analguous, I'm afraid. If a party has access to, say, half a dozen CLWs, those can go to whoever needs them. On the other hand, each player has surges, and once he's out, there's little anyone else can do (yes, I know there are few exceptions) to help past that point. Of course, most classes have a massive surplus of such things, at least outside of combat, so even this level of comparison is invalid.

To assert these two concepts are analguous is equivalent to asserting the magic-user in Dungeons and Dragons, with 4 hit points, is pretty tough since the fighter has 12 hit points...the dots just don't connect, alas.

The distinction between a minor event for small damage, and a full blown encounter, even if you don't see it, is quite massive. One is now completely irrelevant, the other takes an hour or more of play.

In Dungeons and Dragons, if a fighter gets hit for 8 hit points, the party can blow a CLW and counter it, at the expense of not being able to use that CLW on anyone else in the party later.

In DnD4.0, the fighter gets hit for 8 hit points, not only is that vastly less damage than in D&D, but, even if the fighter deigns to blow a power surge, it's not a drain on party resources, and not even a drain on the fighter's resources, since, while rogues sometimes run out of surges, I've never seen a fighter do so in my campaign, ever. Granted, that's only what I've personally seen, but mathematically, the fighter really should be having a big surplus on a regular basis, by virtue of the game structure.

So having established hit point damage is irrelevant, the next issue is that lasting effects don't happen in DnD4.0 (note, I don't say "no longer happen")...diseases almost invariably do so little that they hardly count, and no spell lasts beyond an encounter. You can't do anything in a 'minor encounter', that will matter 5 minutes later. So, you can't break a character's leg, or make them actually sick (beyond the 'lose a healing surge' irrelevancy of most diseases), or put a nasty spell on them, or, well, anything in that minor encounter that will actually make a player worry beyond "crap, we gotta wait 5 minutes".

Honest, go and try to play a Dungeons and Dragon module with DnD4.0 rules. Above and beyond houseruling darn near everything, so many of the 'encounters' and 'events' simply make no sense, and even the entire structure of those old modules simply must be abandoned. True, you can hand-wave "yeah, but you can still do 'em", it doesn't take long before the players start looking at you like you're an idiot for even wasting time with a trap in a hallway, or a lone sentry, or a trapped chest, or a dying monster, or a mimic, or a poison gas area, or, well, just too many things to list individually.

Mr Co-Op said...

Oh, I understand the difference between a minor event and a full encounter. But I disagree with you that that difference is lessened in 4e.

You note that healing surges are limited and can't be traded between characters*.

You imply that CLW's are limited, and state that CLW's can be traded between characters (ie. they get cast on whoever needs it).

In other words, both are limited, but only surges are character-specific.

You then somehow jump from those facts to the conclusion that a minor event that costs one healing surge is somehow less grievous than an event that costs one CLW.

That simply does not follow. All things being equal, losing a limited unique resource must, logically, be more grievous than losing a limited general one.

If the party has a total of 40 CLWs (that can be cast on anyone) and 40 surges (4x10 that are unique to the PCs that have them), losing a surge is more of an impact on the party's ability to continue. Each surge lost means that the party is somewhere between 2.5% closer to having to rest (if the surge belongs to someone uninjured) to 10% closer to having to rest (if it belongs to someone who is already injured).

Coversely, each CLW only means that the party is 2.5% closer to having to rest.

I'll agree with you that at very low levels a party might have less access to CLWs than a 4e party has access to surges, but that's a false comparison of only a very limited sample size.

I'll also agree with you that a 4e surge is worth more in terms of total hp than a 3e CLW, but that ignores the fact that in neither case do you need to do exactly that amount of damage to force a PC to "spend". If a PC's surge value is 13, there is a very real balancing act in deciding whether to spend one to heal 5 damage or to go into an encounter on below-max hp.

If instead you're trying to draw some distinction between the effect of a minor event that does 1d8 damage in each edition, the answer is simple: make the 4e "minor event" do more damage to reflect the higher hp totals of the characters. Otherwise you're trying to compare a minor event with a "minorer event".

You then go on to draw a distinction between real resources and theoretical resources (a.k.a fighter surges don't count because they never run out of surges). That's just BS I'm afraid. Something either is or isn't a resource.

To add insult to injury, you base that suggestion on one of the 4e classes with the most surges. Why not pick the wizard? Or the cleric?

Now, the one thing I do agree with you on is that 4e is not good at modelling ongoing effects such as the spell effects you mention. If you want to do that in 4e, you'll probably need to do so with reference to either milestones or extended rests, or by plain DM fiat.

*See Healer's Belt, but I won't sidetrack the issue with that item other than to mention its existence.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Colmarr - I'm happy to accept that healing surges and CLWs are reasonably comparable.

But as far as lost resources go, a drop in potential healing is highly abstract under both systems and (I think) a pretty poor way to represent attrition in a way that really grabs players' attention.

The only other lingering debuff that 4E has are diseases, which are actually pretty devastating. Taking away items or gold is frowned upon, multiple-encounter non-disease debuffs are absent, and the logistical cost of tracking food, lamp oil and ammunition is higher than the potential dramatic benefits arising from running low on those items.

If you look at an old-school module like Tomb of Horrors, there are these traps that offer amazing treasure but obvious and significant risk. There's no good way of handling that in 4E; if a character screws up, either you kill him or you dock him healing surges, and there's not really any other mechanical options for punishing him.

Again, I'm saying this for comment. I'm not saying 4E is better or worse as a result; I'm saying this a feature of the new system which is different.

Falke said...

@Colmarr: Now that you have started commenting on the blog, reading the comments are mandatory for me. Thank you for your insightful comments.

@ Greg: (Devils advocate here) What were the options in 3.5 for "long term damage"? Ability damage? That's just minor restoration (or forcing the players to recompute their character sheets, forcing the game to a grinding halt).
If a character screws up in 3.5 you either kill him or take away the cleric's spells.
In 4E you kill him or take away his healing surges.

In 3.5 it didn't matter who triggered the trap as long as the person didn't die. Healing came from the same bucket. Now, there's a meaningful choice in "who pulls the obviously trapped lever?" instead of only "SHOULD we pull the obviously trapped lever?"

Doom said...

I do concede from some point of view healing surges are a limited resource, it's just in over a year of play I've seen it come up twice, and both times it wasn't "the party is out of healing", it was just a character or two. This is nothing like a party being out of healing in Dungeons and Dragons. Surges are limited the way grains of sand are limited...but limited, I concede.

But, from the realistic point of view, not the same thing, as demonstrated.

Now, to address your "have the minor event do more damage", that's a reasonable idea, but now you're house-ruling, and, moreover, house-ruling to the point that you're wildly off the rails of the whole DnD4.0 paradigm.

Consider a classic trap in Dungeons and Dragons, the pressure plate/arrow trap. The arrow comes out, and hits for 1d6 damage. A classic minor event for a level one character in this game.

Now, consider this trap in DnD4.0. 1d6 is completely meaningless damage (outside of combat, and this brings up yet another reason why non-combat encounters are generally meaningless, as after a few levels, DnD4.0 characters are stupid strong outside of combat, addressed next if I'm up to it).

Now, in Dungeons and Dragons, 6 points of damage from an arrow is enough to kill a first level wizard, or at least knock him to zero hit points.

So, scale the damage to 'kill' a level 1 'wizard' of DnD4.0, and no problem, right?

(Note, I'm using wizard here since you considered using the fighter unfair)

That's 23 to 35 to 70 points of damage, depending on how you look at 'kill', and if you don't use '38' at least, he'll jump right back up in 5 minutes, expending half of his surges and not even slowing the party down unless the GM starts metagaming the monsters in the dungeon to target the guy with 'only' 3 or more surges..

Go flip through the DMG, and come back to me when you learn what level trap has a credible chance of dealing even 23 points of damage. That's at least a level 7 trap in my DMG...well, well, beyond the guidelines of what the characters should be meeting (if you honestly don't believe so, come to my table and I'll pit your party against encounters 6 levels above their level, and we'll see how much fun that is).

It's a different game, and you just can't do this sort of thing without going completely off the rails.

The other issue is character abilities are written to be used during combat (primarily), but this idea fails horribly outside of combat, where many 'minor' encounters take place, especially after they've gained a few levels. Many character classes essentially have infinite access to fire, ice, acid, teleportation, etc, etc, etc, and the whole game world breaks down if they start using those abilities outside of combat.

On the off chance it's not obvious how, say, 'infinite fire' is a worldbreaker, consider one example among many, 'Spider Climb'. This is a limited Encounter resource inside combat...outside of combat, it pretty much negates the need for any 'lost in the woods' skill challenges (just climb a tree every five minutes), anything requiring climbing, and others, much less the stuff you can find in an old Dungeons and Dragons module, and this is just barely lightly stroking on the potential for abuse once players start using 'encounter' powers outside of encounters, above and beyond the fact that this ramping up of abilities is yet another solid reason why 'minor events' make no sense in DnD4.0.

Michael Cardoza said...

"I do concede from some point of view healing surges are a limited resource, it's just in over a year of play I've seen it come up twice, and both times it wasn't 'the party is out of healing', it was just a character or two."

A character or two being out of surges can be as bad as the cleric being out of CLW. If your defender is out of surges, you really don't want to do another fight. If your leader is out of surges, you're taking a big risk doing another fight. If a striker is out of surges... well, you're still risking death, which is not trivial.

In my experience, parties are very reluctant to continue as soon as any single character is down to 1 surge.

Mr Co-Op said...

@ Falke:

You'll make me blush!

@ Greg:

I'm not familiar with the ToH, but I think I understand what you're getting at now. You're saying that the 4e system doesn't by default really allow for attrition of CAPABILITY, only attrition of POTENTIALITY. I agree.

I'm not sure that I believe earlier editions were better at it (because I haven't seen the traps you're talking about), but I agree with the basic suggestion that 4e as currently published doesn't do it well.

Of course, 4e does have all the tools to simulate the sort of effect you're referring to: disease rules (which can easily be modified to curses and spells), the remove affliction ritual (the existence of which highly implies the existence of long-term spells and effects), milestones and extended rests. However, it is true to say that at least up until this point, no WotC published 4e material has such an archetype.

@Doom: You're still comparing minor events to minorer events.

If a 3e 1d6 arrow trap can kill a wizard outright, then that's not a MINOR event. It's a potentially lethal trap.

The 4e equivalent IS a trap than can deal 25 hp damage in a single hit. Alternatively, it might be a trap that drains a single healing surge.

If you're instead suggesting that 4e doesn't encourage discrete (as in singular and contained, not as in subtle) events with potentially deadly consequences, then barring specific exceptions (crossing the bridge over the bottomless chasm etc), I agree with you.

Personally, I see that as a good thing, but I understand that other gamers might not.

As for your "lost in the woods" example, we again part ways on what counts as minor. You're describing a challenge that lasts hours or days or weeks.

You're also ignoring the fact that it's the DM who decides when an encounter begins and ends.

As for the limited nature of healing surges, your group (or DM) might be the outlier. My group has at level 6 taken on a level 11 encounter and won. We're not mechanical slouches. But virtually every adventuring day ends because someone is out of surges.

The only 4e game IMO in which surges don't matter are games where players deliberately rest even when they don't need to, simply because they don't want to get into a position where they HAVE to rest.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Falke - the options for long term damage were horrible - level drain, ability damage, curses and geases, item loss, gold loss. They all sucked and I don't want to go back to that, which is why I'm not saying 4E is necessarily a worse game for being without that mechanic. But they were there and you could use them.

A better example of medium term consequences tends to show up in White Wolf's games, particularly Mage where you had paradox backlash. Mages who pushed the rules too far could acquire any of a nearly unlimited range of ongoing consequences, from a distinctive appearance (blue skin) to the inability to lie to being followed around by giggling demons. They were theoretically unpleasant and significant while at the same time not inhibiting roleplaying fun or significantly diminishing the character's ability to overcome future challenges.

Paul S said...

I've been ruling that once the short rest after the encounter is over, encounter powers used dont refresh until the party have had at least one more actual encounter.

This is more a nod towards the "limited spellbook" nature of old casters - So you can spider climb once before the end of the next real encounter.

The old rules had a "medium term" condition that nobody has mentioned so far - spell use. Spells rarely refreshed in dungoen, so any time that the party used a spell to overcome an encounter (blink past the trap etc) this was something they could not do in later encounters.

The wide range of spells our casters used to carry meant that you could give them widely ranging problems and they woudl be able to find some innovative way to overcome it - this entire style of play has gone and I do miss it.

I know that rituals can fill this in a limited way - I actually prefer the idea of breaking up of "non-combat" and "combat" spells - it does feel different though - I'll have to think more about why it feels different.

Aside - I rarely allow players to have the option of extended rests once the adventure has started. If they do rest, then it will have to be between sessions so that the dungeon gets to react to the massive damage it has just sustained. (One memorable 2nd Ed occassion the party attacked a kobold warren and hammered it - leaving half way through to rest up and come back in. the following morning the kobolds had decamped leaving the complex trapped out to within an inch of its life{think} - well the thief's life actually - The party still occassionally left dungeons to rest - but it was done reluctantly

Doom said...

Hmm, now you seem to be using the words 'black' and 'white' interchangeably here. Or at least we're not exactly playing the same game.

You've missed the point, that if I'm using a trap that does 25 points of damage, I'm houseruling far beyond the scope of the game...I may as well just use a 'save or die' poison or have rust monsters that destroy equipment whether or not players want the equipment destroyed. Thus, that's not an answer, that's an admission that it doesn't work.

On the other hand, if you define a 'healing surge' of a level 1 character as 25 hit points, then, we're playing different games, which I'm suspecting is the real issue here.

Similarly, if you think it'll really take weeks to climb a tree via spider climb, or to simply blast a road via the infinite fire/ice/force encounter abilities used outside of encounters, then, yes, I have to agree with you here, too. But, if you play closer to the rules, there's no 'challenge' if you're 100% likely to see exactly where you're going and 100% capable of annihilating any obstacle along the way.

You seem to be ignoring the fact that an encounter counts as 5 minutes or so, outside of combat, as per the rules. I know if I tell my party "you can't climb the tree after five minutes, you'll be encountering the forest for the next week", I'll be getting some crazy looks from my players.

And you've still ignored that, beyond the wonky healing surge system, there's nothing you can meaningfully do in an encounter that will matter 5 minutes later (go back and check those diseases again, man, the vast majority of them don't have really meaningful effects until after an 8 hour rest, two failed rolls, and somehow the party not getting Cure Disease, inexplicable since the diseases are mostly past level 8 anyway).

I still maintain that if I, as GM for DnD4.0, insist an encounter takes a week or more, I'm not exactly playing DnD4.0 close to the design goals, any more than if I houserule traps to far outside of the rules.

(I should mention that I commonly have the whole party lose healing surges as part of failed skill challenges...even when it's 2 or 3, it's mostly just an annoyance, and I don't count skill challenges as 'minor')

I give your party props in theory for beating an 11th level encounter at 6th level (although, again, we seem to be redefining what is meant by '6 levels higher'), but without knowing the details, it's not particularly meaningful, especially if minions are involved. Quite a few monsters, beyond woefully handled minions, aren't labeled perfectly (not exactly a criticism of DnD4.0, even Dungeons and Dragons screwed that sort of thing up commonly). It goes both ways, of course; the best example I would think is the Mad Wraith--only 1 level higher than the 'sane' wraith!--and I don't see your party beating 10 of those (50 points a round of autodamage is brutal, at least in my campaign). But now I'm digressing.

I should mention that if individual characters, and not the whole party, are running out of surges outside of combat on a regular basis, that's a sign your party is screwing up on a regular basis. Really, there's just no reason for that, outside of flukes...enough classes have ways to trigger healing without surges, or to enhance the effect of surges, or both, that there's not much excuse. (And, don't forget, by waiting those 5 minute intervals outside of combat, you can get those enhanced effects as often as desired)

I think bottom line, we're both playing such wildly different games that we'll have to agree to disagree here.

TildeSee said...


Erm, for the record, the elite pit trap in the dmg is a low level trap that does 3d10+x, with a rider of 5 ongoing poison (don't off hand know the x, I'm afb right now). Average damage on that would be 3(5.5)+x, or 16.5, with 1 or 2 rounds of the ongoing damage, for a total of 21-26 average damage. That's perfectly out of the box & couldn't even begin to be considered houseruling. I'd then put forth that for a basic "minor event," encompassing either a single trap or single monster, that an appropriate level elite trap hazard or monster will suffice. Ymmv.

As for parties waiting 20-30 minute in enemy strongholds to recuperate with maximum benefits, if you're letting your players do that without them EVER getting jumped, and you don't like the effect it has on them not running out of surges ever, then that's your own fault. It's no house rule to have smart monsters come to the PCs when they're kicking back long enough to have lunch.

Mr Co-Op said...

@ Doom:

You know, I could have sworn that when I said:

"If you're instead suggesting that 4e doesn't encourage discrete (as in singular and contained, not as in subtle) events with potentially deadly consequences, then barring specific exceptions (crossing the bridge over the bottomless chasm etc), I agree with you."

we'd put the isolated trap issue to bed.

As for your verissimilitude arguments about blasting roads or climbing trees, they're not really relevant to a post about "Minimum Threat", so I'll agree to disagree.

Anonymous said...

Wow, a lone Barlgura against level 6 PCs? I can definitely see that being a little underwhelming. My (six) level 5 players succesfully defeated two Barlgura's, two Evistro Demons, and a Bloodseep Demon, which had favourable terrain. And that was immediately after three 'hard' encounters in the same day!

Of course, they did fall unconcious a number of times...the amount of damage a bloodied barlgura can do with a couple lucky attacks is pretty obscene, and the terrain let them attack the defender without being subject to attacks from him themselves.

Doom said...

Erm, Tilde, you're assuming he doesn't get any help from the rest of the party, AND failing a save...and even then, he can Second Wind and be completely out of danger before the second failed save becomes an issue, assuming nobody pulls off a healing word or DC 10 heal check or something. Uh, not even close.

I guess I'm not familiar with the official WoTC modules; I've tossed the occasional 'grudge monster' at the party, but can you identify two modules with multiple encounters triggered on "if the party waits 20 or 30 minutes, extra stuff happens"?

I just wanna make sure, if I'm as sucky a GM as you say, I'm in good company with WoTC. ;)

Greg Tannahill said...

@Doom - For the record: "but can you identify two modules with multiple encounters triggered on "if the party waits 20 or 30 minutes, extra stuff happens?"

Not arguing your central point - everyone's now far beyond the point where I have an opinion - but the Well of Demons (as highlighted here) potentially triggers one of six random encounters during each short rest; I can cite a number of examples of encounters during extended rests but I'm not aware of any more than punish short rests.

TildeSee said...

First things first. I did not say you were a sucky DM. I said that if 1) you have a problem with how players sit for 4-6 short rests in a row to take full advantage of extra healing granted by encounter based healing powers, and 2) you do nothing to fix it, most easily done by simply having monsters react to the PCs' presence in their lair, then it's your problem, not one to do with the way the game is laid out. Modules written thus far generally appear to assume that people won't have an issue with it, which is why you don't see presented countermeasures. Please, I didn't bash you, so I'd prefer if you didn't make it sound like I did.

As for the trap issue, are you then looking less for "minor event" and more "random PC killer"? If so, then ignore the next wall of text.

The 1d6 arrow trap that you mentioned that triggered this line of discussion still stands as the equivalent to the pit trap that I mentioned. For the moment, we'll assume that absolutely no ongoing damage is taken. A level 1 wizard is the target for either trap. The earlier edition wizard has, depending on constitution score, anywhere between 1 and 8 hit points. I'll assume 5. 4th edition wizards have 10 + constitution score, which is plausibly anywhere between 8 and 20 (although the top end would be one seriously hobbled wizard, assuming point buy), and again I'll place it in the middle for argument's sake, making the HP total 24.

Our 1d6 arrow trap does anywhere from a trivial amount of damage, 1, not enough to waste a CLW, to bringing the wizard to dead or negative HP total with 6 damage, depending on edition (and optional rules used, for earlier editions). Assuming the wizard is still alive, either the party hauls him home and hopes he lives, or uses one of maybe two CLWs or some similar resource to heal him. With no inherently time sensitive mission, either the adventuring day is over for him, or with the wizard back to full or close to full HP and the party down a bit of their limited resource (spells).

Our elite pit trap, doing 3d10 damage, does either a piddling amount of damage, 3, half a healing surge, to bringing the wizard right to negative HP and dying, with a cluster point in the damage at roughly 15, which is just over half his total hit points. What we're looking at here is anywhere from 0-4 healing surges, which could well be a solid chunk of the wizard's healing capacity for the day. Again assuming no time sensitive mission, either the adventuring day is over for him with the party deciding it's better to have the wizard at top capacity (unlikely in my opinion, but hey, possibilities...), or they all continue on, with the wizard likely being more careful as his ability to recover is diminished and the party is down resources (healing surges).

Sounds roughly equivalent to me.

I do certainly wish there were better ways of giving long term effects, though.

Also, I didn`t correct it before, again because I was away from my books, but the Mad Wraith thing you suggested before, while still stupid difficult, isn`t as bad as you say. Multiple iterations of the same aura don`t stack, so the most you`d ever be taking from the auto-damage is 5. A simple misconception that I see often enough ;) No worries.

TildeSee said...

@ Doom, by the way, if you'd like to discuss this much further, I'd like to not muck up Greg's comment page much more. Feel free to e-mail me at calliastro (at) hotmail (dot) com. Or not, if you prefer. I just figure since we're hitting really off topic it's be nice to pull the derail elsewhere.

hvg3 said...

Further on the "deadliness" of the random encounters:

We finished up an encounter, my fighter was possessed by the minotaur spirit.

The next encounter, I was taken nearly to bloodied, but not quite, and when we tried to rest, the demon popped up.

At this stage, we were trying to do a long rest, as the bard was out of surges, and everyone else (but the fighter) was very low.

The fight continues, the bard drops, the fighter gets bloodied, and makes a basic melee attack. Only the bard is within reach (and he has a halberd, so the others just missed out).

One max damage roll later, and we have a dead bard.

So - the encounters can indeed be challenging, when applied before the party gets a chance to rest!

Doom said...

Hvg--you have the right of it: since the system can't handle minor encounters, it makes sense to just eliminate them and 'fold' them into the other encounters. Well said.

Greg--You're certainly correct, there are half a dozen, but, as you've also correctly noted, they are more or less meaningless. In any event, none of them relate to "if the party takes more than one short rest"'d be very difficult not to come across as a bad DM if I wrote adventures of the form "The party has 9.67 minutes to rest, but if they take 10.02 minutes, rocks fall, everyone dies". In my opinion, of course. ;)

Tildee--Let's take the worst case scenario you present at face value.
You've still missed that, the end result is: the brief encounter means nothing.

Let's take a standard party of cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard, and ranger.

Here's the situation as it affects all party members:

Fighter: unaffected in any way.

Rogue: unaffected in any way.

Cleric: unaffected in any way.

Ranger: unaffected in any way.

wizard: minimal, still has 3 healing surges left (factoring in cleric heal bonus), all that could reasonably 'go off' in a worst case scenario combat.

Party fighting ability: unaffected in any way.

Party healing power: unaffected in any way.

It's from these results that I claim that, for the most part, even in your worst case scenario, nothing happened.

This is, of course, for a first level party; at higher levels the effects are even more miniscule (although we're already splitting hairs as it is).

Now, if the wizard gets caught in ANOTHER such trap, then, sort of, we have a problem (he'll just keep that last healing surge for when he goes negative, after all).

And, if the wizards gets attacked by YET ANOTHER pit trap, then, yes, you've got a very solid point, although now we've spent well over the experience point budget of a 'standard' encounter--and the wizard player might feel like he's getting picked on with back to back to back assaults like this.

And, again, the situation becomes more apparent at higher levels, where more character abilities kick in.

As someone else pointed out, and I'm starting to agree, the reason minor encounters can't work in this system is the lack of verisimiltude--the characters are so combat-centric that outside of combat they're pretty much abominations, no more reasonable than floating eyeballs or multi-ton creatures that flit around by flapping their wings.

Ah well, time to get home from GenCon. I'm clearly not explaining this well, but e-mail me at slurickmo at aoldotcom if you'd like a more clear expanation.

TheAmazingEveryman said...

What you COULD have done with this:
Have the Balgura use its first attack to grab the party tank(give it improved grab or something to make this more likely)
Use its second attack to hurl the tank at the squishiest, lowest AC/Reflex party member.
Even if he still doesn't last long, you'll at least have the party going "Dude, holy sh#t."