Monday, August 15, 2011

The Kids Are Alright, But Not Really: Why Epic Tier Is Making Me Cry Tears Part: 1

I feel very blessed to be able to play in the 4e game that I am a part of. My DM Joe (the guy who runs this blog) is one of the most dedicated DM’s I have ever known. The sheer amount of time and effort that he puts in to each session blows my mind week after week and the level of commitment he given to our game astound me.

The players and I are currently at level 22 (epic tier) as of last Friday night and are working our way through the “Scales of War” adventure path. We meet every Friday night to play for a good four to five hours and have been doing so for about two years now. That is two years worth of commitment that each player has given every Friday night give or take a few. From what I have heard this is very rare, whether it be due to epic tier having next to zero support from wizards or the fact that just getting to epic tier takes so much commitment and time and that a lot of groups don’t stay together that long, it still stands that I have heard of very few games making it to epic.

I joined the game at level 5 which was about 6 months from when the game started, this was back in July of 2009, so we have seen a lot of changes come and go to the 4e errata. Heck we have a Drow rogue who used to have Darkfire and Cloud of Darkness but had to choose when the race got changed. When we first started essentials weren’t around and I don’t think the player’s handbook 3 was even out. What I’m trying to get at here is that I have been around for a while and I know that what I’m about to say has a bit of weight behind it so before I say it I just want to make sure the people who read this don’t think I’m pulling this out of my ass. I’m trying to be genuine and constructive in my next few paragraphs so stick with me here.

I have played Kyve the Dragonborn Fighter/Cleric Hyybrid since level 5 to level 22 and after the last session that the party and I played I can safely say epic tier is epic, but in all the wrong ways. I cannot stress this enough so rather than trying to explain my reasoning let me paint a picture for you. With my words.

Killdrak the Dwarven Barbarian, Muffie the Gnome Artificer, Xune the Drow Rogue, Hermy the Half-Elf Paladin, Betteldex the Human Wizard and myself were going up against an undead dragon in the bowels of the Shadowfell in order to get Khaz’s sword, the one that cut off Vecna’s hand, in order to gain entrance into a keep deep in the Shadowfell so that we can kill one of the exarches of Tiamut. Before going into the encounter Hermy uses Wrath of the Gods and gives everyone a +7 to damage for the encounter. I use Augment of War on Killdrak’s hammer for another +12 to damage and the target grants combat advantage and is slowed until the end of Killdraks next turn each time he hits the target and then I use another daily to give everyone a +2 to AC until the end of the encounter and THEN we start the encounter by charging the undead Dragon. Somewhere around round three I get around to using Penance of Blood which gives the dragon vulnerability +5 to all damage until the end of the encounter. Then on my next turn on my next turn I use Sever the Source to give the undead dragon another +17 to vulnerability until the end of my next turn BUT because I used Penance of Blood that vulnerability goes up by +7. This is like round four or five and on top of all of this we tha players are constantly shouting across the table the fact that either we didn’t add the damage up correctly of that our last attack was radiant so Joe should add +15 to the damage we did (the undead dragon is vulnerable +15 radiant). Do you see where I’m going with this? Everyone in the party (especially Killdrak) is starting to feel more like a mathematician than an adventurer. Our rogue is throwing eight d8 with an At-Will +5 against bloodied enemies. This is why I gave Joe a little shout out at the beginning of this post. The guy deserves a freaking medal for all the stuff he does for our game. He makes Chris Perkins proud every single Friday night.

Now I’m not saying all this damage calculating isn’t fun cause it kinda is. It makes epic tier feel epic in a way. I mean Killdrak at one point did 86 points of damage (with an At-Will!!!). But there has got to be a better way. I’m sorry but there are just far too many conditional bonuses, effects, and actions in a single encounter for it to be fun. It makes me pine for the days of heroic tier. I mean every single party member has so many magic items with daily and encounter powers on top of properties that I don’t think we’ve used more than a handful of them ever, simply because we either forget to or just don’t have time to get to them in a session or ever. Muffie hardly ever remembers to used Fade Away, Killdrak’s At-Wills are so much better than his encounters/dailys save for a few conditional bonuses that he rarely uses anything other than howling strike or just a melee basic attack (which does something like either eight d6 brutal 1) and I forget to use many of my items cause of the overload I have on them.

So as you can surmise from what I’ve said in my opinion epic tier is definitely epic, no doubt about that. But it’s epic in the wrong way. Just because you shove a crap ton of damage down enemies throats and have more magical items than the fellowship of the ring on every single party member doesn’t make epic tier epic. At least it doesn’t need to. What I think needs to happen is that we shouldn’t measure how awesome or epic or difficult a tier is by the damage output or pluses to attack rolls. Yes I know epic tier campaigns often take players into the astral sea or some place near the gods and that this is a pretty epic act in it of itself but it is only by the access to your powers that you are able to do this, not your choices, your actions, or your characters arc/development.

I think it would be better if perhaps the tiers were measured in difficulty by their moral choices or their difficulty to discern right from wrong. It’s not too hard to decide what to do when a group of goblins is attacking a village in heroic tier but as the tiers go on the morals choices and predicaments that the adventurers are presented with should scale in their difficulty. The goblin issue isn’t a tricky one but what about a group of Tharizdun worshippers who you have defeated and delivered into the hands of the Deva whom they have been murdering. The Deva choose to let the ones who defeated the Tharizdun worshippers, you, decide their fate. The Deva can either destroy the worshippers minds and completely erase their individuality in the process or they can simply kill them. Which one would you choose? Why? Is there a right answer? What ramifications will this have?

Yeah sure the damage you do should go up as well as your pluses and number of daily items for every tier but only to a point and I think it is a crime that those are the tools by which we use in order to measure how “epic” the tiers are. If there could be a way where players choices and character development defined the tiers (this is a role playing game after all) then in doing so players not only learn about their characters but also about themselves and in this way I feel like D&D can truly become an art form.

Part 2 will be coming soon…

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fighter Hits Hard. Why Can’t Fighter Hit Hard Lots?

image by David Wilcox
(aka Humorous Endeavors)
So sometimes (okay, alot of times) I share stuff about D&D with my wife. She's a player in my game and she's been super patient with my fascination with role playing games, but this past week she went beyond mere patience and absolutely stunned me with her insight into a simple mechanic into 4E game design. My wife studied Kinesiology in college and knows a ton about exercise and nutrition (which is why I've lost 30 pounds since we got married +5 to Charisma for the win!). Her insight gave me a really cool perspective on something I've been wondering about for a long time, specifically since Essentials came out and renovated the way that player powers are distributed. So I asked her to type it up so I could put it in here! So here's my wife, Brittany. :)

Always consult a medical doctor and/or certified fitness trainer before applying any of the below concepts to your own body.

             Between the two of us my husband is the true Dungeons and Dragons aficionado and much more deep in the melting pot of RPG enthusiasts.  I myself play a Raven Knight Paladin whom I have grown quite fond of, and prefer playing defenders overall.  As a Dungeons & Dragons nerd-adjacent I hear about a lot of the discussions and squabbles over D&D 4E. One of which is the practicality of rechargeable powers.  Some people had a hard time understanding why a fighter or rogue could only accomplish specific tasks once per day. “It’s just a physical activity, shouldn’t they just be able to DO IT again?” My husband mentioned the debate and I gave him my opinion based on my knowledge of the human body in motion, which was my college major.  My husband blinked at me and offered me a high-five, and now I have been asked to share my opinion here.  I would like to put my college education to use and give my two cents on this topic.  I will give a physiological account in support of why certain classes should still be held to a limited amount of “awesome” they can dish per day.
For many classes it makes sense that you wouldn’t be able to do certain powers more than once day.  I would like to meet the wizard who has enough energy to cast Closing Spell twice in 24 hours.  However, the question has been raised as to why some classes (such as fighters) are held to the same “at-will”, “encounter” and “daily” restrictions. Fighters are, for the most part, a one trick pony.  They hit things, they hit things hard.  BUT, sometimes they can hit things with a strength that commands awe from fellow party members.  And on VERY special occasions they can hit so hard that their foe’s fall to their knees in a “we are not worthy” fashion. Does this make sense?  If someone’s specialty is bashing faces in, why can’t they go full speed all the time and continually pull their most devastating moves as at-will powers?  Please, follow along with me as I break down my physiological understanding of at-will, encounter and daily powers in relation to actual human capacities.  For the purposes of this article I will assume all playable races function similarly enough to humans to be included.
Our body functions off of ATP molecules as energy.  I won’t go too crazy in details here but the body has a few major ways of synthesizing ATP including: ATP-PCr system, fat, carbohydrates and protein.  Protein is known to contribute much less than the other systems (McArdle, 38) and since D&D combats are supposed to last a matter of minutes we will not go into protein metabolism.
As you read this you are probably sitting, maybe standing.  This means that your body is using fat as it’s primary fuel source.  Your body can do this for a very, very, very (etc) long time.  Even when doing light exercise (i.e. walking and light jogging) your body will continue to pull most of its energy from fat because it has the oxidative time to do so (McArdle, 30). We will call this light activity “at-will”.  As a trained adventurer you can deal good blows to a “minion” type enemy without putting yourself in a tizzy and you can do this for a long time before getting significantly winded.
Once we start really moving (i.e. running) and getting our heart rate up pretty high our bodies will stop pulling energy from fat and start using predominately carbohydrates in our blood stream and liver (McArdle, 15).  These carbs are a much quicker energy source for a body in significant motion, but we have a much more limited supply on hand (McArdle, 148).  Hence, the invention of the sugary sports drinks to fuel athletes who train and compete for hours on end.  You know how Michael Phelps has to eat obscene amounts of bread and pasta in a day?  He needs every bit of it to maintain his ability to do hours upon hours of high aerobic training.  Lets look at this high aerobic activity as an “encounter power”.  Encounter powers suggest difficulty, but are easy enough to gain back once an adventurer takes a five-minute breather and sucks back a trail ration.  You’re dwarf has replenished his carb stores with hardtack, yum. Bring on the horde!
Hopefully everything so far has been easy enough to follow. Here we tackle the ATP-PCr system.  Here I will spare you the minute details of a very fascinating and intricate metabolic process.  Lets just say that ATP is a valuable molecular product of metabolism, a ton of work is in play just for the production of a few precious ATP molecules.  We only have enough ATP in our bodies to last about 2-5 seconds of all out sprinting, and PCr chimes in with about 5-8 second to simultaneous boot.  In unison we get about 6-8 seconds max of bursting energy output (note: these numbers vary slightly depending on the resource, but you get the idea).  The body is moving at such a rate that is splitting on-hand ATP and oxygen utilization isn’t even necessary (McArdle, 131).  This activity cannot be repeated until your body replenishes it’s ATP-PCr stores. Although ATP is constantly being synthesized PCr stores do take a few minutes of rest to rebuild.  This is a very good example of a “daily” power.  Your fighter companion has been swinging his long sword at goblins all afternoon and breaking a light to moderate sweat.  Now you’ve run into a big bad solo and you see the defender go into a complete flurry of movement and in a matter of seconds has dealt three or four weapon damage.  Or maybe he wound back his weapon and released a blow that appears supernatural in strength.  This is ATP-PCr at work, it has been used, and now your body is working to make more. I hope you hit! It's okay you do half damage on a miss anyway! 

Obviously this is not a perfect match up between fantasy and physiology, but it is a decent answer to the question, “if I’m capable of hitting this hard, why can’t it be my at-will?” If your character is doing something that is limited to once a day usage (magical or material) it’s probably because the amount of energy expended to do so is greater than the amount of energy you can regenerate within the next few seconds or couple of minutes.  Mr. Universe may be able to bench press over 500lbs. but he only works out 3 or 4 times per week, and when he is training he’s not doing his max capacity.  Conclusively, rest is pretty essential whether your’re a body builder, track star, wizard or fighter.
I believe that the at-will, encounter, and daily restriction on all classes are appropriately equated with the human body’s natural fat, carb and ATP-PCr fuel sources.  The harder the activity you try and do, the less available your energy stores are per that activity.  This is not a perfect analogy and players are still entitled to grump about daily powers feeling limiting if they wish.  This is only how I wrap my head around the limitations set upon classes that do not have an arsenal of widely different types of powers.

McArdle, W.D., Katch, F.I., Katch, V.L., Sports and Exercise Nutrition 3rd Edition. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins. 2009