Tuesday, May 8, 2012

D&D with Robot Chicken

This series of videos was introduced to me by my brother recently. I know next to nothing of Robot Chicken, but I might check it out, it looks pleasantly weird. Anywho, these videos--25 or so--record the 4e session DMed by Chris Perkins, Creative Manager of WoTC, and some of the staff of Robot Chicken.

Now I don't know what a creative manager is exactly, but essentially he is the manager of all the creative people in the design process. Essentially he is the lead designer. Which is strange because Mike Mearls is often referred to as the lead developer. Which if I understand it is something like a lead programmer. A lead programmer is responsible for the overall architecture of a software system, and for overseeing that all his underlings carry out the design. I think the designer is more into graphic design--so maybe Mearls had more to say about the mechanics and Perkins about the "look".

You may think I digress, but this little foray into corporate game structure helps me understand a bit more about how Perkin's may think in design terms as he plays. I couldn't help but wonder what Perkins was thinking in terms of design and presentation and play as he GMed. But maybe that's just me.

So you can check out the series here.

The reason I mention them is that it was quite enlightening to see how 4e played as a neutral third party observer. I was at first struck about how similar Perkins and I DM. I took some time to rad some of his articles and the idea was reinforced even more. I quote from his 4/19 Dungeon Master Experience article,

"In my role at Wizards, I pay lip service to the principles of encounter design and even enforce them from time to time in published adventures, but in my own games I do not measure an encounter in terms of level or balance. I build encounters that I think will be fun and result in some memorable or exciting moments that the players will remember. The only burden I carry as the Dungeon Master is to be FAIR, but let's talk about what that word means in the context of running a D&D campaign. In my opinion, a "fair" encounter is one that allows for multiple outcomes. A fair encounter presents players with real choices and decisions, the consequences of which could lead to a completely unexpected and unplanned outcome. An unfair encounter is one where the conclusion is foregone. An unfair encounter turns your players into puppets unable to do anything you haven't allowed for.


I can get away with throwing everything including the kitchen sink at my players, as long as I honor the terms of our unspoken social contract. My players need to know that I'm on their side, that I'm rooting for their characters, and that I'll do whatever it takes to keep the campaign from becoming tiresome without depriving them of their ability to affect what happens. One cure for a predictable campaign is to put the PCs in a situation they're ill equipped to handle, encourage them to consider unorthodox tactics, and be open-minded enough to let the players imagine solutions you hadn't considered. As a philosophy, it's not without risks, but if my intentions are transparent, my players are more likely to pin any unfortunate outcome on their own decisions and bad luck. I'll let them flail about, find their way around obvious hurdles, create their own hurdles, and even leap from the proverbial frying pan into the fire if that's what they really want to do. And if they're genuinely screwed, I'll try not to laugh at their misfortune, and I might just throw water instead of gasoline on the fire so that the campaign doesn't go up in flames."

Well said Mr. Perkins, I couldn't agree more. Now, I'm sure some of my readers will wonder how I can be so inspired by an article on DM fairness when I am such a champion of DM-Player Adversarial play. Well, I think people misunderstand my idea of adversarial play. The players aren't really enemies--even though I may say so with tongue in cheek from time to time. My goal is to challenge players, stretch them, so that they can be offered a truly heroic experience. And while I don't pour gasoline on flames the PCs might have started. I certainly do not put the fires out for them. But other than that I rally like Perkin's approach to DMing and it seemed to me his style is very similar to mine in many respects.

The next thing I noticed upon watching these videos, was how combat slowed play down to a crawl at times. Admittedly I would lay some of this at the feet of 4e. Combat in 4e can take a while. Which made me wonder what is to be gained by such an approach. Long combat in and of itself is not a problem, unless you don't like it. I had the following thoughts though:
  • Combat length is often related to options for the players. The more there is for them to do--beyond a combat attack--the more time it will take. 4e offers powers to all players, so this naturally extends combat. If players are okay with this I suppose it's okay. But in larger groups people can get bored if they have to wait too long for their turn to come back around.
  • Combat length is often related to breaking the combat round into action options. Moves, minor actions, standard actions and the like--especially when a player can take more than one leads to more decisions, more tactical play, and of course more time.
  • Realism can also extend combat length. To a slight degree 4e is more realistic than past system, but 3.5 was even more so. Systems like Hackmaster might also extend combat as it is designed with even greater realism in mind.
  • Increase in PC and/or monster power level, especially in terms of hit points makes PCs more likely to engage in combat, and stick with combat thus lengthening the time it takes to defeat foes and finish combat.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not judging such play. Overall the guys in Perkin's game seem to enjoy themselves, with a few exceptions--but every game as those. I couldn't help but wonder what Perkin's was thinking, but maybe that's because I over-identified with him. Did I expect him to think and see what I was seeing and thinking? In the end his players seemed to be having a good time, so maybe he was okay with that.

Later, as I was pondering on what I'd seen I couldn't help but think about how combat used to be:
  • Okay you are heading down the shadowy corridor and that sour smell of urine is increasing. Your torches allow you to see about 20 feet ahead to the bend in the hall.
  • (GM rolls and determines surprise--there is none)
  • When around the corridor comes  a trio of green skinned goblins, their beady orange eyes reflecting the light from your torch. You and the gobbers are both stunned for a moment and they then raise their weapons and charge!
  • Roll d6 for init everybody!
  • dice roll
  • Okay looks like your first Greywand.
  • I cast Magic Missile at the goblin!
  • Okay roll damage
  • 3 points!
  • The goblin drops screaming in pain as the golden missile bursts into his chest
  • I shoot at the one ugly one in front with my crossbow!!
  • Roll to hit
  • 13
  • You just miss, as he ducks to the side. The goblins charge and swing their spiked clubs screaming Bree Yark!!! Their nasty breath and spittle spraying you with stink. You're hit Sargoth! 2 damage.
  • Ouch--that b**tard!
  • The third one swings and misses the wizard.
  • Okay finally! My dwarf swings his axe at the one attacking the wizard! Die goblin spawn! Oh no! A 1!
  • (DM rolls die) Uh oh, your axe slips from your grip and flies over the goblins head clattering further down the darkened corridor.
  • Agh! I don't have another weapon!! Can I use my fists?!
  • Yeah, on your next init.
  • Greywand, what do you do?
  • I pull my dagger and lunge at the one Thorkin just missed. A 20!!
  • Ouch! Good job!! Roll, double damage.
  • 4! times 2 is 8 points!! Take that sucker!
  • Yeah, you catch him under the chin, burying your dagger to the hilt. His scream dies in a bloody gurgle--and he collapses on the floor.
  • Alright!! only one left! I drop my crossbow and pull my sword.
  • Okay, that'll allow you an attack after Thorkin (there were no hard and fast rules for such actions so the DM makes a call that anyone doing anything like this attacks last).
  • The last goblin swings at Thorkin and misses.
  • I try and grab him around the neck and throttle his ugly little face!
  • Okay we'll call that a punch--roll
  • 13, +1 for my strength that's a 14
  • That'll do, you hit him square in the nose. Roll a d3.
  • Huh, what's a d3?
  • roll a 6 and divide by two.
  • Okay. (rolls) A one--stink. does that mean a half point of damage?
  • Nope minimum of one. You do 1 point. He grimaces, but is still struggling.
  • Let's capture him! (Greywand)
  • No! I stab him in the gut with my short sword! (rolls)
  • No, wait! He may know something!
  • 15?
  • That hits--roll damage.
  • 4 points!
  • He's a goner. Slumping to the floor, he looks upward and mutters something in goblin before his eyes fade to lifelessness.
  • Yeah!! (cheers and high fives)
  • Hey Thorkin, do you speak goblin ....
Easier? Faster? I tend to think so. In fact play acting this out it took just under 5 minutes. But alot is left unsaid. We don't worry too much about moves and positions, and actions. It is kept abstract and simply exactly because it speeds things up. Admittedly, in some situations such lack of detail can cost a player; and DMs need to be aware of this and not let the system screw the players. That's part of being fair. Some people like having everything spelled out, knowing where everyone is at all times. Others prefer a faster, more freewheeling form of combat.

Which sort of leads me to my third thought--what about having an exposed map in front of the players. When I played 4e, one of the things that really bothered me was pulling out the map.Whenever I did the players knew combat was coming--or at least a significant encounter. But in Perkin's adventure the map is out the whole time. That avoids the problem I mention above, but I don;t like the players knowing what is coming. The element of exploration is somewhat minimized in my opinion.

I asked my brother about this, and to my surprise he likes having the map exposed. He says it actually engages the players more. He started doing several months ago, and has done it ever since. Occasionally he says that it can give certain things away, but the positive tradeoffs are worth it in his opinion. I'm afraid I'm still not sold. I like it when PCs have to see the environment in their mind's eye, and map it own their own paper. It puts more demands on them, but it does me also. I have to explain the room clearly and in enough detail so that there're no questions or misunderstandings that might cause problems for them later on. This again requires I not screw players because they misunderstood something. The burden is on me to communicate well, and them to pay attention.

In this case is a map easier and faster? Yes I think so. But I feel that the tradeoff in PCs not knowing what is coming, or having an easy exit spelled out for them every time worth the extra work required working without one. But I will admit it sure looked cool. Maps are a big part of the game. And PCs being engaged with a map is a strong point. In one case it's there for them to look at, in another they are creating it on their own.
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