Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Abstract Mechanics and unexplainable powers

Powers in D&D 4E allow for interesting tactical combat, explaining how they work is often impossible.

Why are Fighters only able to perform some attack once a day?
Why can a cleric only have one divine fortune per encounter?
If a cleric fires a lance of faith, will it reflect in a mirror?
How does one knock prone an ooze?
How does one sneak attack the undead?

Game Balance

The answer in 4E is for game balance and these examples should be considered
abstractions. This means they are crude approximations of a simulated world.
The system could be made able to answer those questions but that requires
a lot more details on how the world works.

A lot has been said about dissociated mechanics and their effect on the game.
The Alexandrian uses the word dissociated, I use the word abstracted.
We mean the same thing, let's just say the abstraction is often broken.
Dissociated has a negative connotation to me, implying it is always wrong.


Using more abstractions this way has several consequences:

  1. When players play 4E tactical planning is out-of-character,
    it is hard to do in-character because powers all reference things characters can't know about:
    end of turn
    daily powers limitation of one a day
    4E is about teamwork during combat, so listing precise numbers and effects is necessary for communication between players.
  2. This discourages using powers outside of combat, since they cannot be explained. Players tend to look only at skills and put combat powers away when not in combat.
    For example: using fire based magic to melt ice, attacking ceiling for a cave in, igniting barrels of exploding material, etc.
  3. The game becomes simpler because each effect is described precisely.
    Taking away the abstractions and offering explanations and a detailed simulated world results in more complexity.
  4. When the abstraction isn't good it may result in a suspension of disbelief.
    For example: running an urban campaign and still selling magic items at 1/5 of their market price.

Story Telling

The question is, does it matter?
For me, having fun and having a story are important.
4E abstracts a lot of the world away, but tactical combat
and story telling are easily achieved.
A combat can tell a story by the actions the combatants take.
The combatants talk in-character about this.

A story leads to more interesting fights, adding reasons for fighting besides experience and loot. The antagonist may be so despicable that PCs want to kill him or may have pity on him or her.

In our group there are a lot jokes about these abstractions:
  • I knock prone the ooze
  • A small creature pushes a Gargantuan creature
  • I use Split The Sky while being devoured by a crocodile

Finding the right amount of Abstraction

If the world was described in more detail, that would also be fine by me.
With or without the abstraction, role playing succeeds.
Abstraction only becomes a problem when the group loses suspension of disbelief.
I think that players would talk more in-character with more details,
and this would lead to more in-character role playing.

The amount of abstraction can be different for each group.
For example: NPC interaction in our group is more detailed,
while we throw away encumbrance and food/water rules.

The amount of abstraction should be changeable, so that it can be adjusted for a group.

Monsters and NPCs

NPCs and Monsters in our group use associated (or at least explainable) powers.
This leads to more cinematic styles of combat, especially at higher levels.

In my experience, PCs tend to role play more and put aside their pile of power cards when the monsters use associated powers.

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