[D&D 4th] Some notes on my Chronicles of Prydain microcampaign

Last summer my brother came to visit for a weekend. I prepped what I call a "micro-campaign" of 4th edition D&D: the absolutely most compact fictional and strategic context of play possible. We played it successfully (if not fully; even a micro-campaign of 4th edition is much too long to play to the finish over a weekend) and I think it's a pretty neat thing. I've been thinking that I should write an actual play report on it, but haven't gotten around to it.

Now, Airk's been stirring up some discussion in the other thread about the old perennial, the "true nature" of 4th edition D&D. This directly inspired me to action. I'll note that this is not intended as a direct counter-point on anything Airk said about 4th edition; I do not really agree with him about the game's most optimal deployment (its true nature, if you will), and this description of my micro-campaign may serve to illustrate the differences, but mostly I just want to show you guys what, exactly, my current take on 4th edition is.

You might wish to check out our recent discussion about adaptations, because everything I say there about adapting prior works into roleplaying is in full force here, when I change a beloved fantasy classic into a miniatures skirmish wargame...

What's "Chronicles of Prydain"?

imageimageThe direct subject matter of my micro-campaign is the 1960's classic YA fantasy novel series The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. Very influential for me in my formative years. The old Disney movie Black Cauldron is loosely (and pretty badly) based on this stuff. If you're not familiar, never too late to check out one of the formative works in the high fantasy subgenre. I am confident that it's much, much more vivacious and spiritually relevant than your average D&D sourcebook even for a first-time reader today.

The premise of the Chronicles is that it's a fantasy epic drawing its inspiration from Welsh folklore: basically the same relationship that Marvel's Thor comics have with Norse myths. Prydain (an ancient name of Britain, that) is a political patchwork of petty kingdoms drawn together by the ever-weakening High Kingship, and threatened by the kingdom of Annuvin, the Land of the Dead, which has been stilted out of its cosmic role and immanenticized as a political force by Arawn, the undead king who deposed Achren the Enchantress as the ruler of the deadlands some time before the story begins. The Chronicles concern themselves with not only the resolution of the conflict between the living and the dead, but also with the growth of the humble pig-herd protagonist into the great hero of Prydain.

I chose Prydain for my 4th edition treatment because I wanted something that:
* I could relate to emotionally myself, getting excited about the story and characters and fantasy concepts.
* would be immediately intelligible to the players without me having to start the game with a crash-course in some weird literary niche they've never even heard of.
* would be trivially compatible with existing 4th edition materials; while I am all for full-body conversions of rpgs (that's what I usually do with D&D - rewrite the crunch from the ground up to fit the campaign), this was a small project and I wanted something that would fit with minor changes.

The 4th edition context

I've played something like maybe four or five sessions of 4th edition D&D myself (I'm counting the Gamma World variant as the same game for our purposes here). It's always been disastrously unfun: a lot of busywork in character creation followed by a shallow fictional presentation and one or two forced combat encounters. It's always ended in a total party kill, leaving us players to stare at each other in dumb disbelief: did we really just waste six hours on something so unsatisfying?

These test sessions of the game have always been lightly prepped and casual, which is obviously part of the reason for why the outcome has been like that. For instance, we've used various ready-made starter kit adventures and such, which in 4th edition's case happen to be famously borked. So no need for anybody to come explain to me that it's Keep on the Shadowfell that's bad and not 4th ed itself - I'm well familiar with the concept.

What I want now is a functional campaign basis for playing 4th edition without committing to a full campaign project (these are for me often multi-year affairs, big affairs). Gaining experience with a micro-campaign played pretty close to by-the-book seems like a good way to build up towards some more ambitious ideas I have.

The Plan

I'm a pretty analytical sort of person, so this prior context hasn't really convinced me to keep away from 4th edition; rather, it's motivated me to fix the game so that it starts working for me. (No disrespect intended towards those for whom the game works out of the box. I am famously a slow and clumsy GM, and a bone-headed player; I often need the game design itself to be clearer and more focused so I can play it successfully.) What I want 4th edition to be can be most succinctly expressed with a rpg theory witch chant:

Flavourful railroad princess play with embedded tactical skirmish challenges and formalized strategic layer.

I'll just leave that there in the assumption that it's clear enough for those who care. The key concern is that the game needs to be actually aesthetically flavourful, and that for me means abolishing practically everything 4th edition gives us in terms of literary content. It's all just much, much too vapid for me to work with. (Again, no offense intended: aesthetics are so very subjective, I'm glad if it works for you.) Thence, Chronicles of Prydain instead [grin].

It's also important to understand that while I don't think that the interactive strategic overlayer is mandatory for satisfying 4th edition play, I believe that it's an easy way to score player buy-in - including GM buy-in, frankly; I want to talk with the other players about the directions the railroad takes, and I want to have their input for setting up the skirmish combat scenes, and that implies bringing them in as strategic discussion partners.

Comments

  • What my implementation looks like

    imageimageI made a schematic map of what the campaign encompasses in whole - look at that, it'll make the description easier to follow.

    The basic premise of the campaign is that the player characters are honored and trusted members of the Prydainic elite to begin with, the sort of people who are asked for advice when an epic threat rises to concern the kingdom. So no agency issues here, the NPCs will listen to what you want. Every character and relationship from the original novels is intact, the player characters come on top of that, so the story has become an alternate retelling even before it begins.

    The first scene, situation in the campaign is an extra-canonical chance encounter between the PCs and three NPCs from the books (Smoit, Adaon and Ellidyr, in case you care); as the people present come to compare their knowledge of the signs and portents, they come to realize to their horror that Arawn Death-Lord is on the march against Prydain and that the land is facing what may be its final struggle. The three NPCs each have their own ideas about what steps should be taken next, and the players get to immediately choose what adventures (and in what order) they will tackle. It's sort of like the Council of Elrond in The Lord of the Rings, if you will.

    As you can see, the micro-campaign encompasses six notional "adventures" in a flexible fictional and strategic framework. The entire thing potentially encompasses every single character, location and event in the Chronicles, although in practice the narrative modality obviously emphasizes some types of things, particularly skirmish combats, over other events. The structure I've chosen for the campaign makes much about its overall content and direction very negotiable: the individual adventures are pre-designed plot railroads, as befits 4th edition, but their overall narrative meaning in the wider context is very much in the air to begin with.

    Why is this a "micro-campaign"? Not only because the individual adventures are optional, or because it encompasses only levels 1-6 (or 7, 8 maybe - Heroic tier only, anyway), but also because the adventures themselves aren't nearly as manic in scope as 4th edition recommends: each one covers about ½-1 YA novel's plot points, which is considerably more plot than you tend to see in a D&D adventure, but in terms of mechanized combat scenes it's all pretty compact: 1-3 skill challenges, 1-3 combat encounters per adventure. One of these adventures should be playable in a single game session, given sufficient operation skills with 4th ed and a willingness to speed along.

    As the scheme tells you, I don't use experience points here (I fail to understand their purpose in 4th edition, except in their role as encounter budget currency); you gain +1 level for each adventure we play, win or lose. The philosophy of play is that this is a plot railroad campaign, essentially identical to Dragonlance in terms of creative agenda (more compact, mainly). Experience levels exist strictly for experiental and pacing purposes: you get them because we want to advance the characters a bit here and there (once every session, basically), and they sort of pace the end of the campaign, because once you're strong enough to face the Horned King (and satisfied enough about the storyline), off you go to the climax encounter.

    If you'll remember the beginning of my story, this is something I came up with to run 4th edition D&D for my brother and a few interested locals over a weekend. Creating ~40 hours of material for that is obviously excessive, but that's how it came out. At least there's a sense of freedom and possibility when the GM has more prep to choose from than you have time to cover. Maybe we'll play this stuff at some point in a regular weekly context; I imagine this'd be a good introduction to 4th edition, and miniatures skirmish combat gaming in general.

    Character creation for Prydain

    imageimageI imagine that I'm not alone in figuring out that 4th edition character creation is much more interesting when you root everything firmly in the setting rather than letting the players float away on a pile of dry sourcebooks. Thus, strictly restricted build options scheme. I made an overview sheet on that as well.

    As you can see, here the high fantasy connection between D&D and Prydain pays off: 4th edition has lots of vaguely defined and frankly not very appealing fictional ideas in it (I mean, what's a "Shardmind"?), but it also covers the bases when it comes to basic high fantasy cliches, so most of what I need to model central Prydainic concepts is already there just like that. Like, the biggest change one needs to make is to swap out the dragon-breath power from Dragonborn for something more appropriate to holy knights - such minor issues that I haven't even bothered to do the legwork, as it can just as well be done in the moment, if somebody wants to play one of these critters.

    All this would certainly be much sharper and less ironically D&D if I was doing a full conversion job on it, but this Prydain campaign's not that project - we're sticking to the default combat rules, default character sheets, default races and classes. The adaptation is limited to removing excess stuff from the 4th edition crunch, and certain local case-by-case additions where necessary to portray a Prydainic thing that doesn't have a D&D equivalent.
  • edited February 2018
    Does it work, then?

    I'd say so, yeah! The one weekend we delved into this last summer was the first time I've ever come out of a 4th edition session in a positive mood.

    I liked how using a pre-existing story with a well-stocked Wiki enabled me to throw visuals and verbal descriptions of all sorts of things at the players effortlessly. I liked how, even with players who weren't familiar with Prydain (such a surprise in this world of illiteracy) in advance, the material was accessible and the campaign premise both compelling and easy to grasp. I liked how the players interfaced with the setting and boldly brought their characters into the story, interfering with the events in novel ways. The others clearly enjoyed the fact that I enjoyed myself, sharing a nostalgic fantasy world with them.

    I liked how well the Prydain content "unlinearized" into a tangle of character agendas, locations, threats and opportunities. Where we used to have five linear stories, one following another, it was ultimately easy to spread that material out into a highly optional sandbox of opportunities. This naturally leads to events occurring out of order and differently, which is highly enjoyable if you're into playing with the source material.

    I liked how the strategic overlay I'd crafted for the game worked to bring meaning into the adventuring. This involves a lot of little rules-tweaks for 4th ed, plus the firm narrative and strategic context. For example, long rests break the events into "strategic turns" rather than having something to do with the day-night cycle as it does by default; your typical long rest is a weeks-long downtime rather than a quick nap.

    The one thing I didn't like is that 4th edition is fundamentally a slow game. Even a 15 hour weekend session only gets ankle-deep into the game. The full experience would realistically be something like 8-10 sessions of play; more of a medium-length campaign when compared to rpg culture in general

    Other stuff

    The micro-campaign has all the practical bits you'd expect it to have to be able to run the scheme described here, pretty much. I haven't bothered to make pre-made combat maps for the various encounters, or paper miniatures for the monsters, but perhaps I'll get around to that at some point if I end up running this material more at the game table.

    What else... well, there's obviously no character death here - you lose a battle, that takes you via a "bridging scene" to whatever the next station in the story is. Exactly like the literary genre works, fantasy heroes don't die when they lose a combat. Most of the time it's a failure for the currently on-going quest, but the overall campaign continues normally. Plus, there's one whole quest in the framework (the Spiral Castle) that players aren't likely to access except by being taken there by the bad guys. This really isn't so much a challenge game as a princess play thing with lots of math and stuff.

    This is getting sort of long, so I'll leave it here for now. It feels like I could grow old doing nothing except documenting my gaming in English [grin]. I hope this gives you some sense of where I'm at with 4th edition: very video-gamey, very formal rules-application, but also great focus on aesthetic enjoyment. I want to get out of the situation where every fictional detail of the game makes me if not hateful, then at least detached and dismissive of it.
  • edited February 2018
    Thank you for a detailed Actual Play / Prep. I am unconcerned by D&D and still find bits to take home.
  • This is fascinating; At first I was thinking "This setting sounds like a terrible fit for D&D4." except when you pitch it as "You're basically all big damn Sons of Don heroes" then suddenly it works.

    You are basically doing what I feel like everyone who wants actual flavor in ANY EDITION of D&D HAS to do - pick and choose what you want to have in your game and ground it in a real setting rather than any of the horrible mishmashes that D&D presents. This is just as true for older editions as it is for 4th.

    I don't actually think you need to make it "very video gamey" or very linear, but that rather, those flow more out of the style of game you've decided to run rather than the edition particularly. I feel like you could have done another style of game with largely equivalent degree of success as long as you retain the one real cornerstone of 4e, which is that characters really know how to handle themselves in a fight.
  • edited February 2018
    Sure, you need to prioritize the fiction in all sorts of D&D. I think that the way that prioritization is done is pretty different for different playstyles. (I prefer to talk of playstyles more than rules chassis, because yes, you could run a wargame sandbox with Sorcerer or whatever, so it's useless to conflate the rules system with playstyle.) For instance, my Prydain campaign is all about theatrical color, such as portraying NPCs in a lively way, while this is generally speaking not a priority in my old school D&D.

    The reason for why I construct this 4th edition campaign as a relatively linear railroad experience is that this enables me to prep encounters effectively. I can consider carefully the enemy sets I use, for instance. (The entire campaign runs with relatively few enemy types all told; I have some ideas about what makes miniatures skirmish combat interesting, and constantly pulling the rug out on the PCs is not it.) The combat encounters are also guaranteed to have dramaturgical significance, because they happen where I say so, for plot reasons I degree.
  • Makes perfect sense to me, thank you!
  • This is fantastic, Eero. I like seeing your approach to game/adventure design and your techniques for interacting with existing "canon" material illustrated in such a fashion.

    I'm also not a D&D4 fan, and yet I find lots of ideas here to mine for my own gaming. Thank you for typing this up! Always interesting for us to read. :)
  • By decoupling the reward system from play, what did you replace it with? How do you think that changed your game's creative agenda?

    4e has a pretty strong challenge-based reward cycle. Level Up -> Risk -> Reward -> Level Up ... If you remove that Risk -> Reward connection, it fundamentally changes play.
  • By decoupling the reward system from play, what did you replace it with? How do you think that changed your game's creative agenda?

    4e has a pretty strong challenge-based reward cycle. Level Up -> Risk -> Reward -> Level Up ... If you remove that Risk -> Reward connection, it fundamentally changes play.
    It doesn't in this context, IMHO. The point of the game is to "continue with the adventure" and if that means fighting stuff, you fight stuff. 4e doesn't have much going on that encourages players to be risk averse, and even if they are, there's nothing wrong with them avoiding encounters.

    Are you worried that PCs are just going to skip going on adventures entirely?
  • I'm not worried about anything. Eero said the game was successful.

    I'm trying to understand what made it successful. Decoupling the reward cycle is a big move and it requires engaging a different one to make the game successful.
  • It looks to me like a straightforward pacing mechanism - i.e. "you need to fight the Big Bad, but before you do so, you need to participate in at least five other adventures".

    I'll wait to hear Eero's take on it, however; I'm sure that will be interesting.
  • It looks to me like a straightforward pacing mechanism - i.e. "you need to fight the Big Bad, but before you do so, you need to participate in at least five other adventures".

    I'll wait to hear Eero's take on it, however; I'm sure that will be interesting.
    Yeah; This was how I read it too. The motivation is "finishing the adventure". This is already one of the standard optional rules in 4e, so it's not really that big a jump.
  • edited February 2018
    Well, I obviously disagree about the challenge-based reward cycle to start with [grin].

    For this to make any sense, I'll make sure we're using the same words: "reward cycle" is the actual creative payoff that a person feels, right? "Reward mechanism" is something in the game's rules that tries to influence these feelings, or is just called a reward mechanism for some other weird reason.

    Also, we all understand that the reward cycle is only in the game if we discover it to be there, and this discovery process is not objectively pre-determined by the game text and creator intent. As good postmodern beings we understand the "death of the author", and therefore that the reward cycle for D&D 4th ed. is whatever we find it to be. We might find multiple options (an "incoherent design" as that used to be called), none, or just one.

    With those caveats, I'll say that the most natural reward cycle I see in 4th edition D&D is not the one you describe, Adam. Rather, this is what I see:

    [fancy character] -> [fancy character goes into action] -> [fiction is created centering on fancy character] -> [our appreciation of how fancy the character is deepens, and the character grows more fancy] -> [further scenarios are developed to showcase increased fanciness]

    (I like to call this particular creative agenda "princess play".)

    For that to make any sense one has to accept a perhaps contentious claim: I think that mechanical crunch exists in many games to be a language of discussion, to actualize and accentuate a certain specialized type of fiction. This means that a game can have lots of numbers and a complex character spec without necessarily being about winning stuff by manipulating those numbers in clever ways. The Shadow of Yesterday is a moderately complex example of that, and I think 4th edition D&D is a slightly more complex one.

    If we're willing to entertain the idea that the reward cycle of 4th edition might not be "gotta kill monsters to level up", then it's rather easy to see the following "cracks" in that theory, too:
    * Players don't choose to take risks in 4th edition; you either take the risks or don't play. There is no real choice.
    * Risks in 4th edition are not rewarded. What gets rewarded instead is playing through scenes. Review the rules for gaining XP for skill challenges, and the recommended consequences of failure, and the expected outcome of combat, to expand upon this point. Milestones, too.
    * Level-ups aren't rewarding because they make your character safer, or combats easier. (They are rewarding, but not for that reason - more on this later.)
    * You can do charop, but the game's design does its utmost to ensure that this does not actually "unbalance" (win) the game. Ultimately 4th edition design is telling us that charop is a lonely fun endeavour you do away from the table, and it's a dead end in terms of creative impact, because you don't get to ruin the GM's plans by bringing an over- or under-powered character. (You could argue that this isn't always quite true, but it is indubitably the intended situation.)
    * You can do combat tactics, but again, the game does its utmost to ensure that any efficacy it has is limited so that it does not short-circuit actually running through a combat. An extra d6 of damage for clever tactics, yes, but no obviating the need for doing the minis, dice, combat rounds dance. Again, the game's design does its best to ensure that combats take 3-5 rounds to resolve, and they resolve into victory, no matter the circumstances.

    Meanwhile, my suggested reward cycle. Consider these points:
    * Every reward mechanism in the game is about allocating the right to use cool powers. Get a level and you get new powers. Get a magic item and you get new powers. Reach a milestone and you get more uses for your coolest powers. This makes the most sense if we view the opportunity to activate cool powers to be the actually player-rewarding activity.
    * Combats are the core activity of the game. I contend that if they are not creatively rewarding, then the game is insane, because we basically don't do anything else in 4th edition D&D time-wise. Actual play bears this out: the high point of play, the most exciting and satisfying moment, is when you get to unleash your character's funky power and see how it plays out in a real combat situation (as opposed to just reading about it in the book).
    * Combat activities are the character expression in 4th edition. I would be the first to agree that this is a weird genre, but for some reason we are apparently playing a game where expressing how very staunch and immovable your dwarf is is the height of joy, as opposed to some other game where you might be more focused on expressing your character's motivations or virtues.
    * Being good at the combat game is not rewarding in itself. If anything, it might make the game more boring. (The jury's still out on that one.) The actual enjoyment seems to be much more in the unique fictional details of individual combats, and the learning process of getting to see stuff. The first time you use your dwarf's "Super-Staunchy Immovable Defender" Daily Power is the best time, because it's still fresh and exciting at that time. (See how )
    * The combat encounters are book-ended by essentially freeform narrative segments that contextualize combats. The only meaningful way that the character players contribute to this is by providing character portrayal. This is a creative dead end and a waste of time unless you're on board with the princess play agenda, in which case it all falls neatly in line: whether in combat or out of combat, your task and joy in the game is to talk about how staunch your dwarf's beard is, how sharp his axe, and how you guys totally saw just now how he killed two orcs with one blow thanks to his trusty Twin Strike (apparently this dwarf is a ranger).

    The reason why I find the setting and campaign plot paramount, by the way, is not some sort of over-riding need to play at being a storyteller. Rather, it's because I believe that princess play is most satisfying when the players are provided with a dinstinct milieu against which to portray their characters. That dwarf will be much cooler when we have some socio-cultural context for him, and an Epic Story for him to engage in. I believe both of those (embedding in setting + having a grand plot) to be pretty self-evident, but let me know if you disagree.

    You can probably see why the XP rule for my campaign is the way it is if you compare that rule to my interpretation of the game's reward cycle: my claim is essentially that 4th edition's most important reward is getting to see your character go up in levels, and that this reward is accessed by being patient and letting the plot progress. Therefore, in my streamlined version: you get levels by doing adventures.
  • It looks to me like a straightforward pacing mechanism - i.e. "you need to fight the Big Bad, but before you do so, you need to participate in at least five other adventures".
    The Big Bad is technically available from the start, actually - it's just that he's probably too strong for 1st level characters to finish off, being a 10th level encounter. You should at least find out his true name to weaken him (this is a major plot point in the novels, as you might imagine) if nothing else.

    The main creative reason for why the players want to play the adventures is not that they must to get rewards, though. The reason is very much that you want to play the game. The climatic encounter with the Big Bad is there to provide a satisfying conclusion, not as some sort of goal for play. It's not a race where you're trying to end it as quickly as you can, but rather a tour of Prydain and the stories involved. You get to meet colorful NPCs, define your character as a hero of the realm and encounter various types of danger and adventure - why would you want to skip all that?

    The main reason for why I made the structure of the campaign so open, allowing you access to the Big Bad from the start, is that I wanted something we could play for a weekend and then end it with the climax, no matter how far we got with the other materials. Essentially the structure allows us to "jump to the end" whenever we want. That, and also the story material suggested this structure to me. But I could have interpreted the Chronicles differently (there are certainly some extra-canonical choices in my interpretation) and gotten a linear pipe instead. "NPC X only tells the PCs about the Black Cauldron after they have finished The Book of Three" and so on - entirely straightforward logic.
  • Awesome stuff Eero. Prydain is a very fond series for me.
  • For comparison, during my brief stint with D&D4, the main reward was in coordinating use of powers across the team so to win fights in the cleanest, quickest, most efficient way, while expending the least resources. While the GM's game was to try and drain our resources, and perhaps ultimately defeat us (very unlikely) by judicious encounter building (while abiding his allotted budget strictly) and carefully playing his monsters in the most efficient way he could devise. Being devoted Forge-heads, all of us, we considered that to be a strict Step On Up agenda. We took turns being the DM, switching after each completed adventure (that is, string of encounters) - while our play between such encounters was limited to quick character sketches (princess play as a secondary, supportive mode?), in-character banter and moving on to the next fight.
  • That seems like something that could be done with 4th edition, yeah. My own experiences playing it hard have been very negative, as I mentioned up top, but that could be just because there's something seriously wrong with the calibration of the adventure modules we've tried.

    The biggest issue is that the failure condition outright sucks, the game as written doesn't have anything to recommend failing. It's not anything like failure in OSR, where you can dust yourself off and try again, and every failure reinforces the seriousness and legitimacy of the challenge; it's more like something that makes everybody angry at themselves and the game. You do all this work in crafting your character and then get nowhere because the encounter is too hard, and your character dies. Even if you don't die, there's no logical way forward for the game once you fail, unless the GM is doing some sort of sophisticated and untextual fail-forward scheme (which, if taken to its logical conclusion, ultimately undermines the Step-On Up).
  • I don't want to belabor the thread with CA arguments, but my experience with 4e (ran it for a couple years) was that it was so finely tuned for Step On Up play that I had a hard time doing anything else with it (say, Vanilla Narrativism / Story Now). Players kept getting sucked back into the perfect challenge-reward-level cycle, wanted combat to prove themselves, and the game didn't offer many shiny tweaks outside of combat skills.

    I think we're in agreement about terms. I'm using "reward cycle" in a CA sense, but with a nod to the game being really well designed for it, and not particularly well designed for others.

    The "princess play" you define -- I don't see it in 4e -- unless "fancy" means "better in combat." Now Pathfinder has all the feats and skills and whatnot to make your character fancy as fancy can be and that is the big draw of those rules for me.

    But sure, a group can work toward another reward cycle. I'm just saying that a) I don't see a lot in 4e's rules to facilitate any other CA, and b) in my experience, 4e's rules actually are so well lit up for Step On Up that it was hard to get a group to latch onto anything else.

    I ran my Metrocalypse campaign with 4e. That was the one where I transported a bunch of characters from Oxford, England circa 1200 into a D&D hellscape version of Oxford, and let them try to understand what was happening. This should have been a pretty Right to Dream kind of thing, but it kept coming back to "what new shiny thing can I get if I level up, and how can I level up again, as soon as possible?" I could have decoupled combat from XP, and therefore from leveling up, but I am certain my group would have felt like I took away their favorite toys.
  • That's pretty much why I emphasize that the creative agenda is in the eye of the beholder. I don't see the Gamist interpretation of 4th edition as appealing, so it's a simmy princess game for me.

    The main reason why I can't take the challenge seriously is that failure thing I've been complaining about. If we really, really don't want to see the adventurers fail in combat, because the game's procedures for failure are outright destructive - such as destroying the character you worked so hard to put together - then it's difficult to commit psychologically to failure being really at the table, at least in its most obvious form. And if losing combat is not a foremost concern (as I believe is intended), then what would you even pay attention to as a metric of success? Is the challenge to spend as few resources as you can in combats that are intended to be won either way? What do you compare to, how do you know if you're succeeding or failing?

    Thinking about this long and hard, and observing my Helsinki-based friends who've played long, long campaigns of 4th edition, ultimately convinced me that the reason for why the players want level-ups is ultimately not the fear of failure and eagerness for new tools to tackle known challenges that you'd expect of e.g. old-school sandbox D&D. The rules of the game are pretty clear in this regard, too: the combats are supposed to be scaled to character level, the level advancement does nothing to make it easier to succeed insofar as the game has succeeded in its claimed design goals. So maybe the players are all deluded into desiring something that doesn't help them, or there's something else going on with wanting to level up. My current answer is that it's a desire to get new, shiny buttons and levers for your character. Players want to see what the next Powers are like, simple as that. A game of mechanical exploration, if you will.
  • Hrm. Maybe!

    At least in my games, there was this idea that, with new abilities, comes more power and capability to handle problems. You're right that it's largely an illusion because of the explicit encounter generation rules that constantly move the goalposts, but all versions of D&D do that to some extent. 4e might do it the most explicitly.

    I think I better get why you think 4e is princess play now, in that regard.
  • I will most eagerly concede that the way I view D&D is strange - it's essentially an outsider perspective, as I'm not an old D&D kid, so I simply don't have those thought patterns and ideas about what the game's supposed to be. That's why my take on the old school game is so weird, too. Things like the illusionary advancement and costantly jacked up difficulty are specifically the kinds of things that I revise out of existence when interpreting these games, one way or another.

    The way I envision 4th edition D&D essentially makes it just like a casual computer strategy game, something like say Civilization, Total War games or such. The focus of play is mainly on mastering the system and getting to see it do its thing, watching the little men run around. Load some saves and try again if you fail. (This bit's my problem - I think that the game assumes that the GM should fudge to avoid actually having to "reload", it just never quite manages to say that.) It's not that the players don't care about performing their parts well, it's just that it is an intentionally shallow and manageable role that the game demands of you. It's nothing like say Chess or Diplomacy or other such games that actively demand not only your best effort, but for you to grow beyond your current limits.
  • edited February 2018
    I'm with you on the problematic failure condition, and I don't even remember what our proposed approach was to deal with that - we didn't play long enough.

    In principle, I suppose anything could have worked, from "In case of TPK, we'll just rewind time to the beginning of the scenario, like loading a saved game, but you suck at D&D! Bwah ah ah!" to "In case of TPK, to hell with D&D, there's plenty other games we can play".
    I do think there was a plan for an individual character being defeated, but I can't remember what it was. Or is it in the RAW? Anyway, that has to be a drain on the group's collective resources - plus of course a defeat is a defeat, morally speaking.

    What's your plan for handling PC defeat in Prydain?

    EDITED TO ADD: of course, in the kind of approach my group was adopting, TPK equals "the DM wins", if that's not obvious enough. Which is, by the way, how the old HeroQuest boardgame was supposed to work (though as a child I totally drifted that into non-competitive, princess-play territory).
  • edited February 2018
    As I remember it, the 4th edition rulebooks don't truly address what to do when a TPK occurs - I think the assumption is that it simply won't ever happen due to magic of friendship plus careful math that should emasculate all real risks out of the game (provided you don't use the badly-written adventure modules). The plan for individual character deaths is to make a new character at same level (or maybe penalize the player with -1 to level for a single session before catching them up with the others, if the GM feels like it). Putting on my game design hat, I would expect this to only be a good plan when a character dies in a meaningful way after having been in play for a while. The deaths we've tended to have in my pre-Prydain 4th edition fiddling have been simply obnoxious - I am not going to make another character right after finishing with this one, that's just not human-appropriate entertainment.
    What's your plan for handling PC defeat in Prydain?
    Becoming "dead" in combat merely knocks you to the status of being helpless until the next long rest - think Frodo after being wounded by Ring-Wraiths. I don't know yet if I'd also like to make a long rest mandatory if somebody got injured in the last combat, simply to avoid having a player twiddle their thumbs until then. I am probably more intrigued by the opportunities involved in some light-weight character stabling - you get to play one of the henchmen (various named NPCs from the Chronicles who run around with the PCs) until your main man gets better.

    If the party as a whole loses the combat, the story goes into a "defeat bridge scene", which are these pre-scripted outs based on the material of the novels. This genre is absolutely full of combat defeats (the plot of a YA high fantasy novel like this is basically "heroes run around trying to avoid orcs, get captured a few times, escape, then stumble on the goal of their quest when it's time to wrap things up"), so I just picked through every scene in the books where the heroes lose, and wrote down notes for replicating those in case the heroes lose in play. Some of these bridges are rather significant, such as the events of the first novel, "The Book of Three": had the heroes not been captured and taken to meet Achren the Enchantress, they never would have destroyed the Spiral Castle, met up with princess Eowyn and found Dyrnwyn, the black sword of kings.

    So basically, I remove the features of the TPK that cause the game to crash when played by the rules: no character death and therefore no need to do narrative gymnastics to fill the hole left by the dead guy, plus no need to spend another two hours bitterly making a new character, plus no need to think up a new adventure now that the party failed in this one - every adventure in the Prydain campaign is either so short that you don't miss out on anything by failure, or they can be retried with fresh variation after failure.

    PCs in the Prydain campaign can still die, but basically only through heroic sacrifice: the player declares it, and you get an Action Point or something like that for doing so, too, so the character might be a tad more effective in their heroic last stand. (I'd have to say Action Point, I guess; I'm trying to keep this Prydain project essentially by the book, so no big rules innovations.)

    I suppose that if we play this Prydain thing through at some point, and a PC does end up dying (maybe a combination of the player being dissatisfied with their character, plus a dramatic opportunity to e.g. jump into the Black Cauldron or something like that), then my inclination would be to have the player create their new character at the current party level. Maybe ask them to fill an "adventure backstory" with one entry per level to inform us of what sorts of adventures the character had to achieve their current level. Just to give the new character a bit of cool background to work with so they don't get sidelined by the other characters who'll be well-embedded in the story by then.
  • I will most eagerly concede that the way I view D&D is strange - it's essentially an outsider perspective, as I'm not an old D&D kid, so I simply don't have those thought patterns and ideas about what the game's supposed to be.
    I don't know if it's that strange. It's easy to see Princess Play as a dominant (even if not hegemonic) theme in mainstream traditional adventure games (I mean titles like D&D, GURPS, Shadowrun, Rifts, WoD) since the 90's. You're just much more self-consciously up front about it than a lot of people (possibly because acknowledging it risks that whole "breaking the illusion" thing that seems to be the death of sim play).

    It could just be confirmation bias, but lots of continuously-tread ground in gaming discussions seems to have PP lurking unspoken just beneath the surface: ideas about fudging, charop/build sharing/other sorts of lonely fun, "you meet in a tavern" and suspension of disbelief. The drop-in structure of organized play has it front and center too.
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