Rob Schwalb has a really interesting blog called Reexamining the Dungeon. Go read it. I’ll wait.
For those of you who were too lazy to click, the long and short of his blog is that Rob is waxing nostalgic about older D&D editions’ structures of dungeon delving and questioning the primacy of the current tactical encounter format. It’s no surprise to me that Rob brings up some excellent points in the column and puts forward a solution. What did surprise me is that I really didn’t agree with it.
Now I don’t say this to bust Rob’s chops. In fact I have a lot of geek love and a bit of a man crush on Rob. When I was a developer at Wizards, he was always a dream to work with. His design work is inventive and legion. Rob Schwalb is a RPG machine belched forth from the dread gravity of the Abyss fueled on cheap beer and the souls of evil men. And that’s a good thing. That churns out an astonishing word count that is consistently good. There are two gods of productivity in my pantheon: Dan Abnett one and the other is Rob Schwalb. On the off-chance you don’t know who Rob is, just take a look at your RPG collection. If you don’t have at least one product that Rob’s worked on you have a very small, old, or “eclectic” (read: strange) collection. You may not know his name, but you’ve played his work.
Needless to say, I don’t look for reasons to disagree with Rob, but sometimes they do fall into my lap. And that is scary. I know that if I cross him, he could cut me the next time we meet. And if he does, he’ll cut me bad.
Okay, pleasantries out of the way, let’s get on with it. Rob’s culprit for reexamining is the slog.
The slog, as it has been come to be known is one of those things that 4e haters (and even 4e proponents) point out a problem with the edition. 4e combats can take a while. Usually lasting at least five rounds, a group of 6 players (5 playing characters and the DM) a highly efficient group is lucky to get through 5 rounds of a typical 4e encounter in an hour. Things are a little faster at lower level, a bit slower at paragon and epic. In the D&D Championship, where time is of the essence, I struggled to finish my turn under a minute, and I was only successful about 30% of the time.
But this isn’t new to 4e. This was true in 3e as well, especially among RPGA tables. You see there is this continuum of RPGers in general and D&D players in specific. At one fringe of that spectrum are groups that use rules as a framework to be entertained by their DM’s stories. Players have a recollection of the rules, but they are often surprised, frustrated, and sometimes just downright bored when they come across so-called “rules lawyers” and events like the D&D Championship. At a nearly opposite end of that spectrum are the folks who typically treat the game as series of loosely connected skirmishes. They believe D&D is a means to “crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of the women.” Somewhere in the evasive middle is the “perfect game of D&D.” An El Dorado that is the D&D equivalent of the Coen Brothers doing an action epic (or porn).
To be honest 4e embraces that second group more than it ever did in the past. A tighter rules system that D&D has seen in the past, there are very few things designed for use outside of the combat encounter. Those that are designed for outside the combat encounter are relegated to under-developed rules items that even the designs seem to be avoiding with more and more frequency (rituals :::cough::: rituals). Worse still, it has become obvious that most of the rules for combat are fine tuned for the 8 x 8 default with the number of monsters equal to the number of character, often to such an extreme that any kind of deviation from that basic structure can seem like sailing off the edge of the world, at least for new DMs. For that reason, more often than not, we see the warband vs. warband slog Rob talks about.
Rob’s solution is to do away with or at least modify the rest mechanic, and instead create dungeon sectors where a mix of small, medium, and large encounters can occur all strung together with a goals or goals represented as a minor or a group of minor quests. Only when the characters complete the goal, can they take a short rest.
I actually fooled around with a similar format back in my organized play days at Wizards of the Coast. That format eventually became the RPGA Delve format that was unleashed in 2006 and still goes on with a good amount of tinkering today. My original format, which was called Delve, was a fast paced event that granted healing, some amount of power regeneration, and the ability to move forward in the event when certain goals were achieved within a 20-minute time period. It was fun, but the playtesters found it to be too artificial. It seemed too much like a game and not enough like D&D.
Now you get one person tell you that, it’s easy to ignore. You get that response again, and again, and again, you kind have to listen. Delve in its original form died a horrible death. Its later incarnation was much less gamist, or at least was very careful on where it put the more gamist mechanics. That shit works in video games, by with an RPG you have to work harder. You have to put the design through more lenses, as Jesse Schell might say.
I think the reason why resting works is that it fits with the actual narrative of D&D. Between spates of activity, resting is a way to rejuvenate and prepare for the next hurdle. 4e gets a good amount of hell because players who want good narrative (or at least the narrative they are used to) trip over new and obviously “gamist” mechanics–things that get them out of the narrative of the game. I don’t think creating a new and seemingly artificial trigger with sectors is the answer (but I’m a little intrigued by the ideas of sectors). Hell, fighters and rogues lost daily powers in the Essentials line because some D&D players have a hard time wrapping their minds around heroic daily powers. That’s kind of a word to wise when it comes to D&D design.
I’m a fan of simplicity in rules, but RPGs should be about making the rules fit the narrative. When any game falls down, more often than not it’s because someone screams “bullshit!” in this regard. Getting resources back for achieving goals seems artificial and disjointed.
Worse still, I actually think by putting the quest recharge in play you make it harder to design adventures and encounters. Placement become crucial, and a group is unlucky or finds a quest to hard to gain, they are back to the 5-minute adventuring day all over again, because they will fall back on extended rests.
I don’t think the problem with the slog, the tactical encounter, and its lack of ability to create old-school dungeon delving has anything to do with the rest mechanic. I think they have more to do with an often anemic set of adventure design tools. But I’ll get to that on Thursday.