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Making the Mark

Get away from her, you bi*ch!” ~ Ripley (Aliens, 1986)

Not too long ago, I was engaged in a “debate” on a blog site regarding the various merits of 4E versus those of 3.5.  Unlike my opponents, I tried not to disparage the other edition, as I had experienced many happy hours of play during my 3.5 edition days, which I still recall quite fondly.  Instead, I brought up positive aspects about 4E that I felt added something to the overall D&D gaming experience, and which I felt that 3.5 lacked.
dragon defender
In the course of the discussion, I was somewhat surprised to learn that the concept of marking was held by many old guard D&D players in serious contempt.  In fact, one 4E detractor went so far as to claim that “dissociated mechanics like marking have no in world analogue and therefore are strictly a because I said so board game mechanic, which has no place in a simulated world.” By that point in our discourse, I had come to the realization that many of the old guardians of 3.5 were so fixated on what they believed was wrong with 4E that any rational argument was a wasted effort.  However, I did come away from the debate pondering the mechanic of the mark, and how I use it in my own D&D gaming sessions.

The Mark as a Simulation
Personally, I think the mark mechanic does have a real world analogue, and we can see it used quite often in movies and television shows.  The quote from the movie Aliens I used at the start of this blog is an example of an aspect of the mark mechanic.  Ripley, encased in her powered-armor forklift thingee,  presented herself as a serious enough threat to the alien queen that it no longer really cared about trying to claw the little blonde girl, Newt, to pieces.

In many respects, the mark is like those cop dramas, mobster flicks, or westerns, where the good guy holds his gun on the bad guy who is threatening some poor victim with a gun.  Now the bad guy has to make a decision: Do I go ahead and fire at my original target, or do I change targets and try shoot the good guy who has the drop on me?

Often, that decision is enough to make the bad guy unsure and start to sweat, knowing if he fires at his original victim then the good guy is going to have a clear shot at him.  That decision alone which would account for the -2 penalty to attack rolls that marks impose.  And of course, all defenders get some sort of reaction power to hurt the marked target if it chooses not to attack the marker – in other words, the bad guy who decides to fire at his original victim is almost surely going to get shot by the good guy holding the gun on him.

And as there are plenty of examples of those kinds of situations in movies, television, and books, one can hardly say that the mark has no place in the “real world”.  However, from that perspective, should a Dungeon Master have the marked monster always react by changing its target to the defender?

The Mark as a Taunt
In some ways, a mark bears some resemblance to the taunt, which is a familiar concept to many MMO gamers.  In MMOs, a character in the defender role, usually referred to as a “tank”, taunts a monster away from his allies, forcing the creature to attack him.  Because we are dealing with a computer game, the taunt functions correctly about 95% of the time, and the monster changes targets and rushes over to try and destroy the tank.  This works on almost all monsters in the MMO, regardless of whether they are animals, dragons, or near god-like demonlords.

But if mark worked like that, then there would be no reason for Combat Challenge (Fighter), Divine Challenge (Paladin), or Mind Spike (Battlemind) to inflict damage on a marked target for continuing to attack the defender’s allies, because the mark itself would be enough to always make the defender a target.  Clearly that is not the intention, so the mark must be more than just a video game taunt command.

The Mark as Intimidation
It would also appear that the mark bears some relationship to the D&D 3.5 edition skill of Intimidate.  By the 3.5 rules, a character could intimidate a monster or npc during combat, and if successful, impose a combat condition called shaken for 1 round, causing a -2 penalty to attacks, ability checks, and saving throws.  So while not entirely an “old school” Intimidation check, there is definitely some aspect of intimidation implied in the act of marking an enemy.

But pure intimidation would seem to suggest the ability to communicate with a monster, and the mark does not require any communication to function normally.  In fact, the 3.5 Intimidation Skill check imposed a penalty for an attempt against a foe which could not understand the Character, but that does not seem necessary for the mark.  It would appear that through physical stance, gestures, shouts, warcries, and outright verbal abuse, the target of a mark should know it is in trouble and under some threat by the defender, sufficient enough to cause it enough distraction to impose that -2 penalty to attack rolls.  But should that alone be enough to make the monster want to change who it wants to rip apart?

The Mark and Monster Behavior
So the mark is really a combination of a few of the elements of an MMORPG taunt power and a smidge of the old 3.5 Intimidate Skill check, but with that added damaging component for ignoring the marking defender – sort of a “don’t you dare or I’ll shoot you” concept.

So the real question is how should that affect the behavior of monsters when DMing a combat?

Typically when running my D&D 4E games, if one of my intelligent monsters or NPCs find themselves the target of a mark, they will be quite likely to go ahead and attack the defender… most of the time.  Intelligent monsters and NPCs know that the marking defender can seriously hurt them if they fail to attack them, and will have common sense enough not to try not to be subjected to a lot of extra attacks and damage.  Of course, there are times when that same intelligent monster or NPC sees an opportunity to really hurt the defender’s allies, and will go ahead and “take the shot”, even though it knows that it is going to get clobbered in the process.  But for a villain, sometimes that chance to possibly kill or incapacitate an enemy is just too tempting to pass up.

Now for dumb beasts, mindless undead, and other not too smart monsters, I tend to run them on instinct, and just a mark itself is usually not sufficient to make it charge the defender.  While there is a lot to be said for animal cunning, when first aplied, a mark is just a distraction which imposes an annoying attack penalty, and will probably not stop a bear, zombie, or bullette from chomping into, say, the wizard over a fighter clad in shining scale mail.  But if the mark is followed up with a damaging attack from fighter’s Combat Challenge, then the monster will be almost compelled to change targets, and start chewing through all that metal armor in response.  Of course, a Dungeon Master could include the occasional canny beast, which knows about marks from a previous encounter with some other heroes, and will then respond accordingly by instantly attacking the marking defender, but such monsters would likely be fairly rare in any campaign.

So how do you as a Dungeon Master handle marks and monsters in your campaign?  And as a Player, how do you role-play a mark when your defender character throws one at an enemy?  Do you think marks are a good game mechanic?  Please let me know!  Your comments and feedback are always welcome!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


7 Responses to “Making the Mark

  1. Jason Dawson says:

    Well said. In my very first 4E game, one of the players was running a tiefling warlock and at one point when he laid his Curse on an enemy, roleplayed his character incredibly well. He, in character, pointed his finger at me, the GM (meaning the target), and shouted “YYYOOOUUUU!!!!” while making a crazy-angry face and we all fell out laughing. But the bit stuck, even after he left the group– so much so that it turned into the standard table-talk for “I mark this guy!”. It ended up being used by the eladrin swordmage (played by a Puerto Rican dude with heavy accent much to our amusement), a deva avenger, a dwarven ranger, and a human fighter by the time that campaign ended.
    .-= Jason Dawson´s last blog ..Temporary hopefully Radio Silence =-.

  2. Swordgleam says:

    I think the DMG (or maybe the PHB) describes marks as getting in the other guy’s face, being enough of an irritation to him that you’re nearly impossible to ignore. That’s why it works on mindless creatures – you’re literally in their way.

    So I take sort of the opposite stance of you – dumb critters will swing at whatever’s marking them (unless they’re the sort that zeroes in on a target and attacks it until death), while smarter opponents are more likely to think strategically and KO the almost-dead ranger instead of swinging at the full-HP fighter.

  3. Dave says:

    Great post!

  4. Aoi says:

    Very interesting post – I had totally forgotten about the 3.5 Intimidate thing. I think a primary objection to marking that I’ve heard from the folks who are, shall we say, less than psyched about 4e in general is that marks interact with each other in ways that don’t make sense narratively.

    For example, the paladin issues a divine challenge. He’s calling on the power of the gods to force an enemy to focus on him or risk divine retribution in the form of radiant damage. By itself, this is a very sensible marking mechanic.

    Suddenly, a big burly fighter gets up in the monster’s face, gives him a badass staredown, and marks him, superseding the paladin’s challenge. That means, in effect, a wee little 1st level fighter can override the will of the gods that predestined the monster and the paladin to face each other in hallowed battle. I can understand the argument that it doesn’t make a lot of narrative sense.

    Your first post, Chief, is very interesting – how do you reconcile this issue? Do you think it’s a problem with the mechanic or are folks being perhaps a bit too picky?

  5. callin says:

    I tend to have my monsters do whatever they wanted to do. Marking does not force an action, it just provides a consequence for ignoring the character that marked you. Usually my monsters will beat on the healer/person who last hit them/low defense character. After ignoring the person who marked them begins to affect their plans of killing their initial target then they “wisely” switch to the person who marked them.

    As for how marking works in a “real” sense, I have always thought along your same lines with a mix of each of your possible explanations. Which explanation works best depends on what is going on at the time. Simulation/Taunt/Intimidation can all apply at different times but the end result is that a marked monster pays a consequence if it ignores the marker. The mechanic of marking is the base result and it is up to the player to determine in what context it applies.
    .-= callin´s last blog ..Catch Phrases for NPCs =-.

  6. @Jason – Had a similar experience with a great bit at PAX East last spring. A guy playing the defender would glare, point two fingers at his eyes, then point them down at the monster token on the table, then back at his own eyes. The pantomime for the mark was clear: “I’ve got my eyes on you!” Cracked me up every time he did it.

    @Aoi – I have to agree, from a narrative perspective, the fighter is stepping on the will of the gods, but that can easily be resolved by a bit of Player interaction. If I were playing the paladin, I would take the guy (or gal) playing the fighter aside and say, “Look, I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t mark targets that I mark, unless either it or I am finished… it’s a paladin thing.” I’ve had two defenders in the group before, and they worked it out not to mark each other’s marks, unless there was darned good reason. Personally, I would prefer to have marks work in reverse – once marked, you cannot mark a target until the other defender releases his mark – but sadly that’s not RAW. Of course, nothing stopping us, as DMs, from making it a houserule, which would solve the narrative issue pretty well.

  7. underthepale says:

    I hate to sound like a “me too,” but I echo your sentiments, usually referring to marking (especially the Paladin’s Divine Challenge) as “pissing them off.” You present yourself as a threat and try to goad the enemy into attacking you over another, perhaps more vulnerable target. The general concencsus of the anti-4e crowd is that the mechanics make little sense and don’t work, which I can’t really see: Part of the reason I kept running it is because I’m enamored with the mechanics. They enable any player to see, at a glance, what their charachter can do, and this results in people getting intersted in combat much quicker.

    … Sometimes I just can’t believe people are still on about the Edition Wars…
    .-= underthepale´s last blog ..Product Review – Dungeons &amp Dragons Essentials Dungeon Tiles Master Set- The Dungeon =-.

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