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Wizards Watch: Good News, Killer DMs… D&D Next is for you!

TPK bitchesLately as I’ve been reading the various blogs and articles for D&D Next, I’ve been troubled by urges to just slam my head against the keyboard very hard, repeating the exercise until I can’t see the words on the screen anymore.

A recent case in point was yesterday’s D&D Next blog, simply entitled Hit Points.  The blog discussed the process behind deciding how many hit points a starting fighter should have.  Presumably, setting the starting hit points of a fighter would also allow the designers to set the other classes’ hit points as well, likely to be some sort of fraction of the guy who should have the most hit points and, I would assume, the best AC.

But what absolutely drove me to the aforementioned head-smack was the discussion about hit points in 4th Edition:

“…so the 4th Edition rules tackled the challenge by making 1st-level player characters heroes right out of the gate. Armed with a bucket of hit points, these characters gained fixed hit points at each level, which insulated players from drifting below expected hit point values and prevented players from gaining more hit points than the game really needs. Add to this the concept of healing surges, and characters became more durable than ever before. It’s possible to wipe out a party using the 4th Edition rules, but it’s unlikely.”

Ummmm…. WUT?

Excuse me… exactly at what point did we, as the D&D gaming community, decide that one of the expected and possibly even desirable outcomes of a combat in Dungeons & Dragons is to wipe out EVERY HERO IN AN ADVENTURING GROUP?!  Yet here I am, sitting at my laptop and reading a WotC designer offhandedly suggesting that a Total Party Kill is just a normal part of the game, and that the amount of hit points and healing needs to be balanced in order to make it something less than an “unlikely” possibility!

As a game designer, a TPK should never be something to just accept, and certainly not a laudable end to a heroic fantasy combat.  A TPK represents a fundamental break-down in game play, and represents a flaw in the game system itself, or in the judgment and ability of Dungeon Master, the judgment and ability of the Players… or all of the above!  A Total Party Kill is EPIC FAILURE at its worst, because it’s not only a stupid waste of hours upon hours of preparation time by the DM, as well as many hours of character development by the Players, but it’s counter to good game play because its completely avoidable unless the DM literally has it in for his players. And not only does it kill off the heroes, but it tends to destroy the entire concept for a well-planned campaign arc as well!

And it’s not just designers I’m hearing make a lamentation for the lack of TPKs.  When you start seeing chagrin for lack of TPKs on message boards , in tweetz, and in blogs, it makes you start to wonder how the gaming priorities for a typical D&D campaign have become so skewed.

Now listen.  While I am adamant in my feelings about a TPK to be terribly bad form in any D&D campaign, killing a character now and then does tend to happen, and it’s not significantly hard to pull off, intentionally or unintentionally, in any edition of the game, including 4E.  But having one or even two characters die in a combat is nothing compared to the abject shock and horror we should feel as DMs and Players when we allow a TPK to occur, and yet I’ve heard DMs recently bragging out there in the interwebs about doing just that, as though it was some sort of amazing accomplishment.

In other words, he or she is a Killer DM.

Faceless and Soulless Need Not Apply

I can only assume that some of this rather cavalier attitude I’m seeing in the D&D community toward TPKs stems from the proliferation of heroic adventure video games and MMOs.  Let’s face it, if you have an entire party wipe in an MMO, everyone simply “respawns” at a bind point or cemetery, and then they brush off the gore and dash back into the dungeon, picking up the computer-generated slaughter where they last left off.  The monsters are programmed to be remorseless killers, never giving quarter, accepting only death or a rout to satisfy their soulless faceless programming.

But your attention please!  D&D is NOT a video game, and was never meant to be a video game (…and yes, I’m ignoring the grognards who have claimed that 4th Edition was too much like a video game to enjoy).  When I create a “bad” encounter as a DM, one that I drop on my heroes and overestimate their capabilities or underestimate the monster’s, I go into a heart-palpitating, cold-sweat drenched panic.  This is not some bits-and-bytes monster “mob” in a video game – I actually have to look my players in the eye the entire time I am destroying their heroes because of my own poor judgment!

I guess the current team of WotC designers need to go back and read the Sage Advice and other articles in the old Dragon Magazine from AD&D and Second Edition days.  I’m pretty sure I had read several writers back then discuss many and various ways for DMs to avoid a TPK – which, sadly, was so ridiculously and unintentionally easy to do in the early days of Dungeons & Dragons that it was almost scary!

And if I recall, the advice to the DM back then was actually pretty straightforward:

  • CHEAT UNTIL YOU ARE FREAKING BLUE IN THE FACE, AND THEN CHEAT SOME MORE!!!
  • FUDGE DICE ROLLS, MAKE MONSTERS AUTO-FAIL SAVING THROWS, & FUMBLE THEIR WEAPONS CUTTING THEIR OWN HEADS OFF!!!
  • PULL A DEUS EX MACHINA, BRING IN A GOD, AND LET… UMM… GOD SORT IT OUT!!!

There is nothing “cool” or “hard-core” about killing off an adventuring party either, because it’s so ludicrously easy to do, even in 4th Edition.  For example, if you want a TPK, just introduce your 1st Level adventurers to a Lich!  Done!  Guaranteeing a TPK every time and loads of laughs for the DM!  Think your 5th Level party is getting too big for their britches?  Hello 5th Level Heroes… my name is Demonlord Orcus… you killed my undead… prepare to die!  TPK, curtains, end credits.

It is in the creation of a balanced encounter that challenges and even scares heroes into fear of death that should always by the goal here, and it takes a really steady hand and tons of experience with a system to bring the pain without tipping over the edge into a hero-grinding slaughter-fest.  I can imagine that the DMs who are not bothered by a TPK are the ones who only use pre-generated adventures, who have never put the time into crafting an epic campaign arc, and who will just go out and buy another module next week to run for his players.  And perhaps that DM runs those pre-made adventures for players who invest nothing in their characters, that click a button on character builder and knock out a pre-gen in seconds with little or no thought.  TPKs are all well and good for those gamers, but for the rest of us who want to make the role-playing “magic” happen, a Total Party Kill represents a true low-point for a gaming group.

Not Rocket Science…

I don’t see that all the fuss is about regarding the issue of such that the designers had to actually poll the community to see what they thought.  It’s not rocket science here, it’s simple probability math that doesn’t require any calculus or massive equations.

Simply put, all you need to know is how many average hits from a monster do you want a fighter to take before he drops to the floor and screams for a medic?  The number of hit points is irrelevant for that question, because they can be as much or as few as you want, once you know the number of hits it takes to kill a fighter.

For my own tastes, I think that an average Fighter should be able to take 4-5 hits before dropping, which means that other classes should take 2-3 of those same sized hits before they get knocked down.  If you say that a fighter should have 8 hit points, then monsters should hit for around 2hp damage on average, which puts the other non-fighter classes hit points at 4-6 respectively.

Sound familiar?  This is AD&D folks, and the monsters were talking about are kobolds, giant rats, and goblins for the most part, which have average damage rolls of 2.5 to 3.5 points per hit.

So let’s say you don’t like rolling piddling damage, and want some big damage numbers in there.  So you give the fighter 29 hit points at first level, which seems like a massive number!  But then you make a first level monster hit for 6.5 hp to 8 hp damage instead of 2.5 to 3.5 and – BAM! – you’ve just created 4th Edition!  I should note that the average damages I used here are those found in the July 2010 errata update, but yeah, that’s how the math works.  And by the way, this means that your other character classes should have 16 to 24 hit points, which does mean that some non-fighter classes in 4E are just a little too beefy, but not so much that they can’t be killed off if the monsters decide to concentrate their attention on them.

So really, the argument comes down to whether you have a desire to see tiny cat-scratch sized damage rolls, or whopping bone-jarring damage rolls.  I know which one I want to see for my heroic fantasy game, unless I suddenly decide I want to play “Kindergartens & Kittens” instead of “Dungeons & Dragons”!

And since I assume that in the next WotC designer blog we’ll see a discussion all about Armor Class and Defenses, and how often heroes should be hit, I’m gonna go ahead and pre-emptively throw my two-coppers in and get it out of the way.   A fighter should have the toughest defenses, and should be struck in combat about 25%-33% percent of the time.  Logically, other classes should have lower defenses, and be hit about 33% to 50% percent of the time.  And when this is coupled with the 2-3 average hits to drop them, it will make non-fighter appropriately more fragile than the fighter.  Without such a distinction in defenses, a fighter is just a sword swinger and not actually defender of the party, since the other classes could stand toe-to-toe with the same monsters he does, and remain unruffled and unconcerned.

Are all these polls really polls?

What really gets me though is this subtle and unrelenting 4E bashing that seems to be in almost every blog and L&L article that WotC publishes.  I realize that for the unification to happen, D&D Next will have to appeal to the older edition players as well, but I don’t think that 4E needs to be constantly held up as the “bad” game system to make the old players love D&D Next more.  So many of these articles feel to me like anti-4E propaganda, trying to convince the current player-base that they should dislike the newest edition and start loving aspects of the older editions.  And the polls seem little more than questionnaires of how favorable a pre-determined design concept will be, and less like real input that will have any effect on the final game system.

Frankly, that doesn’t make me feel good about this whole playtest, and am becoming more and more convinced that D&D Next will not be the game system for me.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Image of TPK from The RPG Corner blogsite, A Random Thought on the Lethality of Old School D&D, May 24, 2011.


About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
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.

Comments

32 Responses to “Wizards Watch: Good News, Killer DMs… D&D Next is for you!”

  1. Chris says:

    You absolutely missed the point. WotC is not saying that TPK’s are something that should be commonplace, or even accepted. But in previous editions, PC death happened. I rarely killed PC’s, but sometimes they would make a stupid decision and die. It happens. Play smarter. I play 4e every Friday, and have since it has come out. And in a 3 and a half year campaign, I have killed 1 PC… The threat of death is simply gone in 4e. I can ramp up the difficulty of fights all I want, when you hit 4th or 5th level, -Bloodied is high enough that you will never kill a PC without attacking unconcious players, and I don’t want to do that. I want to knock PC’s out, and have other players have to play ‘Hero’ because the person is bleeding out. Not have the attitude of “eh, they haven’t even failed 1 Death Save yet, let alone 3. We got plenty of time.” 5e appears to fix this with random damage on a failed save (I believe 1d6) and making -Con Score death.

    If there is no threat of death… Where is the danger?

  2. Svafa says:

    I don’t know whether I agree or not. I’m definitely not going to argue that TPKs should be the norm, but I’m not certain that I agree they’re necessarily an utter failure either. The only problem I really see with the TPK is that it generally works as a reset or end to the adventure. That may be exactly the desired result, or it may not actually reset or end the adventure after all.

    I see no problem with character death though, nor do I consider it a failure. Actually, in some cases I consider it a success, such as one of my current NPCs that I so wish I was running as a PC whose entire purpose in life is to die (whether that will occur as planned, or as a deus ex machina to prevent a TPK, who knows). Several of the others I play with also love having their characters killed- I think it gives them a sense of accomplishment when they don’t die. In general I think our group may just enjoy playing underdogs and trying to take on impossible odds.

    However, take the PC death that we all know and love, and then extend it to the whole party at once… I’m not sure what the results would be. As DM I’d be a little distraught as to what to do, but it wouldn’t be much more work than usual; I have to change plans almost every week anyway. For the players, I don’t know how they would respond. Most I think wouldn’t mind and would enjoy creating new characters and backgrounds. And as the game is sort of a sandbox without an apocalypse scenario, the story could potentially pick up anywhere without resolving the former campaign and stopping the big bad.

    Thinking about it, we’ve already had one sorta-TPK in our current campaign; although none of the characters are dead, the party split up and only one of the former PCs is still in the main group while the rest have been relegated to NPCs. But even having only one PC to connect the new party to the old party has been extremely helpful. It could be done through an NPC in the case of a TPK, but it wouldn’t be nearly as strong a tie-in.

  3. Michael A. Felton says:

    I’m inclined to agree with you. This whole affair feels like some attempt to get a bunch of people who refused to play 4e because of some content-free nerdrage nonsense to buy into Next (as though some sort of community appeal or actual content would accomplish such a feat in the first place). Vancian casting? Really? Again?

    The question I pose to every D&D (or even fantasy RPG) fan is as follows: why in the hell do you want the next iteration of the game to look even SIMILAR to any pre-existing incarnation? You folks you just love endless hours preparing NPCs and being wizards have Pathfinder/3.x, those who love tactical combat, balance, and a greater degree of abstraction have 4e. Those of us who have fond memories of the late seventies and early eighties have AD&D, Basic, or even Castles & Crusades, Dark Dungeons, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, and so on and so forth.

    I want something new. I would love it if WotC produced it and slapped the D&D moniker on it. I understand that the business side needs to recoup the losses of splitting the fanbase during the latter half of the last decade, but it is such a shame that this is how they must achieve that end.

    It says a lot of terrible things about gamer culture that we seem so unwilling to let go and try something new.

  4. whorrak says:

    We read into that WotC post in two totally different ways. I didn’t see any implication that a TPK was desirable, only possible. A TPK as the result of an ongoing series of terrible choices by the player characters as a group does not, in my opinion, reflect a failure in game design. Players need to be aware that their characters are (initially, at least) simple, mortal, vulnerable creatures that need to utilize their intelligence to survive.

  5. me says:

    Easy my friend. You’re reading in too much.

  6. Enjoyed your post. I can remember 2 TPKs in recent years DMing – I’ve been playing D&D for 30 years – and in both cases, the PCs were unconscious rather than actually dead so I was able to come up with a plausible explanation for the party surviving.

    I don’t get why some people seem to think 4e PCs are “impossible” to kill as I’ve killed three or four while running my two Parsantium campaigns. And I agree about the WotC polls and a lot of the blog articles too – there seems to be a plethora of 4e bashing which makes me sad. Not only that but I think some of the cool innovations in 4e are going to be thrown out in #dndnext.

  7. Jacob Zim says:

    You’re looking at it just a little wrong. The people don’t want TPKs, they want combat to feel more dangerous than it does, because it is currently boring when it is repetatively not. We want a level-balanced encounter to be BALANCED. As in, each side should have relatively similar chances of winning. And, since 4e combat takes so long, an average of 3-4 hits on the fighter with 2-3 for everyone else ( BTW, 4e doesn’t work like that, its 4-5 hits for EVERYONE) would speed it up AND make for more exciting combat.
    BTW, the people at WotC know that they can adjust damage numbers to suit Tue amoujt of HP, but they would like to stick with the older, smaller damage expressions so there’s less and easier math.

    As for the 4e bashing – I love 4e, especially as a DM, but pretty much everything they address while ‘bashing’ 4e are things that 4e didn’t do the best.

    So get off your high horse.

  8. Mike says:

    Anyone who tells you that level one 4e heroes can take a massive amount of punishment is just fooling themselves.

    My first 4e D&D battle left two of our PCs knocked down and most of us battered and bruised. Sure it might look pretty generous to give the fighter 37 hp at level 1, but when you put her in direct fire of kobold slinger minions, each who do 6 damage a pop, that’s not going to last you at all.

    Also, character death is incredibly boring. Yes, you lost the mage and while it shakes things up for the other party members, nothing screams fun like sitting on your hands and taken out of the game because a single die roll means you fell into the GM meat grinder.

  9. Alphastream says:

    I absolutely agree that the question of hit points should really be about a number of hits. That’s really what drives the flow of combat – how many foes can hit you before you get worried, before you are on the edge of going down, and until you are down or dead? That’s what really drives the pressure and challenge of a game and the way players have edge-of-their-seat experiences.

    However, I think you misunderstand what Wizards is saying. I doubt anyone there is looking for frequent TPKs. Rather, there is the understanding that the 4E innovations also came with so much hit point, surge, and second wind insulation that it is very difficult for many (most?) DMs to challenge their table (not TPK, just challenge… the lack of TPKs just underscores this). This is especially true for DMs that run by-the-book with older 4E published material against PCs built with current character options. It is also very true at higher tiers of play. A DM can be absolutely flabbergasted by the damage the PCs inflict and by their inability to bring down even a single PC with focused fire. This was painfully true in Paragon tier before the MM3 fixes. I would write for LFR and my first monster selections just had about a 0% chance to do enough damage to a single PC to drop them with focused fire in two rounds. That’s a problem if the story calls for a challenging encounter. I spent hours to days overcoming those issues.

    We’ve seen the same problem in 3E. Constructing a challenge (again, especially at high levels) became a chore suited primarily for the very experienced DMs (using templates, non-associated levels, etc.). It was ugly stuff. Before that we saw crazy things in AD&D – I killed 4 of 6 PCs in college running Throne of Bloodstone when a random encounter had 6 undead with vorpal swords pop up and crit/behead those PCs. But they otherwise could lay waste to deities unless I carefully constructed the challenge and bolstered the deities significantly.

    So, all the editions have to struggle with this and it isn’t about deriding one edition but rather understanding what the latest innovations (based on all the previous ones) showed us. 4E PCs really are too well insulated. With just a bit of optimization you can have several rounds of interrupts at upper paragon and beyond where the foes just simply don’t get to act. Even if they do, there are tons of ways to mitigate the damage on top of regular healing and many surges and hit points.

    I think you will find very few people that will say “let’s innovate in the direction of more insulation for PCs”. The move clearly needs to be in the other direction. Yes, we want PCs to be threatened. No, it isn’t about TPKs, but a thrilling combat is thrilling not because we are bloodied but because there is that possibility of TPK. Not every battle should be like that, and every battle (regardless of challenge) needs a great story. Pressure can be an easy encounter combat-wise, but where terrain keeps you from easily catching a run-away cart with the noble’s son. Still, at the end of the day the game will work best for every DM if the possibility of constructing a challenge is not just the purview of the very experienced.

  10. Dave says:

    Good article! I definitely agree with you. When I read that “Hit Points” blog I had just ignored the mention of a TPK as I’ve always considered them to be more of an in-character threat than something a GM should actually let happen.

    The part about the Hit Points blog that bugged me the most was how useless the poll was. Asking how many hit points a PC should have is pointless without know how much a hit point represents! I would have made more sense to ask how many hit it should take to knock out a first-level fighter, and also how many hits should it take to *kill* him.

  11. Matthew says:

    I’m on the fence here. I like continuity in games and killing characters breaks continuity, especially a TPK. On the other hand, without the real possibility of character death, the game loses much of its allure.

    I think your “mea culpa” is a bit too tortured, but you’re also right that a TPK is not a shining moment in a DM’s career. It happens. It’s part of the game. You pick up the pieces and move on and hopefully the players learn a little caution and you learn a little about balance.

  12. (I posted a comment before but my iphone ate it!)

    Anyway, enjoyed your post! I’ve had two TPKs in recent years – I’ve been DMing for 30 years – and was able to save the game in both cases as the PCs were either stunned (by mind flayers) or unconscious/dying. I came up with a semi-plausible way in which they could have survived, the players knew they’d had a narrow escape and we moved on.

    I don’t get why some people think 4e PCs are “impossible” to kill either. I’ve killed three or four in the two Parsantium campaigns, and others have died in games I’ve been in as a player. And, I agree, some of the WotC polls and blog posts are bashing 4e in a way which makes me sad. It’s as if they are distancing themselves from the current system but I fear that some of 4e’s cool innovations (static defenses, the way it handles healing, at-will powers and more) are going to all disappear in D&D Next. It’s as if the plan is to take the best from all editions EXCEPT 4e.

    Cheers

    Rich

  13. Brian says:

    Have you considered a Table of Death & Dismemberment? In spite of the name, they’re easily customizable to create the sorts of results you’d prefer to have. Mine is actually far less deadly than straight combat by the rules I use, and is more likely to return a Total Party Captured than a Total Party Killed.

  14. Matthew says:

    RE: the non TPK stuff…
    I think what you’re coming up against here is one of the most fundamental shifts in the editions. Basic and advanced D&D (0E-2E) starting characters were adventurers who might some day become heroes, but for now they’re just trying to survive in a scary world. In 3 and 4, characters are already heroes. That’s a stylistic choice, and both can be a lot of fun. (And that’s more about healing surges than # of HPs, btw.)

    The biggest flaw in your piece is the whole big numbers vs. little numbers thing – you yourself demonstrated that it’s really about # of hits before dying, so why should bigger numbers change your feeling about the action? A “tiny cat scratch” that takes 20% of your health is the same thing as a “whopping, bone-jarring” hit that takes 20% of your health. Big numbers are an illusion – nothing but a side-effect of different scaling.

    I don’t think the L&L columns are bashing 4E that so much as people that this is not the only way to play an exciting and rewarding game. I cut my teeth on Basic and Advanced D&D and even I had forgotten the way things used to be until i started reading and playing a little of the OSR stuff.

    At any rate, i think that numeric scaling will be easily accomplished in 5E. The hard part will be making play feel right to both adventurer and hero players using only one system.

    captcha lol: “orkpant never”
    Never indeed. Wise words.

  15. @Chris – I think you missed the point, because you seem to be mixing up character death with entire campaign death. I already pointed out that I have no problem with character death, but a TPK is character death on an extinction level – your campaign story loses all continuity, and ends.

    @Jacob – Not on a high horse, so try and keep it civil, please. And my math for the number of hits it takes to drop a 4E character is accurate – the errata for increased damage was calculated specifically to make the monsters hit harder and drop characters with fewer hits on average. Obviously, Second Wind, as well as magical healing is always going to change the number of hits one can take, regardless of edition.

    It bothers me that people seem to assume a thrilling combat needs to have the risk of a TPK, when it’s would seem to be thrilling to just have even one character at risk. Particularly if that one character is your own! So should we, as DMs, have to be expected to risk all the work we’ve done on our entire campaign story, which can amount to hours and hours of time spent, on each and every combat just to give the players a thrill? Can’t there be combats that the heroes know they are going to win at, where they outclass the monsters, and get to feel like bad-asses, or must every combat be a life-and-death struggle, with oblivion as the outcome? When it takes 8-10 combats just to raise one level, it seems a little insane to risk my time preparing an epic campaign story if it can TPK every time a fight starts.

  16. froth says:

    thanks for this, i agree they are basically giving the bird to their current 4e customers. they also have been backing off keeping the 4e tools up. check their twitter

  17. Matthew says:

    @Editor-in-Chief
    But you must admit that there is a VERY different vibe between “we might take some casualties” and “we might fail and all die.”

    In the first, i either have to be willing to put myself out as the one who might take one for the team.
    I*n the second, we face catastrophe.

  18. callin says:

    If a fight is meaningless and boring unless there is a chance that it can end in TPK, then every fight should have the possibility of ending in a TPK and if that happens then eventually, just by the odds involved, your campaign will end due to a TPK. Some groups like this, I do not.

    Personally, I would rather make a fight exciting without having to resort to the crutch of TPK possibility. One thing 4E did right was to make fights dynamic and exciting without making each of them reliant on the possibility of a TPK. I know in my games a lot of fights end with the group out of everything except for at-wills and the players come out them feeling like they gave it their all.

  19. James Bryant says:

    Thank you for writing this blog post so I don’t have to. I think you may have been a bit heavy handed with the anti TPK business, but a TPK should never be a goal. It isn’t quite the end of the world either though.

  20. Oz says:

    In all my years of gaming, I don’t remember any actual TPKs (though I imagine there were some in the early years). The only close call with my current group was due to a chain of poor choices by the players. As a GM, I may fudge to save players from particularly evil dice, or my underestimation of the effectiveness of a foe, but I won’t save them from their own stupidity.

    At the DDXP playtest, we were in danger of a TPK, but that’s because we picked a fight with what turned out to be almost 20 goblins (as 1st level characters). We had enough hit points to take a few hits, no one started with so few hit points that they could be one-shot. The game feels more dangerous than 4E, less so than old school.

    I think no matter what, some people aren’t going to be happy because they don’t like change. But for D&D to stay in business, something had to change because too many customers were ticked off. Hopefully those who love 4E will be happy with the modules designed to emulate 4E. Some won’t be (will they go off and form the NSR?).

    At this point the best thing we can all do is be a little patient, assume that WotC doesn’t really want to alienate large swaths of their customer base, and will listen to input.

  21. pdunwin says:

    @Chris, and everyone else:
    If there’s no threat of death, the danger is simply that the PCs will fail, even if they live.

    Look at The Lord of the Rings: yes, they were in danger almost constantly, but they weren’t concerned simply for their own survival. If they were, they would have just stayed at home. They had a mission and their mere survival wouldn’t necessarily accomplish it.

    So, forget about killing the PCs, and give them goals to accomplish OTHER than just surviving and killing the other side. Give them a day to get through or past 10 encounters or the kingdom falls. If you have players who care the slightest bit about the game world then they’ll kill themselves trying or survive and fail – or pull of an amazing and heroic victory.

  22. Zergo says:

    You have hit the nail right on the head. I’m a 4e DM, and I don’t want to wipe out the party. I have accidentally made encounters too tough, and had to fudge things in the past just to keep them from all getting killed.

    I’m deeply afraid that D&DNext is going to be unrecognizable to 4e fans.

  23. Benoit says:

    It’s late and I don’t have time to read through the comments, but let me say this, and I’ve been playing since 1st edition : TPK has to be a real possibility in order to have a real conflict; any good fiction storyteller will tell you : no (real) conflict, no (interesting) story. If the players *know* that the DM will always cheat or introduce an ex machina element to the game to save the characters (or at least one), it removes the tension, suspense and — heck– why even bother with die rolls and stats? I’m not saying TPK should happen often, but if you know your DM will not always intervene for a good ending, then — as players — you will stay alert and try to be wise in your plans and decisions. And– from exp– TPK can be a lot of fun… with lots of laugh… unless you’ve invested way too much energy in developping your role playing character. if that’s the case, the DM can use Deus ex machina *after* the PTK to somehow resurrect the poor PC. And in any case, another party can be formed and asked to complete the mission the other party failed to accomplish.

  24. metatsu says:

    The emphasis on pre-4E in L&L does not surprise me since Monte Cook is leading the development along with Mike Mearls. Monte was not a supporter of 4E, so it is not surprising he does not understand what the game brought to the table. if everyone wants a gritty 4E, or 5E, then remove death saving throws.

    The problem with bring back vancian, a wide hit point range, and older martial themes, is it will be much harder to develp a balanced game, and that will make it much harder for the DM.

    They may get it right, so I will wait in see. But it will be depressing it re-introduces items like random healing with no surges, save or die, or other arbitrary rules or mismatch of sub-systems from previous editions.

  25. Matthew says:

    @metatsu One problem for me with 4E, from a players’ perspective, is that most encounters feel like they’re just there to soak up resources – they’re not a threat, they’re just a drain, and that’s inherently uninteresting. Removing a death save doesn’t change that, it just makes the real encounter (the one that comes after all the drains) more deadly. I’d rather go back to the 15 minute workday than go through a bunch of boring drain encounters, but luckily that’s not the only alternative.

    Those who are worried that 5E will not live up to 4E need to remember the mantra that comes with every new edition – no one is going to steal your (Basic, Advanced, 2E, 3E) 4E books and burn them. If that’s the game you like, you can keep playing it. The success of Pathfinder and the OSR should be heartening to you in that regard.

    Just don’t be afraid to give 5E a chance. Even if it’s not the same as 4E, you might like it.

  26. @Matthew – I think the encounter issue you’re referring to, and with it the 15-minute workday, is more about adventure design than about the game system. Certainly, when an adventure is designed to be a series of encounters that lead up to a “boss encounter”, it might feel like they are merely a drain on resources, but that sort of adventure has always been a valid part of the fantasy novel and movie genre, not to mention its use in MMOs. Heck I used to run those sorts of adventures back in previous editions, and no one complained about fighting through waves of guards and lieutenants as being just a “drain” on resources. But I also think that not every fight should be life-and-death either, that there are fights where the characters should have the upper hand, and get to flex their muscles a bit and grandstand. Those sorts of encounters can be just as enjoyable to run now and then, as an encounter against the big bad boss that might result in the death of a hero or two.

    @Benoit – Again, I disagree. I understand a TPK is threatening, and makes it more “real”, but so is killing one or more of the characters in an encounter, and you don’t have to throw away your campaign and your players’ character development to do it. And after more than 35 years of gaming, I’ve seen my full share of TPKs from both sides of the screen. More often than not, those gaming groups fell apart, the players frustrated and angry over the loss of their prized characters and blaming the DM for being too hard or “killer”, and opting out of rolling up a new character with that DM. It’s true that some TPKs can be traced to a series of super-bad choices made by players, but those are rare from my experience.

    But regardless, I still think that 4E got it right in my book. Despite the WotC designers frowning on that system, it is quite reasonable to kill one or even two characters in a tough encounter, but the overall effect of the high hit points and second wind/healing surge design, makes it tough to bring about a full-blown TPK. That means that the campaign story can continue with little or no DM “deus ex machina”, which I think is preferable to most D&D gamers overall.

  27. metatsu says:

    I would rather have a system with known expectations like 4E where resources are controlled and available to all classes, i.e. balance is built into the system, because it is easier to modify, versus taking a system that is not balanced (varying subsystems), and doing a lot of work to re-balance it. The days for me to spend endless hours developing encounters or fixing features found in previous editions are long gone.

    If you thought 4E was a drain of resources, wait until you go back to some of the frustrations from previous versions of D&D, where you can get exhausted after a couple fights, then have to wait until the next day; because only the cleric can heal, you need a certain wizard spell, or you don’t have a rogue to pick the locks. Magic will rule.

    4E is not perfect by any measure, but its biggest failure was not taking advantage of previous editions of D&D to make powers more interesting, varied, and offering more of them per level. With the ritual system they had in place, they could emulate anything from previous editions, while maintaining the advantages of 4E. Add a couple other tweaks to the skill system, and adding more out of combat abilities to classes, and I would be one happy camper.

    The only thing I will never be happy about in regards to 4E was taking away the offline character builder, and I do not expect that to come back with 5E.

    I agree there are a lot of assumptions with 5E, so I am not going to jump of a cliff yet until I see something concrete. However, with the track record of WOTC, there is no inherent trust. They even split the 4E base over certain issues with AEDU versus Essential’s. But these are only minor in comparison to what they may bring back to D&D next.

  28. @metatsu – Definitely, and with the exception of the MM and MM2 fixes to monster stat blocks I’ve had to do, this edition of the game was the one I’ve never had to houserule to make it work!

    And with regards to one comment made about encounters being designed to “soak up resources”, I found a great example on cable last of how that style of encounter design totally works for creating both drama and suspense. I was flipping through channels and popped onto Kill Bill Vol. 1 right at the segment entitled “The House of Blue Leaves”. You can interpret that entire sequence as a series of 4E encounters:

    First, the Bride (Beatrix) fights some of the Crazy 88s (minions), hacking them down in droves. Then she faces Go-Go (an elite) and defeats her. After a short rest, she’s back to killing more Crazy 88s (minions again), and finally their leader Johnny Mo (another elite). The Bride completes that combat, grabs another short rest, and heads out into the garden to face down O-Ren (SOLO BOSS) in order to exact her revenge. By this point she’s pretty much down on resources, and exhausted, and O-Ren’s first attack sequence is nearly fatal. But our heroine rallies (Second Wind), gets back up, and defeats her enemy in the end. So again, what’s wrong with encounters that drain resources again? It can be part of some awesome story-telling!

  29. Philo Pharynx says:

    4e does skew a bit too much to survivability. I ran 2,500 tests where people made death saves with no modifiers for up to 10 rounds. 31.4% stabilized before dying. Of the rest, the average person lasted 5.66 rounds. That’s decent odds even before you factor in the number of healing powers out there, interrupts, save modifiers, rerolls, potions, etc. A +1 save modifier raises the stabilization rate to 37.4% and the average time to death to 6.01 rounds.

    If an enemy is dead set on taking out a downed foe, the picture changes, but I have a hard time seeing that under most cases. Usually that would happen if the foe had a specific reason to want that PC dead or if there were no other active PC’s nearby. Most people would defend themselves from the threat before delivering the coup de grace.

    @Matthew: In this case they can steal our 4e books. So much of the books have changed that it they take away the online support 4e players will be hosed.

  30. Matthew says:

    @Philo
    Now that’s cause for rallying the troops. Convince them to release stand-alone tools. If i were a regular 4E player, i’d be boycotting everything 4E and 5E until they promised to do that.

    But it’s also a weakness in the game. I’m all for using tech to make the game run more smoothly, but if you don’t feel like you can play without them, that’s a problem.

  31. @Philo- Statistically speaking, you’re way off the mark with unmodified death saves. On each throw, there is only a 5% chance of stabilizing a character, while there is a 45% chance that a character fails his death save and moves closer to death, and a 50% chance they just stay the same (unconscious and dying). As a d20 is a linear probability dice system, over 5.66 or 6 rolls, you should (statistically) have had 3 successful death saves and 2 failed death saves, with a 70% chance that the sixth roll was also a failure resulting in the character’s demise, and a 30% chance it was a 20 resulting in stabilization. Increasing that probability out to seven rolls results in only a 35% chance of a roll of 20 and getting instant stabilization, but it also statistically means that you have a chance of rolling 3 successes as well as 3 failures. So after 7 rounds without aid, the character is almost certain to be dead anyways.

    In many respects, the 4E system then is not too much different than the older D&D editions, when dying characters slowly lost hit points until you hit -10 and then died – except that 4E gives you a small chance each round (5%) of beating the odds and recovering. I remember plenty of times in old edition games being dropped to -1 or -2 and sitting there for 8 to 9 rounds, slowly ticking of hit points, until one of my companions came over and popped a cure light wounds or administered a healing potion to me. Of course, those old rules put you at only 1 hit point, regardless of the size of the healing. And if the combat wasn’t over, it could lead to getting dropped to negatives again, and ticking off more time bored at the table while waiting for the final “dirt nap”.

    And regardless of just the raw statistical dice rolls, many battlefield situations can quite drastically change the probability of surviving once at 0 hp or less. An encounter which includes a creature with an aura, or blast/burst attacks that include live as well as dying PCs, and you can coup de grace a downed PC fairly easily while still causing mayhem for his or her still active allies. In fact, almost all the PC deaths I’ve caused in my two 4E campaigns have been the result of a dying PC left in an ongoing zone area, caught in an aura, or hit by a blast/burst. One recent death in my Dark Sun campaign resulted from a massive attack and ongoing damage that killed the character before he even got a second death save.

    So really I don’t see how 4E skews survivability much at all. But if it bothers you, you can always houserule Death Saves and throw out the auto recovery on a 20. Then death will always occur in 6 to 7 mind-numbing rounds, without friendly intervention.

  32. benensky says:

    I agree with many of your points. When I DM, I plan to take the party from level 1 to 30. A TPK would cut short my plan. However, I see D&D as a roll playing game with strategy elements. I see the rules as a mechanism to support the roll playing. I agree the TPK in my game would be a gross failure. In addition in my game death is rare and it would be at a place where it would support the story telling. For example at one of the pinnacle battles if one or two of the characters may die especially if it were due to a heroic self sacrificing moves or created a change in the tide of the battle. That way they would feel sad for the loss of the character but be able to tell stories about it in the future with a feeling of pride and accomplishment. Let me add one more thing, I see D&D as a cooperative game and the point is to work together form relationships and bonds with one another. One of the pleasures of playing is to create a saga over months or years to share together and enjoy.

    However, all people do not see the game the same way I do. The way I understand them is they see D&D to be a roll playing strategy game. Roll playing supports the strategy elements of the game. They want to feel they are winning the game. They cannot enjoy the game if there is no chance of them getting killed. At the end of the night they could not be proud that they saved their gold and got the two bladed Ogre killing sword and slew the Ogre. Since they were going to live anyway what is the point?. They feel they wasted all that time looking through the books to find the most optimal weapon. These planners feel cheated that they did all that planning to create an outcome that would happen anyway. They feel cheated out of the feeling of superiority and pride over their fellow players. To them it is a competition to see who the best D&D player is. That competitiveness may be in their blood and they can’t get it out. They aren’t going to change.

    So it seems that D&D is split into two camps and they have a hard time seeing eye to eye. Now it seems the people who like strategy have control of the rules design now. Like you I like 4E and am frustrated with all the things they are considering. Especially since I will play 5E and it looks like the mechanics will not support the game I want to play as 4E does. However, there are many things I cannot change and how the rules of 5E end up are one if them. I am just going back to cheating more as a DM.

    To finish, keep up the good work writing articles like this. They may help the designers understand that not everyone likes a strategy game. Again, not everyone yearns for the old rules like they do.

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