Saturday, May 26, 2012

5E: Killing Monsters and Taking their Stuff

I’ve seen this description of the game about a million times: D&D is about killing monsters and taking their stuff. I disagree strongly, and I think it hurts the game.
It was the slogan for the Munchkin card game, a parody of D&D. Somehow people thought it was an accurate description of Dungeons & Dragons itself, and started to use it as a slogan for D&D. I think that’s wrong: using the slogan for a parody to describe D&D turns the game into a parody of itself. That is what 4E is (except it isn’t funny).

In the TSR versions of the game, you don’t have to kill the monsters: You can try to talk to them; charm them; sneak past them; lure them into a trap; lock them in a prisoner cell; trick them into killing other monsters for you; or in some cases, play the monsters themselves. There are many different solutions to an encounter. Making a choice between these solutions or thinking up completely different ones, that’s the game.

The 5E Playtest rules at least acknowledge that players might want to take a different approach to encounters besides fighting. But why should they? The characters have too many hit points and too much free healing, so fighting still seems the safest option. Other approaches can be taken, but are often depended on the DM and success is not guaranteed. At least when you fight the monsters, you know you’re going to win.

As long as fights in the game are rigged in favor of the PCs, combat will be the default option in dealing with monsters. Combat shouldn’t be the best option; it should be one of many. By making combat just as dangerous as other options, the game will encourage players to consider other approaches to overcoming challenges. This is good for the game: the adventuring day will be longer than 15 minutes, characters will be allowed to shine at different moments, combats will be shorter and less boring, listen and spot checks will have a purpose again, and so on.

14 comments:

  1. The key game mechanic will be what experience is rewarded for. Old school play is as you describe because most of the XP comes from treasure. That started to change in 2E and was fully institutionalized as XP for killing monsters in 3E. It's all about the incentive structure, and the threat level. As written, the HP is too high and the healing too cheap. XP for GP, lowering the HP (already planned, according to Mearls), and changing the effect of a long rest would address those problems, I think (to stay within the style of the game, they could have PCs recover one hit die per long rest rather than full HP).

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    1. I think XP rewards for treasure is only part of it. Even when the DM would only give out XP for treasure and not for killing monsters, players will keep killing the monsters if that's the easiest and safest way to get the treasure. As long as the designers keep "balancing" combat in favor of the PCs, that remains the case.

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  2. I think you hit the nail on the head - fighting should not be the safest option, it should be most dangerous option.

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    1. Yes, the players should have an incentive to consider other options besides combat. Just providing rules for those options isn't enough, if combat remains the smartest option.

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  3. I understand and don't disagree with this post, but part of D&D is going into the dungeon or woods or whatever and killing monsters. D&D came from Chainmail, combat is pretty central to many of it's tropes. I think too often we expect the rules to support a style of play and not the DM and the gaming group. There is a reason Deities and Demigods had hit points in the stat blocks.

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    1. Combat is a big part of the game, I'm not saying it isn't. But it shouldn't be the most important part, and historically, it never was. It is pretty difficult to run a big 4E-style slugfest with OD&D, and I don't understand why so many people seem to think that was the norm.

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  4. Mark, its really not, except in the most oblique sense.

    I and others have frequently made the following observation, which is important to understand ... in the earliest versions of DnD, only 20% of the experience came from fighting monsters. The remainder came from recovering treasure.

    The obvious conclusion to draw is that treasure recovery is the most important activity of early DnD, not killing monsters. Monster-slaying in itself is a sub-optimal experience point collection path, as death is risked in combat, whereas treasure recovery is "potentially" risk-free.

    The exclusively hack-n-slash style that you refer to is a perversion of the original game objectives of DnD. If you look at Appendix N, the literature upon which DnD is based, you will discover that the heroes were, more often than not, obtaining treasure by stealth, subterfuge and treachery, not through combat. The heroes often fled from the monsters, or fought them only when they had no choice (the monsters were, to quote early DnD nomenclature, found "in lair").

    When battles did occur in Appendix N, it was rarely in the context of monster-slaying, but more often war-related.

    Gygax reportedly regreted the inclusion of hit points in Deities and Demigods, as he found that it led many people to erroneously conclude, as you just did, that Deities were meant to be battled.

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    1. Well said.

      For me, a big eye-opener was the monster reaction table: when encountering a monster, it is just as likely to be friendly to you as it is to attack you.

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  5. "The 5E Playtest rules at least acknowledge that players might want to take a different approach to encounters besides fighting. But why should they? The characters have too many hit points and too much free healing, so fighting still seems the safest option."

    From the latest WotC article:

    "Hit Dice: This was a big change made in response to initial playtesting comments that the game didn't have enough healing. We also inflated hit points a little bit to err on the side of characters surviving a combat. At this stage, we want to test the core system. We'll refine the system math as we move forward in response to how people want the game to play out."

    Hit points are inflated in the test rules. That's right, were forgetting that these are the earliest incarnation of test rules...

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    1. "Hit Dice: This was a big change made in response to initial playtesting comments that the game didn't have enough healing."

      So obviously, it isn't the earliest incarnation of the rules.

      From the many designers blogs and WotC articles, it's pretty obvious they're balancing the game for combat to be the core activity. On the "Future of D&D" panel at PAX East, Mike Mearls equated encounter-ending spells (like sleep) to doing infinite damage in combat. That's the whole point: those spells are nothing like doing damage, they're an alternative solution to the encounter.

      Also:

      "At this stage, we want to test the core system."

      Which means they don't see rules for things like random monster reaction rolls, surprise rolls (instead of the DM deciding), morale checks, and retainers as part of the core system. I don't really see how they expect to get the game play as described in The Caves of Chaos adventure without them.

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  6. C'mon. Try to get the Hobgoblin Warlord with 12 hobgoblin. I almost get a TPK in 3 rounds, until the players surrendered.
    No, combat is not the only option.

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