Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Zero Sum Gaming

Back in July, Noisms, of Monsters and Manuals, posted about how D&D is about ambition, if you're looking at it from an 'indie gamer/GNS' type way.

I think this holds true for the TSR versions of the game, but definitely fails in the WotC versions of the game.

I think it all boils down to the leveling mechanics compared to the game world.  In old school D&D, you have to struggle to level up, but when you do you see a noticeable increase in your powers.  You get more hit points, better saving throws, more spells, better at class skills.  And that's not even factoring in the magical loot you may acquire. 

Higher level characters in OD&D, Classic D&D, and AD&D fight better, make more saving throws, and just have more power (both personal and social) than lower level characters.  Sure, there are bigger monsters to fight, and challenges still for those high level characters, but there are rewards to that ambition to achieve those heights of power. 

In d20 D&D, you really don't get that reward for your ambition.  You get more powerful, but the challenges scale with you.  Yes, there's a certain logic to higher level spellcasters' spells being harder to save against compared to lower level ones.  Yes, there's some benefit to being able to increase a kobold up to 10th level to challenge the 10th level party. 

But where's the sense of achievement?  You get better at making saving throws, but the DCs of the things you need to save against increase at the same pace.  You get more hit points and better at whacking stuff, but so do the goblins and feral/half-vampire/fiendish/anarchic gelatinous cubes. 

It really does feel like the CRPG grind.  No matter how good you get, the opponents are still just as good, the battles as hard (against the same opponents even!), and it's still just as hard to disarm that trap or ensorcel that enemy.

I haven't played that much of 4E, but I've seen enough to make me think it's the same.  We were playing The Keep on the Shadowfell, and the 'boss' of a cave of kobolds was a goblin.  With over 100 hit points.  And this was an opponent for 1st level characters!

The scale has changed, but it's really just the same as in OD&D, only instead of doing 1d6 damage and being able to take that goblin down with one or two hits potentially, weapons only do 1 point of damage, so you need to whack that goblin leader 10 times to take him down.

And it seems again (from my limited experience, I could be wrong here), that 4E is again designed to 'move the goal posts' as you advance in level. 

There's no real reward for advancing in level with that kind of system.  You don't get better in any real sense, things just get more complex.  You've got more powers and abilities to play with, but since the opposition is that much tougher, you're still struggling just as hard to overcome them, but having to manage that much more stuff in game. 

You're adding complexity only.

I wonder what's the appeal of that sort of game.  Sure, you level up and get more powerful, but does it really feel like you're more powerful in play? 

In older editions, you fought goblins at lower levels and they were a challenge, then as you get higher you face things like owlbears and displacer beasts, and they are a challenge but goblins are a piece of cake.  Then you get higher, and dragons or giants become the main challenges, and those displacer beasts don't seem so hard any more.  And eventually your Monty Haul DM throws you up against Orcus and Tiamat together and you blow through them easily.

But with 3E/4E, you could be facing those goblins all the way up, if the DM so chooses.  And it's just as hard to defeat them at 15th level as it was at 2nd.  And you've got to spend long amounts of time going through your huge lists of powers, magic items, and spells to defeat those 15th level goblins, when at low levels you could actually manage everything well enough in your head.

I just don't get it.  Where's the reward?


  1. I think part of the reasoning behind designers doing this is: if you're perfectly matched to your threat you're less likely to die. Also, if you're perfectly matched to your threat you're less likely to get bored out of superpoweredom.

    But, both of these are misunderstandings. No death = boredom, no power gain = boredom.

    Blech, this concept ruined the video games Oblivion and Fallout 3, for me. I'd be playing them right now, otherwise.

    The odd thing is, you're supposed to be getting more and more powerful, in other words able to have an affect on the world, and yet, in these scaled worlds, the world is getting horribly, horribly worse! My Fallout 3 world is teeming with deathclaws, in my Oblivion game I can't ride a horse any more without it getting killed out from under me by minotaurs. Arrgh, makes me want to throttle the programmers.

  2. "I think part of the reasoning behind designers doing this is: if you're perfectly matched to your threat you're less likely to die. Also, if you're perfectly matched to your threat you're less likely to get bored out of superpoweredom."

    Good point. I think another thing the designers of many video games, and modern RPGs fail to understand is the idea of shifting challenges.

    The whole idea that you should have X number of encounters before leveling up, and Y amount of treasure over the course of those X encounters, rinse and repeat twenty or thirty times gets really boring, too.

    Variety is the spice of life, but if you're rooting out kobolds from a lair dungeon at 1st level, rooting out hell hounds from a lair dungeon at 6th level, rooting out frost giants from a lair dungeon at 14th level, and rooting out pit fiends from a lair dungeon at 20th level, it can get tedious.

    If you're exploring the Caves of Chaos at 1st level, the Isle of Dread at 5th, and then going on a grand quest beginning with the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief at 12th level, you've got variety.

  3. I don't see this as much of an issue. There are a number of role-playing games where characters only get a little better with time.

    To me the "having fun" is the reward, not so much the collecting of bennies, however they're doled out really.

    That being said, I don't see the "scaling threat" thing to offer anyhting over the usual system but anything but (as you said) add needless complexity.

  4. That was sort of my point, Trey. Why do games like 3E and 4E D&D have this collecting of "bennies," which are supposedly to make you more powerful, at all?

    As you say, there are plenty of games where 'advancement' as in developing your character through levels or skill gain/increase aren't really part of the game. And they're still fun to play.

    In games where advancement is part of the system, I want the game to feel like it!

  5. I don't think 'scaled threats' bother me that much --- to play Devil's advocate, I would get pretty frustrated with an RPG if my first level character would get pounded into jelly by a 10th level monster too often for me to ever reach 2nd level. If I were to DM again, I would be interested in figuring out a way in which a group of level 1 players would be more likely to run into lower level threats when 'wandering monsters' are determined at random, although high level threats would still be a possibility and vice versa.
    In my own gaming circle, however, I am a bit of the odd man out as far as gaming tastes go. Many of the guys I play with like the more elaborate rule sets and hate things like Vancian magic, the class + race thing, etc., all of which I like. They argue that 3e and it's iterations offer more player customization... by selecting feats and skills, you can get the player character you want. They say they dislike the 'cookie cutter' classes of D&D.
    My problem is that I'm not really interested in a lot of different games, and most of the guys I play with are --- and they are interested in delving into new kinds of character creation, etc.

  6. Actually, I'm right in line with Dennis on this one. I usually used CR as a guideline when DMing 3.X Edition, but that was it. I wanted the characters to feel more powerful.

    Defeating great challenges brings a sense of reward, though. Especially when brains and teamwork kick in and you beat something that is much higher than you and your team.

    One of the rewards of 3rd edition is being able to go up against mind flayers and beholders, and eventually demons and devils, at higher and higher levels. Theoretically, that's also a reward for 1E and 2E.

    I hate scaling certain encounters. There's no excuse for a 10th level kobold. No, not really. Especially since I usually run low-level campaign worlds. In other words, I WANT the characters to have notoriety and renown at fifth level, because they're now equal to some of the best wizards and warriors in the land. Once they go beyond that, they're entering the realm of legend--someday, songs will be written about them.

    This feeling of "specialness" is mitigated a lot in 3.X. If I'm 10th level, I want to have moved beyond fighting orcs and goblins. And if I have to, I want to wade through them like Conan would wade through a crowd of unarmed and defenseless midgets.

  7. I agree. After playing 4E for several months, the "moving the goalposts" issue was apparent, and not fun. You never get better, there is just more bookkeeping and stuff to try and keep track of. It really means nothing, as the game has anticipated you getting precisely that much better and adjusted accordingly...

  8. I think you've described the 4e play experience perfectly, LG.

    I've been playing 4e for, what, 18 months now. Fairly steadily. And it is a process of goalposts moving. But it's not goblins that challenge you at 11th or 12th level (although there's certain combinations where they could). My experience with different 4e DMs and Groups is more along the lines of Telecanter points out. There just aren't any goblins anywhere. Now there are only Gnolls or Orcs or worse that seemed to have popped up in the goblin and kobolds' absence.

    And that's not even mentioning the sad continuation of the PC as a Magic-Item Christmas Tree. I can remember playing B/X and getting a +1 Sword at 3rd level. And that was a big deal. That +1 would help me down the road and it felt significant.

    Give a 4e character a +1 Sword at 3rd level and nowadays you'll hear everyone complain about how stingy the DM is with treasure and by 8th level the player will be wanting to sell the sword because the bonus is complete trash compared to what they feel they should be getting.

    It's just a very different experience. Not that different from 3e, mind you. But very, very different from B/X, OD&D and earlier versions of the game.

    I find myself incapable of drawing any real comparisons, honestly. For me there's TSR D&D and there's WotC D&D. I have to look at them as completely separate games. Otherwise, the fun I have (or had) with one will completely spoil the potential fun I could have with the other.

    But, yeah, the constant grind of "Zero Sum" in 4e gets tiresome over time. And it does impact my perception of what I'm capable of affecting in the game world -- which I never had an issue with in 2e and before.

    I tend to view 4e as an interesting tactical minis game. I mean, the sessions are no different than the Warmachine games I played in years ago. Map, battle. Map, battle. With loose ideas of threads to interconnect the tactical set pieces.

    But there's no agency. None. Whether we win, lose or draw the next battle will be had because that's the map the DM is gonna draw and we have no way to bypass or outsmart the threat because the module doesn't explain how that could be possible or flat out rules it out.

    I've played with something like 4 groups under easily 5 DMs and observed 3-4 groups at the local gaming store. This is universally the experience I've had or witnessed. Not saying there aren't fun elements to 4e. Just that it's a completely and radically different experience than a game like B/X or AD&D.