How Realistic is Running in D&D 4e?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about D&D 4e’s tactical nature. I stumbled across an article called 1d10 design mistakes in DnD 4e - Tactical movement, which complains that the rules for running in D&D 4th edition are completely unrealistic.

I touched on this topic in an article last year, Does Anybody Walk or Run Any More?, but that article mainly covered archery, so it’s worth going over again. (For a follow-up that examines archery more accurately, see also You Want To Shoot How Far?)

In D&D 4e, running increases your base speed by 2, at the cost of some penalties to combat. If all you do in the round is run, you can double move, allowing a speed 6 humanoid to move 16 squares in one round. That’s 80 feet over six seconds, or a mere 9 miles per hour. Even a horse with speed 10 can only gallop 24 squares, or 13.6 mph.

How do these figures stand up to a real-world comparison? Actually, pretty well. The Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test requires recruits to be able to run 3 miles within a maximum of 28 minutes, an average of 6.5 mph. An unarmoured human in D&D can run 3 miles in 19 minutes 48 seconds, enough to score 89% on the Marines physical fitness test.

What’s missing from D&D 4e is a faster sprint speed for short-term movement. D&D 3e allowed a character to run up to 4x his base speed as a full round action, and maintain that speed “for a minute or two”. That’s about 13.6 mph for an unarmoured human, a little less than the 15mph average required to run a four minute mile.

Alf’s article raises a good point, though. Why are running characters easier to hit, not harder? In D&D 4e, you grand Combat Advantage to opponents when running, giving them +2 to hit you in melee or ranged. This runs contrary to what you’d expect about a moving target being harder to hit.

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Will D&D Next Have Better Digital Tools?

The other day, I had a question about my D&D 4th edition game: What modifiers apply to Initiative? Looking up the answer reminded me of some annoying flaws in the D&D 4e Compendium.

First, search for “Initiative”. After several seconds it brings up a list of 5,011 monsters - practically every one in the Compendium, since nearly all contain the word “Initiative” in the statblock. However, it doesn’t return the entry for Initiative. The search assumes that the category with the most results is the one you’re looking for.

Next, change the category to “Glossary”. We get seven results, including “Fey Beast Companion Actions”, “Ready an action” and “Surprise Round”, but no entry for initiative.

So I dig out my physical copy of the Player’s Handbook and consult the index at the back of the book. Right there on page 267 is the answer, under Rolling Initiative: it’s 1d20 plus half your level, plus your Dexterity modifier.

Why isn’t this basic game rule included in the Compendium? Was it omitted by accident, and nobody noticed for four years? Did someone at Wizards of the Coast think it was beneficial to omit the rules, perhaps to encourage book sales or discourage piracy somehow?

Compare the Hypertext D20 SRD, the Compendium’s unofficial D&D 3.5e equivalent. Search for “Initiative”, and right away we get the rules for Initiative checks. The Pathfinder SRD likewise returns the correct answer.

The Compendium has a similar issue with the tarrasque. While the D20 SRD gives you the creature as the first result, the 4E Compendium defaults to Tarrasque Plate Armor, an item.

Because the Compendium is behind a paywall and therefore not indexable by Google, you’re limited to this clumsy search. There’s also no index, which makes the Compendium a weaker tool than the physical rulebooks or the online D20 / Pathfinder SRDs.

If the upcoming “D&D Next” has digital tools, will they solve this problem? And when unofficial third-party tools arise to solve players’ problems, how will D&D’s publisher react?

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How to Build a Sniper in D&D 4e

There’s a great sniper scene in the movie Full Metal Jacket where a sniper takes out one of the soldiers, and the rest of the squad is pinned down debating whether to rush out and save him.

You can’t easily recreate the same scene in 4th edition D&D. Instant kills are unpopular and combat tends to happen at short range. Still, it’s possible as a DM to create an encounter with long-range attackers.

Sniper as a warmage

The warmage was a concept formalized in third edition’s Complete Arcane. It’s an arcane caster who wears light armour and learns offensive and support magic through arcane military training rather than research.

Build such a creature by statting up a level 1 wizard with the war wizard build, using the quick NPC rules. Add some light armour to up his AC to around the average for his class.

The key here is to give him the Magic Missile spell, with an unusually long range of 20 squares or 100 feet. The latest version of this spell will only deal 2 or 3 damage, but they can use Stealth (given +6 from training and Dexterity) to hide immediately after they shoot, and a full level 1 encounter will have five warmage snipers working together for an automatic 15 total damage to one PC per round, enough to bloody a PC. If the enemies get close they switch to a spell like Stone Blood or scorching burst.

Sniper as rogue

The rogue (scoundrel) class can take the Sharpshooter Talent class ability, which grants +1 to attack and increases the range on a crossbow to 20 squares, or 40 at penalty. The advantage over the warmage setup is that they gain 2d6 bonus damage when they have combat advantage from being hidden, and they can hide every round after firing. For a rogue with 13 Dexterity, the average damage of 1d8+2d6+1 is 12.5 per hit.

The thing is, this might actually be very unfair. You’ve got an opponent 20 squares away that you can’t see, perhaps a team of five rogue snipers, and they’re hitting you for a third to a half of your HP per shot. The NPC rules allow it, but monster rules tend to hold to a certain balance.

Sniper as a monster

There’s no reason in 4th edition D&D to limit yourself to normal character rules for building opponents, even if your snipers are human. Simply start with any artillery creature of the appropriate level and work from there. Look for one that strikes at a very long range, and give it helpful terrain like a position atop a cliff. Count the terrain as part of the encounter XP budget, if it gives a strong advantage to the opponent.

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You Want To Shoot How Far?

Commenters on my last article raised some very good points on the historical accuracy of archery in Dungeons & Dragons, or perhaps lack of it. This gave me cause to do some research on the difficulty of long-range archery.

According to various estimates, the mediaeval English longbow had an effective range of 180-250 yards (540-750 feet or 108-150 D&D squares). However, at this range archers would fire into enemy formations rather than individual targets. Only at shorter ranges would an archer be expected to hit a man reliably.

The modern day sport of clout archery shows that this kind of shooting is entirely possible. Men shoot toward a flag on the ground 180 yards (540 feet) away, with one point for landing within 12 feet and more points for landing closer. This suggests that even with mediaeval wooden bows and little training, a man could indeed shoot into a formation of men at 180 yards.

In shorter-range target shooting, archers are expected to hit a 40cm target at 18 metres (60 feet) or a 122cm target at 90 metres (295 feet or 98 yards). Traditional hunters typically shoot deer with a bow at a range of 25 yards (75 feet) or less.

D&D 4e’s shortbow has a range of 15 (75 feet) without penalty, 30 (150 feet) at -2, very close to what modern hunters describe. One says, “All my animals taken are between 7 and 25 yards [21 to 75 feet]. I practice beyond that but I can really see the arrow dropping off after 25 yards so I stay under that.”

That range increases to 20/40 (100/200 feet) for the longbow and 25/50 (125/250 feet) for the superior greatbow. Here we have a small problem: how do you simulate the mediaeval longbow, which by some estimates could fire 250 yards (750 feet) with an accuracy of perhaps five feet?

The only real difference between 3e and 4e’s archery is that 3e lets you fire very long distances at reduced accuracy. A 200 yard (600 feet) shot like a mediaeval archer or clout archer incurs a -12 penalty, so a trained archer can hit an unarmoured man some of the time. Unfortunately, D&D 3e doesn’t simulate mass combat well, so the massed archer effect isn’t directly equatable.

Although D&D 3e technically lets you shoot a longbow at 1,000 feet, in practice it’s not feasible. You take an impossible -20 penalty to the shot, giving an unarmoured man an equivalent AC of 30.

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Does Anybody Walk or Run Any More?

I’ve spotted an odd difference between D&D third and fourth edition, in how they handle moving and shooting over long ranges.

In my last D&D 4e session, the players made the ill-advised choice to split the party. Half went into the woods to look for the creature who was menacing the village, while the other half stayed in the village to look for clues.

When the scouting party finally encountered the creature, it was 500 yards away from the village. Combat began with two of the player characters 300 squares away from the creature.

This sort of long range is where 3e and 4e play very differently.

In third edition, you can run 4x your speed. If your base speed is 30 feet or 6 squares, you can run 120 feet or 24 squares in a round.

In fourth edition, running only increases your speed by +2. With a run-double-move, an unencumbered human’s top speed is only 16 squares, or two thirds of what it was in third edition.

Ranged weapons are similarly shortened from their third edition counterparts.

In 3e, a light crossbow has a range of 75 feet or 15 squares without penalty, with a -2 penalty for each full 80 feet or 16 squares. The maximum range is ten such increments, so you can technically hit a target at 800 feet or 160 squares if you’re lucky or talented.

In 4e, the crossbow has a similar range of 15 squares without penalty and a further 15 squares at a -2 penalty. However, you can’t shoot any further than two range increments, so your maximum range with a crossbow is 30 squares or 150 feet.

This short range of D&D4e is no problem inside dungeons, but a bother at long-range battlefield stuff.

It’s also lacking in realism and historical accuracy. A person can easily run 120 feet in six seconds, or a quarter-mile in a minute. Not only could the English longbow shoot further than D&D4e’s 200ft (40 square) limit, but King Henry VIII ordered that archery practice ranges be at least 220 yards or 660 feet (132 D&D squares).

My question of the day: Why do you suppose the D&D designers shortened ranges this way? Does it enhance the game, or hinder it?

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So Long, Fourth Edition

With the recent announcement of Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition, D20 Source is coming out of retirement to respect a roleplaying games tradition that’s older than D&D itself: complaining about the old version of the rules.

Personally, I was a big fan of D&D third edition. It was the first version of D&D that I played a proper campaign, and there was a lot of technical consistency to the rules that I could get a grasp on and create meaningful material with. I even wrote 3e material for some major publications.

Over the years, I began finding imperfections in D&D 3e, as did a lot of long-time 3e players. High-level combat took too long without instant-kill effects. Groups needed a proper mix of class roles to succeed, and so on. When 4e was announced in 2007 I looked forward to seeing those issues addressed.

What let me down most about 4e is that it not only failed to solve the worst problems, it only codified and made them worse, while taking out some of the things I liked the most.

Take solos, for example. In 3e, one of the worst combats I ever DMed was an elder earth elemental versus two PCs, a paladin and a monk. It became what’s been nicknamed “padded sumo”, a fight where both sides have lots of hit points and just keep hitting in a boring battle of attrition. 4e didn’t solve this. It just gave lots of hit points to both PCs and solo creatures.

Slow combat in general was the number one problem that 4e failed to solve for me. I gamed online where the limits of communication slow play more than you’d expect. 4e gave PCs more hit points, more combat options and more things to fight, without any way to compensate for the way this made combat turns take longer. At least low-level 3e combat was quick and decisive!

It’s too early to tell exactly what D&D 5th edition will be, but it’s my hope that it’ll be a game that solves the problems a lot of people discovered with both previous editions, and in doing so, unifies the Dungeons & Dragons playerbase that was fragmented by the release of 4th edition. It’ll be interesting to see what the designers come up with.

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Experience and Advancement in D&D 4th Edition

Experience points are one of the most widespread concepts in roleplaying games. Many RPGs use point-buy experience systems or provide variable scale rates of advancement. D&D 4th Edition’s experience system functions by characters accruing points and gaining levels at specific point totals. The system, as presented in the PHB and other resources, uses a single scale of experience point values required to level up, and the stated assumption is that characters will gain a level around every ten encounters, give or take.

This assumption can be used to calculate roughly how much playtime it will take to go from level 1 to level 30. In practice, the experience required to go up a level can be gained in fewer than ten encounters, thanks to a combination of quest rewards, experienced gained from skill challenges and other noncombat encounters, and higher-level combat encounters. One can generally assume around seven combat encounters will provide sufficient experience to gain a level.

According to the assumptions of RPGA organized play events, a four hour session should be sufficient to make it through about three encounters and a bit of roleplaying. In my own experience as an RPGA DM, this assumption is not too far off the mark. Thus, for every two to three sessions of play (at four hours per session), one can expect to gain a level.

If the above assumptions hold true, then gaining 29 levels should take roughly sixty to ninety sessions, likely leaning towards the higher end. A campaign running from level 1 to level 30, then, can be expected to take over a year of play, even if a group plays once a week without fail. In practice, it is likely to be somewhere between a year and a half to two years of play, with one session of four hours a week.

Once you understand the expected duration of a 1-30 campaign, based on the assumed rate of advancement, it becomes much easier to play with it. Some DMs don’t bother tracking experience totals numerically, advancing their players in level whenever it feels appropriate to do so. This works well, but can lead to some levels being “longer” than others if it is not tracked—going by the numbers at least ensures a consistent rate of advancement. Numbers can be adjusted easily, as well.

For example, if you wanted to slow advancement slightly, you might shift the total experience required to level up to reflect twelve encounters rather than ten—three to four sessions, rather than 2-3. This would mean that second level is reached at 1200 experience, third at 2500, fourth at 4300, and so on. You could also speed things up, aiming for 8 encounters, ensuring a level increase every second session—second level would then be 800 experience, third at 1800, fourth at 3000, etcetera.

Adjusting experience requirements isn’t difficult, especially once one understands the play time the numbers represent. There are two things one must bear in mind, however, before deciding to go forward with such an alteration. First, the treasure parcel system will need to be adjusted to reflect any changes. If you reduce the number of encounters between leveling up, you should either hand out treasure faster or use the inherent bonuses system presented in the DMG2—simply because the defenses and attacks of monsters assume that at certain levels, a certain minimum enhancement bonus will have been applied to players. The other consideration is that you must let your players know before you begin about any adjustments you have made.

Experience and advancement are an important part of any roleplaying game, and by understanding the assumptions the game designers have made in creating these systems it becomes much easier to adapt them to suit your group’s particular requirements, be they for a speedier game or a lengthier campaign duration.

Is D&D Esssentials Worth It?

I’ve been hoarding links on D&D Essentials. Here are the most interesting I’ve read.

The Alexandrian takes a look at the Essentials Starter Set, with a historical comparison to the 1983 Red Box and a frank discussion of the place of the new game. The Alexandrian has previously been critical of 4E, having been a 4E playtester. His most notable complaint is the article Disassociated Mechanics, lamenting 4E’s lack of the fiction-to-mechanics tie that characterized good 3E sourcebooks:

Of course, you can sidestep all these issues with house rules if you just embrace the design ethos of 4th Edition: There is no explanation for the besieged foe ability. It is a mechanical manipulation with no corresponding reality in the game world whatsoever.

At that point, however, you’re no longer playing a roleplaying game. When the characters’ relationship to the game world is stripped away, they are no longer roles to be played. They have become nothing more than mechanical artifacts that are manipulated with other mechanical artifacts.

The Escapist, home to video game review series Zero Punctuation, snuck in a D&D column when I wasn’t looking and set up an interview with Mike Mearls, who is now D&D’s lead designer. It gives a sense that Mearls’ predecessor Rob Heinsoo is responsible for the “disassociated mechanics” situation and that Mearls is hoping to set things right with Essentials. It’s certainly the case that Essentials is an effort to bring back players who disliked D&D 4E’s direction, though it’s subjective whether those changes improve the game or merely pander to old players.

In response to feedback, The Escapist published the full transcript of the interview with Mike Mearls. He goes into more detail on what seemed missing from 4th edition:

If you look the 4th Edition handbook and you look at those players - you have to be well versed in D&D to understand the difference between the classes. It’s the old - I see this comment a lot online - “It doesn’t read very well, but it plays very well.”

I think what we were looking for in Essentials, especially for beginners, because there’s plenty of people out there who have stopped playing D&D - you want them to go “This reads well too,” because you’re dealing with an audience that isn’t already playing your game. […]

Just going forward from a design standpoint, when you have more visceral design like that, I think it just leads to more interesting challenges for designers. You’re looking at things in more of a world point of view - “What is this guy doing in the world of D&D and how do we express this mechanically,” rather than vice versa.

Outspoken blogger RPGPundit loves the Escapist interview, going so far as to suggest that Mike Mearls May or May Not Be Off the Kool-aid.

Eberron creator Keith Baker had an interesting opinion titled Simulation vs Disassociated Mechanics:

In my mind, the issue is that if you’re looking for a realistic simulation, you’re in the wrong place. 4E isn’t trying to be a documentary about martial arts, realistically showcasing what can and can’t be done. Instead, it’s a Jackie Chan movie. […]

For me, this is exactly what limited-use powers are. If my adventure is a movie, they are the moves that only get used a few times in the movie — the cool movies that ad some flair and excitement to the scene. This is tied to what I mean if I call 4E “cinematic” — because when I say cinematic, part of what I mean is that flavor is more important than realism. I don’t storm out of the Jackie Chan movie saying “Why didn’t he just trip that guy?” — because I know going in that realism isn’t what he’s aiming for.

I don’t like this rationalization. It would make this the least realistic D&D edition yet, and that’s abandoning what made the game popular. A commenter named Michael Pfaff makes an insightful reply that I think sums up the disassociatd mechanics issue:

The real disassociation […] comes from when those mechanics aren’t tied to anything from a fictional perspective.

In older editions of D&D (3E and prior), you had to fictionally look into a medusa’s eyes in order for it’s “gaze” to affect you. Without this fictional action, there is no effect. In the 3E SRD, the description even states, “It uses normal weapons to attack those who avert their eyes or survive its gaze…”

This makes sense. I can fictionally say, “My character closes his eyes, or shields them from the medusa’s gaze.” Right?

However, in 4E, the medusa’s power is written with no fictional backbone, only it’s mechanical weight […] by RAW, my character can only not be affected by this attack if he has the “blind” or “blinded” keyword.

Nothing I do fictionally matters. I can avert my eyes, I can conceal my eyes, I can close them. I’m not “blind” though, am I? So, the medusa’s gaze attack affects me none the less.

Keith Baker replies:

You can say that “The rules never clearly state that a character can voluntarily blind himself by covering his eyes”, but in doing so you’re really missing the flavor I LIKE about 4E, which is that in encourages improvisation. The 4E approach to skills has always been “Rather than concretely stating everything that can be done with a skill, we expect you to be creative in your application of it, and for the DM to be the final judge of what can and can’t be done.” This is spelled out more clearly in the Rules Compendium and Essentials, but it’s always been the premise, and again, it’s always been my favorite thing about 4E.

Finally, Chatty DM at Critical Hits reviews the D&D Essentials DM’s Kit.

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Want Happy Players? Ask For a Wish List

In D&D 4th edition, it’s important to give players at least some of items that they want, more so than in earlier editions of D&D.

Many items in 4E enhance the core competency of a certain character build, and do so in a very specific way. In AD&D, you had more items granting non-combat abilities, improved defences or new attack forms, and most items worked equally well in the hands of any character. In 3E, unwanted items could be sold for half, with the implication that you can spend the gold buying something you want. Since 4E reduced sale price to 20%, your party wealth will vary considerably depending on whether or not you got items you could use.

There are also an awful lot of magic items in D&D4E. At last count, the Compendium had 8,179 items, and this is only two years into the game’s run. That seriously reduces your chances of getting a particular item as a random drop, and it’s not like you can grind the same dungeon over and over as you would in a video game.

This means that even though there isn’t a tradition in D&D of DMs accepting item requests, 4th edition has made it important to begin one. You can always work it into the story that the characters came to the adventure site following rumours or divinations suggesting that the items they’re looking for are here, or just give them gold and let them buy or craft their own equipment.

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The Modrons are here!

Randall Walker from blog Initiative or What? has fulfilled my dream of finding modron stats for D&D 4th edition (previously appeared here).

The modrons are AD&D-era geometric shape creatures from Mechanus, a plane of pure law. They’re also really stupid-looking, which is why they’re so awesome. In this PDF, Randy stats up modrons from the mechanical Monodrone to the deific Primus.

Third edition players will find Ken Marable’s v3.5 modron stats in a back issue of Dragon magazine #354.

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