The Danse Macabre

Note: This was something I wrote last year in August. It was posted on Gleemax before it went belly up, so I'll throw it up here.

The Fearless article has generated a lot of controversy. As usual, it has been read and by many interepreted in the worst possible manner. Evidently, this is all just proof that Wizards of the Coast is trying to cater the stupid and young crowd of the coming generation. Without trying to disassemble the already fragile arguments swaying about, I can explain why what was mentioned in the Fearless article is a good thing.

First of all, the article mentions nothing mechanical at all. Its basically Chris telling us all about the fun he had that sessions. He's not telling us that his game is the best, and that we're all morons for playing a game that they worked hard on eight years ago. Its no more than any other friend of mine telling me how cool this or that game was. The rest of this post isnt really about that, but I just wanted to get that out of the way for those that think that Chris and the rest of Wizards are laughing at us for playing "yester-years edition".

D&D is, first and foremost, a game. A bad element of game design is random punishment. If you are playing any game in which you can randomly be killed regardless of your tactics or skill, you arent going to have fun because the game isnt really challenging. There is a difference between challenging and frustration, and thats that one of them can be overcome by making the right decisions. This becomes a tricky balance because if there are only a few "correct" decisions to overcome a challenge, then the game is still frustrating, especially if the player has no way to learn the solutions.

Lets say you encounter an orc warrior in a dungeon room. Now, if you are a fighter, chances are you might charge it and try to hack it to pieces. That is a viable solution to this otherwise simple problem. Other characters might try different methods: a wizard might use an offensive spell or put it to sleep, while a bard or other charismatic character might try to talk her way out of the situation. All are methods that might work, and players can make pretty informed guesses about what to do about the orc, especially if the orc is visibly hostile.

Now, lets take other situations. Say you encounter a door. Its got some bloody graffiti on it. You as the DM know that the door is both locked and warded by a very deadly trap. Now, new players might not know that often, bloody doors are probably a bad thing. Seasoned players might try to check it for traps beforehand...unless they dont have a rogue. Now, if they do have a rogue, the character can do a thorough search of the door. If they find a trap, she can then try to disable it. If the party fails to notice it, or lacks a rogue, then they have a choice to make: open the door, or leave it. Higher level characters might have more creative ways to bypass it (teleport, stone shape, etc). If the party must go that route, they will probably try to open it, meaning that whichever poor sap tries to go in first gets pegged for whatever effects you built into the door (lots of damage, poisons, perhaps death, even).

Now, this isnt challenging. There was no tactical thinking or skill involved with the trap. Either the party had no way to locate the trap in the first place, or by pure luck they failed to. If you artificially build your Search DC at the absolute max that the rogue could find, then you reward that character's skill if they take 20 (which I personally always do if I have the time), but since they must roll to disarm the trap, that element of the game rewards only luck. It would be one thing if there were several rolls to be made, as that could reward more skill than luck, but to have it all ride on ONE roll? Thats neither fun nor challenging.

Of course, not all traps are built into obvious features. We've all run into pressure plates in the floor, placed at random by the fickle DM. Those are much harder to find because you have to actively be using Search to find them, only the rogue can do that, and if you dont see it then one or more of the party gets introduced to MORE random punishment, seemingly for no reason.

Lets look at other things like save-or-die effects. A problem with 3rd Edition and all prior editions of D&D has always been SoD. Enemy makes an attack, you make a roll, and if you dont roll good enough, your character is out of the game. This aspect rewards ONLY luck, but is made worse because it can happen no matter how good your defenses are, as a 1 always fails. You can argue that there are some items or effects that can negate some SoD effects, but that only works if the players know what they are going to fight, and that the characters know what the monster can do, AND prepare properly for it. If the party knows that this dungeon contains a death slaad, AND happen to roll high enough on a Knowledge (the planes) roll to know that it can use implosion, they can defend against it...probably. They have to either already have magic or items that can stop that, or have to be able to afford such things (I know many people think that high-level characters are rich, but most of that wealth is dumped on passive buffs, NOT stowed away in a savings account).
Even then, they have to know when they will run into the monster in the first place, especially if the blocking effect has a limited duration. Not to mention that EVERYONE needs to have it up, otherwise any character might be randomly killed by it.

How does all of this affect you as a player? You probably begin to become paranoid. You dont want to touch the idol, and not because you are afraid of what it might do, but because you have no way of knowing what it can do, or how you might defend against it. Will it kill you? Will it drain ability points? Will it just deal a bit of hit point damage? How can you find out? How can you STOP it? Maybe a Knowledge check can help, but maybe the results arent helpful, or arent complete (such as what might happen on a very low check, or if the DCs are set high, or if the DM has decided that false knowledge has been spread about the item).
What about the treasure chest? What might happen if you open it? A trap, a monster, maybe it teleports you into a room where you get eaten by oozes. How can you know?
This even extends to monsters, especially original ones that your DM makes, or that come out of a new book.

The best way to deal with this currently is to simply not use them, or if the adventure says, "wail of the banshee", you make it something more managable. But then, why have them at all? Why have things that can randomly punish or kill your players. After all, the point of the GAME is to have FUN, right? Its not about the DM trying to prove he can kill the players, but about having challenging adventures where the heroes (probably) triumph in the end (how well they do that is completely relative).

Character death isnt fun, and not because "losing is teh suxxor". When a character dies, the player is pretty much relegated to sit on the wayside while everyone else has fun. The game goes on, but what does the other player do? There are some ways to remediate this, but not all (or any) are viable for an individual group. Personally, my methods involve letting the dead player control monsters or something (I also do this if the group splits up as well) until they are back in the game.
The other sucky part is that raising spells cost money. This will either cut into that characters earnings for the adventure, or the entire party, meaning that they wall behind in overall wealth. Also, the character loses either a level or a Constitution point. Permanently. This means that the character will be weaker overall than everyone else, meaning that they are going to be less effective in participating, and also more likely to die again.
Some people also get attached to a character, much in the way you might get attached to a character in any other game, movie, or novel. Its perfectly okay for this to happen, and having that character die can suck (its a problem if you become overtly depressed about the whole thing). So, emotions can also contribute to this "sucktitude".
For those of you that think that death sucks, just cause, there is more to it than just "losing".

There are also greater spectrums than complete victory and total loss. A combat can still be fun, challenging, and exciting without killing anyone. You dont need to have instant-death powers to make people fear death, and therefore make the game "fun". If the players decide that they dont need to fight the dragon and just stand there because, "Lolz u cant die in 4e", then you either have really bad players, or you havent been trying. I mean, if they do just stand there and the dragon keeps attacking normally every round, they can obviously see that they can die.

How is 4th Edition successfully handling this dance of death? Well, traps seem to be geared in a way where everyone can participate in them. Not that "everyone can do everything, so you can solo the game!" More like, the rogue can try to disarm it, but if you dont have a rogue or the rogue fails, the fighter can still bash it. If THAT doesnt work, maybe the wizard can dispel it (if its magical). This is good because it allows for more tactical and flexible actions for everyone. Traps are no longer randomly punishing or killing you, and everyone can work on it.
Instant-death powers are going away, meaning that now you actually have time to decide if you should attack or run (or attack, find out that its harder than it looks, THEN run). This means that you dont have to find out which defensive power will keep you totally safe from (again) some of the instant death spells out there, but that you can potentially find ways to remove it, or at the least get your licks in before you croak.
With the new negative hit point rules, characters are less likely to have a "total party kill spiral". By this I mean that if the fighter goes down, then the cleric probably goes to heal him. So the fighter gets back up with, say, 20-or so hit points. The monster just attacks the fighter again, or maybe divides up some attacks on the fighter AND cleric (or maybe just uses a massive AoE attack), taking them both out (probably killing the fighter since he was already low anyway), and then just moving on to the rest of the party.

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