Ego Check: Scott Rehm of The Angry DM (Part II)

If you missed it earlier in the week, I posted Part I of my interview with Scott Rehm of The Angry DM. Today I present Part II of the interview. I’m going to preface this half of the interview with the following comments: We both enjoy 4th Edition! Outside of a recent D&D First Edition session, it is the only game I play. So while some of our discussion of 4th Edition is critical, we are not “bashing the game” but looking for ways to improve our experience.

I compare discussing a game system to talking about your favorite sports team. Sometimes you complain about the players on the team. You might call for the coach or general manager to be fired because of management decisions. You may want your team to trade for another player or sign free agents to improve the product. You pick apart the team endlessly over beers at a bar with friends or through blogs and other websites. But you love the team, and you’ll likely defend your team against other competitors. It can be quite tribal now that I think about it, and probably explains why people get so defensive when a game system is criticized. Regardless, D&D 4e is my team. I love it, but I’m always looking for a way to make it even better. I don’t hate the product, and I know Scott doesn’t hate it either.

With that disclaimer out of the way, please enjoy the second half of my interview with The Angry DM. In this segment, Scott discusses topics such as player choice and interactive storytelling. He also discusses how 4th Edition’s success/failure system influences roleplaying. We conclude with a discussion related to resource management and attrition. I realize this interview is lengthy, but it may give you something to do if you are not – like me – attending GenCon.

I think the popularity of Angry illustrates something rather important that is often ignored. The DM role can be a thankless job at times, and the vast majority of the tips and advice available are geared to making the players’ experience more fulfilling. I have benefited from tools and applications to make my preparation easier, more enjoyable and interesting, but where are the resources for improving the DM’s level of enjoyment during gaming sessions? What type of content would you like to see more of for DMs to ensure we are enjoying the game as well?

Now that I am out from behind the curtain, I don’t want to seem too down on DMing. Obviously, I love it, or else I wouldn’t have been doing it for over two decades. Anyone who sticks with DMing for any length of time has to find something to love about it because it is a lot of work. If the negatives outweigh the positives, the DM stops – if he’s smart. If he’s not smart, he forces himself to keep going until he burns out. And then, no one is having any fun. And I think that’s part of why you don’t see much advice about how to increase enjoyment during the game.

DMing is something that either clicks for you or it doesn’t. There has to be something in those first few sessions that make you want to continue doing it and make it worth the work. It could be the joy of creation, the competitive aspects, the power and respect, or the pleasure of entertaining others. And I don’t think just anyone can be happy DMing. So, I don’t think there are DMs out there seeking ways to make the game fun. But I think there are a lot of DMs out there trying to find ways to minimize the parts that aren’t as fun. And I think there are a lot of DMs who also need someplace to turn when their personal idea well is running dry.

What sort of content do I want to see? More of everything. More ideas. Plot seeds. House rules. System analysis. NPCs and monsters. Campaign settings. How plots are put together. How to create this or that mood. Everything. I want every DM out there who is struggling or frustrated or just seeking a new idea or just needs some guidance to be able to find something that helps. DMing is something that each of us does alone and outnumbered. When you get down to it, a DM is a very brave person who has to get up in front of strangers or friends and put on a show. And there is no one to support him when he’s at the table. So we need to be there for each other.

However, one thing I would like to see more of – though I suppose I should put my blog where my mouth is, despite the fact that doesn’t make any sense – is more discussion about the art and science of interactive storytelling. The community of video game designers and developers have us beat, hands down, in this regard. While there are innovative games out there challenging our notion of how we share stories in RPGs, games like the FATE system, many RPGs are still doing the same things they have been for thirty years.

I hear lots of DMs talking about movies and books, but many older DMs seem to disparage video games as a source for inspiration. And I don’t mean for story ideas, I mean for ideas about how to tell stories in interactive ways. But there are major weaknesses in looking to movies and books. They are passive, first and foremost. DMs can’t present visuals the way movies can, they have to rely on the written word, but they also can’t use exposition or tricks of viewpoint and narrator omniscience to let us get inside the characters’ heads. While video games can use visuals, they have many of the same limitations we have to deal with: limited viewpoints that are defined by an audience that also serves as the story’s protagonists. We still talk about things like the three-act structure, rising tension, hooks, and climaxes, and video games like Bioshock and Portal are challenging the way in which we tell stories.

DMs, learn from video games.

Those two games are great examples because they actually tell very deep, complex stories entirely through gameplay. A DM who wanted to do an impressive dungeon crawl would do much, much worse than studying the way Bioshock’s environment provides a mainly linear experience despite somehow giving the impression of open exploration and the way it tells the entire story of the environment through action and exploration. What do games like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and even inFamous teach us about how to include meaningful choices without having to plan for infinite outcomes. And how can we improve all of these things by using the strengths of our own medium, like the ability to improvise everything from a single random encounter to an entire plot arc.

But I admit that’s a personal, pet interest; something I’d like to personally explore and discuss. In more general terms, any DM content is good DM content. And honestly, I’m old and set in my ways and its easy for me to fall into the trap of feeling like I’ve seen it all and read it all before. I’m looking for innovation. For the truly new and fresh. So, I’m the wrong person to ask that question (the one about what I’d like to see more of). I think, in this case, your answer would be a lot more useful as someone newer to DMing. What would you like to see more of? Do you feel there’s something lacking?

At the moment, I’m honestly a bit overwhelmed by the amount of content that is out there now, and I only play one system – D&D 4th Edition. So it would be disingenuous for me to say that there is a dearth of content out there for DMs. It is tough to keep up with the official WotC books in addition to other DM resources such as third-party adventures, websites, blogs and podcasts. Perhaps one thing that is missing for me is finding a way to have the available information organized in a more digestible format. I find 4eBlogs helpful because it takes great articles from a wide variety of blogs and displays them in one place.

But it would be fantastic if a site like 4eBlogs or another source had a directory of every custom monster created by the blogs listed on the site. Or a searchable database for a keyword like “Skill Challenges.” It would be even better if the directory linked to blogs, official WotC content and podcasts based on a keyword search. For example, you could go to this one directory of content and search for “Group Conflict,” and the results would produce 10+ links to official WotC books or online materials, articles written by a variety of bloggers and podcast episodes that covered the topic. Now that would be a site worth having!

I am happy with the DM role, although it may not sound like it. I certainly wouldn’t devote the amount of time to DMing and writing for this site if I did not, but I think being a player in another campaign helps to provide some balance to my D&D experiences. If I was always the DM, then I think I would get burnt out after a while. But I’m in a good flow now although I’m always looking to improve, and that creates a creative tension that can get stressful. It also applies to writing for my site; between brainstorming ideas for articles and adventures for my campaign, the result is me thinking about D&D probably too often throughout any given week. It’s good to give yourself a break at times, and I have done this by relying on published adventures lately so I do not have to create as much content for my campaign. These interviews with others in the RPG community are also helpful, because it demonstrates to me that I’m not alone in trying to figure this thing out!

Being a player in another game certainly does help. Or so I’ve heard, anyway. In the past eight years, I have been a player twice, for a total of twelve hours. It’s a shame, because this 4E thing seems like fun. I wonder what its like to play it.

Getting back to your comments, I agree with you that videogames are a terrific source of inspiration for DMs, and I previously wrote about how I built my homebrew world on a format used by games such as Red Dead Revolver. That game guided me in developing a world that hopefully felt like a sandbox to my players but allowed me to plan ahead and railroad specific events. I continue to strive for a balance between “scripted events” and adventures that come from the minds of my players. I believe interactive storytelling relies on the players buying in to the idea that they have ownership over the adventure. The players have to understand that they are not passive participates in the story, and as you mentioned, the style of RPGs have remained rather stable over the last 30 years. It seems like you think players have been trained to be passive and allow the DM to run the show. How do you think DMs can include their players in interactive storytelling moving forward?

Interactive storytelling is not necessarily about involving the players in the creation of the story. You can tell a fairly scripted story and still have it be interactive. I admit that I keep a tight hand on the reigns of my world and my story, but my game is neither linear nor passive. What matters most is that the players make choices and that those choices have consequences. The story needs to develop in response to what the players choose to do.

For instance, I can write an adventure in which the party is tasked with killing a rampaging dragon that is killing townsfolk. They might succeed or they might fail, but that’s not an interactive story. There isn’t a real choice involved. I can make the dragon so powerful that the party needs to find the Orb of Killing that Dragon first. And they need to research it. But that’s still non-interactive. But, I can also make the dragon just powerful enough that the Orb will be extremely helpful, but not vital. And now, the party has to choose, take days or weeks out to find this Orb (during which the dragon is murdering more and more people) or just go off and face the dragon right now and risk one or more PCs not coming back. That’s interactive. Because there is a real choice in there with real consequences And it doesn’t just hinge on the question of whether or not the PCs succeed. What they choose to do changes the story. It changes the world. And I didn’t need their “buy in” when writing the story. I just needed to make sure they had all the information they needed to recognize and debate the choice. When they return to the village, Orb in hand, only to find a handful of survivors burning the corpses of dozens of innocents, they will feel the consequences of their choice.

The Orb of Dragon Killing

Interactive storytelling – and role-playing – is about making meaningful choices and dealing with the consequences. It’s about the players knowing they have an impact on the world. What they decide matters. It will change the outcome. And, again, it isn’t about success or failure. But a lot of the traditional story-telling tools we’re familiar with from books and movies, as I’ve said, just don’t work.

Take the three-act structure. Game systems and DMs tout it as the pinnacle of good storytelling. But, on a campaign level, the first act often gets left out or forgotten. And that’s because it is tricky to work into the game in a fun and engaging way The first act, after all, is the introduction wherein we meet the characters and get to know what they are about. It’s where we get to know the setting. It’s where the major plot points get set up. And it ends when the story really starts in earnest with the hook. The narrative question. The thing that needs to be resolved. DMs don’t have the luxury of faffing around with the characters in their normal lives or dumping exposition or providing alternate viewpoints. The players just want to play. Which is a shame because, if you care about character development and character arcs, its vital.

Many video games have the same problem for the same reasons. The first act is dull. Introductory cut-scenes don’t do it because they are non-interactive. You just sit and watch and wait until you get to play. But some games have come up with better solutions. In Bioshock and Portal, for example, you start in the second act, in medias res, and discover the first act gradually through game play. I believe the DMG2 actually presented some interesting advice along the same line. Periodically allow the players to play flashbacks into their past, with one character as “the star” and the other players taking on the roles of other characters in the scene. It’s a great solution to the First Act Problem. But it’s not the only one.

I could go on. I could discuss how non-linear video games deal with the problem of rising tension, pacing, and difficulty curves which is something more published 4E adventures really need to look at because, right now, most of them solve the problem by just presenting a linear series of challenges. I could talk about how you can tell a story entirely through exploration like the Metroid Prime series does, which is a great way of making a good classic dungeon crawl with a modern feel. After all, exploration is, by its nature, extremely interactive and a story woven into the exploration provides a lot of momentum.

After playing a game like Bioshock or inFamous or Splinter Cell, I am often left wondering why I’m pulling down adventures from Dungeon magazine that basically amount to three-encounters-in-a-row and why most of the advice in the DMG sounds like it belongs in a literature and composition textbook rather than a game design textbook. Especially given that we’re always bragging to the video gamers that our games have infinite freedom because it runs on the human brain, not some computer doing pre-written math. And you can turn around and tell me that I can have all of that and more because D&D is free-form and I can do anything. But I think that the system shouldn’t be let off the hook so easily. If I can have tools for building balanced encounters and tools for skill challenges, why can’t there be tools for story structure or for building choices and consequences in the game.

How does a game’s system relate to the potential of interactive storytelling. For instance, focusing on D&D 4th Edition, what about the system makes interactive storytelling more or less likely?

Okay, so this is where I get myself into trouble. I firmly believe that the game system has a lot to say about how it’s played. And people get very mad when I say that, for some reason. But I think its naive, or at least grossly oversimplifying, to believe that any game can be anything because RPGs are ultimately free form. Oh sure, with enough rewriting, you can probably get any game system to fit any genre or any style of play, but there is a point where the amount of work becomes prohibitive and there is also a point where you would probably be much better off just writing your own system from scratch. And I honestly believe that the vast majority of games out there are played pretty much by the book or with some minor modifications. Of course, these are also the people who don’t blog at length or get involved in deep system design discussions, so they are hard to hear.

The best example I can offer is the adventuring day in 4E. When the designers were writing the game, they decided that an adventuring day should include about four encounters and that each encounter should last about five rounds. Hit points, defenses, damage output, everything was balanced to that notion. In-combat healing (which is very tightly controlled) was limited to just the right amount to make that happen and healing surges were doled out to set a limit on the day. Do you think it’s an accident that the maximum number of attack powers is four encounters and four dailies in core 4E? Of course not, that fits perfectly into a four-encounters-of-five-rounds day. In each encounter, I use each of my four encounter powers and one of my dailies (five rounds). After four encounters, I am out of dailies. I have at-wills in case the fight goes on too long or for when I spend an action point.

Now, you can deviate from this. I’m not saying the game HAS TO be played this way. Just that that’s the sweet spot, that’s where it works best. And if you deviate too far from that, you’d better be prepared to make adjustments. If you run a day that has just one battle, it will probably be fine (because the resource management ensures fights are individually risky and challenging on their own), unless the party knows or suspects that they can unload all of their resources. If the party does figure it out (for story reasons or through meta-gaming) or just decides to go all out because they know they have the opportunity to take an extended rest right away, they can expend all of their dailies and (depending on their level), make the fight trivial. So, you need to increase the difficulty accordingly. But you need to do that right or else you will overwhelm their limited in-combat healing, because that’s something they can’t adjust or overspend.

But I’m digressing a little. Because the question is not whether the system affects the way the game is played, but how the system specifically affects interactive storytelling and role-playing in general. As I said above, interactive storytelling and role-playing are about choices having consequences outside of just the risk of failure. A choice is not just about choosing, it’s about resolving an internal conflict. Going back to the dragon example: the conflict is risking the lives of innocents vs. risking your life and the life of your companions. You can’t have both. You have to choose. And what you choose says something important about you (the character and the player). And, in a role-playing game, that conflict has to be resolved internally (personal choice) and then externally (group choice). By interacting with the group, you show what’s going on in your head, so you bring the internal conflict out into the open for all to see.

4E is very binary, it’s very focussed on the question of success and failure, but it doesn’t provide a lot of consequences or costs for different choices. For example, in most skill challenges, it doesn’t matter which primary skill you use. The current rules encourage the DM to use Moderate DCs and make every skill count for one success or one failure. The Rules Compendium does change that formula for higher complexity skill challenges, but high complexity skill challenges are often avoided and a lot of DMs are now suggesting you just stay away from them because the probabilities don’t quite work. So, for a normal skill challenge, the game system is basically saying “choose the primary skill with the highest modifier and just keep rolling that until you hit an arbitrary limit on the number of successes allowed from a single skill, then choose the next highest and start again.” And I’ve heard many DMs complain – and some of them pretty high-profile here in the internet gaming community – that players are engaging in just this behavior. You can piss and moan that the players shouldn’t meta-game, that they should consider the situation and role-play, but the system is contradicting you and the players are smart enough to figure that out.

Win . . . or die.

Now, I am getting dangerously close to the idea that there is no role-playing in 4E. I don’t want to say that at all. I will say that what role-playing there is in the game is brought in entirely by the DM and the players and the system doesn’t care if it’s there or not. 4E isn’t discouraging anything, but it’s also not helping anything along. 4E boils a lot down to success or failure. The outcomes of actions are based on the die roll more than the actual action that was chosen. It falls entirely on the DM to create costs and consequences for specific actions and very little advice is given on how.

Perhaps I can provide an example of a mechanic that does encourage interactive story-telling and role-playing by creating consequences for decisions and actions. In Warhammer Fantasy RP – which is, in a lot of ways, mechanically similar to 4E - there is a Party Tension Meter that sits in the middle of the table. When the party is arguing, struggling, or when certain actions are taken or certain things happen, the GM pushes the Party Tension up. When it crosses certain thresholds, the party begins suffering minor penalties until the tension is defused. So, it creates mechanical consequences for how well the party is functioning as a unit. But it also provides a visual cue that affects the RP. When the tension meter climbs, the party tends to watch it and get nervous, especially when a threshold is drawing near. Some players respond by trying to defuse the tension. Others, just because they are watching it, get edgy. When tension is high, the party stops joking around. They even start to avoid conflicts or combats. People try to make peace and talk out their issues. Or everyone just walks away to take a rest. It almost guaranteed that when the wizard caught the fighter in a fireball, words were going to be exchanged because the GM would push the tension meter for something like that. I was dubious of the system at first, but seeing it in play, it worked extremely well. The players like it. And it was almost impossible to have it there and not role-play.And more importantly, it created a very real consequence for the way the party interacted. And I should also note that it wasn’t just about penalizing parties for bickering. There is a sister system that provides bonuses to the party just for being a party and working toward similar goals.

I’m not saying that 4E needs a tension meter. I’m just providing an example of how a system can bring the interactive storytelling and role-playing aspects by creating positive and negative consequences for choices, even nebulous choices like how the group chooses to interact. That system works well in Warhammer because part of the focus of the game is on people coming together from different walks of life and learning to function as a team in the face of adversity, ultimately working together to achieve goals that individuals couldn’t achieve on their own. Nothing like D&D… oh, wait.

Okay, snark aside, I’m not complaining about 4E. I’m just saying that 4E doesn’t have a lot of consequences and costs built into it. It isn’t breaking any new ground for interactive storytelling. You could play 4E without any role-playing at all and the game system would still function just fine. You could phrase everything in terms of DCs and skill checks and just run combat as a tactical board game and nothing would have to change. And that’s a sign that the system is doing nothing, one way or another, for role-playing. Which, and I cannot emphasize this enough, IS JUST FINE IF THAT’S WHAT YOU WANT. If you don’t want the system involved in your role-play, good for you. 4E is a good system and I like it a lot. I’m running it now. Please don’t yell at me anymore, internet.

I could give other examples of mechanics that do help emphasize interactive storytelling, guide story structure, or encourage role-playing and interaction with consequences. Aspects in FATE and Dresden Files, the hero point system and complications in Mutants and Masterminds, and, in fact, the skill challenge-like progress meter system in Warhammer FRP all provide great examples. But please take this for what it is: an example of what is possible, not a condemnation of 4E or D&D. D&D has always taken the approach of just not getting involved in the RP and story-telling aspects. It is happy to provide a rigorous combat system and a decent action resolution system and just leave the rest up to individual groups if they want it. And it works just fine. Please don’t flame me.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to flame you. You touched on so many important topics, but one story immediately came to mind when you spoke of D&D 4e as a success-or-failure game. This happened to me a couple of weeks ago, so bear with me while I talk about my game for a minute.

I was running the party through an adventure and there was an obelisk in the middle of a clearing that was causing party members to fall asleep. The trap is from a published adventure, and it is described as a lidded eye that is closed with a small hinge on one side of the closed lid. The rogue in the party got next to the device and attempted to disarm it; he rolled a high Thievery check. But I asked, “What are you doing to the device?” This created some problems. He referenced his Thievery roll again and said something to the effect, “I pull the lever or push the button or whatever.” The trap had a specific description – a closed eye – and was putting players to sleep. A logical outcome is that opening the eye would disarm the trap, but that was never offered as a solution until I gave additional prompts.

My player was frustrated that his Thievery check wasn’t enough to “change the world.” I was asking for specific actions, but he was relying on his roll. And I find that happens quite often in skill challenges. The specific action is often secondary or even nonexistent compared to the value on the roll. And I am guilty of this behavior as well when I’m playing my rogue. It should be noted that the player in this situation has urged me for more roleplaying in the campaign, so he’s not just looking for a tactical combat game; he wants to spend time roleplaying. So when a roleplaying-friendly player is lured into a system that takes away from roleplaying, that says something.

I’m always trying to balance the use of rolls with the use of good old-fashioned creativity at the table. A player may be in a social situation and ask a great question to a NPC, but should I then require a roll for Diplomacy, Bluff or Intimidate? Or should I reward the creativity by changing the environment as a response? Knowledge checks on monsters are also a struggle. The player’s knowledge about a particular monster is completely tied to the outcome of one die roll, even if their character has never experienced or learned about the enemy. Is there an adventuring school where they teach monster information? I always find myself responding to monster checks, “Ah, yes. You recall overhearing a conversation between local priests about the deadly foe known as a Wraith . . . You recall your mentor telling you about creatures of the Feywild, and remember her speaking of a Dusk Unicorn.” It always feels unnatural to me!

It seems to me that there are many times when Skill Challenges should not involve dice. How do you learn information about the local bad guy in town? The 4e answer is to have the members with the highest modifiers in Streetwise search for clues in less-respectable areas of town while those trained in History consult libraries or some other respectable source. It is all dependent on rolls and not the actions of the players and their characters. As the rogue, I could come up with an elaborate diversion and bluff to trick the bad guy’s lackey to give me information, but if I roll a 1 on my Streetwise, Stealth, or Bluff check, it’s all for nothing. I realize you must have a system of abilities to keep players in check or else they would all be attempting crazy stunts and god knows what else, but some situations in the game should simply be roleplayed. And I don’t think the DMG or DMG2 covers that, but I could be wrong.

And, again, I fall into this trap too. During the same session I mentioned before with the eyelid trap, the player asked me later in the evening in another room, “Do I see any art on the wall?” As a reflex, I asked for a Percpetion check, to which he quite-properly responded, “Do I have to roll? Don’t I either see art on the wall or not?” So, in one situation, I wanted the player to rely on roleplaying but he wanted to roll, and an hour or two later, I wanted him to roll and he wanted to rely on roleplaying.

Is this what you mean by the system affecting the level of interactive storytelling and roleplaying that transpires during the game?

Heh. I’m not worried about you flaming me. It’s all of them out there. Because, I’m not trying to bad mouth the system, but I am trying to be frank and objective.

I don’t think this issue is really about role-playing and interactive storytelling. Because those things come from making choices, not resolving actions. If you look at the situation with the obelisk, for instance, there really wasn’t a choice involved. There was a weird effect and a weird thing. And the weird effect could be prevented by disabling the weird thing. The weird thing gave a specific clue as to how it could be disabled. Once someone worked out the clue, the effect could be stopped. There’s a logic chain, but no real choice involved. The obstacle was there. It had to be dealt with. But, strange as it sounds, there isn’t really a story there.

When you get down to it, the only difference between what you wanted and your player wanted was the level of detail. He wanted to gloss over the puzzle and the figuring out and just take that stuff as read. You wanted to focus on the level of detail. Put another way, you wanted the player to figure out the puzzle. The player wanted his character to figure it out. It’s a matter of where you want to zoom the camera, but the story plays out the same regardless. The situation could easily be reversed, too. Imagine if the player had caught on to the idea of opening the eye. But you, the DM, still demanded a Thievery roll. That’s just as strange, isn’t it? Why should the player roll to essentially flip a switch once he figures out which switch to flip. I think the real problem is a mismatch in expectations.

Now, I could come in and say that, yes, I personally feel that the way 4E is presented does strongly favor glossing over stuff with a die roll. And I do think the structure of skill challenges as presented in the DMG and Rules Compendium creates a strong incentive for just throwing your best roll at a challenge over and over. But I also don’t think it has to be that way. Because, at the heart of it is an idea that DMs have been struggling with for years: when do we roll dice and when do we just narrate? And from what you’re saying, you really haven’t figured out a good guideline for yourself. So, you’re going to keep getting “trapped by the system”as you put it.

Personally, my own guidelines run like this: a die roll needs to be made only when failure is a substantial possibility and when failure carries a risk. So, in the monolithic sleepy eye situation, there would have been no die roll. If the players were truly clueless, I would call attention to details in the scene and try to veer them toward it. But, whether they figured out the eyeball thing or just eventually decided to destroy the monolith, they are going to succeed. There’s no real risk involved and the risk of failure of trivial.

In addition, players don’t get to ask for die rolls in my game. Die rolls are something I ask the players to do to help me decide the outcome of their actions. You can’t just “use Thievery” in my game. You can attempt to disarm a mechanism, sure, if there is one to disarm. And then I will ask you make a Thievery check. But, with the monolith, I would have said “you don’t seem to be able to locate a mechanism or a way to sabotage it. Just the eye with the hinge on it. Let me draw you a quick sketch. Is there something you’d like to try?” Knowledge checks are rolled or predetermined and knowledge is given when it becomes relevant. The moment the PCs see a monster, if they know something about it, I include that in my scene-setting flavor text. But they don’t get to suddenly recall something just because they asked for a die roll. They have to trust me to give the appropriate information at the appropriate time.

When it comes to social situations, again, I require the players to either speak in character or describe what their characters are doing or saying. I won’t force someone to be an actor. “My fighter threatens the goblin to make him talk” is fine. In the case of a description, I will narrate the event appropriately and even sometimes put words in the character’s mouth (because the player chose not to). But, once again, I decide whether they are reasoning, intimidating, or deceiving. And, in social scenes, I roll the dice myself because I find that stopping every few sentences to ask for a die roll ruins the flow of a conversation and the players have to read their successes and failures from what I say and do.

I need to stress that my approach is personal – it’s a style choice – and my players have bought into it (mainly because I left them little choice). You don’t have to go that route. You can simply cover everything with brief descriptions and die rolls. Or you can go with a compromise. Or even an incentivized compromise.

For example, suppose you want the descriptive approach but your players are very resistant (as in your monolith scene). In that case, before the game even starts, you might explain this to the players: you’re always going to leave them the option of describing specific actions (opening the eye) or letting skill rolls cover the action (rolling a Thievery check). If they opt for description, as long as they figure out a good approach, they will succeed. No die roll needed. If they choose the dice, they live or die by the dice AND they have to let you narrate their action for the benefit of others. So, in the monolith scene, the guy rolling the dice might have been asked for an Intelligence check instead of a Thievery check (to figure it out), but he would live or die by where the dice fell. And you would describe the outcome (he figured it out and opened the eye OR he can’t seem to find a mechanism and nothing makes sense). Then, on a scene by scene and player by player basis, you let the players settle on their own comfort level. And you provide narration enough for the players who want the description to still understand what is going on. If there is a scene where an automatic success isn’t really possible because of the chance of failure or the risk (say, climbing a cliff over spikey rocks), you can warn players right up front as the scene starts or trade a bonus (+2, the DM’s best friend) for the auto success. Some things really do just need to be rolled. And these rules don’t apply in combat.

If you want to take it further and encourage the descriptive approach, you can increase the XP for challenges overcome without die rolling. Say, 25% if the party doesn’t have to resort to die rolling. It won’t break the game too much. This is an incentivized compromise. You’ll accept their behavior, but you’re offering an incentive if they do it your way. In interactive games, incentives are your best friend.

Either way, the most important thing to do is to discuss it with your players before the game starts and set the expectations. Make sure everyone is on board and knows what you will expect of them. Be willing to compromise, but don’t compromise so far that you aren’t happy running the game. Because if the DM isn’t happy, no one is going to have fun.

As for skill challenges, make sure that what you’re doing really deserves a skill challenge. Looking around the town for an informant doesn’t need a skill challenge. It’s a die roll. Maybe a group skill check. It can become a skill challenge if the time it takes is an issue (every check is one hour and in eight hours the bomb will go off in the puppy orphanage) or if there is a risk (every failure risks letting the informant someone is tailing him and he will leave town before he is found), but lacking a consequence or risk like that, it’s not worth rolling the same check over and over until the party succeeds or fails. One die roll will do. Ask yourself why you’re tracking successes and failures. If you don’t have a good reason that actually affects the way the game develops, one die roll is probably fine. And don’t be afraid to just hand the party a success if what they do (assuming they are being descriptive) deserves it. Or call the skill challenge a victory.

And finally, always remember that whenever you choose not to use a skill roll, you are denying the player a bonus that they paid for. That is, by choosing to have a high Charisma and train Diplomacy, the player gave up other options. If Diplomacy checks are never rolled in favor of descriptive resolution and anyone can pull that off, regardless of Charisma or skill training, that player has lost out. Perhaps unfairly. Even in scenes wherein I am not using die rolls, I always take into account ability scores and skill training. For instance, in a recent campaign, one player was playing a low-Charisma fighter who, for whatever reason, was also very talkative and tried to play negotiator and peacemaker. I just made sure to interpret everything she said as somehow callous, insulting, or off-putting. People would hear insults that she hadn’t intended or assume she was talking down to them or making threats that she wasn’t.

That feedback is quite useful, and I imagine other DMs will find it beneficial as well. It is a good distinction between important choices and resolving actions; the rule system affects both of those dynamics in the game. I agree that I am still learning, and I will continue to develop my style by playing more sessions and experimenting with new ideas.

I wanted to follow-up on the topic of interactive storytelling. It seems that your goal is to present the party with choices instead of a set of tasks that need to be completed. You outlined different ways to present a battle with a dragon and how to make the party more invested in the outcome. But I think one of your underlying assumptions is that the party will be invested in the lives of townspeople killed by the dragon. What is the party does not care about the villagers dying and takes their sweet time to increase their chances of survival by finding the Orb of Dragon Killing? If they don’t feel invested in imaginary nameless townspeople, then they are making a choice for self-preservation. It might inform you about the group of players you have, but they may just be metagaming to increase their chances of survival.

I realize this is just one example you constructed, but I think DMs (myself included) rely too frequently on moral dilemmas to engage the party. I recall getting fatigued playing Dragon Age: Origins on my laptop while being bombarded with moral quandary after moral quandary. It didn’t help that some of the choices I made seemed to spiral out of control to consequences I did not desire and were not even marginally possible to expect prior to making the decision!

How else might DMs involved the party in interactive storytelling without using moral dilemmas each and every time?

You’re right. A moral dilemma is only a dilemma if the PCs actually care about morals. But let’s go back to the idea of choice. Choice is about resolving internal conflict. So, obviously, the character needs to be conflicted. And that means taking two goals, two things the character wants, and forcing the PC to choose one. For instance, personal risk of death vs. the risk of death of innocents. But any goals can be put into conflict. The trouble is that its hard to give general advice because PCs vary so much, as do the players. As a DM, you have two options: know the PCs and the players well enough to recognize the things they do care about it or set adventure goals that conflict with each other.

For example, imagine the party is tasked with recovering a magical artifact from a temple before an enemy force does. The temple has magical traps and guardians that will protect the temple, but whoever controls the artifact gains control of those magical constructs. The party has to fight its way through the guardians and disarm the traps within a time limit. Supposing they get control of the artifact, the enemy force will show up at the temple gates shortly thereafter and the party will have to fight them off and protect the artifact. Suppose the enemy force is quite dangerously powerful and the party knows it. With enough temple guardians and traps under their control, they can definitely win, but that means that the party has to make a difficult choice: destroy the guardians and disarm the traps or try to rush through and search the temple while leaving as many guardians alive as possible. Every guardian they kill now reduces their defensive power later. But every guardian they leave alive is going to be trying to kill them while they search the temple. And, for the sake of completeness, the guardians are constructs and can’t be disabled by “pulling the killing blow.” The party can’t just beat them to unconsciousness and wake them up because living statue eidolon things don’t go unconscious.

The reason most adventures don’t include strong choices is because they either tend to have just one goal or they have several goals that always line up. Take the example of combat. In most combats, killing all of the monsters is usually the surest way to survive the fight. Because players tend not to consider retreat a choice, survival and winning rarely come into conflict. And that’s an important free tip to remember: players don’t think about survival because they assume all fights are winnable and it takes a lot of work to break them of that assumption. By the time the players come to the conclusion that they are likely to die, the situation has usually become such an emergency that they may not be able to extricate themselves. Never use retreat as one of the possible choices because players just don’t consider it in my experience.

That rabbit's dynamite.

An example of how to turn a combat into a strong choice might be a well-handled escort quest: you know, protect the hapless NPC from harm. But it only works if the party has to risk losing the fight to protect the NPC. Say, by giving up attacks or leaving themselves vulnerable. For example, every time the NPC is injured, he starts making death saves unless someone spends a standard action to heal him. Assume he’s minion. And NPCs only have one healing surge, so that Healing Word is only going to work once. To keep the NPC alive, someone in the party has to occasionally give up an attack. See, giving alternate goals in combat and providing opportunities to end combat early are only really interesting when the party has to give something up or risk losing for them. Otherwise, all of your goals line up and you’re back to just a strategic board game.

Even the dragon situation I mentioned can be robbed of its morality. Suppose the party needs information from an NPC in the town. And that NPC won’t give it unless the players help with the dragon. Will the NPC still be willing to give it up if too many people die waiting for the heroes to get some orb? What if the NPC himself gets killed because, if the players take too long, he will ride into battle himself?

And, with an entire party, you can put several character’s goals in conflict. What if the party paladin wants to face the dragon directly rather than risk one more death. And the rogue needs information about a treasure he desires from the aforementioned NPC. But the cleric and the wizard both feel the risk is too high without the orb. How does the party resolve that conflict? And when the cleric and wizard win out, what happens when the paladin is confronted with the pile of corpses and the rogue’s information is lost? Of course, you risk splitting the party when you do things like this. But… just as its important to understand players won’t retreat, it’s also important to realize players are extremely averse to splitting the party and will generally find ways to stay together. So you can push this a bit. And if things start to get really strained, you can always introduce a third option with some quick improvisation. Just letting the party debate it is valuable.

Of course, there are some people out there who would call that the DM equivalent of metagaming, but, to be frank, I don’t care. If it makes a good story and an engaging game, who cares whether I’m turning my own player’s tendencies against themselves.

As a warning, it is possible to overdo this. Just like any other mode of play, strong choices don’t need to come up all the time. But they should come up because they are where the game really becomes a role-playing game. It’s fine to have fights that are just fights. Skill challenges that are just skill challenges. Adventures that only have one goal. But characters are only characters when forced to make real choices.

That is an interesting comment about retreat never seeming like a viable option to players. I’ve tried a few ways to alert players that a certain mission or area will be very challenging. One method is I created a NPC that sends the party on difficult quests to gather valuable treasure. The party has to decide each time he pops up in the campaign to either take the mission and risk death or satisfy their desire for greater loot and gear. I have several players that love the XP and loot increases but other players in my group fall on the story/roleplay side of the equation. So this gives both of them something to deal with in terms of storytelling, and the conversations between party members is interesting. It is a great point that you need to know what motivates your group of players and adjust your choices accordingly.

However, I think another reason why many adventures lack choice is creating opportunities for choice results in more work for the DM. It already takes a long time to create locations, NPCs, monsters and encounters, but adding in the element of choice can double or triple the amount of work. To stay with your dragon example, it’s relatively easy for the DM to create a description of a town, a handful of NPCs and the adventure hook – kill this dragon that is terrorizing our town. The DM just has to plan out a few encounters on the way to the dragon’s lair. But adding in a choice increases the work. When you introduce the option of pursing the Orb of Dragon Killing, the DM has to create another location and set of encounters to reach the orb. The DM must create obstacles to prevent the party from reaching the orb, even if it’s as simple as going to another place to convince Joey Orbholder to fork over the artifact.

Other than simple practice, how can DMs learn to increase choice more efficiently?

Everything creates more work for the DM. That’s how this game works.

In all seriousness, it comes down to how you prepare for adventures in the first place and how you manage your time. Because, however many choices you include in the game, the party is still going to get through the same amount of stuff in the same time. The key is what you prepare when

Sure, I could prepare the village and the orb cave and the dragon’s lair. Depending on how extensive each of those things is, that might be three weeks of games I’m writing (or two if the party skips the orb cave). Which means all of the upfront prep I do now is prep I won’t have to do next week. Which isn’t terrible. Even if the party doesn’t visit the orb cave dungeon because they confront the dragon immediately, I can still repurpose the orb cave as the “Cave of A Different Magical MacGuffin” and use it later, maybe with some adjustment to encounter levels. So, I still haven’t wasted any time. But maybe you have a fixed amount of time each week, so you can’t prep three week’s of games at once.

Managing prep time is an essential skill for every DM, and it is something that comes with practice. Different DMs need different levels of prep. I don’t prewrite flavor text for instance and I don’t bother to write down story hooks and plot developments. I either keep it in my head or make stuff up on the fly. I rely heavily on improvisation. But my techniques won’t work for DMs who aren’t comfortable with improvising everything or who don’t keep as many plot details in their head.

Its hard, therefore, to give general advice. But if I had to, I’d say this: boil the adventure down to the essential scenes and make sure you are ready for those. For the dragon village, you need the village, you need the dragon, and you need the orb. As long as you have those three things, you can pull the adventure together. In theory, the entire adventure could consist of nothing more than: get hook in village, walk to orb and fight something to claim it, return to village and see devastation caused by dragon, fight dragon. Four scenes minimum. Probably one session if you push it. If the party doesn’t go for the orb. The whole adventure is get hook in village, fight dragon.

Once you’ve got the bare essential minimum scenes designed, use the rest of your prep time to design extra scenes. A skill challenge to research the orb’s location. The dragon’s pet kobolds. A trap that protects the orb cave. And so on. That way, if you run out of prep time, the adventure will still function, but the extra scenes you’ve designed fill things out a bit. Start filling in the areas that seem the thinnest. For example, in the dragon village, if the party doesn’t go for the orb, the adventure is only two steps. So I definitely want to add some extra scenes to the dragon lair before I start adding complications to the orb cave.

If you don’t even have enough time to prep the essential scenes, you need to prioritize and stall. Figure out which scenes you absolutely have to prep to get through the next session. In this case, you absolutely have to have the village. Everything else, you can put off until next week once you know which direction the party is going to head in. So, you prep the village and hooks and then you prep a few “random” encounters or scenes that are simply there to stall the party and to make sure a night of adventure gets filled up. For example, a few wilderness scenes to drag out the travel time would be perfect. A fight with some wilderness beasts. A dangerous river crossing skill challenge. An NPC ranger or druid to chat with and provide local flavor. Whatever. These are things that can be dropped in the party’s path regardless of which direction they go in. And they simply slow the party down and fill time. At the end of the session, the party has decided which way to go, and you can prep that leg of the journey for the next session. No wasted prep time.

Now, stalling is not the best solution. But I’ve used it when I really wasn’t sure which direction the party would go and the various possible directions each involved a lot of prep in themselves. Sometimes, you just have to do it. But when you want to be prepared in advance and not waste game time on extraneous bits, the most important thing to get through your head is to never design an adventure in the order you expect it to played. Don’t design the beginning, then scene one, scene two, scene three, and the climax. Start with the beginning and the end. Then, figure out which scenes are vital for getting from the beginning to the end. Then start filling in the extraneous scenes. Prioritize your game prep so that if something unexpected happens, you can still pull an adventure out. And, even if you think everything is ready, be prepared to stall. You can prepare a few extra stalling encounters or you can simply assemble them on the fly, mixing and matching bits and pieces from other encounters. Don’t be ashamed to slow your party down to adjust for something unexpected.

Apart from stalling, extra encounters are handy things to have for other reasons. If the party is floundering or losing interest, an exciting encounter out of the blue can provide a vital clue or just give them a kick in the pants to get them moving. Or it gets them excited and gets their blood pumping. It also allows you to cut other scenes out and not worry that you won’t have enough game to fill your session. Sometimes encounters fall flat. Combats that looked good on paper turn out to be dull or just too easy. Skill challenges fail to engage the party. Or the party misses an encounter or manages to do something that invalidates the encounter. Having extra encounters gives you some breathing room to manage your encounters and pace your game.

A DM who keeps a folder of extra encounters and takes a few minutes to scale them up every couple of weeks to keep pace with the party is never in danger of being caught by surprise. You can have a few combats designed in there on fairly generic maps and use them to stretch travel time. You can write generic skill challenges for “researching something” or “negotiating something” or “dealing with a wilderness obstacle” or “we’re lost” in a sort of Mad Libs style. Honestly, with the Deluxe DM Screen, its easy to improvise skill challenges on the fly. Never throw away anything you don’t use: be it a dungeon, an encounter, or a whole branch of an adventure. Whatever you don’t use, put it in the folder and add it to your list of “stuff to throw in.”

Of course, I may not be the best person to give advice about adventure prep. I’m very minimalist, as I think I noted. I have had more than a few sessions where my entire prep consisted of some stat blocks and a list of hastily scribbled names. I rely very heavily on memorizing the details of my world and my stories, I tend to write a lot in my head, and I improvise a lot. I think if I ever ended up running a game I was truly, fully prepared for, I’d go into shock and die. But that’s just me.

I continue to experiment with how I prepare for gaming sessions. I have written down everything in advance or planned out things extensively in my head without writing specific notes for the session. I’m still not certain what is most effective, although I believe writing out potential dialogue for NPCs is helpful for me. Even if I simply rift from my notes without reading, it provides me with a framework to touch on important topics. I’ve noticed that I’ll sometimes forget to address a specific issue if I don’t have the notes. Having everything planned out is helpful, but it gets back to the balance issue of trying to plan for any and all party decisions.

But you offered wonderful suggestions for that dilemma. And I never really structured my thoughts in terms of “stalling” the party, but that is the type of DM-centric advice I need. The stalling technique allows the players to continue enjoying the game, but it takes away the pressure on the DM to prepare for each session to potentially be all things for the party. In 4th Edition, I think the easiest way to slow down the party is to throw a combat encounter at them. But that can also be dangerous if you are running them through combats just for the sake of filling time. Once or twice might not be a problem, but relying on the combat stalling technique too frequently would create a boring game for the players and the DM.

Shifting gears a bit to something you touched on earlier, combat can serve multiple purposes in the game. It can be fun for the party to beat on some bad guys and use their powers, but combat can also further the plot. A complication for me is the notion of combat as attrition. To continue with your example above, you inserted a combat encounter with the “dragon’s pet kobolds,” which serves to extend the plot thread and fill time. Certainly a skirmish with kobolds is enjoying in its own right, but it serves to soften up the party for the dragon. If the party found the dragon immediately without an obstacle, then they could expend all of their powers on the dragon and likely make short work of him. Or metagame if the battle seemed too easy because the assumption might be, “There is a bigger threat in the next room.”

Attrition is a big factor in 4th Edition. You talked about a combat sweet spot of four combat encounters in an adventuring day. If we estimate that each combat is approximately five minutes, then that is 20 minutes of fighting in a 24-hour period. The sweet spot is limiting if I want to run the party through a multiple combat- and non-combat encounters in a given environment in one day. I offered ideas on the topic of extended rests, and I continue to experiment with extending the party but keeping the game fair. I believe an Endurance check every Milestone or so to regain surges is a good method to extend the day. But players get frustrated when they don’t have their Daily Powers.

Combat frequently is used to grind down the party and force them to use resources like healing surges and Daily and Item Powers. I know you talked about this in Tearing 4E a New One: Short Rests and Encounter Resources, but it’s still something I struggle with because the mechanics do not line up with the stories I like to lay out for the party. Do you have any new or additional thoughts on this subject?

Okay, let’s see what fresh controversy we can stir up, yes? First of all, attrition is NOT a big factor in 4E. And that’s by design. Whether that’s good or bad is up to the group. Let me explain what I mean though: the attrition is meaningless. There are two primary things that get drained by an adventuring day: healing surges and daily powers. I already mentioned that the game is balanced on the assumption that each PC shouldn’t be spending multiple dailies in an encounter. And that works well because of the “but I might need it later” mentality that plagues gamers. Unless the players somehow decide they are facing “the only fight of the day,” the daily power attrition shouldn’t be an issue. And, when you get down to it, the standard daily power is an extra die of damage which is an extra 3-6 points of damage output and a strong effect. An extra one here or there shouldn’t break a combat. If you consider an action point to basically be another free at-will attack, they become the extra die of damage if the party doesn’t manage its daily powers well.

Healing surges are a different matter. While they dwindle throughout the day and are harder to manage, they have almost no bearing on a combat. Healing in combat is pretty tightly controlled so that, as long as each PC enters the fight with two or three healing surges, the number of surges they have won’t usually be an issue. And if the party is below that threshold, they will take an extended rest. And the DM should allow it unless he is seriously trying to kill a PC. That’s not to say the DM should let the party just drop to sleep where they are standing. He might require them to leave the dungeon or take steps to protect themselves, but the smart party can handle that. If there is a time pressure on the adventure and it requires the PCs to get through more than four encounters before they sleep, the DM designed a poorly balanced adventure.

The point is that extra dailies or too few dailies won’t break a fight or two and healing surges won’t impact a fight because they sit firmly outside of it. Attrition just isn’t a factor. As the party spends or loses resources, they aren’t really taxed. Pushing forward doesn’t get any harder. And, as I said, that’s by design. It makes it easier to design individual encounters and build adventures around them. You always know the approximate power level of the party. You don’t have to worry if they have had a string of bad fights. Or if they face encounters in the wrong order. But they aren’t rewarded too much for handling fights well either. Each fight happens in a vacuum. Attrition is a fact, I won’t argue that. But it has very little impact.

My only complaint about this (apart from pointing out that the nova-then-rest strategy is an optimal strategy) is that 4E has a wonderful combat system in which PCs and monsters can do so much more than just beat on one another until someone’s hit point bar falls off, but because there are no rewards or penalties for how the fight is handled tactically (because each fight is in a vacuum), it all seems sort of meaningless. Its sort of like I said earlier with skill challenges: the outcome is basically succeed and continue or fail and don’t continue. We’re just making a lot of die rolls to get that answer. But, fortunately, the combats are fun in and of themselves. And that seems to be enough for many.

If you really want to extend the day, you could just drop healing surges altogether, make Second Wind an encounter power, and just be done with it. Or double or triple the number of healing surges. It just won’t have any impact on how the party handles fights unless your party is frequently getting into fights when they are dangerously low on surges. It just doesn’t matter. Gamma World did just that. Then, you can have the party romping around the dungeon for hours and hours and daily powers become the only attrition mechanic. And then, hell, just recharge all dailies every four encounters. Have super milestones. Or let them recharge at plot relevant points. Or allow PCs to spend an Action Point during short rests to recharge a spent daily power. Maybe keep that from working on magic item powers, though. Or maybe change the rules: action points don’t grant extra actions. Instead, action points fuel daily powers. Each PC starts the day with four and regains one each milestone. That’d probably work too. Though, if you allow Essentials classes, you might want to rethink that and just go with the “action points can recharge dailies at short rests” idea.

But my glib answer is this: if the mechanics of the game don’t line up with the stories you want to tell, you have three choices (1) rewrite the mechanics, (2) tell different stories, (3) play a different game. The first one is an okay option, but its time-consuming and its tricky and requires a lot of experimentation. You have to recognize that the game is going wrong because the mechanics are off and fudge the hell out of it to save the game. And the party needs to understand that all changes are subject to review and revision. The second one is tolerable for some, but I’d rather follow a gelatinous cube around and clean up after it with my tongue than change the way I run games. Nowadays, I tend to opt for the third one. You might actually enjoy previous editions more as a DM if you are looking for the dwindling resources, rising tension, attrition game. But be prepared for the challenge of balancing encounters to randomly fluctuating power levels as a result. Or, you might give Warhammer Fantasy RP 3rd Edition by Fantasy Flight Games a looksee. It is very similar to 4E in a lot of ways, but attrition and lasting consequences are a bigger part of the game. But some people seem to get really crazy when you suggest changing games. I remember once saying that if a game is getting in the way of my stories, I change games, and a fellow gamer on Twitter told me I was “admitting defeat.” I don’t get that attitude, myself. But it goes hand in hand with the fervent belief that any RPG can be made to do anything.

Don't like the system, then it's back to the drawing board.

The fact that combat exists in a vacuum in 4E has strengths. In 3rd Edition, attrition could become a terrible problem. One unlucky combat could keep the party from being able to handle anything after it. But, in 4E, you can throw a few encounters before the dragon and not worry about what state the party will be in when they get to the dragon’s lair. Provided they have enough healing surges to be willing to enter the fight. And honestly, if the party is foolish enough to enter a fight without an average of two-to-three healing surges per PC, they deserve to die.

My thoughts on this matter are influenced by recently playing through a nine-hour session of 1st Edition. During the game, our party played through 20+ rooms and somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 combat encounters. Besides hit points and consumables (and spells if you are a Magic User or Cleric), there is nothing in the way of attrition for the players. That is quite different from 4th Edition, which has the party losing surges and power options throughout the day. You just wrote above:

If there is a time pressure on the adventure and it requires the PCs to get through more than four encounters before they sleep, the DM designed a poorly balanced adventure.

I find myself strongly disagreeing with this statement. First, you are describing the exact issue I have with the system as it’s designed. It seems the canvas I have available as a DM is four or five combat encounters in a “day” in the game. And that canvas works for many stories and situations. But it doesn’t work for others, and if I want to extend the party past that point, I’ve “designed a poorly balanced adventure.” That thought process seems very limiting to me.

Second, the system gives the pacing of the combat and story to the party and takes it out of the DM’s hands. The party will engage in combat until they are down on resources (see attrition) and will decide to take an extended rest. You even mentioned above:

And honestly, if the party is foolish enough to enter a fight without an average of two-to-three healing surges per PC, they deserve to die.

Moving ahead with combat without adequate surges would be suicidal for the party, and I completely understand that decision since I also play in a campaign and get worried when I’m down to 2 or 3 surges and no extended rest is in sight. To complicate matters, I’ve seen combats from both sides of the screen that turn into slugfests when the encounter was simply meant to be a minor roadblock on the way to the big boss. Even if you stick with the four combat encounters in a day, if the party has a difficult time in one or two of them and are down on resources, they will be forced to rest or “they deserve to die.” So each fight does not exist in a vacuum, especially if you are strict with when you allow the party to “stop” to take an extended rest.

If I stick with your three methods to adapt to this issue, I have altered the mechanics and still continue to experiment with rules to open up my options as a DM. The current mechanics put the pacing of the adventure in the hands of the PC’s, and I prefer to share that load and give us all more options. By allowing them to regain surges and potentially Daily Powers without the need for an extended rest, it allows the party to press on when they otherwise would need to take a rest. Even if they are in the middle of a “dungeon” or enemy barracks or chilling in a hostile territory in the Shadowfell, they are forced to take a rest if they don’t have healing surges. This is what I mean when I say that attrition is a big factor in 4th Edition.

It seems we somewhat disagree on this issue, although I think we’re saying the same things in different ways. Now that we have successfully destroyed almost every facet of 4th Edition, is there anything left in the wreckage to discuss?!

I think we can agree to disagree on the existence of attrition in earlier editions. I personally remember a lot of problems with parties in 2nd and 3rd draining themselves and dealing with the problem of them approaching the next encounter a little too overdrawn. But I am not going to apologize for telling you that you are building an unbalanced adventure if you’re trying to push a party far beyond five encounters without a nap. After all, its something that you have already said you’ve found yourself struggling against. Like it or not: you’re pushing the system beyond what it can do. Of course, if you want to modify the system, that’s up to you. But within the bounds of the system, you’re going off spec.

As for the rest, I think you and I are looking very differently at attrition and what it means. Quite frankly, attrition that sets a hard time limit isn’t attrition to me. It’s just a time limit. And that’s how I see most of the attrition in 4E. The daily power attrition, from a DM perspective, really doesn’t affect the balance of encounters. A party can easily push on through an encounter or three of average difficulty without any dailies. Players, of course, are whiny and see it differently. But if my party had the surges, I would think nothing of pushing them well past the point of drained dailies. And sometimes players need to pushed beyond their comfort zone. It may bother them at first, but the victories are all the sweeter for it.

For me, attrition needs to have a strong impact on each encounter. When a party is drained, they need to feel it. Really feel it in terms of “wow, we’re really pushing here.” It goes back to that “choices with consequences” thing. And I don’t think 4E does that. In fact, I know it doesn’t. It was designed not to. But that was a choice and I will live with it. Honestly, I can’t complain about that part of 4E and then turn around and complain about how hard it was to balance encounters in 2nd and 3rd. I just wish it didn’t feel like we were going from one extreme to the other. Personal opinion though.

Wow. We have covered a lot of ground here. But I hope it hasn’t really been about destroying the game. Because, that’s not the point. In terms of encounter balance, 4E does exactly what it was trying to do: simplify planning for the DM. And that’s a good thing because it means more people can discover the art of DMing, grow frustrated, burn out, and eventually become angry DMs themselves. But – whatever game you are playing – if you want to be a good DM, you have to understand the system you are running and what it’s doing. And you can’t coddle it. You have to admit that the system, as written, does limit some of your freedom. It’s a price you pay for a certain game experience. It is up to the individual DM to decide what to do with that knowledge – change the system, change the game, or change systems – they are all valid options. If you don’t try to understand the system, if you just carrying on doing whatever, you’ll probably get something that works. I won’t deny that. But you may be denying yourself the chance to do something even better with it. It is okay to say 4E doesn’t provide strong tools for role-playing or interactive storytelling. Because you don’t need the tools. You can make it happen. But if you want the tools, you can also add them. Or you can find a game that gives you what you want.

This is not about insulting, denigrating, or devaluing the system. It’s about understanding the system so that people can make better games – if they want to – without growing frustrated or giving up on 4E. Or without struggling to figure out why the game doesn’t seem to be working the way they want it. In other words, it’s about helping more people do more with 4E. It really does have some great strengths and unique innovations and a combat engine that, in my opinion, the is best I’ve ever seen in an RPG, bar none. I wouldn’t have come back to it otherwise. I am running it again, but with house rules and modifications to spackle over some of the weaknesses I see and to break out of some of the restraints I see in the system.

I really do want to thank you for the interview. It has been great fun and very insightful. Some of the things we discussed are things I had never really analyzed or put into words before. I also appreciate your patience. I know I am extremely wordy. Hell, I can’t even say thank you without a full paragraph. If I’m not careful, I might need two paragraphs. So, I’m just going to stop typing right now.

Scott, I agree with you that our dissection of the game system does not mean we do not enjoy it. I look forward to DMing 4th Edition every other weekend, and enjoy playing my rogue in another campaign on the alternate weeks. I’d like to play more! Although we discussed some issues in the system that seem to limit our options as DMs, I think we both embrace the game. The reason we just spent weeks talking about 4th Edition is because it is a dynamic, compelling game that creates wonderful opportunities for the players and DM. I hope the people reading the interview understand that perspective.

I want to thank you for diving in to each question and offering great suggestions for DMing and observations on 4th Edition. I certainly will benefit from the discussion, and I believe others will benefit from your perspective as well. I look forward to following your site to see the direction you go in next. And if you ever want to create a bi-weekly six-hour long podcast where we talk about D&D back and forth until everyone listening falls asleep, then count me in. The Iddy & Angry Show has a certain ring, don’t you think? Although the The Angry & Iddy Show has its merits too. ;-)

Enjoy GenCon! (I’m quite jealous!)

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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10 Responses to Ego Check: Scott Rehm of The Angry DM (Part II)

  1. Kilsek says:

    Thank you so much for these truly outstanding interview posts! As always, tremendous game design, game balance, and game management insights from both yourself and Angry.

    Angry is great because there’s no pulling of punches on D&D or games, plus in-depth explanation for every incident of said non-punch-pulling, which is simply awesome.

    Great stuff guys!

  2. That first edition game was 38 Rooms….. 20 encounters (on the nose). It took a total time of 8.5 hours.

  3. The Id DM says:

    Kilsek, that you for the kind feedback. The interview with Scott/Angry started several weeks ago, and probably would have run on if GenCon didn’t create a sense of urgency! I will certain benefit from some of his insights into the game.

    Dungeon Maestro, we had 20 combat encounters? Wow, that is great. It was good times.

  4. Jeff M says:

    Nice. Scott is a good guy, I like his stuff and it’s funny because it’s true. Being a DM can be tiring, and then nobody else wants to do it so you can play.

    Thanks for the interview, nice questions and I enjoyed the always frank answers from Scott.

  5. S'mon says:

    Thanks for the interview.

    Re healing surges – “It’s not attrition – it’s a hard limit!” doesn’t make much sense to me. I’ve seen a PC Fighter go into battle on 0 healing surges in an attempt to rescue an NPC. Going into battle with 2+ healing surges is optimal, it’s what every player wants, but it’s certainly possible that PCs may be forced, or feel bound, to fight with less.

    ‘PCs don’t retreat’ also doesn’t fit my experience, and it would be a sucky game if that were the case. 4e mechanics to encourage PCs to keep fighting until it’s too late, and TPKs seem more common in 4e, whereas individual PC death is less frequent. But PCs certainly will flee from overwhelming force. I’ve even seen a 4h level party attempt a fighting retreat vs a 7th level red dragon – 4 escaped, 2 got eaten, but they rescued the damsel that was the point of the mission.

    • theangrydm says:

      From a perspective of game balance and encounter design, a DM needs to be aware that the 4E system does not expect PCs to enter a fight without being able to power their healing abilities. A DM who forces his party not to do so is taking a chance, just like a DM who builds an encounter with too large an XP budget is taking a chance. I am not saying it can’t be done. I’m talking about how the system itself is put together.

      There have been a number of discussions about retreat from encounters in 4E over the years. I have participated in a couple. One ended up becoming the topic of a blog carnival. I can’t speak for your personal experiences, I can only speak for my own, and also those that have been shared with me.

      And, there are those who would argue that 2 PCs deaths in exchange for the damsel should not necessarily be considered a success.

      • S'mon says:

        I agree the system expects PCs to enter battle with healing surges available, and they’re more likely to die if not. The guy who went in at 0 was taken down to 1 hp & 1 death save away from death, but my PC managed to drag him out, make the 15 on an unskilled heal check, and save him, which made a nice dramatic scene.

        Retreat – in 4e the tendency is to think you can win, and not retreat if you think you can win. The players weren’t ecstatic about losing 2 PCs, but I was running a very lethal campaign (centred on Necromancer Games’ Vault of Larin Karr) so it was a relative victory – they had previously lost 4/6 PCs when attacking an orc lair, so 2/6 to a red dragon wasn’t so bad. And they were being used as sacrificial bait by their noble employer to destroy a local Chaos cult, as was the damsel – a maid impersonating the noble’s daughter – so surviving at all was not bad.

        That said, their big mistake was, for the 2nd time in 2 sessions, that they went into the final battle of the adventure without short-resting after the penultimate battle. This was due to a particular player playing his Paladin with suicidal recklessness. The encounter was not intended to be *that* lethal, given good play. They were also missing their Rogue, who could have freed the damsel much faster, giving more time to escape the dragon.

  6. The Id DM says:

    As a player and DM, I don’t consider retreat all that often from either side of the screen. There was only one time when I stacked the odds so overwhelmingly in favor of the opponents because I wanted to force the party to parlay instead of fight. And even with the odds staked against them, some of the party needed great convincing from other players to stand down. I had their ship surrounded by over 10 orc ships – each of which featured numerous orcs and lit flaming catapults. If the party would have decided to fight, then I’m not sure how I would have handled it. I believe the players are under the impression that all fights are “winnable.” And if the fight is the first or second combat encounter of the day, then that feeling is even higher. But again, I can only speak from my experiences in the two games I play.

  7. S'mon says:

    Another factor is that retreat may not seem possible, and the PCs prefer “death before dishonour”. In the Savage Worlds game on Monday the DM put us in an unwinnable fight, but from the POV of my attractive female PC it was a choice between surrendering to and being raped to death by the biker gang, or going down fighting and take as many of the SOBs down with her as possible.

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