Discussing Optimizers With Misfits

I recently had the pleasure of being invited on the Level Up podcast hosted by the fine folks at Roving Band of Misfits. I cannot thank them enough for asking me onto the show. The focus of the episode is Character Optimization, and how to deal with players that may go “too far” or “not far enough” with optimizing their character.

It is an interesting topic because it relates to many group dynamics I have discussed previously on this site. My primary piece of advice is to evaluate the attitude of all players in the group regarding optimization, and figure out if there is a disconnect that creates tension. We discuss a variety of potential problems that can arise if one or two players are “optimizers” while the rest of the players are more “casual.” And we attempt to provide solutions for how to get everyone on the same page so all players can enjoy the game at their own pace. The conversation was enlightening to me, and makes me feel fortunate that my groups have not experienced much in terms of optimizer/non-optimizer squabbles!

(It also allowed me to receive feedback on my Rogue’s one-round 2 Encounter, 1 Daily, Action Point, 1 Daily combination that another player [frequent Commentor on the blog, Wayne] helped me plan for at Level 15. Do the hosts find it to be ridiculous? Find out!)

One point of clarification I’d like to add before you listen is that I responded to a question with an answer that – in retrospect – may seem harsh. I was asked, “What is the opposite of a character that is optimized?”

My first response was, “Ineffective.”

I believe I said this because Dungeons & Dragons is a game that requires the players to have some mastery over rules and the abilities/nuances of their characters. While often referred to as a cooperative game, the players are still facing challenges both in and out of combat. A character with woeful statistics can be a drag on party resources. It reminds me of a saying from the sporting world, “The team is only as good as its worse player.”

But one thing that optimization takes is time. It takes more time to understand the rules and options thoroughly enough to build a character that can take advantage of (some might say exploit) the system. And many people do not have the time – or motivation – to explore the many options to build such a finely-tuned character. I would guess that most players fall into this category; their characters are built casually with one eye toward creating an effective character and the other eye on the million other things going on in his or her life. I certainly fall into this category.

If we were to conceptualize Character Optimization as a single variable, the lowest scores would place characters in the “Ineffective” range while the highest scores would place characters in the “Effective” range. The problems likely arise when players in the same group are at different ends of this spectrum or – perhaps more accurately – perceive they are at different ends of the spectrum. Changing the language from “optimized” to “effective” may help to understand the conflict that could arise between a player and DM, and two or more players.

The players play to win the game, and some of them may have different ideas of how to win the game – or even what winning the game means. It is a worthwhile topic to explore with your gaming group, and one way to approach the optimization “Cheese Weasel” issue.

Now go listen to the podcast for more discussion on the topic!

Analyzing Combat Encounters – Returning to the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series

Introduction

Numerous voices are currently discussing the resting mechanics and speed of combat encounters during D&D 4e games. More specifically, the problem addressed is the sometimes agonizing length of combat encounters and how it can drain the momentum from an otherwise good night of gaming.

The most recent addition to the fray is the thoughtful article by Robert J. Schwalb, which presents a possible solution for the slow grind of combat and awkward rest mechanics in 4e. As the speed of combat is discussed on forums and blogs (not to mention blowing up Twitter on some days), one thing seems to be missing from the overall discussion.

Hard data.

Perhaps I’m not looking in the right place, but I haven’t seen anyone analyze a gaming session in terms of how much time is spent on specific tasks before, during and after combat encounters. The thought occurred to me that I could record our next gaming session, but I reailzed that no one reading this article would know if our gaming group is similar to the majority of groups out there or an outlier. The data would be easy for many to dismiss and ignore.

However, I remembered the Dungeons & Dragons Penny Arcade & PvP Podcast Series, which is one of the main reasons I got back into D&D in the first place. The Second Series introduced me to the mechanics of 4e and reminded me how fun it could be to sit around a table with some friends, goof around, roll dice and beat the hell out of monsters.

Also, everyone can still access these podcasts (and if you haven’t, then you’re absolutely cheating yourself) to determine if their home games are in the same ballpark in terms of pace and style. There are other articles that discuss and respond to the series, but I believe a time-analysis will show interesting – and perhaps surprising – information about how time is spent during any given combat encounter in 4e, and how best to alter the experience to improve the game for DMs and PCs.

Method

The first task was to create categories to code the podcasts. I kept the categories simple because it is possible to spend hours listening, rewinding, and listening again to get exact statistics. I settled on the following two categories to analysis the time of the turns during combat:

  1. Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions
  2. Rolling, Calculating & Results

If I had more time, then I would expand upon these categories. But they will do for now.  I split each PCs’ turn into the above categories. The first category counts everything between the DM informing the player it is their turn to when the PC decides on their attack and prepares to roll. The second category begins when the PC rolls, calculates damage (if applicable) and any other discussions before the DM informs the next PC it is their turn. 

I am not including the first episode in the series in the analysis; the group spends approximately 31 minutes on introductions and role-playing to begin the adventure. During those 31 minutes, the party interacts with each other and various NPCs. They ultimately arrive at their destination, and a combat encounter begins just as the episode concludes.

I analyzed the second episode of the series, which begins immediately with the process of assigning initiative. Initiative is established within 30 seconds, and I removed that small fragment from the time analysis. The combat encounter includes no terrain effects except for a large hole in the floor of the tower; the hole never comes into play although it is discussed tactically as an option. The enemies for the encounter are two human crossbowman and four human minions.

First, I recorded how long each turn lasted for the PCs and the DM. Whenever the DM prompted a PC that is was their turn, the timer started. As soon as the PC made their decisions and rolled dice to attack, then I stopped recording time for the Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions portion of the turn, and started timing for the Rolling/Calculating & Results portion of their turn.

For example, Binwin Bronzebottom is the first PC to act in the encounter. The DM notifies Binwin that his turn is ready 30 seconds into play (after initiative was decided). During the next 162 seconds, Binwin asks the DM questions about the environment, consults with his party and debates on movement and action options. Binwin decides on his actions, including an attack, and decides to roll his d20 at the 3:12 mark of the podcast. These actions were placed in the first category described above – Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions.

Binwin rolls and consults with his party to ensure he is adding up his modifiers correctly. He checks with the DM and is informed his attack hits. The DM records the damage and then announces at 4:34 of the podcast that it is the monsters’ turn. The 97 seconds between the 3:12 mark when Binwin rolled and the 4:34 mark when the next turn starts were placed in the second category described above – Rolling/Calculation & Results.

All turns were recorded with this system (yes, it took awhile!).

Results

The results are presented in a few ways below. To begin, let’s simply look at how much time was spent in each round.

  

Continue reading “Analyzing Combat Encounters – Returning to the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series”

Allow Myself to Introduce . . . Myself

Hello,

Thank you for seeking out/stumbling upon this site.  I am looking forward to writing about my experiences with Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition (D&D 4e). The majority of posts will focus on the task of running the game as the Dungeon Master (DM), although I will discuss my experiences as a player character (PC) on occasion. 

I started playing D&D 4e back in the summer of 2009. Before that, I hadn’t played D&D in 15-20 years. I’m now 34, and don’t have nearly the amount of free time on my hands as I did when I was a teenager! This results in me having to do what I can in a short amount of time to get ready for each night that I DM. If you’d like to know more details about me (or why I chose the name, The Id DM, please check out the appropriately named About Me page.

If I can offer only one piece of advice in this first post, then here it is – All PCs should try to DM a few sessions, and all DMs should play a few sessions as a PC.

I played 4e for months before I tried to create and run an adventure, and I continue to play as a PC on the weeks when I am not DMing a separate campaign.  The knowledge and perspective gained from functioning on both sides of the DM screen have increased my enjoyment while playing and DMing.

I’ll elaborate on this and many other topics in the future. I look forward to receiving feedback and interacting with other DMs and PCs out there.