Friday, May 3, 2019

D20 Deep-Dive--the Combat Mini-Game

Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons is enormously popular and successful, ushering in a level of visibility for the game (and for ttrpgs as a whole) that hasn't been seen since the early 80s.  Moreover, it's good--it is simple, accessible, the mechanics mostly work the way they were designed to work, and provides that inchoate but important "feel" of previous editions of D&D.  Many, many people--both new to the hobby and old veterans--are playing it and enjoying it.  And I am one of those people, as I am currently running Waterdeep: Dragon Heist with my "online" game group.  I'm having fun, and I think my players are having fun as well.

But 5e is not the only d20 game out there (let alone the only kind of ttrpg).  For veterans, that's likely not worth saying, but there are so many people who have come into the hobby recently via 5e who may not know that there are other options out there.  The biggest alternative in the d20 space in terms of player base is Pathfinder, but Pathfinder is in a bit of limbo right now as we wait for the final version of the 2nd edition of the game (especially as, according to my wholly unscientific survey of discussion on the Interwebs, reaction to the playtest has been very mixed).  But there is also a vocal and dedicated Dungeon Crawl Classics community (a game I have played enough to know that it is a very well done version of a particular tone and aesthetic of D&D that is very much not my cup of tea), and everyone says Shadow of the Demon Lord is great (which I have not read or played).

But, for me, the truly outstanding 5e alternative out there is 13th AgeI have a lengthy review of 13th Age that I wrote a while ago, and I recently talked about the new 13th Age in Glorantha expansion.  In those, I talked a little bit about the differences between 5e and 13th Age, but  in this series I would like to do a deeper dive into the design of those two games.  What is particularly interesting to me about the two side-by-side is how they each embraced different solutions to the same fundamental design goals and design challenges.  This is not what actually happened, but one could almost imagine that someone (Wizards of the Coast, I guess) gave the same design document for a new edition of D&D to two different studios and had them work on the project independently.  This resulted in solutions that were both similar in some ways and very different in others.  It is these similarities and differences that I want to explore in depth.

The goal in doing this is not to argue that one or the other is better.  As I said, I really like both.  If you put a gun to my head and made me pick, I would pick 13th Age, but there are real strengths and weaknesses to both.  And it is certainly not to convince 5e DMs and players who are enjoying 5e to switch to 13th Age.  Instead, by highlighting the differences and similarities, I hope to do two things.  The first is to speak to some subset of 5e players and DMs, especially new ones, who are struggling with 5e not doing what they want it to do and not understanding why.  For those folks, 13th Age may solve their problems, or at least point them in the direction of other games that will solve their problems.  The second group is the people, again especially the brand new folks, who are very happy with 5e but are looking to understand a little better how it works and why it works the way it does.  Digging into 13th Age puts a spotlight on the design decisions behind 5e, allowing players and DMs of 5e to lean into the strengths of their game.

In doing this comparison, I am going to use two other points of reference that I think are helpful in understanding why the two games are designed the way they are.  The first is 4th Edition D&D.  I have noticed of late that 4e is undergoing a bit of critical re-evaluation (examples here, and here), which I think is both inevitable and justified on the merits.  Nevertheless, both 13th Age and 5e were designed in large measure as a reaction to 4e and the complaints and problems people had with 4e, by people who knew 4e and worked on 4e, and thus had a good understanding of what those issues were.  As a result, 4e acts as a kind of foil for both designs, setting the boundaries for what both games were trying not to be (though, as we will see, in different ways).  The second point of reference is Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra's Dungeon World, the most popular and relevant manifestation of the "indie," "narratively-focused" design school as applied to D&D-style fantasy.  Both games, but especially 13th Age, are reacting to the ideas and design ethos that informs games like Dungeon World, incorporating them into the "mainstream" of game design.

[Note:  I understand that "Dungeon Master" and "DM" are copyrighted terms and are strictly speaking only applicable to the person who is running D&D.  For this series, however, I am going to avoid confusion and refer to the people running all of these games as "the DM."]

So, let's get to it, and talk first about combat.  There is a panel discussion involving Matt Mercer, Matt Colville, Koebel, and D&D 5e Creative director Mike Mearls that is fascinating and well worth your time (they had a second one as well).  At about the 25 minute mark, they get into a discussion about the interaction between narrative elements and game-mechanical pieces of D&D, especially the game mechanical pieces surrounding combat.  What they are speaking to is what I call the "combat mini-game"--the way in which combat is a distinct mode of play that is walled-off from the other interactions in the game (Koebel uses a great example of the Final Fantasy games, where the screen flashes suddenly and you are dropped into a different sort of game view, with different rules).

Not all role-playing games have a combat mini-game.  Dungeon World is designed very intentionally to make the combat interactions just like all other game interactions, using the same rules.  Perhaps the biggest marker for this is that you don't roll initiative in Dungeon World, which (as Mike Mearls mentions on the panel) is the normal signal that the combat mini-game is kicking in.  So, while there is combat in Dungeon World (or, at least, there can be), there is no separate combat mini-game in Dungeon World.  Similarly, the Cypher System games like Numenera have very little in the way of a combat mini-game--which they do have an initiative roll, there are very few combat-only rules.

But Dungeon World and Numenera are, of course, not d20 games (though, both are inspired by D&D/d20, in different ways).  Generally speaking, D&D in all of its incarnations have relatively robust combat mini-games.  But even in the d20 space, there is a sliding scale of how "strong" the combat mini-game is from game to game--how distinct the combat experience is from the rest of the play experience.  This reflects the fact that there is a clear trade-off involved between stronger and weaker combat mini-games--the stronger the mini-game, the easier it is to build robust, fun combat systems (because you have a closed sand-box to design in) but the more combat will feel disconnected from the rest of the game experience; the weaker the mini-game, the more the game will feel like one continuous experience, but the greater chance you have to run into problems and discontinuities between combat and non-combat.

In the panel discussion, Mercer made the case that the discontinuity between the combat mini-game and the rest of the game was one of the problems with 4e.  And 4e, without question, has a very strong combat mini-game, and Mercer was not alone in disliking the discontinuity between combat and non-combat.  The vast majority of 4e powers were explicitly and exclusively designed for use in combat, expressed in purely game mechanical terms.  By expressing the powers in very technical, game-mechanical terms, you limit their application in the more free-form non-combat situation.  And if most of your powers are exclusively for use in combat, you don't have all that much to do in non-combat situations from a mechanical standpoint.

Fifth Edition, taking cues particularly from 2nd Edition D&D and earlier, blurs the lines between combat and non-combat abilities, "weakening" the combat mini-game to promote a smoother transition from combat to non-combat.  One way it does this (as pointed out by Colville in his excellent, generally pro-4e, video beginning at 33:30) is by going back to natural language descriptions of spells, which makes it easier for players and DMs to apply the spell results to non-combat situations.  In doing so, you sacrifice precision for purposes of combat in favor of utility in the non-combat space.

While I think 5e succeeds in bridging the gap between combat and non-combat, this design decision is not without trade-offs.  Consider the kerfuffle around the spell Healing Spirit, found in Xanathar's Guide to EverythingHealing Spirit is a 2nd level Druid/Ranger spell that conjures a spirit that appears in a particular 5 foot square up to 60 feet away, has a duration of 1 minute (with Concentration), and can be moved by the caster using a bonus action to a different spot within 30 feet of the original position.  Anyone who passes through the square heals 1d6 HP, and you can juice it up with higher level slots.  In combat, which is the environment that the spell was clearly designed for, it works fine.  While it does provide the potential to heal multiple party members at range, it brings with it several downsides--Concentration means the caster can't have any other buffs up and is subject to having the spell ended if the caster takes damage and flubs the Concentration check, there is the opportunity cost of using your bonus action to move the spirit versus other uses of the bonus action (especially for a Ranger), and there are the tactical considerations of getting people that need healing to the spot on the battlefield where the can be healed.

The problem is that all of those downsides melt away when you are out-of-combat--all of the party members can just sit in a 5 foot area for a minute and heal 10d6 HP, at the cost of a 2nd level spell slot.  After some back-and-forth, 5e rules guru Jeremy Crawford eventually suggested the ad hoc fix of limiting the number of times the spirit could heal people.  And, I mean, that's OK, but it speaks to the basic disconnect between the combat and non-combat modes of play.  Because the combat mini-game has more elements and moving parts, the rules designers have a bigger toolbox to limit and balance abilities in combat than they do in non-combat situations.  And if you balance a spell around those combat-only limitations, like Healing Spirit does, you are opening yourself up to non-combat problems and abuses.  It's hard to balance combat and non-combat uses of spells because, while the combat mini-game is weaker in 5e and in 4e, it's still strong enough that the rules for combat and non-combat are different, while the design ethos of 5e says that a spell has to work in both spheres.

And it is here where 13th Age is most different from 5e.  Rather than weakening the combat mini-game visa ve 4e, 13th Age if anything strengthens it.  It is always dangerous to speak to design intent when you are not the designer, but my sense from the game and from interviews with 13th Age's designers Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet is that they viewed the problem with 4e not in terms of the non-combat elements being different from the combat elements, but that the non-combat elements in 4e were not sufficiently robust.  Thus, 13th Age grafts onto the d20 chassis a set of mechanics that are inspired by narrative-oriented games--backgrounds and Icon relationship dice and One Unique Things and the Montage system (which wasn't in the Corebook but is a key part of their published adventures and is in the short but very well done GM advice book that comes with the GM screen).  There is a lot more to the non-combat elements of play in 13th Age than in 4e, and so if your critique of 4e is that the DM had to wholly improvise everything outside of fights (except for skill challenges, which was a cool idea from 4e that never really worked right in terms of the math--see the next post about game math), then 13th Age brings much more to the table, and thus solves the problem.

Meanwhile, the combat parts of 13th Age are every bit as walled-off from the rest of game as they were in 4e.  Arcane casters get cantrips that do minor effects, Wizards can get a Utility Spell that does out-of-combat stuff, and there are a handful of other class-based non-combat abilities.  Oh, and some casters can cast spells as rituals, which is basically taking an existing spell and using it outside of combat in a thematically similar but basically unstructured way.  Otherwise, character abilities are designed for the combat mini-game, just like in 4e.  Now, to be clear, 13th Age combat is much simpler than 4e (all of the tactical movement elements and powers are basically removed), but within that simpler space it is much more like 4e's walled garden than 5e's fuzzier lines.  In doing so, you are not going to get Healing Spirit-style problems, because 13th Age equivalents of Healing Spirit are presented to only work in combat, eliminating the problem from the beginning.

In fact, I don't think it is overstating things to say that 13th Age is close to two conceptually different games, combat and non-combat, existing under a common umbrella.  When you are fighting, 13th Age is basically a stripped-down version of 4e; when you are not fighting, you are playing something that is much more like Dungeon World and its inspirations and successors than a standard d20 game.  Whether this works for you is going to depend primarily on how you define the problem with 4e.  If like Heinsoo and Tweet, you thought the problem was that non-combat part of 4e was just kinda undercooked, then the two very distinct modes is a great solution.  Narrative-inspired mechanics and concepts provide a much larger toolkit for fleshing out the non-combat portions of play than what you normally get in a d20-style game.  If you like those sorts of open-ended, quasi-story game mechanics, then this has them in a form that is accessible and integrated into the rest broader d20 game structure.  By bringing together these two modes, you get a non-combat play experience that is better than a purely d20 experience can ever be, and you keep all of the advantages of the strong combat mini-game from 4e.

But if, like Mercer (at least as he presented it on the panel), your core problem was how different the two modes were in 4e, then 13th Age makes the problem worse, no matter how cool the Icon relationships and the other narrative pieces are.  13th Age makes you learn two essentially different ways of playing the game, with different sets of rules and core concepts that relate to one another only tangentially.  There is no question that 5e does a better job of integrating combat and non-combat modes of play into a single experience with a unified set of character abilities, without going as far as Dungeon World and dissolving the distinction between the two entirely.

So, the combat mini-game is one of the big conceptual differences between 5e and 13th Age13th Age goes all-in on the combat mini-game, as far or even beyond where 4e goes.  Fifth Edition reins back in the combat mini-game, without getting close to Dungeon World and its all-out rejection of the mini-game. 

Up next--the math.