Friday, July 29, 2011

Unlocking powers during combat

A neat solution to three issues in the game. The first two issues:
  1. People like new stuff. Whatever the edition, people like the shiny new toy. This is problematic because enough shiny new toys begin to clutter the character sheet, bloat the game, and introduce power creep. Fourth edition tried to solve this by allowing characters to replace existing powers with higher level ones, but a lot of people like new stuff more often than every few levels.
  2. People like powerful powers. The shiniest new toys are the most fun, and powerful stuff is the shiniest of all. The problem here is that as soon as you put it on the character sheet you are responsible for its balance on the game. The classic example is the old dilemma of how you get a broken magic item away from a character without disrupting the game. 
For both of theses issues, the problems are exacerbated by the fact that as soon as the player has control over the usage, it becomes routine. Daily and encounter powers were new and flashy, but pretty quickly they just became the standard opening volley of every major combat and they lost some flash. The excitement grew stale.

The solution might be to take a handful of powers off the character sheet and put them into the encounter. I call these "unlocked powers." So instead of the fighter having Cleave (i.e. make an additional attack after knocking a target unconscious), maybe Cleave is a power that goblins provide and this gives goblins a distinct feel. For example, "Cleave: If goblin is reduced from full hit points to unconscious in a single attack, attacker may make an additional attack against an adjacent target." All of the sudden being a big damage dealer allows you to wade through hordes of goblins. It is exciting, fun, and isn't going to become an insane build that a player can use in every combat for an entire campaign.

This brings us to the third issue:
     3.  Monster knowledge skills are often under utilized.

If we set up the unlocked powers to be better or worse for different character types, monster knowledge skills become really valuable. The wizard knows not to hit the mob of goblins for 2 damage each because that forecloses Cleave on any of them. If a magma demon explodes upon dying unless someone adjacent passes a DC 20 Arcana check, then we know the wizard better standby. All of the sudden combat is riddled with mini-games; some to get access to awesome powers and others to avoid bad things, and the fact that you can piggy back flavor ("Griffon eggs are worth 1500 gp") on those monster knowledge checks is pretty nice too.

Finally, because access to these powers is limited, there really can never be any balance issues. Worst case scenario is it makes one combat too easy and too memorable. There also is no limit to what they can do or what you can introduce. So far all of my examples have been on monster death, but you could trigger the power on other conditions, too. Maybe upon shedding first blood (i.e. when first bloodied), you can tear the horn from the dark unicorn and use it as a wand implement. Maybe this limits what powers the unicorn can use thereafter or sends it into a fury or kills it outright.

Unlocked powers are a really broad design space that doesn't disrupt game balance, makes combats more memorable, adds value to existing skills, facilitates the introduction of monster ecology, and help give individual monsters distinct feels. They could be easily added to 3e or 4e and all you'd have to do is determine the appropriate cost. Maybe that cost is free and is just the reward for being in the right place at the right time, maybe it costs an AoO or an OA, maybe it costs a surge, or maybe different unlocked powers have different costs. Regardless, it is a simple idea with a lot of potential.


  1. All you're talking about with these unlocked powers is adding weak points to monsters. You're adding railtracks to the encounter by dictating the optimal way to defeat them. One of the massive MASSIVE advantages of a pen and paper game is that players can make their characters any way they want and approach encounters from any direction. You shouldn't be making them say, "okay I guess we do melee because we can cleave goblins".

    The other big problem is a loss of player agency, because the fact that they can cleave goblins in half isn't anything special about their character. That's totally something about the goblin, and is something that anyone can do to it. They can't replicate it against other monsters, they can't put it on their sheet, it's just something that happens when they fight goblins. If you think this will increase player satisfaction, you are deeply wrong.

  2. Do you feel the same way about a fire elemental having a vulnerability to cold?

  3. I think CJ makes a fair point here - tying "unlock" powers to particular monsters and away from the characters might not be ideal; and certainly not the best way to solve the perceived problem of bloat. However, I think there is still a good idea in there.

    The big problems with 3e combat where the save or dies and the rush to the middle and whack away . I think one of the biggest problems with 4e combat is the alpha strike typically being the best strategy to "winning" combats leaving nothing left after the dailies and encounter powers are gone. Unlock powers might be an interesting way of handling these issues.

    If you tie unlock powers to powers and abilities the PCs already have, then you are investing the players in their characters powers by encouraging them to use them, and getting a further benefit out of them (the unlocked power) if they can succeed (and/or fail) with those powers. The downside is that you then have the PCs trying to do the same thing every combat to get to the unlock power. This could be boring unless there was either variety among the unlock powers or the unlock powers were so specific that they would not be desirable every combat. A fine line to tread.

    The main benefit of this is taking away the alpha strike. Imagine if you had to unlock your dailies in combat? Combat would reach a crescendo rather than grinding itself out. Imagine if certain things in combat could earn you "combat surges" - and not all of these need to be positive things. Seeing an ally downed, getting bloodied, missing three times in a row etc. If each of these give you combat surges that can be built up and spent to finish a combat rather than start it. [Possibly even, you could have them like lands in MtG; they build up allowing you to access more and more powers - literally forcing combat to end on the big stuff.]

    If you tie unlock powers to terrain features or position, then you encourage players towards these features. This combats the rush to the middle aspect of 3e. If accessing that balcony means you can then unlock the "leaping attack" which does more than a typical attack (and maybe much more), then you have players focusing on and interacting with the terrain. Perhaps you could tie some measure of knowledge or combat awareness to these features (so that melee types have something bigger and better to strive for).

    The thing is, if you tie unlock powers to monsters, you really are saying "find the unlock power and your combat path is set". If this worked for the occasional monster then cool, but if all monsters had a golden key, that could get fairly boring. The current balance of vulnerabilities in both 3e and 4e seems to be working OK without supercharging the concept.

    Best Regards
    Herremann the Wise

  4. Herremann,

    Another really useful comment. Thanks as always. I’ll actually answer in two parts, once continuing to critique CJ’s argument based on ideas that followed from thinking about your post and once directly to your post.

    The main thrust of CJ’s argument is that the source of the power should be on the character sheet so that characters can replicate it against other monsters, to do otherwise is railroading the encounter and undermines the strengths of pen and paper games. This argument evidently gives a pass, though, to a huge portion of the rules that already exist in the game.

    If a fighter doesn’t have a power that deals cold damage, he doesn’t throw up his hands and quit against the fire elemental because he can’t follow the “optimal way to defeat them.” He simply relies on his bundle of tricks and is no worse off than against any other monster. To presume that a potential unlocked power would force players to act in suboptimal fashions is either a lack of understanding or premised on assumptions not actually listed in the article. Secondly, the source of the power remains “on the character sheet,” it is just the location of the trigger to activate the power that is shifted. The big damage dealer is able to cleave *because* of his ability to deal big damage. He can replicate that against every foe capable of being cleaved. This is identical to a scenario of giving the fighter cleave and then giving many monsters a trait of “Cannot be cleaved.” As a result, every rule that makes a monster immune to a power also fails CJ’s argument.

    The second part of the argument against agency is similarly flawed. Imagine an encounter where a ballista could be turned and shot at a monster. The character turns the ballista, aims it, and fires it, dealing a greater amount of damage than any power on his character sheet ever could. To me, that sounds neat and memorable. But it fails CJ’s agency test because the character cannot replicate that in the next combat unless the GM puts in another ballista. That critique means no longer can someone pull a lever to open a trap door, cut a rope to drop a chandelier, push a rock down a cliff, spook horses to start a stampede or do anything else that is “totally something about the [blank], and is something that anyone can do to it.” All of those things are, in my mind, the stuff that is truly the “massive advantage of a pen and paper game.”

    Let’s expand the dark unicorn example from the article in a hypothetical 4e game. All other rules are core, but we’ve added this single unlocked power to the dark unicorn monster.

    Horn torn asunder (DC 25 monster knowledge)
    Immediate action; triggered by target who first bloodies the dark unicorn (must also be adjacent).
    Pass a DC 20 Strength check. On success, you tear the horn from the dark unicorn and it can only use at-will powers until the end of combat. On fail, take 10 necrotic damage.

    That could be a neat part of the encounter. If the group passes the monster knowledge check, they’ll probably try and set it up so that someone with a high strength bloodies the dark unicorn and gets to make the check. If they don’t pass the monster knowledge check, then it will be a neat surprise when the GM reveals what they get to try and funny if it falls on the weak rogue to try. If the unlocked power fails, the combat flows normally as the base rules intended.

    Now, to satisfy CJ’s argument we’d either need to make an ability (Torn Asunder) that allows, say, the barbarian to run up and tear something off every monster in every combat or else never introduce the opportunity for cinematic stuff like this to occur. I think that is a huge mistake. I also cannot imagine too many players who would be upset that they were presented with the opportunity to rip the horn from the unicorn’s head, particularly seeing as they can turn down the opportunity.

  5. Herremann (part II),

    I strongly agree with your analysis. The 3e whack-a-middle got boring quick (and I think can be addressed through zones—but a different topic) and the 4e alpha strike is just as bad. Unlocked powers were intended to address the alpha strike phenomenon by putting in powers that are about the power level of dailies, but restricting when they get unleashed. The start of combat is already exciting, so having dailies in the first few rounds is sort of wasted excitement. But putting unlocked powers on triggers (like when a solo is bloodied or when a creature is killed) puts the daily-equivalent power deeper into combat when the combat itself might be in need of some excitement. Moreover, as presented in the article, you can change it up more often or make unlocked powers more powerful without fear precisely because they *cannot* be done in every single battle. That also makes them more special.

    To clarify, I would not recommend these for every monster and probably not even every combat. They wouldn’t even be of uniformly consistent power. There might be an “expensive” (where I’m not yet sure what that means) unlocked power that did something big, but there might also be “cheap” unlocked powers that, say, refresh your second wind or let you spend a healing surge or whatever.

    I plan to encourage terrain “unlocked powers” which, to me, are basically any of the standard tropes like pushing a boulder or springing a trap. The one problem with those is that, like dailies, they are obvious from the start of battle and so someone rushes to get to them and pull the trigger. That is fun, but, again, sometimes you want to delay the action until later in the combat when things got stale.

    I really like your example of buildings “lands” (even though, of course, we’d avoid MtG references in D&D) but I fear that if you make it too transparent, you risk players doing it every combat. Opening with dailies isn’t much better than opening with the same three actions to unlock your “daily.” That said, the negative triggers are pretty intriguing since it is unlikely that people will be seek out the bad stuff.

    At any rate, great stuff, lots of constructive ideas. Thanks.

  6. In regards to lands (and I'll keep using the term "lands" until a more suitable one pops up).

    I think one of the great things about 4e was the inherent party-focused nature of combat. I think much of this has to do with what I call the "rider" effect. That is, most successful actions did something for you as well as something additional for an ally (such as a bonus, condition, movement of the enemy etc.) Perhaps if you view "lands" as a party resource; then you can continue to bolster the "party-focus" element of play.

    The aim is for the party to build this "land" currency in a combat. What actions build up this currency?

    - Negative situations that harden the resolve of the party.
    - Lucky or dramatic situations that go the PCs way (or perhaps not their way).
    - Doing something special - such as if there is a terrain unlock power that the PCs unlock.

    I guess you can also have situations that reduces this land currency. When the PCs do something boring or routine or something.

    And then, you have unlock powers tied to a particular land currency, combined with some reaction that unlocks the big gun power. These unlock powers should be big and flashy (perhaps even requiring an action point or similar currency).

    Just some thoughts...

    Best Regards
    Herremann the Wise

  7. That is just a really neat idea. I'm not sure I can see it wedging into my current vision of the game, but it has great potential as a mechanism in general. Tragically, the more I think about it, the more I can see actual mana being used (because who doesn't have a grip of mana lying around and nothing to do with them?).

    It is a pretty elegant way to build up team resources. Building on the mana idea, you could even assign different values to different types. So perhaps allies becoming bloodied is a red, scoring a critical hit is a black, running out of surges is a white, etc. Then different powers could be keyed to different colors or combinations. For example, a black-red power could be some sort of blood frenzy because you've been bloodied and scored a crit.

    Again, a simple idea with a lot of potential.

  8. The problem I have with the multi-colored mana is that it would increase tracking a lot.
    Not saying my idea below is any better though :)
    While reading the post and comments this just popped into my head:

    At the beginning of combat and the end of your turn (no matter if you are stunned or what) you gain 2 "combat points" (CP).
    Using an encounter power expends 3 CP, using a daily expends 4 CP.
    This mean you can use encounter powers twice every 3 rounds, or dailies every other. (Perhaps dailies should be more expensive?).
    I am thinking the player should be able to gain extra CP (you might really need to get a daily off, to save the party) by paying a penalty somehow. I was considering to pay a Healing Surge or hitpoints to gain 2 CP, but this just makes the 15-min day even shorter.
    Hmm, perhaps you gain a minor benefit for having unused CP at the end of a combat?

    Of course, the players can spend their powers in the exact same order every fight, but usually some powers are more suited for certain situations.
    There are many concerns though. I just thought about powers that are not used during your own turn (interrupts/reactions) and I have no idea how to handle those.

  9. I'm not sure that tracking would be too hard if you actually used mana. I have also found that a lot of players (or people in general) like to touch things. They just derive a lot of enjoyment from tactile sensations. I have a theory that this is why people enjoy european style board games so much--there is just a lot to touch and move around.

    The thing I like about your and Herremann's idea is that the resource builds and it sits there in front of you, tempting you to use it. If you can resist, you get to a higher power, but if you succumb and demand immediate satisfaction, it does that too. It is a very elegant mechanism to reward different play styles. The "I need it now!" crowd can get it now and the patient crowd can build to the crescendo. They both get what they want and it is naturally balanced to ensure that people only sacrifice as much as the ability is worth. That is neat.

  10. Oh, I agree that tracking mana/Combat Points or whatever would be easy. What I meant with lots of tracking was in regards to you mentioning several types/colors of mana. While neat, I think it would be a lot of tracking.

  11. There's some cute stuff I do in my game with not having defences but difficulty-creating factors, and whenever you fail a roll you know the factors, meaning that every failed roll is simultaniously an information roll.

    This information then suggests ways to do site specific or monster specific actions.

    You can get something similar in weapons of the gods, because it uses a "matching dice" dice pool system, and allows you to assign dice from your roll to something it calls the river. In other words, you get what are effectively a build up of bonuses from your failed rolls, as well as from those rolls that succeeded too well, which in theory adds a scaling-up feel to the combat.

    The snag is that with highly competent people it scales up way to fast, leaving it pretty close to alpha strike.

    But both of those basically act as an auto-drama machine, because loosing gives you the potential to win. Note that my system doesn't give you a higher chance of success, just a better result if you succeed. I think that would be relevent in that situation too; because the player who has been sucking all combat suddenly has everyone backing them up and assisting them with their big move.

    You have to find ways to fit it in smoothly though; I tried to fit it in as information, but the problem is that more experienced players can take the bennies meant for the other player, leaving them still out of it a bit. The other thing is finding ways to give players them without them having to loose; in my version, if you're taking turns making knowledge checks, you're still not dealing damage/buffing etc, so the combat clock still stays roughly the same. I'm sure there are other ways to do the same thing though, eg stunts to unlock other kinds of moves.

  12. Also, result! I've been trying to post on your blog for a month now, on and off. Turns out my privacy settings were messing with your comment system.

  13. Josh--

    Thanks for the comments. I checked the spam filters and nothing seems to have been caught up so it doesn't appear to be on blogger's end. Hopefully it is an easy fix in case others face similar issues.

    I still really like the idea of having monsters convey powers but I've been working on ways to tweak it. I see it raising the same issues that arose in early 4e where players asked, "Why can't I use my daily every round?" There is an inherent opposition to the idea that anything should be dependent on anything *but* the character. Ultimately, I think the resistance is largely do to presentation. I think you might be headed towards a stronger presentation and there might even be more ways to present it even stronger.