Fudging The Grid

I prefer to keep an open mind about most things, not the least of which is gaming. That, coupled with my willingness to play devil’s advocate, occasionally finds me arguing for a position I don’t completely agree with. I experienced one such situation just last week, when talking to my old friend Kanati about his burning hatred of D&D 4th Edition. I’ll be honest – I still prefer 3rd Edition, but I have great fun with all this newfangled stuff. And so, in order to chip away at my friend’s resolve never to play 4e, I tried to reason with him. He didn’t like how everything is a little too balanced and suggested story was no longer WotC’s focus. I politely questioned his sanity, and he politely questioned my parentage in turn.

After we dueled with pistols, we continued our conversation and started talking about combat – specifically, how he didn’t like a battlemat being integral to 4e’s combat system. This shocked me, as the man has been into historical wargames and minatures combat for as long as I’ve known him. I was stunned for 4 rounds. Once I regained my senses, I asked him to explain himself. I thought he would appreciate the improved accuracy of combat. You never have questions in 4e like “Can my arrow reach that guy?” or “Did my fireball roast all seven lizardmen?”. It’s measurable. You can definitively state how much lizardman BBQ the party can take home. It takes out a lot of the ambiguity that I’ve seen cause fights at the gaming table. That’s a good thing, right?

The answer he gave me stunned me for another 6 rounds.

GRIDFUDGE! The Musical

“On a battle grid, I can’t finesse the game anymore.”

He went on to describe a combat scenario in which a battlegrid isn’t ideal. An enemy tries to flee the room to summon help. He’s just at the edge of the closest PC’s attack range. The DM has decided to advance the story somehow by what happens when the enemy successfully brings reinforcements.

With a battlegrid, it’s clear whether the PC could attack this enemy. If it’s a minion and the player uses a power that causes half damage on a miss, it’s an automatic kill. (EDIT: Several of you have pointed out that minions do not take damage on a miss. This is incorrect. They actually take quadruple damage.)

Without a battlegrid, the DM has much more power to handwave and say the enemy was too far away and managed to make it out, summoning the half-beholder tarrasquolich and thereby furthering the plot. “The battlegrid”, my partner-in-argument said, “is just another facet of players nowadays wanting die rolls to handle the game instead of actually roleplaying and letting story drive the game”.

At this point, it became clear to me that we weren’t talking about battlemats anymore. We were talking about DM fiat.

I Choose For You To Disbelieve

Earlier this year, I experienced the equivalent of finding out there was no Dungeon Mastery Santa Claus when I realized that DM’s cheat. All the time.

Since then, I have tried to avoid fudging the numbers whenever possible in combat. I want my players to feel like their actions do mean something, and not that I just artificially extended combat in order to create a Dramatically Appropriate Moment to introduce some other plot element. I wish I could just leave it at that, but my brain has to go and keep thinking about things and generally ruining everything. Should I take away tools that can be used responsibly to further an exciting story? Is keeping things real really doing the players a favor if what happens is boring or stupid?

I really don’t have a good answer for these questions, but it does strike me that a lot of this depends on what role the DM plays in the game. Am I just an arbiter of rules? Am I there simply to test the players, either by combat or puzzle? Am I just planting the seeds of a story and watching what sprouts forth, or do I take an active role in what happens?

I’m not sure that there is necessarily a deliberate trend to try to take control away from the DM in 4th edition, but I do think things are different now than they’ve been in years past. Searching a room used to mean telling the DM about everything you were searching. Now it’s a die roll. Admittedly, a good DM will assign bonuses or assist the player’s attempt if the roleplay was good, but some things traditionally associated with roleplay have been assigned game mechanics. I don’t see this as a bad thing. It helps separate the character’s abilities from the player’s, which especially helps if the player is not as smart or sharp-eyed as his character (or if the DM is lousy at giving clues). I suppose having roleplaying elements assigned game mechanics doesn’t completely eliminate the DM’s ability to arbitrarily decide what’s happening in the game, but it’s certainly a lot more obvious. That, too, was one of my friend’s complaints: “finessing” the game works better if nobody’s the wiser, and 4e combat makes it a lot more obvious when you fudge. Fights over rules when things are murky are already bad. If the player knows their position is Rules Correct, the DM just winds up looking like a jerk. That is not generally fun for any party, in several contexts.

Many times, I feel as if the DM’s job is that of an entertainer. I could execute the most efficient and well-balanced combats in the history of the game, and if my players didn’t have fun, then I still didn’t do my job right.  I want everybody to go home excited and happy. I want to do this by making a story everybody can participate in. Is it bad if that goal was achieved but the player experience was shaped somewhat? Where’s the line where it goes from being OK to betraying the trust of my players?

I suspect the answer lies in the middle somewhere, and is not quantifiable in any way. Which, I suppose, means it’s not suitable for use with a battlemat or 4th Edition. I bet my friend loves it. We never finished the argument, by the way. I think one of us mentioned the new Thundercats series, and our attention quickly drifted elsewhere.

Cheetara beats battlemats beats Battlestar Galactica.

Photo Credit


  1. I thought a missed attack never damages a minion, even if it would normally deal half damage.

    I wonder if this head cold is affecting me. The only comments I’ve left on blogs today have been irrelevant nitpicks.

  2. Minion don’t take damage on a miss … 😉

  3. I hear a sound when my players see a battlemat. The sound of disgust. I kid you not a quote from a week ago: “Do we really have to use a battlemat?” I currently run a Dragon Age game (which is a great system and if you haven’t tried it out, you should) but I have ran 4e and Star Wars Saga without one. It is fairly easy to do. I agree with your friend Vanir, battlemats take out the roleplay and the imagination of the game.
    Also on your never cheating as a GM rule. I cheat all the time on rolls several reasons for this:
    1) I have a player that consistently Min/Maxes characters so I have to roll a nat 20 to hit him. (That is not fun for me or the other players.)
    2) I consistently roll low. (Here again if the Elder Red Dragon never lands an attack on you it is not much of a challenge.)
    3) I have had several characters die because a PC made a bad choice and GM let the dice fall as they may. (It is extremely frustrating when that happens.)
    When I think about “cheating”, I ask myself a question: Will it make the game better?
    Also, as the movie Dorkness Rising taught us. “Story trumps rules.”

  4. Indeed minions don’t take damage on a miss, but yeah, that’s rather irrelevant.

    I’d just like to point out that 4e’s rules never spell out how things like Perception are exactly used in say searching a room. There is a very large degree of freedom here. A DM could simply decide that a single toss of a d20 is sufficient to deal with searching a room, or he could require the player to become as specific as he cares to, requiring the players to describe exactly what they’re searching and how. Likewise the DM can set any DCs he cares to, so for instance he can make certain things easy for any character to automatically find if the player searches the right area (or simply when he says he’s searching at all). The DM can also decide that other skills are relevant, Dungeoneering springs instantly to mind for instance.

    Personally I think the battle grid is a good thing. In fact I’d say those who imagine that it was any less a part of the rules back in AD&D or earlier haven’t actually READ the rules. It may be that people didn’t play by the rules, but that begs the question of why they are so all fired up about it now, since they can simply ignore the rules today as much as they did 20 years ago (though apparently some kind of mind controlling rules Nazi slug seems to have infected the brains of players in recent times).

    Basically it seems like a thinly veiled way of advancing the old “Its different ZOMG! EVIL!” reaction to 4e. I have little sympathy for this kind of thing TBH. 4e’s ‘failing’ seems to be more in terms of not having printed a 500 page justification for why it works the way it does and how to best employ the rules, ignore the rules, make the rules do what you want, etc. All I can really say is I will never go back to DMing earlier editions at this point. Our 4e games are rich and entertaining, and if I want a ‘runner’ zip off to get reinforcements then maybe I should set up the scenario so that it is feasible, just like I would have in 1980 when we were playing 1e.

    As for social situations and skills… Well, again this seems to me to be a failure on the part of players to have actually READ the AD&D rules, which had elaborate subsystems regulating NPC reactions and other elements of social situations. While these rules were more specific and didn’t cover all of the situations the 4e rules do (which oddly DON’T cover reactions with mechanics, yay!). Again though 4e never states anywhere that players don’t need to RP these situations, nor do they state that the d20 governs every interaction. The DM can just as easily reason that ordinary interactions with NPCs and obvious situations are simply covered by the player doing or saying the right thing.

    I think one of the other issues here is that some people fail to understand the context in which 4e’s skill rules exist. While they are useful for things like doing stunts or spotting trouble, etc. the main context they are intended to function in are skill challenges, where narrative interaction determines the situation and skill checks are only used to gauge general progress towards an overall goal. One of the primary functions of the skills is to help the player define what the ‘M.O.’ of his character is. Is he a cunning liar, a forthright negotiator, a menacing thug, or an insightful reader of people? This helps drive the story forward and give the players some consistent hooks to hang their character’s persona on. I’d say this is a vast improvement over the old AD&D approach where you basically had alignment to gauge these things by and nothing else.

    So, Vanir, maybe your friend needs to actually play 4e? With a good DM? Perhaps he should just be hauled behind the screen and told to run it!

  5. “He went on to describe a combat scenario in which a battlegrid isn’t ideal. An enemy tries to flee the room to summon help. He’s just at the edge of the closest PC’s attack range. The DM has decided to advance the story somehow by what happens when the enemy successfully brings reinforcements.”

    Before I tear into this, I’ll start with the usual caveat that the battlemap isn’t right for every game or every group, nor am I defending it as such.

    However, this example is broken by every edition I’ve ever played. Spells and weapons had a maximum range in every D&D game I’ve played in, as far as I know. In that specific example, couldn’t I just ask “how far away is that guy?”

    In 4e, my monsters will take the run action and have just enough speed to get away, or he’ll take the attack and have just enough HP left to still slip out. etc etc.

    Meanwhile, as a player in 4e, I don’t have to ask constantly who is in range and who is not. As someone who is very bad at spacial thinking, this is a huge benefit. My DM in college running a 3e game ran a great game, but he was a math professor who would state distances in yards and relate two positions sometimes by angles. This made it extremely frustrating to choose targets. I had no sense whatsoever who was fighting and where. I’ve never had that problem on a battlemap.

    There are certainly problems with using a battlemap, and with making it core to a game, but honestly, I call BS on that specific argument. It really is no more difficult to fudge now than it has ever been.

  6. Battlemats are unnecessary for 4E. Being that most of my games are online, and it is often difficult to get such a thing to work for us, sometimes a battlemat is a luxury we cannot afford.

    I understand that 4E is a battle-heavy system – after all, it was meant to address many of the glaring issues 3.5 had, particularly with boring battle mechanics. But with a creative GM, you can definitely get by without the grid – lord knows I’ve done it on a few occasions. The battlemat helps, I won’t lie, but it is *not necessary*.

    You don’t need the battlemat for everything in 4E. Roleplaying is still roleplaying. Treat it like you treat some sort of console JRPG with ‘random battles’ – things happen in cutscenes which you have little to no control over, and then SUDDENLY MONSTERS. 4E is good for this kind of game – you don’t need stats to adjudicate how far you can run (unless it is very important), because you are playing a different game when you are not in combat.

    Now, if this ‘minion’ was attempting to flee in-combat? That’s your own fault for giving the players an option where they can actually *kill* the little bastard. That’s not the fault of the game system itself – that’s a failing of the GM who didn’t want to separate the narrative from the action.

    4E does one thing and one thing very well: Combat. If you want story, then you need to set aside 95% of 4E’s mechanics, because for the most part, they are completely useless outside of skill checks and the occasional power that could be reasonably used out of combat.

  7. @Dave

    So true. If the DM was ‘fudging’ the escape of the runner in AD&D there’s no reason why such fudging isn’t equally acceptable in 4e. It just seems to me that 4e is evaluated by many people according to some completely different standard than previous editions. It annoys me, lol. Can’t people just say “I don’t like it. My reasons are basically not amenable to logic, it just doesn’t push my buttons.”? Eh, well, where would we be without ‘religious wars’ over game system trivia? 🙂

  8. Your friend’s example is bad/lazy design and prep on the part of the DM, not the 4e rules system. There are a million different ways to summon reinforcements from another part of the dungeon. A conch shell horn? A gong? Mental telepathy? Chub the Ogre wandering in because he hears noise while he’s taking a dump…

    I roll in the open, every roll, every time. Somehow, PCs don’t die in droves in my campaigns despite encounters being quite complex and challenging. Rarely have I ever needed to use DM fiat to justify anything in 4e. It’s all in how you design your story and how your story works with your encounters.

  9. I think that to answer the question “to fudge or not to fudge?”, you would have to answer another one : “what do you wish to accomplish within the game?”. I’m going to suggest an overly simplistic dichotomy here, but one that should not be forgotten even when we try to specify : you either try first to play a DM-vs-PC game, where fudging is not acceptable, or you try to write a story, where it is. Not to say you cannot do both; but you need to know which is more important than the other, because sometimes, usually when a PC death is in the balance (or an entire party’s), you’ll have to make that decision.

    If what you want to accomplish is to play a game where there is a real challenge, where the DM is playing the opposition that players have to overcome, then you should not fudge. I a narrow sense, the DM plays against the players; narrow in the sense that he does not want to “win at all cost” like in a chess or a Risk game (he could easily do that by throwing way too serious stuff the PC’s way), but he want to present encounters where PCs and monsters have both a shot at winning; in thoses parameters, the DM “tries to win”. Fudging, in this scenario, is a bad idea : you are not playing your part right. If you are super lucky or super unlucky, it is all part of the game, just as it is part of a Risk game where the one defending a country with only one tiny unit succed at defeating an attacker strong of ten. (Of course, complications arises if your encounter is way harder than expected because of unforeseen stuff, like the mage being dead or the special sword being lost; in that case, I would recommend other way of solving the problems instead of fudging.)

    On the other hand, if you want to accomplish is creating a story, then yes, you should definitely fudge when necessary. Better yet, you should use a system where fudging is not necessary, maybe because players have some control over what happens (Cortex+ seems quite a good fit for it). You should also, in the same vein, give you some wiggle room by leaving the grid in its carton tube.
    I am not saying that you cannot have a story in a “really challenging” or a challenge in a “story” game. They are not always contradictory goals : “slay the dragon to save the princess so she can save the country, but fail and evil overlord will rule it and you will have to flee to come back stronger later”, that is story and that is challenge. What I say is simply that you should keep in mind what is the most important goal you have at your table, for those times when both directly conflict. What happen if the heroes die? Are you willing to go there for the sake of the grittiness, realism or real challenge? If your answer is “yes”, then go for it and do not fudge : you are really looking for a challenge. If it is “no”, then you are not. Both are good ways to play, but everyone should be on the same page, players and DM alike.

  10. Well Alhazzared… I bought the 3 book 4E set the day I was able to get it. Maybe not day 1 but it was certainly close to it. And I’ve been GM’ing for around 30 years myself. So I have paid my dues on different systems. I’ve played Tunnels and Trolls, D6 and D20 versions of Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, D&D of all flavors, you name it. I’ve played it or at least looked through it in some depth.

    My problem is that Role Playing somewhere became Roll Playing where the dice are more important than the story being told. I came to the realization early on that the rules were a harsh mistress that liked ball gags and leather whips when it came to combat. I decided that I wasn’t real fond of dying 20 minutes into B1 In Search of the Unknown and having to re-roll my character. Not to mention that if I were RUNNING the game, the player(s) weren’t real fond of ME when I killed their characters arbitrarily. Even then it took me a while to realize that the dungeon master wasn’t the player’s enemy. It wasn’t me versus them. I was there to make sure people had fun and killing them was in diametric opposition to that goal. I think it was about that time when I realized that the DM Screen wasn’t there just to hide my laughter at the players for doing stupid stuff. It was there to hide my dice rolls, which I could then “fudge” if I needed to. Suddenly I didn’t have to worry about players dying needlessly because they missed an insta-kill trap. I didn’t have to worry that the last six hours of game play would be ruined because of a few natural 20s that I randomly happened to roll caused the troll to lop my players’ heads off in one fell swoop. I could focus on keeping the game FUN. I could then focus on the story. And make no mistake about it; without an engaging story, there is no game.

    In the time I’ve taken to write the above a number of other replies have been posted. Dave posits “However, this example is broken by every edition I’ve ever played. Spells and weapons had a maximum range in every D&D game I’ve played in, as far as I know. In that specific example, couldn’t I just ask “how far away is that guy?” Sure you can ask that. And I’ll likely tell you that it looks roughly ##ish feet away. Give or take. The human eye (or elven or whatever) is not a laser rangefinder. If I’m feeling generous I might allow a perception roll (hidden) and give a better or worse estimation of distance. But I’m definitely not going to say “look at the battlemat. He’s 10 squares away so he’s exactly 50 feet.” This is the reason I like games like Warhammer as well (and made my own boardgame free movement). In Warhammer if you want to move a stand of units you declare their movement. Units have a set DISTANCE they can move. So if you want to move that stand of skaven into combat you state that you are doing so and move them. Uh oh. They didn’t quite make it? Too bad. Be better at judging distances. You aren’t allowed to pre-measure to make sure it’s going to work. The same goes with combat in D&D. I like to keep that combat cerebral. Keep it “up here” . Sure it makes things ambiguous at times and can be a little confusing as the combat scene I have in my head isn’t going to look exactly like the combat scene in yours, or the other players. But that’s my job to keep things detailed enough that people can get a good idea of what’s going on without detracting from the suspension of disbelief.

    When I play I want a movie playing out in people’s imaginations. As soon as dice are broken out that movie gets paused and the real world breaks in like the Kool Aid Man through your living room wall screaming “Oh yeaaaaahhhh!” I’m not against dice rolls. Obviously there has to be rules that allow player interaction moreso than just active role playing. Doesn’t make for much of a game if there wasn’t. Pretty much just improve theater without the dice. But adding concrete hard and fast rules like those with a battlemat where everything is on display and can be quantified with diamond-like precision detracts even more. It’s like introducing a mini-game into a computer RPG to open doors. I don’t WANT to be bothered with that mini-game. Especially when it detracts from the story I’m trying to enjoy.

    Vanir mentioned that combat isn’t the same for him now. “Now that he knows.” But I look at it this way. You don’t go into a Rambo movie or a Die Hard movie without the knowledge that Rambo and John McClane are going to walk out of the flames and debris at the end of the movie alive. You know full well that when the smoke has cleared, those guys are going to be alive and well. They might be beat up pretty badly. But they are almost certainly going to be alive at the end to make some wise crack about how bad the bad guys suck and how they are getting too old for this shizzle. But you still go anyway. Because even though the combat is predestined, it’s the story that gets them to and through the fight to the end that creates the suspense and the drama.

    So the minion running away isn’t the best example. The reasoning stands. And if you think you can account for everything a player is going to do… You haven’t been gamemaster for Vanir. The guy that had decided that having a tarrasque under his personal control for a short amount of time meant that the story had to take a back seat while he and his wife had sex on it’s back. Sometimes you just have to fudge things a bit.

    That said. I’ve had a little mini revelation. It’s not exactly 4e that I hate. It’s GMs that allow the players, rules lawyers and dice to rule their campaigns. It’s the GMs that are exactly the oppoite and don’t know when they are so heavy handed that the players REALIZE that absolutley nothing they do matters in the grand context of the story, even in the short term (that’s right Ryan I’m looking squarely at you). The GM has to balance on a razors edge so as to allow the players to move through the story you’re crafting with the sense that they are having an impact on the world around them. And likewise, that balance also has to allow the GM to guide the story and the world to his/her endgame without tipping their hand that they control everything. GMs that can’t do that are my real sticking points. And it seems like WotC are enabling those former types of Gms with 4e. It seems to me like they have forgotten about the story at times in favor of roll playing. Can you still finese the story with with 4e. I’m sure you can. I’m not sure *I* want to. But maybe. Just MAYBE… I might give it another chance.

  11. I think your friend dislikes 4E for all the wrong reasons. Or perhaps he isn’t able to articulate the right ones.

    Nothing in the arguements attributed to your friend seems in any way related to problems specific to the 4E system. The battle grid comment is nonsense, I felt that 3.5 was definitely a shift towards battle maps from AD&D and that didn’t make the system worth hating.

    That said, I think there are lots of legitimate reasons to dislike 4E. Perhaps some more questioning might draw those from your friend? Or, as you said, if you are devil’s advocate here and prefer the 3.5 version, you already know what they are!

  12. I hate it when people complain about battlemats or map-based combat. I’m one of those people who has a difficult time of picturing things based purely on a description of the area. Sometimes I just don’t understand what is being described. Sometimes I take away incorrect information from the description. Sometimes the GM describes something confusingly/badly. A map is something that unquestionably makes my game experience better. It ensures that everybody is on the same page. Even in games that don’t have a map as an integral part of combat, something that shows the area can be exceptionally useful. Doesn’t always need to be to scale, but knowing that NPC A is over on that side of the room and far away and NPC B is a lot closer, but is ducking through that doorway can help me make informed decisions without constant back and forth questioning of the GM.

    As for GM fiat, I think the best solution is soemthing in the middle between “GM lets it all hang out and the dice say it all” and “GM takes all pretense of PC actions having an effect on the story”. It’s all about what’s fun and there are going to be times where the GM taking things out of the hands of the players is probably going to be the best story and the most fun, but there are going to be other times where the players actions will take things in unexpected and awesome ways. The key to being a good GM is to find that amount of balance that works for their group.

    If you’ve put an enemy in a combat and your player has killed it before it can go and summon the reinforcements or plot-important NPC that you’ve planned on being there, that’s not a problem with the system, that’s a problem with your planning. You’ve predicated the continuation of your story on a single, easily broken, failure point. That would be a problem in ~any~ system, not just D&D4e.

  13. WolfSamurai sums up my feelings on that pretty well. There are games where as a player I have more narrative control so it matters less, but that game has never been D&D.

  14. Hey, Kanati. I’m sure no one game floats everyone’s boat. Usually the reasons a game doesn’t work for a given group of people is not easily articulated, like Gerald mentioned. Personally I was pretty much OK with the AD&D style of map and measure, but I don’t find the battlemat detracting particularly, and it is darn convenient. As for the ‘theatre of mind’ aspect of the game, my personal experience has always been that having things defined on the table got me free to think about other things and use my imagination without worrying about keeping a map in my head. Different mental machinery at work in different people’s heads I’m sure.

    Here’s the thing though. I don’t think 4e is a particularly ‘dice heavy’ version of D&D. Not really more so than previous editions (and I really skipped 3.x). To me rules are resources I can put to use as I need to. I don’t want an excess of them, but in the old days I can remember a lot of sitting behind my screen and dropping dice just to make my own decisions, which can be fun. “Does this guy buy the story that bard just told?” and I’d roll some dice if it struck me that either possibility might be fun. 4e usually has some decent structure for that I can use. I appreciate that.

    As for fudging rolls. I don’t mean to imply that I’m that type of DM that is going to insist everything is done by the dice either. I just meant that it isn’t harder to fudge on a grid than it is to fudge any other way. Sure, the players can pull all sorts of craziness. They can do that in any game, 4e, 2e, OD&D, whatever. Trust me, I can tell as good a story as anyone about crazy players and their antics and ability to spoil any scheme a DM can come up with. Frankly that’s fine with me. I might set up a scenario, but my style is pretty much egoless. I don’t have a stake in how it falls out.

  15. I love 4e… but I still play AD&D (1e). My friend DMs, and he has always used a battle mat.

    Your friend can solve his dilemma by other means. Give the escapee more hit points. Bu Bye.

    In one major battle (this was 3 hours, with 4 ADHD kids), the player’s entered a clearing (as only adventurers can stumble in), saw some Hobgoblins on one side of the clearing, and the Unicorn we were trying to rescue on the other side. My character (I’m the only experienced player) rattled off orders. To the cleric “You, go rescue the Unicorn.”, to the Wizard, “You, use your scroll of magic missile (14th level) on the Hobgoblin Shaman.”, “The rest of you, charge!”

    Various entangle spells went off, only my character was strong enough to move. Slowly he hacked down the bad guys. The Wizard obliterated the Hobgoblin Shaman. But it was obvious that the DM was ‘slowing the cleric down’ so the Unicorn could come to our rescue either after we’d won the fight, or if we were in over our heads. In short it was a plot device for the story, no more. (Distance in squares while running for our unencumbered cleric appeared to be 5.)

    By the way, battle mats, miniatures and dungeons have been a staple for 30 years. You can see one in use in ET. I think your friend is just trying to justify his hatred of 4e.

    Frequently I see negative comments about 4e that are confused much like your friend’s. Specifically, the comments can’t seem to tell the difference between the game, and the adventure. For the record I passionately hate WOTC’s adventures. They lack story, and they are combat focused. There are a few Gems on D&D insider, but that’s about it. (Without getting into and edition war… have you seen how much combat focus there is in Pathfinder? 4e is no different.)

    The best series of adventures I’ve run were 4e translations of the Freeport Trilogy. You know, what? 4e does old school just fine. Frankly, I’d argue it does it better. Old school story with 4e action, there’s nothing like it.

  16. This is a value-based argument. It will never be resolved.

  17. @Kanati: No fair! You can’t use the Tarrasque example. You weren’t there that night. You CAN, however, use one of the 287 other times I have done something horrible to your plot. 🙂

  18. ONLY 287 times? The keebler elves have built a WTF momument in your honor out of EL Fudge for the number of times you’ve opened your mouth high on sugar to derail a plot. 😀

  19. Ashimar:
    “Also, as the movie Dorkness Rising taught us. “Story trumps rules.”

    The DM who said that was being a dick. That was the whole point of the scene.

  20. I find that 4E gives me the best ability as a DM/storyteller to really create an action scene right out of a movie. Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, Die Hard… 4E absolutely excels at creating these kinds of super-awesome scenes. A sweet spot of rules, terrain, tactics, monsters, and PCs has come together to make classic cinematography on the tabletop.

    That said, it is true that other editions more naturally encourage open play and exploration. You have to work a bit at making these parts work in 4E. But it is absolutely achievable. I’ve had many grid-less 4E combats where we just had fun with the scene. That escape sequence your friend mentioned… you can choose how to resolve it. Do you want to just ask what happens each turn after you briefly describe the environment and the foe? Or do you want a map-based tactical running affair? Both can work fine.

    The key with grid-less 4E is to make all powers that should have a cool effect on a grid still have an effect without it. Start by asking the player what they are trying to achieve with, say, forced movement and then adjudicate in your brain. Yes, that power can move them so your friend can flank. No, you can’t quite push them into the lava… but you can get them right to the edge! Sure… you can get 5 foes in that blast. Adjudicate on the fly for fun and have some tactical collaborative storytelling.

    I’ve personally found that gridless combat works as well in 4E as it does in AD&D. It is just harder to take the plunge to try it. In the end, gridless 4E is more cinematic than gridless 4-xE.

  21. I think that some good points have been made and in the end it’s a matter of preference of what you want to spend your free time playing. However the biggest issue I see with Vanir’s friend’s comments is not the particular problem with 4e and whether that is valid or not it’s that he has formed this strong opinion without actually playing the game. This is something that I’ve found very frustrating and very common when trying to talk to people about 4e.

    I’ve had people telling me that there is this problem and that problem with the game and that 3.5/Pathfinder is better (note that I play and enjoy both and other games) without having actually sat down and play 4e. There is plenty to get frustrated about with 4e, it’s far from a perfect system, my gripes are plenty and I’m taking a short hiatus from my 4e campaign largely because of them. But I’ve formed my gripes through many hours playing and found them to be quite personal to me. I really can’t imagine deciding for someone else that they will or will not find the same things frustrating.

    For people to have such strong feelings about a game that they haven’t experienced is a little weird. I know that any change to something they love can be seen as betrayal by the publisher but it’s odd that in this specific case a D&D 3.5 like game is still being actively supported by another publisher. One that most people seem happy with. You don’t actually have to ever play 4e, but if you’re going to form such a strong opinion about it why wouldn’t you?

  22. I know that DMing style is a personal choice, but it still blows my mind when DMs get upset that the players can ruin their carefully laid plans. That is the fun of being a player! When I play, I want my actions to meaningfully impact the game world. If a given combat can only end with one minion escaping to get reinforcements, then why run the combat at all? It contributes nothing to the part of the story where the heroes get to be the heroes.

  23. Well I did say that Vanir’s choice of an example was poor as was my original conversation with him about it (which I didn’t realize was going to make for an article –evil eye–) .

    What it would illustrate with the “minion” escaping, which I did NOT place in 4E terms at all, was not that that was the only way the encounter could go. What I like to do with combat is throw a number of mobs at players and because the balance is almost never what the GM *thinks* it’s going to be I like to leave an “out” to ramp up the difficulty of the challenge. The escaping-to-get-reinforcements mob was merely an illustration of *one* way to do that logically without just simply saying “8 more of these things show up for no apparent reason.” Yet that’s what some people want to focus on. So be it.

    Also, as I stated in my rebuttal above, I had my mini revelation that it was more GMs who don’t ride that razors edge of balancing fun with rules that gets my goat and sacrifices it on the altar of role playing. I also had to realize at that point that it wasn’t the game system itself (though I will never forgive WotC for introducing collectible cards to D&D) that was the problem. It was the GMs themselves. And that’s the reason why I said I *might* in the future give it another chance. I had to step back in time a bit and take a look past 3.x and it struck me that 2nd edition was so ridiculously full of rules, and not just rules, but contradictory rules that 4e had nothing on it for being rules-heavy. And if that was the case, it couldn’t be the system, it had to be the people. Would I want to go back to the wonderful world of THAC0 and everything that went with it? No I don’t think so. So that means I either stay with 3.x or Pathfinder (which I don’t really like the “world” it comes with) or I take another look at 4e and see if I can do without battlemats and most certainly the fate/chance/whatever-the-hell-they-are cards.


  24. @Kanati: I’ll be the first to admit the minion example isn’t really the best. It just happened to be the one we were talking about that I remembered, so (to everyone, as well as you) it wasn’t my intention to paint the picture of your entire DMing outlook with that alone.

    I know a lot of us are pretty adamant on story being more important than anything else. The question is, who does the story belong to? The DM? The players? Both? The “Rambo is going to live through it all” example you gave and making sure everything works toward your endgame means the story belongs to the DM, and it likely won’t change. I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong, but as a player I like having more impact on the world than that. Which is, in retrospect, a very probable reason why I have historically run through your plots like a bull in a china shop. 😀

  25. I’m curious about a couple of things that I’ve read here:

    1. For those of you who run 4e without a battlemat, can you elaborate? So many of the powers talk about sliding and pushing X squares, etc. A lot of those seem considerably less useful without a grid.

    2. I’ve heard A LOT of people ever since 4e came out talk about how much more “cinematic” it is. I never got that impression, at least any moreso than any other edition was. Once again, I crave elaboration.

  26. kanati: It is still about preference. I don’t particularly mind THAC0, and its dead simple to fix that, check out Castles and Crusades. (Its AD&D without the polyglot of rules.)

    Get over the cards man. You can look at it in many ways. Its good for the game stores who run Encounter’s sessions. Ever try to make money running a store? Buying a single pack for a session helps float the store. If everyone buys a pack, and plays for an hour, the store keep might earn minimum wage. (I don’t useallow the cards myself. I’ve given them out as magic items. Collectors would easily destroy the game.)

    There are other arguments against 4e… Most of the material is ‘thin’. Its flat. It doesn’t ignite my imagination. While they have corrected that of late (Essentials and later), it may be too little too late. I’m getting ready to run a Pathfinder campaign just to see what its like. I find that I like the material and it ignites my imagination. I don’t feel that Pathfinder emphasizes non-combat over combat in any way, I’d even argue that Pathfinder has a stronger emphasis on Combat. (It is better though… sooo few Feats. As God is my Witness there are like 4500 feats for 4e. Talk about an alter to WTF…)

    You could be right about the the GMs though. I guess I’m old school enough to know when and how to fudge the game. I’ve seen guys at my LGS slavishly moving their minis across maps, even for mundane activities like exploration. That doesn’t sound like fun to me. Doesn’t even sound like an RPG. I’m used to the old days when the DM scribbled a rough diagram on napkin and asked, “Where are you standing?” I still run my 4e that way.

  27. Cinematic: Not obvious. But for all the effort to create 4e, most of the powers and character abilities focus on the usual ‘stand and deliver’. So.. it takes an effort to bring the cinema to your table.

    In terms of characters, more emphasis on mobility makes for an exciting game. City fighting brings out the best in 4e. People on roofs, in windows, climbing, teleporting, its all good fun.

    Example 1: Runaway Stage Coach with a swashbuckling battle on the roof.
    First this was the very first encounter I ran for 4e, and I introduced 4 new players to RPGs with this. This was their first fight. None of the players were acrobatic or terribly mobile at all. Human Warlord, Halfling Wizard, Human Fighter, and a Dragon Born Fighter.

    The players were taking a coach to Gem Town. About 5 days into their journey, the coach slows to a man in the road huddled over his dog. The driver gets off, and quickly 3 more men come out of the forest.

    The adventurers realized something was up, so they got out of the coach and approached the men. Suddenly the driver turns and yells to the players “Stop the coach!”. The lone man who was with the dog, had climbed on, and had started the coach at a cantor.

    Stage set, and the party split as expected. (I had alternate stats ready depending on how the players were going to split.)

    Fighters did their thing. It was a straight forward fight. And fast with only 2 on 3.

    Warlord, and Wizard, run after coach, failing their acrobatics checks. Warlord hanging out one door, and the halfling trailing on one of the leather trunk buckles out the back. Next round… both got criticals on acrobatics, and vault onto the coach. There after they failed their acrobatics, and kept falling down.

    The coach was now at a full run down the road. The battle went poorly. The Warlord was almost dead, and the Wizard kept asking, “Should I use my Acid Arrow now?” “No, you’ll kill us all.” The Brigand was quite nimble and had no trouble beating on both of them. Finally there was a stroke of luck. The wizard used spell, which shoved an opponent 1 square, and the brigand failed his save to avoid being shoved off. He hit the ground with a rather heavy crack.

    The warlord regained control of the stage, and the brought it back. The Brigand let loose with some crossbow bolts. Wizard, “Now?” Warlord, “Now.” Acid arrow didn’t too too much damage, but the brigand hideously melted away the next turn.

    All the players still talk about this battle.

  28. Vanri, I have some examples of abstarct 4E in my Dark Sun home campaign on my blog. It might help illustrate how I run gridless.

    In general, I want to know what the point of any question regarding movement or position is and then make it count while being imaginative. For example, the taclord usually slides a foe so as to achieve flank, or to force the opponent away from an ally, or to clump targets up for a controller. I ask the player the purpose and then make it happen. If in my brain a burst one could get 2 foes, the forced movement might increase that to three. Making rough notes on a scrap of paper can help. You might just have a square of paper with the cardinal directions and you just scrawl notes to help you remember where they are, but making it up is usually better. The more free-form you are the more the players will follow suit. You want players trying to envision things “can I get to the steps?”, “do I see anything that could let me jump the pit?”, “could I reach him if…”, etc.

  29. There are several elements that make 4e Cinematic. First of all is just the general ability of characters to get beat around some and not go down immediately. It is tough take risks when one slip means death, and you can’t for instance chance giving an enemy a shot at you. Secondly combat will last a fairly predictable number of rounds, so you know that if it takes a round to pull something off the whole balloon hasn’t gone up in the meantime. An action has a pretty predictable value. Thirdly mobility and positioning are valuable, so it makes sense to pull some trick to get to a good spot. Fourth you can push people around a good bit, which leads to a lot of fun. Fifthly it is really worth doing cool stuff, whereas in earlier editions it was more likely a better idea to have someone cast a spell, which was interesting, but usually pretty static, it went off and that was that.

    Finally it is cinematic in a more resource oriented way. You have resources you can use every fight, and you have the ability to recover from damage and go back to fighting. The monsters can for instance ‘rock the party back’ and then they can pick themselves up, dust off, and have back at them. Things tend to be more back and forth and you have more opportunities for a character to be stuck on that knife edge between destruction and triumph.

    uhf’s narrative for example matches with things I’ve done in my games pretty closely. You CAN do that kind of stuff in any edition, but it seems like it just naturally happens with 4e more easily and reliably. Simpler rules and a simple clear system for ‘whatever there isn’t a rule for’ really helps too. I haven’t cracked a book in a 4e game in a long time. DCs are pretty quick and natural to set up, and it is really easy to sort out “what happens when the fighter topples that log down the slope on those 2 orcs?” and things like that without even having to stop and think. You can pre-set that kind of thing really easily too. Again, none of this is totally unique, 4e is just facile that way.

    I don’t find it to be ‘thin’ or ‘flat’ at all. 4e tends to be more oriented towards giving you the stage on which to showcase your plot elements and special stuff, vs being a vast menu of supplied story elements. If you want a diabolical ritual, or a foul curse, or special plot items, or to have a character end up with some crazy feature based on the story you make it up. There’s not so much of an endless menu of what someone thought would be the best way to do that, but which often doesn’t work super well in a specific game. You have to be willing to do what I seem to find many players/DMs have shrunk away from somehow over the years, which is just make crazy stuff happen. The game isn’t any thinner or flatter than you make it, but it is also more going to get out of your way vs holding your hand.

  30. Alhazred: My opinion can appear strong. I find 4e material quite thin. I almost don’t need to read it. So on one hand I find that I’m free to do what I want. But the more I’ve used 4e, the more I’ve realized that I really like back stories to read, and more meat to my adventures. I feel its more juice for my imagination.

    I really am liking the background materials and reading that has come since Essentials came out. Neverwinter is great stuff.

    And I think you are right about how cinematic 4e is. It is easy to do. (not quite… read on) I rarely crack a book in my games.

    On the other hand, its sooo hard to come up with a block buster action sequence week after week. That’s why I feel that with 4e I need, nay, crave, more role playing. Otherwise it boils down to a slog of an combat adventure. The Orcs of Stone Fang Pass best show this. IMO its not a good adventure, but ‘Storming the Gatehouse’ has to be one of the best encounter sets ever. It took two days to play through, and it was a blast.

    One other aspect of cinematic playing is the miniatures and their surroundings. What players can do today is amazing compared to when I was a kid;

    Yeah… that’s right. Battle maps suck ass compared to that.

  31. I guess I’m not sure how that kind of stuff, which is awesome, doesn’t work with pretty much any system. I’d happily use it with 4e. OTOH it falls a bit outside my budget in general. That’s one thing to consider, get the most out of what people are likely to have. Anyway, its cool stuff, I just don’t think I need to be playing OSRIC or PF or whatever to use it.

    I think a lot of where WotC was in 2008 was “We need to get a whole lot of crunch out there fast, otherwise we’ve got this system that’s not comparable to what someone else can do building on 3.5/d20.” They were looking at 3.5 and seeing 40 bajillion classes and large spell lists, and etc., and wanting to be comparable with that. There’s nothing inherent to 4e that demands generic settings and content. NOW though, there’s really no more mileage to be made in crunch, nobody will ever exhaust all the crunch out in circulation today. They seem to be trying to see their way to more interesting settings and adventures, more fluffy stuff. I think they’re not doing to bad either. It seems to irritate a certain demographic and gets compared with the direction Paizo has gone and maybe they are behind there, but it will be interesting to see. Personally I’ve always been more drawn to doing the fluffy stuff myself, but I’m happy to see ideas I can pull from expressed in 4e.

    I get the action sequence thing. 4e is actually ironically IMHO a game that demands a lot from a DM to get the most out of it. Not because of ‘flaws’ but more because it constantly begs you to go that extra mile and pump it up. A lot of simple and somewhat haphazard adventure/encounter designs feel flat mostly because you get the feeling that with a little more pizazz they would really pop, and they would. Not everyone can pull that off and nobody can pull it off all the time. OTOH I like rising to the challenge 😉

    I don’t really know where to go with discussions of RP and 4e. I’m not sure exactly how 4e relates to RPing in a negative way. I know a lot of people talk about being ‘sucked in’ to going combat heavy. Maybe it is just the group I primarily DM for, that doesn’t happen with us. We play plenty of fights. Maybe even more than in the old days, but we do plenty of other stuff too, and this particular group has distinct moods. If they’re hankering to get away from fighting on a given night, well, we’re going to find some interesting way to turn the focus another way, and the system certainly doesn’t get in the way of that. OTOH when they are hankering to carve into some monster, well, I gotta deliver, but I can also count on them to help it along.

    Really, we could play most any system and have equally good fun. This one is really fun though, and easy to DM in a lot of respects.

  32. You don’t need to justify 4e to me. I love it. (I prefer 4e to 4E.)

    I feel that most of the problem with 4e is WOTCs adventures. The nine still haunt local game stores whispering, “Buy me. BUY ME!” Nazgul’s of the Game Stores…

    You can see it right from the get go with some of the first 4e reviews; (If you read, the odd thing you may pick up on is that this guy can’t tell the difference between the game and the adventure. He also fundamentally does not understand much of anything new in 4e. Yet its very often quoted as a 4e game review.)

    For instance, most reviews of the old school ilk have completely missed the purpose of skill challenges. The purpose is for EVERYONE to participate. Seriously, in the past, the fighter would have to pass non-fight stuff up. “Nothing to kill? Can I sleep now?”

    That’s what is balanced about 4e. Everyone gets to participate and contribute at all times. Its the only game where you can say that. (Got that Kanati, and Vanir?) Ney… the game demands it.

    The big shift from 4e to 4E was dumbed down characters (Slayer?), because not everyone wants to sift through power cards or attempt to grok tactics.

  33. I use a grid for combats in my 4e game, always. I try to never rely on the players accomplishing or not accomplishing something for my plots and fights. If they stop a runner, then the reinforcements don’t come, but they might have to fight them next, after a rest. All rolls are made openly.

    Sometimes I do need to force something to happen. When this happens, I confess it to the players, “He gets away because he needs to be alive to try and gain his revenge on you.” I invite them to participate in narrating how it happened. This is similar to the idea of letting them narrate how they failed when they fail in a skill challenge or something. They can be this relaxed because they know failure isn’t final, just something that makes a better story.

    And the big boon of 4e is that a lucky streak by the DM is not going to kill anyone. No matter how big a hit you take, it won’t kill you right away. I often have to repeat this to my players, “Down is not dead”. They have at least three rounds to stand their downed comrade back up again. And sometimes it’s very dramatic. The death save mechanic is very, very nice this way.

    I play in 3.5 and now Pathfinder games, too. I don’t dislike them, not at all. I do dislike GM’s that try to control the situation by withholding information or being deliberately vague. One of my favorite GM’s otherwise does this some. He rolls everything in the open, but is resistant to the battle mat. In the worst case, GM’s that do this feel like they are lying to us, telling us something is possible when it isn’t.

    Anyway, I am of the opinion that 4e is a perfectly fine game, but a gigantic branding fail. Too many signature D&D details got ignored.

  34. I like battlemats, and I’m not really convinced the edge problem is real. (The minion runs over to the wall where a small trumpet is hanging, and sounds the alarm! A gelatinous displacer gazebo appears.) But I agree with the initial point about ranges and area effects. One thing I don’t like in rpgs is when characters take advantage of the birds-eye view that the battle map gives them, a view their character would not have, to execute tactically perfect moves. This is one reason to use a whiteboard or similar instead of gridded battlemaps – it recreates some of the uncertainty the characters would experience in a real battle.

  35. @Toldain

    “Anyway, I am of the opinion that 4e is a perfectly fine game, but a gigantic branding fail. Too many signature D&D details got ignored.”

    Yeah, the problem is there were 2 choices, keep putting out basically the same game with the same limitations, and frankly one that was pretty tapped out, or kill some of those sacred cows. They could have gone the PF route, but what happens with PF now? There’s nothing wrong with it, but where’s the medium to long term direction with that? Keep milking the same game forever? Sooner or later that model stops working. Sooner or later Paizo is in the same bind. Whether going in a slightly different direction was ultimately a good move or if D&D is simply fated to dwindle to nothing but a very small die-hard group of players is an open question, but that seems to be at least how WotC perceived the issue, more or less. And I think beyond that the perception was that at some level the game has to work both at the table and in some as-yet-not-quite-defined digital mode of play. Thus we are at the point we are at. Some people will really dislike that, and other people will find reasons to like it, or at least don’t mind.

    As I’ve said before, there are lots of neato things going on with 4e that give it some great strengths. I can see where it could have aimed slightly more to the left and toned down the power and feat bloat, and managed a little bit more emphasis on planning and a little less on tactics on the grid. I suspect that is just one of those things where emergent properties of a game system simply aren’t clear to the people designing it until it rolls out. Obviously with 20/20 hindsight SOME things in the game would be a bit different. I’m not sure they failed to market the game well, I think they just didn’t know exactly what they had on day 1. Tough choices were made, and most of them were pretty decent choices. Not all of them were. I’d say the real screw-up was more in terms of the whole licensing fiasco that set lots of the community on the warpath. THAT there’s no real excuse for, except “people mess up”.

  36. Alhazred: I hadn’t really thought of it in that way. Specifically WOTC cut its old ties and moved on. But if you think about it… so did Paizo.

    The result is that both are enjoying something of a renaissance.

    Also, I don’t think Paizo will ever be in the same bind WOTC got into. Specifically, they haven’t tried to limit themselves to just ‘core books’. They sell it all, they even sell 3rd party materials through their distribution channels. This kind of business model makes a big difference on how and when a company gets hungry for more sales. I suspect they will take their time about when and how they update. (I’m sure its on their minds.)

    By the way, have you checked out Mordenkainen’s Emporium. Its like a breath of fresh air for 4e. (They had me on the non-magic gear.)

  37. Yeah, it is hard to say, but the way I see it there are always limitations to what sorts of stories you can easily tell with a system. I think 4e is actually better for doing the kinds of path story arcs Paizo does, ironically. They do have different business models. One just has to wonder in the long run if keeping the game itself forever basically the same works. TSR probably never thought about redoing 1e for instance, but eventually they found it was impossible to avoid. If your basic client base is ‘people that want things to not change’, well…

    Yeah, MME is quite nice. This is where I think WotC has figured things out. They’ve done enough with crunch books to last 100 years, nobody can possibly say now “well, 4e doesn’t do THAT” and they can still release a few supplements, but ones that are much more heavily fluff, and if they’re willing to get creative enough I think they can do new setting and adventure stuff that will make people say “we gotta be playing 4e for this”. They definitely didn’t figure that out 3 years ago when they should have…


  1. […] comments on my article on DM Fiat took an interesting turn last week when people started talking about how much more […]

  2. […] In one of my first posts here, I wrote about the unbridgeable gap between how the GM pictures the game universe, and how the players imagine it. A recent post on Critical Hits got me thinking about this issue again. In this post, Vanir talks about how some games, D&D specifically, seem to be trending toward solidifying formerly imagined details into tangible ones. […]