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This is a continuing review section of the new 4e rules. There is a running score sheet at the end, and links to previous review sections, but the bulk is under the cut, to spare your flist view.

These are also kept unlocked.

After some inspection, I think the DM's Guide is actually going to be harder to review than the Player's Handbook. I'm not sure why, except that perhaps it wasn't what i was expecting. I've never ran a 3e or 3.5e game, so I've never had cause to just sit down and read those versions of the DM's Guide. But I surely remember 1e and 2e, and in those versions, the DMG was where most of the rules were. The 4e version of the DMG just doesn't quite feel like that. As an example, the combat rules are primarily listed in the Player's Handbook. There is a section in the DMG, but the reasoning is fairly clear: Most of the combat rules are in the PH because both the players and the GM will need them, but the players aren't expected (or required, anyway) to own the DMG. So the combat rules in the DMG are about degenerate and exotic cases (combat while flying, say) and are about managing and designing the combats that you're going to have.

That's the most stark example, but that seems to be the philosophy running through the DMG in this incarnation: The DMG is not primarily about the addition of more play-level, detailed rules (although there are some) but more about the larger rule necessary to keep a game running in a streamlined, balanced fashion. Someone who's actually studied the 3.5e DMG can comment on whether or not that was the philosophy in that version.

Regardless, I think that's how I'm going to review this, in chunks about:

  • The additional detailed rules, including rules from the PHB that I really think should have been here,
  • about the tactical advice-like rules meant to assist combats, encounters, and individual sessions, and
  • about the strategic advice-like rules meant to keep campaigns and campaign arcs running smoothly, which is necessarily going to include some of the larger genre assumptions being made.

Except I think I'm going to start with the tactical rules, because I've focused on detail-level rules for long enough that I've gotten bored with it.

So, about those Tactical GM Rules and Advice, which I'm defining loosely as anything in the DMG meant to facilitate interesting session-scale encounters. Some of this is really low-level, basic, and beginner. Like the Players Handbook, the DM's Guide is written for new GMs, possibly even more than it's written for the old guard who played The Keep on the Borderlands when it was a new publication. So there are a host of really introductory level passages on WotC's typology of players (the story-teller, the power-gamer, etc) what their strengths and weakness are from a GM's perspective, how to engage each type of player, etc. There's a similar section on GM styles and campaign styles that's more relevant to the strategic rules and advice section.

Now, as someone who has occasionally engaged in the Talmudic-like discussions on back in the day, I didn't get too terribly much out of this. That's not because it's bad, that's just because I could in all seriousness probably write a book about it.(*) What I can glean from it is a certain level of intent on how the designers imagine the game to be played-- rules-heavy for combat, and rules-light for everything else, especially characterization. However it works out in practice, I don't think they intend the game to be an endless string of combats, but by reading the Player's Handbook alone, you'd never get that impression.

In 4e, the designers have semi-formalized the structure of a session into a series of encounters. I can state definitively that they do not mean combat encounters, they mean encounters, of which there are both combat and non-combat. I can state that definitively because there is a chapter on designing combat encounters, and a chapter on designing non-combat encounters, and they're about the same length. It also looks like the designers have a rough idea in mind that major encounters of either type are supposed to take roughly an hour of session play to get through. (In practice, I suspect combats are longer, and non-combats are shorter... but that the role-play involved in getting to either of these will register in everyone's mind as being parts of non-combat encounters and will end up balancing out.)

They've also formalized what I think is an excellent framework for non-combat encounters: The extended skill challenge. It's a simple enough core rule, and I almost feel bad about spelling it out, because this could easily be used by a GM behind the scenes without ever telling the players exactly what's going on. The basic notion is that a skill challenge of complexity N needs to have the group as a whole get 2N+2 skill check successes before they get N failures. (So, to belabor the obvious, a simple skill challenge needs 4 successes before 2 failures; the most complex challenge listed, complexity 5, needs 12 successes before 6 failures.)

What skills, exactly? Well, it depends on the challenge. The DMG gives a half-dozen odd examples, from a tough negotiation scene where you're trying to get help from the Duke to accomplish something, to an urban chase scene, to an interrogation scene, to getting un-lost in the wilderness. The general intent, though, is that each skill challenge should have several applicable skills, preferably from different party members, to get everyone involved in the effort. The negotiation scene lists Bluff, Diplomacy, and Insight as the standard skills, based solely on that major NPC and that situation. It's the players' job to role-play and figure out what skills they have might apply and what don't-- if the Duke is strong, an Intimidate role is probably an automatic failure; if he's a weak ruler, or the players have good blackmail material on him, an Intimidate check might be better than anything else. It's easy to elaborate on this, too, either ahead of time, or in play. As a GM, I could make about a quarter page of notes for this, and wing my way through the rest of it for a good half hour or more of critical play.

There are guidelines for how to set the difficulty of the challenges, and how to award XP for the encounter, as well. To assuage Scifantasy's earlier complaint, a full-out complexity 5 encounter designed for (say) 10th level characters should be giving about the same amount of XP as a full-out serious fight designed for characters of that level.

I think this is one of the best ideas in the game so far. It's broadly applicable to a range of non-combat situations, it's a good, flexible framework, it draws out role-playing if used right, and even though it verges on personality mechanics, it allows me as a GM to overrule the dice once or twice if the characters do very much the right thing or very much the wrong thing. Or I can add bonus or penalty modifiers based on the exact content of the role-played Diplomacy check, for instance. After my review last night, I started putting down some campaign notes for a game under development, and found it to be a shockingly good GM tool to organize my thoughts about the flow of a session that didn't feel like putting myself in a straightjacket, or railroading the characters. (Merhawk has my notes on that, which will not be presented in public for obvious reasons.)

There's also a section on puzzles, which I'm sure will be useful to someone, but not to me, because they're soooo not my style. And finally, that chapter has a section on traps, which is interesting. There's a lot of good GM advice on types of traps and hazards, how to integrate them into combats and other settings, and how to scale them and award XP for them. All of this is useful. What I found interesting is that some of them are modeled as extended skill challenges themselves, which is an idea I find highly useful, especially if your group doesn't have a professionally trained cat burglar and safe cracker with it.

The other major section, here, is the chapter on how to design combat encounters. This begins with a brief discussion of combatant roles similar to, but a bit more finely grained, than the combat niches for PC. In fact, monster "soldiers" are about equivalent to PC "defenders", and "skirmishers" are clearly "strikers." There's about ten different monster roles, though, and I know from looking through the monster manual that these are helpfully and prominently displayed in the stat blocks. That alone gives the GM some rapid help on fitting together encounters.

Of note, here, are "solo monsters" which are exactly what they sound like, monsters that are really intended to be their own encounter, and "minions" which are at the opposite end of the spectrum, the annoyances that need to be dealt with. Minions are an interesting notion-- they directly support the Conan notion of wading into combat against superior odds, without grinding combats down into an unplayable mess. Again, one hates to give up the secret, but the rule is simple-- they've only got one hit point, regardless their attack strengths and other special abilities. Now obviously, you can fuck this up and send 1st level characters against a bunch of, I dunno, Troll minions. They then either get slaughtered, or walk away with disproportionately high rewards. But that's an issue for the GM to deal with properly. No rules will save a GM from himself.

There are also some broad rules about how many critters to put in each combat, depending on how hard you want it to be. It seems to me that these are going to make it easier for the GM to put together combats with both strong and weak monsters, and still gauge the overall toughness of the combat, than in 3.5e. There is also a section with about a half a dozen template combat encounters and guidelines on how to put these together based on the level of the party and the challenge you want it to present. (I should note that this can be used to other purposes than the one the book suggests: A GM running a low combat game can easily use it to put together "weak" and therefore fast encounters, and still award a higher number of XP for it, to pace his overall game.)

Finally, there's a very long section on how to mix terrain and combat types to keep things interesting. This section of the review is already long enough, so I won't review it in detail. Suffice to say, the DMG is trying (and, I think, succeeding) in giving the GM a meaningful set of advice on how to put together combat encounters that are more than simple slugfests.

There are also a few miscellaneous notes for this part of the review:

The advice on how to scale skill challenges can also be very (very!) easily adapted to cover less complicated pass-or-fail skill checks both in combat and out. There is basically a handy table indexing PC level vs typical target numbers for "easy" "moderate" and "hard" activities. This seems mechanical, but I think it will end up being useful, especially used in the right spirit.

The rules also note the possibility of combining skill challenges inside combats. They don't spend too much time on it, but that's okay. It's a complicated topic. It's also one that occurred to me even before I had the books. The one example I saw given in the book combines a gas trap that needs to be defeated as an extended skill challenge (a short one, presumably) while monsters immune to the gas are attacking the rest of the party. I personally think that's a trivial example, and can think of lots more combinations in ways that tend to make combats more meaningful.

* And in fact, some where in the Land of Infinite Free Time, I'd kinda like to write a few pieces on applying Campbell to RPGs.

So at this point, I grade things as follows:

  • General Advice: B (Nothing brilliant, nothing bad, but nothing I need.)
  • Non-combat Encounters: A (I think this is as good as it can be, and makes me more positive about the PHB in retrospect)
  • Combat Encounters: B+ (I think my B+ is predicated on using the rules a little differently than they're intended, but good tools are always used in ways that surprise the maker.)

I'm honestly surprised at how positive I came away from this section. But really, that whole extended skill challenge thing looks nifty, and actually useful as a higher level tool for me, as a GM, to help sketch out sessions and pace my games. It's simple enough, even, that if the PCs do something unorthodox but that seems difficult, I could probably wing my way through one unprepared.

The Combat encounters has a similar feel, as being a set of guidelines to actually help me, as GM, achieve the effects I want, including smaller combats if that's what my group wants, and including combats that are more than slugfests if that's what I want.

Other reviews:
PHB: Characters, Preliminaries and Basics
PHB: Characters, General Differentiation and Advancement
PHB: Characters, Class Particulars and Advancement
PHB: Characters, Feats, Skills, and Miscellanea


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