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Rule-of-Three: 09/12/2011
R&D Staff

You've got questions—we've got answers! Here's how it works—each week, our Community Manager will be scouring all available sources to find whatever questions you're asking. We'll pick three of them to answer, whether about the about the making of the game, the technical workings of our DDI studio, or anything else you care to know about… with some caveats.

There are certain business and legal questions we can't answer (for business and legal reasons). And if you have a specific rules question, we'd rather point you to Customer Service, where representatives are ready and waiting to help guide you through the rules of the game. That said, our goal is provide you with as much information we can—in this and other venues.

1 Why were craft skills removed from D&D in 4th edition?

This was a fiercely debated issue in the 4th Edition design and development team. One school of thought held that the Craft skill is a fun tool for customizing characters; even if no one ever really uses the skill, folks appreciate having the option to write it on their character sheet and might actually make the small sacrifice of taking a skill just for flavor. The other school of thought (which ultimately prevailed) argued that the shorter, tighter, and more focused the skill list was, the better it would be. A Craft skill with no real game impact would only confuse new players trying to navigate the skill rules. Designers who held this view pointed out that nothing prevented players from writing "blacksmith," "leatherworker," "glassblower," or anything else on their character sheets. In hindsight, perhaps we should have included a small sidebar to emphasize that point.

There is a simple patch for this, of course: just add the Craft skill to your game. The rules and DCs from the 3rd Edition Craft skill are close enough to what would be appropriate for 4th Edition games. And how often does it really matter whether your character hits a DC 20 Blacksmithing check, anyway? Most of what players want out of a Craft skill is just permission to write "blacksmith" on their character sheet and to say that their character knows something about being a blacksmith.

2 Many players have a problem with the idea of a feat tax—feats like the expertise feats that address a deficit that all characters have. Are you looking at ways to fix issues without adding more feat tax or ways of fixing the feat tax issue in general?

One of the things that we didn't fully appreciate in the early days of 4E design is "the tyranny of accuracy." When monster defenses scale with level, characters can't afford to fall behind. Older editions of D&D generally set monster defenses based on simulation: flesh golems are covered in human skin, so they're AC 9. Sure, they're monsters that 7th or 8th level characters might expect to fight, but their AC still reflects their "real" toughness, not the threat you'd like them to pose for characters of their level. 4th Edition discarded that approach and cut straight to the chase; monsters' defenses are based on who they're likely to fight, and they're seldom much easier or harder than "normal" to hit. It's a lot less OK to be nonchalant about your accuracy when every combat encounter is scaled to test your accuracy.

We've done a lot to make the feat tax more tolerable in later Player's Handbooks and especially the Essentials rulebooks. The newer feats automatically scale, so you don't need to take them multiple times (or jump through the hoop of retraining), and most also include nifty special abilities. The defense-improving feats in Essentials aren't just raw increases to your Fort, Reflex, and Will defense—they add other important benefits such as saving against stun or reducing ongoing damage. But the fact remains that you're very strongly tempted to spend at least four of your first five or six feats to boost your accuracy and defenses.

You're not likely to see any big, universal fixes to this. We can't easily rescale the monster numbers again, because it takes a long time for those changes to percolate through the system and the player community. We could let characters have more feats, but there's wide agreement that characters are already complicated enough. Obviously, you can add any house rule that you like. For example, you could give PCs a free +1 feat bonus to all accuracy and defenses at heroic tier, increasing to +2 at paragon and +3 at epic. That removes much of the pressure to choose "feat tax" feats. But we're not ready to make that a global rule.

3 Combat can take a long time. The new monster math has helped speed things up, but are you working on anything else to encourage speedy combat while keeping it fun? Do you have any tips for keeping combat moving swiftly?

The change in monster math is probably the last systemic change we're going to make in this regard. There is, however, a lot of room in encounter design for reducing the grindiness of some 4th Edition fights.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Avoid using too many monsters that deny actions to the characters. Each time a monster stuns a character, it prolongs the battle.
  • Avoid using too much terrain that significantly slows or impedes characters, and avoid monsters that immobilize or restrain characters. If the heroes can't reach the enemy to attack, that's just another form of action denial.
  • Avoid using too much terrain that provides cover or obscures the battlefield. When the monsters have terrain-based boosts to their AC, it takes longer to kill them.
  • Avoid using too many monsters that impose the weakened condition or that are insubstantial. Imposing half damage adds rounds to the fight.
  • Avoid using too many soldiers. Their high defenses mean more misses, and the more the characters miss, the longer it takes to beat the monsters.

It's fine if an encounter features a light dose of these things. We don't want to throw out every monster that stuns, weakens, immobilizes, is insubstantial, or is a soldier. But be mindful of how many of these factors you're combining in a single encounter. A roomful of soldiers is one thing, but a roomful of soldiers that's also filled with heavy smoke that weakens everyone … that's a drag.

One "do" to keep in mind, as opposed to all these "don'ts," is to look for opportunities to end fights early. Plenty of monsters are smart enough—or interested enough in staying alive—to run away when they get bloodied. When they do, you shouldn't punish the characters for getting only a "partial win." Once your players understand that driving off an attacking predator or scattering the goblin guards is just as good as annihilating them, you'll find it's much easier to end uninteresting battles at halftime and skip the churn through the remaining hit points .

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