I have a problem with extended rests and it took me until just now to figure out why. In earlier editions, almost everything was truly expended until you rested. There were only so many spells, so many heals.This meant that it was fairly clear to everyone involved when the party was too weak to go on, so it hardly ever became a source of disagreement. It did, however, add to the tension, as you watched the gauge slowly slip towards “E”. Part of the metagame was recognizing when you were in a dangerous environment where resting was going to be difficult and adjusting your expenditures accordingly. This led to what was known as the “15-minute workday“. I agree with that author when he says that 4e didn’t solve the 15-minute workday problem, it just made it less painful.
It also led to “austerity management“, which is the idea that, when your economy is in the dumper, the best solution is to cut spending. I suppose you could call it rationing, but that seems more measured and reasonable than the actual behavior. If you’ve ever been hard up for money and stood there paralyzed by the decision of whether or not you can afford whatever item you’re considering, you know exactly the sensation of austerity management. I take the very firm position that this sort of thing has little, if any, place in roleplaying. That doesn’t mean that we should remove resource management from the game. It means that our desire to model hardship and scarcity must be tempered by the knowledge that being completely out of resources for any meaningful length of time sucks donkey balls. As a policy, it’s generally much better to say, “You can’t spend or regain X” than to impose blanket restrictions on recovery.
In 4e, very little is actually lost between encounters. I think it only amounts to daily powers, healing surges and item dailies. A 4e party that has no dailies and is reduced to only two or three healing surges apiece still packs a wallop and probably has decent durability, especially if the players are mechanically-minded enough to seek healing that doesn’t require surges. (For an interesting thought exercise, you could try to design a fun, balanced and challenging encounter in which the characters are somehow prevented from spending healing surges. It can be helpful in understanding exactly what the characters can be capable of in a pinch.) The thing is, dailies are often seen as the most exciting thing a character can do. In low-level play, players are taught to hoard their dailies. Later, when they have more to choose from, dailies become the mechanism by which the players tilt the field in their favor. At-Will and Encounter abilities are less fun because they’re routine. In older editions, resting mostly just increased your resources. The only things you genuinely regained were your highest level spells and some class features.
I’ve written about my concerns with the timing of the extended rest before, but this is a separate issue. I feel that 4e supports situations in which the players and the GM can genuinely disagree as to whether or not the party is “strong enough” enough to keep going and this schism can make it harder for the GM to properly balance encounters. I also believe that the nature of 4e’s dailies causes players to want them to be always available. That’s because, even though the party can usually win without the use of dailies, the fights play very differently when they are used.
Now, because of the impact that dailies can have on an encounter – especially complex “boss” encounters – it’s important to have a grasp on what dailies the party has access to and what they can do. This is where the frog-pot phenomenon comes in. Let’s say that the characters are delving through a crypt, looking for the lich, making for a series of happyfun undead encounters over a couple of sessions. Being a properly evil GM, you take this into account when you’re designing the climactic fight.
Then, for whatever reason, the players decide that they need to take an extended rest. The traditional 15-minute workday problem here is that there should be consequences for them leaving the dungeon at this point: maybe the lich moves on, maybe it adds guards and magical traps. Giving in to the players isn’t unreasonable here, especially because just having the lair reset will feel grindy and just lead to a repeat of the problem. So you give in… and the players crush the lich, resulting in a flat, uninspired end to a plot arc.
More on fixing this problem in a future post.
If you’re a regular to this blog, you probably know that “Tales From the Table” is the tagline I use for posts about something that happened in my game, which is somewhat incongruous with an abstract discussion about how the mechanics of extended rests interact with good story. This article came about because listening to my players talk about last Monday’s combat sparked my epiphany. So, in kind of a two-fer, you get the crunch along with the theory.
Ghosts of the Old Ones (Level 22 encounter for six)
There were two of each type of spirit creature. One of my players actually ran the fight for me (more about that in my next post). He definitely ran with the idea that the spirits are angry, yet remain intelligent, focusing their attacks very intently. For an at-level encounter in the epic tier, characters reached zero or fewer hit points six times in this fight. Four were the Rogue, who actually did an excellent job “tanking” as they figured out what the monsters did.
This is the only monster of the three where I feel I made a serious mistake. The others can use some tuning, but I failed with this creature.
To begin with, this creature is a soldier that does brute-level damage. It does this because I didn’t think it through. One of the considerations with an epic-tier soldier is that the characters are devilishly difficult to control by this point, as they have accumulated a number of “get out of jail” abilities. I have had fights where the soldiers were ignored because they couldn’t do anything that demanded attention, so I wanted to give this creature a way of “tanking” that was based more on actual threat than mechanics. Now, there’s nothing wrong with putting big damage on a soldier frame, as long as it’s done correctly. To me, the defining quality is that the soldier keeps saying “pay attention to me or pay the price!” In that sense, Enraged Flurry would have been much better if it read “The Spirit Bear must not have taken damage since its last turn.” That might have been significantly less effective, but it would have been more thematic.
The central issue, however, is that the monster punishes proper play. Given that there were the same number of monsters as characters, good tactics says that the tanks and controllers scramble to hold as many of them down as possible while the strikers burn down the most dangerous monsters. This most likely means AoE abilities… which means that Enraged Flurry gets triggered. Doing the right thing shouldn’t make things worse for the party unless it’s intended as a gotcha, which this isn’t.
I liked this design, though my friend was correct that Go For the Eyes is going to be almost always the correct play, meaning that Dazzling Screech gets underused.
I love Cunning Stalker as a mechanic so much that it hurts because I feel that it is a very “lurker” ability that doesn’t require a lot of terrain and doesn’t slow down combat.