Heroic Drive: Attacking Situations Angry-style

What drives the heroes in your RPG? What motivates them, making their blood hot? What allows them to unleash their greatest moments of heroism in the face of danger? Or, in the terms of present discussion: What gets them out of bed in the morning and keeps them fighting late into the day?

The Angry DM crafted an excellent article the other day (“Tearing 4e a new one” and an addendum) that has spurred some discussion and debate. Particularly he pointed out the possibly unintended consequences of the DnD 4e’s short rest mechanic and encounter resources. I can’t express it as well as he has, so if you have questions or objections, you’ll definitely want to read his articles where he likely has already answered them.

In a tweet today, he summarized, “There are several consequences of the resource system I addressed:

  1. It doesn’t remove or mitigate the 15-minute workday,
  2. It renders moot all of the interesting options the combat system offers,
  3. It creates a system in which every encounter has to be deadly to be meaningful, removing any risk other than death.”

Some Possible Solutions?

Angry suggests two off-the-cuff, untested ideas of ways to subvert a single optimal strategy and give players more meaningful choice regarding rest vs reward.

  1. Limit healing surge usage outside of combat: (ie. PCs can only spend 2 surges per short rest and only 1 short rest until another encounter, or if they get bloodied, they can’t heal beyond bloodied during this short rest, etc)
  2. PCs gain power throughout a day as their other resources dwindle: (ie After a extended rest, PCs begin with only their weakest Daily power, after subsequent fights they gain their higher level Dailies. The only way they gain access to their best powers is by building up Drive (adrenaline/determination/momentum) to do so.

I’m intrigued by these ideas, though, being untested, they may certainly be problematic. The first gives reasons to fight well, or else your PC may be left with a limp or a swollen eye. The second seems to lend 4e the flavor of a model I greatly enjoy in anime, where characters frequently unleash their most awesome power and character-defining moments right at the point that they are also the most severely tested or nearly exhausted, all due to determination or powerful motivation. This is a similar to the Limit Break mechanic in many video games (ie Final Fantasy) which Quinn Murphy adapted for use in 4e last year. Angry’s suggestion works but doesn’t require any significant changes to the rest of the system.

Beyond Combat

One issue I have with these suggestions in their current form is that they favor combat encounters since they’re tied to short rests, and as far as I’ve seen, PCs only take short rests after combat encounters, thus determining that combat delineates daily surge access and power growth through dailies. At least they favor combat in a way my particular group wouldn’t prefer. Of course non-combat encounters could work too, more loosely, I am left wondering: What if something more generic charges PCs power throughout the day? If the current optimal strategy is to deal damage, could we subvert that strategy by expanding what ‘dealing damage’ means in the game so that spending 2 hours on a combat actually affects the game world in valuable ways even if nobody dies?

Situation Points

Sarah Darkmagic boils some of Angry’s points down to an issue of how games handle time, but I’m intrigued by going a different direction.

Instead, I look to Rob Donoghue’s idea of Situation Points as the currency for charging powers (and maybe for rationing surge usage as well) rather than combat encounters. The potential effects of using SP mixed with Angry’s ideas are fascinating me. If you understand Rob’s idea, you can skip the rest of this section.

Rob suggests that monster HP be interchangeable with Situation Points (SP). SP can also stand for traps, environmental effects, social ambiance, etc. so that PCs can deal with a situation by whatever means they prefer:  circumvent it, manipulate it, understandit, smash it, run away from it. The main take away is this: PCs can attack the situation with skills or ingenuity just as easily as with powers, dealing ‘damage’ to the situation to overcome it by any means they can imagine.

Example: A rouge may defeat a guard by either straight up sticking him with a dagger 3-4 times, or by dropping him to 0SP using Stealth, Bluff, or other skills, thereby taking him out in one blow, winning him over, or whatever other manner of victory the player wishes to narrate.

This idea has countless exciting ramifications, but for the present discussion, the best part is that SP are completely interchangeable with HP. When my players decided to target the leader of the 5,000 SP worth of orcs assaulting their airship, I simply carved 200SP out of the situation’s whole budget, gave some quick evocative description and named that 200SP Orc Warlord, using the stats in the DDI Compendium. Plain and simple. Did the DDI stats indicate more HP than 200? Possibly, but I didn’t care.

In this way, SP allowed our game to take on one of my favorite features of Leverage: emergent gameplay driven by player interest. Players now get to determine what is interesting or important to the story, not just the GM. They decided the Orc Warlord was important, and so he was, but he may as well not have been (see another excellent article by Angry about Schrödinger’s Gun in gaming)

Situation Points and Angry

Mechanically speaking, then, with SP driving PC power-up, PCs would gain access to new daily powers as the party reaches certain thresholds of Situation Point ‘damage.’ In this case, SP damage/progress shows that the party is making narrative effect on the conflicts and obstacles facing them, and as they become invested in various situations, theoretically their determination rises allowing them to do cooler things. Thresholds would be dependent on level, essentially being however many HP a standard encounter would contain. If at Level 1, Standard monsters have about 28 HP, a party of 5 would reach their first SP threshold when they have dealt 5 x 28 = 140 SP. Availability of Healing Surges could be tied to SP thresholds too somehow, I suppose.

I admit, this mechanic may be a bit forced thematically, but it gives rise to some fascinating thematic benefits.

Player-Generated Complications and Character Development

One of the ramifications of this idea is that players have incentive to invent situations to then deal with. When PCs wake up fresh, but also without the Drive and momentum built up by yesterday’s events, they will need to do something to get back in the mood, to regain their heroic Drive. For big-time heroes this is more than just getting coffee or going for a run. It takes a lot of courage to risk life and limb, and after a while, PCs may develop inner turmoil over any number of events that crop up while adventuring. Having an important conversation with an ally or NPC could contribute to characters’ motivation and determination just as much as putting bad guys in their place or seeing their friends in danger. Players inventing their own situations is good for at least two reasons.

  1. First, players will want to spur their own complications to pace their own power fluctuation. For example, if they need to face a dragon right after waking up, they’ll probably want to deal with a few smaller Situations first: skirmishers, personal or intra-party relational issues, making a strategic approach, etc. If players go looking for Situations, they’ll end up with plenty of opportunities to deal with mechanically significant conflicts other than just the danger of death, and round out their characters in the process.
  2. Secondly, players inventing their own Situations reinforces the intent of Angry’s first suggestion (limiting surge use), because it mechanically reinforces lingering effects from previous battles. Players may want to hamper themselves by bringing back a problem from earlier such as a broken rib, an issue of trust or motivation worth arguing about with allies or NPCs, emotional baggage, etc.

Of course, there’d need to be an explicit mechanic for allowing players to create new Situations, but I’ll explore that and some other ideas branching off from here in a later post.

So what do you think of using SP in this way? I understand that using SP is not for everyone, but it could be a great currency to balance PCs HP as the adventure day goes on, giving players interesting choice about risk and rest, which, at the heart of it, is what Angry is advocating for. I’m sure I’m overlooking something with this proposition, so please help me find it.

About Adam

I'm a husband, an explorer of the inexhaustible, and a hunter for unexpected synergies and collaborative potentials. My explorations into RPGs began with running D&D games, though lately I enjoy mining the potentials of diverse systems, especially Cortex Plus.