Tactics Are Not Small Breath Mints

Gamer Bling believes that 4e does many things right. Specifically, he believes 4e does things better than 3.5 (and several other games, as well).

Today’s feature: Combat.

4e combat is not necessarily realistic—because getting eviscerated and coughing up your lungs does not a fun role-playing session make—but it is enjoyable and dynamic, because the ability to do things and to have a battle’s tide ebb and flow is fun. And, character drama and lewt and role-playing and backstory and min-maxing and monty hauling notwithstanding, having fun is what RPGs are all about.

So to analyze combat, let us first consider damage.

Disclaimer: Gamer Bling considered creating a rate-of-damage acronym based on RBI (rivals bashed to incoherence) or ROI (round-based opponent incapacitation) or DPS (damage per player-character swing) or something, but he pulled a hamstring in his brain and thus cannot do much more than think about the wonderful strawberry-rhubarb crisp that the Gamer Bling Official Companion just made. So no TLAs or GFLAs today. Sorry.

In 3.5, melee characters deal more damage by virtue of having more attacks. More attacks = more chances to hit = greater average damage. QED. In addition, acquiring better weapons, be they masterwork or magical, incrementally increase the average damage done per attack.

Multiple attacks had to be created to allow fighters to keep pace with spellcasters for ability to inflict big ol’ wads of damage in a short period of time. Yes, 3.5 spellcasters have their own problems with suckage (here and here and here), but let’s face it: fighters swinging a sword once a round have a hard time competing with fireballs and chained lightning for sheer toastage of enemy forces.

Thus, to balance this, as well as to compete against ever-growing hit points (see here), fighters (and pointy-eared monkeys firing crossbows once their spells run dry) get extra attacks as they advance levels. And, occasionally, they get even more damage as they gain feats like cleave and greater cleave that work far better on hordes of weenies than they do against single behemoth villains.

In contrast, 4e characters deal more damage by virtue of having a damage multiple inherent in their encounter and daily powers. As they advance levels, they can use more of these attacks and thus do more damage.

For those gamers who haven’t looked at 4e, it works like this: At first level, most characters get something on the order of this:
    • two at-will powers that do normal damage,
    • one encounter power that does double damage, and
    • one daily power that does triple damage.

As the character’s levels rises, the number of encounter and daily powers they have grows, thus they can dish out more and more damage. For an example of how this works, Gamer Bling assembled the following chart. This is how much damage a fighter from each edition can dish out over the course of eight rounds of combat, expressed as a multiple of his basic melee attack damage value.

For the 4e fighter we assume (a) he always hits, (b) he never criticals, (c) he uses all of his daily and encounter powers, and (d) he selects the most damaging powers from the PHB that are not conditional in nature (i.e., do not require you to be facing a wounded half-ogre half-dragon on Tuesday).

In a similar manner we have the 3.5 fighter whom we assume (a) always hits, (b) never criticals, and (c) never gets any cleaves or other featy stuff.

Neither fighter gets to use action points.

Q: Which shows better design?

There are a number of comments that need to be made about this chart.

First, the stair-stepping of the 3.5 fighter is pretty flagrant. Also, the comparative slopes of the damage dealt compare roughly with the average hit point gain of beefy player characters (see this post).

As any intelligent observer will note that the chart is, in many ways, unfair. For example, the height of each step in the 3.5 fighter’s chart should be incrementally lower, inasmuch as each subsequent attack comes at a greater and greater attack penalty. On the other hand, it is not necessarily a foregone conclusion that the 4e fighter would have all his daily attacks ready, nor that he would use them all.

Or we could argue about advantages that are not accounted for in this chart. In 3.5, a fighter gets to stack his strength and enhancement bonuses more often than a 4e fighter can (more attacks = more bonus adds, while a single 4e attack = one bonus add). On the other hand, many 4e fighter attacks have secondary effects of dazing an opponent, or lowering its defenses, or knocking it down, etc., which cannot be readily translated into hit-point equivalents.

The bottom line is that this chart a good rough first cut at the progression of RBI or ROI or DPS or QED in each system.

But the greatest datum that can be drawn from this chart is that the 3.5 fighter only gets his ever-growing damage if he stands still. This is because making all those attacks requires a full-round action, which means you’ve used your move action.

Note the fighter’s damage progression if he moves… that’s the line in pink.

Ooh. That sucks.

See, one of the great problems that 3.5 has is that it actively encourages static behavior. Unintentionally, to be sure, but it does so nonetheless. This is because characters get more and more attacks as they rise in level, but, to keep people from running all over the place and slicing people apart like Toshiro Mifune after a triple serving of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs on a Saturday morning, you could only get your full complement of attacks if you did not move.

4e handles this differently: characters typically get only one attack a round, but this attack can do more damage than normal. The net result: fewer attack die rolls, and you don’t emasculate yourself if you happen to move around the battlefield.

See, what happens if people move around is you get this thing called “tactics.” Flanking can be done with a move, rather than a series of 5-foot steps. You fight your way through a crowd by using impactful attacks followed by actual move actions. In fact, some 4e powers grow in effect if you move.

And when you start using the secondary effects, it gets even better. Hit someone and push him into the melee reach of an ally, thereby opening up a gap where another friend can charge through. Curse someone so they take damage if they attack, then send an ally running through their threat area—do they opportunity attack, or not?

Too long have dungeon battles had a static front line of people whacking each other while the mages in the back use either (a) powerful spells or (b) mundane missiles that can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Now the field changes all the time.

It may not be realistic (even allowing for the existence of magic), but it’s ever-changing, it’s heroic, and it’s fun.

Just what Gamer Bling ordered.


~ by Gamer Bling on 26 May 2010.

2 Responses to “Tactics Are Not Small Breath Mints”

  1. Really great analysis of 3.5 vs. 4e combat, and very funny as well. Many 3.5 gamers I know look at 4E and get hung up on the “unrealism” of the powers, but they don’t realize until they play it how tactically advanced the system is over D&D 3.5, and most other RPGs out there. Keep up the good work! I’m adding this post to my news page.

  2. While I will never deny that 3.5e had some of the best combatthe game’s ever seen… I never liked the whole “can’t move and take a full attack” nonsense. The powers in 4e, silly as they can be at times, make combat much more immersive and much more even. Oh, 4e has its flaws too, but two years of running a game have shown me its strengths, too.

    I’d play either, but I’m running 4e, so… Yeah.

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