The Seven-Sided Die

Pick a lever, any lever

Posted Saturday January 23, 2010 at 10:31 AM

One of the best reasons for not updating a roleplay-gaming blog is being too busy with the actual hobby—busy roleplaying—to have time to update.[1. I suppose I should make a post about what I've been up to, at some point. The short of it: Google Wave; reading a pile of new games; playing Diaspora; playing Savage Worlds/Shaintar; adapting Shaintar to Burning Wheel.] One of the not-so-best reasons is that I used to blog when my son napped and he's stopped doing that. Tonight is one of those rare nights where I'm not gaming or prepping for a game, I've slept well the night before, and I have a post in mind that shouldn't take more energy to write than I have left but is still worth posting.

So, on with it.

Greywulf wrote a post on why the D&D 4e Powers system is good. I didn't find myself agreeing, but he wrote a follow-up comment that illuminated a dynamic between the Powers system and player creativity that I hadn't thought about before. One commentor was unhappy with the way players seem to prefer invoking powers over creative tactics. In part j_king wrote (emphasis mine):

It seems that whenever my players get into a combat, their most difficult choices are: where to move and which power to use. And perhaps whether to use an action point once in a while. I find that it’s rather rare that they think of clever ways to gain the advantage over a monster; especially if the encounter is balanced so that the party is likely to win. More often than not, once an encounter gets past the 15 minute mark it devolves into “Great cleave, 18 — hits, 12 damage. Marked.”

Could just be uninspired players. However, I think the system could do more to encourage more imaginative thinking rather than purely tactical.

To which Greywulf replied:

4e does rather hand it to you on a plate, doesn’t it? I think the key is for the GM to present situations that can’t be solved using their Powers alone – a 100′ chasm or trap’n'monster setup, for example which just begs for the players to stretch their imagination a notch. Once they get the hang of using their brains rather than just what’s written on their character sheet, it will soon become second nature.

The parts I emphasised are about the role the character sheet has as a tool for creative play. A character sheet has a lot of stuff on it, and what that stuff is varies tremendously from system to system. Often enough most of it is just pre-crunched math that is collected on the sheet for easy reference. Increasingly in the games I read and play I'm seeing another category of stuff present on the characters sheet, things I'm going to call levers.

Moving the world

Levers are things that a player can look at on their character sheet and yank on for effect in the game, often (but not necessarily) as a response to a problem that needs a solution. One of the most common types of lever is the skill. How often, as a GM or player, have you seen a player confronted with a crisis immediately look down to their character sheet to scan their list of skills for the magic bullet that will solve the problem? The player is looking for a lever—something they can yank to make the game do what they would rather it do.

Skills aren't the only kind of lever that show up in systems. An example of a lever that has mixed mechanical and story effects are Aspects in FATE. These are short phrases like "Twitchy as a ferret" that can be called on to influence a roll in the player's favour, or to bribe the player into making a choice that's probably not in their character's best interest for the sake of a more interesting story.

Power are a major type of lever in D&D 4e. Powers are the primary mechanic through which characters can have significant effects on the world and through which players can have significant mechanical impact on the game system. There are a lot of options, and the character advancement system is set up so that Powers are a large part of defining and refining a character. For any given situation in combat it's likely that the character has (or could have taken) a Power that would optimally exploit or solve the situation. Need to whack a badguy but you're a bit low on hit points? If you've got a Power that strikes and lets you use a healing surge, that's a lever you can pull to solve that dilemma.

Creative impulses

It might be obvious by now what I think this has to do with creativity. When you've got a problem on the one hand and a lever that fits the problem on the other, the obvious choice is to pull it. In a game with few or no levers there are few or no ready-made answers to the game situations, while in a game with many and varied levers there is always going to be one or more that are good enough to apply to the situation.

Whether pulling that lever results in a creative addition to the game or not depends greatly on the game system that lever is part of, and I think this is part of why the Powers system in 4e leaves me cold. Not only does it give a player many levers to pull in combat, but the system doesn't ask anything more of the player after the lever is pulled. You can get creative with the use and description of a Power, but you don't have to in order to make the game's engine run.[1. To be sure, this is a benefit in other ways. For instance, the tactical aspects of combat run very smoothly because you only have to make a choice of Power and then the mechanics follow smoothly from that choice.] 4e provides lots of levers, which makes it easy to just pull a lever. Of course this could be waved away as an example of lazy play—but who's going to stop that lazy player, and haven't we all been that player at some point?

So levers can be creativity inhibitors.[6. One of the most uncontroversial examples of a lever that greatly inhibits creativity is Diplomacy in D&D 3.x. Part of why that skill is so reviled is because, as written, it short-circuits any roleplay that is about conflicting PC and NPC interests. With a high enough Diplomacy, any time the player wants they can pull that lever and make the game instantly less interesting to everyone else.] Given a choice between McGuyvering up a solution to the challenge and using a Power that is obviously going to do the trick, pulling that Power's lever is going to win out for most players in most circumstances.

That's not to say that levers are inherently bad. They're not. A system can also provide levers as a kind of story bribe: "Here, you can pull this thing for powerful effect, but before it does its magic you have to add a bit to the story yourself…" Levers of that sort work as a bribe for the player to add to the ongoing story because their in-game effect is partly undefined and needs that bit of player storytelling in order to have a defined effect.[2. How levers can require story in order to work is a matter of their mechanics. In Burning Wheel for example, in order to earn Artha (an important fate-point currency) the player has to make decisions that further their character's goals and beliefs. In order to pull a lever like the belief "I am the greatest swordsman alive" so that it pays out in Artha, you have to do things like challenge the king's champion to a duel. You don't get the mechanical effect of the lever until you create some story, because the act of creating that bit of story is what pulls the lever. I'm sure there are more and better examples, but forgive me my blogging rustiness.] Levers like that have a coin slot—you can pull the lever, but you have to pay into the story before the lever will let you effect the game.

Which leaves the other way that levers can encourage players to be creative: by not existing. A lever that isn't there is a lever that doesn't offer a short-cut to solving the problem. Are you an untrained schmuck with a rusty sword and nary a stealthy skill to your name peering down on the four bugbears guarding the cave entrance you need to get into? Without a skill or a fighting chance there are no levers to provide obvious solutions, so you have to get creative.[3. I'm not saying sneaking past the bugbears or slaughtering them is a badwrongfun thing here—I love me some steathly characters and enjoy the more fighty parts of this hobby fine—just that not having the two most obvious answers of "fight" or "sneak by" available means that an unorthodox solution is the only option left.] Shoving boulders onto them from above, luring them away with a clever strawman silhouetted against the moon, or some other unorthodox solution is going to be fun to play and memorable after the game.

Full circle

Which brings me back to the insight that j_king and Greywulf's exchange gave me. The abundance of easy levers on a D&D 4e character sheet don't prevent creative play, but by being there they make it easy to just pull a lever rather than get creative, and the system doesn't make up for that damping effect on creativity by making those levers require creativity after pulling them. Since I'm personally not interested in the tactical combat side of D&D 4e, the abundance of purely mechanic levers in 4e explains why as a system it doesn't excite me.

Greywulf's suggestion to j_king that the way to solve that is to set up situations where Powers aren't the answer to the challenge is a good one for people who already like 4e but want more opportunities for creative problem-solving. From my perspective, the Powers system is what makes 4e different from the stacks of other games I own—having to write scenarios to work around that core of the game seems to me like a reason to use a different system. As I wrote in my comment on Greywulf's post, the core system of a game shouldn’t be an obstacle to creativity that needs to be GMed around to make the gameplay good, and the contents of the character sheet should be inspirational rather than creativity-damping.

There are a lot of other half-formed thoughts bumping around in my head about how the lever metaphor can be used to understand what makes different games tick, but those will have to wait.[4. Now I remember why I haven't been posting. This took the better part of three hours to write, link, and shoddily proofread. Three hours used to not seem like a lot, but now that it's my entire post-toddler evening it seems like a lot more.]

Comments (7)


Saturday January 23, 2010 at 05:36 PM

I think this is also why people find that there is little room for roleplaying in 4e; those creative solutions to in game problems are where the character really gets to interact with the world in a believable and exciting way. 4e practically spoon feeds you solutions to so many problems that creative thinking isn't required to make it work so people who enjoy creative thinking find the lack of it a barrier to roleplay.


Saturday January 23, 2010 at 05:57 PM

Great post, and I'm very happy to see that my blogpost managed to get the brainjuices flowing so much.

I think that what 4e did (for good or ill) is equalize the number of levers that the classes had. In Third Edition, if you enjoyed playing a character with lots of levers to pull (to use your excellent terminology), you chose a Rogue (lots of Skill levers) or Wizard (lots of Spell levers). If you didn't, you played a Fighter or other combat-oriented class.

With Fourth Edition however, all of the classes have roughly the same number of levers. Wizards still have slightly more Spell levers (in the form of their At-will Cantrips), and Rogues will have slightly more Skill levers, but the playing field has levelled out a whole lot more than before. That's most likely to annoy the Fighter-types (who don't like levers. they prefer crowbars) and those who (quite correctly) think that the only lever you really need is your imagination.

I guess it comes down to this: 4th Edition has more levers. It's up to you whether you pull them or not though. .-= greywulf´s last blog ..Christmas comes early to Mordor =-.


Sunday January 24, 2010 at 07:06 AM

4th ed D&D creates problems that fall within boundaries that can be solved through the manipulation of probabilities as written on a sheet. AKA "Yahtzee: Now with more Elves!"

Perhaps levers are more interesting if they don't directly address the challenges in the game. I had a character name Kat whose powers were: - incredible prowess at all physical skills, especially fighting - seeing electromagnetic fields - being adapted to cold water - subdermal armour

Ze also fed on raw meat and had a deep streak of self-loathing.

In a tactical wilderness game, ze would kick ass constantly - and probably get pretty boring. But we were playing a game of modern-day supernatural conspiracies and psychological horror where most of the challenges were social or emotional. Being able to win a fistfight or spot... uh... shoddy electrical wiring (?) could play into that in really interesting ways, but they never solved problems for zer, so much as opened up new ways of reacting to the story. The only levers that related to the challenges in the story were ones that created problems: eating raw meat made the conspiracy part harder; the self-loathing made the emotional aspect more of a challenge.

So it was less "Everyone roll diplomacy." and more "You're all completely over your head, but you have some cool skills. Try and apply them somehow."

Actually, most of my favourite characters had levers like this: things in their backstory, things they could do, or a way of doing them, but who were, at best, tangentially related to solving in-game problems. And they played out in a system where you could solve things without rolling dice on your character sheet.

Philo Pharynx

Monday January 25, 2010 at 10:23 PM

While this is a more cogent post than the guy who just says "There's no roleplaying 4e", it does fall into the same pitfall. The creative parts of the game are not in any rulebook. The players and GM have to bring them to the game. Just because the levers are there doesn't mean people can't be creative. If your group wants to play creatively, they will, no matter what system they use. If they don't, they won't. i.e. It's perfectly possible to play Burning Wheel with a set of steroetypical cookie cutter beliefs that are easy to trigger. It's also possible to play 4e and spend a lot of time doing unusual tactics. Some of the people I play with use their powers in odd ways the designers never intended. In fact, a lot of the DM advice presented in Dragon magazine is based on the "Just say Yes" philosophy. This is the idea that no matter how outlandish the idea, there's a chance it will work. The GM still needs to figure out what kinds of rolls and what actions it will take, but it's possible.


Monday January 25, 2010 at 11:56 PM

First, I want to say that you're absolutely right in the sentiment of your comment, but I want to pick this nit before I tackle the substance: Having experience with the original games that were built on "Just Say Yes", 4e seems to be self-contradicting to me—the advice says to encourage player creativity, but many of the rules squash that. I'm thinking in particular of the "creative skill use in skill challenges is great and to be encouraged! Make the check for unorthodox skills extra-hard!" contradiction, which came up in my game in a bad, bad way.

But that's a minor quibble with a passing detail in your comment. You're right: I ended up concluding that 4e still seems broken to me.

However, a post by Tommi Brander in response to this one, called Levers and the fruitful void, really clarified it for me. Where above I tried to just use 4e as inspiration to think about why it didn't work for me and yet I still struggled to understand why it wasn't broken, I missed what Tommi made clear—D&D 4e puts the fruitful void in a different place than I want it.

It has rules in some of the places I don't want rules (so I can be creative there) and it lacks rules where I do want them so I can build on those rules with creative play. Creating interesting combat arenas is certainly a creative process, but it's not what I want in a roleplaying game. That's true for most of the fruitful voids that 4e's rules allow for.

So, no, "There's no roleplaying in 4e" certainly isn't true. It's just not the kinds of roleplaying that I want.

Snarf it! « Swords & Dorkery

Friday February 19, 2010 at 01:58 PM

[...] right order, could have various effects. It is a good reminder of how important tricks, traps, and levers to pull are in a [...]


Friday February 19, 2010 at 08:47 PM

Pardon me for being late to the discussion, but: When you play a game, you're actively seeking out the best solutions to the challenges you're presented with. Seasoned gamers can immediately shift their focus to whatever aspects of the game are most key to victory. In 4e, these aspects are position and power use; hence j_king's comment.

The core design problems here are twofold. First, there's what I think of as the "Diablo issue". Basically, the moment-to-moment gameplay in RPGs can suffer because the game design prioritizes building a powerful character over everything else. Strategic concerns like min-maxing and careful loot management are the only real priority; once those have been taken care of, combat itself winds up requiring no active thought. (This is not an inherent problem, simply a pattern of poor design)

Second, there's the matter you're getting at. In the end, the game determines what players must do to achieve their goals. 4e suffers because all they have to do is make a few quick decisions. My most well-received rpg, Trigger Discipline, is designed with this principle in mind; improvising over-the-top descriptions of your character's badass accomplishments is an essential part of the mechanics, and the key to a player's success.