Saturday, December 15, 2012

Game Design (VI): Character conditions remade

Update (16/01/13): Added revision to opportunity attacks, tweaked effect of prone, added “cannot flank” to some conditions.

After the discussion on character conditions in my last article, I’m putting these ideas into practice and rewriting the condition framework from scratch. The condition names remain unchanged for the most part (I want, after all, to maintain backwards compatibility), and their effects should be quite familiar to players, though there are many subtle changes. Since this is, by far, the largest chunk of rules provided to date, I will show you the new rules right away, and provide additional commentary and an overview of changes (think of patch notes) in the following article.

I start by providing some general rule changes that affect how conditions are treated in the game. The list of conditions and their effects is at the end of the article.

Maneuver change: Total Defense

Change the text of the Total Defense maneuver to the following.

Total Defense. Standard Action. Effect: You gain a +4 power bonus to all defenses until end of your next turn.

Condition source

We define condition source as the entity (typically an enemy character) imposing a given condition on a character.

The effects of certain conditions are dependent on their condition source. In these cases, the source is referred by a condition-specific name for convenience - as an example, the source for the grabbed condition is called grabber. A list of source-dependent conditions, and the associated source names, is given below:

Condition - Source
Dominated - Dominator
Grabbed - Grabber
Marked- Marker
Swallowed - Swallower

Multiple instances of a condition

A character can be affected by multiple instances of a given condition. In this case, the character is treated as having a single instance of the condition: condition effects are not cumulative. However, players should keep track of each condition instance on their characters separately. The following rules apply for ending conditions in these scenarios:

  • A character is affected by a condition until all instances of the condition have ended on him.
  • Each condition instance ends when its duration expires.
  • An effect that ends ‘a condition’ on the character (e.g. by allowing a saving throw) only ends a single instance, when multiples are present.
  • An effect that ends a condition type on the character (such as slow, or stun) ends all instances of that condition.

It is possible to have multiple condition instances, each with a different condition source. For conditions that depend on their source, this means that some condition effects need to be evaluated against each source. The following rules apply:

  • Dominated: A character dominated by multiple sources can be forced to move or attack by each dominator.
  • Marked: A character marked by multiple sources does not violate any mark as long as his attack includes at least one marker.
  • Grabbed:
    • A character grabbed by multiple sources that makes a Escape Check chooses one grabber, on a successful check, only condition instances associated with that grabber end.
    • If at any time, a grabbed character is no longer adjacent to one grabber but remains adjacent to other grabbers, only condition instances associated with the non-adjacent grabber end.

Penalty types and stacking

(Note: This topic will be further developed in a separate article. I include this here since some conditions now reference penalty types)

Like bonuses, penalties to rolls can have penalty types that determine how they stack with each other. The following rules apply:

  • There are three penalty types: cover penalty, concealment penalty, and power penalty. In addition, a penalty can have no type, and be an untyped penalty.
  • When two or more penalties of the same type would apply to a roll, defense, or stat, use only the highest one.
  • Penalties of different types stack with each other.

The rules for cover and concealment have been changed to match the new penalty types. Instead of the original attack modifiers for cover and concealment, use the following:

  • Concealment: -2 concealment penalty to attack roll
  • Total Concealment: -5 concealment penalty to attack roll
  • Cover: -2 cover penalty to attack roll
  • Superior Cover: -5 cover penalty to attack roll

Opportunity Attacks

In the power description of Opportunity Attack, replace ‘an enemy you can see’ with ‘an enemy’.

List of Conditions


  • Grants Combat Advantage
  • Cannot Flank
  • Treats other characters or objects as having total concealment
    • -5 concealment penalty to attack rolls, perception
  • No line of sight to anything


  • Cannot Flank
  • Cannot use Opportunity or Immediate Actions
  • Each turn, can use only:
    • One minor action, and
    • Either one standard action or one move action


  • Grants Combat Advantage
  • -2 concealment penalty to perception
  • Automatically fails perception checks and passive perception against characters or objects outside of line of sight.
  • Not affected by effects requiring hearing


  • When damaged, can make saving throw against domination, condition ends on successful save
  • Cannot take actions
  • Cannot flank
  • Dominator can spend a move action to make the dominated character move its speed. This counts as forced movement.
  • Dominator can spend a standard action to make the dominated character use an at-will attack. This counts as a forced attack.


Sidebar: Forced attack

Certain powers or effects allow one character to force an enemy to make an attack. Such attacks are considered forced attacks, and use the following rules:

  • If there are different attack powers that meet the requirement for the forced attack (e.g. basic attacks or at-will attacks), the character forcing the attack is aware of all available options and can choose any of them.
  • For the chosen attack power, the character forcing the attack can make any relevant decision, including (but not limited to) targets, area of effect, forced movement caused by the attack.
  • A character forced to make an attack cannot target himself with the forced attack.
  • Forced attacks ignore the marked condition. A character making a forced attack counts as not marked, for the purposes of that attack.
  • Forced attacks never trigger opportunity attacks.

Exiled (was “Removed from Game”)

  • When exiled, a character disappears from its current position. When the condition ends, the character reappears on this position or, if not possible, in the closest ground square of his choice, unless the exiling effect states otherwise.
  • Does not occupy a space.
  • No line of sight to and from other creatures or objects unless the exiling effect states otherwise.
  • No line of effect to and from other creatures or objects unless the exiling effect states otherwise.


  • When grabbed, character is pulled adjacent to grabber
  • Condition ends if at any time the character is not adjacent to grabber
  • Can spend a move action to make an Escape Check (see sidebar). If successful, condition ends.
  • Cannot move
  • If forced movement would cause the character and the grabber to no longer be adjacent, character can make an Escape Check (see sidebar) as a free action. If successful, condition ends. If the check fails or is not taken, the forced movement is negated.

Sidebar: Escape Check

Characters can make Escape Checks to end conditions like Grabbed or Swallowed, usually by spending a move action.

Check: choose one of the following:

  • Acrobatics vs Reflex of condition source
  • Athletics vs Fortitude of condition source



  • Grants Combat Advantage
  • Can be attacked with Coup de Grace


  • Cannot move


  • -2 mark penalty to attack rolls of attacks that violate mark (see sidebar)

Sidebar: Violating marks

An attack violates a mark if it targets one or more enemies and does not include the marker as a target. The following exceptions apply:

  • If multiple attacks are made simultaneously as part of the same attack power, none of the attacks violate the mark as long as the marker is the target of at least one attack.
  • If multiple attacks are made in sequence as part of the same attack power (e.g. primary and secondary attacks), once an attack is made that includes the marker as a target, none of the subsequent attacks violate the mark.
  • If an attack initially includes the marker as a target and is later prevented from including the marker as a target by an effect controlled by an enemy (e.g. a power changing attack targets), this attack does not violate the mark.
  • If a character is marked while making an attack (e.g. by an Interrupt power that marks), that attack does not violate the mark.

Note: Any power or effect that triggers when a marked character makes an attack that does not include the marking character as a target should be updated to trigger when a marked character makes an attack that violates the mark, and use the rules described above.

Sidebar: Defender Aura

The text on defender aura should be replaced with the following:

“Enemies in the aura are marked”

(Note that the new rules for stacking conditions mean that a mark no longer overrides other marks or defender auras, and a character can be simultaneously marked by multiple enemies).


  • Grants Combat Advantage
  • Cannot take actions
  • Cannot flank
  • Gains Resist (all) [Note: New rules for resistances will be added in a future article. For the purposes of this condition, read this as “halve all damage taken”].


  • Condition lasts indefinitely until character stands up
  • When condition is applied, if the character is not on solid ground, he falls.
  • Character can use a move action to stand up. This ends the condition, and lets the character move 1 square afterward.
  • Grants Combat Advantage to adjacent enemies.
  • Against attacks by non-adjacent enemies, gains Cover (-2 cover penalty to attack rolls) or, if already in Cover, gains Superior Cover (-5 cover penalty to attack rolls)
  • -2 power penalty to attack rolls
  • Can only move by crawling. Characters can crawl 1 square, or their crawl speed (if any).


  • Grants Combat Advantage
  • Cannot move
  • Ignores forced movement
  • -2 power penalty to attack rolls


  • For each square moved, must spend an additional square of movement


  • Grants Combat Advantage
  • Can only take one action per turn
  • Cannot attack
  • Cannot move
  • Cannot flank
  • Cannot use Opportunity or Immediate Actions


  • When swallowed, a character disappears from its current position. When the condition ends, the character reappears in a square of his choice as close as possible to the swallower.
  • Can spend a move action to make an Escape Check (see sidebar). If successful, condition ends.
  • Does not occupy a space.
  • Cannot be swallowed by a different swallower.
  • Can only take one action per turn.
  • Only has line of effect and line of sight to and from the swallower, and other characters and objects swallowed by it.
  • The inside of the swallower, and swallowed characters and objects, are in total darkness unless otherwise specified. Swallowed characters can use any light source to illuminate the inside of the swallower and all characters and objects swallowed by it.
  • When using a burst or blast power, the swallower and all characters and objects swallowed by it are included in the burst or blast.


  • When a character falls unconscious, he is knocked prone.
  • When damaged, if the character has 1 or more remaining hit points after receiving the damage, the condition ends.
  • Grants Combat Advantage
  • Can be attacked with Coup de Grace.
  • Cannot take actions
  • Cannot flank
  • Cannot see.


  • Damage dealt is halved
  • Healing received is halved
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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Game Design (V): Character conditions

You are lying on the ground. You can’t move. You can’t see. You have been turned to stone. Character conditions add a lot of variety to the tactical gameplay of D&D 4E, providing a nice catalogue of ways for adventurers and monsters to get temporarily crippled while they try to kill each other. In a handful of keywords, the game codifies common and evoking combat effects, which can then be conveniently combined with other simple mechanics like bonuses, penalties, and forced movement to make up the thousands of powers and monsters in the game. Today I will discuss character conditions, why I think they are good for the game, and what is wrong with their current implementation.

The importance of Disruption

At it’s core, D&D combat is about adventurers and monsters hacking at one another to reduce their opponent’s hit points to zero. That could get boring very fast, so the game adds some additional elements like movement, resource management, and the subject of this article: character conditions.

If one goes over the list of conditions and their associated rules, an evident theme emerges: character disruption. First and foremost, conditions are about hindering certain actions from adventurers and monsters, or preventing them altogether:moving less, or not moving at all, getting weaker attacks, or being unable to react. The main purpose of these mechanics is to prevent characters from doing what they want - and, strange as it may sound, this makes battles all the more fun.

They say that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and this is particularly true in D&D 4E. No matter what you intended to do when the combat started, after a turn or two, chances are that an enemy attack left you unable to move within range to your target, or too weakened to use your big daily power at the right time, or incapable of blocking opponents from moving towards your fragile allies. You need to reevaluate the situation every turn, adapt, and prepare a new plan, which is likely also doomed to a short life. And it works both ways, so that both heroes and monsters are subject to this. When the system works, you get varied fights, great strategic depth, and tons of fun.

When the system doesn’t work

So far, so good. Unfortunately, there is a catch: though restricting player actions and forcing them to adapt can be a fun and interesting experience, it is certainly possible to go overboard and cripple characters to the point that they can’t really do anything of significance. And there lies the real problem: skipping turns is the opposite of fun. And under the current condition framework, making opponents skip turns (or virtually skip them) is often too easy and, to make things worse, extremely rewarding, from a strategic point of view.

It boils down to this: the strongest conditions (stunning and dominating) are way too powerful, to the point that you will be hard pressed to find a competitive alternative to a power with these conditions whenever it is available. As a result, these relatively rare game effects will turn up in way more games than you’d expect given their rate of appearance in powers. Also, it is not too hard to replicate the effect of a hard stun through a combination of conditions or penalties: some common, yet extremely efficient combos include daze+prone (to neutralize melee characters), or blind plus any attack penalty.

The solution, in my opinion, is to tone down the strongest conditions a bit, while limiting the impact of multiple milder conditions.

Other issues

Aside from the one big flaw that I find in the condition system, there are other lesser issues that, though not game-breaking, could do with some fixing. They are the following:

  • Domination, apart from being inherently the most powerful thing you can do in the game, has very exploitable interactions with opportunity attacks and marks, as discussed in this article.
  • The marked condition interacts oddly with its spiritual successor, the Defender Aura mechanic. Also, the game doesn’t handle well parties with multiple marking characters, nor marked characters making multi-target attacks that are not bursts or areas.
  • I think that stacking penalties are bad for the game. Some very common attack penalties come from conditions.
  • Gaining combat advantage is too easy for my taste, and this is in good part due to the many conditions that grant it. I’d like to cut down on that, too.
  • The grabbed condition is trivial to neutralize through forced movement.
  • The deafened condition is a joke. It should have some substantial effect, or be removed from the game altogether.

All this, and more, will be dealt with in my following article: Character Conditions Rewritten.

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