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[4E] Abstraction coming home to roost

Crazy Jerome

Retired User
Spun off from the Pro-Con topic.

The thought is that 4E has moved the rest of the game closer to the abstraction that hit points has always been--rather than make hit points less abstract. Generally, when working with abstractions, you want most of the related abstractions to be of a similar nature. The canonical example is from Bjourne Stroustroup, the inventer of the C++ programming language, that a physicist might think of a house in terms of different kinds of molecules, a mason might deal in bricks, and a designer might think in terms of rooms. But at any given time, there isn't much use in thinking of a house in terms of some wood molecules, a few thousand bricks, and a living room. Well, hit points chafes because it deals in "rooms", while other details in D&D have often been more specific.

What gets done about that chafing is a design decision, and one that some people wouldn't have picked.

Several things in the linked topic prompted this line of thinking, but the following quote crystalized the thought:

Again, in my opinion the Monster Manual is perfect in the amount of detail provided. I get a little blurb about the monster, a picture, some detail about its common tactics, and then its mechanics. I can describe the monster (and prefer to) to the players just from the picture and blurb, as anyone could, so I don't need a bunch of other info. As for powers, I think most people can discern the basic effects a power based on its keywords and mechanics. Then I can describe its use and appearance in game how I imagine it, rather than the designers imagined it. I can apply my own trappings to it...as much or as little as I want or need. I really like that. I wish that it didn't make D&D "cold and mechanical" to some. But for me, I prefer clean rules and light flavor. I feel that 4E fits that mold perfectly, so I love it...so far. ;)
We all know that some people love the abstraction of D&D hit points. And some people tolerate it. And some people really dislike it. So I suspect that a great deal of the grief over 4E is that now the scope of that old argument has been expanded to include a lot more of the game--in favor of people who were generally comfortable with hit points as an abstraction.

Monsters aren't just less detailed for flavor reasons. The flavor has disappeared in favor of abstraction, the same way that tracking specific kinds of wounds is both more detailed and more flavorful than hit points, but the hit points are more accommodating to those who want to add their own flavor on the fly.

Discuss. If you happen to like or dislike 4E, please indicate whether you like or dislike the abstraction that is hit points (or the abstraction that is Armor Class, if you prefer).
 

sanguine

Retired User
The flavor has disappeared in favor of abstraction, the same way that tracking specific kinds of wounds is both more detailed and more flavorful than hit points, but the hit points are more accommodating to those who want to add their own flavor on the fly.
I disagree with this part right here. Tracking specific wounds is a type of flavor, but is not more or less flavorful than hit points. Hit points is an aggregate pool that represents "how close I am to losing." That is very action-hero flavorful. You get knocked around, you get winded and wiped out, you get a second wind, you get ground down by a pummeling series of blows that you just barely dodge and deflect, and finally a shot gets through and you go down. That's a certain kind of flavor that is not better served by a GURPS-style "The enemy misses....the enemy misses...okay, this shot hit, and you take 5 points to the right arm."

The latter option is of course its own type of flavor, usually serving a more "realistic" mode of gaming, in which you could have your arm specifically harmed into submission in some way while still staying in the game -- and in which you can go from perfectly healthy to headshotted and dead in one go.

That would be inappropriate for cinematic action heroism of the type modeled by a D&D-style hit point pool, and a D&D-style hit point pool sucks for a game of pseudo-realistic antiterrorism squads taking down bad guys in carefully planned assaults (e.g.).

I agree that using generalized systems in favor of case-by-case rules often makes people feel as if there is less flavor, because it feels like the classic board game argument of "did the theme come first, or the rules?" For example, Marvel Super Heroes felt flavorful because all the powers were special cases, with their effects individually written. Champions, on the other hand, tends to design powers in an effects-first way that some people feel is nonflavorful.

That said, I disagree that the general system approach is actually less flavorful than the ad hoc approach. The reality is that D&D 4e is not rife with abstraction -- it just has an intentional framework underpinning how things work, in a way that older games sometimes don't. This means that you still get to do flavorful stuff ("Turn undead!") but that you can, with a minimum of extra learning, figure out how the power works.

To return to your initial Stroustroup example, oldschool D&D had the problem that it spanned a wide range of conceptual scales with no particular intent behind spanning that range. As someone mentioned, there's no clear reason why Thief abilities should be percentiles while attack rolls are rolled on a d20, opponents roll morale using 2d6, and so forth. The ad hoc nature of creation of a multi-author product means that, without a strong central design vision, people will attend to different things with different levels of detail (this is a classic RPG issue, particularly in skill sets where a designers' pet skills will receive huge, detailed attention, and other ones get short shrift -- e.g. having Computer Programming, Computer Use, Computer Design, and Computer Hacking as four skills, and Wilderness Survival as one generic skill that applies everywhere). This varied attention to detail can feel more flavorful than a unified structure, but it's fundamentally not.

It does, however, mean that there will obviously be a tighter range of conceptual scales in a product with a unified design vision. For many, that makes it feel "more abstract" because there are fewer rough bits obviously sticking up, and because it can feel like it was "system first" rather than "world first" design.

I like unified mechanics, because I like being able to cleanly intuit how things are going to work in new cases. That lets me concentrate more on the flavor, and less on wondering why each new designer felt the need to make a new system rather than adapt the old one.
 

Crazy Jerome

Retired User
...Tracking specific wounds is a type of flavor, but is not more or less flavorful than hit points...
I wasn't very clear in my OP. I agree that in play, you have as much, if not more flavor with the more abstract system--assuming you are willing to run it the way you describe. That's my usual preference. Would you also agree that if someone is not willing to provide the flavor, then the flavor being embedded into specific mechanics is going to be somewhat more flavorful than the abstraction?

That said, I didn't really disagree with anything you posted.

To return to your initial Stroustroup example, oldschool D&D had the problem that it spanned a wide range of conceptual scales with no particular intent behind spanning that range.
Right. And it seems to me that a lot of people wanted that solved, but had radically different visions of the proper way to go about it:

1. "Well, now in 3E, you've put some nice unified details on skills and weapons, expanded them out nicely to make some specific distinctions, but hit points and armor class are still too vague. I've got particular bricks to work with, but you left HP and AC as rooms."

2. "In 3E, you took out the clunky, ad hoc stuff for skills and weaon, and replaced it with a cleaner, unified mechanic--at the same, wrong conceptal level! At least I've still got HP and AC done properly as rooms, but now instead of siding, bricks, or wood panels, I've got 973 varieties of bricks, some of them indistinguishable from each other."

Apologies in advance to any lovers of pre-3E edition lovers offended by that. I recognize it's a poor example for the whole life of D&D. ;)
 

Tigerbunny

Registered User
Validated User
I think you're probably spot on. Anecdote time: one of the most fun parts for me about creating characters in 4E has been figuring out what all my abilities look like. I am sure that there are other Dwarf staff wizards with the same loadout of powers - but Murrain Gatewright is probably the only one with Eyes of Deathly Slumber (sleep), Dread Angles of Anaxam (cloud of daggers), and Singebeard's Cyclic Conflagration (flaming sphere). I love that 4E *encourages* me to re-skin things freely and figure out color on-the-fly.
 

Lord Apathy

Chicken Soft THAC0
Validated User
Spun off from the Pro-Con topic.

The thought is that 4E has moved the rest of the game closer to the abstraction that hit points has always been--rather than make hit points less abstract. Generally, when working with abstractions, you want most of the related abstractions to be of a similar nature. The canonical example is from Bjourne Stroustroup, the inventer of the C++ programming language, that a physicist might think of a house in terms of different kinds of molecules, a mason might deal in bricks, and a designer might think in terms of rooms. But at any given time, there isn't much use in thinking of a house in terms of some wood molecules, a few thousand bricks, and a living room. Well, hit points chafes because it deals in "rooms", while other details in D&D have often been more specific.

What gets done about that chafing is a design decision, and one that some people wouldn't have picked.

Several things in the linked topic prompted this line of thinking, but the following quote crystalized the thought:

<Some moron's quote>

We all know that some people love the abstraction of D&D hit points. And some people tolerate it. And some people really dislike it. So I suspect that a great deal of the grief over 4E is that now the scope of that old argument has been expanded to include a lot more of the game--in favor of people who were generally comfortable with hit points as an abstraction.

Monsters aren't just less detailed for flavor reasons. The flavor has disappeared in favor of abstraction, the same way that tracking specific kinds of wounds is both more detailed and more flavorful than hit points, but the hit points are more accommodating to those who want to add their own flavor on the fly.

Discuss. If you happen to like or dislike 4E, please indicate whether you like or dislike the abstraction that is hit points (or the abstraction that is Armor Class, if you prefer).
This is not quite on topic, but I don't think you get THAT much less info on monsters. I think you still get a good amount of detail, actually. You get that first bit before the stat block, which is usually a paragraph or at least a couple of sentences. Then you get its tactics, which can tell you a lot about a monster. You also get the "Lore" section, which has all sorts of great info about a monster (check out Harpy for one of the better examples of this). And there is the often-overlooked "Encounter Groups" section, which usually has really good info, too (check out the Manticore's "Encounter Groups" info for a prime example). Even more important to me is that there is an illustration of every monster now. Oftentimes, they even illustrate the various subtypes of the same creature (like Kobolds). Granted, some creatures get more than others, but all-in-all there is something there to work with for each monster.

As for the rest of the game moving towards the sort of abstraction that hit points provide, I have to disagree. I feel that each edition of D&D moves further and further away from abstraction, and 4E is no different. I think capabilities and actions are more defined now than ever. Combat seems to be more focused as well. And skill challenges is an attempt (good or bad is your call) to provide direction for non-combat encounters.

If I misunderstood your point, I apologize.

And for the record, I like 4E and I like hit points too.
 

Epoch

aka Mike Sullivan
Validated User
Yeah, I agree. I was actually thinking about posting a Big Long Rambling Thing about it today, but I guess that you beat me to the punch.

I actually think that this ties into a lot of recent gaming history. So, basically, here's my thesis:

Roleplaying games are traditionally defined as games in which the players may attempt anything within the coherency of the world and expect to have an outcome that is similarly within coherency.

By that I mean, if I say, "My Dwarf tries to fly like superman," well, Dwarves don't fly like superman, that's outside of what's coherent to the game world, and so nothing happens. But if I say, "My Dwarf slides down the steps on his shield," that's something that makes some sense within the game world, and so it's the job of someone -- usually the GM -- to figure out an outcome that's also results in a coherent game world. Depending on the world, that might be, "You trip and hurt yourself for - roll - 7 hit points," or it might be, "Awesome, take an attack at +2 dice and get 4 essence points back," or something in between, but the point is, we conceive of a world in which it would be possible for Dwarves to jump on a shield on stairs, so, in an RPG, there has to be some (also possible) outcome from the attempt.

This is as opposed to a wargame, in which if I said, "This goblin wants to break away from his unit and go somewhere else," the answer could easily be, "No, he has to maintain base-to-base contact with the rest of his unit." There's no in-world reason why the goblin can't walk away from a bunch of other goblins, but wargames, unlike RPGs, don't try to maintain fully coherent worlds.

World coherency has always been hard to handle in games: it's what makes the concept of a GM (even if the GM is a part-time position, or based on the consensus of several players, or whatever) necessary, rather than traditional games where a static rule-set is enough to keep the game going. And handling coherency often breaks the game parts of roleplaying games -- if a player finds a clever thing to do which "ought" to kill an enemy without a fight, then all that tactical combat stuff goes right out the window.

I think that the 80's and early 90's were a time of games which prioritized coherency. Games like GURPS or Hero built extremely complex rules systems which tried to get to the point where handling almost any event that the players dreamed up was easy to model mechanically. Games like Vampire or Earthdawn created elaborate fictional worlds in which the world concept was carefully set up with the idea that it could justify player activities within world coherence (so, Vampire had a bunch of badass elders who would curb-stomp you if you tried to break the Masquerade: this was a way of keeping the game in its intended genre (vampires secretly moved among humans), while preserving world coherency (it's not that you can't break the Masquerade, we've just set it up so that if you try, you get whacked). Earthdawn, meanwhile, elaborately justified the super-awesome adventurers going into dungeons).

To get back to hit points, hit points are a great example of the tension between what works for a game and what's coherent in-world. As a damage system, hit points have a ton of virtues: they're simple and have a low handling time. They're intuitive. They don't result in a lucky roll killing PCs dead instantly. But there was always this sense of, "Wait, I just got shot 10 times, how could I possibly still be okay with ten arrows sticking out of me?" And so games that prioritized coherency tended to create damage systems where you couldn't have ten arrows sticking out of you... but they usually sacrificed simplicity, intuitiveness, or not-killing-the-PCs-with-lucky rolls to do so.

In recent years, I think that the trend has been to push coherency back in terms of the priority it has within the game system. There's been much more tendency in the last 10 or 12 years or so to say things like, "Why can't you do that? You just can't."

A good example is how you deal with problem players. There was a time when if you said, "This one PC in my game just keeps on killing NPCs for no reason, and it's totally ruining the game, what should I do?" when you would have received only answers like, "Well, if he does that, obviously powerful people will start to hunt him down," or "The other PCs should stop him," or just, "Hey, if he can get away with that, more power to him." Nowadays, you're way more likely to get advice like, "Uh, take him aside and say, 'Bill, stop being a douchebag. This game isn't about murdering shopkeepers.'"

D&D4e really kicked coherency way down in its priority, particularly, I think, since D&D3e was at least as coherent, if not more so, than AD&D2e. I definitely think that this powers some of the dissatisfaction that you see with the game.
 

Epoch

aka Mike Sullivan
Validated User
As for the rest of the game moving towards the sort of abstraction that hit points provide, I have to disagree. I feel that each edition of D&D moves further and further away from abstraction, and 4E is no different. I think capabilities and actions are more defined now than ever. Combat seems to be more focused as well. And skill challenges is an attempt (good or bad is your call) to provide direction for non-combat encounters.
I think that the kind of abstraction that Crazy Jerome is talking about doesn't have anything to do with how well-defined a mechanical action is. It has to do with the disconnect between the mechanical action and what's going on in the game world.

Hit points aren't abstract because they're imprecise: they're very precise. Ludicrously precise, in some cases. I mean, we track Orcus' wounds down to the level where we can track the kind of wound which would have to be repeated 1,000 times to kill him! That's awfully precise, and plenty of less abstract systems are much less precise. Where hit points are abstract is when you say, "Conan just got fireballed for 45 points of damage," what does that mean? Conan just emerged from a ball of flame which would have charbroiled a normal person ten times over. How did he survive? Does he have third degree burns? What's happening with him? The game is silent. You can construct an explanation if you want, but the game doesn't do it for you.

Similarly, in 4e, if I'm a Fighter, Ranger, or Rogue and I bust out with an encounter or daily power... why can't I do it again next round? What's going on there that let me do whatever to someone last round and not this round? Again, you can construct an explanation, but the game system doesn't provide one for you. Or, say, you're a Rogue using Blinding Barrage with a crossbow. How does that work? How can a weapon like a crossbow fire a barrage of bolts? Once again, the game system doesn't tell you.
 

Crazy Jerome

Retired User
I think that the kind of abstraction that Crazy Jerome is talking about doesn't have anything to do with how well-defined a mechanical action is. It has to do with the disconnect between the mechanical action and what's going on in the game world.
Sort of, but to use your terms, how well-defined a mechanical action is has an indirect, and sometimes even a direct, effect on how the participants view that going on in the game world, which thus relates back to Lord Apathy was discussing, and is really more germane to my main point--why this creates such friction in the audience.

Really, both issues are important. It's why abstractions are so useful but also so contentious. It always seems to come down to: Do you view that particular disconnect between the abstraction and the simulated reality as a feature or a bug?

If I want a prepackaged connection, it's a bug. It might be a bug I can live with--especially if I or someone else can easily come up with my own connection that we institutionalize into the game. In effect, we keep the mechanics, but house rule the disconnect out of existence. You've got hit points in a game, and the players don't like it, but you like the handling time? So you came up with a description of what happens all the time (and there are several such floating around), and now it's specific.

OTOH, if I don't want someone else telling me how to make the connection, then it's a feature. I don't have to take their version out (and educate my players out of it) before I can substitute my own. But where it is really a feature is the part that I think some people don't get. I don't want to make a particular connection before the game starts. Rather, I want the players to be free to make the connection, as makes sense to us as a group, as we play. And not always the same way. Perhaps I even want the possibility that things are going on in each players' head that aren't exactly congruent. The orc hit the fighter for 8 hit points of damage. We might narrate something to go with that. Or we might leave it there. One player sees the fighter deftly slip aside, using up nothing but energy, while another player sees the fighter sporting a bruise, and another sees the fighter pinked or worse.

There are so many things in 4E that seem to provoke similar reactions out of players. Take encounter and daily powers. Some people see that, and their immediate reaction is: "If Smitty could do it 12 seconds ago, or earlier today, why can't he do it now." That is the same reaction, in logical form, as "How can a guy take an arrow and just keep fighting?" or "Why does armor in D&D make you harder to hit?" Not a crazy question, the first time it comes up. Other people see encounter and daily powers, and their immediate reaction is: "Oh, well that's obviously nothing but a game artifact for balance. I'll have to rationalize it somehow." Nothing wrong with that, either, and I'm sure that those elements are mostly done that way for balancing purposes--so not even completely inaccurate. Some people look at it, however, and have an immediate reaction similar to mine: "You know, that actually models the way a real fencing bout goes pretty well. There are some tricks where you can only go to the well so many times. It seems like people always bring about 30% of their tricks to a meet, because those are the ones that are well practiced. It's a little metagamey, in that the player gets to pick the exact timing, but I can see why they didn't want to complicate the interrupt model to better reflect the reality." As the Raven Queen is my witness, that was my honest first reaction on seeing that mechanic. :)

Now one can legimately argue about exactly where to draw the line. Early D&D had 1d6 for all weapon damage, after all, which in some ways fits an abstract hit point mechanic even better. And of course game handling and other playability issues cause compromises, some of which won't be well received by everyone. But I don't think it's that outlandish to think that is you have a game with hit points, AC, fairly detailed weapons, and a longish list of maneuvers, that it would be a good idea for that game to either get more specific in the hit points and AC, or less specific in the weapons and maneuvers. If doing that happens to lead to some very specific abilities (e.g. Tide of Iron) which are themselves abstractions cloaked in a descriptive name (use the one line of color in the power if you want, but nothing stops you from saying anything that involves a guy with a shield causing movement in his foes), well, that's the price of fooling with abstractions. There must be points of contact with the game somewhere.
 
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Epoch

aka Mike Sullivan
Validated User
But I don't think it's that outlandish to think that is you have a game with hit points, AC, fairly detailed weapons, and a longish list of maneuvers, that it would be a good idea for that game to either get more specific in the hit points and AC, or less specific in the weapons and maneuvers.
No, I agree with you, I don't think it's outlandish either. Hit points and AC always were a bit odd in D&D.

I think that they were outliers in terms of abstraction for good reasons: they're good mechanics. Honestly, the dirty secret of all those flamewars about "armor doesn't make you harder to hit" is that damage reduction armor mechanics have lousy game effects, and hit points are even more essential to making a game work (which is why so many games have something functionally similar to hit points). But in a hypothetical world, where we could replace them with something less abstract but equally workable, doing that replacement would make D&D3 flow better.

And, as I think everyone agrees, going the other direction in D&D4 makes for a smooth combat game. Obviously, for people who were of the opinion that D&D3 was great except it had a few elements that were too abstract, D&D4 is a step in the wrong direction. And there are other classes of people who are unhappy about D&D4. But everyone seems to agree that its combat system does what it tries to do very well.
 
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