Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Recent Gaming Innovations: Forced Movement in 4th Edition D&D

I come here not to bury 4th edition but to praise it - there are some things in it that I really liked - after I had a chance to get used to them. One of the biggest: forced movement effects such as push, pull, and slide.

Why is this an innovation? Because despite decades of gaming most RPG's are reluctant to give people control over someone else's character as a routine part of the game. There's an unstated assumption in most games that while you can kill and maim someone's playing piece you cannot move them around without their consent. It's a huge blind spot that I never really noticed until after I had been playing 4E for a while and then started looking at other games again.

Why does this matter? Well it mainly matters in tactical games where the players tend to use a battlemat and mini's, which describes most of D&D 3E, 4E, Pathfinder, and a lot of other D20 games, plus GURPS and Champions. I tend to think of Champions as the king of tactical games as there are so many options within that system but one that is curiously lacking even there is the ability to move a character that is not your own. Being able to force opponents to move adds numerous tactical options and expands the range of interesting choices available to the players and the DM.

From the player perspective going back to AD&D there were a few things that allowed you to impose a condition on enemy movement - charm spells, confusion spells, gust of wind (though it doesn't do much). Note those are all spells too - fighters don't have much aside from grappling/overbearing and maybe the man catcher rules that came later. Also those mainly rely on the DM to determine how things go - nowhere does it say the player gets to move them around the area.Even turning undead leaves a lot of options for the DM as far as where the undead end up.Third edition gave us Bull Rush and Trip, but even those have pretty limited effects. Moving over to Champions there are powers that let a player restrict a target's movement like entangle, but about the only way to force movement is through mind control or knockback! You can get creative and do something like a teleport useable on others but even that is a little clunky.

What 4E did for players is give them many powers and abilities where a target can be pushed away, pulled towards, held in place, slowed, or knocked down, expanding the universe of "damage" to include the usual normal damage, conditions, AND movement effects, and it wasn't limited to mind control/charm effects or super-strength. There's an at-will power for fighters that lets them hit for damage and then knock their target back one space - no feat needed, no magic needed. There's a wizard at-will that lets them push a group of opponents back a few spaces. The key differences from other RPG's:

  • It's widely available - almost every class has some options in this area and they are not tied to feat chains
  • It's player-initiated - I can take an action to make this happen
  • It's player-controlled - I get to inflict the forced movement, not the DM or another player.
  • It's immediate - it happens on my turn, not the target's turn

These things really liven up encounters as it is much more difficult to corner a group that can move enemy units around when they need to. Backed into a dead end room? The Fighter uses Tide of Iron to push his way into the door, then the wizard moves up behind him and Thunderwaves the enemy back into the corridor, enabling the rest of the party to move out and engage, possibly clearing an escape for the entire group. It also gives a standard game mechanic for pushing the enemy into the campfire or down the stairs or off of a cliff and allows almost every character to have a chance to pull off fun tricks like that.

Now this works for the monsters too - no longer does the DM have to "discuss" it with a player who is harpy-charmed - he just imposes the effect and moves on

Alluring Song (charm) At-Will
Attack: Close burst 10 (creatures in the burst); +9 vs. Will
Hit: The harpy pulls the target 3 squares, and the target is immobilized (save ends). Deafened creatures are immune to this effect.
Sustain Minor: The harpy repeats the effect against any target that has not yet saved against it.

Like that - it's clear, simple, and does what it should. This actually speeds up play in this case, though that is not really a global feature of 4th Edition. It also means that the monsters can knock people off of bridges and balconies and things too, whether it's from an Ogre-punch or a Harpy hovering over a chasm calling to victims on a tight mountainside trail.

This lack of forced movement is not limited to RPG's - The Chaos Marines in Warhammer 40,000 had a psychic power in their last codex named "Lash of Submission" which allowed the caster to move an enemy unit 2d6 inches on the tabletop. This was widely viewed as overpowered and was much hated by their opponents, so much so that in the new codex released last month that they no longer have the ability. People really hate it when you get to touch their pieces!

To wrap up, 4th Edition D&D was the first RPG i can recall that really made forced movement effects a common and consistent part of the game. This added numerous new options to the typical combat encounter which I see as a good thing and added another tool to the toolbox when facing a battle situation. There was so much of a storm around 4E that I think a lot of the more innovative concepts in the game may have been lost in the furor. Hopefully things like this post will remind people of some of the strong points, and hopefully we will see more things like this creeping into other games.


Jeremy said...

"Harpy hovering over a chasm calling to victims on a tight mountainside trail."


There's a battle coming up in one of my modules with harpies pulling PC's onto traps and immobilizing them there. Sounds like I'm going to wish I was a dwarf or brought ear plugs in your game soon.

frothsof said...

I enjoyed reading this, as I love old-school games as well as 4e. I actually played 4e last night; we had tracked some alchemist "drug dealers" to their hideout. With forced movement, I was able to slide targets into their alchemical apparati, scoring extra damage. Forced movement definitely added some fun to the proceedings. I recently blogged a little bit about taking it to the extreme.


Blacksteel said...

Jeremy - you're going cross-country, I'm sure it will be perfectly safe ...

Froth - yep, it's the kind of stuff you used to have to improvise with something like a Dex or Str check but now it's just built into the game and it's a lot of fun. I agree with your blog post too.