thread: 2010-03-01 : Reliable vs Unreliable Currency

On 2010-10-10, Jeremy wrote:

Sorry to revive a dead thread, but I'm re-reading this as I think about applying some AW-style moves to my ongoing D&D4e game.

Here's the interesting thing I noticed: D&D4e uses reliable currency almost exclusively.  Instead of "you get +2 to hit if you have the higher ground," it uses the battle map to say "if you occupy one of these squares and attack someone who doesn't, you get +2 to hit."

Instead of "you get +2 to hit a surprised foe," it gives you (rather unambiguous) rules for determining awareness and stealth. If you're opponent is unaware of you (as per the stealth/awareness rules), you get Combat Advantage. If you have Combat Advantage, you get +2 to hit and possibly some other benefits that trigger on that tag.

So it's not just Forge-diaspora, Story-Now games that have embraced reliable currency. The king of Step On Up does it as well, almost exclusively.

Embracing reliable currency has done a number of good things for 4e: I find the players act with much more sense of agency, and they really, really engage with the tactical environment. Positioning is everything in 4e fights.

But I've seen some negatives of the reliable-currency-dependence:
- Folks stop paying attention to the fiction, a lot. As a rule, there are no descriptions of how someone is making the attack, or what it's outcome looks like/sounds like/feels like.  Because there's no point, and we already have enough stuff to say & keep track of.
- Sometimes there's disonance between the fiction and the currency.  First example. A fighter is grabbed by a giant 2 squares away (because of it's long reach). The fighter only has a reach of 1 square. So he can't attack the giant, even though in the fiction the giant's *arm* is clearly within reach.  Second example. A wraith is insubstantial, but there's nothing in the rules preventing me from using my non-magical whip to grab the wraith. Sure, both of these could be fixed by houserules or individual rulings, but you're then tinkering with a complex set of interactions and potentially overvaluing or devaluing certain traits. The opposite (ignore the dissonance) has left at least one of my players feeling cold about the whole thing.

Here's the other thing: 4e embraces reliable currency in resolving violent conflict (and to a lesser extent, when modelling physical challenges like jumping a ravine or picking a lock).  But for other sorts of challenges & conflicts (skill rolls and skill challenges), it's extremely unreliable currency.  To the point of being basically undefined, with very limited tools or guidance on how to make the rules for (say) Diplomacy or Intimidate or Insight apply to an actual social encounter. The DM and the players are left to sort of make it up.

This has become more of rant against the game I'm currently playing than I planned when I started it, but here are the takeaways:

* Heavily Step-on-Up games can and do embrace reliable currency, not just Story Now games.
* This approach can make for a robust set of mechanics, but can also very much disengage the players from the fiction.
* The intense focus on reliable currency in one area of D&D4e's conflict resolution (combat) serves to accentuate the weakness of the other mechanics, which happen to rely on unreliable currency (mostly because they aren't clearly defined, not because of an intentional design decision).

So here's my goal in hacking the system: use AW-like moves (for both players & the DM) to make the non-combat mechanics of the game robust and interesting—but still using primarily unreliable currency.

I'm not 100% sure it's possible. Or at least, without it becoming a different game.


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