July 15, 2011

Fourthcore Team Deathmatch: Pre-Tournament Analysis

The Fourthcore Team Deathmatch (FTDM) has been my pet project for a few months now, and I have poured quite a bit of thought and energy into its design and implementation. Originally inspired by a chat with Sersa V, it has taken on a life of its own and promises to be an amazing event. My mind was filled with visions of blood and glory, and I could already hear the screams of both triumphant victory and devastating defeat. With GenCon fast approaching, I wanted to take a little time to explain my motives and reasoning behind many of the decisions made on FTDM.

Mission Statement

I know, how corporate, right?

FTDM has had an unofficial mission statement since Day #1. What this means is that I started the design with a number of goals I wanted to achieve with this event. They were:

+ Create a large event where many Fourthcore Fanatics could gather together and hang out at once; a Fourthcore Community Gathering

+ Use the tools of the internet to help organize and promote such an event

+ Capture the frantic, break-neck-speed feel of 90’s-era first-person deathmatch shooter games, such as DooM, Quake, and Heretic/HeXen; using the 4E D&D system.

1st Level Dungeoneers
One of the first solid decisions I made was to have the event be composed of 1st Level dungeoneers. There has been a little disappointment over that decision, as many D&D players really relish the opportunity to tweak and fine tune their character through the layers of different choices that a higher level character would provide. Starting characters, however, offer the advantage of being easy to generate and pickup on the fly. There are many players out there who want to participate, and I felt that high level play would discourage. I didn’t want the players to necessarily need a degree from CharOp University to even compete in this. More importantly than the feelings of the players, however, is my sense of accomplishment in keeping to my goals, namely to keep the events fast-paced. At 1st Level, your average damage dealt to average hit points ratio is the highest. During playtesting, we found this to be very true and eye opening. Players would typically take a turn, be bloodied by one opponent, dead by the next, and then choose to Respawn again on their turn. This is exactly the kind of activity that gets the body count to the ridiculously high numbers I was looking for.

No Delay
Having a “No Delaying” rule was perhaps the most important of everything. Players who can delay their character’s turn eat up unnecessary amounts of time at the table, which goes directly against my goal of fast-paced combat. Additionally, delaying introduces far too many tactical options that allows a team to play it safe, clump their characters’ turns together, and do all manner of strategies that, while perfect for a standard table top RPG, lead to a boring deathmatch. Lastly, clever players … And I expect only the cleverest players at my events.
An unintentional side effect of the “No Delay” rule was the increased use of total defense. Previously a pretty worthless use of a standard action, in FTDM it now acts as a solid buffer and placeholder for delaying. Many playtesters used it during the opening round of a map because they had no targets to attack, but then found it so helpful that they incorporated it into their general strategy. This was very interesting to me as total defense is a core part of the 4E rules that almost never gets used during typical games.

Themes have been kept out for this year’s tournament to limit the number of variables going into this. With this being the first year of the event, I wanted to place at least a few limits on the combinations and permutations that could happen, if nothing else than to better understand how all of its parts worked together. Also, when I posted the official rules, themes hadn’t yet been really been fully integrated into the DDi Character Builder. I didn’t want to have an option in the event that wasn’t fully supported by the standard software most people use to build their character.
Rest assured, themes will be available at GenCon Fouthcore Team Deathmatch 2012.

Initiative was given special attention for FTDM as it proved to be a decisive factor in which team was able to achieve (and hold onto) an early lead in kills. From our playtesting, we actually found that going last in initiative was a more optimal choice than going first. Acting at the top of the initiative order gave the advantage of first dibs on the limited magic items in the map, however  going later in initiative order ensured a higher probability that a choice target would be nearby and in a good position (flanked, adjacent to a drop, etc.) for fragging.
The idea of having a team initiative system was tossed around, but ultimately rejected. In practice, team initiative allowed for too many characters to safely act within the confines of friendly players’ turns. Keeping the initiative order in a more standard, randomized, and mixed up order kept players on their toes as they had to always be on the lookout for multiple enemy threats happening near their turn.

Defenses and Information
One of the keys to victory in FTDM is determining where your opponent is weak and exploiting it. Almost every character, no matter their class role, has at least one very low non-AC defense; fighters tend to have abysmal Will, rogues tend to have very low Fortitude, etc. Some characters will have only one decent non-AC defense, such as a shield-less Warden. Determining where an enemy’s low defense is provides a quick and easy way to reliably deal out damage, with attacking the right defense leading to hit percentages in the 75% range. When you factor in the fact that the character’s hit points are generally in the range of only 20 to 30, the math adds up to every attack that misses costing dearly, and almost every attack that hits being a potential kill.
Hence, a way was created to quickly learn this vital bit of information in the form of a minor action Insight vs. Bluff opposed skill check. Originally, this was designed with using a Passive Bluff score, however playtests had shown that using opposed checks greatly increased the tension and aggression between the two players involved; a highly sought-after quality!

Other Skills
All other skills were pared down over the map iterations and kept to a minimum. Skill checks were mostly associated with activating various terrain features on the maps; such as recovering a magic item from the treasure pile in E1M2: The Citadel or the nailgun controls in E1M1: Slaughterhouse. In practice, the checks didn’t add much to the game besides one more unnecessary role (for those with high bonuses in the needed skills) or a complete deterrent to using terrain powers (for those with low bonuses in the needed skills).

 Magic Items
Magic items were introduced very early in the design in an attempt to capture the feel of dashing towards a valuable, spawned weapon in first-person shooter deathmatch. I wanted the characters to willingly place themselves in danger for the DD& equivalent of the plasma rifles and double barrel shotgun. All three maps have elements of this, in slightly different ways, that present the player with a tough choice each and every round; attack and potentially gain a kill right now, or risk surviving another round to gain a powerful magic item with a potentially greater reward. The level of the magic items thus needed to be high enough to grab a 1st Level dungeoneers attention, but not so high as to make a fully equipped dungeoneer unassailable. This led to the magic items all being in the 7th to 10th level range.

A priority. 4E ruleset is very dependent on the idea of teamwork. If it were individuals, then the event would quickly devolve into an all-Striker event. Would probably end up as a single build that was mathematically proven as the best build. Teams adds enough complexity and variety that it’s difficult to predict a single dominant strategy, in indeed there even is one.

This is my quake map. I wanted an industrial feel, hence the nailguns. I also wanted multiple instances of instant, somewhat unpredictable death. This led to the implementation of the telefragging rules (first debuted in Revenge of the Iron Lich) and the centerpiece of the map: The Meat Grinder. The map is also an homage to robo rally, the sight of your foes being dropped to their doom via a series of expertly placed conveyor belts. This map was designed to be deliberately cramped to favor short range and melee characters.

Castles are a theme at the heart of Dungeons & Dragons, and I knew from the beginning that I needed a castle map. The Citadel fills that need, and is considered my Heretic/HeXen map. Adding siege weapons was a fun exercise, granting the map occupants the means to dish out punishingly high amounts of damage from multiple locations, all while fitting into a medieval fantasy theme. The central treasure pile creates an interesting, tough decision for everyone. Do they risk getting the powerful magic items where they are vulnerable to attack from all four siege weapons? A dangerous proposition. The boiling pitch prevents people from staying on a safe area of the map, as safety and comfort have no place in Fourthcore. This map was designed to be deliberately wide open to favor long range and fast-moving characters.

Why make a secret map? To add an additional unknown element. To test the dungeoneers ability to adapt to new and unexpected challenges. I don’t want to say too much, but Secret Map is full of things that are super deadly and super powerful; a hallmark of Fourthcore. Audience participation will be the highest here, since we will likely have the most audience members during this last stretch. To draw out the battle and to accommodate the extra few minutes taken by the audience participation rules (and other, secret things) this round has the most time allotted to it.
Hint: All of the map’s features should be instantly recognizable and a little familiar to everyone involved.

Audience Participation
This was another element brought up very early in the design process, I believe originally offered up by Sersa V. Participants that lost, that were defeated in the tournament, needed a reason to stay engaged in the event. Firstly, they were all buying tickets to this event, I wanted to make sure they got to have fun for the entire time. Secondly, audience participation brings another chaotic variable that the competing dungeoneers needed to handle, another challenge to overcome. As the event draws further on and the audience grows bigger and bigger, the impact and frequency of audience participation escalates as well.
By the time of the final event, there will be chants of encouragement, cheers of victory, and the entire hall will be focused on the legendary event taking place before their eyes.

Any competition is meaningless without reward and a physical measure of your own superiority over your enemies. To this, simple golden trophies were commission for the FTDM. It was decided that four small trophies would be much more preferred than a single large trophy to accommodate the majority of teams who would be picking up team members from different parts of the country and the world.

Ladder Tournament
FTDM had to be a ladder tournament. This was an extremely easy decision that came naturally. The ladder tournament format is now familiar to most D&D players through WotC’s own monster competitions, it’s a very good model for competitive team games, and it provides a visual escalation of tensions as the ladder progresses onwards toward the end rounds.

Final Words
I hope you’ve enjoyed my verbose and long-winded explanations here. Hopefully, they’ve provided you with some insight into the process behind the game, and inspired you to come see and participate in the event and/or submit a character to the Fourthcore Team Deathmatch Character Sheet Competition.
If nothing else, you've simply got to come down and see the cast stone pieces Brian Benoit has created for the event, as previewed here.

As GenCon and the FTDM quickly barrel down the calendar towards us all, I invite you to comment with your own thoughts, criticisms, and questions. If you have a chance to get to the Sagamore Ballroom the afternoon of Friday August 5th, I invite you to stop by and say hello. The FTDM judges (including myself) will be setting up and prepping early and would love to hear from excited Fourthcore Fanatics and Diehard Deathmatchers.

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