Monday, December 22, 2008

My response to 4e

Rather than blogging about books I've read, I feel it is important to instead essay about what I consider to be a big shake-up in the D&D world: the release of 4th Edition D&D.

In this essay, I'm going to start by stating a few assumptions, as well as a brief history of my association with D&D.

First, I am going to assume that we are looking at only the Players Handbook, and Dungeon Master's Guide (where appropriate). All other support material is not going to be considered. This is the most fair and balanced way to approach any such comparison (and comparisons are natural: after all 4e must live up to the legacy of previous editions). Secondly, I will primarily be arguing, in terms of content, with this assumption in place.

As for my association with D&D, I've played (at least briefly) every edition, from the Red Boxed (Basic) Dungeons & Dragons of the early '80s (with the awesome Elmore cover art), up through 1e AD&D, 2e AD&D, 3e D&D, 3.5e D&D, and finally 4e D&D. Thus, there is a lot (and I mean a lot of legacy) for any edition to live up to.

When 4e was announced, I viewed it with trepidation, in the same way I viewed the change from 2e to 3e. What, exactly, would they do? How would it be handled? The transition from 1e to 2e AD&D was in my mind an improvement: the system assumptions were not changed, and the rules were cleaned up and added to with the better additions from 1e. Thus, transitioning from a 1e campaign to a 2e campaign was almost seamless. Adventures from 1e could almost be used unmodified (monster stat blocks would need to be tweaked, but that's about it), characters required only minor updating, and there were more options for character generation. Although there were a few omissions that would have been problematic (no assasins for example), some of these omissions were added back in at a later time. Additionally, frankly, some omissions (like the aformentioned assasin) were probably for the best. Despite this, the Forgotten Realms setting felt it neccessary to introduce a "fantasy disaster" in order to explain the changes, just as Greyhawk had a module dedicated to detailing the changes, but both were probably unneccessary, and in the case of FR caused more anguish than it smoothed. How would this transition be handled?

While, when 3e came out, the changes were far, far more radical, the watchword here was to create a ruleset that could integrate and convert a 2e campaign (with admittedly more work than a 1e to 2e campaign) and make it play. This was done by introducing far more options and "builds" for characters. Even 2e characters built under Skills and Powers could be for the most part converted (at least in my examination) thanks to the more options available for 3e. In my group, while I cannot speak of others, I found converting my mid-level thief from 2e to 3e painless, and essentially filling out the character sheet, picking appropriate feats (based on what he could do before) and appropriate ranks in skills.

Now comes along 4e and it was a much greater challenge, to the point were I found it impossible. You will always run into situations where magic items do not convert over (such as from the 2e to 3e campaign: my Short Sword of Backstabbing did not convert, so I converted it over to a normal +2 shortsword that added an extra die of damage in sneak attacks: simple). Do this in 4e and what sort of magic item is it? Does it give a daily power? Encounter? Similarly, a lot of other more mundane magic items did not convert over. Though relatively unimportant, the Spoon of Murlynd (which help define the character as being...mundane...) had no conversion support. Although I could use as-is, this isn't true of a number of other magical items. For example, 4e has a listing of 13 Wonderous (magical) items, whereas the 3.5e DMG has three hundred Wondrous Items in 3 categories (from minor to major). While some might say one does not need such a level of variety, I ask how often you enjoy eating pizza, burgers, and ham sandwiches? Just with what is in the core books, 3e has more choices than 4e.

4e radically changes the game mechanics of character advancement. No longer do each class advance in its own way: all classes advance the same, but through the aquisition of powers. These are further divided up into at-will (use as many times as you want: always limited to 2 different ones), Encounter (once per an encounter), and Daily (usable once per day). There are also utility powers as well, but these with a cursory review appear to be appliciable only in combat. Non-combat spells are handled by Rituals, which are open to anyone that can get the appropriate feats. Thus a 5th level character, no matter what the type is, has the exact same number/type of powers. Thus all the classes "feel" the same, differentiated minorly by hit points, and what cool description the power has. In other words, all the classes are mechanically the same...even fighters can aquire rituals (or non-combat spells). In many ways this feels like World of Warcraft's ability trees: you level and get a new ability. Even in there, though, for spellcasters you at least get to cast whatever spells you know within the context of the game in watever combination or frequency you desire: no artificial "this spell affects the monster once a combat."

Although really a subtext of the above, I think its appropriate now to discuss magic. Magic is either integrated into powers (for combat spells) or Rituals. For powers, the result of this (and to make them in-balance with all other classes) is to strip them of any depth and make them a simple, one paragraph effect lacking flavor. Of course some will say this simplification helps speed gameplay, and make it less unwieldy. I of course say that it takes away options, and strips away flavor.

In the end, in terms of magic, I can understand the complaints about the legacy magic system used up to 3.5e, called the "Vancian" magic system (based on the literature of Jack Vance). It too is an artificial constraint, done for game balance. However, a non-Vancian spellcaster had already been introduced to 3e in the form of a sorcerer, giving players and DMs an alternative. So what sort of magic system does 4e use? And what happens to sorcerers? I haven't read the FR campaign setting, so I cannot comment on how they handle it, but they re-introduce another "fantasy disaster" solution, which was lame in the 2e transition, just as it is lame in the 4e transistion. Now, the magic system of 4e becomes a "magic emulator," neither Vancian or "mana" based like the Sorcerer, and abstracted away from what I consider flavorful. Rituals partially make up for that, but since they are a seperate game mechanic and interruptable by combat, no longer can players use clever adaptation of non-combat spells to achieve unique in-combat effects. A level of finesse is lost.

The skill system (which in my opinion was one of the best features of 3e) has a superficial resemblance to the old 3e system (open ended, roll D20 and add your skill bonus). Gone however are customizable skill point allocation. Instead, everyone gets 1/2 level plus ability modifiers for all skills. To be especially good in a skill, you can be "trained" in a limited number of skills, which nets you a +5 bonus to that skill. Of course there are feats as well that can alter this mix, giving more bonuses or more "trained" skills. While this makes skill selection infinitely easier, again it elimiates a certain level of customizability to skills. You can differentiate some skills, but less so than under the previous edition. Furthermore, a number of skills have been eliminated, and others rolled together. I have less problem with skill consolidation than I have with eliminating skills. For example, craft skills have been eliminated. A character I had made to be a master smith is no longer, unless by DM fiat. Therefore, if I want to have my character make a master sword of exceeding beauty and value, I no longer have control over that aspect of my character; the DM does now, and it is up to DM fiat to decide whether my character can do that, rather than a pure numbers game. Additionally, this also means that any character of sufficient level will be better in most skills than a commoner who is a professional. I suppose that is alleviated by the lack of profession skills, but nonetheless if feels a little of Mary Sue-ism.

Furthermore, characters are now divided into "roles" they play in the game: controllers (control the flow of battle through firepower), leaders (support), strikers (offensive, mobile, high damage characters), and defenders (protect the rest of the party from close assault, i.e. "tanks"). While this merely codifies a phenomenon that has occured since D&D's inception (perhaps not with these exact words, but the concepts are the same), I still feel resentful that for example, as a fighter I am limited to "tanking" (to take the World of Warcraft parallel further, fighters can "mark" a target, imposing penalties to that target if they choose to attack something other than the fighter. When I was playing a 4e fighter, I called it "getting aggro," the parallel was so similar) and can't bust out of that. What if I want to make a ranged specialist fighter? 4e's answer is to just make a ranger. This doesn't sit well with me, since it forces my character concept to adhere to the rules, not the other way around. Net, less freedom when creating characters. For some this is fine; for me, I don't want to be limited to a specific character role, but want the tools to be able to break out of those roles if I so choose, 4e doesn't give me those tools in the core books.

There has also been a shake up in starting races. The standard races of the previous edition (Human, Dwarf, Elf, Half-elf, Halfling, Gnome, Half-orc) has been eliminated. We get some of the old "core" races (Human, elf, dwarf, halfling), but now have in addition Tieflings and Dragonborn. Although not a problem per se, however, the problem arises in that it is core. For many it might not matter at all; for long term campaigns it can cause some headaches for the DM. Now he has a choice to either "ban" the extra core races, allow them and alter the campaign (via the dreaded ret-conn), or just start a new campaign. For long term players in the campaign, there might not be any issue with "banning," but what about new players recruited to the game?

The last item I want to touch upon is multiclassing. In 3e muticlassing was a breeze. Just add a level of the appropriate class, add the appropriate abilites, and you're off. This flexibility further allowed one to make the characters they want. The fact that not all choices were optimal are not a detriment to the system, but a challenge in the character. For example, one of the hardest classes to play are Fighter/Wizards (or Fighter/magic-users for the old timers). Unable to wear armor efficiently nor cast spells as well as straight wizards, the charm came from exploiting the class abilites in such a way to make a unique character. It was definitely not the most optimized character, but definitely a challenging one. In 4e, multi-classing is boiled down to a feat that allows you to do something outside of your character class. By itself, this would be a cool feat to backport to 3e, for characters that want a specific ability (for flavor or to support a character concept), but for a full blown multiclassing ability, it pales compared to what you could do in 3e. Can you build Elric, for example, in 4e? I don't think you could even approach his abilities with the multiclassing abilities in 4e.

In the end you take away from the game what you put into it. Sure, it is possible to have a good time playing the game: I played in a several month long campaign (as a fighter) with the gaming group, and had a good time. But just because we had fun playing doesn't mean I have to like the rules. In the end, I played a fighter (besides the fact we had to fill a role so right off the bat I felt less freedom in playing what I want based on how the rules push roles) as a "make it or break it" test. I never have been a huge fan of fighters, so if 4e can make them fun, then maybe it might be a winner. No such luck, and in fact I was bored playing my character. To be fair 3e doesn't alleviate this that much, but at least there if I want to "break the mold" I could do that with the inherent flexibility of the rules. I don't think I'll be playing in any official D&D campaigns again until perhaps 5e comes out in a few years. Even then I might hesitate since, if I really like the rules, 6e may completely invalidate them because Hasbro/WotC isn't selling enough books. At this rate, I'd rather play Pathfinder or GURPS.


Ken Newquist said...

I think that, to a large extent, how much you like 4E depends on a) how much baggage you bring to the game and b) how frustrated you were with 3E.

We saw it in our own group; I think those who were tired of 3E enjoyed 4E the most. Similarly, I think those of us who came into the game looking to recreate characters X, Y and Z -- as we had with 2E->3E -- ended up being frustrated by 4E's lack of customization (or at least, lack of customization in the ways we wanted to customize).

I also disliked the lockstep advancement and lack of true multiclassing, and I think the game suffered from not enough diversification of powers. The over-emphasis on combat powers, IMHO, tended to make the different classes feel too similar. If they'd mixed in more non-combat (or at least, non-damage) powers, as Star Wars: Saga Edition did with talents, I think the reaction would have been more positive than it was.

Overall, I enjoyed aspects of 4E, and if I had to start over with a new group, and they wanted 4E, I could see playing it. But right here, right now? Well, I'd rather play Star Wars, Pathfinder or good ol'3.5.

Speaking of Star Wars, I'd love to see your comments on Saga Edition in light of the 4E play test.

Damon said...

I have something in mind. Just give me time...

Dennis said...

I'm not trying to disagree with you on your blog. I know my brother voiced some of these very concerns as things bloomed on the 4e Horizon. To me though, 4th Edition is an excellent product. In my opinion it isn't fair just to pick the PHB and DMG as the only two books to include. Sure there are only a handful of magic items. Gone are the utility spells that potentially unbalance combat, but also are the spells the first level wizard never took. I know that Detect Undead or Nystal's Magic Aura had uses, but how many actual game sessions rose and fell with these particular minor abilities. Our last campaign included my halfling wizard from level one to sixteen in two and a half years. And I'll say I came from the days when a halfling wasn't allowed to be a wizard. But actually playing a fighter is fun again in 4th edition during combat. In 3rd edition he was basically a single attack with his subpar weapon. Sure he could take feats and he hit well, but where is the challenge, where is the chess game for the player that the wizard provided. It is like the early thief class until they invented flanking. My games were different in those days like most of us, but can you imagine playing a modern rogue without backstab. There are tons of beautiful additons in 4th like action points, healing surges, and minions. They work flawlessly whether you choose to house rule them in AD&D, 2nd Edition, or whatever. But also we have a new save mechanism, that doesn't leave your 12th level fighter with a pitful Will save face down or puking during the entire climatic encounter because the player rolled a 5 on a twenty-sided. We have reflex defense that are dagger wielding rogue can use to hit on the monster with the ridiculously high, this was a pet peeve with me back in the 3rd edition when players assumed their rogue should have a high dex and wound up unable to hit in melee. We have fixed the 'stuck playing a cleric' role in groups. In my last big 3.5 game we had 5-6 players, both healers we usually stuck spending their rounds cast cure spells. We removed the ridiculous horde of buff spells which were lasting 1 hr/level in 3rd edition and affected the whole group. I remember having a cleric and a bard basically dump four points into everyone's stats. Like my wizard running around with flase life and mage armor every single day in 3.5. What 4th Edition hasn't fixed is long combats and staggering amounts of modifiers and conditions. The streamlined combat rules still seem just as long. My group is composed of a steady 40 year old median age, and our Tuesday game session still seems to struggle through three encounters. I am not going to say 4th Edition is all that I hoped, but seriously the first roleplaying game I played was with a handful six-sided dice. You needed a 4-6 to hit and surprisingly you weapons did 1d6 dmg. It was the story and the friendship of my brother and cousin that sold me on the concept. I enjoyed every edition of D&D since then eventhough now I actually know the rules and can do multiplication. If you choose to stick with 3rd edition or whatever that Pathfinder dribble was then have fun. I'm thinking seriously about playing V&V or at least some AD&D again. The FASERIP Marvel game was fantastic in its day as well, but give them a little time. There will be a bow build for the fighter in the future. Until then I think I am just going to run a halfing ranger and scream at how much damage the little bugger can actually do with a short bow. As a side note I noticed in the Character Builder a background option that allows a player to be a swordsmith (even make magic weapons) and Myrlund's Spoon will show up soon enough.

Damon said...

The point is that if I want a bow fighter, I have to WAIT for it, or buy a new supplement. If I want the same level of options I have to WAIT for it. Saying things like "how often do you REALLY use x spell" is irrelevant, since its absence means less options for me. While I'd definitely hesitate to say 3x was perfect, it at least allowed me to build the character I want, rather than be railroaded into the character the game wants. Sure, Murlynd's spoon might make it into the game, but I have to WAIT for it, and spend $30-$40 on a new supplement to get it (making the assumption I buy all the supplements to access it) or subscribe to an on-line service...


Evilgenius said...

I have to agree with everything that Damon has said about 4e (unsurprisingly).

Some feel my opinion doesn't carry as much weight in this matter because I refused to partake in the playtest. However, I maintain that it's simply not necessary to fully explore a thing to know that it isn't for you or to point out all-to-obvious failings.

I have few kind words for 4e. I liked the concept of Skill Challenges because it took aspects of the game that were mostly purely roleplaying and applied game rules to them, and yet, did so in a way that encouraged more descriptive play. I heartily approve, and posted several times on Nuketown on using Skill Challenges in our StarWars: Saga campaign.

Beyond Skill Challenges, I liked nothing in 4e. I have always sought more complexity, more flavor, more customization (and to be fair, more rules exploitation) in my roleplaying.

The lack of customization and character building options have been discussed in many places by many people, so I will not belabor the point here except to say that obviously I think 4e has so many deficits in this area that it's laughable.

My next complaint against 4e is that the cookie-cutter mentality to classes and class abilities was inexcusably applied to descriptions as well!

I thought 3.5 had criminally omitted the depth of descriptive genius that Gary had bequethed to us, but 4e may as well be VCR instructions when compared to the rich details that have been the unique province of D&D all the way back to Basic! For a game of imagination, it seems to be sorely lacking.

As a matter of fact, I think that 4e, when looked at in the whole, is woefully lacking in imagination, sophistication and, most importantly, creativity.

This assertion may well be disputed by those who enjoy 4e. To them I pose this challenge:
1) Take any aspect of 4e that evolved from a prior edition
2) Find the equivalent concept in 2e or 3e
3) Compare the "flavor"
4) Try and explain how 4e is more imaginative, sophisticated or creative (barring Skill Challenges, which I admit are better than in 3e even though the Skill system is much much worse).

If you can convince me of that, I will give all of my 3e books and supplements away to charity and never say another unkind word about 4e. I still won't PLAY 4e, but I won't say anything bad about it anymore.

But you know, I think one of the things that I dislike the most about 4e isn't actually 4e at all.

The thing I dislike most about 4e is that it solidified the split in my gaming group.

Several of our regular players didn't like the complexity of 3e. They didn't enjoy maximizing their character options. They didn't enjoy creating and using spreadsheets to keep track of their ridiculous attack ratios at high levels. They didn't enjoy preparing for complex combats and they didn't enjoy 4 hour long slugfests the way that I did (I fully realize I may be in a minority of 1 on that particular issue).

But before 4e, as a group, we tried many different things to balence the game for the most enjoyment of all of the members. It didn't always (or even often) work, but there wasn't a ready alternative either. So everyone kind of limped along, complaining about this or that. But we did it together.

Now, the half of the group that just wasn't that into the complexity of 3x has a ready alternative, and they like the system well enough that they don't want to go back. The other half of the group (to which I belong) doesn't even recognize 4e as being D&D and won't go forward.

The result is that it's been about 15 months since I've been in a regular D&D game. That's quite a change after 11 years of a weekly game. 11 years of developing and exploring and ENJOYING the World of Greyhawk. 11 years which will never turn into 12.

More than the lack of creativity, more than the insulting and arrogant 'marketing' of 4e, more than the irrational and irreverant choices made by the designers, more than the fact that the 4e designers were, by their own descriptions and admissions, just bad at playing and running 3e and therefore threw out the things they could never master, the ultimate dissolution of my 11 year long refuge in the land of Greyhawk is the sin of 4e which I cannot forgive.

Anonymous said...

I've just resumed my involvement in D&D as a DM for my sons and a few of their friends. My wife and I told them of our many adventures in years past- before the 80's in some cases- and we decided they were now capable of playing. We have every edition and some of the very early pre red box set manuals, but decided we would run a 4e campaign so that they could take what they learn and play elsewhere eventually.

Most of it is fine. There are a couple things I don't care for. One is Eladrin PC's being able to teleport short distances. It sure removes a lot of challenges that used to really foster creative thinking. There are some others, but none compares to the limited role of magic.

We had some of those geniuses who could take non-combat spells and completely turn a scenario on it's head. When Big Johann rode his mastodon toward us, it hit a wall of force, and he flew over it, and lay stunned while the fighters cleaned up. We wetted areas and then cone of colded them into sheets of ice the unexpecting foe saw too late. It was tons of fun to thwart the enemy (our poor DM...) in creative ways.

I don't see how this edition fosters any such creativity in magic use. The magic is essentially only another tool to do what an arrow, or a grenade, would have done. Utility spells are to few, to lame, and rituals too long and too available to others while having too few available to those who ought to know them.

I'm lamenting my decision to run 4e in light of this lack of outlet for their creativity.