Saturday, October 4, 2008

Beyond Mechanics

When the dust settles after a new release, especially BIG new releases, you look around and begin to gauge whether a game has been a success or not. Did it stick. Everyone was going to buy the new D&D and everyone was going to buy the new 40K, but will they be playing it several months later? I was beginning to have my doubts about D&D.

My group was hesitant about 4E D&D. I was also on the fence. Although I respected and admired the 4E system from a technical level, something was missing for me. I didn't feel like I could tell the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. I felt constrained by the new rules, which I thought were clever but alien. One-pump-chump minions? Special abilities for every monster? Cool, but different. I didn't feel this when we switched from 2nd edition to 3rd edition. It was a massive re-tooling of the game, but it somehow retained the same basic structure, unlike 4E.

After about the fifth session running 4th Edition's Keep on the Shadowfell, the first adventure in the WOTC adventure path, the system started to click. I could start envisioning combination of creatures and from that, interesting stories related to them. After a break from all gaming for a couple weeks, my imagination began to work again, which was a relief, as I didn't feel I could go back. I also felt like my job was getting in the way of my hobby, which is what everyone tells you to avoid.

There's interest in 4th Editon from a variety of quarters, including a lot of people who had left D&D and were looking for something new, experimental, lighter. A large part of the "dirty hippy" crowd who play and promote "indie" role-playing games have given the nod to 4E. D&D is fun again. It's cool. It's sleek and less complex and much faster. At least it's that way for now. The new books are coming out at a slower pace, and hopefully we'll avoid the power increase that usually accompanies them. The power issue is what hurt D&D, when a new accessory book made the core rules less effective. However, there are those who want that power, and it's the power gamers who are unhappy with 4th Edition.

Power gamers in my group aren't liking 4th Edition and I hear the same complaint from some customers. Power gamers aren't necessarily out "to win," they just miss the infinite options that the 3.x toolbox approach provided. You could make almost anything in 3.x. If you were a clever player, you could make an interesting combination that "gamed" the system and was a step above the other characters. Even if you weren't out to game the system, you could always make something effective out of your imagination, if you just had the right books in front of you. On the other hand, if you were a more inexperienced gamer, or a jaded gamer who just needed to roll the dice and do something different, you had those same tools at your disposal, but your character might be worthless.

When I say worthless, this assumes standard D&D archetypes, such as a cleric who heals, a rogue who sneaks, a fighter who does damage, and a wizard who lays down devastation. Adventures in 3.x are written expecting all four archetype classes and configured in the way I described them. It's the Achiles heal of D&D that gets in the way of a lot of story-telling. Most parties rarely have all of the archetypes, and most adventures are malleable enough to make adjustments. 3.x had the problem that you could make combinations that flat out sucked. Your cleric is neutral and can't channel postive energy, your rogue is a social guy and can't sneak, your fighter is a bare handed brawler who can't deal out damage, and your wizard is a diviner, who can accurately predict you'll get your ass handed to you in the next combat. Fourth edition says no. You will make characters that will work in the game, but we'll give you several paths in which to do this.

As a player it might kill your imagination to know there are only a few combinations of your class and that thousands of people are playing the same character combo. However, as a DM, it's nice to know that you don't have to re-write half the adventure because your players decided to make retarded characters. It's a nod to the DM, and the design goal was partially to make the game easier to run, since the DM is too often the linchpin of the game who burns out or leaves. It's also much easier now for someone else to step up and run without being a tactical genius. For those disillusioned with their limited options, those who miss the toolbox, I suggest patience. More books are on the way with more options, but I think the toolbox is gone.


  1. No, Not Black Leaf! No, No! I'm going to die!

  2. I really want to play D&D 4th where I never really wanted to play any of the earlier editions. I just did so because the people I wanted to play with wanted to play D&D.

    While there may not be as many tools in the toolbox, it is still possible to make characters with optimal choices that will be better than others. The difference is that if you take sub-optimal choices, either by choice or because of unfamiliarity, you won't have a completely gimped character. At worst you'll have a character that isn't quite as good as it could have been.

    It might be possible to deliberately set out to make a gimped character, but that's what it would take: a deliberate decision to do so.

  3. Can't I love Jesus and be Elfstar too?


  5. Speaking as one of those dirty hippies, D&D 4th Edition doesn't thrill me any more than any other editions of D&D. Admittedly, all my D&D experience comes courtesy of Bioware, but still, I'm pretty much allergic to rules.