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So right off, no, I don’t hate 4th Edition; the title’s a cheap trick to grab your attention.

I do have some major problems with 4th Edition, though; that’s why I’ve effectively left it behind in favor of 3.X and Pathfinder (and if my books ever ship from Amazon, I’ll see about this 1E thing).  But when I left 4E I didn’t really have the concepts to describe why I was dissatisfied by the game, and I haven’t taken time to really consider it since my vocabulary expanded.  I’d like to try to address that now.  This is mostly just me talking through some thoughts.

I think the biggest turn-off for me is the notion that 4E has a very “game first” mentality.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a rules system to be, but it’s the difference between “I want to cast a fireball” and “I want to do d8 damage over 9 spaces.”  4E seems to focus almost exclusively on tactical combat which I feel makes it come across more as a tactical miniatures game than a Role Playing Game — you can role play around a minis game, but you can also role play around a game of chess; that doesn’t make it a Role Playing Game.

My biggest complaint, I think, is that the Powers system feels flatly detrimental to my notion of role playing.  The limitations and choices that I’m presented as a player in 4E often times don’t make sense as limitations or choices for my character, and that makes it difficult to  get into my character’s head.  The Essentials line came out after I left, but I do get the impression that they’d be less offensive to me (they seem to generally ignore the Power system and function more like 3.X characters); it would probably be worth my time to look in to them.

My second biggest complaint is about Healing, or more to the point the fact that there’s little sense of lasting repercussions from battle.  This makes sense if the game is meant to be just a string of combat encounters (if you can no longer fight, the game’s over), but I don’t want my game to be (essentially) all about combat, and the lack of consequences offends my goals for role playing (make choices, experience consequences).  I’m OK with the “HP = Morale” notion that 4E seems to run with, I just want something more than “you’re out a couple Healing Surges for the day” if the players get in a fight they can’t handle.  I think part of this come from my desire to not have combat be the “first and best” option in every situation; maybe 4E works better if I try playing a more combat-toned game; I don’t know, and I’m not sure how much I care to fit my desires to the needs of the game (rather than fitting the game to my desires).

My final complaint is on how poorly executed skills in 4E seem to be.  The whole Skill Challenge mechanic seems like a good idea at first, but the way it’s described and the guidelines given for building a Skill Challenge feel railroad-y and forced.  The rules seem to imply that the Barbarian has to participate in political negotiations (if it’s a Skill Challenge) even though he has no interest or ability in that sort of thing.  And I’m supposed to design challenges so that there are X primary skills and Y secondary skills, and it’s all mechanics-first and the actions of the characters aren’t important so much as which attribute is being rolled.  Add in the terrible math that 4E shipped with and the repeated revisions after the fact, and I lose all confidence in the mechanic. (I also feel like they collapsed too many skills together, the one’s they’re left with are too broad, and not enough ‘regular activity’ is covered in the skill system, but those are relatively minor points, all things considered).

My wife likes 4E, though (now we all understand my true motivation here); she thought it was a lot more approachable than the other games I have on my shelf, and to be fair it is.  My wife grew up on Monopoly and Sorry!, and didn’t experience anything like the games I play before we met.  4E is a lot more like a board game.  I don’t think that’s a shining recommendation for it, but if my wife wants to play 4E, it’s in my interest (as a wise husband) to find a way that I can play 4E with her. I started thinking about a fix for the Powers system a while back, but after I started looking at it in more detail it occurred to me that there’s the potential for abuse because the game doesn’t expect powers to be interchangeable.  I haven’t really thought about it much since then, so I’m really still in the same spot.

This weekend, my brothers and I got together for the long weekend and I took the opportunity to try my hand at a hexcrawl game.  We had limited time to work with, so I told them to keep it basic and make characters with whatever background they wanted, as long as it gets them to this town looking for adventure in the wilderness.  The game itself was essentially the same idea as the Western Marches campaign I’ve heard about, though I’ve never read up on it specifically.  Adventure is to the west, retirement is to the east, and in the middle is a town you can spend your money at, brag about your adventures, and prepare for new ones.

Setting up the game took a lot of work on my part.  It’s the kind of work that’s done once and can be used over and over again, but as this was my first game it all had to be taken care of.  I used Hexographer to build my map, following the guidelines of Welsh Piper. I really wanted to use the one-page hexcrawl encounter system from Roles, Rules, and Rolls, but I didn’t have the time to hand-key even a significant portion of my hexmap, and I wanted to incorporate non-combat encounters. So instead I used a multi-table setup recommended by Pencils and Papers — I had a d20 table to determined if there was an encounter and what type, and then sub-tables for Combat, Location, Sub-Quest, and Special encounters.

Making those random tables took the bulk of my effort.  The Welsh Piper guidelines make building a hexmap really easy, and the Pathfinder core rules have a lot of information for how to put together encounters (so my Combat table had entries like “2d4+1 Goblin Warriors”), but I haven’t really found any good advice or suggestions on what a Random Encounter table should look like, especially not for non-Combat encounters.  Sub-Quests were probably the hardest, but possibly because (for time’s sake) I was restricting myself to one-line hooks.  “Lay the Dead to Rest,” “Explore the Ruins,” “Stop the Mad Wizard.”  This also kept it general enough that I could build details around them during play, so that no two “Stop the Mad Wizard” quests necessarily felt similar, let along the same.

After all that I found that there were a few systems I wanted to have that I didn’t have any good notion for.  How to move around the map was pretty easy: I remembered reading a post on Pencils and Papers about movement points and went off what I remembered from there.  My group had a Dwarf so their speed was 24 miles in a day, so they got 24 “movement points” to spend.  I kind of wish I’d thought to look over that post again before playing, though — I gave plains a move-cost of 5 and pretty much everything else a move-cost of 10 and i like the better granularity that P&P offered (which I guess he inherited from Brendan – who was riffing off Delta? I kind of love all the cross-pollination I’m finding). Anyways, I decided that you paid the Movement cost when you tried to leave a Hex.  I rolled for an Encounter whenever the group entered a Hex, and they could pay half the exit-cost to “search” the Hex and get another encounter roll.

Two systems I didn’t have that I wanted were a method for getting lost (and a similar method for finding your way again) and a system for foraging.  The latter, foraging, got preempted at the table by going with Pathfinder’s rules on the subject from the Survival skill (though I did vary DC based on terrain).  The Alexandrian hinted at what sounds like a really great hexcrawl system that included a mechanism for getting lost, but as far as I can tell he’s never posted the details.  The P&P/Brendan/Delta posts have a notion of getting lost based on Survival checks, and I spontaneously settled on a very similar system, with Survival for getting lost and Geography for finding your way again.  Still, I feel like I want something more-defined than that.

The game went off really great.  We had an Elven Ranger, Half-Elf Cleric of Gorram, Halfling Cleric of Pharasma, Human Fighter and Dwarven Druid.  They heard rumors of a dragon in the woods and met the sole survivor of a group who were apparently attacked by giant ants.  They got lost in the forest a few times, found a magic spring that got them drunk (the elf is the only one paranoid enough to not drink) and finally happened upon a dragon hunter who they joined up with to slay a Green Dragon wyrmling.  The cool thing is, I never planned on that happening when I seeded the rumors about the woods, I just wanted to warn them that dragons were on the table for Forest encounters.

My favorite scene of the night came about thanks to some odd behavior by a player and my inclination to say “yes.”  Early on the group met a travelling merchant, and the fighter spent a bunch of time going through his wares while the others asked him for rumors about the wilderness. He finally decided that he wanted to buy a shovel, and then proceeded to make Perception checks at every opportunity, looking for “anywhere that looks like there might be buried treasure.” I let him make the rolls and fail to find anything interesting, until he rolled a 1 on his check.  I decided that he found something recently buried that turned out to be a goblin grave under an oak tree.  Another of the players asked if goblin typically buried their dead in caskets, and the Ranger (who’s favored enemy is Goblins) rolled Knowledge and recalled that some tribes of goblins bury certain of their dead under oak trees as a sign of deep respect.  None of this was planned (I didn’t think they’d question a goblin in a casket), and now we’ve determined that they desecrated the grave of a goblin king. (I found out later that all my players thought he was digging up another traveler’s latrine pit…)

I just read an interesting post over at Pencils and Papers about Character Generation versus Character Building.  P&P seems to take, or have taken in the past, a lot of time comparing modern games to the ideals of OSR gamers.  OSR is the Old School Renaissance that’s budded up in the community recently with a, some say overly-nostalgic, preference for the games and systems of the 1970s.  I would have to say that I am at least on the fringe of that group (notionally, at least), but my interest is mostly in taking mechanics from the past that have been discarded and re-integrating them into modern games.  I don’t want to play D&D 2E, I want to play Pathfinder with hexmaps and random encounter tables.

But I digress.  The post I referenced talks about old school “character generation” where you roll a few dice, pick a class, and you’re done.  P&P says there’s a de-emphasis or discouragement for players to get too deep into the rules, ostensibly so they don’t limit what they believe are valid options in play.  This is contrasted with Character Building, where the player is presented a cascade of rules and options to play with and customize their character.  P&P talks about how he loves Character Building, how he fiddles with his character and plans out his next level ahead of time and writes up character sheets for the NPCs in his background.  This is exactly what I do, and I have the same level of glee.  But P&P concludes that Character Building is harmful to the hobby.  It can be daunting to new players and it can really bog down the excitement of starting a new campaign (never mind just getting a group together at random for an afternoon of gaming).  When I had my players build characters for my Expectations game I feel that I set out fairly rigid guidelines in order to help limit the overwhelming options they had to deal with — they had a Standard array of stats instead of rolling or point-buy and I had soft and hard requirements their characters had to satisfy (generally, be an exemplar of your Race and Class in some meaningful way).  it still took them roughly a month to finally get me characters, and even then their sheets were incomplete in places.  Granted, I don’t expect they were actually working on their characters for any significant portion of time, but that it took that long is ridiculous no matter how you excuse it.

There is a problem with Character Building, and like P&P no one I know (with maybe a few exceptions) enjoys the character creation process.  That being said, I for one dislike the notion of character generation, even if it has the benefit of drastically cutting down the time necessary to create characters.

P&P talks about an imaginary system that makes equally balanced characters either through Generation or Building, to allow people like he and I to gleefully twiddle our characters while at the same time letting less-enthusiastic players generate a character 10 minutes before play.  It’s not clear that such a system is possible, and P&P claims to be working on a stop-gap to use with Pathfinder.  I haven’t checked to see if he’s gotten anywhere with that, but I like the idea of it.

I’ll take a note here and say that this is one of the things that I really like about some of the non-d20 games I’ve played.  CAPES has a really quick, easy, and fun method of character generation, and it DOES work (in a sense) whether you generate a character with their templates or free-form (I’ve done both).  Burning Empires uses a lifepath-style form of character creation, and while it doesn’t necessarily make it quicker or easier to generate a character, background details naturally flow out of it (something which isn’t true of most other systems).

For my purposes, I think I’ll start putting together “generation guidelines” for my players to help streamline choices.  I think I’ll use his “X+INT skills at Level+3+attribute” idea (though, what happens if X+INT is bigger than the list of class skills?) and work on paring down Feat option.  From my post on Massaging Feats I already plan on doing some pruning there.  After that, you have issues like Stats, Class Features, Spell Lists, and Equipment that needs to be accounted for.  I may take a page out of another RPG I played once (can’t remember which) and just bundle up packages, like “Necromancer Spell List” or “Tomb Raider Equipment.”

If anyone has thoughts on this or ideas on ways to help make Character Generation possible in modern D&D, let me know.