Posts Tagged ‘d&d 4e’

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.

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There are a couple posts I read today about alignment, and since alignment is something I care about quite a bit, I wanted to toss my two cents in.

Alignment in 4th Edition

The first post is from the Dungeon’s Master, where he questions the importance of Alignment in 4th Edition.  He notes that 4E pared down the long-held Nine Alignments to five, and that two of those five are explicitly barred from Player Characters.  He goes on to note that there are no penalties to changing alignments, and that the alignments that remain are so broad and all-encompassing that it’s unlikely that a character would stray from them any ways.  He wonders if alignment even matters in 4th Edition.

To that I think I would respond that no, alignment doesn’t matter in 4th Edition.  That’s not to say that I think it can’t matter in a campaign using the 4E system — it can, and like the Dungeon’s Master I think it should — but it’s my opinion that 4th Edition has a drastically different perspective on what D&D is than it’s predecessors did, and that different perspective doesn’t care much about alignment.

D&D has grown and changed over the years; this becomes more and more apparent as I read up about Chainmail and OD&D compared to the 3.X that I was introduced to.  It was a war game that turned into an adventure game that became a role playing game.  And as a role playing game, alignment aid the player in getting into they’re character’s head.  It informs the player what their character’s morals and values are, and that should be used to inform the decisions and actions he makes.  Why must a Paladin be Lawful Good?  Because those are the values someone must hold before they would take up such a calling.  Why must a rogue be non-Good?  Because you can’t burglarize people on a regular basis and hold values focused on “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”  These aren’t straight-jackets or lists of things your character can’t do, they’re things your character wouldn’t do and the perspective he has on the world around him.  I believe the penalties associated with changing alignment in 1e and 2e are just ways of making the game care about alignment; they look like pretty ham-fisted ways from my point of view, but they’re the proverbial stick to encourage the player to consider his alignment before acting.

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The Professor doesn’t really run a game blog, per se, but the most recent post touches on an issue that I think is A Problem for RPGs, and especially endemic in 4th Edition D&D and probably in 5th Edition, too.

That post is about “support roles” and how there’s a push to “fix” them.  It mentions games like City of Heroes, Team Fortress 2, and then Dungeons and Dragons.  The idea if that there are “primary” classes and “support” classes, where primary classes are defined by their ability to “solo” the game, and support classes are more indirect and make their team mates “feel more awesome.”  These games, though, have tended towards balancing support classes so that they can make a better direct showing in combat, to the detriment of their ‘support’ abilities.

As I said in my (excruciatingly-long-in-hindsight) comment over there, this is appropriate for games like TF2 and CoH.  Those games have a somewhat static ecology to work with and a default engagement method — namely, “kill all of the things.”  Because of this, classes are measured by how well they can contribute to combat.  TF2 is a team game by default so there’s room for a bit more specialization (compare Heavy vs Sniper vs Engineer). MMOs like CoH and World of Warcraft assume team play (on some level) but don’t enforce it; players will occasionally not want or be able to find a group, and so either all classes can make some measure of progress alone or they risk a stale experience (and losing customers).

If we’re honest with ourselves, I think we’d have to admit that D&D began life with a similar default of “kill all of the things,” but at the time there was more emphasis on “and take their stuff,” than on the killing.  I’m told that OD&D gave out experience points for every piece of gold you found, which would encourage <i>avoiding</i> fights if it means (1) you could get (most of) the treasure any ways, and (2) it let you save resources so you could kill more things later (and take their stuff).  Regardless, D&D definitely grew from there to the point where, in D&D 3.X, combat may have been common and expected, but it wasn’t the only approach to the game.  Knowledge, skills, and personality could get you places that a sword and a strong arm couldn’t (depending on your DM and what kind of game you were playing). Characters don’t need to shine in combat so long as they can shine somewhere else, and I think that’s a great strength that tabletop RPGs have over (most) video games.  If the rogue or wizard was terrible in combat that was fine, because the fighter would be useless when a trap had to be disarmed or some ancient runes needed to be deciphered.  If the men-at-arms characters could handle the combat the others were free to hang back, and they’d get their spotlight with other challenges.

One of the most common complaints about 4E (in my experience) is hat it essentially threw away decades of legacy for the “new hotness” of MMOs.  Personally I think there’s some truth in that, but (1) I think it’s the natural result of forces that began acting long ago and (2) for what it was I don’t think they did a bad job.  The thing is that years before 4th Edition became a thing, D&D players and designers got caught up focusing on Combat and aiming for Balanced Encounters.  Fourth Edition really just codified that in the system; for better or worse, it’s something we did to ourselves.

To that point, though, I’d say it’s “for worse.”  Fourth and Fifth Edition both seem to assume that combat is the default method of engagement and everyone should contribute to it equally (or at least consistently).  It’s forcing a homogenization that I think is bad for the game and for the hobby. Tactical miniatures are fun games (I play Warhammer 40K myself, when I get a chance), but they’re different from RPGs and they satisfy different desires.  ‘Fixing’ the classes and the systems so that everyone acts like a Wizard and fights like a Fighter limits the hobby, and frankly other games do those things better already.

An update on my attempt to “fix” Fourth Edition.  After my last post where I posit an abstract system of “energy” that you can use to power Encounter or Daily powers, it was pointed out to me than not all powers are created equally.  A character might have a three Encounter Powers, but they’ll be Level 1, Level 2, and Level 4 (or whatever progression they have; it’s been a while since I looked at my 4E PHB).  So while my system would try to treat them equally, it’s probable that a player would always use their Level 4 power three times in every encounter, and never use their Level 1 power.  That strikes me as kind of a problem.

A possible solution was that I could give characters a numerical amount of energy based on their level, and then charge different amounts for a Level 4 Encounter Power versus a Level 1 Encounter Power (and do the same for Dailies).  The problem is that this adds a lot more book keeping than I wanted, and now I need to worry a lot more about relative balance (why would I ever use my Level 8 Daily if I can use my Level 4 Encounter four times for the same cost, etc).

I haven’t totally given up on the project, but it has taken a back seat to a number of other things vying for my attention. Hopefully I’ll be able to think hard about it again relatively soon (and maybe open my books to see exactly how uneven we’re talking…).

Associating Powers

Posted: 16 June 2012 in House Rules
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One of the things that bothers me the most when it comes to 4th Edition D&D is how difficult many of the mechanics (and descriptions of those mechanics) make it for me to envision the situation.  A lot of the mechanics make the world seem inconsistent, and that makes it difficult for my to really portray my character. And one of the key offenders is the Attack and Utility Powers characters get.

Ostensibly, each class is based off of a given ‘power source,’ be it Magic, Divine, Primal, Psionic, Shadow, or Martial.  Each class then learns a number of At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers.  At-Will powers can be used whenever the character wants, Encounter powers can be used once before needing a 5-minute “short rest” to recharge, and Daily Powers can be used only once before needing an 8-hour “long rest” to recharge.  This system easily lends itself to balancing classes against each other, and it’s nominally straight forward to envision using up energy to perform these feats and then needing to ‘recharge,’ not unlike a video game.  The problem is that the system breaks down if you inspect it from the point of view of the characters; this is especially problematic for Martial characters who, traditionally, don’t have a consumable pool of energy.

For example, one of the rogue’s daily powers lets him inflict the target with a bleeding wound.  Why is this something he can only do once a day?  The answer is “because of game balance” (I’m told 4E had a very top-down design, starting with desired effects and then moving to probable causes) but that has no meaning to the character.  It becomes a dissociated mechanic that the player has to make choices on but that the character can’t make choices on.

The first adjustment I want to make to 4th Edition is changing the way Powers work so that they can more meaningfully be translated into terms the characters can understand and reason on.

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Adjusting 4E

Posted: 14 June 2012 in House Rules
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When all is said and done, 4th Edition is what finally brought me in to the D&D fold.  It made the game approachable in a way that bad DMs and years of textbooks to catch up on never did.  I was repelled by it’s flaws pretty quickly and fell in with Pathfinder and (to a much lesser extent) the OSR movement, but I still owe 4E some credit.  I also have a number of friends (including my wife) who came on board with 4E and don’t feel as strongly about it’s flaws as I do, so I’ve decided to put effort into “fixing” the system so I don’t find it so repellant.  I’ll be collecting those house rules on a new Page I’ve created, and probably adjusting my adjustments as I find what works and what doesn’t.

A lot of this is based off of comments made on Dissociated Mechanics, Defining Your Game, and the Dual Faces of Healing, probably some other sources and influences as well.  Right now I only have a few beginning notions of what I think I need to fix, and the barest notion of how to fix them.  Thoughts and feedback are welcome.

Energy Sources : All classes in 4E have an energy source, not unlike characters in Diablo 3, but it’s a rather informal, dissociated thing.  I’d like to clean that up, and make it reasonable that a Fighter only gets 3 Encounter powers every 5 minutes, and 2 Dailies each day.

Energy Conversion: Related to Energy Sources, I feel like there should be some notion of converting between Encounter energy and Daily energy.  It’s all effectively Mana or Focus or Fatigue, just bigger or smaller chunks, you should be able to give up a Daily to recharge Encounters, or forgo your encounters to fire off an extra Daily, right?

Power Through Pain: So what happens when you’re out of Energy?  You just can’t do anything but basic moves?  I think I want to have a mechanic where characters can overexert themselves if they’ve expended all their energy, perhaps Fatiguing, Exhausting, or Damaging themselves as they push their body beyond what’s “safe”.

Tactical Healing: I think that there’s generally way too much healing available in combat, and it’s rarely done in a way that forces a tactical choice.  I’d like a way to change that, and preferably something better than individual errata on ever Cleric power.

Recovery: Recovery between encounters is something that I also feel there’s way too much of; there’s little sense of lasting consequences from poorly chosen or poorly executed plans.  I’d like to scale that back and make recovery available and reliable, but not necessarily instantaneous.