Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Soulless

There's been a few topics that have leaped to my mind lately; this one is the beginning of deeper, more involved discussion which I'm only beginning to get a handle on. Allow me to explain some of the background.

I have two players in an offline campaign who began playing in my world about 24 months ago, after admitting that they hadn't had much of a chance to play 'real' D&D. They had played a lot of DDO, they're both professional people, highly educated and self-motivated; but somehow the whole D&D thing hadn't caught onto their imagination until they were in the 30s.

At first, there was a fair bit of discussion about what a real game could offer that DDO could not, which I was able to amply prove after a few sessions in my world. Being a serious world, they liked the depth and the unexpected elements that I could bring into play, which obviously no present-day program bothers to incorporate, as they are fundamentally geared towards 'winning' - ie., upgrading. I was able to show gameplay where upgrading was not the whole story.

They naturally hungered for more gaming than I had time to offer, and so they pursued that through the main resource in this town, a place call the Sentry Box, which has been selling games since 1979, and which I have mentioned from time to time. My players got involved in a game night set up, which was the reason I found myself going along with them to play 4e back in December. They invited me, and I took advantage. Since, they've been playing 4e every Wednesday night, typically 2-3 hour sessions. They play in my world every four weeks, for about 5-7 hours a session (we went 9 this past Saturday, until 3 am, which is very rare for me). All in all, they're getting more 4e time overall.

Now, I said this to them this past Saturday, but I don't know what they'll think about me posting this - so I want to emphasize, very strongly, that being relatively new to the role-playing game, my feelings are they don't know what is happening. But having played this game for decades, I can see it clearly.

4e is beginning to screw with their heads.

I don't mean in the sense that they think its a better game (they don't, really) or that they're just becoming familiar with another system that doesn't work in my intrinsically-modified AD&D system, and that the systems don't work the same. No, I mean that the way 4e compels the player to think is damaging the role-play conceptions they have of reality.

I'll give an example that is not the example that came up in my campaign on Saturday (sorry, that one is buried, get used to disappointment). In most games, fantasy, space opera, what have you, an attack is an 'attack.' That is, the attack is a deliberately imprecise mechanistic concept that the brain relates to by having to fill in the gaps of what is happening. I 'hit' with a sword, or I 'swing' my sword. What am I doing, exactly? Not specified. But in my mind I imagine slamming away with the object as hard, as fast, as desperately or acutely as possible, to drive through the enemy's defenses as best I can. I think of it as a human-driven action that derives from my imagination of the event. The die simply tells me if I was successful. But I don't think in terms of beating the die - I think in terms of swinging an actual sword. Because I am making believe in that specific way.

But 4e delineates everything to a flourishing move that has a descriptive narrative that the user must try to adhere his mind to, in order to accomplish the move, which really comes down to casting a magic spell with a sword. It removes the sensation of what's being done, typically with a description that is NOT easily reconcialable with normal behavior. If you and I were to get into a random street fight, this instant, with fence posts we snapped up from the ground, we would swing them and try to hit each other. That is the language we would use in our minds, and in telling the story afterwards, because that is how we conceive of those actions. We would NOT be thinking, "Aha! Now is the time for Full Discipline!"

To digress a bit, I think some of the 4e reasoning arose out of the Princess Bride, which I must explain was a book LONG before it was a movie, and while I like the movie reasonably well, the movie is absolute total shit compared to the book. Hm. Try this. If the book was you having spectacular sex with the woman of your dreams on a warm, empty beach facing the Caribbean Sea while a pitcher of mohitos sat a little up the beach waiting to be had when you're done, the movie would be paying two apes to enact the same scene, ending with pouring the mohitos over themselves and then eating sand. There'd be a similarity there, somewhere, but the experience wouldn't be the same.

That whole bit in the movie where the Man in Black and Inigo are discussing Bonetti's Defense and Capo Ferro was invented by William Goldman in the book ... and done only about ten thousand times better. I think that the people who inventd 4e loved that idea, that swordplay could have names attached to it, and they went whole hog on the idea. The only thing is, Goldman had been writing for films for some time (he wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Stepford Wives, All the President's Men, Marathon Man and A Bridge Too Far, explaining why you've never heard of him). He was making a joke (the book is a satire) about the bullshit moves that onstage/screen swordsmen use that makes it look like they're fighting, while not actually risking injury. In other words, he was trying to force the reader out of the idea that this sword play was real, by having the character Inigo learn each style as though it was the equivalent of getting a doctor's licence. It's subtle.

Getting back to the point, by pasting all these non-contextual phrasing on top of swinging a weapon and hitting with it, 4e succeeds in destroying much of the game's improvisational element. Players aren't able to conceive of what they're doing, they merely plug the baffle-gab techno-phasing into the event, which sounds cool, to produce the need to make die rolls that BECOME the purpose of the combat. The die rolls no longer stand in for what's happening ... what is actually happening is removed one step from the player and the die now becomes what the player is actually doing. I'm throwing dice. I'm not swinging my sword.

What this means is that the player loses the ability to superimpose his or her self into the situation. If I and my enemy are standing next to a puddle, and I say, I try to hit him with my sword so that he steps into the puddle, because I have a reason for it I don't want the DM to know, then I can think out of the box and argue my intent to do that. Ordinary D&D is open that way. But what the fuck, do I use a 'Tide of Iron' or a 'Reaping Strike'? As a DM, I can describe a combat anyway I wish, to get maximum value, I can say the player has cut the enemy's wrist and the enemy gamely goes on fighting, but with 4e I have to WAIT until the enemy is 'blooded.'

Ultimately, the word 'blooded' ceases to mean, the enemy has been cut, and begins to mean, "the enemy is past the post and rounding the backstretch for home." It's deliberately both inconsequential (for role-play) and undesirably precise (for combat measurement). It is like looking at the clock during a television show and figuring out how long it will take for the main character to get out of the fix he's in.

WORSE, it causes people who play a lot of 4e to treat all the aspects of ordinary D&D like mechanics. Too much 4e, and all the aspects of D&D become mechanistic in appearance - and application. So much so that over time, you're trying to make the character understand that they're in trouble, and all they're doing is measuring how many hits they can take with how much resource that's left vs. the enemy's combat potential. There is no thinking out of the box, because the box is rigid and set and vapid.

I'm watching it happen to two good characters, who are losing the sense of emotionally investing in the game.

I had never considered just how soulless the 4e option is.

10 comments:

Lukas said...

Part of the problem is the solution.

In order to solve the problem players had trying to push people around.

They added simple but exclusive rules to solve 3s complex but inclusive rules. Exclusive such that it is not TOO powerful due to it's simplicity.

And of coarse 3s complex and inclusive rules were added to make up for the presumably absent rules to do so in 2. Complex such that it can solve ALL the situations in a way not too powerful.

Of coarse, once you've made it exclusive it loses it's 'soul'.
Why can't the mage push someone? Why can I only push someone once per day?

Rather than answer these questions, you simply say, "Because it's a game."

You've now accepted the fact that your character cannot do what you can do. It cannot do simple things like taunt your foe or push them in the mud. You cannot disarm an opponent or knock them unconscious. And there are specific states at which bleeding happens, not before or after. Regardless of the fact the damage was caused by something irrelevant.

Quincy Jones said...

You realize this is prime fodder for How to Run? Rehabilitating modern players. What does a DM do with a player whose brain is now a spoon fed, dopamine-drenched, ADD pile of mush?

For me, it's been a matter of progressive overload. Players are just now getting used to tracking food and water...and they screwed up. They ran out of food, stranded on a plain hundreds of miles from nowhere. The simple act of travel has brought them too their knees, perhaps fatally. They are slowing starving and will almost certainly have to eat the pack animal. They are suddenly poring over their sloppy inventories like bad accountants caught in an audit. What can they drop? Can they eat leather gauntlets? Can they move farther farther and faster without armor?

There are playing with intensity. They are playing the game.

Alexis Smolensk said...

It seems like fodder, but I'm not getting bogged down in edition wars or the history of the game.

Thank you for your input, both Lukas and Quincy.

Dave said...

I saw the effects of 4e on my son's friends when he ran a campaign. One of the players would have her character walk into a room, and then say, "I make a perception check... what do I find?" Drove me nuts!

Whether you want to talk edition wars or game history or not, you did bring it up!

I "helped" them by starting a game for them like this: Each started with 5 zero-level characters (-500 expts). For each one, they rolled against a table (modified, but primarily from DCC) that gave them a "prior" profession and two objects, one of which could be used as a weapon. They rolled 5d6 for copper, 3d6 for silver, and 1d6 for gold. They chose a name for each, and an alignment. That was it. No other stats until needed during play.

When Ms. Perception Check tried her stunt, I asked her if that's how she found her car keys before she came over. "Did you walk into your living room, close your eyes and yell, 'perception check!,' or did you actually do something?"

Quite a few characters died before they got the hang of telling me what they were doing instead of trying to roll dice, but they've gotten over 4e. In fact, my son ended up rolling his game back to 2e, and he's planning to move to 1e (OSRIC) in the very near future. Progress!

Alexis Smolensk said...

Oh, I don't mind edition wars here, on the blog. Had them many times. Just not in the book.

Good on ya, Dave. Education. Who knew, eh?

Pasquale Grosso said...

It is not an edition war, it is just that 4ed is not dnd, it is another game. I keep the books from all the dnd editions but got rid of the 4ed boos after 3 months. I agree with you 4ed is the evil.

2eDM said...

I think the 4e language evolved more out of anime than Princess Bride. Given that I've met more 4e players who can go on for hours about anime and don't even know about the Princess Bride movie version let alone the book.

Taren said...

Bravo.

You got right to the heart of something that bothered me about not just 4E but also "modern" gaming styles in general.

It's all too (to my taste) like a video game or even a card game...as in the characters have a handful of "things" they can do, and they plunk down a "thing" at a given time and say "go".

I much prefer a type of game where players and GM come together to co-create a story rich with sensory details and imaginative improvising on both parts.

There’s a contract between players and GM: The GM puts extraordinary effort, energy and time into presenting a vibrant world, and deserves the players’ absolute best attempts to live and breathe within each scene. The players in turn place their faith and trust in the GM to create a memorable and enjoyable story in which they can evolve.

Don’t think that shouting out “Grolak uses the Reaping Strike on the nearest troll and rolls a 14” is the very best choice from a roleplaying standard… and kind of disregards the fact that in the story your GM has crafted you might be backed into a corner by a monstrous, reeking figure, slashing out with diseased and vicious looking claws… I like experiencing the fight, not just doing it.

I have been fortunate to have my earliest RPG playing experiences with a room full of actors and musicians… talk about committing to a role! I like to create that same intensity in my games. I only wish I could play in one ;)

Alexis Smolensk said...

Please don't call it a 'story.'

Zrog (ESR) said...

Yes, yes, YES! Exactly. This is EXACTLY the problem with D&D and 4e. Same name, different game.

And I occasionally have problems with my players in tabletop D&D because they treat it like a video game: there are never any opportunity costs, and the whole game consists of "using ability" rather than "using brain". Furthermore, nothing is unique, difficult, or permanent. Die? Reload from save point. Game too hard? Whine to developers.

None of these things has any place in D&D, but it's being programmed into "gamers".