Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Earth Still Orbits the Sun

Last night, I played my first game of 4th Edition. I journeyed down to a gaming club here in town, where they play pretty much ONLY 4th edition. The organizer told me that IF he gets enough people to fill a 3.5 table, he does, but they don't last long. He did not bring up the subject of earlier editions and neither did I.

I can't avoid a rant about the 'problems' with 4th Edition. Obviously, for the players of that system, there are no 'problems.' However, I have some observances that I'd like to discuss.

First of all, the thing that people most complain about, the dragging length of combat, was not so bad. Combat runs at the speed of an earlier-version D&D game played by floundering, inexperienced players ... except that of course these people supposedly know what's going on. It took me about ten minutes to understand at least all that my character could do, which as a 1st level thief wasn't much. A mage, I think, would have taken longer ... but all the characters seem to 'swing' like fighters. The same basic attack is performed in the same basic way from round to round - only the number of persons it affects, the damage it does, or the number of times one attacks seems to change. I found that aspect deathly dull.

As I did the process of doing damage. It is RARE that a character does not do damage in a given round, heaps of damage by early D&D standards, and the damage makes very little difference, like giving someone a firehose, letting them get a sense of the power of it, then asking them to extinguish a volcano. Little halfling thief that I was, I did 62 damage over five rounds and the total effect of all that damage was ... nothing. At least, there was no indication that the damage had any effect. I have forgotten what its like to play a system where a combatant with 1 hit point and a combatant with 100 hit points has exactly the same combat effectiveness.

The attitude of the players around the table, and the combat itself, reminded me FAR more of Panzerblitz or Squad Leader than role-playing. Perhaps Axis & Allies would be more apt ... because movement was treated VERY imprecisely, by a DM who was clearly worried about the length of the rounds. There was something about the running around and the total lack of movement adjustment to attacks that reminded me of Calvin Ball. No one seemed to mind; I certainly did not give any indication that I did. Everyone was pleased with my participation and encouraged me to return.

I have a little insight now as to why my combat system does seem a little ... hm ... restrictive. I argue that you can either run or fight, but there isn't time to do both. I argue that the process of generating enough power to create a lightning bolt, meteor storm or even an unseen servant actually requires time. I argue that being hit has, well, an effect. And I argue that one hit point of damage ought to have some actual meaning.

Very out of step, isn't it?

There were other reasons I was bored during the game, but all of that had to do with the actual nature and experience of the DM. It was particularly humourous when, as the battle went on and on, the bad luck of the party and the plainly superior powers of the monsters was deeply out of synch, and we were all going to die (it does eventually happen, but it's like the taxi you called at dinner showing up at your door after you've given up, taken the bus, come back and dressed for bed).

As he rolled dice behind a screen, I could watch the sequence of expressions cross his face, from oh damn I've hit again ... to I better tell them that it doesn't ... to smile or they'll think something's wrong before saying, "Miss." I wish I could say I was the only one at the table who saw it, but when the players discussed the game at the bar afterwards, sans DM, the fact of it was discussed.

The great observation made by the cleric was, "Well, we knew it was stupid and obviously he was lying, but hey, we're players, right?"

Yes, that's right. That's exactly what I expect players to do.

Nothing has changed. DM's still sadly concoct irrationally tough encounters and then guiltily adjust their die rolls behind screens. The Earth still orbits the Sun.

There was a table of people playing 'D&D Next,' but I didn't get the opportunity to observe. I'm not sure I'm inclined anyway. After a long time of staying away from DM's without gamespaces, sitting in uncomfortable chairs, in a venue without any amenity that dispenses food or drink, I'm quite content to make it another long departure.


  1. I believe many modern gamers come to table top play expecting the game to play itself. I imagine good players and DM's realize the blood, sweat, and tears which must be put forth, like writing a good piece of fiction, before the adventures leap full off the table and into a shared, imaginative rollicking good time.

    Most modern entertainment is a passive activity requiring little creative input from participants, while table top rpg's are the opposite.

    Gaming atmosphere, which you touched on lightly at the end of your post, is important as well. Points to the personal, intimate nature of the experience.

  2. As a matter of curiosity, during the after-game discussion...was there any indication that, if fudging hadn't occurred, the players would have retreated in the face of a grim outcome to battle?

  3. What is retreat?
    Don't you just load the save again?

  4. I started playing third edition, so my perspective is biased accordingly.

    Oddly, fourth edition is designed to be much more tactical than third edition, with a much greater focus on positioning and movement. Many powers are designed around forcing movement against enemies or obtaining a chance to move to a better position. I'm not sure how it would be possible to play a fourth edition game "as intended" without using a tactical map of some sort, or some other means of accurately tracking positions and movement.

    From what I understand, hit point totals were raised in later editions in order to reduce the odds of a character dying to a single unlucky roll. Players tend to become less attached to characters if characters are dropping dead all around. Archie slips and breaks his neck; Bobby takes an arrow to the knee and bleeds out; Charlie gets lockjaw from a rusty nail; and so forth. This is fairly realistic, but not always fun. When a character at early levels can take a few hits from a random mook, players don't worry as much about losing a character to one instance of bad luck. But if poorly implemented, it can allow players to take greater risks without having to worry about consequences, and it can make taking damage less meaningful. As designed, using publisher guidelines, both third and fourth editions unfortunately make death for a player character almost impossible, unless the player insists on repeatedly doing silly things or gets absurdly unlucky

    You seem to achieve the same effect by use of followers, at least for players with higher-level characters, and without making combat trivial.. Your follower system provides a degree of continuity on character death, since a player doesn't have to roll up a completely new character every time the 'lead' character dies.

    Going from third to fourth, I saw fourth edition as an improvement over third for two reasons.

    First, it rationalized and streamlined the various mechanics which had been introduced to the base system over the previous twenty odd years.

    Second, it made magic users more interesting to play at a tactical level. Pre-fourth edition magic works well in a certain kind of campaign. But most players with whom I worked found it unsatisfying. The small number of spell slots encouraged hoarding spells for emergencies; the inflexibility of spell choice on any given day encouraged players to focus on big damage-dealing spells and never use most of the interesting spells on the spell list. In effect, the spellcaster was usually just a really bad crossbowman in most situations.

    I know that some players get around the daily spell limit through frequent 'extended rests.' But I see no reason why a party should be allowed to set up camp in the middle of a hostile zone, or be able to retreat and return the following day to pick up exactly where it left off.

    This isn't to say that fourth edition is anywhere near perfect. Fourth edition's magic system made magic mundane, because it allowed wizards to effortlessly and perpetually shoot lightning bolts from their eyes, and fireballs from their ears. And while it allowed for more magic to be used, thereby reducing the need to hoard even relatively weak spells, it also got rid of most non-damage-dealing spells; the ritual mechanic doesn't really compensate. The characters all feel like variants on the fighter in most cases. There is a small book's worth of issues with fourth edition, but this comment has gotten too long and tangential as it is.

  5. Still, its appreciated Homer.

    Any system can work; and it obviously works better if the people running and participating are loyal to that tactical framework and its purposes. I've seen a lot of people play versions of older D&D that was no better than the game I played Wednesday ... since tactics become a confounded mess for some people, they dispense with them in all but an undead, zombie form, so that people are simply taking turns to roll dice to cause damage to see who runs out of hit points first.

    They might as well be playing War with cards.

    That's not the fault of the game, I grant you; but I do feel that "The characters all feel like variants on the fighter" is not merely a 'flaw.'

    1. 4e is actually an attempt to get away from the whole "just take turns whacking each other until something dies" by disregarding various tactical options using powers. Personally, I think it's an enjoyable tactical combat system -- which is to say that I enjoy playing the Castle Ravenloft game, which is a co-op board game version of 4e that I play with my kids sometimes. Positioning, damage soaking, special attacks that can target multiple opponents, etc. -- there are meaningful choices that you can make -- within the framework of the choices they explicitly give you.

      That's why different classes have an array of powers that follow the same structure, there are elaborate guidelines for designing perfectly balanced, tactically interesting encounters, and magic items are so systematized that there is no joy in them whatsoever -- combat is a tactical wargame, so each encounter is intended to be it's own fair, balanced fight.

      There are people with experience in other editions who report that you can have a fulfilling role playing experience (and not just a tactical miniatures experience) in 4e, but I personally don't think the system does much to facilitate it.

  6. All characters are variants on X is a general movement in gaming that is quite unfortunate. The goal I believe was to simplify the hell out of DND. Meaning, if you play a fighter it is not a huge leap to learn a wizard or a rogue.

    You can see this when all abilities have effects that's catagories could all be listed on one sheet of paper at 10 point font. Compared to the effects of spells and abilities in any earlier version of DND with special rules, exceptions, durations and so on...

    And I tend to be a bit of a 3.X/Pathfinder fan in the DnD epic series but...

    Perhaps their distaste with the whole wizard class was BECAUSE they used it for damage spells. Honestly, there's some massive bang for your buck if you take some different spells. Thinking long term and party centric rather than firing a 1d4+1 crossbow bolt.

    Sleep, Mage Armor, Charm Person, true strike, summon monster 1...

    These spells have massive effects if used properly, but for some reason people only think in amount of damage done. The problem is they are not thinking about turn+1 or turn+X...

  7. I absolutely HATE 4th edition. Honestly, I have misgivings about anybody who plays and enjoys it, because it seems to me that a whole host of personality disorders common to my current generation and the subsequent one are why they prefer it: (lack of permanent consequences being the primary preference they have with game and life alike). I could go on.

    In my Exalted game, on the other hand, my cousin's character (a warrior who had literally slain about two dozen foes in personal combat) got split in half and died on the first round of combat. The rest of the party broke and ran. They could have taken the opposition but seeing their tank get killed by (what was honestly) a lucky hit turned their hearts into mush. I imagine 4th ed players would have cried and stormed out. My cousin just made a new one and said, "Damn, this system is lethal!"


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