Saturday, January 10, 2009

If you can't take the heat, go back to the kitchen and play 3.5: A Very Long Post

Let's start here:


It's funny! I laughed the first time I read it, then I got to thinking. And with everyone else on the Internet posting their thoughts on 3e vs 4e, I guess I'll jump on the wagon. I'll be discussing some of the major gripes I am hearing, my thoughts on those, and then finally my personal thoughts on the system - its pros and cons.

First, I haven't been playing for 20+ years like a lot of the serious gamers out there, but I have been playing for 11 and GMing for 9. I'm not exactly johnny-come-lately, let's get that established.

I hear a lot of flak about 4e being too combat oriented. I'd like to talk about that first. Dungeons and Dragons, as we all know, was developed out of the Chainmail skirmish game by, among others, Gary Gygax in the 70s. Its very origins are combat simulation. Later on, it grew and attracted imitators and eventually other games were developed - but all tabletop RPG systems have one thing at their core: They are, to a one, built around the simulation of conflict. Two or more sides want something and their goals are usually irreconciliable, that's good drama. Building a system starts with combat because it's the one thing you can't simulate at the table (even if your friends are forgiving, there's just not room in the average kitchen), and combat can be twisted by adjusting those rules into a simulation for any conflict.

With that understanding, let's even look at other iterations of DnD. Remember ADnD? We all seem to, and fondly. Remember all the skills?


They weren't in there. There were weapon proficiencies and nonweapon proficiencies. That included everything from languages to rope use. They didn't really get much better - you had them or you didn't. Occasional checks were made, but that wasn't the focus of most adventures. Hell, the Rogue was the only one making constant skill checks, but that was just for his thieving abilities, rolled on a percentile.

Then we had 3e and 3.5, with their approximately 4000 skills. A good step in terms of layering some complexity onto a combat engine, but an overall poor design choice. The d20 system eventually gave way to the Star Wars Saga Edition, with its much smaller list of skills - Move Silently and Hide become Stealth; Spot, Search, and Listen become Perception. This is a positive step forward, because I no longer have to agonize about where to put a handful of skill points to keep the party balanced. DnD 4e carries this to its logical conclusion: Everyone can make checks, but certain classes have aptitudes others don't. That's pretty logical to me - someone who makes a living commanding soldiers has probably picked up a bit of military history, and a chevalier who acts as his local parish's liaison to the government is more likely to know a thing about acting polite.

Basically, I fail to see how a lack of skills makes a game more combat oriented. Look at all the class abilities in 3.5 - most character class abilities are about inflicting lasting harm on another character, or avoiding bodily harm yourself. In 4e, class abilities are about inflicting lasting harm on another, avoiding bodily harm, or preventing the same to your comrades. I do not note the overall difference in the function of classes.

Yes, all the abilities are about bringing the hurt to the enemy. So? The game has always been about that. And don't tell me all the Powers prevent roleplaying - shit, guys. Every game comes down to "I attack that guy *roll* no, I missed" by 11 PM and you know it. Don't pretend you describe every single sword stroke, slice, parry, and the clanging of armor. Just don't. I roleplay with actors, designers, and playwrights - if a roomful of those guys don't feel up to that task over an entire evening, neither do you. It's foolish to say that because Wizards felt like injecting a little flavor into what's basically your normal attack, but better, you can't describe every action anymore. I call BS on that, The Internet Fandom.

The other big thing I hear is that it's "too videogamey." First, what the hell does that even mean, and two, I guess I will take a stab at debunking what I think that is. "Too videogamey" means that combatants move around a lot, you need a visual representation of the battle for it to make sense, everyone has special attacks and skills, and again things depend on action and combat. I've already discussed that last one, and I believe everyone has always had special attacks - just because you don't need to press a hotkey to use Sneak Attack or Cleave doesn't mean they've gone away. It's the same game you've been playing. A lot of groups do complain about the necessity of battlemats and miniatures, but let me share a secret: I have a whiteboard, a tape measure, and old HeroClix and HeroScape figures. Some groups use Lego figurines, which is even better. With these elements and a little imagination (remember, that thing you claim the new edition sidelines?) you can have a full and varied set of PCs, monsters, and terrain for $100. The most expensive thing I mentioned was a tape measure, and let's face it, every home should have one.

A battlemap/whiteboard/piece of plexiglass with a grid taped to the bottom and a handful of minis does some fantastic things for player imagination, in my experience. I have always found that playing with some kind of visual representation of the battlefield makes players more prone to using the environment to their advantage, envisioning combat, and (more to the point) resolving arguments. Does it restrict creativity to draw a room without a chandelier? Fuck no. The player asks "Is there a chandelier?" I say "Yes!" First rule of improv. Unless they're in an environment where a chandelier is extremely improbable, of course. By the way, improvisation rules are something all GMs should know. And a quick side note, every GM book includes rules for handling problem players; I wonder why nobody's put out a guide to handling problem GMs yet.

The other thing about DnD 4e being too much like a video game is that that's just the way our society's moving in terms of interactive entertainment. WOW, more than anything else, really made videogames accessible and cool to someone besides nerds and frat boys. I can walk across campus and hear a pair of dating English majors talk about the raid they're planning together. Can you blame serious gamers and writers for noticing that trend and dissecting the format to see what makes it work? DnD is now easier than ever to learn. It's not quite to the level of hitting a button and right clicking, but it's getting close. People want games to run fast; they can tell more involved stories that way.

So there you go. Those are my thoughts on the two major gripes I hear. I really got on a roll here, so I think I'll save my personal thoughts for another post. I know everyone wants to comment now, so I'll let you do that.

1 comment:

d7 said...

As one of the people turned off by 4e, I think I can provide some perspective.

The "too videogamey" thing isn't my personal beef, but I understand it. It's not so much that everyone has special attacks, but that 4e puts a lot of SFX into the fluff. That bends D&D's style in the direct of Dragonball et al, while the people who are against that would have preferred the game to be bent more towards The Lord of the Rings or something like that. Moreover, making combat so flashy makes it an obvious focus of the gameplay. 4e also defines all the classes so heavily in terms of combat. For people who want to use D&D to play a combat-lite campaign, that's just annoying distraction and other systems do it better.

A lot of the support for 4e tends to be put in terms of how it's better than 3e, but not all of us cut our teeth on that edition. I started with 1e and spent most of my time with 2e. Spending "only" $100 on minis and game mats seems exorbitant to me since I've never liked using minis. (Sure, disputes happen. That's why the DM has the final say. Players get used to asking if they're close enough to to X or whatever, so it's not actually as difficult as it sounds.) I'd rather use my imagination entirely and maybe scratch out some positioning information on paper than to move so much of my gaming focus into optimising the ways that a mini can be manoeuvered around on a grid.

That's not to say that the people who don't like 4e all don't like involved combat systems. There are a lot of games out there that have involved and tactical combat systems without them having the videogame-combos feel to them. I personally love systems that have detailed duelling systems (The Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel), which 4e really doesn't handle well.

There are other complaints I have about 4e, but that's how I understand the opposition to 4e's combat system. What it just comes down to is that other systems better support the feel, style, and gameplay that I and others enjoy most.