Thursday, October 1, 2015

Delving 4E (Part 4)

Over the years of writing this blog, I've posted many times about the Vancian magic system of Dungeons & Dragons, usually regarding some dissatisfaction with it. It doesn't scale well, for example, being too weak at lower levels, too strong at higher levels. Or (more commonly) it's not "magical" enough for my taste, failing to model the fictional magic systems of fantasy literature.

I've delved into the origins of the system, reviewed Gygax's inspirations and reasonings, perused Arneson's own system, studied the original base of Chainmail (even adapting Chainmail's system to my own Five Ancient Kingdoms), mused and analyzed its development over editions, and postulated ideas on "how to make it work better." Hell, when I wrote The Complete B/X Adventurer, I included several new spellcasting classes and gave each one different, new mechanics to distinguish them from the standard magic-user/cleric paradigm. I've written many new spells for the B/X game (both in TCBXA and my B/X Companion) and adapted spells from other books to the B/X (Vancian) system.

That being said, I have precious little experience actually playing magic-users, in any edition of D&D. Other games, sure (Ars Magica, WW's Mage, FATE's Dresden Files, Shadowrun, a couple others here or there)...but none of those use the magic system of D&D, even the close analogies (like DragonQuest and Palladium). There's nothing out there like D&D's Vance-based system that combines auto-effects (no dice roll is required to succeed) with resource management (limited spell quiver). At least, not that I'm remembering at the moment. It is (as I've written before) one of the key elements that identifies that D&D system. Love it or hate it, Vancian magic IS Dungeons & Dragons.

Or, at least it was Dungeons & Dragons. That, of course, changed with 4E. All protestations to the contrary (that magic is still limited by daily and encounter allotments), if you're allowing mages to create magical effects at will (and all spell-users get two to three such "at will" powers, in addition to unlimited use cantrips) then you've stepped outside of the Vancian paradigm. And I think it's fair to argue that the requirement of making D20 rolls for any attack spell (versus a target's appropriate defense), would also negate any claim to the traditional Vancian system.

But then, I did write (earlier in this series) that 4E's "not really D&D." You can argue the issue, fine. My point is not to look at the system as it's own thing, nor spend a bunch of time bashing it (for not being "real D&D"), but rather talking about my thoughts/feelings on its various aspects as points of interest...things I like that I might adapt ("steal") for my own D&D (or D&Dish) game. Now, regarding that magic system...

Not sure if I've told you this story that I heard (2nd hand) from an American couple that've been living down here the last seven years. It seems that a couple years ago, there was a yoga fad that swept Asuncion (as fads sometimes do in communities), with yoga studios popping up all over the nicer neighborhoods. A yoga guru (non-Paraguayan) was invited down here and was making the rounds, visiting places, giving talks, and generally enjoying a little local celebrity. Then at a seminar he was giving, he had the audacity to suggest that, in other parts of the world, people felt that eating a little less red meat might be a good thing for one's personal health and fitness. Not becoming a vegetarian, mind you, just going a little easy on the beef that is such a staple of the Paraguayan asado culture.

He was booed off the stage and run out of town. The fad has faded to only a couple-three remaining studios since then. first thoughts on seeing the magic system in 4E is: I don't totally hate it. In fact, there are some things I kind of dig here, at least conceptually, if not the actual execution. Here's the bullet point list (for the sake of expedience):

  • I like the split between spells that are known/cast-able at a moment's notice (the character's "powers," whether arcane or divine) and ritual magic. There's a bit of an extension of the 3E "wizards-can-take-feats-to-master-favorite-spells-but-otherwise-have-them-in-their-books."
  • Ritual magic, in general: I like how any person with the correct feat and skill can learn some ritual magic without a need to multiclass. To me, this is very "fantasy literature-esque."
  • I like the limitations imposed by the daily/encounter restrictions. Rather than allowing MUs to stockpile bunches of lightning bolts (for example) there's a need to diversify the actual spells used in play, making the wizard's spell-throwing more interesting, and adding back that challenge of deciding when to use that dispel magic and when to look for another option.
  • At the same time, I like there's an epic feat that allows wizards to recast daily spells. An "epic wizard" should be able to toss around multiple fireballs, unlike lesser magicians.
  • I like the idea of implements and how specialization allows minor bonuses without penalizing the caster for losing an implement (gives flavor and encourages style with one swift stroke). 
  • I like immediate interrupt spells, like shield, giving a kind of counterspell feel without some clunky mechanic.
  • I like the at will cantrips. I've always liked the idea of magicians performing such minor, inconsequential magics without limit, both because it allows magicians to always remain "magical" even when they're not throwing prismatic sprays AND because creative players can figure out ways to make such spells effective and consequential when they're regular "quiver of spells" are exhausted.
  • While "at will" attack spells (which will be used over-and-over again, especially at low levels when a character's number of dailies and encounter attacks are expended) have the potential to make the game feel LESS magical (because the magic becomes so common) in a high magic setting I can see it a little. Better than the magic-user with the bandolier of knives, after all. Still, you run the risk of looking like a cartoon action hour sorcerer or comic book character shooting lasers out of your hands. I'd rather these were all limited use of daggers, by the way, is an awesome spell that should have been an encounter attack and definitely needs to be 'ported into the B/X game.
  • I already mentioned previously that I like the warlock class. Again, not thrilled about eldritch blast being "at will," but if you're going to go with at will attack magic, that one's an awesomely appropriate class feature.
  • The cleric's prayers are closer to the non-spellcasters' power sets than the arcane dudes (and definitely non-Vancian). However, I will say I prefer the deity-specific channel divinity feats to 3E's endless lists of bonus "domain" spells. Oh, yeah...and godsmite is uber-cool on just about every level. Who wouldn't want to hit some cretin with that?

None of which is to say there isn't some serious ugliness within the system. I read somewhere that the placement of magical items in the PHB equipment lists encourages 4E games to feature setting with the dreaded cheesiness of "magic shops," in order to turn hard-earned treasure into enchanted gear commensurate with their level. Personally, I see no reason anyone would do such a thing when a 175gp buys anyone the enchant item ritual which any arcane skilled character of 4th+ level can use to create any/all magic items...for the same price as their listed cost (in other words, the party is pretty much presumed to be its own "magic shop"). Talk about taking the magic out of the game and making it mundane.

And, of course, the game suffers from its basic design of a skirmish-level war-game. Nearly all the spells are combat oriented, making the wizards' "fighting style" nothing more than "choose-your-flavor-of-ranged-damage-this-round." But that's beating the proverbial dead horse, yeah? We don't have to keep flogging the overall design choice (when 4E has already "failed" and been replaced with the latest-shiniest). Still, it's worth pointing out that this may be the least "magical" of all the D&D systems I've seen (note: I still haven't read the 5E books). My own magic designs have tried to move away from "wizards as damage dealers" and this opposite approach...well, it just makes the magical ordinary.

Gone are the spells one might use outside of a combat situation or dungeon environment...things like rope trick and weather control and cacodaemon. Or even wall of am I supposed to magically construct my tower of sorcery?  Heck, there isn't even a charm person spell...that's got to be a first for any tabletop RPG. Too much imagination required, I suppose.

[the 29th level bard power spellbind is the closest thing I find, though I admit I'm not looking terribly hard; fast friends (another bard power in the PHB2) is pretty weak sauce compared to the traditional charm person]

Which reminds me: the level assignments for powers are a little jarring. Mirror image at level 10, fly at 16, Evard's black tentacles at 19? Yeah, throwing a 4th level spell like EBT into the experience tier where 1E magic-users usually expect a 9th level spell is odd...but not as odd as seeing confusion (another traditional 4th level spell) as a 27th level epic spell. Hell, timestop becomes available at level 22!

[confusion is also incredibly watered targets a single creature, and forces it to make a single basic attack against its nearest ally. All that an average of 15 damage (+INT bonus). That's what a 27th level wizard can do? Blast of cold (level 15) would appear to be more effective. The scaling here is really strange]

But all that's besides the point. 4E may be too strange a beast for me to play, but there's is some interesting ideas buried here. All right....that's enough for tonight.

"I need a long rest..."

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