Saturday, October 3, 2015

Delving 4E (Part 5)

It's only fitting that this fifth post be the last installment in this series, seeing as how there's only five editions of Dungeons & Dragons. What - there's more than five editions? Well, the most recent one appears to be something called "fifth edition" and Wizards of the Coast (current holders of the brand name) has an official forum for "Fifth Edition" D&D, so I'll defer to them as the experts on the matter.

Point is, I think I can finish up this series on 4E in one more post. Yes, it will include my (positive) thoughts on the DMG and MM. Maybe some of the less than positive ones, too.

First, the combat/adventuring system found in the PHB: meh. Compared to the other sections I've discussed, there's not a lot here that I find all that cool, interesting, or portable (other than things I might have mentioned in earlier posts). I've seen tactical rules like this before...3E had plenty...but while my impression is that 4E is a simpler system, it sure appears to be complex (talking about presentation here).

I'll reiterate again that I'm kind of intrigued by the way 3E "saving throws" have been rolled into "defenses" and how the actual 4th Edition "save" works. It allows for some interesting effects (like catching hold of something when knocked off a cliff...that's neat). The whole defining action thing (standard, move, and minor) and the currency between them is pretty tidy, if only necessary due to the general excessiveness of combat (appropriate, mind you, due to the emphasis of the game). I like the "shift" action as an evolution of the fighting withdrawal (used to move without provoking an attack of opportunity). Opportunity attacks seem a little simpler than 3E, but it's been a while since I read the 3rd edition...

And that's pretty much all I need to say, with the exception of healing (surges) and the art of dying. Man, it is hard to die in this game...or, rather, it should be hard given the system. I'll admit that I'm not a fan of the three-step death process with saves and whatnot...a (for my money) overly complex system for a pretty faulty concept. Just take death off the table, if that's what you want: PCs reduced to 0 hit points or less are simply knocked out or incapacitated, not killed.

OR (if you want to retain the slim chance of death), simply have an incapacitated PC roll a D20: on a result of 1 or 2 the character dies. That is a fair representation of the character's chance of dying using the 4E system. As it is, you need to fail an unmodified "death save" three times (rolling less than 10 on a D20) in order to give up the ghost...45%x45%x45% equals 9%, the equivalent of rolling a 1 or 2 on the D20. Hey, designers: it doesn't have to be so hard.

The healing surges are another matter. Yes, there are probably too many of them, especially considering how they interact with the short rest and long rest systems. BUT the 4E designers have really just run with the whole concept of abstract hit points, an idea I can get behind. Keeping HPs an abstract measurement of PCs' "staying power" (as opposed to actual measurement of health) allows you do do all sorts of neat tricks: like allowing a PC to gain a few bonus HPs from quaffing a vial of holy water (presuming they're not Chaotic), or granting a PC an extra D4 hit points from downing a jug of wine ("Dutch courage"). It allows my warlord character to give flagging companions a boost by righteously pounding the crap out of someone, and it allows fatigued individuals a chance to recover their second wind in the middle of a fight.

For the record, I like the second wind concept (the ability to expend a healing surge once per encounter to recover one-quarter your HPs mid-combat). I think using it in conjunction with an abstract vision of HPs is about the only way to model someone gaining a "second wind" in the midst of strenuous activity (fighting, in this case). However, as executed, it's many times can one really "dig down" for that extra resolve? I'd say once per day with the exception of some fairly unique individuals (modeled with an appropriate feat, perhaps).

No player character in 4E begins with fewer than six healing surges, a number I'm sure is based on the game's paradigm of "two encounters per session." At that rate, even the weakest (in terms of healing) party member can count on two second winds per session (one per encounter), plus as many as four between the encounters to heal HPs back to full for encounter #2 (since each healing surge heals a character one-quarter its HPs). If the final encounter of the day depletes the character of all HPs (and surges), they can still count on ending the session with a long rest to recover all lost resources (HPs, surges, and powers) setting a "fresh slate" for the next get together.

There's not a lot of risk there.

But there's another point to such "safety mechanics" besides simple survivability. Perhaps, they exist to allow longer, deeper delves...bigger adventures without the need for constant retreat and recovery. I mean, that's a positive thing to shoot for, yeah?

Except the 4E DMG belies that presumption with the basic setup of adventures and encounters. Things are built with an eye towards balancing encounters against each other and against the player characters in a manner that provides a steady rate of mechanical challenge at an estimated pace of one hour per encounter. Maybe that's a conservative estimate...especially at low levels when opponents should be fewer, smaller, and possessed of lesser special abilities...but I can also see the possibility of encounters taking longer, especially in situations where PCs have expended their "finishing moves" earlier (or ineffectively) or due to higher numbers of adversaries (on either side) or higher complexity in the numbers of creature roles.

Complexity. Man, that is a key word, here. I've now read the DMG a couple times and I've got to wonder again at the design choices, especially in light of what I know of the designers' objectives. Here's the specific quote I'm thinking about from 4E designer Andy Collins:
People today, the young kids today, are coming into exposure from D&D after having playing games that have very similar themes, often have very similar mechanics ... they understand the concepts of the game. So in some ways they are much more advanced as potential game players. But in other ways, they are also coming from a background that is short attention span, perhaps, less likely interested in reading the rules of the game before playing.   
And I'm not just talking about younger players now, but anybody. I know when I jump into a new console game, for instance, the last thing I want to do is read the book. I want to start playing. And that's a relatively new development in game playing and game learning. And we've been working to adapt to that, the changing expectations of the new gamer.
First of all, I realize there are people like Mr. brother, for instance...who can't be bothered to read the instructions on their video games. I'm not one of them. And because I prefer to read the instructions first, I tend have an easier time and excel faster then the dudes that just "jump right in." But, okay, whatever...say stodgy old me isn't their target demographic. Say their game (4E) was designed for the impatient, energy-drink-swilling, short-attention-span kid. How the holy fuck could they expect such a person to digest and run a game of the complexity that is 4E? How are they going to put together adventures and interesting encounters just "off the cuff" with the careful balancing act required for the gig?

It's taken me quite a bit of brain power to parse out the (adventure) design structure presented in the DMG, to the point that I think I could put something together, and I'm no rank novice when it comes to D&D or DMing in general. And I think the 4E DMG is pretty well-written...some of the stuff in here on running the game, designing campaigns, and advice on being a DM is quite good, perhaps the best I've seen in any edition of D&D. I especially like the section on the D&D world and the "core assumptions" of the goes a long way towards creating a coherent gestalt of the kitchen sink fantasy elements that have crammed the game's pages since the beginning.

Could a complete newbie to tabletop role-playing just sit down, open up the 4E DMG and MM and craft/run an adventure for a few friends? I guess anything's possible, but it's hard for me to see it. In my estimation 4E requires a greater degree of sophistication than earlier editions. I had no problem DMing B/X as a nine-year old, nor AD&D as an 12-13 year old...but 4E is a very different animal. I think it is safe to say it's built to emulate (in many ways) MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. The difference, though, is that WoW has a host of programmers building a world for exploration and adventure for the people that pay to play, while D&D's "world" is supposed to be built and run by the same people that put their money down for the books. With the level of complexity 4E presents, the level of study required to make it accessible, I just can't see how this meets the designers objective of appealing to "the new gamer."

[maybe the idea was to sell a lot of pre-written adventures?]

OKAY. Things, I liked. Much of the writing, non-specific to the mechanics (just advice information on running a D&D game) was "good stuff." I like the core world assumptions. I like how they handle artifacts in 4E, and the idea of concordance, though I initially liked BECMI's universal method of handling artifacts also (as a repository of power points) and in practice found it pretty boring...artifacts should break some rules.

I think that the direction 4E went with monsters and monster scaling is actually more versatile and less complicated than 3rd edition...which, all things considered, is pretty impressive. Even so, the monster roles are pretty bland, even if they're descriptive of the way creatures are used in play. The idea of elites (double power monsters) and solos (quintuple power monsters) is a concept I recognize from MMORPGs, of course, but I wonder if it isn't something that couldn't be adapted to good effect. It's certainly easier (and more sensical, IMO) than "adding levels" to monsters. It reminds me a bit of the rules for gargantuan monsters (Mentzer's Companion set) and paragon monsters (Mentzer's Immortal set).

I do like the D6 die roll for recharging monster powers...makes it easier for DMs to be objective when it comes to hosing players with an adversary's best powers.
; )

If only I could grok his stat block.
Oh, yeah...I quite like the way 4E has taken Orcus and made him a focus, arch-antagonist of the setting. But that's something (along with the 4E cosmology) that I want to talk about in a "non-4E" post.

And that's about it.  I'll check the DMG2 later to see if there's anything else I'd like to note. Expect a follow-up addendum to this series.


  1. "[maybe the idea was to sell a lot of pre-written adventures?]"

    Yeah... along with a subscription to DDI.

    I agree that that DMG has some of the best advice on how to be a DM. It's one of the main reasons I tried 4e because it seemed like the designers were really trying hard to teach DMs how to be good DM.

    Yet if the designers were expecting people with short attention spans to read it... well, it goes back to one of your original questions: "What were they thinking?"


  2. You're right about saving throws being much simpler in 4e; this is one of the few things I genuinely like about this edition. In 3e/3.5e, you would have to check a table listing all possible move, minor, and standard actions (and "no-actions", IIRC) to see if the thing you wanted to do would provoke an attack of opportunity. 4e has only two things that provoke opportunity attacks: moving, and making a ranged/area attack. It still baffles me that Pathfinder didn't incorporate this, and still uses the table.

  3. Some anecdotal time statistics on my 4e games.

    I generally spent about 6 hours per week prepping a session. Our sessions lasted 5-8 hours, usually with an hour of that spent on food, and another half-hour of solid bullshit time. Each combat took between 1.5 and 2 hours, with exceptionally long combats taking up more or less the entire session (I sometimes broke the expectations of the DMG for adventure designs and made massive set-pieces that were actually more like 2 encounters in one.)

    We would go through 2-3 encounters per session. Long rests were more or less guaranteed at the end of the session for book-keeping reasons (difficult to remember what Daily Powers, and how many surges were already used and such a week later).

    Near the end of my 4e career, I had a rather small group (about 3-4 people, as opposed to 5-6.) and several digital tools to help me track things. (DDI Subscription, and a program called Master Plan), and a good deal of experience under my belt. I was also running a campaign from level 1 that didn't last past level 7 when we stopped.

    I was able to cut prep time significantly by selecting a few monster types that would appear in an area, and then building encounters more or less on the fly as the party encountered them. This allowed me to build encounters scaled to balance the players that showed up, rather than having to edit an encounter, or having an unbalanced encounter. There were fewer set-piece style battles, but I was still able to do some fun stuff by mixing up terrain and putting in interactable bits into some encounters.

    In these later campaigns I spent about 2 hours on prep per week, and combats could run by in about an hour, sometimes less if it was a pretty small encounter.

    Big tables really exponentially slow down the game though. There are a lot of options on any given turn, and a player's choices for a given turn are generally very contingent on what the other players are doing. At the same time, waiting for 2-3 minutes while someone else looks through their power list is boring. Players zone out, start having side conversations. They miss what is happening on a given turn, and then have to be clued in as to what is happening. This slows down their own turn, and can really grind the game down to a halt. Pretty much the only way to force focus on the table is to have some sort of objective unrelated to the combat at hand, or some interesting things to interact with on the combat map, or to have an enemy do something that really makes the party feel some danger (like a particularly nasty Recharge power).

  4. @ Matt:

    Thanks for writing this up...that's the kind of thing I'm interested in! A couple questions:

    1) About how did your campaign last in "real time?" The impression I get from the text is that the designers expected PCs to gain 10-15 levels per year of play (assuming weekly play). Curious as to how long it took your group to reach 7th level.

    2) What ended the campaign? I found (in playing 3E) that play became too complex for most GMs/players to handle around levels 8-10 (because of the amount of options being brought into play); was this something that contributed to the demise of your game? Was it general burn-out? Or did you just move on to "something else?"

    3) What was your experience prior to running a 4E campaign? Any prior experience as a DM? Were you able to learn 4E from the core books alone? Or did you need mentoring (from people, books, or online resources) to get your game going?

    Thanks for the feedback!

  5. 1) In real time that campaign lasted about 4 months. I was rewarding XP for completing campaign objectives at the time. (It was more of a loose, home-made adventure path than a sandbox style game. I imagine a 4e sandbox would be somewhat difficult to design considering encounter balance. Previous games I had run were run with a "level when it seems appropriate" mentality which I know was pretty heavily advocated either in the DMG, DMG2, or online articles by Wizards.

    2) That campaign ended because of other obligations that players had. I had 2 go back to school, and they were the ones most likely to show up to any given game. I played a lot of 4e when it was current though. The game is designed to somewhat manage its own complexity. You have a solid cap on the number of powers your character will ever have that you reach around levels 8-10. After that you are mostly replacing old powers with better ones. I ran a game that I started with level 10 characters, and ran that for about 3-4 months before the characters accomplished the goal of the adventure path. I think they leveled to around 14 or 15, but again, we were somewhat leveling as we hit campaign goals (which were not necessarily combat oriented.) A friend of mine ran a game that started at level 20, and things were a little unmanageable. Characters were more or less built around a few specific power setups and tricks. We weren't very versatile. Magic Item shopping before the game was a nightmare. That game lasted 3 sessions.

  6. 3) I played a few D&D sessions that my dad had DMed for me when I was little. I only vaguely understood the rules. I taught myself a bit of 2nd edition via reading, and by extrapolating my experience playing D&D based PC games like Baldur's Gate, but never really had a chance to run it.

    I taught myself 3.5 in high-school, and DMed almost exclusively. Lots of complexity in the rules that did not entirely make sense at first, but that I was able to teach myself by extrapolating my experience playing Neverwinter Nights on PC. Once I figured out how the thing ticked though, I was able to dig into extra material and work with it without issue. I spent a lot of time talking to my friends about options and builds and such, and they got a lot of their information from internet research.

    I learned 4e just by the book. So much of the pre-release information about the game was how it was different from (read: cleaning up the mess of) 3.5 that we were able to anticipate some of the trickier rule differences. The D&D Insider tools were also pretty great in creating characters, and making custom monsters.

    The game was certainly complex, but it was also somewhat compartmentalized. As DM, I didn't need to know what each and every power the Rogue had could do, I just really needed to know what my monsters could do (and monster options are much simpler than PC options). The rules underlying combat are simplified compared to 3.5 (Core mechanic, a few specific terms, rules for cover and all that.) and everything a given power does is in the power's description. We generally had printed character sheets that included power cards with descriptions, so the combat actually played somewhat like a card-game. You don't need to know what each card in the game does, just read and follow the instructions on the card given.

    Character building and maintenance was complex, and only really aided by having a DDI subscription, and their character builder. One of my players was a fairly good optimizer, so he would usually be in charge of helping players build out there characters. There were very few "trap" options, so it wasn't a case of "No, play a Cleric, buff yourself, and you can outfight the lame-ass fighter" it was more "Okay, if you want to be like a Luchadore pick this fighter build, and these options, and now you can grapple and bodyslam people all the time." I am pretty sure that he also relied on optimization guides written on the Wizard's forums.

    My later adventure designs were informed by some of the 4e bloggers out there, mostly The Angry DM. The Wizard's forums were pretty shit at this, as everyone there was very 'hardline' about encounter balance, and appropriate item distribution, and giving the players what they want. For instance, I once asked for advice on how to tweak magic item distribution to give magic more of a feeling of rarity, and was basically told I was playing wrong.

    I don't know how easy it would be to learn 4e from scratch, but I do know that I was able to teach around 3 people without much RPG experience how to play the game passably. They still needed explanation sometimes, and definitely needed help in character building, but otherwise no real trouble.

    Hope this information helped!

    1. @ Matt:

      Yes, it's helpful (and thank you again). Just one last follow-up question: if you had not had access to DDI or power cards or other such resources that you used but needed to be acquired separately from your purchase of the core books, would you still have been able to learn/play the game?

      I suppose, more importantly, if these things were removed from your inventory NOW, would you be able to pick up and run the game with just the books and dice? Is there a certain level at which the game might become unsustainable? In 20 years, would/could you come back to a (quite possibly unsupported) game like 4E and teach it to your own children?

      [sorry...I realize that's more than "just one" question!]

  7. 1) If I didn't have access to DDI, I would still have been able to play the CORE game. The power cards that the character builder printed were just the information in the books. With a box of index cards and some time I could have easily ran the game. In fact, the first month or so was more or less like that. The difficulty really came in learning the tactical differences between options in the PHB2, PHB3, the various splatbooks like Martial Power, Arcane Power, the various campaign setting options, the Treasure Vault books, and the things like Backgrounds, introduced online, and psionic talents introduced in Darksun.'

    Even with all of the power choices in the core rulebooks, the game was still more streamlined in many ways than 3.5. In fact, that is why I stuck with 4e and never got into Pathfinder. Pathfinder was the same game I hated dealing with, only with lots of new stuff to hate dealing with.

    2) I haven't run 4e in quite some time, but I could probably easily pick up the core books and run it. Like I said, I might need some index cards and poker chips, a battle mat, some markers, and some manner of tokens to represent characters and monsters, but it would be doable. The game gets more complex as you level, but with the exception of a select few classes the options aren't completely overburdening. You end up with something like 3 daily powers, 3 encounter power, 4 utility powers, and 2 at will powers. Considering that most utilities are useful for specific situations you usually just burn through your encounters, use a Daily when needed, and then stick to your trusty At-Wills. Magic Items get a bit difficult to handle, but I don't think the game is unmanageable. It's comparable to an old-school D&D game where everyone is a wizard, and has a bag-of-holding full of magic items. I'd say number of players would be a limiting factor though. Parties of greater than 5 slow down combat, as then more monsters need to be added for balance, which means more turns the DM is taking, and of course I spoke before about player turns.

    The real question should be WOULD I go back and play 4e, and I think my answer would probably have to be no. I could see maybe making a project out of the pieces that 4e presented. Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashadalon were really neat board-games that ran more or less on simplified 4e rules, but character advancement is a one-time deal. You level up from level 1, to level 2, and that is it. I could see using the design ideas behind these games to create a sort of self-DMing monster bash that runs through 30 character levels instead of 2, but that kind of project sounds like more work than I would be willing to put into a game that's really only meant to be pulled out for an hour or two of tactical combat every now and again.

    I will reiterate though, 5e kept a lot of the neat stuff from 4e. All spellcasting classes get a few spells they can use all the time, and in general spellcasting feels a little less Vancian. I know a particular fighter build ends up with various 4e-like manuevers, and there are feats and optional rules that bring back some of the neat MMO-like 'marking' that characters could do. 5e's underlying systems are even more streamlined than 4e's,Builds are more-or-less automatic, feats are optional, and not even optional as in "If you don't want them, don't use them" but optional as in "Some players can use them, and others can ignore them, and they will both be just about as well off in the end." It's really easy to run, and something I could easily see myself running, or hacking, 20 years from now.

    In fact, if I had not been such a snob about it when 5e came out, I probably would have converted my 2 year long 2nd edition campaign to 5e.

    1. @ Matt:

      Hmm...very interesting. Yeah, I may need to take a closer look at 5E when I'm back in the States. Most of the cats I used to play (B/X) with have moved on to 5E since I've been down here.

      You said "with the exception of a select few classes..." Which classes are you referring to?

    2. Wizard gets some spare powers in his spellbook, Leaders have some extra Encounter powers for healing. I believe that there are some feats that also give other classes a reserve power. It has been a while since I've played so I'm not sure if those really slow down play much. They might slow down time between encounters.