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 excessive...how 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. Collins...my 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 game...it 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.|
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.