Monday, September 28, 2015

Delving 4E (Part 2)

Since last Thursday, I've been trying to figure out how I wanted to approach the follow-up to my Part 1 post on 4th Edition D&D. In the end, it's a fairly silly question any way you slice it. Most folks ain't playing 4E these days and it is (currently) an unsupported and unpopular line. In other words, "who cares?" Write however you want as most folks have moved on to something different (5E, Pathfinder, S&W, etc.) anyway.

Mmm. I care, I guess. At least enough to keep me somewhat focused on a particular path of discussion.

I want to first start with an admission or two. I dig on war-games. I've played war games (mostly Warhammer 40K) and I dig on the maneuver of forces and the crushing of enemies. I like (fantasy) combat in general. Many of my old RPG designs get started when I think of some new, interesting, or innovative way to run combats. This is, perhaps, the stupidest way to originate a new RPG, by the way (since RPGs are, or should be, about more than "fighting stuff"), but I know I'm not the only designer that gets the buzzing bonnet from a single element of game mechanic/system. My particular interests tend towards the violent. Don't ask me why...I can only explain it in terms of astrology.

[for the curious: a 5th house Mars in Ares, un-aspected, save for a direct opposition to Uranus. Make what jokes you must]

Well that and my dad used to watch a lot of old John Wayne movies on the TV (back in the non-cable days of three or four channels). The Battle of the Bulge, Davy Crocket, etc. Who knows how that might have warped me in my formative years.

So, in case it's not terribly obvious, any objections I have to 4E ain't necessarily regarding its conceptualization as an encounter-based game of combat on the small (skirmish) scale. It's not D&D (unless, I suppose, you are one of those unfortunate few introduced to the brand with the 4th Edition, and thus have no other frame of reference), but that doesn't mean it ain't an enjoyable, playable tabletop game.

That being said, the point of this post is NOT to laud it "as a game" unrelated to D&D. Neither is the point of this post meant to bash it for all the ways 4E "isn't D&D." No, the point of this post (and maybe the point of this series) is to talk about the elements I find within 4E that I like, appreciate, find interesting, and/or wouldn't mind adapting to the Dungeons & Dragons game. That is to say, to something I consider a "real" (i.e. traditional) edition of D&D...or perhaps another fantasy heartbreaker.

[what's a "real" edition? See this old post where I listed the identifiable common elements of D&D. While my perspective may have evolved in the last five years, that's a good enough place to start]

As the song says, these are a few of my favorite things. Just starting with the 4E Players Handbook [*takes moment to pour wine*]:

Let's start with Chapter 1 (no, I'm not going to discuss the art/look of the thing. The 4E books are pretty to look at, and fairly inclusive gender-wise, if pretty underrepresented of human-like "people" of color). The first seven pages are the best introduction to any edition of D&D ever. It's a bit of a flimflam (having a DM doesn't make the D&D game "unique" in 2008, and there's a lot left unsaid about how much of the D&D experience the game intends to shortcut), but man if it doesn't make one excited to be cracking the book. In fact, it's actually pretty darn inspiring right up until the section in Page 9 marked How to Play, where it all falls apart. Since I'm trying to be positive (i.e. constructive) I'm going to skip most of the rest of this.

The idea of a Core Mechanic is not a terrible one. D&D nearly made the jump to this with 3rd Edition, and it certainly cuts down on the "search and handling" time. While it's fun to have a bunch of different, arcane systems (surprise versus initiative versus reaction versus attacks versus saves versus spells) to represent different elements of Old School play, there's something to be said for tightening things up...especially if its in aid of easier mechanical play to allow more time in imaginative "free play." However, that doesn't appear to be the reason for the streamlining...certainly not the main reason.

NOW, before I get to "Making Characters" I need to have an aside. I LOVE tactics. I'm GOOD AT playing tactically. BUT I'm pretty f'ing terrible at strategy. Or rather, strategy (in war games and RPGs) is definitely a secondary consideration for me (in addition to being a weak suit). My primary priority, especially in games, is playing something I think is "cool" or "interesting" and then making it work to the best of its ability. Optimizing army/character builds isn't what I do: I play themes and fluff. I like creating unique (often "sub-optimal") forces and then trying to win with them. This makes me absolutely hopeless when it comes to being munchkin-y...and yet my "compete level" is a little too high for non-munchkin players.

SO, for example, I like point buy attributes (as long as its quick math) because they allow me to create characters of my own concept, but I hate min-maxing strategies (in both myself and others). I like the amount of customization 4E gives, and the fact that is limited in scope (you get a choice from three or four options every level), but I hate that most often the people to whom this game appeals are going to be taking optimal choices, that the game encourages hardcore gamism so as not to be left out of the loop of shining your own light in the encounters which define the arena for (pretty much) all play in 4E. Yes, I could make the baddest-ass dracoform warlord in the game, but I don't want to. But if I don't (or at least make something comparable) I face potential ridicule (or deprotagonism) unless I'm playing with folks who have the same weird sensibilities as myself. And if we all have those sensibilities 4E is set up to penalize us for not possessing the right mix of abilities. Subject to a lot of DM fiat and adjustment, of course. in theory I like the tact 4E takes. I like the limiting of options and builds. I like the easy core mechanic (half level + adjustments added to D20 roll). For the most part, I like most of the classes and "builds" that are on display (the same cannot be said for the races or handling of the races...for the most part, I really dislike these). But I'm going to have to talk about specific classes in another post, or this will get too long.

I like how 4E takes (what had been) 3E's "saving throws" and simply makes them passive defenses (the same as armor class), though I'd be tempted to alter the exact list. I've written before about chopping saves (all of last September, in fact), and while 4E does it a different trail, it's headed to the same destination (getting rid of an extra random die roll). 4E's actual "saving throw" (a D20 roll made to see if a sustained effect wears off, checked at the end of a turn) isn't a bad idea, and I find its implementation "realistic" (i.e. level does nothing to improve the chance, but something like "dwarves resistance to poison" does). Oh Just By The Way...just regarding defenses, I really like how the applicable ability modifier is your choice of two (higher of INT or DEX for reflex defense, for example)...all the ability scores have their usefulness, and this either/or mechanic both makes sense AND stops penalizing players for a particular choice (and cuts down on min-maxing benefits).

I actually dig 4E's five-fold alignment quite well. Thank you, thank you for getting rid of "Chaotic Good" and "Lawful Evil" and all the various "neutrals." Unaligned makes so much more sense as does having only two extremes (Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil). Not that it yet provides any mechanical benefit, but if you're going to have the arbitrary ethical description, this isn't a bad way to present it, IMO.

I really like the way 4E handles multiple languages (everyone starts with 2 or 3, depending on race, and then more can be added through a Linguist feat). Besides Ugly Americans like myself, it's fairly common for people to speak two languages, and has been throughout human history, regardless of "intelligence." On the flip side, having a high intelligence is no guarantee of speaking multiple languages, as such is really a matter of training (emphasis) and practice. Too bad 4E's not really about communication...

[yeah, all that stuff about social interaction, mannerisms, and backgrounds seems out-o-place for this game]

"Retraining" is a nice mechanic, but only necessary given the extreme customization that occurs over the course of a character's career. [Hmm, running low on wine here...]

We're skipping classes for the moment...SKILLS. I'm not a fan of skill systems for D&D (sorry), but if you really want one, this is the best I've seen. A limited selection with some "blanket skills" (like Athletics and Thievery), and a simple one-time bonus of +5 for being trained in a particular skill (the equivalent of adding 10 levels of adventuring experience). I have some quibbles: opposed checks seem silly given that you could use the same core mechanic for skills against a "defense value," for example, and I dislike things like Perception and Insight being learned "skills" (this isn't Sherlock they're kind of the same thing, no? Just make them a defense called Perception with an either/or of INT/WIS!). But I certainly like these better than both 3E's version and the "non-weapon proficiencies" of earlier editions.

Oh, yeah...and can Intimidate be used on bloodied PCs to force them to surrender?! From everything I read, the answer would seem to be "yes" which is both awesome and de-protagonizing at the same time. It's the first time I've seen an edition of D&D apply capitulation mechanics to player characters (outside of a failed save versus fear magic or the equivalent). While most people probably ignore this kind of thing, intimidation/morale mechanics is something I love working with (in my own designs)...fights just shouldn't be "to the death" all that often (intelligent beings surrender and unintelligent ones flee).

[by the way, I would love to run 4E in an uber-antagonistic way that aims for TPKs in the "fairest" way possible. More on that if I get around to discussing the DMG]

Feats are a nice, short list, limited further in that many feats are class or race specific. Considering 4E's reputation for super heroic action, I found these surprisingly restrained (compared to 3E). Limits and restraints are "good things" when it comes to skills. I also think I prefer this version of multi-classing; I'd have to see how it works in-play. While it appears a little clunky, I suspect that's more based on unfamiliarity (compared to 3E's mechanics, with which I am very familiar but which I dislike). But it looks to bring some sanity back to the concept of the adventuring archetype that "picks up a little bit of X" for their repertoire.

Not much to say in an equipment section surprisingly light on 10' poles and hemp rope (there ain't none), except perhaps that a lot of creativity is on display in this book with all these different enchantment types (though to me, much of the magic rings as hollow as a game of Diablo).

I'll have to deal with combat in a later post (if at all), but with regard to the chapter on Adventuring, I've got a couple thoughts. Action points are kind of interesting, but being tied to milestones (which for 4E is dependent on the whole encounter structure of the system) makes for a bit of a "no go" for me...trying to play 4E in a true D&D style would necessitate creating a different system for awarding action points, probably along the lines of X number per session dependent on PC's level of experience, or the anticipated number of encounters in a session (however, their emphasis on increased combat effectiveness might mean they should get the axe entirely).

I actually like the whole idea of "short rests" and "long rests," though I don't see why short rests have been cut down to five minutes in length (in B/X and other old editions, characters are presumed to spend time resting after an encounter, though always for a minimum of one turn, i.e. ten minutes...failure results in characters becoming fatigued). Actually, counting the time spent resting can lead to old school-type resource management, regarding food and light sources and whatnot...though it's pretty clear that no self-respecting 4E party should hit the Underdark without a wizard and his/her unlimited Light cantrip. "Keeping Watch" is another example of where a simple Perception defense would be appropriate.

Rituals also add an element of time/resource management that I like...but I'll talk about those in a later post, as this is already waaaay loooong.


  1. There were many things I disliked about D&D4 but the optimisation minigame was the worst. If there are optimum character generation choices, and the game is based on a strict rules balance, why offer any choice at all? Just stop pretending and give me pre-generated archetypes.

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