Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Delving 4E (Part 3)

My plan is to post my thoughts on the classes and powers in the 4E PHB (I've got a copy of the PHB2 as well but...well, we'll see if I get to it), specifically what I like. As I wrote in my last post, this isn't about lauding 4E as its own game, nor about bashing it for "how it ain't D&D." This is more about what I find interesting, neat, or intriguing as a design choice and possible addition to an actual (D&D) RPG.

Oh, yeah...since this is an attempt to stay positive, I will stay away from the subject of how 4E handles the races in D&D, except to say that I dislike them immensely. Sorry. My distaste is such it might even stop me from playing in a 4E game, knowing I'd probably be adventuring alongside "dragonborn" and "tieflings."

But here's what I like:

With a couple exceptions, I like all classes and "builds" presented in the PHB, at least conceptually, if not their actual execution; this includes the two new classes, warlocks and warlords (more on these in a moment). The ones I don't like (for the curious) are the ranger and paladin, especially the former. In fact, may I just say for the record that I haven't seen a ranger class that I've liked as a whole since (probably) 1st Edition. And let me further add that when I played a ranger character in 1st edition he did wield two weapons (using the rule in the 1E DMG) and you'd think I'd be ecstatic over the class's morphing into a dual-fisted expert over the years. No. Zero (as my four year old would say).

For those who don't know, "builds" are diverging specializations classes are required to take (do you want to be a "battle cleric" or a "devoted cleric," for example). I was actually working with a similar concept in one of my recent (now scratched) heartbreaker designs, so I'm somewhat partial to the idea. However, my motives were different: I provided specializations to help distinguish otherwise simple (B/Xish) classes from their like adventurers and give them a little extra "zing"...like the fighter who specialized in archery (and thus got an extra bonus with a bow). Builds in 4E seem bent on limiting choices. Well, that's a little harsh...most powers of a class are open to any member of the class, regardless of build. But builds do appear to provide some direction when it comes to choosing one's powers, as well as a clear road to "optimization"...which I hate.

[4E's design choice in this regard seems a direct descendent of World of Warcraft's talent trees, though again it's not nearly as restrictive (which is a good thing)]

However, it doesn't HAVE to be this way. There's a lot of shit 4E gets wrong, as far as role-playing games go, and the main one is its emphasis on combat encounters. Such an emphasis encourages optimization, as good play should (in theory) lead to shorter fights allowing the party to proceed to the next encounter faster in order to fight and continue having "fun." But that's just 4E's game. If you can get past the idea that D&D is just about combat (and structure your power options to be more than just combat options), then builds become a bit less static as characters are concerned with more than just fighting. Maybe.

Anyway, leaving aside (for the moment) the actual powers presented and the gameplay of 4th edition, I find (as said) that I like the majority of these classes and builds as concepts. Let me just run through them quickly:

  • The fighter's builds (two-handed weapon or sword-and-board) are simplistic but, hey, he's a fighter. On second pass, a large part of my objection to the ranger is that its builds...the archer and the dual-wielder...are not just BORING, but they should also, IMO, fall under the purview of the fighter, being combat styles. Can't the ranger have, like, a "woodsy/druid" build and a "scouty/guerilla" build?
  • For me, the cleric's "battle cleric" versus "devotional/saintlike" build represents a perfect duality, as does the rogue's "brawny" versus "trickster." In fact, the brawny rogue is an excellent example of the Conan as thief archetype found in S&S literature (see also Fafhrd). It is really unfortunate that, even for the "brawny" build, all the rogue attack powers require the use of a "light blade" (dagger, rapier, or short sword) in melee. Poor execution and a missed opportunity (let's make all our thugs fight with the same three weapons)...but I'm digressing.
  • The wizard's builds ("war" or "control") are no great shakes, but the concept and direction of the wizard as a whole is pretty cool/interesting...though it needs to sit next to the warlock to really appreciate it.

The warlock is one of the two new classes presented in the 4E PHB, and while initially turned off by the presentation (probably the tiefling illustration) upon reading the entry I was far more impressed. This is the classic sorcerer of fantasy literature (which, BTW, is nothing like 3rd Edition's "sorcerer" class). I suppose they needed a new name because they (WotC) intended to bring back the weak-sauce version in the PHB2 (which they did). A shame. Anyway, the warlock is great and, in addition to its two builds ("deceptive" and "scourge") we get a choice of three pacts (sorcerous bargains with supernatural powers) to color the character: fey, infernal, and star (fairy, hell, and Cthulhu!).

[gosh, I can't believe this was published in 2008 and I never saw it. In retrospect, my books with similar concepts...like the Summoner in TCBXA...look like complete knock-offs. Hell, that Conan post was from 2009, even...]

Positioned in opposition to the sorcerous warlock, the wizard begins to take on the look of the classic enchanters of legend: Merlin, Vainamoinen...heck, even Gandalf (who's basis is in those old fairy tales). The sorcerer curses and hexes and summons, while the enchanter manipulates the environment with magical effect. Very nice bookends of the arcane spectrum...much cooler than simply "this guy reads books and this dude has 'dragon blood' in his veins."

The warlord, despite its stupid illustration (a dwarf? that's the last guy you want to be a warlord, ESPECIALLY if you're trying to optimize! Jeez) was not one I had to steel myself to read. In fact, it was the first class I read, and definitely my favorite concept in the entire book. This is the class I'd be playing if I sat down at a 4E table. But then, I've always played my characters like warlords (whether they be clerics, fighters, or bards): jumping into battle, barking orders, thinking tactically. I told you people I like war-games...there's more than a bit of the "armchair general" in me. This class alone could get me to play at least a few sessions of 4E.

[though never as a dragonborn; human only, please, and "inspiring," not "tactical" build]

A warlord surveys the battlefield.
It's a shame that the warlord's concept is so much a part of the 4E premise...I'm not sure it would work in an old style D&D game where actual maneuver in combat is profoundly de-emphasized. Might as well just use a fighter (or a heavy-hitter cleric if you want to still use the inspirational "buffs" on your party). You don't really need a "combat brain" when all people are doing is rolling a D20 to hit when it's their turn in initiative.

But that's the problem...D&D (at least in the traditional, pre-4E sense) has so many other elements, aspects, and scenarios that don't involve combat. And the power selection for the 4E classes are almost entirely combat related. Of the 17 powers gained during the course of a 30 level career, only 7 are "utility" powers; the rest are straight up attacks. And the majority of "utility" powers are still designed to be used in combat (conferring bonuses, healing party members, etc.), they're just not direct attacks. Even liking these class/build concepts, they'd need a lot of modification to make them less combat-focused.

Which should be a good time to discuss tiers. If I'm remembering correctly (this is many years ago) I already swiped the idea of tiers from 4E back when the book first came out...er, wait, now that I'm thinking about it, maybe not. Um, let me back up...the last version of D20 Star Wars (Saga) was in some ways a precursor to 4E. It was also a direct inspiration (and impetus) for me starting up a B/X version of Star Wars lo those many years ago. One of the things I came up with was the use of "tiers" as an added measure of character power/effectiveness...but I cannot for the life of me remember if I was influenced by the 4E books (something I browsed? something someone told me?) or if it was just a logical step based on my reinterpreting of Saga. Regardless, my tiers work quite differently from 4E (I use them to help compact the range of "levels," getting more bang for one's buck).

However, my point is that I LIKE the idea of "tiers." Now, do I like their implementation in 4E? Mmmm, maybe. They're a little hit-and-miss for me. The wizard and warlock paragon classes are perhaps the most interesting, having strong color/fluff associated with their choices. Many of the others...like the rogue's...simply reinforce class stereotypes, rather than offer truly interesting choices. Many of them (especially those in the PHB2) simply seem to be re-hashings of the 3rd Edition prestige classes, just shave to fit the round hole of 4E. Which is good for some of them (there were a lot of otherwise weird and "semi-useless" prestige class floated out in the days of D20 splat books, and here they become more pertinent), but I'm just not sure I'm totally down with the idea.

Actually, the concept of high level characters becoming paragons, gaining an exponential boost in power over low level heroes, and being required to further specialize IS a concept I can buy into. Again, it's mainly the execution that leaves me a little cold.

Similarly with the epic destinies tier. Here the constraints of the 4E system really start to show themselves...what, no conquerer/king destiny for the warrior class? No founding a religion for clerics? Fourth edition really is about kicking ass from encounter to encounter, not about role-playing or world immersion or whatnot, and the destinies appear designed to fulfill that goal up to 30th level. It's singular destination (immortality) is very reminiscent of the old BECMI quest for immortality, but with fewer (and less interesting) paths, and no real options besides such a quest.

Then again, maybe that's only logical (from an in-game point of view)...anyone who spent so much time getting to the top has got nowhere else to go but ascension, if they're still driven by ambition. At least 4E provides an endgame scenario of sorts. I can't remember if 3E's Epic Level Handbook provided such an outlet for characters...I think they just continued on ad infinitum. It's not bad, it's a nice option. I'd just like more options here.

Mmmm...this is getting long (again). I told you folks I had a lot of thoughts about 4E. And I still haven't written about the non-Vancian take on magic, spell rituals, and the combat system in general. That's all going to have to come in a follow-up post, I'm afraid.



  1. I love this series. A lot of what you're saying is exactly what I thought back in 2008/09 when I ran 4e for about 3 months. No doubt, the game LOOKS fun--The presentation, The classes and builds, each character and monster having a "role." Preparing game was easier than it was for 3.5e.

    But I ended up walking away because it just didn't "feel" like D&D. All those builds and supposed "options" ended up being too restrictive for my taste.

    It also didn't help that WotC a bunch of errata soon after 4e's release--basic things like the difficulty class by level had to be corrected. Which, in a way, leads back to one of your first questions: "What were they thinking?"

    1. @ Stelios:

      Glad you're liking it. Really, I am.
      : )

  2. I think you would be happy to know that a lot of the things you are mentioning that you like made their way into 5th edition, as well as the "archery" and "two-weapon fighting" options being opened up to fighters. Albeit, the game is much, much less tactical than 4e, though still probably a little bit more combat oriented than earlier editions.

    Dragonborn and Tieflings are still around, though significantly downplayed. Tieflings were actually rather interesting in Planescape and in 3rd edition, before the art-shift. They were more "normal people, maybe with horns or weird eyes" not "demon twi'leks."

  3. Always intrigued at the idea that for some the hard line in the sand was tieflings and dragonborn....mostly because I had introduced a custom race called draconians that were basically dragonborn to my own 1E games back in 1982ish, and I had tieflings as a staple of my games from around 1992 on when Planescape arrived. As a result, I've seen both as conceptually "D&D" to me for 33 and 22 years respectively now.

    1. @ Nicholas:

      As I remember, the draconians of DL were never a PC race, but an abomination caused by warping the unborn hatchlings of good dragon eggs with the darkest of magic...and as such, something to be stamped out without guilt.

      But, hey, Rifts lets you play a "young dragon" as a PC class, so why shouldn't D&D follow Palladium's lead for a change?
      ; )

  4. The focus on building a character went crazy off the deep end in 3.5 and 4E. People planning their characters out to 20th or 30th level from day one with assumptions about what equipment will be acquired, etc. Super lame IMO.

    They swung this back around to reasonable in 5E where the books aren't 80% indulgent candy store for the char op types.

    1. No. What's really lame is when the campaign falls apart after 3 or 4 sessions and they've spent all that time on the hunt for optimization.

      Oh, and the first session is the "character building/planning session."

      I've seen this sort of thing still happen with Pathfinder players.

      I haven't played 5e... yet, but I'm glad to see the game had gotten farther away from the character builder/optimization/power gamer model.