Sunday, April 13, 2008

Playing 4e at Dragon's Lair

One of the joys of living in central Texas is Dragon's Lair, a very expertly run comics and gaming shop. Apparently, this afternoon, there was a 4e demo run at the Austin location. I wasn't there, but smathis of was. And he had a lot to say about it. Here's just a taste:

I also learned:
  • The new Monster write-ups are a lot easier to deal with. Though the printouts looked to be in, like, 7pt font, Brian was able to manage all the opponents in the combats well with minimal hassle over the resource management. I used to run varied encounters with multiple opponents when I ran 3e. Watching Brian closely, I can say that it looked no more difficult in 4e than 3e. Maybe even a little easier.
  • Conditions are a bear to keep up with. The onus will fall on either the player or the DM. In our game, it was the player. But someone has to keep on top of them because they can get a little unwieldy. Maybe the "Conditions Tracker" will be 4e's version of 1e's guy mapping with the graph paper?
  • The combats lasted longer in rounds but took about as long as I remember 3e combats taking.
  • First level is more fun than it's ever been in any edition of D&D. It was quite clear to me that our PCs were buffer than any other edition's 1st level PC.
  • But it was also clear that the beasties were buffer too. The city guards downed a member of the party in the first encounter. That pretty well underlined how tough our opponents could be. I mean, they were the city guard.

(As an aside, I find this very amusing. Back in my 1st edition AD&D days, my friends and I were also big fans of the first five Ultima games. The city and castle guards on those games were notoriously tough hombres, and nearly impossible to kill. Even when you got to high level, trying to kill them took forever! So saying something was "Ultima guard tough" meant it was really, really tough. The city and palace guards in our games were commonly mid to high-level warriors, clerics, and magic-users, too. Anyway, back to smathis...)

  • Monsters felt a lot different in 4e. Fighting the city guard was very different than fighting Hobgoblins and that was very different than fighting a Shadar-Kai. It was nice that the monsters actually fought with different inherent strategies, making them each feel unique.
  • PCs were all pretty useful and interesting. I don't think there was any PC that was just wasting space. I had perhaps the most sub-optimal PC in the bunch. I mean, my size ganked most of my Paladin abilities. My short sword had all my big Paladin smite stuff doing 8-9 points max damage (Short Sword still == 1d6). So I could really feel my race kind of working against my class in a way. Still, I had fun with him -- even though I would neveh, eveh, eveh, EVAH play this character in a real game. I always had something interesting to do (even when it only did 3 pts of damage) and I felt like I contributed a good deal.
  • 4e seemed to emphasize teamwork to me more than 3e. Having the classes built towards certain roles in combat, we played off each other more than most D&D groups I've been with. In previous editions, teamwork amounted to the Cleric buffing the Fighter, the Wizard laying back and somebody distracting the monsters while the Rogue sneak attacked. In this game, we had players organizing their attacks -- like the Ranger and the Warlock playing off each other's abilities to lay the smack down on opponents. And everyone had a value in combat. As a result, no one was playing Chaotic Stupid. It felt pretty obvious that if we turned on each other, that we'd get seriously screwed down the road. I don't know if this was a design goal but it's definitely something I picked up on.
  • I find playing on a grid really tedious -- more of a reminder than an actual learning. Give me GM fiat anyday.

On that note about grids, he says 4th edition might actually be easer to play without a grid than 3rd edition was. He also points to this comment by one of the designers of 4th edition on this topic.

What I find most interesting, however, is his take on skill use, and how Forge-y is. There seem to be a lot of little nods to indie game design in 4th edition. Frankly, I'm rather glad that James Maliszewski hasn't read most of the posts smathis links to, especially this one or this one. If he had read them, I'm sure we would have heard his head exploding all they way south of the Guadalupe River. ;D

Read 'em if you want to see just how far from traditional D&D the new designers' sensibilities lie. Kinda eye-opening, and does explain a lot about what we're looking at when we read about 4th edition. For some folks, I imagine this will be the dawning of a new love with the grand old classic. For others, they won't recognize the classic for all its new clothes and odd behavior.


James Maliszewski said...

Funny thing is I actually like the idea Mearls has about swiping from RISUS, as it's basically just another incarnation of what we now call Aspect rules and I intend to use them in pulp fantasy D&D. I'd have been very happy if 4e had done this, but it doesn't look like it has, instead opting for discrete kewl powerz for every class and race that nevertheless balance against one another and scale. That's the start of my beefs with 4e: the elimination of the "rough edges" that require players, not characters, to make smart decisions and think strategically. Get rid of those and it's all just a glorified board game.

trollsmyth said...

I'm surprised, but very happy to hear this. It sounds like pulp fantasy D&D is far closer to what I consider ideal than what I was thinking.

I've mentioned elsewhere that we used to assign backgrounds to our old D&D characters, just a one-word previous "profession" the character had before running off to become a "hero". We based a lot of skill and knowledge off that sort of thing, and used a roll-under-stat-on-a-d20 if we ever thought dice needed to be rolled. Which wasn't that often. Putting first level Moldvay-style characters through the Caves of Chaos makes you a bit dice-a-phobic. ;)