Thursday, August 28, 2008

Living with 4e

Scott Schimmel of "A Butterfly Dreaming" has been playing 4e for two months now, and has some interesting things to say about it.

First, yes, the organization of the PHB is lacking:

The problems arise when I need to find a specific piece of information, such as the range of a power. Sure, I know it’s in the chapter on classes… but there’s nothing for it except to page through the listing of that class’s powers. There’s no index or table of contents that points to powers by name. The powers are broken down by level, but I might not know the level off the top of my head.

In other cases, I might need to flip through several sections to find where a rule is located. Learning what [W] means, for example, requires following text through at least three pages in different chapters of the book. Some rules are only referred to once — the almost offhanded remark about the ability to change the fluff of a power, for one, is easy to overlook on a casual read through.

Mr. Schimmel of course mentions Propagandroids improved index. Never leave the Nentir Vale without it.

And speaking of the Nentir Vale, Scott's got nothing but praise for the DMG:

Admittedly, it’s pretty light on the crunchy bits. Most of those are subsumed into the PHB now, and all of the monsters are in the MM. It does, however, show you how to easily build encounters, modify monsters, award treasure and experience, and use traps and interesting terrain. The chapter about Fallcrest and the Nentir Vale also provides a starting location suitable to be dropped into many campaigns, fleshed out enough to be useful with little preparation, left undefined enough to be modified to suit the GM’s needs, and strewn with dozens of potential plot hooks.

An experienced GM won’t really need this book. But the above bits are useful enough that he might want them anyway. For newer GMs, this is an incredible introduction to the other side of the screen.

I've been less effusive in my praise, but I've never tried to use the book, and that might make all the difference. I suspect most of my disagreements would arise from differing expectations.

He's also pretty happy with the MM, though I really can't share his enthusiasm there. The monsters just rub me the wrong way: how they're laid out, how they've been reimagined, how they operate in the game. Still, if you're playing 4e, I imagine the book is very well set up to give you what you need.

Finally, if you want some thoughts on how the game actually plays, Odyssey continues to be our canary in the mineshaft there:

It had the usual near-death moments, which I'm beginning to think are an artifact of the way healing works rather than a sign of actual peril. The damage/healing system, to put it most simply, is subject to negative feedback. There are, of course, monsters that are more dangerous against bloodied foes. But those effects are dwarfed by the basic dynamic of the PCs healing abilities: the more wounded they are, the easier they are to heal.

Mostly it comes down to the death and dying rules. There are a couple of powers I know of that exacerbate the effect, but they're not what drives it. Sooner or later, the death and dying rules kick in whenever a PC takes damage. And they don't just make it impossible to die within less than 3 rounds after hitting zero, giving their friends plenty of time to get them back on their feet with a simple skill check. They also guarantee that when the character does get back into the fight, they do so with a quarter of their starting hit points -- any healing on a dying character resets them to zero before hit points get added, and that basic heal check option gives them a free use of a healing surge.

I can't say I'm too surprised by this. This is the same thing we were wondering about when the rules were first revealed. The many TPKs of the demo games silenced that for a while, but those now appear to have been the product of pitting the heroes against foes far beyond their weight class. As Odyssey asks, 'Is there an intermediate setting in a 4e fight, between "artificial danger" and "certain doom?"' Frankly, this isn't just a problem for 4e, as I've encountered it in high-level 2e play as well. The difference is, in 2e, you can use layered defenses to slowly wear the PCs down. That doesn't work nearly so well in 4e.


Oddysey said...

If I could convince my players to go along with it, I'd like to find out how many encounters a well-run 4e team can handle before they all die, and what the attrition curve looks like in that exercise. I suspect it's "you're fine until you're dead," and everyone goes down at once when they reach their limit. But I'd want to see.

Probably won't happen for a while; next semester I'll be too busy running (Mongoose) Traveller, and I've sworn off running 4e for my home group.

Scott said...

Glad you found it interesting. I'm happy to say that 4e continues to be fun to play for my group, so it's not just the "new" factor at work. On the other hand, those who don't like the style of play likely won't find it any more appealing at higher levels... it's stayed remarkably consistent so far, unlike previous editions, where the game became radically different some time between level 5 and level 11.

@Oddysey: It depends on the team composition; as long as there's at least one leader and at least one defender, though, you're good for at least three or four encounters in a row (assuming a short rest between each one). I've had my group push through seven, although I was using my action cache mechanic, which skewed things in their favor.