Saturday, September 25, 2010

4e Schadenfreude

Old conventional wisdom: old school games are nothing but a string of combats in rooms just large enough to host a fight in.  Newer games have skills and social mechanics that allow for more role playing and less tactical-minis play.

New conventional wisdom: 4e adventures are strings of combats in featureless rooms just large enough to host a fight.  Meanwhile, Raggi's Tower of the Stargazer barely has any combat in it at all, but is thick with mood and atmosphere.

There's a lot of interesting thinking and tinkering going on in regards to 4e these days, brought on, I suspect, in part through the release of the Essentials line. As some have pointed out, a lot of the issues may be due to what the game rewards, specifically combat. EXP are not everything, however. There's the relationship between resting and recharging powers which is central to the mechanics of 4e. The game has a number of systems that interact in complex ways which give rise to all kinds of unintended play styles.

I'll grant you, I saw a bit of this resting-in-the-dungeon-after-every-second-or-third-encounter stuff in the 2e games I played in college, so these issues aren't new. I do think there's a cautionary tale in there for those of us who like to kit-bash various incarnations of D&D into our own games. The urge towards modeling everything and building greater complexity brings with it the greater chance of really skewing things in weird directions. It's why I'm not a huge fan of adding lots of new classes to the game (even though I can't seem to stop doing it myself ;p ).

Common sense and a few good rules of thumb seem to work pretty well. Honestly, the game I'm playing is probably a lot more complex than I need; there are huge swaths of rules in Labyrinth Lord I don't really use. This is why I keep harping on understanding what the rules do, and how they aid or inhibit getting what you want out of a game. Some of the poking at 4e is exactly the sort of thing I do with Moldvay/Cook D&D: tweaks to optimize the game for the way we play. In other cases, I can't help but think they'd be having more fun with a different game. In either case, there's a lot to learn, and it's always fascinating to see what folks who are working from a completely different set of principles and goals do with a hobby I spend so much time poking at myself.

10 comments:

Roger the GS said...

With all charity to 4e I found myself wondering, "if both 4e and old school systems find themselves tarred with the hack-n-slash brush, perhaps 4e GMs can likewise add vitamin supplements of player-skill challenges to their combat-heavy game?"

That depends, of course, on how much time is left in the session after running all those combats. But the funny thing is, player skill is one answer to the complaint that 4e offers little in the way of non-combat effects for characters...

migellito said...

I went over and read quite a few of the comments, and to be totally honest I felt like I was reading about a separate but related hobby. I think a lot of those guys would be a lot happier just playing Warhammer or some other point-buy battlefield game. I like those games too, but it's a different type of game, and I think running an rpg with wargame sensibilities is just asking for headaches.

Telecanter said...

Yeah, I appreciate Chatty's creative approach to the problem, and the things he's proposing seem like they would make for more interesting 4e games.

But it seems like an awful lot of work to try and re-route the system. Is the only reason they wouldn't play something like LL, because 4e is D&D these days and that's what you have to play?

trollsmyth said...

Roger: True, but then you're ignoring the skill challenges from the core books. Granted, that sounds like a great idea to me, but...

migellito: ...yeah, when I get excited about playing 4e, it's nearly exactly the same sort of thrill I get from building WH40k armies in my head. "Ooo, ooo, I can build a character/army based around..." My current favorite never-to-really-be-used idea is a moody eladrin warlord with a lot of rituals in his back pocket. Which is why...

Telecanter: ... I think that's not the only reason they won't play LL. Granted, I think Chatty wants to stay current with WotC's game so he has a better commercial base for his writing, podcasting, and blogging, but beyond that, I get the feeling his players really prefer what 4e does.

Red Jack said...

I think I'm sortof confused...

Mr. Schwalb's contention seems to be that 4e isn't dungeon crawly enough, or at least the not "right" kind of dungeon crawly. He looks for a solution outside the system (which is a beautiful variant, to be fair) but ignores several similar ones already available within the system. I don't have problems with looking outside the system, but most fo the reasons he seem to do so are based on gripes not with the system itself, but with the fact that he's constrained by pagecount in his publications--something I have never had to deal with under any system.

Chatty's complaint doesn't seem to be with the system, but more with the fact that the people he plays with aren't as adventurous as he likes.

Gwydion's proposal makes sense if he is (for whatever reason) not awarding XP for anything but combat. I'm not sure why people do this, but it's something I've watched happen in every edition of D&D from ODD on, and almost every other system I've played unless the system absolutely refused to specify any way to award combat based XP.

Resting after every encounter is something that likewise has carried across every version of D&D back to ODD with it's daily abilities. The groups I've been playing with have a tendency to be more eager to charge towards the next encounter or crest the next hill while playing 4e than while running 3.5 or Pathfinder.

I've never understood why some systems get painted as Hack n' Slash over others... The story in Tower of the Stargazer could be as easily told in any edition of any fantasy game I'm familiar with--the review linked actually goes so far as to state this. Hack and slash comes from the players, not the game.

@Roger- Introducing player skill-related mechanics is a wonderful thing that's almost always been outside the rules in D&D, but it's something I've always considered as an unwritten law. On the other hand the last few years have seen a lot of new players in 4e, a slower growth of 3.5/Pathfinder, and a giant schism between the two--which leads to fewer of the new players picking up on "tradition" because they've been told the game they're playing is "wrong" and they deserve "charity" for being stupid enough to play it. It seems odd to expect someone to pick up on your behaviors when the community at large has spent two plus years displaying some of the worst behavior I've seen in 25 years with the hobby.

@migellito- I have to say, you made me smile. I got a little twinge of nostalgia there! There's a couple of games you might want to check out. The first one would be Chainmail, one of the first "RPGs with wargame sensibilities." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chainmail_(game) It's pretty dated, but it's not too bad for what it is, and revolutionary for its time. It spawned a couple other games, and one is on its 5th iteration, and relatively popular in a lot of circles.

Lord Gwydion said...

@Red Jack--I'm not awarding XP only for combat, but because of the infrequent nature of my games, I had been awarding more XP for combat than normal--using the OD&D idea of 100xp per hit die of the opponent, rather than the lower value system used from Greyhawk through AD&D and Holmes/BX/BECMI/RC D&D.

Personally, I'm not even sure if I would go with my own idea in Classic D&D, but it would definitely serve to reinforce a different play style if I ever ran d20 based D&D again.

Red Jack said...

That's not a bad idea Gwydion. Are you running a more sand-boxy sort of game, or leaning more towards story?

My players seem to be kindof stymied by the multitude of choices a sandbox provides (they try to go every direction at once, and frequently wind up getting nowhere) leaving me to use a more guided approach--the game isn't on rails, but there's a strong current of story. As a result, I've pretty much tossed XP out the window completely.

The game's divided up into chapters (which are originally designed with the stated goal of 10 'encounter equivalent' events) and when they've accomplished whatever they feel they need to accomplish, then I hand them another level. It's different from the RAW in theory but the result is nearly identical--the bookkeeping of XP just shifts from the players to me.

I think the last time I used a "cash for XP" type of system it was back in the early days of Shadowrun 3e. I had to hand out exorbitant amounts of cash to keep things closer, but the fact that the system itself didn't have levels or classes and Karma was its own sort of currency made the transition a little less... immersion breaking.

Roger the GS said...

Actually, I really like Keith Baker's advice (in TS' link) for working the 4e system. Some stronger stuff than just "+2 for the right idea" is definitely needed. That's an OK rule in combat, but noncombat situations should have more of a puzzles and problems feel, where the right approach really does make all the difference - or more than 10% anyway.

I'm not sure what to say or do about evangelizing player-skill to 4E players, becaue I don't really know anyone who plays 4E. I agree it's a worthy goal and apologize for my condescension. I try not to get caught up in edition wars but sometimes my sympathies show.

Probably the best way forward would be for someone strongly conversation with 4e system but sympathetic to old school problem solving to offer a rework of the skill challenge system. Ideally that person would be Mike Mearls...

Lord Gwydion said...

I had a sandbox with plenty of plot-hooks that could lead to story, or so I thought. A couple players were into it, but one was into character immersion and another claimed to be into story immersion, but I found him really more interested in build mechanics in practice. So things didn't quite work.

Since one of the guys who was into it left the country, we've put gaming on hold for a while. One of the other guys is thinking of picking up as GM, which may be a good thing. I'm just planning for my next turn as a DM/GM.

trollsmyth said...

Lord Gwydion: Is it your experience that character-immersion players are a bad match for story-immersion players? Why is that?