Monday, January 19, 2009

Trollsmyth Plays 4e

Surely this is one of the signs of an an impending apocalypse, no?

Seriously, I had fun. The occasion was the monthly meet of The Austin Dungeon & Dragons Meetup Group. Nobody else volunteered to run anything, so a friendly gent named Christian volunteered to run a short game using 2nd level characters. Many of us didn't come with characters in hand, and a few of us had no practical experience playing 4e, so the pregens he had were a great help.

Now, I can't call this an adventure. We played for roughly five hours and that was enough time to almost finish two combats. Keep in mind, however, that some of us were very new to the game, and there were nine (!!!) players that poor Christian had to run a game for. So it's certainly not his fault things moved so slowly. I can understand why they say 4e is optimized for parties of five to six. Luckily, I got to sit next to a very knowledgeable and friendly gent who was glad to share with me the tricks of getting the most from my eladrin ranger.

And I'm extremely thankful for his help, because otherwise, I was utterly lost. This was not D&D as I've known it. Keep in mind, this was just a bit of combat versus kobolds and then dragons. We really didn't have time for an adventure per se. Just some fights. So I'm certain that colored my experience.

That said, let me give you an example. At one point, my ranger was claw-claw-gored by a very young blue dragon. This took me to -12 hit points, but that's not enough to kill you in 4e. Thanks to the quick help of a cleric, I was back up to +13 hit points next round. If I'd grabbed my bow and jumped to my feet, I couldn't shoot arrows because I was face-to-face still with the monster. However, I could use one of my At-Will powers, Nimble Strike, to shift a square away from the dragon before attacking with my bow. Shifting was important, because if I'd just moved, I would have incurred an attack-of-opportunity. However, the guy helping me figured out that if, instead of standing up and moving, I just used my eladrin teleport power to bampf myself upright and five squares away, I would be able to invoke my Twin Strike power, allowing me to attack twice instead of just once that round.

I've had conversations about stuff like this all the time when playing a wargame. My brief flirtation with Warhammer 40k was chock full of this sort of thing. But I can't remember ever discussing things like this when playing D&D before. The emphasis in 4e is clearly on the G of RPG. I'm not sure that getting to play through a skill challenge would have changed this impression, because those seem to be a lot of the same thing: looking to the rules of the game, rather than the setting and situation, as both a source for challenges as well as the means for overcoming them.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying this is bad or wrong or even badwrong fun. It's just not what I'm thinking about when I'm looking to play D&D. A lot of this stems, I'm sure, from starting the game with Moldvay's Basic. The dice were evil in that game. Every time you rolled for initiative, chances were very, very good that a PC was going to die. That's just the way the game was built back then. And we, knowing that, did everything we could to avoid rolling the dice. The mechanics were what we turned to in those odd moments when they were needed. They were not the bulk of play, even when we were in a dungeon. And when we did get into combat, it was only after lengthy preparations to make sure all the advantages were with us. We didn't roll dice or use the rules to set up our trip-wires, dig our pits, or block doorways with chairs or tables or various dungeon detritus. So this straight-up, charge in with swords swinging and arrows flying was bizarre enough for me without wondering how many standard or move actions my attack would use.

Would I play again? Yep, I had fun. The group was great too, lots of friendly folks, ready to lend a hand or answer a question. (And I understand that not everyone in the group is all about 4e, and that older versions are also played from time-to-time.) But 4e isn't likely to become my go-to game for fantasy RPGs. It's just doesn't mesh with my preferences. I'm not surprised, either.

I also ran into a very old friend who had almost as much influence on how I game today as Ed Greenwood. He's running 3.5e and just had an opening appear in his group. I'm very curious to see how that game compares to 4e, since I gave up on 3e back before 3.5 was released.


Robert said...

Yeah. I used to think I wanted the combat systems in RPGs to be more like a skirmish wargame. 3e taught me different by actually giving it to me, and 4e continues in 3e footsteps in that matter.

I should try to make it to the meetup sometime.

Brendan Falconer said...

4th Ed. falls short for me in a few ways, but the main one is simply rationalization... I couldn't fathom how to view realistically a PC in it. Thankfully we've found a campaign style well-removed from my usual medieval fantasy, which suits the 4th Ed. attitude moreso, and we're likely to have more fun with that.

But yes, agreed, it is NOT the D&D you know for one reason or another... Whether it'll be an enduring version or merely an odd experimental blip remains to be seen.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I am a big fan of the minions in 4e. They force you to act, but you don't have to go toe-to-toe for long. Even ogres have minions with, like 1hp, which seems silly, but you still have to hit them, and if they hit you...

I really like 4e. The biggest change is the combat, so if you play a combat heavy game, it is fun, if you play a character driven game, they don't the rules don't get in the way.

trollsmyth said...

Even ogres have minions with, like 1hp, which seems silly, but you still have to hit them, and if they hit you...

Ogre minions are a good example of both the glory and the horror of 4e. On the one hand, the designers fully embraced how character advancement changes the game. Monsters have been boiled down to their very raw essence when it comes to presenting tactical challenges to the PCs. At low levels, an ogre is a serious challenge, and a foe worth boasting about around the mead hall. At higher levels, an ogre is barely a speed-bump with delusions of adequacy. 4e embraces that both sorts of ogres have a place in D&D, and crafts each for its specific role.

Unfortunately, if you want to do anything other than use ogres as part of a tactical challenge, you're on your own. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, except that your PCs have all these wonderful ogre-slaying tools. And when all you have is a bag of very cool, shiny hammers...

Another aspect of 4e that I find fascinating is how it creates expectations. It's easy for players to assume what sorts of challenges they will face, how those are best handled, and what rewards they ought to receive for overcoming them. How can the clever DM use those expectations to craft a campaign?

- Brian

Dwayanu said...

I think a key to enjoying 4E is just to accept it for what it is on its own terms (which still might not be one's cup of tea). YMMV, but I don't even think of it as an RPG much less as "Dungeons & Dragons"; I just leave all that baggage at the station and hop on the train.

Experience can speed play considerably, but still the time taken by almost any combat is one of the difficulties I find in considering it as a candidate for anything much more than a set-piece wargame.

I loathe "skill challenges," which unless designed with tremendous care fall apart even on purely game-oriented terms. You don't know the true meaning of "roll playing" until you've been yoked into a LONG example of the strategy-less exercise.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I've never known a DM who goes by the book rewards-wise. When I played 1st edition, my DM couldn't have told you what Treasure Types meant [sarcasm] because it was irrelevant to him. 2nd ed. too. When we moved to third, my DM wanted us to follow the wizard rules for buying spells, but refused to give us treasure or let us get to a town.

4e definitely has its faults, but all editions do. In first edition, if you wanted a hobgoblin to be tougher, you just counted him as a gnoll(?), or you'd throw a bugbear in with the goblins to make a bad assed goblin.

I think it would be poor campaign creation to put a lone ogre minion anywhere. An ogre is a big deal for low-levels to beat. Of course, while a 1st level fighter only has to do 1hp to an ogre minion, he still has to hit him, and the ogre minion can take out a 1st level fighter pretty quickly. Still, minions are for like-type or better monster groups. You shouldn't get a minion unless a regular of the same creature is present.

Joseph said...

That about sums up my experience with 4E. It's like playing ASL* with treasure and XP.

* Advanced Squad Leader, you poor benighted post-wargamers...

Spike Page said...

Bear in mind I have no firsthand experience playing 4e, but I have looked at plenty of reviews online by others who have played. Some have enjoyed the experience. Others have not, but several things have been mentioned by people from both groups that lead me to believe 4e is not my style of gaming, the main one being the serious lack of danger that PCs face.

You said it yourself, one round you were -12 round a cleric has you on your feet and back in the fight.

Yes, this is the exact opposite of the version I am playing in which the words "Roll initiative" from the DM are like a death-knell, which probably does not appeal very much to people who enjoy combat.

It seems to me that 4e should appeal to people who are coming into role-playing via the Warhammer or WoW gateway. That does not make it right or wrong or better or worse. It just makes it "not for me".

Jack Badelaire said...

Man, even 40K isn't that complicated.

Actually, 5th edition 40K does a pretty good job of standardizing a lot of the special rules/powers so that it's not so head-scratchingly difficult to figure out what to do.

It is a little boring to see D&D turned into little more than a PnP version of World of Warcraft. Sadly, it was D&D that gave birth to CRPGs like WoW or Ultima Online or Everquest, so in a way, it's the serpent eating its own tail.

Spike Page said...

Somehow I suspect an accurate analogy would be what an Atari 2600 player feels like the first time he picks up a PS2 controller.

"Which button do I push if all I wanna do is hit the monster in the face?"

Dwayanu said...

I had a character who would have been dead at -12, but was reduced only to -11. Also, most healing requires expenditure of a healing surge; surges are in a sense the closest equivalent to old-style hit points.

That encounter was almost a TPK. When the clerics (among others) are down, there's just one healing potion, everyone has spent his second wind, and the damned Cold Zombies or whatever can immobilize you and then do 15 HP per round just by standing there ...

The other cleric was resuscitated, and cut loose with the same Daily Power that had failed me earlier. I think the lives of several of us hinged on that one roll. The TPK potential was really due the unwillingness of anyone to run away; apparently, 4E players don't have a reverse gear!

In another session, we were lucky to have just one KIA from reckless "friendly fire" of (IIRC) an Acid Arrow.

So, it can be quite dangerous (especially with "ongoing" damage). Most often, though, the risk factor is pretty much confined to a single encounter. Lack of access to surges is more likely than running out of them.

Anonymous said...

In looking over various articles the thing that stands out is the old school versions' near certain death nature for PCs.

4e has seen a huge improvement in standardized mechanics, but it's what you do with it that determines whether its a wargame or a real old school RPG.

It seems to me that people are implying these extremely articulated mechanics as changing the game's inherent nature from a role playing game into a tactical game. I'm not exactly clear on how it does that.

To think outside the box, you have to have a box first. If you want a group of PCs to do everything possible to avoid getting into a fight, then scale the number of enemies and their toughness per encounter in a campaign to reflect that.

Perhaps that is a trap door that could see them immediately out of the fight and taking half a day's worth of time out of a dungeon crawl, and depending on when they get to a certain stage at a certain time determines whether the dungeon gets easier, stays as it was, or gets harder.

It seems like dynamic approaches lead to more role play. All 4e is really is a framework. It doesn't imply limitations, or not making a campaign that runs similarly to something old school "the extremely low survivability of combat encounters, especially for "low level" characters, serves to encourage players to find ways to resolve encounters without resorting to combat."

"when you search a room for loot in OD&D, you tell the DM what you're doing and how you're looking around ("I poke at the walls with the tip of my sword / I stir through the debris with my staff / I'm tapping the floorboards listening for a secret compartment"), while in other, more modern systems, you make an Observation or Search or Perception skill check."

How was this handled in older versions? It seems to me that the mechanics of perception checks and such are enhancements, because not every person is going to be as observational. Its a way of defining a PC's psychological and physiological attributes without having someone just decide that you win or lose. It streamlines and speeds up such processes, as well as keeping a measure of reliability.

You wouldn't want your burly 18 fighter to be able to lift some heavy stone out of the way (yes, this can still be done in 4e to reach areas, complete challenges), then next time, someone decides they cant lift a chair.

The mechanics there are not replacements for role playing, they are supplements to streamline role playing. Imagination makes the role play, not a set of mechanical rules.

Anonymous said...

3 save roll chances for death at -12 are for a reason.

If its a breeze and easy for players to survive, the DM obviously made the encounter too weak. THat's nothing to do with 4e inherently being good or bad, simply a DM going by the old 1 or 2 ogres mindset, instead of actually scaling an encounter to be as tough in 4e as it would be for characters in 2 or 3.

Robert said...

It seems to me that people are implying these extremely articulated mechanics as changing the game's inherent nature from a role playing game into a tactical game. I'm not exactly clear on how it does that.

IMHO, it doesn’t.

It’s not black and white. You can role-play while playing Advanced Squad Leader. You can play classic D&D like a board/war-game.

But, I think there is a reason why men like Gary Gygax and Marc Miller—published wargame designers who certainly had the chops—didn’t include extremely articulated mechanics in their first role-playing games.

(And yes, oD&D referred to Chainmail, but we know now that Arneson abandoned Chainmail for the Blackmoor campaign early on, and Gary never used Chainmail in the Greyhawk campaign. Likewise, wargames compatible with Traveller were later published, but they weren’t the default.)

For me...for me...for me...the Platonic idea of role-playing games has simple, sketchy guidelines—if it has rules at all. The farther I get from that, the more I’m playing a role-playing game in spite of the rules.

Anonymous said...

platonic... non physical, free from desire.