Monday, March 15, 2010

Cognitive Disson4nce

There’s been some neat back-and-forth between the Escapist and WotC. WotC interviewed ZakS who’s I Hit it With My Axe will be appearing on the Escapist sometime in the near future, while the Escapist got to interview Liz Schuh and Andy Collins from WotC about 4th edition.

There’s been some hay made from comments about how 4e is aimed at a younger generation. More specifically, there’s this comment from Mr. Collins about the shorter attention spans of everyone today.

Y'know, it's not even just the new gamers. I've been playing D&D for, well, let's say a lot of years, and my attention span isn't what it used to be either. It's not about youth, it's just about the culture we live in and what we're used to. I can't imagine how the 10-year-old version of me learned basic Dungeons and Dragons from the old blue book games that I got back in 1981. If you handed me that game today, there is no way I would have the patience to learn it. And I'm a pretty smart guy, I do this for a living. But it's just a different time.

Er, yeah, ok. So, because you don’t have the attention span for a single, 64 page booklet (the full length of Moldvay Basic, which included player info, monster list and DM’s section) you had to write a trio of tomes, none of which is shorter than 288 pages.

Ok, I’ll grant you, greater length can be used to create simplified play, but that’s not really what the quote was about, was it? He was saying that he didn’t have the attention span to learn to play the old boxed-set Basic D&Ds.

So what does 4e do to facilitate play right out of the box... er, I mean, book? Does it come with a complete starting town and adventure, like the Moldvay Basic did in B2: Keep on the Borderlands? Not really. It does have that starting village in the DMG, but it’s not complete, and we really don’t get a good adventure to begin with. Besides, how could poor Mr. Collins muster the concentration to read all that verbiage? Much better to have a solo, choose-your-own-adventure style mini-dungeon like in the Mentzer Basic book. We could even teach a whole new generation to hate Bargle.

Only, they don’t have that either.

Don’t get me wrong; they absolutely made the life of DMs much easier compared to 3.x. They transformed how combat works, reducing the number of rule look-ups required. Large combats involving lots of monsters are more fun and less work for everyone. But that’s only after you’ve slogged through these massive tomes of rulebooks. 4e is not for the attention-challenged.

It's still not for us grognards, however. We’re still playing D&D as a strategic, logistical challenge; the history of D&D in WotC’s hands has been a focused campaign of transforming it into what many people assume it is: a game of tactical combat. The games of Moldvay, Cook, and Mentzer handle that sort of play poorly. 4e is all about focusing play on tactical challenges and options. Basic D&D, in all its incarnations, didn’t need skill challenges or social combat, because players were expected to play that sort of stuff out, using their own imaginations and problem-solving skills in situations that challenged the players. 4e requires them because such things can prove frustrating and distract from the tactical combats.

In short, older, TSR-era D&D had quick, simple combat because it was just another strategic challenge, a drain on PC resources that kept the logistical puzzle from getting too simple. 4e minimizes the strategic challenges so they won’t distract from the core play of tactical combat.

(None of which is to say that you can’t roleplay in 4e. The daily powers and treasure system make maintaining verisimilitude nearly impossible, but nothing prevents certain sorts of roleplay, especially the off-the-wall wahoo stuff some grognards seem to prefer. 4e is far more toxic to Silver Age play than to Golden Age.)

From what I’ve heard so far, the new boxed sets appear to be more accurately aimed at the goal Mr. Collins was espousing: fast play right out of the box. If that was the goal of the first trio of core books, they were horribly hobbled by assumptions: that RPGers will only take a game seriously if it’s presented in monstrous coffee-table style tomes, that boxed sets are a financial sink-hole, that more (races, classes, powers, etc.) is more. If that’s the case, then the boxed sets are a second chance to sink the called shot.

Art by Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez and Jean Beraud.


Natalie said...

Thank you! I read that quote and went "Huh? But I quit playing 4e/3.5 because I don't have the patience for their combat or character gen," but you've explained why it's a ridiculous idea far better than I could have.

netherwerks said...

I wish I had the attention span to wade through all the spewage about various editions, but I don't. What you wrote above is one of the best and actually cogent explanations of WHY there is a deep-seated desire for the kind of experience that the old school versions of the game deliver and why anyone might prefer such an approach to the shiny, new and hyper-cool new edition. If you boil it all down to strategy versus tactics, it all makes sense without getting into the whole Good/Bad dichotomy that frankly is just plain silly and a waste of time. Every edition has somethng to offer, and as consumers (ack!), we vote with our dollars, our time, and our attention as to which iteration we support. People are entitled to play what they will, however they will.
Thanks for bringing a very insightful perspective to this otherwise unnecessarily contentious issue. I'd like to see the energy wwasred on edition-bashing invested is actually supporting the editions people actually preferred. The OSR might develop into a viable market then...perhaps...

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear! Nice post that cuts to heart of the current old school/"modern" divide.

Nope said...

The 4e rules set is focused on combat, specifically to deliver a cinematic experience but I really do not buy the argument that it detracts from the aspects that grognards claim the original/earlier editions excelled at.

"attention span" is sort of an idiot word for lack of complex thinking skills. The great thing about the powers system is that it encourages those without complex thinking skills, the "entertain me" culture, to start developing.

This is the difference between the target audiences of the old edition and 4e. To play the original game you needed to think for yourself and draw from the wells of your creativity to build an awesome shared experience. Current culture focuses on having those experiences packaged and delivered to the audience with the audience focused on being wowed rather than doing any real thinking. This is where 4e excels.

4e has found that sweet spot that makes the game accessible to those wanting the packaged experience, and those who do not want to or aren't comfortable with creating their own cool descriptions with just a single attack option, and gives them a set of premade options(which over time encourages the player to break and mold to their content and enables creative/complex/critical thinking) that delivers awesome imagery.

4e taps into an audience addicted to the delivered experience, but has all the right tools to lead guide gamers beyond the want for the prepackaged fluff and develop their need to start thinking for themselves.

Greg Christopher said...

Damn Mike, you are spot on.

I am going to write something on my blog tonight expanding on your thesis.

Greg Christopher said...

Just made the post. View it here:

DMWieg said...

I spend a significant portion of my day in the company of 17 and 18 year olds, and I don't believe it is a matter of the collective attention span of humans shrinking... give these kids something they're actually interested in and they can be glued to it for hours. The problem is motivation. Learning a game like red box D&D requires effort, whereas you don't really "learn" to play an MMO so much as you start and receive a hands-on tutorial. In that respect, a quick play box might be just what the doctor ordered. I find that my students would rather learn by doing than learn via lecture or book study. (Most of them, anyway...) Once you get them in to something, attention span is not a problem.

My gaming group did not like 4th edition, even the ones who wanted to like it. We all found that the fiddliness of it made the experience more cumbersome, not more streamlined.

My perception of 4e is that it appeals to those who like solid, tactical situations, or those who like lots of "knobs and dials" with their gaming experience. For those of us who like a character who can fit on half a sheet of notebook paper, this will never be appealing, and with each "sequel" to the PHB that hits the shelves, it becomes less so.

Pulp Herb said...

None of which is to say that you can’t roleplay in 4e. The daily powers and treasure system make maintaining verisimilitude nearly impossible, but nothing prevents certain sorts of roleplay, especially the off-the-wall wahoo stuff some grognards seem to prefer. 4e is far more toxic to Silver Age play than to Golden Age.

After I played 4e for the first time last week the first thought I had was "this is what I wanted from Heroquest, especially back when it was announced in the late 70s"

I enjoyed it more than 3e I can say that...enough I'm thinking about trying to run it. That said, I think you've hit dead on in how it is both as divorced from the old school as 3rd and yet a potential throwback.

Nope said...

By silver age and golden age, is that a reference to comic books?

When I think golden age, I think escapism, metaphors, and action.

Silver age makes me think a little more about idealism, continuity, and adventure

The modern age to me is all about characterization, tragedy, and overly exaggerated realism.

Not exactly sure how it fits into rpgs though...

Are there rpg ages too? I've only been game mastering for a year or two so I have no idea.

Anonymous said...

I said this elsewhere, to a grognard reply to that very quote and I'll say it again... I think that it's a bit of not seeing the message for the words.

It's not a matter of objective simpleness, or size of the books. It's a matter of grabbing attentions. I have a bunch of games that sit on my selves unlearned, not because they are hard but because I just can't seem to wrap my attention around in (Savage worlds, I'm looking at you).

In a total vacuum, yeah 0e would be easier to digest than 4e. But its not in a vacuum at this point. I started playing with the old red box... and personally I can say I don't understand 0e. Not the rules, but the playing of it. I don't "Get" it. And I think that is more what he is talking about.

trollsmyth said...

Mike(aka kaeosdad): Sorry, I'm actually referring to a dating scheme developed by James "Grognardia" Maliszewski that fits the styles of play and interest I see lots of grognards shaking out into. I think it's a bit weak once you get into the Bronze Age and later, but...

In this case, Golden Age play is heavily influenced by the pulp fiction of writers like Vance, Howard, Moorcock and the like, where the line between sci-fi and fantasy is blurry at best, if not missing entirely, and wahoo-gonzo fun is the order of the day. D&D is a game best played with an eagle's-eye view, you don't worry too much about things "making sense" beyond their adherence to the (rather sketchy and often vague) rules and structuring a narrative isn't even considered; narrative is what happens when you're bragging about your exploits later.

In the Silver Age, there's a much stronger emphasis on internal coherency in the game. Gygaxian Naturalism (another term coined at Grognardia) is pushed to the fore; monsters live in (oftentimes rival) communities, dungeons include latrines, and funhouse dungeons need an explanation other than "hey, it sounded like a good idea while I was scribbling down ideas over my lunch break." You're far more likely to play with a PC's-eye view of events and verisimilitude becomes far more important.

4e can work really well with Golden Age styled play because it has only a tenious grasp on its own reality; rules for using powers and dispensing treasure are more about what's fun and serviceable than any sort of internal coherency. Grognards, however, will still decry that emphasis on challenging characters rather than players, and shift of focus from strategic concerns to tactical.

3e, by contrast, should have been the ultimate expression of Silver Age "decadence," with it's emphasis on realism, internal coherency, and the narrative adventure paths it gave rise to. Unfortunately, it's such an unwieldy beast in many ways and pushes so much of the work on the DM (including insuring that the challenges are appropriate for the PCs, something we were much more flexible about way back when) that again, grognards are going to balk at adopting it.

All: Thanks for the great comments on this one. I'm really happy to see how folks have taken and run with it. :D Unfortunately, I'm off in the hinterlands helping my family clear some dead mesquite on El Rancho Alpaca, but I should be back home and with full access to the 'net by this evening.