Friday, February 21, 2014

The Vilification of 4e: Setting Things Straight

So, I've mentioned before that I co-host a bi-weekly podcast called Unabashed Gaming. This essentially gives me a soapbox to yell from every 14 days, and I seem to yell an awful lot about how much I really dislike D&D 4th Edition, 4e for short. The amusing part of all this is that I started gaming with 4th Edition about six years ago, so nostalgia plays a part of what I remember about the game.
Unfortunately, that nostalgia is a double-edged sword, because when I compare my gaming today with my gaming of yesteryears, I wonder what exactly I liked about the game. Sometimes I remember, sometimes I don't.
Here are a few preconceptions/critiques of 4th Edition, and my thoughts on them.

1. It's Basically World of Warcraft
Short response: Eh, sort of.
(Fine, I'll give a ) Longer response: In essence, it's understandable that WotC would want to make their game similar to WoW or Wargaming. As a company interested in making money, they were following industry trends, which showed a massive market for MMO players. So, fiscally, it makes sense that 4th Edition would ape some of their mechanics to try and bribe some new players into the fold. However, as evidenced by the rapidly approaching release date of D&D Next, we should probably realize that WotC either didn't get the conversions they were hoping for, didn't please existing fans enough, or both. Probably both.
How is 4e like World of Warcraft? Part of it is likely the art style, now very comic/anime-esque- Interjection here, I'm a fan of this art style, so I don't believe this is a negative aspect of 4e- part of it is the introduction of the Powers system, which I'll get to in a minute. But other pieces of the game system bring out that aspect of WoW/MMOs as well.
The monster design, for one. D&D 4e breaks down monsters into categories, Artillery, Controller, Brute, and Soldier. I may be missing one or two, but basically that's what you've got to work with as a DM. Two 'plinky' creature types and two 'stabby' creature types. These are slightly varied by Minions and Solos, and that other creature type which is basically half a Solo. Elites.
However, Minions, Elites, and Solos still fall under the ACBS categories, so there's still a 50% chance that one will stab you versus shooting you. This tends to create combat encounters that feel less like actual roleplaying and more like moving pieces on a board or clicking something until it dies. The monster combat 'roles' basically generate a static AI for the DM to run, a set of triggers where trigger A leads to action B, or stimuli C leads to power D. There's an interesting rant on Caffeinated Symposium regarding 3.5 vs 4e, and despite not being too much into TL/DR, the author makes a point about running Kobold encounters, where in prior versions of D&D they were designed to be like guerilla forces, setting traps and using environmental hazards to combat players. However, using just the base Monster Manual rules for Kobolds in 4e, they basically turn into low-level cannon fodder, with certain 'buffed' variations offering a challenge to your beatstick characters. There's slight mention of them setting traps and ambushes, but no hints on how a Kobold trap might function or look; rather, the MM1 spends the rest of its time talking about the combat mechanics of this very non-combat-oriented monster race.
The elimination, or sidelining, of monstrous culture, can definitely have 4e feeling like a video game or even board game, especially with the new variations with distance and area-effect powers. No longer using measurements in inches or feet for powers/weapons, they've started using 5-foot squares as units of measurement, further necessitating the purchase of miniatures (or character tiles). Now, there's nothing wrong with using minis in RPGs; it brings back fond memories of Hero's Quest and Dragonstrike for me, but the appeal for a lot of RPG fans is the ability to sidestep rules in order to facilitate better storytelling.
With the new combat rules, it almost feels like 4e is sidestepping storytelling in order to facilitate a better board game.

2. Combat Powers
Occasionally I think about going back to 4th Edition and running a few games, and what tends to stop me is the absolute glut that is the combat powers system. If anything felt like D&D turning into a MMO, it had to be this new change, where you no longer just hit someone with your sword, you did something 'special' at the same time. At first glance, it seems to be an interesting attempt to add some of the prior versions of D&D's combat feats/abilities to more standardized combat, but in the end it seemed to take on a definite bloat, especially in the bookkeeping aspect of the game. This nightmare of numbers comes from the concept of buffing/nerfing, which a goodly number of powers (and combat mechanics) in 4e have the ability to do. When it takes each player an addition minute each turn to determine their attack bonus because they need to figure out the interactions between flanking, invisibility, power attack, that buff their wizard cast on them, that nerf the enemy controller cast on them, cover, concealment, and any racial/class power they have access to this turn, things get busy really and are hardly ever 100% accurate.
Compound this with the concept of At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers, and suddenly if you want combat to actually matter or feel difficult in 4th Edition, you have to pace and plot every encounter so that:
a) your players don't have an opportunity to take an 8-hour rest between fights where they just blow dailies and destroy every enemy in the first round of every combat.
b) your players retain an opportunity to heal to full after every encounter, because monsters tend to have equal or more hit points than characters, and they start at full hp at each fight.
c) you don't set up encounters a) and b) in such a way that subsequent ones make it impossible for the weakened characters to win.
Combat powers also have a hand in my next point, which is...

 3. Combat is a Slog
Standard procedure when plotting out a game session in 4e is to set aside an hour for Each. Combat. Encounter.  And that's just in the early game. Once your players start getting utility powers that activate on minor or move actions, suddenly their turns take three times as long, because they have to look up the rules for three different powers. Then, of course, monsters also have powers, and those can also be minor and standard actions. This is in addition to all the calculations of nerfs/buffs, and suddenly that super-easy math for leveling up your characters doesn't mean shit because every other aspect is a math SAT word problem, and seriously? fuck word problems. Fuck them so much.
I mentioned in my last point that if you want to have combat matter, you need to plot out at least two, possibly three, probably more than that combat encounters (especially once you've reached paragon and epic tiers) if you want to keep your players on their toes, because with one combat encounter in a game's day cycle, there's nothing stopping the players from blowing through Dailies on round one (and two, once you reach level 5. And hey, round three at level 10!) That's right, unless you throw a freaking higher-level Solo at them as their only combat encounter for a 24 hour period, they're going to waltz through anything your random encounter table can generate.
This may work well in standard fantasy settings: after all, goblins don't tend to mess with higher-level parties traveling around doing good and all, but what about alternate settings that WotC actually published material forin 4e? What about Dark Sun? EVERYTHING is supposed to be able to kill you in Dark Sun. Plants can kill you in Dark Sun! The fucking SUN is supposed to be able to kill you. There aren't mooks in Dark Sun; when you're traveling around Athas, it's supposed to be a terrifying experience, not knowing if Dune Reapers or Kestrekel or an ID Fiend is waiting for you to walk right into their waiting traps. I ran an Athas campaign that eventually had characters reach level 20, and I had to stop trying to make shit attack them in the desert, because nothing in the Dark Sun Creature Catalog aside from Sorceror Kings or the fucking Dragon could scratch them!
And if you decide to fill an entire day of travel with combat encounters to up the difficulty? Well, that's 3+ hours of combat; for many gaming groups that's their entire session. And treacherous journeys like that can take weeks to traverse. Even with a combat encounter every 3-5 days, that's still about 3-4 sessions of only combat.
Tell me again how 4e is slated toward roleplaying.

4. 4 > 3.5, Because Math
There are indeed advocates for D&D 4th edition, and (very) occasionally I'm one of them. It hasn't even been six months since my last purchase of a 4e core book: the Eberron Campaign setting. I like D&D. They have good worlds, good world-building. Occasionally, I may even take some players through a dungeon crawl.
But that's all I can see doing with 4e. Playing it like an advanced version of Descent, or HeroQuest, or any other dungeon-robbing board game. It's not a viable platform for continued storytelling. Which is probably why I'm converting Dark Sun for playing in another game system. Because Athas deserves a game system where death is always imminent, and it's your wits, rather than massive amounts of hit points, that keep you alive.
I was going to say more in 4e's favor, but I really don't feel like it anymore. If you want to introduce someone to D&D and all you have are the 4th Edition books, go ahead.
But, just so you know: Pathfinder is free.

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