4e design philosophy: Supplements and revelations

November 2, 2010

4e is an odd specimen when it comes to supplements. There are plenty of them and they cover a pretty wide variety of topics. However, there is one common denominator between them: almost all include new powers, feats and all in all crunch.

This is not a bad thing, but it is a bad thing that there are so many new things out there that players – my players anyway – level up and then immediately groan: “Oh nooo! Do I really have to take a new feat again so soon?” They’re tired of wading through thousands of feats, some of which are now redundant, trying to pick out one they like. The same is true about powers, only not as acute, since there is usually about a dozen or so applicable powers to choose between.

We’re two years into this edition and yet the enormous palate of crunch options is already tiring. But that’s really mostly my problem. If there are too many options I can simply say: “None of that book, that book and that book.” It does puzzle me that they mostly can’t just have an article about some fluff without throwing in a new paragon path or something, but that’s all really neither here nor there.

What’s more of a problem is the entire attitude from Wizards towards these supplements. As I touched on in my earlier post, it seems like I’m no longer playing my game, I’m playing theirs. The same seems true in the supplements.

From the world-changing of Forgotten Realms to the all-encompassing origin stories of the Underdark, we have been treated to a lesson in how the designers from Wizards have always imagined these things in their game. Instead of presenting a plethora of information we can use at will in our game, we’re told how their game is going and what is going on in their game.

This is sometimes just what I need. Hearing about other people’s ideas and how they run the game can inspire me to think about my own. But that’s not what I want from official supplements. I want a lot of stuff that I can pick and choose from because I don’t have the time to get all the ideas and design all the background in my game cold. Instead I seem to get some kind of revelation about how the Game is going. The aforementioned outpouring of feats and powers seem to be what Wizards is prepared to give me as usable as-is stuff.

Again these two things are not unconnected. The designers at Wizards are showing us their game. Since they game four or five times a week – oh, how I wish I had time for that! – they need a plethora of new powers and feats to keep it interesting. Similarly in their games they have a campaign in Forgotten Realms, one in the Underdark, one in Eberron and so on – and the corresponding books are telling us how that’s going.

This is not necessarily true.

But it feels like it.

It feels like it when the designers talk about it. One example: when James Wyatt says something like “People are not going to believe what we did in the first chapter of DMG2” and “Minds will be blown” by the PHB3 (in this episode of the Tome), it feels a bit like he will reveal the truth about the game, not like he will give me stuff to use in my game.

As I stated in the “mission statement” earlier, this and the way it fits with so much else of the design philosophy in 4e is not necessarily a conscious decision on the part of the designers.

But it sure fits well.

Next up in the series on 4e design philosophy, I will talk a bit about the streamlining of the system that 4e is based upon. That one is both good and bad.

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4e design philosophy: Errata

October 30, 2010

As long as I have played D&D (and AD&D for that matter) there has been some sort of errata. It seemed to me, however, that up until the 3.5 edition, errata was treated like much else in the game: use it if it helps you.

3.5 – which more or less was errata of 3, or at least presented as such – was different, though. There was a large sense in my group then – and in the community as a whole AFAIK, though I wasn’t really part of it, being from Denmark and the internets being in a different state than today – that we were getting screwed.

We experienced very few problems with 3e. Our gamed worked. Why would the powers that be suddenly stab not just our game but their own product in the back by making so many books obsolete? We gamed on in 3e until Real Life made it impossible for us to game regularly.

Enter 4e. I was sceptical, mostly based on the decidedly huge changes made in the design philosophy. I bought it anyway, like so many people on the recommendation of the PA and PvP podcasts, the single best marketing idea Wizards has ever had.

It made me drum up my current group – which is comprised of people who have never role-played before and which include my wife, which is pretty rare among geeks in Denmark – and we took to 4e with a vengeance. It was great fun, it was easy to prep, and it was easy to relate to for those in my group who were used to computer gaming. I’ll post more about the fun and accessibility of 4e later, since I’m not a hater. Haters rarely rhyme spontaneously.

But then I began looking on the internets. I got a DDI subscription primarily for the Character Builder and the Adventure Tools. Dungeon and Dragon Magazines seem quite good, but they really need a better search and browse function to be something I want to use.

Seeing the  character builder at work was an epiphany. It dramatically reduced the grind of making and updating characters. However it also puzzled me, that some powers and skills read differently than I remembered them. They had been changed. My game was changing without my input. Not necessarily against my will, but without me being asked.

Looking around on the blogs – like rpgmusings, sarahdarkmagic and others found in the links over there – and listening to podcasts – from and featuring the same people, 4geeks4e and The Tome – it seemed like everyone had the same reaction to the errata: this is how the game is now. The changes were discussed not as options but as the new baseline.

Wizards treated the errata in the same way. Example: the controversy around the Magic Missile power change was rather large, and in our group we decided to ignore it, since it invalidated a lot of the build of the wizard. But the character builder had other plans.

I know that I could just make a customised element in the builder which would then be the old power, but why? Why would Wizards not simply give me the option of the older power? Isn’t the point that in my home game, I can use whatever combination of rules I want, but in sanctioned games we all play like Wizards recommends?

What this all amounts to is the rather chilling realisation that there seems to be an idea in the minds of the designers, that they are gradually “revealing” the game. That the changes they make to “the game” apply to all individual games. The feeling it leaves me with is that I’m no longer playing my game. I’m playing theirs.

This design philosophy of Wizards rubs off on players, embodied in posts like this one over at aherotwiceamonth.com, which addresses the common point that the Player’s Handbook is obsolete.

Hold on.

The Player’s Handbook?

The core book that has been the only real requirement for play in every edition of D&D, that has been the starting point for thousands if not millions of characters and games in all editions, that has spawned the imagination of players and DMs around the world is obsolete after two years of this edition?

It wouldn’t be if we were playing my game.

This ties into the design philosophy about supplements, which will be the subject of my next post about 4e design philosophy.

 


4e design philosophy: Players vs. DM

October 29, 2010

There was obviously a problem in earlier editions when it comes to the responsibilities of players to keep the game running compared to the DM’s. In essence the player described what he wanted to do and then the DM figured out a way to roll for that. This meant that the DM had to know not just almost all of the rules, but also what each character was able to do. The DM – who was already minding storytelling, plot handling and monster running – also had to know the mechanics of each character well enough to come up with answers on the fly to questions like: “How would a rogue do a backflip up the left wall, landing on the shoulders of the ogre?” And how would a fighter try the same thing?

In my experience this was alleviated a little bit by 3rd edition – though I’m not sure why, since it’s ages since I looked at the books – and in actual play the DM was often able to rely on a trusty rules lawyer among the players. In the best of worlds there existed a communion between DM and players where they worked together to figure out how to get the system to do what they wanted. In the worst of worlds people literally and reliably acted like Knights of the Dinner Table. In the most of worlds I guess the game was somewhere in between.

Enter the possibility of a 4th edition. The designers seem to have taken a look at this dynamic and correctly identified that it was part of the overload of work facing every DM. How could this be addressed?

Now, I have no inside information, but the way the power system worked out seems very much like an answer to this. Now it is very clear what kind of cool stuff each character can do. It is integrated into the very mechanics of the classes. If a rogue wants to do that backflip, he can use Close Quarters. The player even knows this, typically has the text of the power in front of him/her, and can inform the DM how the rules are written. The DM is free of having to know what each character can do and can focus on other, more DM-y things.

In my experience this has worked quite well. When my players are in doubt about a power, they simply ask. We read the power together – okay, that sounds a bit like school, but it’s not – and agree on an interpretation based on a fusion of fluff and crunch. Yes, I value the flavour text in my rules interpretation. Maybe I’ll post about that some other time.

There are however a couple of problems, some of which were pointed out in the recent blog post over at rpgmusings by Alio the Fool:

  1. The system I have is tied to the “core” world in 4e, since we’re simply playing a version of that, modifying it as we go along. If you alter too much in the powers – even the flavour – the system will probably begin to falter.
  2. What if the fighter wants to do the backflip? Either he can’t, which is always a bummer. Or he could do something similar with an athletics or acrobatics check, maybe making it into a skill challenge, though that would kind of suck for the rogue who’s using a daily to do the same thing. Or he could multiclass into rogue and exchange one of his powers for the Close Quarters power, which is quite a lot of foresight to expect of a guy who is – let’s face it – just a fighter 🙂
  3. But the most serious implication is this: when responsibilities are so sharply divided and well defined it will make the game run smoother. But it also creates two very sharply drawn groups with differing viewpoints ready to clash over rules questions. The essence of the game is “players vs. monsters”. When the DM solely runs the monsters and the players have responsibility for what their characters can do, it can quickly turn into a “players vs. DM” where the real competition is whether or not the DM knows the characters’ capabilities and the rules better than the players, and not players and DMs “competing” in the art of storytelling.

The third of these points refer to Alio the Fool’s post. Since the players have been given very specific rules for what they can do, and since these powers more or less make up the entire capabilities of the characters, the players have to be able to rely on what the powers tell them. This gradually, but surely, extends to the rest of the rules.

This attitude is not helped by the current edition’s view on errata, which will be the subject of my next post about 4e design philosophy.


4e design philosophy: The Series

October 29, 2010

I’ll kick off this blog by looking at the design philosophy of D&D 4e as seen from my little corner of the woods.

As the about page states, I played 2e and 3e but not 3.5e. I’m also not a native English speaker, so from time to time my sentences will probably get a little laboured.

I also do not live in the States, but in a weird little country called Denmark in Scandinavia.

This means a lot of things, but chiefly it means that a lot of the culture of the D&D community is not available to me. I have never gone to a con. There is not a game shop in all of my country that runs D&D Encounters. There’s no reason for me to join the RPGA. When Twitter discussions are firing up, I’m usually sleeping (sorry for late comments, guys).

What I am, however, is a DM like so many others. I got my little group and we go on our adventures and we try to have fun.

I will in this inaugural series take a look at how the design philosophy of 4e seems from my point of view. This means that I will not purport to know anything about anything about the conscious design philosophies of the designers. They may or may not have intended the things I point out. But this is how I as a DM experience the game and the philosophy that I discern underlying it.

I have no insider knowledge. I have not designed games myself, other than a few largely unrealised attempts in my youth (I do teach game design, but that’s video games, and that’s different). But I  play D&D. I played D&D before. And there are things I like and things I question about the way 4e is unfolding, and I’d like to address them.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading it, and I look forward to any comments about it.

I’m posting the first instalment in just a few minutes. It’s about Players and DMs.