Monday, May 28, 2012
Fixing 4th Edition
What is a role-playing game? While a complete definition would be hard to find, we can at least make one empirical observation: In the large majority of games which call themselves role-playing games there is a series of combat sequences, embedded in something like a story or a world. That is as true for let’s say World of Warcraft as it is for Dungeons & Dragons. And because of RPGs having a combat part and a non-combat part, there is a fundamental conflict about what the relative weight of each of these parts should be. The main problem many people have with 4th edition D&D is that the combat part appears heavier than in previous editions and the non-combat part lighter. So how can we fix 4th edition, other than reverting to previous rule editions, which is what D&D Next is doing?
One important thing to notice is that “the game” of D&D is *not* the product you buy in a shop. You only buy a rule-system, which is a necessary but not sufficient part to make a game. The rest of the game is made up by the DM and the players, so that the same adventure of D&D played by two different groups with different DMs can be very different from each other. How the DM prepares his adventures, and how the interactive story-telling with the players goes makes up a significant part of the D&D experience.
At the core of most RPG combat systems is an exchange of blows between player(s) and monster(s). Each side has a number of hit points (life), a probability to hit the enemy, and a way to determine how many hit points to remove from the enemy in case you hit him. Now you can make a very simple combat system which just has those basic elements, and relies on the imagination of the players to fill this combat with life and excitement. In reality you will always get some players who will just roll their dice and do the numbers, and some players who are swinging from the chandelier, or trying other interesting combat moves.
Thus having a very simple combat system makes life easy for the unimaginative player, who can quickly find out what dice to roll; and it makes for a light form of combat in which the imaginative player has the opportunity to come up with all sorts of interesting moves. But there is a reverse side to that as well: The unimaginative player will play a very boring game in which he just performs very simple dice rolls. And the imaginative player is in constant conflict with the Dungeon Master, because his interesting combat moves aren’t covered by any rules, and thus the outcome relies on judgment calls of the DM.
The alternative, which is what 4E is doing, is to have a more complex combat system. If they want, the unimaginative player and the imaginative player can still continue as before: The unimaginative player can use the same at-will power every round of combat, the imaginative player can swing from his chandelier. But the advantage is that the unimaginative player has a list of options on his character sheet (or in the form of cards, which is what I use), making it easier for him to try something else. And the imaginative player will find more of his interesting ideas actually covered by the rules, removing a lot of conflict. Of course there is also a downside: Combat can get more complicated, slower if badly executed, and characters and their roles can be harder to understand. Some people feel that if they have five options in front of them, that is all they can do, and won’t think of inventing a sixth one.
Although it isn’t called “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” any more, 4th edition could be said to be for advanced dungeon masters and players. It would be easy for a dungeon master and group who are new to role-playing to get bogged down in rules and power descriptions. When given an official adventure in which three quarters of the pages are about combat encounters, it is easy to fall into the trap of running an adventure which is just a string of just those combat encounters with too little story and roleplay in between. There were good reasons for me to start my 4E campaign with house rules for zero level characters, having just a single at-will power. And the following 1st-level adventure of my campaign had only 5 combat encounters to level 2, and not the standard 10.
But that was all it took for me to “fix” 4th edition at the lower levels: Make a slightly less complicated introduction to get the players used to the rules, and reduce the number of combat encounters in the adventures. By spending some time with rules study and preparation of combat encounters, I didn’t have problems with fights being too slow or complicated. In fact I get a better degree of engagement, more interest, from my players than evidenced in previous campaigns with other rule systems. And it hasn’t stopped my more inventive players from trying out things. At the higher levels it is possible that I will need to intervene again, because there appears to be a problem with the complexity caused by too many interrupts and powers triggering each other. But then, I'm a Level I certified DCI judge for Magic The Gathering, so I should be able to handle complicated interrupt rules. ;)
I think of the 4th edition rules as being very modern, and there being a conflict of those modern rules with adventure modules which are often still very old-fashioned. A rules system which offers very interesting tactical combat instead of just a series of simple to hit rolls can live with there being less combat encounters in an adventure. Which is a better solution than keeping the number of fights high and lowering the complexity. What 4th edition needs is better adventures, with more roleplaying, more interesting stories, memorable NPCs, and better flow. Having lots of combat and making it very simple is not such a good solution, because it becomes boring too quickly. I’d rather have a few memorable fights than lots of uneventful ones. And the 4th edition rules system fully supports such an approach, with just a few minor tweaks in handing out quest xp for roleplaying needed. It isn’t the rule system which needs fixing, but the adventures.