Tobold's Blog
Thursday, November 29, 2012
Compatibility of D&D editions

Greywulf thinks the next official D&D adventure Storm over Baldur's Gate might be dual format, having stat blocks for both 4th edition and D&D Next. Personally I have my doubts, as I have in the past tried to adjust D&D adventure modules from previous editions to 4E and found that there are some compatibility problems. Would an adventure that works in 4E and Next even be possible?

My favorite explanation what the difference between D&D editions is in a question: "How many arrows does it take to kill a level 1 wizard?". The reason why this question is so revealing is that the answer to it is so different in the different editions. In first edition AD&D a single arrow can kill a level 1 wizard, in 4E you need at least 4 arrows, and in D&D Next the number is in between. Thus if you have an encounter which is an ambush and starts with level 1 archers attacking a level 1 group, the encounter would be extremely deadly in 1st edition, and much less so in 4th edition. You can't just change the stat blocks and pretend this will give the same result regardless what edition is being run.

Of course that is just an example, and the fundamental differences don't stop there. But anybody who ran some of the D&D Next playtest material has seen that D&D Next tends towards a series of small encounters, while 4th edition tends towards a much smaller number of encounters, which are more tactical and more epic. It would be hard to design an adventure in which this wouldn't matter one way or another.

The differences between the editions aren't limited to the combat part. D&D Next, as the previous editions, has many of the "classic" wizard spells which are extremely powerful in non-combat situations. Anybody who ever ran a D&D campaign of earlier editions will be aware of the problems with spells like invisibility or flying: They make the wizard of the group far more powerful in exploration than other classes. Why play a rogue with an x% chance of hiding in shadows if you can play a wizard and just be totally invisible? 4th edition sensibly removed many of the overly powerful non-combat spell (which is why 98% of the people who complain vocally about 4th edition are those who played a wizard or similar overpowered spellcaster in earlier editions. A better balanced game is not in the interest of those who abused the previous imbalance.).

Assuming that "Storm over Baldur's Gate" is a city adventure, there are a lot of possible problems that can arise by switching from one edition to another. For example the ability of speaking with the dead, another D&D classic, is wreaking havoc with murder mystery plot lines, usually requiring some sort of strange Deus Ex Machina device preventing it. Detect Evil or Detect Lie spells are similarly disruptive for an investigative adventure. (Note to Stubborn: Have you thought of that?)

In short: Players have a tendency to look for options on their character sheet. Having two groups with different editions of character sheets in front of them facing the same adventure might have some unintended results. There might be more changes to an adventure necessary than just changing the stat blocks.

You vastly overgeneralize with the 98% comment, which disregards those who preferred one of the pre-4th editions, ignores an oft-cited game dynamic, the "sweet spot" in the leveling curve where balance and bloat issues are minimized but options are relatively abundant, and fall prey to chimeric "game balance" as some kind of achievable or desirable goal.

The PAX 2012 D&D Next game you yourself linked to the other day perfectly illustrates why the endless quest for ideal balance is a waste of everyone's time, and you even hit on the reason why while failing to grasp it: balance power between characters is less important the balancing screen time between players. Sure, Wil Wheaton is a professional and thus pretty good at it, but a good DM and group can similarly engage even wallflowers with the right prodding. Rough balance is good enough.
the "sweet spot" in the leveling curve where balance and bloat issues are minimized but options are relatively abundant

Why would you want to play a game that has a lack of options between levels 1 and "sweet spot"-1, and then bloat issues between "sweet spot"+1 and the level cap, if you could instead play a game that is sweet and balanced at every level?
Because no such game exists. Perfect balance is an unreachable goal and designing for it is a fool's game.
I like your blog, in particular the Dungeons and Dragons perspectives. I haven't played 4th in some time (I am currently playing Next), but I thought they had kept discern lies and speak with dead as rituals?

Yes, there the difference between the editions is in the availability of those spells. For example in 2nd edition every priest automatically had Detect Evil etc., he just needed to decide to learn it in the morning. In 4E it is up to the DM whether he even grants access to those rituals.

Perfect balance is an unreachable goal and designing for it is a fool's game.

Huh? Perfect peace is not possible, and thus we shouldn't try at all to strive for peace? Perfect justice isn't possible, so we shouldn't try at all to strive for justice?

4E is *more* balanced than other editions of D&D. That is good. Perfection isn't necessary. Going back to a less balanced system is the fool's game.
All this makes me glad I stopped playing D&D in my youth. None of this balancing really sounds fun. The fun for me was always figuring out how to use what abilities we had to overcome the devilish situations my brother managed to dream up as the DM. Wizards were balanced by only getting so many spells per day, or having to sit and memorize spells for hours after each encounter. And most adventures didn't allow for that kind of time wasting. There was always some kind of time restrictions in place related to the story.

So far as balance goes though I liked how Shadowrun addressed it. Any spells that had an ongoing affect required the casters focus to maintain and so all other actions became handicapped. And casting any spell caused mental fatigue that had to be resisted or you risked passing out. So you didn't need hard limits on how many spells you could have ready.
The biggest problem I have always had with 4E is that it is essentially a different game from the one that many of us have been playing from AD&D through D&D 3.5. 0.0 to 3.5 were iterations. 4.0 was a different game to all intents.

4.0 may be better or worse then the 0 tp 3.5 chain of products (I think it's worse considered as a PnP opinion). However, selling it as an iteration on the game many of us have been playing for 20+ years was disingenuous. 4.0 was a new game aimed at new demographics.

It succeeded really well at getting in new players. You, the Penny Arcade crew, and doubtless many others that dig 4E would never have enjoyed 3.5. It brought you guys in.

However, it left a big portion of of the D&D fan base out in the cold. For example, if you didn't want to use maps and miniatures (as was true for the great bulk of D&D groups I've been in over the years), 4E was unplayable.
It brought you guys in.

It didn't "bring me in". I played AD&D since 1st edition, and 4E is just the most tactical and best balanced of them, which is why I prefer it. I do agree however that it plays differently than previous editions, which is why I proposed renaming it "D&D Tactics".
I started playing at 2E, and did everything in between. 4E is my most preferred version, due to the huge amount of extra options I have as a melee player. That said, we always played with miniatures and maps.
If you look at their publication strategy for 2013 (entirely based on reprints of 1st, 2nd and 3rd edition books so far with a bit of new 1st edition content announced) then it makes a lot more sense that the transitional modules they plan to release will be cross compatible with 1st, 3rd and Next.
which is why I proposed renaming it "D&D Tactics".

This is absolutely what they should have done.
PS: I really should have realized that you played the older editions based on your obvious familiarity with them. I wasn't trying to accuse you of being a "PnP newb" and I apologize if my comment came across that way.

The point I was getting at and didn't fully articulate is that 4E was somewhat of a NGE in PnP space, the difference being that I think it did actually succeed in getting new players.
Good points. I have enjoyed both 4E and previous editions (and see some interesting things in the Next playtest) but I fully agree that compatibility is not something that can really be achieved because as you noted the play style is so fundamentally different.

I vary back and forth in my opinion on the need and efficacy of the elusive "balance" in RPGs. And I am not so sure that 4E really "balances" things so much as ensures that all PCs are viable and contribute during encounters.

However, I will agree with the complaint from Gary that the 98% figure is overblown. To me, most vocal critics of 4E have not been based on the idea that they can no longer create overpowered characters (in fact, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence out there that 4E min/max is alive and well).

The real complaint is that a lot of 4E haters want the game to be Simulationist. They want things to "make sense." They hate the idea of Daily Powers "Why can't I swing my sword that hard more than once?"

They can't stand the fact that 4Es system is abstract - the rules mechanics do not explicitly and directly mirror the narrative.
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