Tobold's Blog
Friday, March 21, 2014
Understanding 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons

On this blog I discuss all sorts of games that I play, from pen & paper role-playing games to computer games on various platforms. And sometimes the comparison of very different games, or making links between the discussions about those very different games, can be enlightening. That caused me to rethink my position on 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons.

The thing is that for me "4th edition" is not just a label, but really a 4th version of something I know. I played through all the previous editions. Mostly 1st edition AD&D and 2nd edition, a bit less 3rd edition, and now 4th edition since two years as a DM. I also played a bunch of other pen & paper roleplaying games from other companies. Thus my way to play 4th edition D&D is not based solely on what is written in the 4E rule books, but is based on over 30 years of experience with pen & paper role-playing games.

Pen & paper role-playing systems all have holes in their rules. Different systems cover different aspects of the game better or less well. Early systems, and that means especially early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, did not talk a lot about the actual playing of a role, in the sense of interactive story-telling. Yes, there is some sort of story in an adventure module like the Tomb of Horrors or Keep on the Borderlands (Caves of Chaos). But the bulk of such an adventure was always a huge dungeon full of traps and monsters. It was some years later that modules like the UK series or Ravenloft started to put more of an emphasis on the story and the played interaction between player characters and NPCs.

Some people preferred that sort of interactive story-telling to the hack'n'slay ways of old. Other companies developed RPG rules systems which put a lot more emphasis on the story (and were often much less detailed on tactical combat rules). Personally I came to the conclusion that it would be best to mix the two, somewhere around the 50:50 mark. And I found that the "best practices" of role-playing are easily transferable from one system to another. For example in the 13th Age rules system there are very nice rules on character creation which encourage a player to come up with "One Unique Thing" about their character, like "I am the lost heir to the fallen dwarven kingdom". That rule works for pretty much every pen & paper system, and I'll certainly use it for my next 4E campaign.

The consequence of all that is that the 4E campaign that I am playing is not "4E as written", but is the 4E rules augmented with 30+ years of experience and rules from other systems to plug the holes that 4th edition has. Thus if somebody tells me "you can't role-play in 4E", I disagree, my campaign certainly isn't like that.

But when we recently discussed MMORPG design, I said that players tend to follow the incentives that the game gives them. So I find it important for a MMORPG that it doesn't make one path (like questing) far more rewarded than everything else, because that leads to everybody following that one path like a herd of lemmings. While you *can* do other things in MMORPGs than following that path, the game often lets you know quite clearly that "you shouldn't do that", by giving you no or inadequate rewards and thereby discouraging you from doing anything else than the lemming path. And then I realized that while maybe not expressed that way, the problem that people have with 4th edition is pretty much the same: If you don't have the experience and "best practices" of role-playing, you would probably end up playing 4E as written in the rules and adventure modules, and then it becomes just a series of encounters with not enough role-playing in between. The 4E rule books and adventure modules give no incentives or encouragement to role-play, so if you don't resist the general "pull" of the system, you end up doing something too linear and boring.

Now even for 4E enough years have passed that there are adventures with very different qualities here. The first 4E adventure Keep on the Shadowfell is horrible regarding NPCs, and does a very bad job of introducing them and making their motivations clear to the players. The "story" of Keep on the Shadowfell ends up being "we fight through a dungeon and kill the boss mob at the end". A more recent adventure like the Madness at Gardmore Abbey we are currently playing is already a lot better in that respect. But still I found myself modifying stuff in the Gardmore Abbey adventure, to improve the role-playing part of it. And the presentation of 4E adventures always has one part of the adventure being page after page of encounters, while any information about story and NPCs is written elsewhere, and it isn't always evident on how to mix that story part with the tactical encounters.

I remain convinced that of the many pen & paper role-playing systems I have played, 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons has the best tactical combat rules and the best class balance. Which for me and my group makes it the perfect rules system, because we can fill the holes on the story-telling side with rules from other systems. It would be much harder to play a story-centric system and try to add the tactical combat rules of 4E to it than the other way around. Having said that, I think that 4E Dungeons & Dragons is probably not a good system to learn pen & paper role-playing games with: The tactical rules are complex, and there isn't enough information in the rule books to assure good role-playing. Having said that, this isn't edition-specific. Previous editions were just as bad to teach people how to role-play, and 5th edition appears to be only a bit better, with rules like the "background" instead of free choices of skills and talents.

I'm just curious.

Tobold, do you use Skill Challenge mechanic (number of successes/failures) in your games for:

a) Diplomatic type challenges?

b) Physical type challenges?

Have you made any rule changes or use them pretty much as written in the adventures?
Yes, Carmedil just echoed one of my thoughts -- skill challenges and how (or if) they are used do modify how much of 4e is "role-playing". I do contend that they place stronger support for non-combat interaction than any previous edition does.

The other thought I have is that whatever impediments 4e (and 3.5, for that matter) put in the way of role-playing is more a matter of time than rule complexity or incentive. A combat in 3.5e or 4e takes a long while. For my group, this often means that our session ends on a few rushed combat round as our time slot ends, with very little time to have post-combat interaction.

I don't think this really is a 4e problem, though. I hit the same thing in Champions / Hero System.
I tried skill challenges, but my players frequently just used them to AVOID role-playing, that is replacing a role-playing interaction by a roll of the dice.

I also find the rules not terribly clear about how make everybody participate in a skill challenge. After one player did something in a skill challenge, do you address yourself to the player next to him, making the round. Or do you let any player who wants do the next action, which frequently ends up with one player doing most of the challenge?
Mm. Skill challenges are interesting beasts. I use them in a variety of ways, depending on what I want to do at the time. Skill challenges can fill a bunch of different needs, and (of course) can be entirely skipped. Some of the things I've done with them include:

In a dramatic situation where I had the party split on two beaches seperated by a rough, jagged open bay, I had half the party in combat on one beach with the ones across the small (but dangerous) body of water looked on. While the fighting went on over there, round by round, members of the other party did skill challenges against things like Athletics (to swim or resist the pounding waves), Acrobatics (to clamber up and over the rocks), Perception (to time the waves coming in and out). I was using these as "move" actions, so the folks trying to cross were getting two per round, more or less. Difficulty varied depending on what they did, and what happened before... blow an acrobatics move and you had to describe how you failed, which set up the next skill check -- "Well, I leap over to the next rock, but land awkwardly and slip down into the water." "Make an Athletics check to grab a lungful of air!" Once you made enough successes (six, I think?) you moved onto the battle mat, dripping wet and hopping mad.

I used another one to simulate a "Raiders of the Lost Ark" style race across a crowded stretch of cityscape with a bunch of guards behind them. Racing over rooftops, down alleys, looking for the guards as they went, trying to remember where the city gate was, hiding among the citizens as the guards ran past, that sort of thing.

And I've also handed my players a sheet of paper with the entire skill challenge written out on it, in detail, with the number of successes needed, what skills were involved, etc... and let them do it all without me while I went out for pizza. That actually worked really well -- they had fun min-maxing the whole thing. I came back to a bunch of smiles and listened to them sum up.

The big thing to me about keeping them from being to mechanical was to have them describe in detail the outcome of each skill roll. You succeed? OK, what do you do? How does everyone react? You failed -- OK, now is your chance to put yourself in danger! My players really enjoyed getting the spotlight like that.

Does this replace role-playing? Well, no... but if you are the type that asks for skill checks (or has players that want to make skill checks) in the middle of role-play, that they are easy -- just keep two things in mind. Three strikes and you are "out". And you can't just roll, tell us about it. Then just decide when they are done.
I like to point out two very different things about 4th Edition D&D:

1) This is the system that actually balanced all the classes. Editions 0-3 suffered from wild class imbalance between Warriors, Rogues and Spell-Users.

2) 4th Edition "as written", promotes certain types of gameplay, as you stated. Unfortunately most of those types of gameplay are delivered better by video games.

Oh, and after reading the 13th Age book, I think it'd be an awesome tool for bringing new people into the hobby. I usually use L5R's system with a custom setting for doing that, but I want to try it with 13th Age now.
I think most traditional RPG's are actually bad at roleplaying.

4E isn't somehow bad at roleplaying, what's happening is that the battle game of it is actually quite fun and enjoyable. By this virtue it distracts from the sort of roleplaying people do in other RPG's because those games are boring unless you roleplay.

Ie, most traditional RPG's have 'encouraged' roleplay by making it boring if you don't roleplay. One of THE worst methods of incentivising ever!

Newer RPG's have things like character goals they can fill out and they get XP/points for pursuing those goals.
Sorry, meant to say '4E isn't any worse at roleplaying...'
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