Tobold's Blog
Saturday, May 17, 2014
My position in the edition wars

There recently was a commenter on this blog who expressed his anger at me playing, writing about, and thus somewhere promoting the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, instead of a previous edition, or the next edition. In D&D that is known as the edition wars. Psychologically that is the same well-known effect as people being angry about somebody playing a different MMORPG than they are. Pen & paper games as well as MMORPGs consume so many hours, that they become akin to a lifestyle choice. And somebody choosing a different lifestyle than you are is perceived as a threat, as it calls into question whether your choice was the right one. But of course every choice can be the right one. The golden rule is that if you are having fun, you made the right choice.

A pen & paper role-playing game is a complex interaction between players and the dungeon master, so complex in fact that no computer game has come anywhere close to simulate it. It is so complex that no rules system has ever managed to govern this interaction flawlessly. Every single edition of Dungeons & Dragons and every single edition of every other pen & paper role-playing game has flaws. There are simply irreconcilable differences between the two main objectives of a pen & paper role-playing game: Simulating a fantasy world and playing a game.

Personally, whenever I am given the choice between something that leads to better gameplay or something that leads to better simulation, I always choose gameplay. Thus the simple reason why I prefer 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons over other editions is that 4E is the most game-centric of all the editions.

Basically I am not interested how somebody thinks a wizard "should" work in a simulation. Magic doesn't really exist, thus any simulation of it will be just fine. What I am concerned about is having a group of people around my table who each get equal opportunity to shine in the game. The concept of class balance is fundamental to MMORPGs. You would not want to play a MMORPG in which the wizard after a certain level is infinitely more powerful than the warrior, or in which the wizard gets to choose from a dozen hotkeys to press, while the warrior only gets one or two. In a way a MMORPG is a role-playing game that has been sped up by a large factor, which helps social issues to erupt earlier in a MMORPG than in a pen & paper game. A pen & paper game with bad class balance will run into exactly the same social problems as a MMORPG with bad class balance, but will do so much slower. By having played pen & paper games for over three decades I realized that one player having a much more powerful character than another player is a surefire recipe for implosion of a campaign, even if it might take a year or two to get there. It is possible that some players deliberately want to play a weaker character, but you can't rely on that.

In 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons every single player works fundamentally like a wizard, only with a different set of spells. The warrior has exactly as many powers to his disposal as the wizard has spells. Just like in a MMORPG every class has the same number of abilities and talents, 4E provides a group with a fully balanced class system. So when I see that the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons is removing that class balance from the game again to go back to interesting spell-casters and boring melee characters, I consider that a deadly design mistake. Even if you add more dice to roll to the melee classes, in the long run they simply can't compete against classes that have lots of options in the form of spells. And while proponents of that system frequently claim that there are players who prefer "simpler" classes, funnily enough all those proponents play spell-casters themselves. Simple classes are just not a viable long-term solution, not in a system where the players of those simpler classes see that after a few levels the spell-casters totally dominate the game and have most of the fun and the options.

I am well aware of the downsides of 4th edition. It is not a system I would recommend to start role-playing with, as the books don't explain role-playing very well and inexperienced players can get bogged down in endless combat. But these are flaws that I as an experienced DM can compensate for. I cannot compensate for an inherent lack of class balance in a system.

"You would not want to play a MMORPG in which the wizard after a certain level is infinitely more powerful than the warrior, or in which the wizard gets to choose from a dozen hotkeys to press, while the warrior only gets one or two"

I thought that was a rather amusing, ironic comment considering you played and enjoyed early Everquest!
I played a quad-kiting druid.
Well in a MMO you're only responsible for yourself so it may be fine that some class is gimped as long as you didn't pick it.

In a RPG a GM has to make sure his campaign doesn't collapse because of player drama and systemic unfairness is a real danger.
The big question on system are the needs of the players and the GM. Depending on the group I'm with I have used anything from Amber Diceless to Champions. As a GM, I am the host, I have to consider my audience if I want to have a successful and entertaining game.

Fourth edition did very well with my current group, which includes people that played Champions with the person that now runs Hero Games and a few Magic: the Gathering players. But I wouldn't use it for a group of players wanting a more drama heavy roleplaying experience -- for that, I'd be much more inclined towards something along the lines of some of the current indy games (Dungeon World, Sorcerer, In a Wicked Age) or perhaps HeroQuest / Hero Wars.

Different tools for different objectives.
Excellent analysis. I've always found that the depth of role-playing is purely based on the skills and inclinations of the GM and the players. I've been a GM in 4e and had incredible in-depth role-playing at my tables. I've also been at games which were much more mechanical with little to no role-playing with the same system.
In traditional D&D, it was always a flip-flop. Warriors were the most powerful class early, Wizards were the most powerful late, and Rogues/Priests had unique talents that made them attractive to play beyond the 'power' game.

The 'pay-off' for the Wizard type happens at much higher levels, so it requires patience and if you never get there or 'reset' on them to play the far more numerous lower-level modules, they get pissed (and with just cause, I would add).
I think your fighters verses spell caster dichotomy might be a bit out dated. Those comments could apply to first or second edition D&D. But in 3.5/Pathfinder the fighting classes have many more options than you to be taking into consideration.

These days the melee classes include the Ranger, Monk, Barbarian, Paladin, inquisitor, Cavalier and Magus. Each of these classes has spells or spell like abilities that include just as many "button choices" as the spell casting classes. In fact, you could argue that a "caster" class like the Summoner has LESS options than something like an Inquisitor which enjoys spells, combat feats and special abilities. This gets more complicated when you take into consideration classes than can have pets such as the Ranger, Barbarian, Inquisitor, etc.

These days it really is possible to build any class to maximize for choice.

Another distinction: classes like the wizard and sorcerer in 3.5/Pathfinder typically put out less damage that the melee classes. The popular online theory is that these classes are best used for battlefield control and support.

Also, your dichotomy fails to take into consideration that one of the primary role of casters in 3.5/Path is to boost the output of their party. Many players prefer to play, for example, the melee class that has been the recipient of a haste spell rather than the wizard that casts it.

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