30 July 2013

D&D IV Post Mortem

Me before, after, and during a game of 4e
So I dropped my 4e game in favor of playing Dark Heresy. As promised, I'd like to talk about a couple of reasons that, while 4e is undoubtedly a very expansive and finely-tuned role-playing system with a very different combat resolution system, the rest is, well, bad.

Let me get it all off my chest.

This is going to be a five post series instead of the one post I planned for it to be, because it's super long and nobody would read it all if it was that long. So enjoy, and please remember to take a drink every time I say something you disagree with and then tell me why I'm wrong. This is the first game I've ever honestly 100% wanted to like and ended up being totally dissatisfied with, and would love to be proven wrong.

Without further stalling, here it is.

Ten Things I Hated About 4e

(After the jump.)


1. Character generation takes forever and is one-dimensional

     Or: Why are there so many nearly-identical choices, anyways? 

I'm a pretty patient guy, and I realize that any system can take a while for people to learn when they're new. Especially a system with as much to it as 4th edition. I mean, it can take a while for players to figure out what they're going to buy in Swords and Wizardry, or to figure out what Armor Class and Saving Throws do, or how to properly figure out the weights of things. I mean, it's not an insignificant choice. It can also take a second for the physical rolling of dice, especially if you have limited d6s or you're playing online and have to get everybody in the same rolling program.

Ten hours of character generation and I'm going to be eaten in my first session?

I accept that the first session will consist mostly of getting to know each other, of figuring out characters, and getting the characters to gel with each other. I'm used to that. I've been GMing for a hot minute, and these things don't bother me. I usually use the time to prepare my notes, make sure I know what I'm running, and get things hopping

But 4th edition does, because it's such an egregious offender of my time. Taking a player from no game knowledge whatsoever to character generation is a MASSIVE investment of time, because there is so much of the game. There are primary and secondary bonuses, various types of armor and weapons, daily powers and at-will powers and feats and skills and races and classes, all of which combine in different ways, and all of which are marginally important but can potentially add up, and many of which are cool. I will admit that the 4e guys did a pretty good job on the flavor of powers and feats, and that it can be difficult to choose between a cool power and a useful one.

Of course, they could have simply taken out feats and normalized your power bonuses and skills and nobody would have noticed. But they're there, and they're yet another choice you have to make before you're allowed to play. And it takes FOREVER.

And when you're done, what have you got? You have a Race/Class with a handful of combat powers, some skills (again, oriented towards combat primarily), and some equipment. You might have magical items if you're above first level, and you're done. Oh, to be sure, next the game gives you a fair bit about now you need to give your character a background, but there are no background stats that don't also give you a bonus, and there are no Background Powers, so as far as the game is concerned, your character is fully realized right here. And this is the message the game is sending you through pretty much your entire character creation time- your character exists to do combat. Everything else is secondary, or completely ignored in the game, unless it affects the combat somehow, again.

And that's all that you get to generate, really. A combat style. You know a lot about what parts of combat your character is good at, and whether you are standing up close or far away, whether you do a lot of damage to one guy or less to a couple of guys, and whether you mostly deal damage or inflict status effects/penalties. But there's nothing in the game that tells you what sort of hero you are, except where it comes to point #2, which is:

2. I don't like the assumptions the game makes for me

    Or: Why can't I play Han Solo? Or even Conan?
I accept that nearly every game makes assumptions about the way you're going to play the game. In Swords and Wizardry the assumption is that you're going to start as a fairly weak individual who then becomes powerful and important (although of course you can start at a higher level and skip the weaker parts), and that's fine because it gives you the full power curve from weak to strong and makes the focus of the game on the parts that are interesting- namely, the "outsmarting things," since you get more experience from plungin' dungeons than killing stuff.

In Vampire: The Requiem it assumes you are a vampire, and vampires work the way that the game system says that they work. The game is well-designed enough that you can play nearly any kind of vampire you like, from a suave sophisticate to a bestial shape-changing monster. Gang-banging punks turned vampires (a la Lost Boys) will be different but just as interesting as Dead And Loving It: The Game, and that's really a triumph of design that doesn't get enough credit.

I really just hate this picture, seriously, so I figured it fit here
I would like to contrast that with 4th Edition D&D, where you are provided with one real option: You are a dungeon-crawling adventurer.

I would say that you're a Hero, but you're never really obligated to do anything heroic. You gain strength and money through killing things and taking their stuff, but, of course, it's mostly the killing that gets you experience. In the DM's Guide it actually councils against giving experience for going around, bypassing, or otherwise tricking your enemies, because you didn't "actually overcome" the challenge placed before you, so therefore no experience is given. If you used some sort of trick or trap to lessen the challenge, the DMG advises that it doesn't really count as a full encounter of the given level, so reduced experience is appropriate. This is a game where you fight an honorable, direct fight to the death, no holds barred, no surrendering, no prisoners taken. Even if you did capture somebody, by the rules as written no experience should be awarded, because you didn't defeat them and after all, what is a hero if you don't slaughter everything in your path?

Every player character is like that, because that's the only way to get ahead in the game and there's literally nothing else for you to do. They don't need to actually save anything or be a good person, and you almost certainly aren't, since the only thing that directly benefits you is punching people in the head and stealing their things to continue the power treadmill that I won't stop talking about because it is part of the underlying design mistake that I'll talk about directly. Eventually.

Because after all, isn't that the biggest assumption? The only way to gain levels is by slaughtering things, but you'll need loot too, if you want to keep up in magical items, which are going to need to fill every slot. So say goodbye to emulating old fantasy stories- this is not the system for you if you want to play Thieves' World (not enough violence, no loot) or R.E Howard's Conan (same, although some stories are fairly violent), or The Game of Thrones (plenty of loot but not enough violence, and not enough monsters), or the Trojan War (no siege weapons, no large-scale combat, not enough loot, no magic). And say goodbye to the Lord of the Rings, too, because 4th Edition is only really good at dungeon combat.

Why do I say that? Simple- 4th Edition combat is built to be balanced around both ranged and melee fighters. How does it make that happen? Simple- by setting the default to small-scale tile-based skirmish combat. Since it's square based, it needs to happen in a place where you can map out the area in those squares, because that's how you move and aim and scoot around. And it needs to be in a place that's not too big or expansive, because otherwise ranged enemies have a very distinct advantage, because that's not really fun for the guy with the sword. And do you want to map out nine hundred squares of wilderness when ninety squares would do? Of course not. But while you're restricting the area, why not do the smart thing and put it inside where it actually makes sense that you can't go in any direction you want, where the fact that there are no meaningful rules for flying or mounted combat never come into place?

Pictured: a big bag of experience standing in front of some loot
And so, while the game is very careful to take pains to create the illusion that this is the same sort of D&D you may have played before, it is very much not. It is a game where you play Heroes Who Go In Dungeons And Go Back Home To Buy Gear. Nothing else is rewarded in 4th edition. Nothing else matters other than increasing your experience and increasing the sheer amount of GP you have at your disposal, because that's all the game gives you.

This is video game fantasy where everything that isn't in your party is either irrelevant, an obstacle, or a pinata of experience and money. This is Diablo-fantasy where when your enemies die you "ding" your next level and gold pops out of their corpse, to be scooped up by you and converted into gear. I can't think of the last time I've played old-school D&D like that, or any other fantasy game. That's not how I play WHFRPG, or Dungeon World, or a fantasy-themed Mini Six, but it apparently is the correct way to play 4th edition, according to the designers and book-writers of the system.

But that's enough for today. This has already taken up an absurd amount of my time. Come back tomorrow for numbers 3 and 4, and give me some love in the comment box below this post.


  1. "And so, while the game is very careful to take pains to create the illusion that this is the same sort of D&D you may have played before, it is very much not." I think that says it all. As does your chargen critique. I nearly cried when I joined a 4e game and had to wade through chargen. Look forward to reading what you liked/should be saved from 4e.

  2. This is spot on. I kept wanting to play the same type of game I knew and loved, but 4E just wouldn't let me. My Cleric: "Do you ever think that there is maybe more to the world than just killing and buying gear? Do you ever feel like something is missing?" Barbarian: "That's crazy talk. You better get your head in the game or someone is going to kill you and take all your gear."

  3. Replies
    1. I'm sure this is facetious, but I honestly wonder what the preferred role-playing game of neo-nazis would be.