03 August 2013

D&D IV Post Mortem: Part 3

The third part of my D&D 4th edition post-mortem, where I talk about the things I have learned to dislike about 4th edition D&D through experience.

Disagree? Take a drink, leave me a comment, and tell me why I'm wrong. I'm actually looking forwards to it, for once. I wanted to like this game, but the more I played it, the more constraining its limitations have felt.

Try not to get too carried away with the drinking


Let's continue.

Ten Reasons Why I Hate 4th Edition: Part Three

5. There is nothing to do but kill things

    Or: Why am I playing pen and paper Diablo?

I get that people really enjoy combat sometimes, because 3rd edition/Pathfinder is stupidly popular and in it, the only system that is worth anything is the combat system, but let's be serious; the combat minigame is just one way to resolve conflict. At least, it is in a system that makes any sort of sense.

In the real world, negotiation is the main method of resolving conflict, and fights are both brutal and short. People do everything they can to avoid getting killed, because death really hurts and makes you wish that you hadn't actually made that guy as angry as you had. In the real world, a "simple" knife wound can result in some serious scars, and life-changing injuries.

And in most games, the game fiction bears that out. You can die from a stab wound, or being shot by even a moderately sized firearm, or from being dropped from a large enough height, because that's what the human body is actually capable of enduring without total systems failure. Sometimes you get lucky and it's just a scratch, and sometimes you don't and your character dies in one hit. Better luck next time.

"But dying from a single wound isn't fun! What's the fun of playing a game where you can die in one round?"

It's simple. It's tense knowing that your every fight could be a fight to the death. Possibly losing your character is terrifying, and terror is exciting! Sure, maybe it's not "fun" to have your character killed, but the knowledge in the back of your head that your character could die is a very good motivator to making the best choices possible.

A punch to the head from this guy won't even slow your character down.
Besides, in most games the real goal isn't to get in and win as many fights as possible, like you're some sort of fantasy mixed martial artist in the Monster Fighting League. Your goal is to do whatever it is that your character is supposed to be doing. Your druid might be trying to right the balance of the world, or maybe your warrior is seeking revenge for his slain parents. Maybe your wizard is just looking for ultimate arcane power. None of those goals necessarily imply repeatedly fighting things. In Lord of the Rings, the characters spend more time travelling than fighting things, and every time they fight it's because they're battling genocidal orcs. In Conan, the titular barbarian spends more time skulking and exploring than fighting, because he might have brawny thews but he's not an idiot.

But in 4th edition, you are an exceptionally tough individual. You're supposed to be getting into fights to the death repeatedly, and you are supposed to win. It's the point of the system! It reminds you of that in the Dungeon Master's Guide, and your character sheet reminds you every step of the way. Why else would you have so many powers and such detailed rules and a character literally defined by the role they play in combat?

And so, four-color Fantasy Superheroes is the main mode of play, and there's no real way to play it any other way without revamping everything. And it's not even good Fantasy Superheroes because you don't get the same sort of cool powers that a superhero would get. Would you read a comic where Batman just punched the lights out of people for a hundred pages? No, probably not. So why is it ok that punching things be the overwhelming focus of your roleplaying game?

This is not a thing that will happen in 4th edition unless you ignore most of the rules

6. None of this makes any internal sense

    Or: Am I the only person in the world who cares?

I'm a pretty lenient when it comes to "making sense." I can accept that a dragon lives in the next mountain, and that goblins live in mudshacks outside civilized society. The Hollow Earth doesn't bug me, even if Drow should be pale-skinned instead of pitch-black, and it doesn't make sense for them to cast Darkness because what possible damn use could that be. I'm ok with it because it makes internal sense with the game fiction.

The dragon, for example, mostly sits around and sleeps on top of his hoard, so the village near him thinks he's a legend. Or maybe he comes out and demands tribute, or eats a sheep, so the villagers are just unusually watchful- but otherwise, life proceeds like in any other hamlet. And Drow, they can be explained away; they might be very strong, but they do come up and raid for slaves and for gold; just like adventurers sometimes go down there and bust stuff up. It makes sense, because their raiders are a neat parallel to adventurers, and since humans and they live in totally different parts of the world, they don't even have that much contact and, well, that makes sense in my gut.

But that doesn't jive with the fiction in 4th edition world, because monsters range from levels 1-30, inclusively. And so do heroes. And so you have a conundrum. Why haven't the level 26 Yuan-Ti razed all the towns in the world yet? Why hasn't the level 19 Red Arcanian reduced half the world to ash yet? What is stopping them?

Not these guys; nobody fights from horseback in 4e worlds.

There are only three real explanations; either they don't want to, they already have, or they can't.

I have no idea why they wouldn't want to, because the whole point of having evil monsters lurking around is that they want to do shitty things like kill everybody. Otherwise the "heroes" are the ones being dicks, and that goes right against trying to force everybody in the game to have some flavor of "good" alignment.

If they already have, then that's kind of interesting but it does leave the players at a bit of an impasse. Monsters strong enough to destroy civilization are going to be too strong for weak adventurers to kill, and that means that they get to either watch DMPCs do everything or gaze over a blasted wasteland and try to avoid being slain by the Prison of Mual-Tar while they attempt to locate some goblins so they can get the experience to do something useful.

If they can't, then something is stopping them, and why doesn't it pre-emptively smash them to bits before the monsters get the chance? And if they do that, then what is there for the players to do?

This is leaving aside such asinine complaints as "it doesn't make sense that my fighter can only use his Sword Spin once per encounter" or whatever. That doesn't bother me nearly as much as the way that the level scale and monster design and the combat-heavy focus makes designing a world that makes sense and fulfills the basic assumptions of the stock game so goddamn difficult. Why do I have to make up a thousand excuses for the designers, exactly? Why do I have to engage in mental gymnastics to make a world that makes sense?


  1. Yeah, D&D has always had the problem of explaining why the high-level Bad Things haven't already conquered everything. I suppose in campaign design you put them all in some alternate dimension until the PCs level up and then have them suddenly discover a way to invade. Also I like the mention that nobody fights on horseback in 4E.

  2. I have ALWAYS been bothered by the fact that Drow are dark-skinned and not pale. That to me is incredibly weird. The fact that they cast Darkness as a racial ability is just weird...really weird. Wouldn't casting "Light" be more useful in blinding subterranean enemies so they can escape?

    However, I am really enjoying this serious of complaints about 4th Ed. Although I think it's a problem with all of the D&D editions. Killing is the only way to gain XP and lack of internal consistency. One of the issues with D&D has always been that the world exists for the player characters. They only run into things that they can overcome, rather than encountering impossible odds, because as DMs we have taught players that running away is not an option.

    It's one of the reasons that I like White Wolf games. Everything can be defeated. Everything pretty much has 7 health levels. Everything has a weakness that can be exploited. Players are rewarded for Roleplaying not combat.

    I've played a lot of D&D and there are lots of things I like about D&D. I want to play a good D&D game again. I might run a D&D game in the future, but the issue is always the system itself.