Monday, January 9, 2012

D&D Forever ...

Upon the announcement that there's to be a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I thought I'd re-post my initial observations about the 4th Edition:

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My "Geek Geezer" Opinion (FWLIW) on Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. (Old Geekzer? Could that be a word?)

First, a little history (if nothing else but to establish my "geezer" bona fides):

I've been an off and on Dungeons & Dragons player since 1981, starting with the "red-box" Basic Set and "blue-box" Expert Set, and then picking up with AD&D in about 1982. In mid 1991 I married (and then became a father at the end of 1992), but I still managed to pick up all the major Second Edition AD&D books, and even get together and play with a group again starting in the mid-90s. And in 2000 we all started playing 3rd Edition.

The basic game was a lot of fun, but seemed somewhat lacking, which was why I quickly jumped to AD&D, as soon as I realized what it was, and that it existed (I would have been about 12 at the time). It was a fuller-featured, more logical, more "realistic" (if the term can be applied to a fantasy world of the player's own imaginations) simulation of a Sword & Sorcery Fantasy Epic Adventure.

I really loved the Second Edition, too. It built so well on top of the older system, streamlining it, and adding tons of new options with the Character "Kits" (I think I was one of the few who really enjoyed those, though) ... it actually felt like the game was opening up - becoming a framework which a DM (and players) could use to build up any kind of fantasy story they desired. You want to focus on a stone-age, low-magic universe? No problem. You want High Fantasy, with magic as common as technology is in to-day's world? Easy. You want a Feudal East-Asian themed world full of honourable Samurai, peasants defending their homes with the tools they had at hand and skulking Ninja spies selling the keys to power to the highest bidder? You could do that, too. And you wouldn't necessarily have had to buy specific expansion books to do those things. Any DM with a little imagination and ingenuity could make the rules fit.

Now, when the 3rd Edition was published, I admit I was a little apprehensive. The rules, as they had been, had really grown on me. Nevertheless, I bought the new Player's Handbook, and, together with my regular gaming group, we started exploring the new rules set. And, behold! We found it good! Again, the rules had become much more streamlined, and more logical. The d20 system was a great boon in that it simplified the PROCESS of D&D gaming, without simplifying the GAME. Next thing I knew, I was buying a whole new set of D&D books. (As were all of my friends.)

Then there was a 3.5 edition, which I never really got into ... it seemed a bit pointless, really. Why spend all that money buying yet another new set of books with minor rules tweaks, when the rules we had worked so well? (Of course, we'd always had a few house rules here and there, depending on who was DM - who doesn't? - but the core rules were a great foundation.)

Unfortunately, my regular gaming group sort of fell apart a couple of years ago, and I haven't played much D&D since then. Besides - how are you gonna pull people away from the ease of playing World of Warcraft, and get them around a table to play a game? (This last question is important, as I'm sure it has gone through the minds of everyone who has had anything at all to do with the development of 4th Edition. In fact, I'd venture to say it was probably the guiding principle in 4th Edition's design.)

Then there was 4th Edition announcement.

Upon first hearing about 4E, I was, as with 3E, a little cautious. But I was also more than a little hopeful. After all, I had thought 3rd Edition was probably unnecessary, but I went into it with an open mind and was pleasantly surprised. I even found myself preferring it over the older versions. Couldn't the same thing happen again? Of course it could! I planned to do as I had with 3rd Edition: buy a Player's Handbook first, and if I liked what I read, pick up the other books and maybe try to get some of my old group back together and give it a whirl.

Now we come to the present. I've been reading the new 4th Edition Player's Handbook ...

So ... where to even begin?

I guess the first, most obvious thing is how dumb it is. I don't mean dumb, as in "not smart" ... I mean "dumbed-down" the way video games often are. Of course, video games have to be dumbed down to accommodate the lack of real intelligence behind them. They have to be run by AI, which is just a bunch of mathematics that run different equations based on the players' input. The whole point of a table-top game is that you have a real, live, thinking person who will make intelligent decisions or the NPCs and/or monsters in any given situation.

Let's take concepts like threat and aggro from the realm of MMORPGs. Why do these concepts exist? These terms represent the outcome of formulae that work behind-the-scenes in order for creatures in a MMORPG to react within some set of pre-defined parameters. (Let me just note here that I'll be using examples from WoW, because it's the most popular MMORPG out there, and the one with which I am most familiar.) These formulae can be tweaked, depending on the characteristics that the creators of the game want a particular creature to display. This way, if you're running through, say Elwynn Forest with a level 76 character, it's unlikely that any of the low-level Defias Bandits (or whatever) are going to bother you, unless you walk right up to them and stand there - or even hit them first. But, if you go through there with a level 3 character, they'll come running to attack you from many yards away. This is what allows a Murloc to decide that it's time to go running and bring back more Murlocs to help in its fight unless you take it down very quickly. This is also what allows your main "Tank" to use specific abitlities that increase her threat to any given mob, so it will attack her, instead of the poor cloth-wearing mage who is doing, probably, a lot more damage. It's these behind-the-scenes formulae that determine the reactions - and it's these same formulae that players have learned to game in order to have success. That's why it's vitally important, especially when going into an instance, to have a good tank (and a good healer) - you have to game the systemic formulae in order to make the monsters play to your strategy.

Now, in a video game this becomes a necessity. The only way around it would be to hire a lot of people to play mobs, which would be very cost-prohibitive. Another way would be to develop AI that is beyond anything that can be accomplished, currently. But, see ... this is a WEAKNESS in the video game world - one which developers are either constantly struggling to overcome, and make as transparent as possible, or which, in the case of WoW, they use as a tool in building abilities and classes within the game. Players are going to figure these things out anyway, so why not just make it part and parcel of the whole MMORPG experience? This is one of the things that annoys me about WoW - but it's something I can accept, considering the limitations of the medium.

So why, in the name of all that is Good and Right in the Universe, would the developers of a table-top RPG take the biggest weakness of MMORPGs and incorporate it into their game? WTF?!?

D&D 4E is chock FULL of this kind of malarkey. They've even gone so far as to give each class a "role" to fill in combat ... Strikers=dps, Controllers=Crowd-Control, Defender=Tank, Leader =Healer. These aren't necessarily EXACT cognates, but they're pretty close. The new combat rules are pretty much ALL about managing aggro and threat zones - a concept which really shouldn't even EXIST in this setting! So, what - now the DM is supposed to pretend to be a computer AI?

And now, characters are constantly using all these special powers ... no one ever just attacks any more. And instead of cool-downs you have frequencies of time in which to use the powers - daily, once per encounter, at will, etc. The only thing missing is the buttons on a menu bar. And these "healing surges" ... what's up with that? Why not just give us a random number of hit points to put on top of what we already have? In essence, you are rolling up hit points - you're just doing it on the fly, in the middle of combat, instead of at creation or level-up, AND you're giving every character a huge hp reserve right from level 1. (Don't even get me started on this "martial power-source" bunk.)

And speaking of rolling ... does any one else find it odd that using dice to get your character's stats is so strongly discouraged? Again, I have to compare this with video games. It makes sense in a video game - especially in an MMORPG, or any game with an on-line component, that you want to level the playing field to a certain degree. This evening-out of the playing field was traditionally handled by a DM, but again, the lack of a human DM is the big obstacle to overcome in a computer game. So we use point-buy systems, or some such thing to prevent players cheating or gaming the system to gain an unfair (or just lucky) advantage over other players. But what's the point, again, of taking a system that is primarily a response to a weakness in one system, and moving it to a system that does not share this weakness? If a DM is afraid her players will cheat on stat rolls, all she has to do is make them roll their stats in front of her! Problem solved ... and, more importantly, UNIQUENESS of CHARACTER is maintained! With the systems that 4th Ed. presents and encourages, almost all Elven Wizards are going to have the same (or VERY close) stats! As will all Dwarven Paladins, or Tiefling Rogues, or whatever ...

Whatever happened to the DEX-based fighter who could dish out damage like no one else? Doesn't exist anymore. A Fighter is a Tank is a Fighter is a Tank, with only a few possible modifications. Trying to build a truly creative, unique character, within the framework of these rules, is pretty much impossible.

Character creation in 4E feels as cold and impersonal as in WoW. Sadly, even the Neverwinter Nights character generation felt more organic. The beauty of D&D (or any table-top system) was that you could create and play something new and different - you weren't just playing another cookie-cutter hero (or anti-hero, or even villain).

Let's talk about what a framework rules set for an RPG should NOT do (unless it's set up for a specific milieu) - and that's tell us what kind of world we're in. That's what campaign settings are for! "Points of Light in the Great Darkness" or whatever, is great for a specific setting ... but don't try to implement it as part of the basic rules! In fact don't even give us deities - unless you just want to include a few as examples (much like 3E) to help guide the players and DMs in creating their own. Each setting (whether published or home-brewed) should have its own feel - it's own cosmology. I want to see vast continents full of cosmopolitan societies, where social and political intrigue play as big a role (or even bigger) as martial prowess. Or how about a universe without gods? Or maybe a whole campaign that takes place within a single huge city? Yes, you can do those things in the 4E rules - but they seem to go against the spirit that the rules are trying to set forth.

And what happened to Alignment?!? So now there's no such thing as Chaotic Good?!? WTF?!? You're telling me that a person of my own personal moral persuasion can't exist in the D&D world? And no Lawful Evil? (I guess there are no Dick Cheney's in D&D either ... so maybe it's a fair trade.) I can forgive Unaligned, I suppose ... but in a sense, that's more of a Chaotic Neutral sentiment, a "who gives a crap about all this morality anyway" attitude, that actually is, in itself, a moral stand. Now, I was never a huge fan of the old alignment restrictions, except in specific cases (Paladins are Lawful Good, End of Story.) I never used alignment languages or any of that - but I DID ask players to choose an alignment - not to punish or control their actions, but as a Role-Playing device.

Ah, Role-Playing! Anyone else remember role-playing? Ostensibly, that's what the "RP" in "RPG (and even "MMORPG") stands for. But MMORPGs tend to break the mood of real RPing. There's too much "gaming the system" and meta-talk to ever really role-play. That's where a lot of the old text-based MMORPGS had it over WoW. There was always MUCH better RP on those - even if it wasn't always consistent. Go to one of the WoW RP-specific servers, and what do you see? The same thing as on any other server, except with the occasional thee or thou or m'lady thrown in. People are still talking about movies and shouting about selling their crap over the General channel and such - and discussing meta-game concepts. Again, this is a great weakness of the electronic versions of RPGs which should NOT be brought into the Table-Top versions.

Now, I'm not an RP purist, per se. I'm not saying that I believe that everyone at the table should always speak as their characters, or anything like that. In fact, one of the great things about playing with a group, in-person, is that the amount of RP can be measured out according to the tastes and whims of the group. When you're on-line with 2,000 of your closest "friends", this isn't so easily accomplished!

I'm also not saying that D&D 4E is anti-role-playing. Role-playing is something anyone can do with any game if one so chooses - though it's easier with some games than others. (Ever tried to behave like a millionaire real-estate developing shoe in Monopoly?) However all of the emphasis in the new PHB seems to be about combat and powers and "what can you do with your cookie-cutter hero character?"

The whole intangible "feel" of 4th Edition D&D is that it's a specialized tactics game, on a par with the old Milton Bradley Hero Quest game. Its emphasis is no longer on encouraging friends to get together and use their imaginations to weave together a story, complete with character development, and plot. Now it's all about getting to the next Big Action Sequence.

Now, It's not ALL wrong. I like the idea of a hero being able to summon forth great reserves of strength to make a real difference - to do something almost super-human, just in the nick-of-time, to save the day - or even to fail while making such an attempt, and die a truly heroic death. (Though, it shouldn't be a daily occurrence.)

Again, I'm not saying D&D 4E is ALL bad. I just don't see this as D&D anymore. It's a small unit combat tactics game set in a medieval/fantasy setting, with video-game-type powers being used in Hollywood-Style Action Sequences. In short, it's D&D with all the heart and soul ripped out.

I'm sure it'll be fun for what it is - and for the generation raised on XBox and MMORPGs, and movie versions of classic stories, I'm sure it will be a lot of fun. And if you enjoy it, good for you! I'm certainly not here to ruin anyone's good time.

But for me ... it's just not the same anymore. I dunno ... maybe I'm just getting old. Or I'm just old-fashioned. Whatever it is ... YOU KIDS NEED TO GET OFF MY LAWN!!!