During the initial discussions about creating Intwischa, Chase, Bryan, Matt and I spent time looking at other gaming blogs to get a feel for what is out there. There is a lot of good stuff–I’m intentionally avoiding name-dropping right now, because my point is not the good stuff. My point is the bad stuff, much of which is centered around bloggers decrying D&D 4E as the death of gaming, or forum flame wars with Wizards fanboys proclaiming that the pinnacle of gaming has been achieved.
So, what’s the stance at Intwischa?
I suppose I need to say at this point that the views expressed in this article are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Intwischa, its writers or board of directors, or your local public radio affiliate.
Having said that, I’m going to piss everyone off and take the most namby-pamby, I-can’t-commit-to-anything, Oh-my-god-that-druid-just-called-me-neutral stance in the world. D&D 4E succeeds at the most basic thing it is intended to be: a game. (By the way, you can also add Chutes and Ladders to that list.)
Gasp! But what about roleplaying ideals? What of social contracts, and suspension of disbelief, and historically accurate cufflinks?
The truth is, I’ve never really cared about those things.
Well, not never. When it comes to talking about the ideas behind games, I’m like a wine snob who shoves his nose so far into the glass as to moisten his delicate nostril hair. Heck, as Chase has said, that’s just what we do here at Intwischa.
My dark secret, however, is that I talk about games only to fill the void between getting to do with games what I like best: play them. All this crap I discuss about light sources or clever ideas to steal is imaginative masturbation meant to keep me sane until I can roll the dice again. (I really hope my psychologist doesn’t read this blog.)
Stop talking about nostril hair and get to the game, already!
Yeah, sorry about that. (Although I do hope we become a top Google result for “nostril hair.”)
I’ve been playing 4E since it came out. I’d say “on and off,” but that implies too much intention–it would be like saying “I eat pizza on and off” simply because one doesn’t eat it every night. Sometimes when I play games, I play 4E. Sometimes, I play other games. It really isn’t more complicated than that.
I loved the 4E rules immensely when they came out. Much of this has to do with a simple fact: they’re pretty dang good. When you add to that the reality that, when 4E came out, I was the father of a young child working full time and enrolled part time in a masters program, and meanwhile trying to DM an “epic” (scope, not level) D&D 3.5 adventure, 4E felt like a blessing. Finally, an end to the dreaded multi-page stat block!
This shows the thing that, in my mind, works best about 4E. Running a game is dead simple, and the GM can just focus on setting up compelling situations for the characters to be in. No more “homework” nights like in 3.5, where I’d take a monster from the manual, give it a class, apply three or four templates, and spend hours leveling it until it was the right challenge rating… wait, I mean level… oh, I give up.
4E streamlines much of the rules, eschewing things like grapple (when I finally had memorized the correct process!) for attack rolls that are pretty much straight up d20 plus modifier. True, there can be a lot of modifiers, which means a lot of paper to manage in the form of “power cards” (which I’m not sure I love) that are printed from the character management software that is virtually required to manage the game (which I’m sure I don’t love). Still, it seems to me that in-game rules referencing needs to happen about one fifth of the time that it happens in 3.5. Which is still fifty percent more than 0e, but still one-fourteenth of AD&D 2E, so it’s all relative.
4E’s crowning glory is its combat system. This is the kind of game where your blood gets pumping when the GM says “Roll Initiative,” and combat really gives the players options. No more fighters who are “hit, hit, hit” while clerics back them up with “heal, heal, heal” (and wizards curse, “But I only have one spell at this level!”). Now, fighters get to do cool stuff that moves enemies or compels them to focus on the fighter, while the powers of clerics allows them to hit while they heal. And the wizard doesn’t have to worry about detonating his payload too early in flight; the at-will system is brilliant for keeping characters relevant through combat.
The biggest weakness of 4E isn’t that it requires an IT person to play, or that it uses cards, or that it feels like a board game at times. These are all just truths about it, and if they don’t sound fun, then don’t play the game. Instead, the biggest weakness is the “role playing” aspect of the game.
In some ways, I view 4E as the opposite of FATE. Whereas FATE doesn’t account for strong tactical combat, 4E gets in the way of strong role-playing.
“Wait,” you might say, “isn’t it the player’s job to bring the role to the play?”
Yes, but it is the system’s job to build the framework in which to play that role. Because 4E’s approach to that is largely based around what the character can do in combat, rewarding the character for playing a role is not a prominent feature of the system. Because it maximizes the role of tactics, it minimizes player incentive to do things that are not tactical, but are, perhaps, human. The greatest reward of the game comes from using the mechanics to achieve tactical victory, thus the player is faced with a choice: either the story suffers as players make decisions that allow dominance in combat, or the system suffers as players make sub-optimal choices to try to bolster the story.
Anyone got a fix?
My first recommendation is this: if you want to play one of the most tactically fulfilling RPGs that I’ve experienced, you can’t go wrong with 4E. If, however, your goal is to tell a compelling story where players are challenged to explore the depths of their characters, there are many better choices–including old editions of Dungeons and Dragons.
The best “fix” to this is to keep the system limitations in mind when designing characters. Very martially-oriented characters should thrive in a game that rewards tactical combat expertise. Thus, Conan the Barbarian might make a fine 4E character, but Inigo Montoya might suffer simply because his character’s motivation gets in the way of “smart playing” in combat. It’s tempting to suggest a fix of using a non-combat system for the non-combat encounters, but I fear this would only exacerbate the problem by even further removing characters’ actions during combat from their out-of-combat actions.
An alternative fix is inspired very much by Gamma World 4E, another excellent product. Tell a story that isn’t serious. Try using 4E to play through Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail. After all, your players are probably quoting it anyway; why not make a game around it? If the story is laughable, it’s rather easy to come up with comically overwrought explanations of character inconsistency.
Dude, you’re harshing my vibe
This is probably one of those posts that comes across as sounding like “Cancer really isn’t all that bad–it has taught me to not take life for granted.” But I’m really not so harsh a critic of 4E; in the last three years, it is far and away the RPG I’ve played more than any other. I do truly believe it is a great game, and I think I like it better than 3.5. I do not look at 4E’s limitations as failures of the system. Rather, I consider the things 4E doesn’t do as simply outside the scope of the game.
One doesn’t sit down for a game of Catan hoping for a rewarding simulation of Machiavellian politics. A rich, characterful experience that simultaneously rewards players with a full and satisfying utilization of the rules is simply beyond what D&D 4E is designed for.