Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ramblings about Pathfinder vs. 4E

I haven't been posting in a while because of work. But I've been reading the RPG blogs every day. Today I noticed a link to a very interesting blog entry at Chad Perrin: SOB titled How Paizo Fixed D&D. Then I noticed a response to that blog entry at The Core Mechanic. So I've come out from under my rock to post some of my thoughts regarding this issue.

I am no longer enthusiastic about 3.5E. And I'm even less interested in 3P, as the Pathfinder system is being labeled. The set of D&D rules that accumulated since the publication of 3E back in 2000 became a bloated mess. D&D is an exception-based rule system and the amount of exceptions became monumental and sometimes contradictory. The amount of preparation on the part of the DM became too much. The game's complexity is a turn-off to newbies.

When I returned to gaming in 2005, it was with D&D 3.5E. But even though I had decades of experience with playing RPGs, I was constantly at a disadvantage because I didn't have the level of skill with the 3.5E rules as my fellow gamers at the table. The group I was with was very unforgiving and lacked patience for newbie gamers. I saw several newbies come and go from that group. Newbies who had the time to play but were either rejected because of their seeming "unwillingness to learn the rules" or either just plain lost interest. Right before I left that group, it was suggested to me that I should just play a fighter since it was the simplest character class.

Good grief! There shouldn't be this massive learning curve for RPGs!

When I started my own gaming group, I DM'd in the fashion that I thought would be friendlier and more accommodating to newbies. But there was still that barrier of rule complexity. One fellow who joined my group was a really great guy who knew the 3.5E rules very well. Even though I was the DM, I found myself deferring to his wisdom regarding rule mechanics. Since I wasn't running a store-bought 3.5E module, I had to write up monster and NPC stats for each game session. The amount of time I spent preparing materials was massively disproportionate to their amount of game-time use.

This is the part where I start raving about the virtues 4E, right? Well, maybe.

When 4E was announced, I was excited about it. The more I learned, the better I liked it. The folks at WotC seemed to be mirroring many of my opinions about the shortcomings of 3.5E. They rebuilt the entire game from the ground up. Monsters are much easier to create from scratch. The skills are simplified. The classes are now balanced in a very precise and consistent manner. I like how the system of PC powers, feats, and tiers easily guide development so that you can have butt-kicking fun at all levels. This is in contrast to 3.5E, where you eventually discover that you have to meticulously plan character development in advance through careful examination of Byzantine rules in God knows how many splat books in order to make manifest your perfect snowflake. Massive programs have been written by third parties to assist with 3.5E character creation. 4E character development isn't nearly as complicated.

4E has some drawbacks, though, in my opinion. I miss Vancian magic. Most of the rules for PCs only relate to combat. Many aspects of 4E, so I've been told, strongly resemble World of Warcraft and collectible card games. The game now seems entirely focused on the goal of elevating PCs to inevitable apotheosis.

Nevertheless, 4E is simpler than 3.5E. But its style is heavily influenced by the popularity of computer RPGs and I'm not sure I like that. Ever since 4E was published, I've been wondering what this role-playing game thing is really all about.

I'm an old-timer who started gaming when the hobby was becoming mainstream. Only a few years after I started gaming, the adventure path style was beginning to coalesce in the form of Dragonlance, as James over at Grognardia recently pointed out. Although pre-generated characters following a scripted story repelled me, I eventually found myself buying into the idea that all good RPG adventures had to have a story arc. I convinced myself that I couldn't be a good GM unless I was a good writer. I've come to realize that this idea was utter nonsense.

As I recounted in an earlier post, I learned about the term, "sandbox campaign." I was also turned on to various blogs and forums pertaining to the "old school" gaming style. Since then, I've decided that old school sandbox campaigning is my preferred way of playing any RPG.

Then there is Pathfinder. (Were you wondering when I was going to get to that? I was too.) It is the continuation of the 3.5E rule set and is ideal for people who are not interested in the drastic changes of 4E. Apparently, much work has gone into making it a fine product. But it is not for me.

One would think that an old-timer like myself would abbhor 4E in favor of 3.5E. Or perhaps it wouldn't be surprising if I called myself a grognard that would rather play OD&D or 1E. But I'm not too sure I will abandon years of gaming evolution and return to an earlier, simpler system. And Swords & Wizardry is just about as simple as it gets!

No, what concerns me the most about modern role-playing games is the idea of the adventure path versus sandbox campaigning. In my very humble opinion, I think this bifurcation of attitude towards playing RPGs is at the heart of many discussions dating back 30 years. I think that it's at the heart of the dissatisfaction of grognards towards modern rule sets. And I also think it's at the heart of the Pathfinder vs. 4E debate. But I'm not sure that many people realize it yet.

(Here's where I really go out on a limb and where I will probably start ducking rotten fruit flung at my head.)

The 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is fantastic for old school-style sandbox campaigns.

There. I said it. Call me completely insane. But I think it's true. I'll try to explain why.

I've decided that story arcs are a bad idea. The adventure path is gaming entertainment and not actually a game. Paizo's Pathfinder is the culmination of that gaming tradition. It's in the name of their game, for God's sake. They've published not modules but adventure paths.

The premise of 4E is the "points of light" concept. This is as it should be. When I started my own campaign last year, I wanted it to take place in a period of time similar to that of the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. That way there could be isolated settlements, perhaps a few warring kingdoms, and plenty of ancient ruins for dungeon crawling. I didn't want the campaign world to be too civilized like Greyhawk or other published settings. I wanted it to have as much wilderness as possible. After I dreamed up this campaign, I found out that this is exactly what was intended for 4E. In fact, the points of light premise inspired Goodman Games to publish a book detailing four sandbox campaigns in their Points of Light source book.

And then there is Mike Mearls himself who is running a sandbox campaign using the Wilderness Survival map, as suggested by Gary Gygax back in 1974. Hello? Did anyone else notice this? One of the lead developers of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is looking at the weird ways of old school gaming. Check out what he had to say about The Keep on the Borderlands. Even his blog is a play on that title.

4E is completely stripped down. Many have noticed that there is not much beyond combat rules in the core rule books. Is this a bad thing? Maybe. Or maybe it isn't. One of the virtues of old school gaming is the lack of rules. The DM and players of OD&D and AD&D were expected to make up rules on the spot if it was ever needed. Inventing house rules was part of the fun. Why is it impossible to take the rules presented in 4E and build upon it with house rules?

Another criticism of 4E is the lack of fluff in the Monster Manual. Well, there wasn't much more than crunch in the OD&D monster decriptions, either. Over the years, the lore regarding orcs and goblins became more and more detailed. Just take a look at the description of those monsters in the OD&D books and then look at how they ever so gradually expanded in 1E, 2E, and 3E. As of 3.5E, those creatures were fairly well defined in terms of fluff. In 4E, they are not. That's because it's now up to you. Again. As it was in OD&D.

So here I am, a quasi-grognard who thinks that 4E can be great for old school-style sandbox campaigns. The trouble is that almost all of the gamers playing 4E want video game-style "quests" handed to them on a silver platter so that the PCs can take part in the DM's scripted adventure path. And almost all of the gamers who want to play it old school want to do it using OD&D, AD&D, OSRIC, or Swords & Wizardry.

What's a weirdo misfit gamer like myself to do? Keep blogging, I guess.


spiritsofeden said...

Thank you very much for your enlightening post. I am also a 4e gamer, and though I am not an old-school gamer, (I missed that boat by about 15-20 years) I can identify with some of your points and I can most certainly agree wit some others.

I don't agree that storyline gaming is bad, and I think 4e can do it. What I do agree with, from having played OD&D and Swords and Wizardry (as an experiment in gaming, I tried pretty much every edition of D&D so far), is that it seems almost, in a surreal way, to harken back to those days. When I first saw the "Convert Your Character" articles on Wizard's website, about how to play classes not yet in the game using the 4e classes available, I was a little shocked. I thought it was outrageous at first, and I'm a 4e fan! "Playing a Barbarian by saying my Fighter's angry? That's just dumb! What are you trying to say Wizard's? You're just lazy and didn't want to write a real conversion guide!"

But then I started to realize that that's pretty much what a Barbarian was in 3.5. It was a Fighter, who got really angry. There were mechanics for getting really angry, but at the end of the day, I started to consider, couldn't a Fighter be a Barbarian? That's sort of when I began to wrap my head around 4e as you, and apparently even Wizard's of the Coast, thinks about it.

Now, where we differ, is that, while I do love myself a good sandbox game, I also want to run storyline games with it. And I do! Much like you said, I can implement my own fluff, any house rules I like. 4e is even better for storyline games to me because the lack of prep time compared to 3e means I can get on with making my storyline, and the flexibility of the rules (others would say it is inflexibility, but I don't) means I can do a lot with them without worrying about "breaking" things. I even have a big host of house rules I use as well. A lot of people ask me, if I have to house rule 4e to play it, why not play 3e?

Well, because my house rules list would become a House Rules Bible if I played 3e and it wouldn't eliminate the long prep times, complex rules interactions and crushing boredom I suffer with it.

Also, I would not listen to all those World of Warcraft or CCG comparisons if I were you. They seem at best disingenuous and at worst to be strawmen.

Great post, and I will certainly be keeping an eye on this blog from now on. Kudos to you, sir!

Jonathan said...

"The 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is fantastic for old school-style sandbox campaigns"

100% agree. I think may have said something to the same effect in my series "The New Cleric is the Old Cleric"; but I can't find it right now. Point being: 4E is closer to OD&D than 3.5E IMHO; although both have their faults and good points. As someone who is running a sandbox campaign using 4E rules - all I can say is that the rules do not get in the way at all; in fact... things are smooth, encounters are quick to assemble, and the story unfolds however the players have it. No one at my table (6 people) have any interest in returning to the massive-top heavy 3.5 ruleset. Nice post! oh. .and thanks for the bump!

greywulf said...

Good post.

4e is definitely closer to old-school roots than it first appears. Where 3e took a hand-holding approach with tight controls over everything from monster design to creating magic items, 4e is a much looser, more fluid system. The GM is put in control again with imagination taking precedence over balancing the numbers.

Both 3e and 4e are great systems for sandbox play, but 4e definitely wins out thanks to it's much lower demands when it comes to preparation. I can toss an adventure together for 4e in half an hour where in 3e I'd still be working out the darned stats for the main villain an hour later.

Donny_the_Dm said...

Agreed...word for word.

Great non-confrontational, and completely rational discourse.

I tried and failed :)

Will Douglas said...

I have to agree with you that 4e seems to be a good fit for a sandbox campaign of the old school mode. I just think that the video-game-esque powers and stuff are a bit over the top for me.

And as for having only rules for combat? Sounds very much like the original 1974 rules to me. People complained about that then, too.

Personally, I don't want rules that tell me how to play my character. So in that regard, I don't have a problem at all with 4e. (I still don't like the way they handle alignment, though.)

Very good post.

kelvingreen said...

The lack of fluff in the MM does bother me. Even fifty words about the creatures' non-combat activities would have been nice. Yes, I can make it up myself, and I likely will, but it would be nice to have a starting point which is not a list of numbers.

Also, I suspect you're being a bit unfair in your presentation of the "only combat rules" criticism. Consider the magic, for example; there are lots oand lots of spells to cause damage or give bonuses to combat, but other stuff is stuffed into a very weak and threadbare appendix. Part of D&D's charm for me has always been spells like Feather Fall, Knock, and so on, but this aspect has been ignored in the new edition.

All that said, I'm playing 4e at the moment and really enjoying it, and I do agree that it's a good fit for sandbox gaming. But it's also very far from being perfect, and its flaws are grating.

njharman said...

>But I'm not too sure I will abandon years of gaming evolution and return to an earlier, simpler system.

Most of that gaming evolution has been towards simple, rules-lite systems. Even Hackmaster! is jumping on the rules lite wagon with Hackmaster Basic.

You're abandoning that evolution by sticking with complex rules dinosaurs like new editions of old games D&D, GURPS, Palladium.

Sticking with or without "evolution" for the evolutions sake is silly. Do what's fun for you.

The trend of taking power away from DM's and discouraging player trust of DM's continued in 4ed hinders it's ability as a sandbox ruleset. I also don't see why you can't sandbox 3.5 or any edition of D&D. Although, again that trend hinders it.

Mr Baron said...

Interesting post, nicely done.

You hit on a couple of basic themes that I see making their rounds through the blogs:

1. Sandbox v. Adventure path
2. Methodology & Mechanics

I think that this post is one of the first I have seen where it is said that 4th is perfect for the Sandbox campaign. This is a refreshing point of view.

You also hit on a concept that I have blogged about and will do more so in the future and that is the concept of points of light (I call it heroic gaming) and treasure hunting. It is my belief that old school gaming is about the later and new school gaming is about the former. Wizards has come out and stated that their system will revolve around the concept of PoL, which is really another way of saying characters as Heroes. In the last campaign I played, I ran my campaign using this style of play. My next campaign I will be running it as the characters as the treasure hunter (in the spirit of Indiana Jones). I will maintain that this style of play is better suited to the sandbox than the PoL or Heroic play. IMO it feels that PoL is better suited to the Adventure Path. Knowing that you are not a fan of the Adventure Path, I find your discussion very interesting.

I am in agreement with your commentary on the bloat of 3rd ed. The prep time needed is too much compared to the what you get out of it. It seems the focus has become the rules itself, rather than in the fun of the game.

I am hoping that you expand at bit on this topic in your future blogs.

Blotz said...

"Great non-confrontational, and completely rational discourse."

Agreed, except for one phrase...

"The adventure path is gaming entertainment and not actually a game."

If someone called my game that in real life, I'd hit him with a steel chair. It's an incredibly insulting term and a poor attitude to take towards fellow gamers. Remember, people who spend their free time pretending to kill dragons, fight supervillians, or explore the depths of space are all soul brothers regardless of what ruleset or approach they use.

solomani said...

Hi guys,
A friend of mine linked this blog as well as the Grognardia one and I have spent a few days reading it. Its great! I just want to say thanks to both you guys. Let me explain. I have been playing D&D since I was about 10 or 11 (about 25 years). I played through basic, 1e –skipped 2e- and ran a campaign under 3e and 3.5e. Now I always felt something was missing from the 3e campaigns. I couldn’t put my finger on it but they just didn’t seem as fun. Certainly some of that would be nostalgia but not all of it and this post and both blogs have let me put a name to my unease – Old school vs. modern D&D and Sandbox vs Adventure Path. So thanks for clearing that up for me.

I guess my next question is that I tend to like 4e mechanics. I think they are superior to 3e-x generally but I would like to make it more old school. Certainly the core of old-school gaming is more about challenging the player as opposed to challenging the character which you can do under any rule set but the rules affect how easy it is to do this. Has there been any discussion on how to modify 4e to give it a more old-school style?

Off the top of my head removing skills, doubling xp requirements but allowing gp to = xp and reducing either monster hps or numbers to make combat faster would be the first three things I would do.

Malgrim said...

In terms of improving the feel of 4e, I really enjoyed an article in the new Level Up! magazine from Goodman Games about re-skinning powers. They took (as an example) the first level Fighter powers, and rewrote everything but the actual mechanics, to suit the specific game world they were approaching.

Right away, the feel was there! It is odd, even eerie how influenced we are by the simple choice of words, but it is true. There is an immediate, gut level connection when the names and decriptions of powers fit directly into your game world.

Sebastian said...

4e just doesn't have the same feel, perhaps if your initial group had been more adult and welcomed you in you may have felt more comfortable with 3.0-3.5 (it certainly was for me) but the challenge of the new system was something I wanted to understand.

4e lacks flexibility, and groups skills etc together, everyone is the same, every battle is the same (especially for the cleric, who has lost all versatility in combat or even when approaching encounters).

4e is a different game and requires more work, but it is simple to play and I hope it brings a new group to the table (even when they look for something more and come to pathfinder).

Eljay said...

I also am an old school gamer. I played OD&D, 1E, then switched to Warhammer FRPG, and finally to GURPS (in 1990).

I have only brushed up against 2E (disliked it), 3E (disliked it more), 3.5 (really disliked a lot). I doubt I'd find Pathfinder to my liking. And BD&D -- ugh.

I have also brushed up against 4E, and thought it was much better than 2E, 3E, and 3.5. But not as alluring at 1E, which just had a certain magical charm.

These days, I think that simple game mechanics like Risus, Fudge, or T&T v5.0 (with M!M!) makes for better RPG experience.

Even though I really like GURPS/4e -- which has all the crunch you can munch -- I think rules light is better.

Game on!

Eldrad Wolfsbane said...

After playing 4th edition since it came out I decided to just stop playing/DMing. The game just stopped being fun. The stupidly large amounts of hit points compared to the small amounts of damage that you dish out just got boring from around 6th level on up. Any role playing game that has combats lasting over 30 minutes is just bad game design. Some large combats lasted over 3 hours! My old gaming group is still playing it without me/wife/daughter and claim that it is now going faster.

A social activity that works better with less people?

I am checking out Pathfinder which seems like an improvement in many ways to 3.5 but I will have to run it to see.

I still can't figure out why someone would design monsters with full character stats.

I am closely looking at the OSR games such as LL and S&W with the S&W complete rules looking really good to me.

Aaron said...

I am a old school RPGer. My Wife and I played for many, many years 3.0/3.5 D&D (about 1/2 freeplay and 1/2 RPGA which we loved). Before that I played 2.0 (or AD&D as most call it).

When we found out that 3.5 was ending and 4th was comming..we thought ok looks interesting on paper...but to us we were so wrong. We played some of it and found that we had to dumb/slow our brain down to play 4th..reminded us of playing MMORPG's (EQ/WOW etc etc). So we took a break from tabletop RPG (2 years in fact) then head about the 4th ed encounters..

So dust off the 4th ed books and played season one.. not bad.. but mostly was getting to reconnect with our fellow gamers. Then Dark about a bore (mind you our Gm's are excellent) one could get into Dark Sun (why not spelljammer or ravenloft) which brings us to Essentials (and season 3)..

Good GOD we did not know that the human brain can be so dumbed down. To us this really was narrow minded for 4th (or 4.5 or 3.9 etc etc what peeps say about essentials). Now to get new players into rpging..excellent idea..but for those who want to think..BZZZ. (also as a point I think over time the RPGA really has lost its eye on the prize and that WotC is slowing muscling out RPGA..IMHO)

Now My wife wants to quit D&D 4th/essentials after seaosn 3 is over and I don't blame her. WE seen many peeps drop D&D when it went from 3.5 to 4e (yet 4e did bring in new people.. hence I do understand WotC is a business).

So now I am looking into Pathfinder (waiting for the core book to come into our FLGS..yes yes I can get it at a book sotre but like to support our FLGS)so that we might get back into the 3.5'ish system we really loved. Looking around Pathfinder seems to have grown very fast (even at our Game days I see the ratio of Pathfinder/D&D tables to be about 3/1 almost 4/1 ratio). We know there is no perfect system to make everyone happy (hence competition).

But to us comparing Pathfinder to 4E/Essentials.. we like to use our brains (which I see more and more young gamers dont use..most dont want to read the books and learn.)

Time will tell if we will like Pathfinder..

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