Friday, March 27, 2009

For now, I'm done with 4e

I really wanted to embrace 4e and run with it. I loved the ideas presented at the 2007 GenCon announcement. I listened to the podcast discussions about the thought that went into the changes in the rules. I read articles about it and bought the preview books. I eagerly anticipated its release.

During the same period of time, between the beginning of 2007 when I ended my 3.5e campaign with Keep on the Borderlands and when I dissolved my local D&D MeetUp group in June, I was re-examining what playing D&D was really all about. Since that time, I've been paying attention to the so-called "old school renaissance" that has been developing relatively recently.

Up until recently, I even had a theory that it's possible to play 4e in an old school style. Much as I'd like to think otherwise, I don't think that this is really possible. Although one can stick to dungeon crawling in a sandbox setting, the 4e rule structure is so radically different that it's not practical.

I've seen several other blogs state their various criticisms of 4e. There's no need for me to restate all of them here. But I can mention a few.

4e revolves around combat. And the combat takes too long. The characters and monsters have too many hit points. The powers system is a cookie cutter for homoginized characters. Yes, it's nice that there is balance. But this forces all the characters to be defined by how well they do in combat. Sometimes less is better. I realized that this was the case when my game group played a first-level encounter with a dozen goblins. The combat took much less time than a similar encounter in 4e.

I think I am completely done with the idea of using skills in Dungeons & Dragons. All it does is complicate game play. And not only does it define what a character does, it also defines what the character can't do. Secondary professions are unimportant to hero-adventurers. Minor tasks that have been defined in terms of skill difficulty in later additions can be resolved more easily with rules presented in earlier editions. Or the DM can just improvise, which is what they usually did back in the day. And even with 3.5e or 4e, the DM ends of making up scads of house rules anyway. So what's the point in spending all that time with character sheets that are as complicated as tax forms? Basically, who cares? The point of the game is adventure, not statistics.

I don't like how actual role-playing at the game table has been replaced with skill challenges. I also have a similar criticism of 3.5e.

I don't like how 1st level 4e characters kick ass in essentially the same manner as 30th level characters. Sure, their powers are different. But in terms of game mechanics, it's all the same at any level but with different levels of damage.

The end game that was defined in early editions is gone. Instead of aspiring towards running a fiefdom, guild, or temple, 4e is a game of apotheosis. You start out as a abnormally powerful hero and then work your way up to godhood. Although the game mechanics have been relatively simplified in comparison to 3.5e, suping up character statistics has been institutionalized and is irrevocably essential. Whatever happened to henchmen? Loyalty checks? All down the tubes because the 4e game is all about the power and glory of the PC.

I suppose I could rant further. But I think you get the picture. I will play 4e, if given the opportunity. I'd like to see it succeed. Perhaps a 4.5e will be released that will restructure the rules. But I doubt it. It's the fundamental style of 4e that kind of turn me off.

Nevertheless, there are a few things about 4e that I like. The cosmology, for instance. I like some of the new monsters. The dragonborn and teiflings are nice ideas. But these and other nifty bells and whistles aren't enough to convince me to put in the effort towards running a 4e campaign.

Who knows? Maybe I'll change my opinion. But for now, I'm having much more fun playing it old school.


trollsmyth said...

And you know what? We promise not to come by your home and tear up your Old School membership card if you import tieflings or the 4e cosmology into your games.

Well, ok, I promise not to. That James Raggi dude, there's no telling what he might do. ;)

MJ Harnish said...

I hear you: Every session of 4E I run increases my dissatisfaction with the system as a whole. PHB2 will be the last book I buy and I'll be wrapping up the campaigns I'm running over the next few months and move on to a better game.

trollsmyth said...

Just out of curiosity, MJ, what games are in consideration to replace 4e for you?

Spike Page said...

So THAT'S why I can't find my Old-School-Club secret glow-in-the-dark decoder ring then? I suppose somebody finally outed my "human" Oe 5th Level Fighter? Hmm?

I recall a friend of mine who plays 4e saying "Any system is only as good as the gamemaster running it." I suppose there's a good bit of truth in that, but it seems that when the game takes over and tries to run the gamemaster, things have gone astray.

Oddysey said...

Beware the wrath of Raggi!

It's funny. I had a very, very similar reaction to 4e. Loved it when I first started running it, and then got more and more dissatisfied with it -- and at the same time, more and more interested in old school styles of play. I still think it's a great game, and I'm still interested in it as a tactical experience, but I'm not terribly interested in what it does as a roleplaying game.

Nicholas said...

Hey, not every game system will appeal to every person. That being said, I think that EVERY edition of D&D has been almost solely combat focused. What is different about 4E though, is it is much more tactically focused, where maps, minis, forced movement, and many standard wargame conventions (as opposed to RPG conventions) apply.

I kind of agree with you on the character progression thing, but its a toss up. Either the characters are fully competent and capable at every level, or you get the problem of the 4 hit point Wizard casting a Magic Missle or two and then being done, waiting several levels later until his powers make him wonder why he needs the other slobs in his group :-p

If you abandon Skill use in D&D (a noble effort in 4E but still very flawed) then your game mechanics are MORE all about Combat. While clunky, I do give 4E props for trying to come up with a way that PCs could advance a story /in a manner that earns experience points/ besides killing stuff.

I had given up on D&D years ago because I felt it was lacking something fundamental for RP, and played all sorts of other games - White Wolf, Hero System, GURPS, pretty much all the major brands, and then more recently delved into the more experiememental systems you find at The Forge (Dogs in the Vineyard for example). I went back to D&D for awhile under 3.0/3.5 and really did like what they did with it, but I quickly grew dissatisfied with the exception based rules and felt the powergame aspects got out of control. I really like 4E in theory, but I would agree with many of the criticisms.

As I've mellowed I've decided RP is what you make of it, and when I play D&D I basically want a fantasy adventure with lots of action. 4E does it for me, so I can live with it for what it is. I certainly don't think its in any way worse than say 1st Ed or 2E, and is cleaner than 3.5.

Of course, if I want to play a character-driven, Roleplay centric story game? I am not going to D&D anyway :-)