Monday, August 9, 2010

4e powers are nice but...

Before the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was released, I was eager to make the change to the new system. I had heard much about how this set of rules was going to simplify things and make it easier and faster to play. For a while after it was released, I tried to love it. But ultimately I abandoned it and sold all my 4e books on eBay.

Nevertheless, I am impressed with the 4e combat system. It rigidly defines the sequence of the combat turn and all the various maneuvers one can make. It is the sum result of decades of house rules and subsequent official implementation of these house rules combined with a new system called "powers."

For my own future D&D campaigns, I am currently assembling a new set of house rules. These rules are a combination of various editions of D&D into a game that focuses on old school sandbox campaign play. Since all of the D&D rules ultimately center around combat, I am choosing to use most of the combat rules presented in 4e.

No doubt grognards will think I'm crazy. How can I have an old school D&D game without THAC0? And what about all those silly powers that homogenizes all of the character classes? Well, I think I can use THAC0 (or something essentially the same as THAC0) within a general 4e combat framework and still call it "old school." But that's a subject of another article.

The use of powers in 4e was a good innovation. It consolidates everything that a character can do in combat under one definition. A basic mêlée attack is a power. Clerics healing the wounded is a power. A fireball spell is a power. The finely polished game mechanic of powers in D&D is a tremendously effective tool when it comes to standardizing and simplifying the complex rule exceptions that built up over the decades since 1974. It's a wonderful hammer for building a better set of rules.

However...

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.
— Abraham Maslow

The developers of 4e took the new concept of powers and got carried away with it. They applied it to everything. The result was fighters having a vast array of powers that are comical. All of the classes were reduced to a single, simplified mechanism that created well-defined niches which the developers felt that they had to fill in order to complete the game. The elimination of Vancian magic was a direct result of the overuse of powers in the game's structure. Playing a fighter at the table now seems indistinguishable from spell casters what with all the crazy-named powers such as "Indomitable Battle Strike" and "Strike of the Watchful Guard." Munchkinism has been institutionalized in 4e. The system-wide implementations of powers helped to seal the fate of 4e being essentially World of Warcraft for the tabletop.

The way that powers completely dominate the rules in 4e is not to my liking. Yet, at its core, 4e powers are good system. As I said, it consolidates spells, monster abilities, and combat maneuvers into one polished system. I think that powers make 4e an excellent game system. I just have trouble calling it Dungeons & Dragons.

So in my house rules, I'm using the basic framework of 4e combat and a fraction of the powers system from that edition. Vancian magic will remain but I will redefine all the spells in terms of powers. (And perhaps I'll use the 4e rules for "rituals" but I'm not sure at this point. Probably not.) Some of the 4e racial powers are interesting. Fighters and other martial classes will have few, if any powers at all.

Instead of using the mammoth damage rolls of 4e that contributed to the massive hit point inflation in that edition, I'll use the old damage rolls of 1e. Likewise, hit dice for all the classes and monsters.

OSRIC has a nice way of equating HD to class level so I'll use that for plugging monsters into the 4e-style combat system. Or will I use THAC0? The 4e system of calculating attack rolls is so simple that I might use that instead. More on that subject later.

Will my mutant bastard set of D&D rules be balanced? Of course not. D&D was never completely balanced. That's the nature of the various character classes. The trouble with 4e is that those rules are too balanced. Balanced to the point of making all the classes, in strictly mechanical game rule terms, exactly alike.

8 comments:

Robert Fisher said...

Heh. Well, for me, THAC0 isn’t a requirement for “old school” feel. (Indeed, though I knew about it, my group never used THAC0 until it was made the default in 2e.) Rather, the least “old school” thing about the 4e combat system to me is this: “It rigidly defines the sequence of the combat turn and all the various maneuvers one can make.”

If that’s what you want, though, it doesn’t matter whether it is “old school” or not.

Aberrant Hive Mind said...

Yessir, completely agree. 4e is a tight system, and I love the idea behind powers. I've been doing much of the same as your about to do(mutant hybridized rules), using the structure of 4e, but ignoring the at-will/encounter/daily paradigm of powers. I also canned feats and opportunity attacks, rolling some feats over into class abilities(they become what are essentially powers) It's still rough, but it's getting there. Not really meant to be old school, but is more focused on speed of play.

M.gunnerQuist said...

Robert, the same questions and discussions kept cropping up at game tables again and again for decades. When and how much can characters speak during a combat turn? When do you make saving throws against ongoing effects? What is the move cost to diagonal squares? How does line of sight precisely work? How do bonuses stack? And so on.

OD&D provides basic guidelines. It's been argued that the beauty of old school D&D game play is that the sparse nature of the rules encourages house ruling. This is part of the fun. But there are certain fundamental rule questions that crop up with every edition. I believe that many of the answers to such questions are adequately answered in much of the 4e combat rules.

But not everything about 4e combat is desirable for old school play. That's why I'm attempting to temper it with rules from earlier editions. For instance, I'm probably going to use THAC0/BAB instead of 1/2 level for attacks.

Robert Fisher said...

Well, my experience is different. Those questions haven’t come up repeatedly in my groups. I don’t find them fundamental.

I’m not particularly fond of 4e’s answers to most of them either, but that’s a different discussion.

I’ll agree that 4e’s combat system is a nice skirmish wargame. I just don’t find such a thing appropriate to my idea of “old school” RPG style anymore than it was when, e.g., TFT appeared.

Chris Creel said...

Hey, it's good to see you blogging again. You are the guy who introduced me to the rpg blog-o-sphere and thus inspired me to start blogging as well. I wish you well with your writing project too.

windmark8040 said...

Hey, being that I just stumbled into your blog, I am glad that you decided to keep at it!

I myself am constantly nettling, trying to get to a point where I am totally happy with the 'crunch' of various rpg's.

Don't get discouraged!

Eldrad Wolfsbane said...

I posted this in an older post 4E vs Pathfinder. I am re-posting it here as well.

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.

Eldrad Wolfsbane said...

SO how did your players in your gaming group take your departure from the 4th edition? None of my gaming group has spoke to me in person since my announcement. I tried to get them to occasionally try something else but the ONLY answer was "I only like 4th edition" even if they had never played anything else so my hand was forced and I had to pull the plug.