Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Differences in versions

Well this is going to be an odd post. It was inspired by a post over at Grognardia where James was talking about his Dwimmermount Session. He was mentioning how quickly combat between nearly 30 different individuals progressed and one of the comments to that post stated that, while 4E has a fairly streamlined combat system, they would be hard pressed to pull off a combat that included 30 different combatants in 30 minutes.

I have some experience with 4E, I've been playing it for about 7 months now in a 3x / month campaign. The DM is incredibly knowledgeable in the game, in fact you could say that it's sort of his religion. He takes it very seriously, keeps up with all of the current click-clack, and knows the rules inside out.

It occurred to me that one of the new features talked about extensively at 4E's release was that the combat was very streamlined and therefore it could run very quickly. So, I got to thinking, could our DM run the same combat that James described in his post as quickly and smoothly under 4E as James had under Swords and Wizardry?

My conclusion: No way in hell. I don't have any empirical data with which to back this statement up. But I do have experience. And I have participated in combats in 4E, with far fewer combatants that have run much much longer. I began to think about why that may be, why does 4E, with it's new and improved melee system run slower than OD&D's system? After all, isn't newer better? Wasn't the intent to get back to D&D's roots?

I'm sure many of you are saying to yourselves, this guy's a hater. He's just one of those head-in-the-sand grognards that is stubborn and tries, with every blog post, to discredit 4E. Let me state for the record that I actually liked 4E when it first came out. I honestly wanted to keep liking it and to continue using the rules. I mean after all, my group wanted to use it, and the DM was VERY impressed and spoke volumes about the improvements to the game.

At the same time, I was trying out all sorts of the retro-clone rules. I ran a short campaign of Castles and Crusades, I played a game of microlite20, a few one shots of Sword and Wizardry and am still running my home campaign on Labyrinth Lord. So I could do some "on the ground" compare and contrast tests.

Back to the combat and why it's slower in 4E than its predecessor versions. I've included a few illustrations to help make my point. Now I'm not claiming to be a deep thinker when it comes to things like this. But, I certainly know what I've experienced, and that experience logically draws me to the following point.

Older editions allowed that the source of the "effect" (or result) came from the DM. And how did it do this? Well, the rules were very broad in scope and weren't at all focussed on the minutia, but rather on allowing for interpretation.

The PC (player character) took a broad action that was roughly described in the rules (e.g. attack) and further defined what they were doing as it was taking place (e.g. "I duck under the edge of the table for a bit of cover and thrust out with my sword towards the orc's midsection...").

The DM in turn would take this situation and dictate the effect. It was pretty straight forward and therefore "fast".

Now we move on to the 4E example. In the 4E rules it gives each of the players a selection of abilities that they can attempt at any given time during a confrontation. Now of course you could ignore any of these abilities and just plain ol swing that sword and make a basic melee attack. But you would be missing out on all of the nifty effects that each of these powers produces.

Teamwork and the inter-relationships of the powers themselves plays a VERY big part of 4E combat, and therefore it is incumbent upon the players to be very tactically minded, know their powers intimately, and know their party member's power effects as well. You must keep a close eye on spacing, distances, terrain, time, opposing conditions (action points, surges, bloodied, etc.), your condition (HPs, bloodied, etc.), resources (action points, surges, potions, etc.) among a few other things.

Let me explain the illustration. (I don't suppose I really NEED to explain the illustration given for the older version do I?)

  1. Represents the tight interaction between the PC's powers. What I do will affect much of what other PCs will do. EXAMPLE: Let's say you're a fighter and will be utilizing a simple at-will power called 'Tide of Iron': "1[W] + Strength modifier damage, and you push the target 1 square if it is your size, smaller than you, or one size category larger. You can shift into the space that the target occupied." Now all of these things have an affect upon the battle field and your compatriot's actions. So now there are rules that do not depend upon the DM interdiction. They do require pretty detailed knowledge of the rules though.

  2. Represents the interaction between the opponent's (monster, NPC, etc.) powers, condition, etc. and the player's actions (power effects). These are tightly woven and balanced. The outcome between these powers' effects is what determines the DM's options, and therefore his / her reaction to what's going on.

  3. Represents the DM's response to the situation. Which in turn affects how the players again respond. It's all very well balanced and constructed to work smoothly within the given parameters.

Does this look and sound a little more involved than the above example? I think it is, and therefore it's the reason that combats don't run as quickly under the 4E rules as they do under older (pre-2E at least.) rule sets.

This is obviously a simplified example. There are facets of each that are not illustrated or explained fully. But overall, it is no fallacy to say that there are MANY more rules surrounding player options in a 4E combat.

When I was young I played a lot of Napoleonic war games with a group of older gentlemen. As I stood above the table the other night, looking down on the tableau unfolding in front of me, running through the options in my head, and all of the previously listed elements of battle, I had a deja-vue moment. I felt just like I did as a kid standing above the war game table. I was playing a war game. Or something that's very similar in makeup once you enter into combat.

Now of course OD&D was derived from a war game's rule set. But I don't ever recall feeling like I was playing a war game when I either played in or ran combats under those earlier rule's systems.


Jonathan said...

"could our DM run the same combat ... as quickly and smoothly under 4E as ... under Swords and Wizardry?" Hell no. This is one of the biggest misadvertisments of 4E. What is true is that it plays faster than _3E_; but compared to 2nd edition and prior versions of D&D... it still is a slow moving freight train compared to the 20m battles from those previous games. I mean... we used to be able to run a module in 2 or 3 sessions. Now, an "adventure" takes several MONTHS mainly becuase each 3 hour weekly gaming session can handle 2, maybe 3 if we are lucky, combat encounters MAX. Then of course, this assumes no roleplaying... which is the whole point... so we usually only get 1 or 2 battles in between all the PC interaction.

btw -- glad I found your blog. Nice place!

kelvingreen said...

I think part of the problem is how 4e's combat is advertised. It is a streamlined system in the sense that it works very well and has very few ugly sticky-out bits; in the few months we've been playing it, we've found nothing that breaks or unbalances the system. It is a very efficient combat engine.

However, I think that when the efficiency of the system is mentioned, some people take that to mean that it is fast, when it is anything but.

Gamer Dude said...

Thanks...and the same back at you. To your comment re: time spent in melee, I agree and that's one of the most lamentable facts concerning 4E to me. There's no time for adventure anymore. I know that's a gross generalization of course, but it often times feels that way to me.

Agreed. And it could quite possibly be why many people view the game as combat-centric, and / or a war game with touches of RPG thrown in for good measure.

I'm not saying that I don't like the game overall. But I do think that it's suited to certain tastes and ought to be advertised as such. (I know that's not likely or possible...but.)

A couple of things that I've found from my experience thus far is that it's perfect for a one-shot or an infrequent game. Example: I game once a month (or less) w/ a group of guys that I've known since Jr. High. We generally get together just to throw dice and crack heads. We don't want to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about Feat tracks or skill trees. 4E seems to fit this need to perfection. We don't really worry much about plot or story and just wander merrily from combat to combat.

But, I do have a game I play in that's much more frequent and I am finding out that due to the way the rules add another level of abstraction (skill challenges and skills in general) that very little time is spent thinking about anything BUT combat. It grows tiresome.

I'm not claiming that this can all be laid at the feet of the RAW in 4E. I don't believe that it can. But there is arguably a LOT of emphasis placed upon combat and how to adjudicate it in this latest iteration of our beloved game. ;-)

kelvingreen said...

I like 4e too, for what it is. We've had great fun playing it these past few months, but I'm also aware that our adventures have been hastened and truncated through necessity, because the long fights don't, as you say, leave much room for adventure. I can see myself pulling out 4e in order to run a one-shot fighting game, but I'm not sure it's a good fit for how I want to play D&D in the long term.

Banesfinger said...

How did I miss this blog – its great.

Our 3.x – 4e experiences have been similar to yours. Long tactical combats that liken to a chess game, or collectable card game (you’ve heard all the 4e cliché’s before…).

One of the things I have observed with later rule editions is that it seems to stifle player’s imaginations.
(Player) I jump and slide along the bar, stabbing the orc on the other side of the counter. (DM: Old School) Nice – roll to hit.
(DM: New School) Well, you need a jump skill check, which costs you a move action, then a balance check to slide along the bar – which will take up your other move action. You’ll have to wait until next round to attack the orc, IF you make all the rolls AND the orc doesn’t run away.

I wonder if someone could take the best parts/advancements of 4e and glue them onto a retro-clone? For example, would the minion (1 hp) rule help save bookkeeping time (it certainly does in other games that use a similar mechanic, like Savage Worlds)?

Like you, our group just stopped playing 4e, needing something more (we can’t put our finger on it). So now we are looking at retro-clone rules. While your blog was very insightful on 4e vs. retro, can you elaborate on your experiences with retro vs. retro? Specifically 0e/B/X clones (Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, etc) vs. AD&D 1e (C&C, OSRIC, etc). Is there differences in combat? Depth of characters?

Gamer Dude said...

Howdy, and thanks for the kind words. I read an interesting thing a while back about "rules" as they apply to games of imagination and it said something like (paraphrasing): "The more specific the rules are, the more they just point out what it is that you can't do."

And that's the wonderful thing about imagination, there are no natural boundaries. I mean sure, you need to have some parameters or you just don't have a viable game. But in general, it's a whole lot easier to play a game where the onus is placed upon the DM and group as a whole rather than on a codified set of rules.

I'll absolutely write something up that compares the rule sets...Stay tuned.

Oxybe said...

new school or old school, it doesn't really matter. i've had 2nd ed combats take a while, 3rd ed combats be long, 4th ed combats be very quick or any variation thereof.

part of it i've noticed is organization. a big drag i've found is how often you look things up will determine how long combat (or any task resolution, really) will last. in 3rd ed (to use an example, though you can find them in any gaming system) looking up the specifics of spells, less-used rules like grappling or corner cases like suffocation will cause page flipping & game slowdown. our beguiler (when he wasn't working nights) had done up a deck of cards with his commonly used spells on it. DCs, durations, ranges, ect... all he did was flip to the card from a pile of 20ish instead of flipping through the book. my warlock has similiar things on the back of his character sheet for his black tentacles invocation (grapple check, damage, duration, ect...)

similiarly if you have to look up your powers often in 4th, it will slow down the game. on monday, the group's newest player (the guy has had free time for a while but was waiting to see the bard before committing to our game) started using power cards he printed off his computer. his turn went by VERY fast and i've printed myself some to see if it can speed up my own turns.

another thing to do i've found is proper delegation of tasks. our 3rd ed group is large. 7 players and one GM. yet we can manage to get 2, maybe 3 combats done and some nice RP in the 3-4 hours we have to play. one player handles initiative, one player has minis ready to use, one player is the mapmaker, another keeps inventory of treasure, ect... so by the time the GM says combat we already have most stuff ready and combat starts immediatly after the map is drawn.

small things like rolling confirmation & damage dice together can speed up an individual's turn. using this along with flash cards that have all numbers ready for use will probably speed up individual turns pretty fast.

as for improvised actions (like the slide down a rail) 4th ed's page 42 is a great guideline for things like that: i would call it an acrobatics check at moderate difficulty. if you succeed you gain combat advantage on your attack, otherwise it's just a normal attack.

pre 3rd wasn't immune to this. i've had to, on several occasions, roll stat checks like Dex for balancing on objects or Str/Dex to jump across stuff. sure, it was DM's discretion, but it did happen, especially if you were looking for a mechanical bonus. if you're just doing it for flair with no actual gain other then looking awesome, i haven't met a DM of any edition who said no unless the description was really out there.

Gamer Dude said...

All good points...and in general I agree with nearly everything you've said. To play devil's advocate though I would argue that...

Once you codify a rule that either describes an action or its result then you've expanded the rules base and created either something to "look up" or more for the DM to memorize. If on the other hand you've kept the rules at a high level (generally "vague") then you've got less to look up and less to memorize.

I'm not condoning a rule-less system. Remember when we played cops and robbers, war, monsters, or what have you, with other kids? You'd shoot your gun and you KNOW you hit them...but they'd scoot off in another direction or even worse, shoot at you, while yelling "You missed!". That's what you generally get when you play with NO rules.

What I AM condoning though is a simple, flexible set of high-level rules that can be interpreted by a DM and group in order to cover many different types of situations. I understand the need for some congruity in a game that's transparent to all parties involved. It's simply faster...

shimrod said...

I think 4th ed can be run like this. But it requires a little DM elbow grease and a reorientation of the players. I agree with you that 4th ed combat is inherently more time-consuming than most older D&D combat systems (though 1st ed certainly has its share of complicated systems, many of which were disregarded or ignored by a lot of players), and that this DOES detract from time spent exploring. There is a finite time available for any given gaming session, and the rules do have a significant impact on how that time is spent. 4th ed assumes that you want a more varied and tactically-interesting combat system, and that you want battles to involved a lot of interesting maneuvers and effects not dependent on DM fiat. Whereas OD&D basically assumes that you want a quick and dirty combat resolution metric so you can get on with the real point- exploring and seeking treasure.

Right now I think most people are playing 4th ed in the simplest way they can- because the rules are built to be clear and consistent and logical, with lots of guidelines that work like training wheels to make things easy for inexperienced players and DMs. Particularly DMs. This is the easiest version of D&D for a DM there has ever been.

Let me clarify that: BECMI, Moldvay or Rules Compendium D&D have simpler rules, and are even quicker to get started with. But 4th ed is the first one to give really good practical instructions for a novice DM in the DMG, and the first one with a solid mathematical basis to make creating and balancing encounters easy. Every other version (even 3rd ed, with its semi-accurate Challenge Ratings) has relied much more on the DM either being inherently talented or extensively taught/coached by another DM in person. Or having a group very tolerant of trial & error with high PC mortality. The undefined/free-form nature of the simpler rules sets also really needs a DM who is comfortable wielding authority in adjudicating traps, treasure, wandering monsters, and all the other things that made early D&D versions so wild & wooly, but challenging to balance. Witness the neverending series of articles in Dragon back in the day on how to soak your players out of excessive accumulated treasure.

shimrod said...

Anyway, getting back to the point, 4th ed actually has multiple elements that can be used to facilitate a quicker and easier game. Oxybe already cited page 42 of the DMG, which is the big example of exactly that flexible set of high-level rules which can be interpreted by the DM to handle improvised situations you’re asking for.

The relative simplicity of monster stats compared to 3rd edition also allows for greater and easier tinkering. Two recent suggestions I’ve seen for speeding up combat are a couple of across the board adjustments to monsters. One was to halve their HP & simultaneously their XP value. Another is to halve the HP, add half their level to each damage die they roll (to make them more dangerous), and make them worth 2/3 regular XP value. Note that both of these suggestions also have the effect of slowing advancement a bit, which is another thing that would make 4th a little more like older editions.

IM (tentative) Opinion I think the main reason you’re not seeing more of this yet is just that the game is still relatively new, and a lot of people are enjoying it/trying it out By The Book. I can say from experience that the reduced workload for DMs relative to 3rd edition doesn’t always encourage us to spend more time tinkering with the rules. Sometimes it just makes us happy, and causes us to spend more time writing NPCs, plot hooks, adventures, etc. Or spend more time doing other things. If you spend a lot of time in each individual combat, as noted, you don’t play through as many, or do as much exploring. This again reduces the work for the DM- if he knows the group can only realistically get through 2-3 fights in a session, he doesn’t have to prep any (or much) more than that. And he doesn’t have to map out an extensive dungeon. A short one will do. Is this a good thing? Depends on how much exploring the players want to do! If they really enjoy a few fights, a little exploring, and some roleplaying, the DM’s job is extremely easy.

But as I was saying, it doesn’t HAVE to be this way. With the adoption of either of those two combat-speeding adjustments I mentioned above you can cut the time taken in any given combat almost in half. Between that, and the DM making himself comfortable with DMG p42, you’ve very easily tweaked 4th ed to be a game which spends less time in combat, and thus has more time available for extensive exploration and/or roleplaying.