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?)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.