Thursday, July 30, 2009

4E - Is change possible?

I've been agonizing over this post, but the time is ripe for me to jot down a few observations on what I see as specific weak points in 4E. I say this because our group is going through a possible metamorphosis.

Or more to the point, I'd like to stay with the group, they're playing 4E, so we're collectively (at least the DM and I), thinking about how to make tweaks to the game. The end result that we're trying to achieve is a game that makes everyone happy. But there needs to be a systematic, session by session recap of those things that I think need to be changed.

Unfortunately, and maybe glaringly, this sounds like a completely selfish exercise. Most (if not all) of the guys currently sitting at the table are quite happy with the game. They like the way the game plays. I'm the turd in the punch bowl here. And for the record, I've offered to bow out. But the majority has opted towards changing the game in order to make the whole "happy". In the end though, bowing out might have been the least painful choice.

Anyway, on with the examination.

We played this Tuesday and I've let my thoughts roll around inside my head, like magnets in a jar. I've hopefully let them coalesce into something a bit more cogent and supportive of meaningful change. Overall, I liked the session. We didn't have a single combat encounter, not one. And personally, I liked it a lot. Combat is 4E's glaring weak spot in my mind. But that's a topic for a different day.

Two things leaped to mind though regarding Tuesday's session.
  1. We didn't waste time with minis and drawing mats or location pieces.
  2. Magic items are now completely mundane.
I'll try and keep my thoughts and opinions on the straight and narrow here, and stick to those two topics. Minis and their supporting pieces are not a new phenomenon in the game of Dungeons and Dragons, and as my current DM often claims, they're a natural extension of the original Chainmail game. It was after all a war game.

I'd have to say that, yes, he's right...And wrong. While the game claims many of its mechanics from the war game Chainmail, it is not at all meant to be played as a war game. This is clearly stated in the earliest of editions. Miniatures are supporting pieces only, the meat and bones of game play is meant to come from your imagination.

This might be a completely subjective observation, but I find that when someone throws a bunch of minis down on a map of some sort, I wander away from the rich tapestry of the mind. I start paying more attention to what's going on at the tactical level and wander away from the realm of imagination.

And that is one of the root issues I have with 3rd and 4th edition, they've taken a game of imagination and forcefully combined it with a war game. You're constantly asked to move back and forth between idioms. Many people like that...Heck, there are times when I've certainly welcomed the change. But most of the time, I like to keep the pace by maintaining the same medium.

It's tough to maintain the mood when you're adventuring through an alien landscape, you round a corner and WHAM!.... Please break for the DM to set up the minis and draw the map... Tick, tick, tick. Wow, what a buzz-kill. All of the sudden that cool momentum you had is washed down the toilet. And that was one of the strengths of Tuesday's session. We never brought out a map or minis. Cool.

Now, to the second point: Magic Items, and the way that 4E has totally stripped the "magic" from them.

We garnered quite a load of loot during our foray into the slime encrusted demesne beneath Kaldrak Lyres, known affectionately as the sewer. A slew of magic items were won. I understand what our DM is doing, he's balancing the scales. Loot is cool. We all love coming away w/ stuff.

Oh boy, this is going to be a tough one to nail down. But, I'll start with one of the things that I heard that 4E was "fixing" when it was initially announced. A claim that I distinctly remember reading was that they were attempting to pull the characters away from "being" their magic items. Apparently many older addition characters were defined by the items that they carried, and used with regularity. So in essence, a character was just a mobile platform for a powerful item of one type or another.

I can see that as being an issue with some people. I get it. But WotC's answer to that is this sad little plug-and-play methodology. They've taken magic items and cut the usage back to once per encounter, once per day, or something similar. So, you see what's happened is that they've swapped abilities and magic item powers. Now each character has a few abilities that they're able to pull off at-will. Meaning that you can shoot magic missiles (if you're a mage) forever, without stopping. And THAT used to be the realm of a wand...until the charges ran out, and you were forced to either toss it, or refill it. Which could have opened up new adventure opportunities.

The feeling that the new system engenders is quite literally plug-and-play. Your character has a bunch of "slots" that can be filled by the appropriate "level" item. Each of these items has a very specific role to play within the overall structure of the rules. All in the name of balance.

Furthermore, you can "drain" the magic from an item. You come away with some type of "stuff" called residuum...Or something like that. Your character can use this like money, or you can use it as a generalized component in some of your rituals, or magic item creation. Talk about taking an item that was at one time wondrous...something that you pondered over...that opened your eyes and made you go "Oooo! Ahhh!", and turning it into something as mundane as a coin. Phhbbbt.

They've even taken away the wonder by putting all of the magic items in the PHB. You're actually encouraged to go through and take a look as a character, and choose the items that you think might best slot into your current build. "Sigh". Whatever happened to the magic ring that you couldn't quite figure out? That was the impetus of many a journey to witch doctors in deep, primal forests, or crooked, dark wizards in tottering ancient towers. Now, it's just an item under glass at your corner Wal Mart.

How to change this...CAN you change it? Not sure, I'll have to do some thinking.


Oxybe said...

minis in combat:

i've always used them, if only to help adjudicate who's in the room when the fireball goes off.

i rarely do combat where it's party VS single monster in boring 20x20 room. if there is a single monster, it's a guard and either he gets away and calls backup or is obliterated by the party.

the problem with the "rich tapestry of the mind" is that not everyone is always looking at the same tapestry, which can cause problems.

minis are not supposed to be a substitute but a compliment. it's there to show where everyone is and what's going on. we have a minimalist approach to minis. each player has one that resembles their character and for the monsters we have a few stock figs (generic kobolds, orcs, fighters, archers, wizards, whatever) that we whip out. the whole setup is hardly time consuming. rolling initiative is slower then the setup. heck we keep our dry-erase mat out at all times as a giant coaster for our pop & munchies :D

to each his or her own though. i never felt that minis hurt the game and i use them in almost all RPGs i play, if only to let people know where everyone is.


for the magic items?

i say strip away the plusses and make them inherent to the character. to balance this out all characters get a natural +1 to their attacks, damage and defenses at levels 3/8/13/18/23/28.

the main difference between a "longsword" and a generic "magic longsword" is that the magic one adds the bonus damage to the crit.

instead of a "+3 flaming longsword" you just have a "flaming longsword" who's + value will vary with character's inherent bonus.

now the main bonus to this method is that it destroys the need to always upgrade your weapons. indeed, your items' will become better as your character becomes stronger. you can keep your father's "flaming longsword" throughout your career without worry as it will always be as useful as you need it.

as for making them unique, one can take a hint from the artifact rules. each artifact has a sliding scale on how "happy" is (ok, i don't know what the exact word is but it's basically that), and by meeting various requirements you can make it happier and thus unlock extra abilities. some are one time requirements with big payoffs, others are small payoffs but repeatable.

for our friend the flaming longsword, this could be akin to dipping it into the core of a long active volcano (as a one time bonus), destroying powerful water elementals, having it blessed by a powerful efreet in the city of brass, ect...

flaming shockwaves, hurling fireballs, ect... could all be extra abilities gained by making the sword "happier"

of course the artifacts still have more awesome abilities but it's something to consider.

same with magic armor, amulets, ect... the happier you make it, the more thematically appropriate abilities you could add.

Gamer Dude said...

Hey Oxybe,

I'll have to admit, miniatures were never part of our games all through Jr. High and High school. We did venture there a bit when we were in University...but like you, we didn't go overboard w/ the huge efforts of setting up massively detailed playing spaces and trying to find the "exact" right representatives. I've a feeling that most recent efforts have something to do with marketing though.

I mean heck, if you've bought $100's, if not $1000's of dollars worth of minis and you're loathe not to utilize them at every given opportunity. (BTW, I'm not talking about me. I own a small bag full, maybe $30 worth...and that's it.)

In so far as the "tapestry" thing goes, you're right of course. But, I have found that minis can be a bit of a distraction. A good example of this might be from a game that I run for my daughters.

We had never utilized minis before, and one night I thought that I'd give it a whirl. All it did was distract the girls. They paid more attention to what was going on on the table and started to wander away from descriptions of things. It's was an extremely odd thing to see. So I just did away with them.

Another good example is a game I ran with a couple of my pals recently. There was a series of battles in the old Moat House. We never used minis, and skimmed smoothly through three battles. We did use a piece of paper as a map though...and sort of jotted down X's and O's when things got too confusing. Fast and clean.

I guess I'm just not a fan. I mean, I have been in games before where minis didn't take center stage. But they were few and far between. I kind of like your idea. Or even dice, for the monsters...I remember doing a LOT of that in University. Abstraction's a good thing. I'm not looking for a realistic war game.

As for the magic items, I love your idea. I was thinking of suggesting something similar to either the old elemental rings in AD&D (e.g. Ring of Air Elemental Control) or maybe the legendary weapons dealio that scaled with their owners from 3E. (I can't remember the name of the book where this was introduced though, my bad.)

Anything to get away from the cookie-cutter approach to magic items would be great. That's absolutely something I missed from earlier additions. There's just no magic in magic items anymore. IMHO of course.

K. Bailey said...

Minis are insidious imagination-destroyers, but good luck getting rid of them in 4E.

The Chainmail excuse is common and completely bogus. D&D started out as Chainmail+, but when it became an RPG it became a different animal.

Another way it's bogus is that the people advancing that argument don't really think that the way Chainmail did anything might be better and purer, they're just pushing that argument AGAINST people who don't like the way 3rd and 4th editions made it practically impossible to play BtB, without minis.

It's hard for me to imagine that you really want to play 4E at all if you don't dig tactical combat or those class powers. What's really left after that?

Tacoma said...

You don't want to play 4E. They want to play 4E. I'm not sure you can get around this with a bunch of house rules.

If I had a group that wanted to play 3E and I wanted to play 1E, I could ask them to toss out the skills, feats, and prestige classes. But then they're not really getting 3E anymore, right?

As for the minis, I've gone so far as to make wargaming terrain and found that it was just a hassle. Too bulky to store anywhere, got in the way of line of sight, wasn't modular enough. I'm working on dungeon tiles right now that I'll have printed on cardstock and laminated. I'll put together enough of a variety that it won't impede creativity of the DM but it will make it so we don't have to draw so much on the wet-erase mat.

Then again I recently ran a jailbreak without putting down minis once. It was all description and shared imagination.

As for the magic items, I've come to feel that they should be weird and sometimes too powerful. But they should have drawbacks that make them not always the best choice.

And really that the game world is not fair. Sometimes the monster has meager treasure, sometimes it has something really cool. Sometimes characters die. And I think the chance of both danger and great reward makes for better play than the players choosing which perfectly-balanced magic item the next ogre will drop.

Oxybe said...

i'm a regular on the WotC website and we get new players regularly asking for help on starting up (it's usually the vein of "3.5 or 4?") so i've accumulated a few "free stuff" links (still looking for pre-3rd stuff that isn't a derivative and actually D&D), which run the gamut from simple portraits (which you can download/scale/print on paper or cardstock), a printable grid, free modules and test rules (like the srd).

i can point a player to enough resources that they don't need to buy anything other then the printer paper and ink, which i assume most people reading this post would have. heck if they have a laptop they don't even need physical dice.
as for magic items and "fairness", the core game has a few assumptions, basically that each character should have items that give them +X to attack/defense (so a magic weapon, armor & amulet) where X is level /5 rounded to the nearest number.

the rest is really up in air as to what toys they have. do what is right for your game, but throw the players a bone every now and then.

kord knows i've had PCs (both that i've played and GMed for) who just sat on a cartoonishly large piles of money (ok, on a bag of holding...) because our adventuring/wandering and generally self-sufficient lifestyle needed little funding beyond trail rations and minor restocking of some tools.

the last 2 editions have magic items built into the mechanics and are expected. if you're going to limit them, there needs to be some considerations

Wesley said...

Well GamerDude I have already put fourth the issue hehe...I am removing the player based create magic item ritual as a whole. PC will have to go to other sources for items. Plus I have been thinking about having to find ways to identify items with out being a huge money/time sink for the players. So don't worry it is something I myself have been annoyed with. I have some good ideas on allowing PC's to quest a bit if they want to forge/create an item. I would like to make magic more "important" that way. Also...I am gonna kill off the Sunrod...hate that item soooooooo much.

While I understand and in many ways agree with your "rumblings" As a DM there are a few things I can do to help not lose the moment. Predrawing/Having the maps ready to go on the fly is something I need to do. So hopefully that will lessen that level of frustration.