January 22, 2010


One day, on a warm afternoon last August, I found myself exiting a friend's car after going out for lunch. As I cornered the sidewalk, I turned back to give a fast wave to his departing vehicle, and my left foot strayed about three inches beyond the sidewalk and snagged on a sprinkler head—you know, the small black pop-up type. Except this one never popped back down. Suddenly I found myself flying toward the pavement, headfirst. (Critical failure on a DC 8 Athletics check!) My immediate thoughts, in order, were basically:

Oh hell.
And I'm wearing my good trousers.
Guess I better protect my face.

Luckily, my vaunted (ha!) reflexes nearly match my clumsiness and I got one hand out. It wasn't enough to completely break the fall however, and there wasn't time to roll—I was simply falling too fast. My palm skidded across the pavement (that move always makes me feel like I'm about 8 years old when I do it) soon followed by my head. My chin struck the concrete hard enough to roughly slap my teeth together and my head snapped upwards. I rolled off to one side, feebly clutching my cranium while my ears dimly registered out a woman screaming "Oh my God!" It took a few more seconds to realize she was talking about yours truly.

I spent the next minute or two seeing stars—whole constellations in fact—before I forced myself to my feet. (Add spiraling cartoon stars above head with tweety bird sound accompaniment.) Several people assisted me into the building, and I flopped wearily down into one of the waiting room chairs.

The incident—from which I was unmarked and unimpaired 48 hours later—made me think about D&D game play. It made me think about how characters take staggering wounds only to leap back into the fray without a moment's pause. Highly unrealistic. But how realistic need the game play get? How much realism is worth the extra rules work? The PCs are meant to represent heroes, after all; Conan wouldn't sit clutching his head for several minutes if he took a similar tumble, I'm quite sure. On a more practical note, adding in rules for the pain characters feel is much like adding on to-hit or movement penalties because of wounds or fatigue, in the end it only penalizes the PCs when the chips are already down. Likewise, it adds yet another thing for the poor DM to track. The advent of Third Edition did introduce standard rules for stunning and dazing and the like, so I suppose a DM could add those on. But when to do it? Which wounds cause more pain than others? One could apply such effects only to criticals, but again that only pours extra salt in the wound (so to speak).

I feel in the end it's better to let the PCs truly be heroic figures, greater and stronger than those puny mortals that play them. Of course, a DM might add a few descriptive words about the pain caused by a particularly nasty wound every so often. That gets the player's mind working, which is always a good thing. And as far as added DM work, it's quite, ahem, painless.

January 13, 2010

Does 4th Edition Have Soul?

It's been a while since the release of 4th Edition, long enough for me to finally get a good sense of the game.

There are many things I like. Many of the 3.5 problems or annoyances have been dealt with, such as ponderous grappling rules, uneven character classes, race blandness, overlong stat blocks, the "christmas tree" magic item effect, and the dreaded amount of math that goes into monster building and leveling. Sometimes for me, it's the simple things—like diagonal movement. The 1-2-1-2 rule wasn't hard to remember, but I didn't DM a single game wherein I didn't have to remind a player of it. Attacks of opportunity was another one that tripped up my players, and nothing irks a player like being told their PC got nailed when then thought him safe.

Many folks online have commented that the "soul" of D&D seems missing from 4 however, and I sadly must agree. I feel that way too ... but why? I've puzzled over this for a while now.  Here are the reasons why I think my gut tells me I'm just not playing D&D (when playing 4e) anymore:

1. The death of too many sacred cows. Magic missiles that miss? No more vancian magic?

2. Too much player information/involvement. No, I don't believe in that "I'm the all-powerful DM" attitude, but there's a line. Putting magic items in the Player's Handbook crossed that line for me. Magic items should be fairly rare and wondrous, mysterious, and even potentially dangerous. Reducing them to a shopping list and asking players to create wish lists? Meh. (What's next, an Amazon-like website that suggests to players magic items their PCs might enjoy?) There's nothing wrong with a player conveying that she dreams of playing a mighty fighter with a magic sword or a wizard wielding a mighty staff, and the DM trying to oblige. DMs should try to please their players and let them live out dreams through their characters within the balance of the game. But wish lists? I say thee nay.

3. Forced monster organization. As a professional adventure author, I can tell you that 4e's monster system is a pain. The "let's set up groups of mixed creatures" can indeed make for interesting combats (never a bad thing), but the system makes it near impossible to create combat situations in which the PC meet a group of one type of creature (which need happen fairly often for realism's sake) or a single creature that isn't a solo. Do you want to have the characters in the sewers run into that random alligator? Forget it, the combat would be over in a second; best make it two alligators, one shambling mound, and eight stirges—never mind that those creatures would never realistically hang out together. (Some of the monster groups presented in the Monster Manuals are good for a hoot too.) 

4. PCs are too strong. As a player I find rolling up new characters mid-adventure to be a pain, and I'm a notorious softie as a DM when it comes to killing off player characters, yet I do feel low-level PCs need to be vulnerable. That sense of vulnerability only leads to a greater sense of accomplishment later when the PCs level up.

5. Nostalgia. That sense of wonder is largely gone. I honestly blame this more on my gaming longevity than any game edition.

6. It's all about combat. I love destructive spells. Love 'em. When playing a 1st Edition wizard, I long to hit 5th level so I can add fireball or lightning bolt to my spellbook. But there are other things. The heavy combat slant of 4e's powers and spells can reduce handy roleplaying opportunities that can stem from using a certain spell in just the right way, etc. Roleplaying opportunities still exist of course, but the previous editions had spells or proficiencies that screamed for a dose of roleplaying every time they were used, and I miss those.

7. Excessive DM hand-holding. Ultimately any DM guideline is just that. Former versions of the game and even some hallowed modules—Village of Hommlet I'm looking at you—had some extremely lop-sided treasures. Either the players got crumbs of they were tossed necklaces worth 10,000 gp. But the parcel system breaks things up a bit too neatly, eliminating the DM's freedom, and player awareness of that system places unfair expectations on the DM.

Some of my reaction to 4e (and a lesser extent 3e/3.5e) is that of mixed blessings. I've always been a big miniatures user, and I've suffered from players (and DMs) "stretching the limits" of how far figures can move in a melee round, etc., so having a more miniature-oriented game was a blessing ... at first. Now I'm not so sure. 

Likewise with feats and later powers. I always thought fighters should have a selection of cool moves to select from, but now it's started to leave me feeling flat. The ever-expanding list of powers has become like MAGIC cards (which probably makes sense given the company involved) ... more and more minor variations of the same stuff, with power gamers examining every detail to wring out the stronger options. I realize many find this system tinkering fun, a puzzle-like quest to optimize their characters, but to me the more time a player delves in the rules the less time they're actually involved in the play itself. The hyper-awareness of the rules that 3.5e bred by "rulifying" every aspect of the game extends to 4e, and as a player I don't want the rules in my face every second, I want to lose myself in the action. To some, the statements "I swing from the chandelier and strike out at the orc with my feet, knocking him back if I can!" and "I use my daily Juggernaut's Roll power to push the orc two squares east!" may be the same thing, but not to me.

Ultimately the soul of a game is in the play. Rules can be modified, play can be altered, and both DMs and players can tweak any system to find what works best for them. Does 4e as written have enough "soul" for you?

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