December 22, 2010

Comparing Editions: A DM's Perspective

Recently (and fortunately) I was able to run a 1st Edition session for my usual 4e group. Two guys couldn’t make it, so rather than have them miss part of the ongoing saga we switched to 1e. The guys indulged me and let me run an old Dungeon magazine adventure of mine, Training Ground, that was originally published in 1998.
Mike Ferguson's recent post on the session and his observations about 4e versus 1e inspired this post—consider it a companion post—so kindly go here and read his first. It’s a good post and contains some excellent observations.
Back? Great. I told you Mike’s post was a good one.
I’ve had the pleasure of DMing both editions this year, so I’ll offer my empirical evidence and observation from a DMing perspective. Like Mike, I’ve already talked a bit about the differences between editions (here and here), but DMing one edition a few weeks after DMing another really knocked some things home.
On a side note, their group did well in a brutal, trap-filled and sometimes admittedly frustrating dungeon. At the time I wrote Training Ground I was mourning what I felt was the demise of the old-fashioned dungeon crawl—world-spanning, political adventures seemed more in vogue at the time—so as Mike rightly observed, I definitely channeled Gygax when writing it. Bravo guys.
Back to editions…

1. Combat Length

What Mike said. And his 3-combats-per-4e-session is exactly what I, when DMing 4e, tend to expect. If you squeeze in four, it’s a terrific night.
One extra observation I’ll toss in is the hit point factor. Increased combat options and tactics definitely drag things out a lot, but usually our players know what they want to do when their turn comes. Likewise, I don’t puzzle over the monsters’ next moves that long. This led me to wonder, was it all about the tactics?
After this recent 1e session, I think half the problem is hit points. In our 1e adventure, which was written for 3rd-7th level PCs (about 30 levels total), the final bad guy had 42 hit points. A few good hits and he was gone. I contrasted that to a side fight in our 4e campaign where a goblin underboss had, like, a hundred hit points … and he wasn’t alone. No wonder the damn combats take so long.
I think the 4e monsters have inflated HP totals because some feats/powers or combos can deal a hideous amount of damage, and the designers didn’t want monsters dropping like flies. The result being that during most standard combats the monsters simply have too many hit points. Likewise the characters.

2. 1e PCs can dish it out but they can’t take it

Because we had only three players and it was a tough dungeon, I let the players roll up 7th-level characters. On hindsight, they were very magic item-weak, but still I thought they’d be killers. Wrong, oh so wrong. The fighter had 49 hit points (not too shabby) but the thief had 28 and the magic-user had 20! And that was with me giving them maximum HPs at the first two levels and letting them reroll 1s after that! Yikes. Do you know the difference between a 20-hit point character and a dead character? About four good hits or two good trap hits. In 4e, four hits would never take out a 7th-level guy unless major criticals were rolled.
On the flip side, there tended to be more misses on both sides than there seem to be in 4e. So in 1e, the hits seemed rarer but stung far more for good guys and bad guys alike.

3. I had to resort to a lot of ability rolls

Far too many times I found myself resorting to ability rolls. Was the PC trying to identify a historical name or rune? “Make an intelligence check!” I’d cry. I’ve grown so used to having skills and such to cover these things that 1e seemed lacking.
That said, Mike’s observation about having the players describe what they are doing or where they are searching instead of simple rolling is dead on. It’s the reason I rarely run 4e skill challenges but instead incorporate skill rolls into the action, as I did recently when their characters chased a kenku assassin across some rain-slick rooftops.

In the end, the experience left me craving a hybrid system. Instead of the endless hits, endless hit points, and looooong combats of 4e or the tactic-boring, PC-dangerous combats of 1e, I’d really like something in between. Something where a simple fighter has a few choices in combat, but not so complicated that I, as DM, must ask players exactly what their Flying Dwarven Hammerhand encounter power does or sit back and watch them puzzle over the timing of a combo. Indeed, since the old days I had desired what I called “maneuvers” but now I’ve seen character development take a back seat to players becoming powers obsessed. It’s time to rein things in a bit, I say.
In any case, it was a breath of fresh air playing 1e again, and it reminded me how far the game has evolved (determining the number needed to hit is so much faster now from the old THAC0 days) but also about some of the things I love that have fallen away from recent editions. It’s got me looking forward to more 1e play, both as DM and as player (still re-reading Lost City Mike?).
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