July 21, 2012

Accepting the New

After reading countless posts by 4e fans complaining about D&D-Next (hereafter Next), I'm getting worn out. 

I hate to say it, but the majority of the "complaints" simply boil down to "Next isn't 4e." I've got news, folks, it ain't supposed to be. Now take a deep breath, 4e fans. I enjoy the game too. But if you want Next to be a very slightly modified 4e, a 4.5e or 4.25 if you will, it just isn't going to happen. Without having access to private sales data, I can say with some confidence that if 4e books were roaring off the shelves, WotC wouldn't even be discussing Next right now. We probably wouldn't have heard talk of a new edition for several more years. But they are, ergo 4e probably isn't doing as well as hoped and they're probably trying to do something about it.

 A huge portion of have abandoned 4e (or never tried it) in favor of Pathfinder. Other folks stuck with 3.5e. Another segment has gone old school with retroclones, the DCC-RPG, or simply returning to their old 1e and 2e books. This is a problem for Wizards. They're apparently trying to do something about it, via Next.

Let's accept the obvious: This is a new edition. It isn't supposed to be 4e, anymore than 4e was supposed to be 3.5e. If you expect it to be 4.5, you're going to be disappointed. I appreciate that 4e has many fans, many of which would probably rather see a 4.5e. Facing the fact that the official owner of your preferred game is no longer going to support your preferred game edition, well, sucks. I've been there. (Indeed, it's not without some cruel irony that I recall the many people telling 2e fans, "Well you still have your old books!" when 3e came out and took the game in a new direction. And then the 4e fans telling the 3e fans the same thing. It seems we all get our turn at bat.)
There seems to be an urgent attempt by the 4e players to push WotC into making Next as 4e-like as possible, which really diverts the whole purpose of a new edition. The danger is that the WotC boards are mainly full of 4e players, whereas players who abandoned 4e for PF are probably on the Paizo boards or elsewhere, etc., so the designers are hearing more criticism because their active posters in the company boards are happy with the current edition. It's like walking into a Star Wars convention and saying that you're adding Klingons to the official SW universe—the complaints will fly because of the forum you've chosen. I only hope WotC is paying as much attention to the voices outside their own forums as to those within, because otherwise they're getting a skewed sample.

The 4e fans (and not all of them, mind you, some are very open-minded) aren't the only ones demonstrating this style of "I want Next to be the edition I already enjoy" behavior. I purposely went to some of the more popular old-school boards to get the reaction to Next, given it's 2e flavor, and I was both surprised and somewhat disappointed. A number of folks there, the ones that didn't simply refuse to talk about it at all, made comments akin to, "Well next has Rule A, which isn't exactly the same as Rule B in 2e, so I'll never try it." Again, insert a big sigh here, it's a new edition, folks! It isn't supposed to be 2e.
A lot of great, common sense innovations came about in the last twenty years—replacing THAC0 with a target's AC as the target roll needed to hit, for instance?—and it would be foolhardy to abandon those. If Next was supposed to be 2e in every way, shape, and form, WotC would simply reprint the 2e books and save themselves the effort. (Although there's a lot of 2e "feel" to the Next playtest rules, the majority of the rules actually seem 3e-inspired.)

At this point, for better or worse, the D&D market is dreadfully splintered. Getting everyone under one tent is impossible, methinks. It's my own personal belief that WotC should, despite the splintering of R&D staff resources and ad budgets, try to support two editions. And by that I mean actively support them via regular new adventures and supplements (though I loudly applaud their reprinting the 1e books this month). They should make a true 4.5e, to keep the hardcore 4e fans happy, because ultimately that's all a good portion of those folks will accept. And they should make a real old-school D&D, a 2e with some important (but not flavor changing) innovations culled from the newer editions.

Alas, that is a very doubtful scenario. So instead we must accept that Next is a new edition. What we get from it and how we shape it depends on us.

July 01, 2012

Player Knows Best? - Part 1

One of the more interesting things that has emerged, IMHO, from the recent D&D-Next playtests are the opinions about DM power—that is, the amount of “say” a DM has over the game and the players’ actions.

I’ve been playing D&D in one form or another for a long time, since 1977 in fact, so it’d be foolish to think that my experience with older editions hasn’t had an effect. It has. Some things in the recent playtest, like getting back all hit points after an overnight rest, seem ridiculous to me because I was “raised” on a system in which you got back one hit point per day (which now strikes me as equally ridiculous). But I digress. (More comments about ‘Next to come soon, perhaps after the next playtest packet later this summer.)

The complaints of a return to “Mother, may I?” are a frequent one. The attitude seems to be: I don’t want much unknown. I want to know how fast I can run, how far I can jump, whether I can leap from the balcony and grab that chandelier before I do it. I want to have a good sense of the odds.
These folks also seem to be of the opinion that the DM is there strictly as an atmosphere provider and bad-guy die roller, but little else. The DM is not only neutral, but his job is to be the road the players drag race on. Not much more.

I agree in spirit at least with the idea that a character should have some idea of their own capabilities and the odds. In real life, even if I’ve never jumped from the rooftop of one city building to another, Walking Dead style—and I certainly haven’t—I could probably stand near the edge and have a decent sense of whether attempting the jump was crazy or a decent risk. I know roughly how far I can jump. In RPGs the referee is describing the scene, a scene the players can rarely see first-hand unless illustrations are provided. And the players are playing characters that are probably a departure from their real life form, and guessing the ability of an imaginary person can be hard. This would seem to make a good argument for a DM objectively calling the shots, yet shouldn’t those players, if they are expected to play their characters well, know what the characters themselves would know? The character would have a good sense of their ability, just as I do standing near the edge of that rooftop, so a good player should share in that character’s knowledge.

This is a solid argument. But like many points of view, I fear it is often presented simply as a means to an end. If a DM is consistent with their DC or skill-type rulings, assigning similar levels of success for similar actions, the players swiftly learn the capabilities of their characters. No, I fear many players are using this as a means to an end, the end being overpowerful characters that fail at little. 

I don’t blame newer players for this, because game editions have moved in this direction. Characters now have more hit points, they have more abilities (especially at-will type abilities), and they heal much faster than in earlier editions. In addition, dying is much harder. In 1e, a failed save versus poison meant you were dead, kaput, pushing up daisies. Whereas in 4e a PC with 50 hp might actually have to be reduced to negative 25 just to drop. The advent of monster CRs in 3e also led to more balanced encounters, and the idea of characters running from an encounter to save their hides is more a rarity these days. It’s a big difference from games of old, and it leads to a different player mindset.

I don’t want to wield the wide brush and say newer/younger players are all videogame-influenced, but I think that is also a factor. A proliferation of RPG-style and FPS videogames has led to many players being used to a gaming experience that often involves running and shooting things with impunity (at least until you discover online multiplayer for the first time and are swiftly humbled) and quick resets when things go wrong. Many RPG players are also videogamers, so it’s foolish to disregard the influence one style of play might have over the other. This isn’t denigrating the player, merely acknowledging the way they were “raised.” If you grow up in a 40-room mansion, a Cape Cod style house will feel small, whereas if you’re raised in a one-room shack the reverse will no doubt be felt.

For me, much of the fun and fantasy aspect comes from the unknown. This can certainly be taken too far, as in DMs or games that throw a constant stream of “weirdies” or needlessly modified monsters at the PCs for sake or surprise alone, ruining any chance to establish a more natural, known setting. But some unknown is absolutely needed. If the players can beat everything and know everything, where is the challenge? Whether most players realize it or not, the pleasure comes from those difficult challenges. It’s fun to mow down lackeys with your +5 sword, but that gets old faster than you’d think. The memorable encounters are when you take risks with your characters and manage to beat difficult enemies by the narrowest of margins. Those are the times my players remember years later, always.
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