Thursday, January 22, 2009

Powers, feats, and innate abilities

I read the latest Design & Development article a few days ago. It was interesting to hear about the design decisions that went into the feats of 4e, and how they compare to those that appeared in 3rd edition. But for fear of beating a dead centaur, I'm going to open up old wounds and mix metaphors.

In recent posts, we've talked about how the powers have made the various classes feel the same, since everyone has them. In 3rd edition, you had your spellcasters (and as mentioned before, they were varied enough to easily feel different); you had your Fighter, who dominated the feat selection throughout their progression, giving them a definite martial feel; and the remaining classes had their numerous class skills -- Barbarian with rage and DR, Rogue with a dozen skills and sneak attack, Monk with all sorts of goodness, Ranger with different paths, and the Bard... yeah.

And everyone felt unique. Every character played differently. And, it has to be said, multiclassing let you stir that up even more. The new feats, though, have pretty much taken the place of class-specific abilities. Sure, you don't get them automatically, but you get to choose them often enough, and they're very narrowly focused that you can label most of them as class- or race-specific. This came up when I last levelled up my Cleric - I think there were four feats that I could choose from, for which I qualified.

And speaking of multiclassing, as I have before, I've gone all hypocritical and multiclassed my Cleric, going with a bit of warlord just to powergame the healing aspect a bit. But is this going to make me feel any different from any other Cleric? Make me feel anything like a Warlord?

The Des&Dev article breaks down most of the 4e feats into four categories: static improvements to stats, situational improvements to stats, racial power mods, or class feature mods.

The first two are generally available to everyone, and thus don't help to differentiate anyone; the racial power modifications are minor, as all racial powers are; the last group, which focuses on each class's meager differences, is the only group that really makes an effort to "customize" the characters, to decorate them once they leave the cookie cutter. But does this little bit of icing help, or are they, in the end, equally indigestable, all tasting the same and making a mess on the table?


Rachel said...

Finally I see what you like (and don't like)! I've been following along (and enjoying your perspective) and getting that you like 3rd ed better than 4th ed "because the classes feel different". But this post has been your most descriptive yet.

You like playing, to a certain extent, different games for each of your classes. You like 3rd ed because you can essentially use a different mechanic for each class and yet still mix the classes and come away with more or less balanced game-play. You see feats, with their concrete projection into the game-world, as being the perfect vehicle to convey martial ability; to you, the flavor of skills, the great common denominator of the mundane man, brings espionage and intrigue to mind; and of course, even the differences between the divine and arcane magical mechanics lend themselves, to your thinking, to the different ways clerical and mystical schools of faith and magic approach their arts.

You want a game that is actually different mini-games bundled into a balanced whole. Somehow, the spell progression of the magical classes, and the feat progression of the martial classes, and the skill progression of the rogue classes must all work in a way that makes it feel like characters of similar levels have comparable efficacy in the game-world. The mage can lay cities to waste, but is utterly spent after such an undertaking; the warrior can wade through armies and hold out against legions for days; and the thief can throw a wild-card into any mix and find a way through, around, across, or in spite of any seemingly insurmountable difficulty.

3rd edition, in your sight, is all about the marriage of seemingly disparate tool-kits and skill-sets into a functional, if inelegant, mostly non-modular system.

Not to be a cynic, but if what you are in love with is the synergy of integrating different mechanics and still achieving game balance, and if 4th ed explicitly moves in the opposite direction, then why continue? It's obvious, by now, that 4th ed works explicitly counter to the old model, blatantly preferring the computer-programmable operation of the new rules.

I know, you've said that it still has the trappings of the old D&D: the fantasy/medieval setting, the legendary races combination, the four-color feel of the planar struggle between the primal forces.

But why "upgrade" to Vista when XP has everything you need and won't turn you on your head?

Or, if you prefer:

Which is more work, using the old system and generating your own content, converting challenges from other systems (like 4th ed) and generally trying to get everyone to keeping speaking a dead (or at least dying) language, or trying to find enjoyment in a game that is, for all intents and purposes, more like GURPS than it is like D&D?

Crwth said...

I think your last sentence really sums it up: which one is more work, or, if they'll involve similar output of effort, which would we prefer?

I think the reason that we haven't given up on 4e quite yet is that we want to see if some of that uniqueness can reappear in the higher levels (as we've posted before), or, if the gameplay of 4e (including the things that we've admitted we like) will be enough on its own to not make us miss "real" D&D, whatever that might be in our minds.

Your comment about "want[ing] a game that is actually different mini-games bundled into a balanced whole" is pretty accurate; I'd say that that is actually what Wizards of the Coast was striving for for the lifetime of 3rd edition, and failed (as numerous forums posts will attest, regarding balance). Not only that, I think that that failure was something they admitted to themselves, and thus was born 4e.

But was that the right way to go? The d20 mechanic is still there, and familiar to everyone. And the role-playing aspect of the game is still there. But if we didn't have familiar names and familiar places, would we recognize this d20 product as D&D if we weren't told? Would 4e have been better off as a new product, one that wouldn't have gained nearly the traction it did without the D&D name, and continue the (admittedly, likely futile) attempt to make 3rd edition balanced?

This is reaching the length of a post on its own, so I'll stop there. The reasoning behind the changes has been discussed by various WotC developers quite a bit, and I'm sure that included weighing the pros and cons -- including losing existing players.

Thanks for the comment, though! Very insightful. And thanks for reading.

Crwth said...

Oops, I meant to mention one more thing: the fact that 3rd edition no longer has new material (WotC-released, anyway), and 4e does, is definitely quite the consideration as well. I've never shied away from creating my own content (or taking others' and using it), and we've got most of the sourcebooks for 3rd edition, which means we could, indeed, continue on in that universe for quite a while. But new content that appears in Dragon and Dungeon magazines is all 4e from here on in, and while I can convert ideas and even numbers to 3rd edition, there's quite the strong temptation to ask, "could we not just switch to 4e and use this content as it was intended?"