Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The importance of setting

As it becomes more and more obvious that our group isn't going to stick with 4E I've started to look back at why it failed.

Maybe "failed" is the wrong word. I don't want to imply that it's some sort of sweeping failure like the Zune. There are certainly fans of the game out there, people who love it and have a lot of fun playing it. To each their own. I've never bought into the whole "edition war". Everyone should play whatever game they find to be fun. Whether that game is 4E, 3.5, AD&D, Gurps, WoD or whatever else. It makes no difference to me what you enjoy playing. I certainly don't expect you to switch after reading my half-assed opinions. The bottom line is that games should be fun and DnD 3.5 was fun for me.

But why isn't 4E fun for me?

At its very core it's not really different from any other version of DnD. You create a character with some stats and a class, and you battle monsters in a world of swords and magic.

The really fun stuff is in the roleplaying. In becoming that burly warrior or busty sorceress (whaddya mean they aren't all burly or busty?) and overcoming all obstacles on the way to a goal. Really, roleplaying is completely independent of any gaming system. You could roleplay in a game of Monopoly if you really wanted to.

So my problem must lie with the mechanics of the 4E system. After all, roleplaying in a good and engaging story is not the only aspect of DnD. A big chunk of every game night is spent in combat, and combat relies almost solely on the character sheet and the game mechanincs. So, where did 4E go wrong for me?

Rather than re-hash the gripes from my various posts here, I'll put them at the very bottom of the post. Those who care to, can read them there. Those who don't care, I'll spare you the agony of scrolling past them. You're welcome.

There is one thing that's not really part of the game mechanics. In fact it's something that was almost totally within my own control. The game setting.

Granted, when 4E came out there was no official setting beyond a generic "points of light in the midst of darkness". Eberron was still there and unchanged. I guess. I never really got into Eberron as a setting. We knew that the Forgotten Realms were getting re-worked to better fit the new system. In hindsight, we could have simply continued to use the 3rd edition version of FR, if only for the names and dates. Instead we just gave a nod to the gray generic world and went with the standard storyhook in the first published module.

That was all well and good at the time, but here's that hindsight again, it really didn't do my character any favors. I never bothered to put any thought into his background. I just rolled him up and got swept away by the game mechanics. I was so blinded by making my storm themed warrior/mage work within the confines of the ruleset that I ignored the really important thing. His place within the world. His motivations. His hopes and hates. His family roots. In short, in my effort to create a unique character I ignored everything that makes a character truly unique.

So really, 4E was hamstrung from the start because I forgot about the most important part of the game. The roleplaying. I didn't invest in his background and so I never invested in him. At least, not in any meaningful way beyond making a set of stats and powers that worked for my concept.

Sorry about that 4E. Your failure is also my failure.


Here's that summation of my previous gripes as promised earlier.

Certainly in the very beginning I was turned off by the restrictive feeling of 4E. I always felt like the character I really wanted was either impossible or only vaguely realized after a series of roadblocks and compromises. That was somewhat fixed by the Hybrid rules, and the ongoing laxity in Implements seems to be improving. Give it a few more years and this might not be an issue at all.

Another peeve was with the powers. Not that it wasn't a novel idea or well done. It just wasn't executed quite right. I'm not even sure what that means but there's just... something... about the powers that bugs me. Maybe it's how they make all the classes feel like every other class, with only the overarching roles to really seperate one character from another. Or maybe it's just in the numbers of them you get. For the first 5 levels I definitely felt like I had a few interesting whammies but used my lame At-wills ninety percent of the time. That's not so bad at the Paragon level where the number of Encounter powers means that At-wills only become repetitious in the longest battles. Still, it made the first half of the Heroic level so boring that it was all but unplayable for me.

The neutering of Feats and Magic Items has also bothered me. Maybe I'm just too stubborn to let go of them, but I miss the days when feats and magic items meant something. Something more than a piddly bonus to a power or an extra healing surge. I want magic items that can be pulled out at the last moment and turn disaster into triumph. Feats that give a character a distinct flavor and make him something more than just-another-fighter.

There are a lot of good things about the 4E system too. I'm a big fan of how traps, disease, and poison are handled. I also like that monsters aren't handcuffed to the same rules as player characters. That makes encounter design easy and gives the DM more room to tailor battles however he/she sees fit.

The 4E experience begins to wind down

It probably goes without saying after such a prolonged silence (is it really almost December already?) but the end is almost in sight. The light at the end of the tunnel, and the first death knell for this blog, is in the Pathfinder RPG (aka DnD 3.75), which I think we'll be playing next summer. We've all agreed to give the Paragon level a fair shake first, and there's some hope that the PHB3 could be an edition saver. Otherwise, it's been nice 4E but while 3.# has numerous flaws, those flaws are better than yours.

Frankly, I was ready to turf 4E months ago. In fact my interest in all things DnD has been at an all time low for the last several months. I've been much more interested in White Wolf's latest edition of World of Darkness game even though I only get to play it via IRC which is not nearly as much fun as tabletop. While two in our group have shown some interest/willingness in trying an NWoD game, Crwth has made it pretty clear that he's not interested in learning a new gaming system. At least not one that falls outside the d20 family. I can respect that, especially given the strains on free time imposed by work, wives, and kids that we all have. We're lucky to play more than three times a month, so reading pdfs and learning a different RPG system is asking a lot. Not that it'll stop me from needling and pushing for it. (btw, if anyone knows of a good Play-By-Post site for nWoD, lemme know).

As mentioned, our group has had a lot going on in real life, so we haven't gotten together nearly as much as I'd like. Since our 5th levels were TPK'd we've only had one real session where all but one were present. That was a re-play of the troll encounter on the road, and it was great fun.

As a brief aside, I really like the Paragon level (at least my very early impression of combat at that tier/level). The number of Encounter powers available kept us from having to fall back on our piddly At-Wills which kept the fight interesting. My only big complaint, and one that mightily pissed me off, was that my monk couldn't use a spiked chain because none of his powers could be channeled through it. That's now been fixed (thankfully!) by the release of the finalized version of the Monk in Dragon #381.

Still, I don't see that one concession to flexibility and player choice being enough to save this edition of DnD for me.

As for the blog, I've probably got a few more posts to put up. One on setting is already in mind, and I expect to have a few as we get a little deeper in to the Paragon level/tier. I can feel the excitement.