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.

11 comments:

David Mulnix said...

I’ve been playing D&D since 1980 and have experienced all of the editions. My current group of around 9 years has also been playing 3, 3.5, and now 4e. I think we are just about ready to call it quits as well. We’ve been playing 4e for about 1.5 years and it is nowhere near as fun as 3.5. A contributing factor as you mentioned is role playing. Our group knows how to role play we’ve been doing it for years and have fun doing it. It seems there is something about 4e that inhibits role playing. Maybe it’s because the characters feel to generic and non-special to some of the players in the group so they don’t get into the game as much, maybe it’s because we spend an ungodly amount of time in combat that seems to drag on forever leaving less time available for role playing, or it could be something else. 4e does play like a pen and paper world of warcraft. The designers were trying to integrate elements from those types of games and they really did succeed. While the game is interesting from a miniatures/tactics standpoint it just doesn’t feel or plays like any of the previous D&D versions. It’s something entirely different in my opinion. It’s a good game but you have to be in the mood for a miniatures/tactical type game when you sit down to play it. I’ve tried role playing more during combats because that’s where 90% of the time within the game is spent, but it just isn’t the same.

So after giving 4e a very generous opportunity (1.5 years) I think we are done. I’ve talked about going to Pathfinder as well with my group but I don’t know what we will do. It saddens me because I’ve enjoyed D&D for so many years but this might be the end of the road. The other factor is how wizards handled the launch of 4e and the whole DDI thing….. that also added an element of dissatisfaction that has me thinking I won’t be jumping on the bandwagon when they come out with any future versions of “D&D”.

David Mulnix said...

I’ve been playing D&D since 1980 and have experienced all of the editions. My current group of around 9 years has also been playing 3, 3.5, and now 4e. I think we are just about ready to call it quits as well. We’ve been playing 4e for about 1.5 years and it is nowhere near as fun as 3.5. A contributing factor as you mentioned is role playing. Our group knows how to role play we’ve been doing it for years and have fun doing it. It seems there is something about 4e that inhibits role playing. Maybe it’s because the characters feel to generic and non-special to some of the players in the group so they don’t get into the game as much, maybe it’s because we spend an ungodly amount of time in combat that seems to drag on forever leaving less time available for role playing, or it could be something else. 4e does play like a pen and paper world of warcraft. The designers were trying to integrate elements from those types of games and they really did succeed. While the game is interesting from a miniatures/tactics standpoint it just doesn’t feel or plays like any of the previous D&D versions. It’s something entirely different in my opinion. It’s a good game but you have to be in the mood for a miniatures/tactical type game when you sit down to play it. I’ve tried role playing more during combats because that’s where 90% of the time within the game is spent, but it just isn’t the same.

So after giving 4e a very generous opportunity (1.5 years) I think we are done. I’ve talked about going to Pathfinder as well with my group but I don’t know what we will do. It saddens me because I’ve enjoyed D&D for so many years but this might be the end of the road. The other factor is how wizards handled the launch of 4e and the whole DDI thing….. that also added an element of dissatisfaction that has me thinking I won’t be jumping on the bandwagon when they come out with any future versions of “D&D”.

matthew-lane said...

The thing that you mention as inhibiting roleplaying in 4E are a couple of design issues, that me & mine have isolated (but can't remove).

1. NPC come in one flavour... Treasure Givers. Be they killable for gold or if you kill something for them to give you gold. Beyond that they have no reason to exist.

2. Encounter Design. As you never encounter solo creatures, or small groups of creatures that don't immediately spring into action upon you opening a door, you will never be able to negotiate with them. They exist to die.

3. Divorcing ones "character" from ones character. You can play your character any way you like, but as soon as you go into combat (which is always) you are so generic & MMORPG push button attack-y that it stops being an extension of yourself.

4. No smart answers. No matter the combat situation there is never a smart answer. There is never a work around to avoid combat & there is never an easy fix in combat. There is no way you can batman an encounter by showing up with a kryptonite ring to take out superman. If you are fighting zombies its no different from fighting bandits from the players side of the GM Shield.

5. TPK. The worst thing that can happen to any PC in 4E is death. Its the only lasting scary effect. So if players do something stupid they know that as long as they eventually win they can take a 5 minute rest and it will be all ok. This leads to players becoming complete arse-hats.

6. Illusion of choice. You never really make any choices as a PC, you just follow the linear plot to the next room and kill everything inside. Same goes for designing a character; you get option A & option B. Option B is option A with a slightly different name.


I've played 4E for the same 1.5 years as you did & i have found the one biggest reason for me to drop it. ITS NOT FUN FOR ME. I'm going back to 3.5, there was nothing wrong with that game that common sense couldn't fix. I've already looked at Pathfinder & while its not bad the flavour does put me off a little. I think i'll un-retire the old 3.5 books and see what i can do with them.

-M

Mike Karkabe-Olson said...

Wow.

Your posts make it sound like it's not a failure of the game system but a failure in how you play the game. Our gaming group has played many 4th edition sessions containing vibrant role-playing (far stronger than what we experienced in 3.5) and we’ve even played many sessions without a single combat — and these sessions were every bit as enjoyable, if not more enjoyable, than the combat-heavy sessions.

At least Griff, in his post, was honest enough to point out that he and his group did not pursue the roleplaying aspect of 4e enough, which was their fault (where he says, “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.”…). That, at least, makes his comments a little more thought out than the others.

Now some questions for each of you:

Do you guys even attempt to use the new skill challenges system introduced in 4e? And, if you so, perhaps you’re not utilizing them correctly.

Our gaming group has had entire sessions of ONLY playing skill challenges, and let me tell you they were FULL of role-playing (even more so than game sessions of 3.5). To me, based on your posts, it sounds like you’ve only pursued the aspects of combat in 4e and completely ignored the role-playing aspect of the system.

Try taking a look at the following series of blog posts on skill challenges and see if they provide you with any insight on how to use skill challenges:
1) “how to design skill challenges” at www.at-will.omnivangelist.net/series/howtodesignskillchallenges
2) “how to make skill challenges fun” at www.at-will.omnivangelist.net/series/howtomakeskillchallengefun
3) “skill challenges” at www.at-will.omnivangelist.net/series/skillchallenges/

Also take a look at this blog (“There’s no room for rolepaying in 4E? Find a different room”) at www.roleplayingpro.com/2009/08/08/there%E2%80%99s-no-room-for-roleplaying-in-4e-find-a-different-room . It shows how a perceived lack of role-playing in 4e usually stems from the DM and players running the game — not from the system itself. (Of course, 4e can be played as a simple tabletop tactical game if you wish, and there’s nothing wrong with that… if that’s what you want. Just don’t say the system somehow hinders your ability to role-play, because I’m not buying it.).

I also suggest you look at the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 because it more fully explores skill challenges and how to run them, outlining more options and techniques than the first DMG (some of which were invented by bloggers — players who are thrilled with the new system). Admittedly, the first PHB and DMG skimmed this new device (mostly, I think, because of space constraints and because WOC didn’t want to pigeonhole this new idea into “one right way of doing it” before being allowed to show how adaptable it can be and its variances).

Mike Karkabe-Olson said...

(previous post continued)

If used in the right way, skill challenges encourage TONS of role-playing; it can even be used to avoid combat altogether. With it, you can gloss over huge chunks of time or space — days, months, even years. You can even complete a week-long journey or a journey through a hundreds-of-mile-long cavern system WITHOUT having to create a map for that entire cave system — or breaking out the battle map. This is amazing when you think about it: it allows the DM to gloss over the “boring” parts of a journey or storyline and cut to all the instances in which role-playing is called for — to when there is an exciting turning point to be made.

For example, I recently ran an entire three-hour session on a skill challenge from the Eberron Campaign guide (encounter #4: hunting the mastermind on page 274) in which the players searched for the source of an assassination attempt. During this time they interacted with innocent bystanders, gathered clues and eyewitness accounts, and moved around the city (none of which I had to map), using successful skill rolls to piece together clues and information. They covered several hours of time in the world of Eberron, role-playing vital turning points and “encounters,” eventually back-tracking the trail of the assassin to its source. They did all this without a single instance of fighting and using a wide variety of skills and ingenuity — so much ingenuity, in fact, that they surprised me. More importantly, it involved the best role-playing I’ve seen in a long time — all without a lick of fighting. It even provided a way to gain XP at the end (again, without having to fight anything). They found no need to digress into a battle just to gather XP (a situation that occurs all too often with certain players whenever we play 3.5).

Essentially, the skill challenge provided them with a loose and freeform way of pursuing their goal in a manner they wished and provided them with XP at the end (a lot of XP), without having to resort to fighting. And, in the end, they were every bit as happy (and judging by how excitedly they talked about it afterward: more happy) as if they had just fought a long, drawn-out battle.

matthew-lane said...

Then you are both lucky. You are the exception that proves the rule. Personally however i have been underwhelmed by 4E. Sure i was originally all psyched to play, but after a while it got more and more shallow & made less internally logical sense.

I think the most important part of the post however is this theory: 4E maybe the best game ever designed, but if its not fun i'm not going to continue playing it" & to me, if not the OP, it has stopped being fun as people continue to try to play the system rather then play the game.

Also just as a side note, i have come to hate skill-challenges. They take away alot of those undefinable little things, that make me come back week in, week out. Personally i'm unwilling to trade that for expediency & speed.

I'm not sure why but when a 3.5 fan says roleplaying, the 4E player thinks "skill-challenge." One is not synonomous with the other.

Not to discredit your personal experiences though. If you are enjoying it you go right ahead and play it, but i need something with a little more depth then 4E is willing or capable of offering.

-M

Griff said...

Mike K-O, when you start a comment by essentially saying "wow, it's not the game, you're just playing it wrong" my first reaction is to stop reading. I'm glad I did however because you had some valuable insights.

For starters, I do like the Skill Challenge mechanics. It's a great idea and can lead to some very interesting gameplay. However, I have to agree with Matthew that it's not an 'instant-roleplay-creator'. In our group, when we do negotiations with NPCs or what have you, we typically just say it out and Crwth makes a judgement call on how influential we were. We don't instantly grab the d20s and start rolling various skills, unless we want to take advantage of our character's training in Knowledge: Royalty etc...

Another factor for our group is that we've been playing the published modules. Skill challenges are few and far between in those. Is that a flaw in 4E? Not so much, but as the flagship modules they should have made a much bigger effort to show off this fine mechanic.

True, Crwth could have always added some (and he might have) but he's also got two young kids, a wife, a job and all that other stuff. Rewriting published modules so that we can have some pseudo-roleplay via skill challenges isn't something he should have to do.

I also want to underline how strongly I believe that roleplaying is really a separate issue from whether a game is fun or not. The only connection I see is in whether the game system inhibits or encourages roleplay. You can roleplay a game of Monopoly as a greedy slumlord or Trump-like figure. Playing a philanthropist is going to be a little more challenging. You can give free rent to the down and out on Baltic Ave or offer low-income housing on Boardwalk, but it might not be as much fun.

Obviously 4E isn't that restrictive (or at all really) but as Matthew pointed out once the game goes into combat mode, roleplay gives way to "striker-play, controller-play, defender-play, and leader-play". So in that sense the 4E mechanics can inhibit roleplaying. Particularly for those that try to play a character that doesn't fall neatly into one of the four molds, such as a greatsword wielding wizard.

So, I should have put more emphasis into roleplaying and character development right from the start. But, I don't think it would have changed my overall impressions of 4E, or made it any much more fun to play. While it has some great aspects, there's just not enough to outweigh the bad. Fortunately, skill challenges can easily be ported back to 3.5 or to Pathfinder.

Mike Karkabe-Olson said...

@Matthew: I understand 4e rubs you the wrong way and I, of course, respect that. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Heck, there are a few things I don't like (and, believe me, I've house ruled a few things). The only comments I took issue with are those that say 4e somehow limits one's ability to role-play. I just don't see it.
@griff: Importing the skill challenges idea to 3.5 would likely make it a better system and if I were playing with people who didn't care for 4e, I'd be more willing to go back to it if they were to incorporate that idea and perhaps a few others from 4e. Of course, the same can be said in reverse (if they really wanted to retain a few things from 3.5 when playing 4e I also wouldn't mind that either).

Peke said...

I just don't see the difference, outside of combat. Even skill challenges are not that appealing to me for roleplaying things. Making one for escaping a complicated trap or some other action scene, sure. Glossing over research in a library by making some knowledge checks, absolutely. But when you have to deal with influencing npcs, you'd better talk the talk, and possibly walk the walk :)

The thing is... what is in 4e that prevents you from talking instead of fighting, and I am more curious about what is in 3.5 that makes it easier? 3.5 has absolutely no support for roleplaying, at most a few more skills but no better or easier occasions for using them, really. I always considered that a weakness but not a hindrance... and cannot see where 4e does worse.

As for the combat getting more mechanical, yeah, probably. Is it that bad? 3.5 is very mechanical, most non-casters have 3 things to do move, attack, full attack. I miss some stuffs like sunder et al, true, but they did not come that often unless the character was specialized on it, and then it was the same trick eeeevery combat. Anyway, lack of options in combat doesn't seem to be an issue, is it? :)

I have the feeling people, for some reason, find the idea of pre-assigned roles and builds (which seem to be kind of a class with a Prestige Class already built-in, to my eyes) alien and react by not personalizing or immersing in the character.

matthew-lane said...

@Peke: I would agree that people don't personalize there characters under 4E, but thats because it doesn't really feel like its my character. It feels like its the books character and i'm just borrowing it for a short while.

The built in roles were one of the things that annoyed me the most about 4E. After all its My Character not WotC. But it feels like i'm not making any actual choices in this relationship.

I feel like i'm not making a character at all. I'm just picking a class, picking a build & applying a race to it. When i play a wizard i want to play a wizard, not an arcane controller.

Same goes for in game. It doesn't feel like i'm making any choices, i'm just doing what the system & half-baked story is telling me too, in a way that doesn't feel true to the story (even worse then the vancian system felt).

Its just not for me. I've played alot of different games & to be honest if this hadn't had the D&D title on the top of it, i wouldn't have given it the time of day, let alone a year and a half.

It feels like this game could play itself if you left it open on the table for a while. It feels like having a player is completely optional as long as you've purchased all the official D&D merchandise.

-M

David Mulnix said...

I agree with a lot of Matthew's points, very insightful. I also agree that at the end of the day if its not fun why bother and for our group the intitial fun wore off some time ago, and its been getting harder and harder to play it. It has becoming increasing monotonous and severely lacking the depth/game immersion that all previous versions of D&D had.