Saturday, December 27, 2008

My Final Verdict on Dungeons and Dragons 4E: I Won't Be Playing It

I was initially tempted to say in the subject line above "it sucks," but I stopped short.

We really gave it a try. I gave it a try. Admittedly, I DM'd it and so did not get the player's perspective, but I could see it with all of my friends who did play as I ran it.

Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons is extremely well balanced. In fact, I'd almost say it is perfectly balanced. And that is its greatest flaw. In what seems like a near-obsessive quest for "balance" the system put a straight jacket on the most important part of the system: player characters. Every single class is basically identical in powers. They have just one table for class abilities. It doesn't matter if you're a fighter, a theif, a mage, or a cleric. At first level you will have 2 at-will powers, 1 daily, and 1 encounter power. And so it goes right on up to level 30.

There are no insta-kill powers. There is no level drain. There are no prestige classes. There is no multi-classing. There is no way to get a character's abilities out of a tiny little mathematical box that is primarily based on a character's level. Even the most fearsome of monsters don't do that much damage. There is no rolling for hit points. There is no con bonus for hit points (other than what you start with). Magic items follow the same mathematical balance limits and so don't do very much. Wizards can't fly. Teleporting is limited and expensive. Buffing is limited to non-existent. I liken it to being "on the rails" like a train track. Every character moves forward in levels on those rails and you can't get off. And the tracks all go in the same direction.

This was all done in the name of balance. And toward that end, it works very well. Every combat set by correct challenge level will be tough, yet doable. There will be no big surprises. And yet they are also slug fests as monsters can have ridiculous numbers of hit points, far more than players of the same level would ever have. This just drags things out.

Ultimately, all of this balance and limits on power made the players in my regular group have zero interest in between games in planing and tweaking their characters. There simply was nothing to plan, nothing to aim for. We played the first adventure all the way through to the end, but in the end, it was almost mechanical. I mean, they tried hard to win combats, but it just did not excite them to think about it between games. It was all kind of the same sort of thing over and over. Lots of combats to slog through, little in the way of tangible reward. Nothing to plan for. That is what it seemed like to all of us.

In the end, no one needed to say anything. We all just knew that the next game we would be playing would be 3.5E. And we would not be returning to 4E. I will not be ordering any more 4E books. I will probably never look at 4E again. Wizards of the Coast just lost me as a customer, not an easy thing, given I pretty much bought everything they put out for 3.5E. (A cheaper hobby than many). Will WotC even care that they've lost a customer who has played some version of D&D since probably 1980? I guess time will tell.

As should be obvious, balance isn't everything. In fact, I think a lot of the charm of 3.5E is that it wasn't entirely balanced. Moreover, there were so many options available and it was all modular, so there were just enormous variations on what you could do. I once made a character that focused on jump and climb and almost nothing else. Ultimately, he could not do much, but I had a lot of fun with him. I think my friends are the same way. Most of us have played D&D for 20+ years. We look for something new with each campaign to try with a character. With 4E it felt like just playing one character, stuck on the rails, you were done. We are tweakers with nothing to really tweak. Because the 4E "balance" prevents tweaking outside of the box. You can't get off of the rails.

Looking at the first supplement they put out for options for classes, it appears this will be permanent for 4E. Nothing in it allowed any deviation from the rails. It was just more window dressing for characters as they head down the tracks in one direction.

So I'm done with 4E and probably done with Wizards of the Coast. It is kind of sad. 4E just doesn't feel like D&D, probably in large part because it is so tightly balanced. It is like they forgot that the goal of a game is not to be balanced, but to have fun. It is not a board game or a strategy game, though strategic elements can be involved. It is a role-playing game. The goal is to have fun, not to "win." All of the obsession with balance, with nerfing powers and abilities - that misses the point.

I think my groups never had much problem with "game breaking" powers because even if such a power were used in one campaign, it probably would not be used again simply because everyone wants to try something different each time.

So this is the end of an era. I guess it is only fitting that Dungeon and Dragon magazines are both now defunct, since if all they had were 4E material, I'd feel bad about still being subscribed to them. Fortunately, there is a ton of material for 3.5E, and Paizo games is still putting out great stuff for it, particularly the Pathfinder series of campaigns. I'm running the first Pathfinder series now, and my players love it. And with my other group (that tried 4E) we started a new 3.5E game, run by someone other than me, Savage Tide. Much fun is had by all. And much money will now be saved with no more books to buy. Well, at least a little money to be saved. I suppose there are always minis, though I may get fewer of those as I now have a ridiculous number of them already.

Happy Holidays everyone. Game on!


Todd said...

Hey, followed you here from ElevenFootPole.

First off, if you don't like the game, you certainly shouldn't play it. 4e isn't for everyone, and if it isn't for you, you should certainly play something else. That said, there are a few things that struck me as... well, wrong, in your analysis.

"There are no insta-kill powers. There is no level drain."

These are certainly true. I don't miss them, but I understand that some people do. Even so, I'd say those are bad mechanics, since they're capable of costing a player months and months of work for one hit.

"There are no prestige classes."

Isn't that just what Paragon Path's are? I guess technically the statement is correct because nothing is called a "prestige class" but the statement seems to be a little disingenuous.

"There is no multi-classing."

Provably untrue. You might not like the way it's done in 4e, but that's a completely different ball of wax.

"There is no con bonus for hit points (other than what you start with)."

And your healing surges, which are an expression of hit points.

"Wizards can't fly."

Well, not until level 16 they can't, so I guess the statement is half-true for the life of a wizard that progresses through all 30 levels. Is there a first level wizard fly spell in 3.5 that I'm unaware of?

If your group didn't like it, that's totally fine. There are plenty of games out there that might scratch your gaming itch. But why make up false reasons to dislike it? Why say things aren't there that provably are?

DBB said...

The paragon classes are rather limited - and they suffer from the same problem that the mainline classes suffer from - no matter what you select, you will have exactly the same number of powers and feats as any other character class. It doesn't allow the sort of tweaking you can do with 3E. For some that is a feature, for me, that is a bug.

I'm not trying to say someone else shouldn't enjoy 4E - I'm saying why I didn't and don't and won't play it.

The multiclassing is not really multiclassing - you can take a feat to get some of the abilities of one other class. To say that is multiclassing compared to 3.5E where you can literally have 20 different classes at 20th level if you so chose, is rather disengenuous.

Healing surges are not hit points. You only get one in the middle of combat (second wind) unless you have special abilities or it comes from someone who does. Ultimately, what it does is makes for very little variability in hit points. Again, for some this is a feature, for others...

Ok, my bad on the fly thing - I somehow missed that - it is still extremely nerfed and given the limited number of spells wizards get now - plus how late you get it - level 16 - it seems much less useful. You also can't make anyone else fly, only yourself. And have to sustain it. That isn't terrible, and makes for interesting strategy, but it also seems to be part of the general 4E design of a straight jacket on balance, not wanting to let anyone do anything that is TOO useful.

Again, that is a feature for some. It just doesn't feel like D&D to me.

As a final note, no one likes dying or getting level drained in any edition - but then the fear of that is part of the game. And it isn't like you can't undo it - there is restoration - and you get a fortitude save and the chance to fix it before you need to make that save. And obviously death is not permanent, either.

I'm not trying to slam the game here. I wanted to explain what I didn't like and why I and my fellow gamers will not be playing it. We only have so much time to game and we'd rather spend it on a game we love rather than one we don't.

Todd said...

"It doesn't allow the sort of tweaking you can do with 3E."

I can appreciate that. But there's a difference between not allowing the same amount of tweaking and not existing at all, yes?

"The multiclassing is not really multiclassing - you can take a feat to get some of the abilities of one other class. To say that is multiclassing compared to 3.5E where you can literally have 20 different classes at 20th level if you so chose, is rather disengenuous."

It's less expansive than in the previous edition, but stating that is simply doesn't exist is out and out incorrect.

I'm not suggesting that you're trying to slam the game. Like I said, if you don't like it, you don't like it. But when you use examples that are provably false, it misleads anyone who might not be familiar with 4e and it weakens your argument against anyone who is. If you have a good reason to dislike a mechanic, you serve yourself much better to describe why you don't like it, rather than to claim it isn't there. Making claims that existing features aren't present in the product immediately calls your claim of giving it a try into question. Does that make sense?

Now, I disagree with your feeling that 4e is too balanced, but I can understand why you feel that way. On that point, however, I would ask, at what levels should one class be better than all the others? At what levels should a rogue suck, and when should it be better than everyone else? If a fighter is only fun to play from levels 1-6, then the wizard and cleric take over the game, why should I play a fighter after 6th level?

Finally, I don't know if you're familiar with the game, but you might want to check out Ars Magica. Their 4th edition is a bit long in the tooth, and whoever owns the property now is supposedly working on a 5th edition, but it does some of the things you seem interested in. I suggest Ars because it purposefully ignores any concept of balance between classes: if you are a mage, you are always better than the non-magically empowered party members, and the game is designed to enforce that.

DBB said...

I would still argue that the paragon class is simply not the same thing as the open-ended prestige classes that you have in 3.5E.

And I would also argue that 4E really does not have multiclassing. You can take a feat to get some abilities from one other class, but that is so far removed from what multiclassing is in 3.5E, I really have trouble seeing it as multiclassing. It is not like it is less expansive, but similar - I mean, if you were, say, limited to taking on only two or three other classes, but still had the mechanics similar to 3.5E, that could be considered a "less expansive" multiclassing. As it is in 4E, it really isn't multiclassing at all. You keep your original class and you get a few powers that happen to come from another class - but you really aren't that other class.

With regard to which classes might shine at which levels, I don't think there is any way to clearly deliniate that - there is so much variability, even within a class. You can have two fighters that are completely different from each other. Having played D&D for so long now - almost 30 years, off and on, it isn't really about that any more. I like to try different character concepts just because I've already done the (some would say) cliched builds. Like right now, I'm playing a mobility type fighter that has to act as a tank. He's not as strong or tough as a fighter needs to be, but I make up for that by being nimble, and taking a prestige class that goes along with that theme. I haven't done that before, nor has anyone else I've played with - and we've played a lot of campaigns with a lot of different characters.

We find it fun to tweak and try out different things, and with 4E and its balance, it really feels like every class is the same on some fundamental level. I realize that there are differences between classes, but the similarities are just too strong. It really bothers me greatly that every class has exactly the same number of powers of each time, gets the same sorts of bonsues at the same levels, with no variation allowed even from multiclassing or taking a real prestige class.

My friends and I are tweakers. We like to tweak things. Sure, some things may be "broken" in a game balance sense at some point, at some experience level, but then you advance past that and it changes again. Really effective combos we tend not to reuse simply because we want to try something different. Sometimes we even try to take something that, at first glance, appears woefully under powered, and find a way to tweak it so it is useful.

I once ran a character in a hybrid Oriental Adventures 3.5E game that was, on the surface, totally useless in combat. But I had a lot of fun with his other abilities. And one thing he could do better than any other class was climb and jump - I mean I think his climb skill was 33 and his jump was 59 and he was only 10th level. This allowed him to do some really crazy things that were fun, and even almost saved the day on the climactic battle.

Something like that is utterly impossible in 4E - your skills will likely never be better than 1/2 your level plus a skill modifier plus trained bonus - or rarely will they get much better than that.

I actually have heard of Ars Magica, though that also isn't D&D - I mean, there are simply not the myriad of options in that.

You know, you could make a fighter that was way worse than the party wizard at 12th level and you could make one that was way better - or a wizard that was worse. It can be fun to make a party of characters that seem suboptimal and then figure out how to make them work together.

I have played other RPGs - if I had the time, I might even try to go further with 4E, but I don't. It was just terribly disappointing to see the direction they went with the game. I understand the balance issues - I just think that what they missed was that a game does not have to be perfectly balanced to be fun.

Randolpho said...

Well, speaking as a fan of 3.x, I must say I rather like 4e. While I can see your issues -- especially the multiclassing, which I felt was the biggest cool-factor for 3.x -- I think you're letting them get in the way of an objective analysis of the game.

I suppose I have the benefit of having played a lot more RPGs than come directly from Star Wars Saga Edition, where things are both a little more open and a little more closed. For example, that whole issue you have about powers being the same for all classes? Yep, it's pretty much the same in Saga. Level progression is as follows: Feat, Talent, Feat, Talent, Feat, etc. Powers are only obtained by the use of a feat, like Force Training or Starship Maneuvers, and they come from a limited list, just like in 4e. In that way Star Wars Saga is more closed, so I'm used to that level of "balance" when I move to 4e. On the other hand, Saga is more open in that there are a half-dozen base class and dozens of prestige classes. I personally prefer that level of flexibility when building a class.

That said, I find 4e both fun to play and (finally) fun to DM. That's what's most important, IMO. Sure, it's not D&D 3, but it's not *supposed* to be. I recall quite clearly the naysayers for 3e swearing up and down that Wizards had ruined D&D forever. It's simply not so; they were just too attached to the rules they knew and couldn't look at the game from another eye.

If you objectively don't like it, don't play it. But I think you're letting your love of a previous rule set color that opinion.

Again, I think it helps that I've played lots of different RPGs such as D6 Star Wars, the various World of Darkness games, Star Wars d20 & Saga, Serenity, Iron Crown RPGs (remember MERP?) and, of course, nearly every edition of D&D/AD&D. I've loved many, hated others. But I approached each with an objective eye.

DBB said...

I'm not saying it is a bad game, per se - it is certainly very balanced. I'm really just listing the reasons why I don't personally like it and why I and my friends won't be playing it.

Maybe part of that is colored by my perception of what I enjoy about D&D - maybe if it was an entirely different system, one without the D&D label attached, I would approach it differently - but it still doesn't have the tweaking I would like in a system.

The Pueschel said...

My only experience playing D&D was 2nd ed. But I have read the rules for 3rd/3.5. I understand them. It was a streamlining that allowed for extremely easy entry-level play, but also very deep customization, nicely satisfying the needs of players new and old.

There is not nearly enough depth to the game to convince any long-time fans to "upgrade".

4th just gives me a headache. And not just from a rules standpoint. The sweeping changes in the campaign settings, the destruction of the Great Wheel. 5 alignments?!! As a fan of the lore, I just could not believe how far they dumbed down the great name of D&D. And don't argue. It is what it is. Dumbed. Down. Wizards obviously is only designing around the lowest common denominator now.

Great for noobs, not so much for people who have grown accustomed to 30+ years of mild changes. Which, upon closer examination of the earlier rules, is how it was.

Next thing we know, WotC will tell us that Lord Ao comes down from above, squats over the Underchasm, and unleashes his over-deity dung upon the realms to form a new mountain in the middle of Faerun.
(Sorry, FR was my first.)

Drew said...

Huh, I came across this when doing a search for some FAQ info about the brutal weapon property. I thought I'd throw something out there:

It sounds like you're talking about D&D 4e in terms of just the core rulebooks, and then comparing that to all the character options of the whole 3.5e library which was rather vast. Wizards is already putting out a supplement almost every 3 months. Each one has new feats (there are a lot now) each book has new paragon paths, and a lot of them expand on the previous classes. Also, magical items are a lot more interesting this version, with a huge selection that have some very interesting static bonuses. With all the new stuff interacting with the old the combinations are exponentially exploding.

For example:

One character in our campaign is a ranger and took the cleric multiclassing feat. We were rather confused until he unveiled his ultimate plan of taking the War Priest paragon path and gaining the ability to mark enemies and get opportunity attacks on those enemies if they run away.

Another character is a fairly effective tank because he's a Warden built to take advantage of the grab mechanics to keep the enemies in place.

I like that there is no more instant kills because it makes the game a lot more tactical instead of simply requiring people to come to the table with a few resurrections, restorations, and instant-kills of their own available.

I think you're confusing lack of options with lack of expansion books.

DBB said...

Alot of what I discussed would be true with just a straight comparison of core rulebooks - for instance, multiclassing and prestige classes.

And with all of the supplements that have come out, are there now classes you can take that have a different progression other than the chart in the players handbook for at-will/encounter/daily/utility powers and such? I somehow doubt that has changed. That is also a core problem I have with the system - that sameness. In 3.5E, the number and types of abilities a character has varies widely. In 4E, every single X level character will have exactly the same number of powers of each type as every other possible X level character. That rigidity still bothers me.

Of course, if the new books have eliminated that, reinstated true multiclassing and prestige classes ala 3.5E, and other such changes, I'll take another look.

Matthew said...

Suggesting the original post is not objective is offensive to me, and I'm not even the guy that wrote it. If you are a thinking human being, and have the ability to read, all you have to do is compare the two systems side by side and see the difference. One is built for nearly limitless options and the other severely limits options.

Balance is something wotc focuses on too much, and frankly the concept is overrated or misunderstood. 'Balance' can only be understood in a specific context. There is no universally accepted 'balance' for a d&d game. If my gaming group decides they want to play a challenging campaign the dm 'balances' the game against us. If we want to play a campaign 'balanced' in our favor then we can.

The options in 3.x allowed for these subtle adjustments. In 4e every campaign is exactly the same. Every character is exactly the same. Every gaming group running a 4e game is likely to experience the same game. Some 3.x gaming groups I would join preferred limiting options for the sake of story continuity. Fine. Other games let you go crazy and do whatever. Fine. No two groups ever played 3.x the same way.

How can that level of customization a bad thing? Whether or not 4e has the same level of customization is not an issue which can be debated. 4e does not allow for different dming styles or preferences among players. 4e defines the 'ideal' game, and everyone plays that one game.

Ok sure. Perhaps you like 4e. Good for you. You don't like choices. You will also probably get bored with 4e after your first campaign. I have never played a D&D game which felt like a level grind before I played 4e. Level grinding is not what I think of when I want to play d&d.