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!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Winter Solstice, Everyone!

It is that time of year - when we all celebrate the biggest holiday of the year: Winter Solstice! Now, I know, many have bought into the relatively recent hijacking of this holiday by the Christian-folk, talking about the "true meaning" of the holiday as involving their mythical mithraist-clone savior.[1] But I want to bring us back to the root of what the celebration is really about! Today, we celebrate just how much winter sucks! No fresh food until spring! No fields to tend until then either, so we are all stuck inside, trying to keep warm, living on stored food, miserable in the dark. Let's party and get our minds off of it! Something to look forward to in the scuzzy time of year!

What I find most amusing about the hijack of this holiday by Christians is that 1) almost none of them know that it was hijacked and 2) the reason it was hijacked was that Christians tried to ban celebration of this holiday (since it was the most popular and vastly overshadowed real Christian holidays) and simply could not, so they co-opted it instead. So let's all celebrate the true meaning of the season! And no, it has nothing to do with a mythical baby, either!

Happy Winter Solstice Everyone! Spend time with your families, exchange gifts, and party! And let's all try and forget for a little while just how much winter sucks!

[1] - Yes, yes, Mithra was also said to have been born out of a rock - but it is also the case that being "born of a virgin" was a rather common claim for god figures at the time. Even more funny is the fact that there is really nothing about the Jewish savior being a virgin-birth - that is a mistranslation of the word for "young woman" as virgin - a translation that apparently is used no where else except in the bible. In any case, arguing about which version of mythology is "true" is about as useful as arguing who would in in a fight: Superman or Mighty Mouse.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rick Warren is Irrelevant

There has been much uproar in the progressive blogsphere and with progressives in general about Rick Warren being asked to speak in a prominent slot by Obama.

Sure, I am disappointed that progressives are basically nonexistent under any administration. We either get center-right or extreme-right, with nothing outside of that range. Of course, if I am forced to pick, I'll pick center-right over extreme-right any day of the week and twice on Sunday. But I'd rather have a true progressive option.

As far as Rick Warren, I really don't give a shit. It is purely symbolic, which is another way of saying it is totally irrelevant. He'll stand up and say a stupid religious speech, the sort of thing I ignore no matter what the political persuasion of the religious person.
He is not being appointed to Obama's cabinet. Obama can throw all of the right-wing symbolic gestures he wants, so long as the actual people appointed to the levers of power are not right-wing assholes. Something like this is just irrelevant and a waste of time to even talk about.

Republicans understand this well. They know how to stage PR moves far better than Democrats do. More importantly, they know how to ruthlessly exploit power, putting actual right-wing operatives in place at the levers of power, so all the window dressing is irrelevant. That's what I'm concerned with. I hope Obama proves to be as ruthless. Time will tell.