Wednesday, January 21, 2015

4th Edition D&D: The Cocktail Weenie Approach

I love 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. I mean the real 4e D&D, too. Not that 4e revamp that just wrote powers down in a list for the most anal of the 3.5 lovers. I have only played (as opposed to GM'd) 4e once, as far as I can remember. I was a half-orc beast-master ranger. My friend Max was the GM. It was a TPK.

It was an honest mistake on Max's part. He had simply neglected the power of a large monster aura mixed with a tiny roof arena, far too high to jump from. It was pretty ugly. I tried jumping, if I recall correctly.

But, all is forgiven.

The fact that I only played 4e once, and GM'd many times (a whole Neverwinter Heroic tier campaign, at one point) is probably why I like it so much.

4e made the GM's job much, much easier. I loved how monster stat blocks were organized. I loved how XP for encounters and encounter building was streamlined, and made more effective.

But all those things are just good game design. I mean, nothing is ever just good game design. Good game design should be applauded. But you can't make a perfect game, so once the ever-welcome notes of round numbers and aesthetically pleasing presentations and such have been hit, you have to make some stylistic choices, and you're gonna begin to lose people.

For 4e, nearly all those stylistic choices occurred on the other side of the screen.

4e took what I call the "Cocktail Weenie" approach to character building and playing. The designers over at Wizards gave us as much as they could, in terms of powers and combinations and races and classes and builds and variants and spells (really just more powers) and psionics (really just more powers, but a little different) and so on and so on. 3.5 eventually got to that point as well, but I think we could all feel the intent to flood the game with these bite-sized rules modules in 4e.

And hell, they did a good job. Who knew you could fit so many different things onto a damn toothpick.

Some of my friends dislike 4e because it "feels too much like a video game, specifically an mmorpg." To which I say: "Are you using a mouse to play? Are you typing into a chat box? Are you constantly getting worthless loot from your kills? No? Then it ain't a f*#$ing mmo, son."

Just because 4e took a page from the computer game design book, modularity in all things, doesn't mean it is supposed to feel like a computer game.

Let me tell you, behind the screen, I could not be happier for those computer game-inspired design choices. Being able to plug my numbers and choices into a little color-coded block and make a new rule that was always perfectly balanced with other powers of the same level and could immediately be understood by anyone with a functional knowledge of the system was a blessing.

That being said, however, there are drawbacks to the Cocktail Weenie approach. They have almost anything you could want shoved on a toothpick.

Almost anything.

But not everything. You can't each cereal with a toothpick, no matter how hard you try. Ice cream doesn't go great on toothpicks either, after a while. And don't even get me started on peanuts.

You couldn't make a dragon shaman in 4e, for example. They got close, but flight at-will is a tough thing to mimic in the power system, even at higher levels. Not to mention the auras that were constant in 3.5 and the natural armor that increased over time.

When everything is modular, you can't really develop abilities, you can only replace them, or add parts to them. That can be a seriously disappointing thing for certain kinds of players. Flowers are modular: they are all made of little cells, each nicely sealed and independent. But we can't easily see and interact with cells individually, so there is still some magic there. That kind of magic counts for certain pen & paper players.

As for me, I've always been on the fence between the complex and impenetrable beauty of 3.5 and the straight-forward and translucent mechanics of D&D the 4th. Regardless, 4e had a huge impact on me while I was designing my own games and playing around with different systems. Also the art is awesome.

Hey, for me, that counts.

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