Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fourth Edition D&D

I started my look at 4th Edition D&D over a year ago, and haven't really been the soul of dedication to completing the analysis - apologies, for that. Now, I am actually in two weekly 4E games, so I can comment more in-depth.

Some of what I said earlier about multi-classing has been repaired - they offer 'hybrid' multiclassing, which functions somewhat similarly to 2E's multiclassing. Still, it's a band-aid on one of the game's gaping wounds - the lack of diversity in character creation.

Every character feels like every other. A Fighter, a Paladin, a Ranger, a Rogue, a Wizard - they all feel the same. Ostensibly, these classes are broken into 'roles' - Defender, Leader, Controller, and Striker - but while they each focus on certain aspects of battle during a combat, they all perform their duties in the exact same manner. There's no more distinction between 4E's classes than two specialist wizards in earlier editions - they each influence combat in different ways, but they're both using spells and their capabilities are largely identical, in terms of their mechanics of play.

I think this feel of 'sameness' that permeates the game is an artifact of two things. The quest for game balance, and the desire to make the game translate to computers more easily. Every ability possessed by every class is a power. This power has a frequency (daily, encounter, at-will); this power has a type of action it requires (standard, minor, free); this power involves an attack roll against one of the target's defenses. Most of the powers deal some kind of damage along with a secondary bonus effect that could be harmful to the target or beneficial to the party.

It makes me feel like every character is a Jedi. You're a quasi-mystical combat monster. That's it. Even with the hybrid multi-classing - what's the difference between a Rogue, a Fighter, and a Fighter-Rogue? Not a hell of a lot.

The game does try to inject a little artificial diversity by playing with the 'how' of your powers. A Warlord is a Leader type who inspires people with timely commands, and a Cleric is a Leader type who channels divine magic to aid the party. It's a very superficial distinction, though. The powers themselves vary very little. The Cleric gets more healing-oriented powers, the Warlord gets more powers to help party members deal damage to the enemy.

Unfortunately, that lack of character diversity is only one aspect of a much larger, and more depressing trend - the game presents totally artificial conditions to maintain game balance and doesn't care to disguise that. One might argue that all roleplaying games have some degree of artificiality - and that's correct. But the devil's in the details, or lack thereof. In one of the recent sessions I was in our GM presented us with a bit of a problem. The town we were in was being attacked by kobolds, and as they were setting things on fire, a hasty response was needed. It being the middle of the night, we weren't in our armor. So! Do we have time to don our armor and get out to fight?

Well, in previous editions, the answer would have been yes for some of us, and no for others. Light armor could even be worn to bed, and took a trivial amount of time to put on. Plate Mail takes a much longer time, and Full Plate longer still, and could only be donned with assistance. A little nod to reality. Nobody knew, off the top of their heads, how long it takes to put on armor in 4E, so I went looking.

Five minutes. Leather armor? Five minutes. Plate mail? Five minutes. Full Plate? Five minutes. Padded armor? Five minutes.

Well, that certainly is balanced, I suppose. For a certain view of 'balance'. Unfortunately, it's so abstracted that it kicked my suspension of disbelief right in the face. I like RPGs to make at least some effort at verisimilitude, as if they are presenting a "real" world - and 4E doesn't even pretend to care about that. It's full of details and decisions that underline the point that they just didn't give a damn.

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