Wed Aug 1 18:19:16 EST 2012

Musings on D&D 4th Edition

In an effort to indulge my inner nerd while on board, I wind up reading a lot about RPGs in general and D&D 4th Edition in particular, since that's what we last played. Those who are only here for the sailing should probably skip this entry.

Over at the Wizards of the Coast web site, Chris Perkins writes a column called The Dungeon Master Experience. It's very interesting to see how much he's prepared to change the rules:

  • He only keeps 2 dice behind the DM screen (1 d20 and 1 d6), reasoning that he knows how much damage monsters are meant to do, and that a little variance is all that's needed to keep things exciting.
  • He's created ridiculously overpowered magic items for the PCs and their foes, with heavy (but fair) restrictions on their use.
  • On one occasion the party warlock woke up with a new tattoo that gave him powers and a curse, but no idea where it came from and why it was given to him. It was the starting point to one of the campaign sub-plots.

Perkins is a top-tier DM with a group of experienced roleplayers, and I think that's what gives him the confidence to meddle with the system, especially when everything from treasure parcels to damage values to the "XP budget" method of designing encounters creates this impression of a complex machine that DMs dare not tinker with.

Claim 1: The more crunch in a system, the less confident DMs and players are with the idea of stepping outside of the provided rules.

Claim 2: The high level of crunch, large amount of published errata and overwhelming amount of splatbooks in D&D4 makes the use of automated tools like the character builder nearly essential. After committing to a tool like the character builder, deviating from the rules as implemented is even harder.

If you look at how 4e powers are structured, it is clear that one goal was to prevent wizards and other classes from running away with the game at high levels. The downside, of course, is that most of the powers felt very "samey" (see the description of "Borestorm"). So you have mechanically similar characters, comparable in power to each other in combat (though they have slightly different roles), but with huge variations in what their fluff is like out of combat. Have a look at the classes: a rogue can backstab, climb, jump, disarm traps, sneak and bluff his way out of trouble. A fighter can, err, fight. The problem is, so can everyone else.

Claim 3: When everyone in the party is approximately equal in fighting ability but unequal in non-combat power, the party will be fighting most of the time, because that's the only thing everyone can do.

Claim 4: The story and role-playing that provide background and meaning to the various combats tend to disengage the players who can't contribute mechanically.

Discuss (5 marks).

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: rpg