Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: 4th Edition D&D (Part 2)


The Fluff is Only Skin Deep

                I still live through my experiences with preparing for 3E as a DM in my nightmares. At low-levels it’s alright, but the higher you get, the more complicated things become. My players used to come up with the most innovative ways to use spells, so in return I wanted to make sure that my high intelligence opponents can do the same. By the time my players hit level 13 and above, the preparation time for 4 hours of D&D game took about two weeks as I polished monsters, read up on their spell-like abilities, decided how a monster of a certain disposition would react to things player characters will do, and track NPC activities. It came to a point where I could cite the rulebook, page number, spell level, and material component of each spell and magic item at the drop of a hat, just because I was preparing all the time.

I probably would have fared better
if I refluffed 3.5 DMing in my head
as Summer Glau.
               In contrast, 4E is a lot friendlier for me behind the screen. I only read the monster statblock once or twice and the only other time I consult books when I’m preparing for a game is to map out the treasure that my group will receive. When I want them to face a particular monster but the statblock for such is unavailable, I can easily get away with taking a similar monster, changing a few things such as damage type and size, and then using the appropriate token or miniature. This process of refluffing has been done by just about every 4E DM that I have encountered, and it really helps when telling the story you want to tell is not impeded by a straightjacket of restrictive mechanics.

                Refluffing is prevalent on the player side of things as well. Once, when I ran Dark Sun after it was announced as a 4E Campaign Setting but before the books were released, I let one of my players play a mul (agile half-dwarf, half humans) by taking the half-orc and, well, just calling him a mul. I’ve also heard of entire games refluffed into a mecha-st yle space opera storyline, with all of the player characters’ powers refluffed into the powers that their mecha had instead of powers that they intrinsically can use. As far from the original fluff that is, when I last checked up with that group they were still having tons of fun.

                As I ran 4E more and more, however, I began to realize that refluffing was a two-edged sword. The first time this bugged me was when I heard some of my players talk about how awesome a fight with a solo monster from two sessions before was. Now, I love the fact that they were talking fondly about a past game session. But what got me was, although they were roleplaying heavily and were even interacting with the monster, (“I hop onto the creature’s fiery body and smack it’s horned head with my hammer! Nevermind me burning, I can take it!”) what bothered me is the fact that they remember it two weeks later as a solo brute instead of, well, a balor that I homebrewed.

                This is the same gaming group that I have been playing with in 3.5, and back then, when they talked about memorable fights, they distinctly remember what they fought instead of the mechanics of what they fought. One of my favorites is how they still talk about that time when an ice devil they met at 13th level used major image to “summon” a pit fiend to help it win the fight. It took them 3 rounds to determine that the pit fiend was just an illusion. That whole trick by the ice devil still has them talking to this day, and they remember that it was an ice devil.

                The thing is; heavy refluffing combined with a game that is balanced through all tiers lead to encounters that feel the same. You can make things interesting by adding a terrain hazard here or a lurker monster there, or you can give some monsters unique abilities that will stick with the players’ memories. But in the end, even with the most compelling story that they enjoy, the players will end up stunlocking the solo, focus-firing the artillery, tell the controller to sweep the minions, and get complications when status effects are imposed on them. The party may be heroic, paragon, or epic, but these basic assumptions remain the same.

                The skin changes, but the monsters remain the same. Players, at least, get new powers as they advance through heroic. Even when they stop gaining powers at paragon and epic, they get cool new things through their paragon paths and epic destinies, to say nothing of the ever-increasing feat slots. But on the monsters’ end? They seem to just get bigger in size and damage numbers. When 4E began, there is at least some amount of excitement when, upon reaching paragon, you get to play with drow and mind flayers and aboleths. But now, aboleths exist at both level 17 and level 7, and seldom do they bother to explain why one version is ten levels more powerful than the other. Yes, I prefer the aboleth at level 7 - it makes more sense that way given the type of storyline power they have. But if it was made as a level 17, I’d rather have them stick to it. Or make the lower level one a solo at least.

Leftie: So, how are we different again?
Rightie: I'm a level 17 brute, you're a level
7 controller.
Leftie: Oh, right.
(Morphling is a M:tG card by WotC)
                The major issue that I have with refluffing is that, if used in the extreme case, it could lead to the devaluing of level advancement. If I wanted to, I can run a fifth level game and have them fight a god, because all I really need is to skin the god look on top of a level 7 solo monster and call it a day. But if I do that, how does it make my level 25 party feel?

Programmed Restrictions

                Perhaps pen and paper RPGs are dying, but I don’t believe this is because of the loss of interest in the medium. Rather, we are fast approaching towards the age where tabletop RPGs are ditching dead trees in favor of the tablet and stylus. When advertisements about fourth edition first appeared, the laptop was a prominent part of the “modern” gaming table, where they promised a whole suite of offerings.

This wasn't exactly what we ended up getting. Close enough?
                Unfortunately, Wizards of the Coast, for reasons I will not discuss at length here, was unable to deliver on all that was promised. And what was delivered had a lot of problems, from bugs to complete overhauls that left the legacy versions up for grabs. Still, the character builder was more or less available soon after 4E first came out, so a certain digital aspect has been a part of 4E for most of its existence.

                The result of a character builder that had all published feats and errata was interesting. A number of players would stop buying crunch books altogether and instead shell out cash for the Dungeons and Dragons Insider (DDi) subscription. Who wants to comb through hundreds of dollars of books if a year’s worth of subscriptions are available for $71.40? The CB ultimately made character building, especially as the rules bloated more and more, easier than the manual style that has been used by D&D gamers for decades.

                A side-effect of the players’ reliance on the character builder is the loss of the age-old tradition of the house rule. For most of D&D’s existence, a gaming group had the freedom to add or remove rules that they did not like. But the Character Builder was not made with customization in mind – if I, as a DM, feel like the assassin’s allotted hit points are too low for it, I cannot hit a button to tweak it. Similarly, while the offline version of the Builder had the capability to add in custom powers, it was so limiting in execution that most people simply did not bother. So, while it made things easier to manage by the simple virtue of having all options available with a click, it also killed the idea of house rules in many gaming tables. Third party products also tend to lose support from the fanbase, as there is no way to include what is essentially a bunch of house rules into online character builders.

Conclusion

                Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition is perhaps the most mechanically balanced among all the iterations of the game. It's not perfect, as the expertise feats are often seen as a math fix and epic level monsters fall short in the "threatening" department. But in the same light, it is still a more stable game than its predecessors, especially as levels go higher. On the other hand, the drawback of mechanical stability is a lack of the feeling of growth. Perhaps, if you get conditions that are "exclusive" to higher tiers things could change, but I digress. We can talk about that once 5E playtesting begins. That creatures such as aboleths exist simultaneously as level 7 and level 17 monsters with no explanation add to that feeling of sameness.

                   The one major problem that I have with 4E is its inability to capture flavor. It is indeed the king of refluffing - but as a feature of a game that included a "new," Points of Light default setting, I feel like it failed to capture an identity of its own. (Nevermind the strangeness of a planet of devils up in the sky when mythology always depicted them as existing below.) The refluffing is alright, but it needs to be done with a default identity that is already familiar instead of a completely new one.

                   4E can be likened to a golem in this respect - it is mechanically balanced (although it goes berserk 1% of the time) and cool to play with, but it can only follow simple commands. It is immune to most spells, and those that do affect it do so in an unexpected way. You can probably dress it up whichever way you want, but in the end it's going to be the same, slam-attack thing on the inside.

Scorecard:

Mechanics - 5/5 (it's not perfect, but it's the most stable RPG I have tried out)
Adaptability - 3/5 (serious refluffing capabilities marred by the difficulty to houserule)
Identity - 1/5 (many claim that it doesn't feel like D&D, and I attribute it to serious refluffing capabilities)
High level support - 3/5 (support is there, but I feel they're not as into it as its other aspects)
Complexity - 3/5 (it can be a complex game, but I can't shake the feeling that it just keeps doing the same thing over and over)
Consistency - 2/5 (the game churns out errata like a cheesecake factory, and inconsistent monster expectations bug me)

Overall - 3.4 out of 5. It was a compelling enough game for me to stick to it over converting to Pathfinder, but it's not a system I am attached to. Once 5E comes, I'm leaving it without looking back.