Apropos of Nothing

Mon, August 24, 2009 -- 17:31 UTC

Preamble: None of this post has very much at all to do with making video games except in the most broad ways, but I like to think about design and about how game systems inform the user experience. I choose to post this first because it lets y’all know a little bit about me: I think about game design a lot, and I like to play pen and paper games. I hope you enjoy.

There are those who believe that the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is complete and utter crap. They say that roleplaying has been pushed so far to the side that it might as well be a board game. They say, variously, that it is too complicated and/or too simple. They say that playing wizards no longer feels sufficiently awesome.

Fie, I say unto them! Except for the last part, which is mostly true.

How can you not like a game with gorilla flying a biplane AND a jetpack on it?

How can you not like a game with gorilla flying a biplane AND a jetpack on it?

My stance on 4th Edition may be surprising to those who know where I come from, roleplaying-wise. My desire to tell a compelling story is the heart of my play style.  I love games like Dogs in the Vineyard and Spirit of the Century – games that revolve around storytelling and character development rather than crunchy combat mechanics and complicated character building. As a player, I’m the guy who goes over to the dark side, and loses my character, because it makes the overall story that much better. Why, when I value the story aspect of the game so much, do I enjoy this system that is so combat-centric?

One of the things I really enjoy about more descriptive games is the ability to play combat out in a cinematic, overblown way: flips, explosions, running across the ceiling, &c. Because the descriptions are so centered around the just the game of combat, 4th Edition abilities have a lot of room for awesome description.  For example, the fighter ability Cleave — which damages two enemies adjacent to you — could be described as the suggested flavor text, “[I] hit one enemy, then cleave into another,” or you can spice it up: “I stab my sword through both goblins. Greenskin shish kebab tonight,” or as, “I slice the tendons in the goblin’s arm, causing it to fly sideways and hit his comrade-in-arms.”

The basic point is that, because the rules are so tight and specific, your descriptions can range all over the place as long as they map, generally, to the rules. You can really spice up the wizard by going big with the description on his abilities — for Burning Hands, for example, you could say, “I begin to scream unholy syllables and, as I speak, my words become broken and garbled. At once, searing light shines from my mouth as my words become tiny snakes of  flame, seeking something, anything, to burn.” This description breaks nothing about the game.

The other thing I think 4e really has going for it is that the combat is clear and doesn’t get bogged down as some other systems tend to. You always have a clear set of things you can do and you can choose to do any of them. Every once in a while you want to do something cool and, usually, there’s either a system for it, or a power you can have that does it. A smoother combat flow makes for more interesting, engaging description. It also makes for more time doing other scenes. Now, if you’re in a dungeon crawl you’re probably not doing a hell of a lot of roleplaying in towns but you just don’t have to be in a dungeon crawl. Like in any other game, combat can be an occasional spice used here and there to keep things exciting.

This is all by way of saying: if you want to tell good stories 4th Edition really doesn’t do anything to stop you. In fact, it offers real opportunities for good description and storytelling. What it doesn’t do is force storytelling upon you nor does the game itself particularly reward good descriptions. If you and your group want it, however, you can have a pretty awesome time. Even if you are a wizard.

11 Comments
Montoli says...
Mon, August 24, 2009 -- 21:30 UTC

Really? No love for the wizard? When we played, we found the wizard to be one of the more satisfying classes to play, although that might have been because at the point the wizard joined us, we were basically just treating it as a board game.

I think we liked the wizard most because he required some of the most tactical thinking of anyone. His large dependence on area effect spells means that he usually gets at least one interesting choice per turn: Where to drop his AoE for the most damage/effect. This often leads to a secondary choice: Where to stand to enable the greatest tradeoff of safety vs. targets. (Especially since some of his spells are rather short range.)

Coincidentally, the flip side of this was why we found the bow-ranger fundamentally unsatisfying: Frequently his only real choice every turn was “who should I cause damage to?” He had far enough range that he could basically just pick a spot and sit there, and just choose who took damage every turn.

The thief, was also extremely satisfying to play, since he depended so much on setting up flanking situations. I think he actually made the game more fun for others as well, since he was ALWAYS interested in flanking with teammates, so he tended to encourage team maneuvers.

All of this though, I’ve just been speaking tactically. Treating the game like a board game. Your point is that you don’t have to do this, and can make the combats as epic or pedestrian in their descriptions as you like. I agree, but while the game doesn’t STOP you from role playing, it also doesn’t really seem to do a whole lot to encourage it, or make it easier/more interesting. (Certainly not when compared to games that have that as a bigger focus, such as Exalted or Spirit of the Century or what I’ve read about things like Dogs in the Vineyard or Polaris…)

I mean, you’re right. Nothing is stopping you from making awesome descriptions for all of your moves when you play D&D4e. Similarly, nothing is stopping you from making awesome descriptions every time you make a move in Monopoly, but people often just don’t bother, I suspect for similar reasons: The game doesn’t actively encourage it, so any motivation for doing so has to be internal, or it becomes just as easy not to bother. (We started trying to do descriptions, and they lasted about a session or so. Then they became increasingly intermittent as people just slowly stopped bothering. And the fact that they WERE bound in rules with no real option for back-and-forth meant that there were definite limits to the sorts of exchanges you could have unless you were willing to play fairly fast and loose with the rules.)

Personally though, my biggest beef with 4th Edition right now is actually none of the things you described: Just the simple lack of “real” choices when making the rules-supported aspects of your character. Most classes really only have 2-3 viable ways they can be put together, and it almost seems by design. (Rangers have to choose early on if they are bow-based or blade-based. Thieves if they are “brutes” or “dodgers”. Warlocks have to pick a “path”. Etc.) Every time new feats open up, you usually get to pick one out of maybe 3-4. At least one of those is frequently useless to you, since it is for the other “path” of your class. (ex: Bow attacks for a dual-blade ranger) so your real choices are more frequently between only 1-2 useful feats on a given level.

I suspect/hope that this will be fixed a bit as more books come out, but my fear is that new books will do less to expand the general pool as they will merely introduce new “optimal paths”. So rather than expanding ALL rangers, they’ll just give you a new “spear ranger” path, to go along the existing “bow” and “blades” rangers.

Oh well. It still makes a fun board game. And if you can coax good stories from it, more power to you. I feel like if that’s your focus though, there are better game systems.

-Montoli

Halsted says...
Mon, August 24, 2009 -- 23:20 UTC

Points well argued! You win a cyber-cookie. It keeps track of your session information!

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Wed, August 26, 2009 -- 15:13 UTC

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