This is a topic that I've avoided for quite some time. It's a topic that gets really, really under my skin. I'm not surprised how many "greybeards" who started with old-school gaming, nor how many young kids who grew up with Diablo and World of Warcraft love 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. I've watched a dozen youtube videos and read two dozen blogs both praising 4th edition and telling the viewer/reader to "convert" (as if it were some religion) or vilifying the new system and calling it "tabletop WoW," "WoW-lite," or any other permutation of a "WoW" reference.
Now, I'm going to sit back and explain, calmly, rationally, why 4th Edition, despite how fun it may be for a player, game master, or whatever, is not a role-playing game. I'm not saying it's a bad one, what I'm saying is that Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition fails as a role-playing game on every level. Period.
Lots of people disagree. They claim it's fun. Fine. I'll address that near the end. Suffice it to say that I have heard all of the arguments, read the books, talked to friends who've played and both enjoyed and hated it. I've watched it played on YouTube and in real life. I have no interest in playing it whatsoever. I cannot emphasize more how much I find it to be un-fun. I cannot even make a character without becoming frustrated by the game. If I cannot get excited about my character, then I cannot play the game. This is literally a game that I find impossible for me to play. That is why I've never personally playtested it myself. I cannot explain it any better than that. Part of the game is rolling up a character--it is literally a stage of play, when you roll one up you are already playing--and if I cannot even complete that stage without wanting to douse the book in gasoline and light it on fire because it is not only un-fun, unexciting, and uninteresting, it is downright frustrating in a way I have not experienced since that goddamn vulture in Ninja Gaiden.
This is why I have to scratch my head and wonder if something is wrong with me or with all of the people that love 4th edition.
Now, I've heard all of the arguments as to why 4th edition is not only good, it's the best incarnation of D&D yet. Esper actually does a very decent review of it on YouTube and makes a solid case for adopting it. However, his discussion is full of very, very prominent flaws. Go ahead, watch his review before continuing reading.
First, Esper does NOT possess credentials. Having started with 3rd edition does not equate to having credentials by a longshot. He's been playing for 10 years, but I've played for nearly 20 and I know of people who have played since the 1970s and knew Gygax personally.
Second, he does not explain how 1st and 2nd edition AD&D are archaic from a design point-of-view. He just says it, no qualifications, no explanations, just an axiomatic statement that those systems are "out of date." This is extremely telling in that it inadvertently reveals a very prominent bias, making it apparent that he is not approaching it from a purely analytical standpoint. Simply put, he didn't think the game's mechanics before 3rd edition were up-to-date. I could assume he means "not like video-games enough" but that would be assuming (although his statement that he's "been a gamer" since he "picked up an NES controller" indicates that he equates tabletop role-playing with video games on some level). His lament that he felt things in 3.5 were "outdated" again begs the damn question, "What do you mean by 'outdated'?"
To truly understand why he converted to 4th edition we need reasons why he felt 3rd and 3.5 were so flawed and archaic. His complaint that "everybody uses the same stuff" in 3.5 is confusing when, basically, all of the classes in 4th edition are relatively all the same in their mechanics. His discussion of why demons and devils don't teleport out of combat makes sense, but there are spells to prevent that (I guess he forgot about dimensional anchor and similar spells). "NPCs, monsters, and character classes all use the same rules," is his lament. However, from a design standpoint, that is actually a strength because it simplifies things! Otherwise, you get things like White Wolf--where you basically need to throw open your Werewolf the Apocalypse book if you're running a coterie in Vampire the Masquerade and they get jumped by a garou (if you want to represent them accurately and not just use the stats in the back of the Vampire book). But this also ignores the point that we do have hordes of different rules, feats, spells, and more, despite the fact that he put all of the supplements that describe them on display as his favorite additions to the game!
By now, I'm confused. Did he house-rule D&D 3.5 so heavily that he forgot what the actual rules were? Okay, that's a bit harsh. Regardless, I see where he's coming from when it comes to a single spell-list, but I've played games like Rifts and Palladium Fantasy, so I see a definite advantage from a design point-of-view to streamline spells as a result of my experiences. "My cred" if you will. Which stretches back to "Classic D&D" and the Rules Cyclopedia in the late 1980s/early 1990s. If you lived in the Philly area, you were listening to Color Me Badd's "I Wanna Sex You Up" on Q-102.
Then, he talks about the PC's classes "filling the role in the game that they're supposed to fill." Again, I have an enormous problem with this. I've run VERY unconventional games in D&D. Entire campaigns were run in 2nd edition without clerics or fighters or thieves or mages. Seriously, my Dark Sun campaign sophomore year of college basically consisted of a bard, a gladiator, and a psionicist/defiler. That's it. No cleric. Although the gladiator was a bit of a tank, he wasn't as versatile. The bard was a poisoner, not a thief, so breaking and entering was limited. The defiler had to keep his arcane magic under wraps due to the fact that if anyone knew, they'd kill him, so he stuck mostly with psionics. Yeah. No fighter, thief, mage, cleric roles in that party at all. My current party has a warlock, a dread necromancer, a barbarian and a rogue. No cleric (yet). No standard arcane spellcaster with utility spells. And the party is doing fine. The idea that there are roles to fill is bunk. Hell, plenty of people have blogged about how you don't need a cleric. The idea that a character is supposed to fill a predetermined role is what frustrates me so much about 4th edition. I've played games without classes whatsoever, where you simply developed a concept and built it (like White Wolf or D20 Call of Cthulhu) and had a blast. It's myopic, narrow-minded, and unnecessary. Hell, lots of gamers absolutely hate the existence of classes and frankly quit D&D back in 1st or 2nd editions because they think classes are out-of-date! If that is the case, 4th edition is a step backwards, not forwards, because it shoehorns every character with no flexibility or customizability! 4th edition was outdated before it was even launched!
Esper's lament about how he was unhappy with losing a level is also extremely telling. I know a lot of old schoolers who ran during the Gygax days of White Box and Red Box D&D would sneer at Esper. "Tough luck, pal. It's a consequence. You died." 4th edition is about not having to pay the piper. There are no lasting consequences for a lot of effects. And that is a problem. But I'll get to that later. Anyway, yeah, saying that the level was gone and he couldn't get it back is so skewed. "Your level is gone. You can get it back, though... through adventuring until you get enough XP to get it back." Levels are fluid, in a way. But anyway, I digress.
The item creation costs are stupid. Yes. Spells that cost XP make a bit of sense (you're sacrificing a part of yourself). Small XP costs for item creation may make sense too. Not the exorbitant costs, though. I've had problems with item creation costing XP. I don't like it. It balances things out... a little. But I've allowed players to buy feats and powers with XP, powers and feats they wouldn't have gotten as quickly, or in as much abundance. But item creation? Yeah, you should GAIN XP for that--you did in 2nd edition! It simply shouldn't be so easy as blowing gp and XP, but should take time to gather components and rare objects that both enhance the flavor of the world and make the item itself more special.
Esper's complaint about non-spellcasting classes being boring is also bunk. Fighters can be amazingly powerful and versatile, and are damn good if you use wandering monster tables and random encountes. Rogues can forge documents like passports and royal writs and warrants that can get the party into places without combat. They're incredible skillmonkeys. My favorite rogue of all was a halfling archeologist that I created. Archeologist! Not a thief, but something more akin to a pint-sized Indiana Jones. He was basically what Indy said Marcus Brody was when he lied to the Nazis, "He's got a two-day head-start on you, which is more than he needs. Brody's got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan. He speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom. He'll blend in, disappear, you'll never see him again. With any luck, he's got the Grail already." Yeah. Only Brody was a joke. My halfling, however, was exactly that. High charisma, high dexterity, high intelligence. Yeah, he was shit in combat. But he wasn't built for combat. (This is one of the reasons I hated 4th edition--I couldn't build my halfling archeologist.) With enough finagling, you could built a barbarian from Mongolia or Northern Africa who raged and rode horses. A finesse fighter with a rapier like a Musketeer was entirely possible and at high levels a fighter specializing in longsword could go about saying, "I'm the greatest swordsman that ever lived" like Mad Martigan. Creativity made these classes interesting.
But wait a second, in Part Two of his review, Esper says, "Now, you build the class the way you want." Then he turns around and says each class has a role, and mocks those who think that's constraining. So, wait, you just contradicted yourself and attempted to dismiss that contradiction by logical fallacy--you make a funny voice and attempt to discredit anyone who disagrees by imitating them, and then say, "shut up." Sorry, man, that doesn't fly. And the roles he assigns to the classes? Who the hell did he ever play with? For me, the cleric was always the man BEHIND the leader (who was most often the fighter or paladin). He was the Archbishop Turpin to the paladin's Charlemagne, or to reference the amazing Flesh + Blood, the cleric is Ronald Lacey's "Cardinal" to Rutger Hauer's fighter, "Martin." (As an aside, Ronald Lacey's character is such a great example of how a cleric should be role-played in a party, I feel the movie should be required viewing by DMs and cleric players alike). By-the-way, the fact that the fighter fit on ONE PAGE is actually his strength and he's the most versatile and customizable class in the entire damn game (with the possible exception of the rogue). Seriously, Esper's laments that fighters were "boring and generic" in 3.5 just shows how little imagination he had. Yeah, if you wanted to optimize your fighter, they're all the same. If you didn't care about min/max-ing, you could make a truly unique fighter in a party of truly unique fighters and they'd all be pretty awesome, have different weapons, and fight in interesting ways. I hear more complaints about how the classes are generic in 4th edition (especially since min/max-ers can quite easily optimize their classes and it is just obviously stupid not to do so).
Yeah, that statement about half-dragon-half-minotaur-barbarian-fighter-ranger was just... so telling. So very telling. The more we watch, the more of Esper's tastes in gaming are revealed. In fact, the further I got into watching his video on 4th edition, the less I wanted to play it (if that is even possible) and the more I realized how much he misunderstood 3.5 and all previous editions of D&D.
Esper's statement that he has a solid understanding of the design of previous editions is questionable, because so far we've heard beefs he has with those designs, but not any reflection on what those editions were designed to accomplish. They weren't designed to do what Esper wants. But Esper's playing Dungeons & Dragons, a game that never had him as a target audience. Until 4th edition that is.
I won't say his criticisms are illegitimate. They are! However, Esper is not able to look beyond his own tastes and desires and understand what kind of play the game is designed to facilitate. Like I said, Esper was never the target audience of any edition prior to 4th. And I'll go on to explain why after a few more paragraphs.
Esper then goes on about how the old methods of marketing and open-source materials were gone in favor of loyalty programs and general, overall consolidation of media sources such as print. His tone makes this seem like a Good Thing, then he shows the evolution of Mario from NES to the Wii. That was a not-too-subtle metaphor for progress. And if there's anything I learned from postmodernism, its that positivism and the idea that "progress" (i.e. change brought about by technological developments) are definitely something that is up for questioning. I mean, technological progress enabled millions to die in two World Wars (that very fact spawned the postmodern movement and brought about the questioning of positivism by-the-by). Besides, these new marketing strategies sounded to me like Wizards of the Coast was trying to cash in on new trends in marketing and things like downloadable content. I don't blame them--they're a business and CEOs keep their jobs by pleasing stockholders (just like the CEO of United Fruit when he arranges to have economic hit-men crash the planes of South American presidents who won't sell-out their people). Okay, that's a bit of a logical fallacy for me to equate Wizards with economic hit-men, but you get what I'm trying to say (I hope). These changes are not necessarily Good and in fact, I'm highly suspect because I know that Wizards and Hasbro (by extension) are after MONEY. And as a capitalist, I believe it is my duty to invest my money in products that I believe have a specific standard of design and quality of production. As the first video comes to a close and Esper basically brings up natural selection, it has now become clear that he is being didactic--4th edition is new, therefore superior. The period in which D&D didn't change was it's stagnant era, when TSR was almost destroyed by bankruptcy. Esper has gotten on a soapbox and is basically calling anyone who doesn't "change with the times" a Luddite and is implying that its time for those people to die off. Maybe he doesn't realize he's saying that and doesn't mean it. But it is a not-too-subtle subtext to everything he is saying openly, whether he is conscious of it or not.
When Esper says Kobolds are bland in 3.5, he's obviously never DMed them right. They're like Viet Cong--they're trap-making machines who live underground! I've seen people run encounters with Kobolds that nearly killed 5th-level parties! Attacking by night, using missile weapons, employing false retreats to lure PCs into trapped areas (falling spiked logs, pit traps, etc) and kill-zones, Kobolds can be very ungeneric and... here's the killer... realistic. Let's be honest, if a bunch of 3-foot tall dog-people (2nd edition) or lizard-people (3rd and on) wanted you dead, they wouldn't fight you toe-to-toe, even if they were savage and primitive.
Everything Esper says about his first Kobold encounter sums up what he wants out of D&D--a miniature war game. He wants Necromunda with some roleplaying and grid square maps instead of measuring tape. "Movement was more tactical," he says. That sounds like a miniature wargame to me. This is regression alright, like a lot of 4th edition's critics claim. Gygax and Arneson created D&D because their players wanted to actually pretend they were the figures they were playing with in Chainmail, for crying out loud! And if Esper actually had any real cred and an understanding of the design based on purpose, he'd understand that! Indeed, I try to run 3.5 without miniatures because it slows the game down and I prefer to use my imagination and ability to describe a scene effectively. Everything Esper says about building encounters, calculating XP, statting monsters, etc., just drives the point home--the problems with the game that Esper had all focused on combat. And the visuals make it absolutely undeniable--everything during this opening sequence is a picture of people at miniature-grid tables and mats. I try not to use miniatures and mats as visual aids--I prefer my own descriptive abilities and the use of pictures and photographs to build a sense of atmosphere and environment, not tactical positioning and obstacle-placement.
Anyway, moving on...
Esper is entirely right about how 4th edition was designed as a whole new car as opposed to a remodeled old one (ignoring the fact that old cars are often worth a fortune in good condition). He is right when he says the system is more consistent. He is 100% right about everything he says is strong about 4th edition.
It is designed for a new generation of gamers. A generation of gamers that were weaned on Diablo, World of Warcraft, and other computer games. A generation of gamers that has been brought up being told that they're a precious snowflake, individual and unique. A generation of gamers to whom their schoolteachers have been told "you cannot say the student is wrong" and "you cannot mark their answers with red pens" because of their precious little feelings. A generation of gamers who goes online and makes gay and racist jokes while playing Call of Duty multiplayer. A generation of gamers who cannot associate their actions with the logical consequences that come about. A generation of gamers that got a trophy just for participating. A generation of gamers that are occupying Wall Street because they don't have a job and want a hand-out (not because they think banks and corporations need to be more socially responsible). A generation of gamers who are used to having the government, school, and computers take care of everything for them.
A generation of gamers that are and will be perpetually spoiled children.
I know that sounds harsh, but hear me out. Yes, I know it is hyperbolic, but generations have trends (anyone remember how solipsistic the "Me Generation" of the baby-boomers has been for the past 50-60 years?) and I'm talking in generalities. I'm allowed to. I'm a historian. So what if there are statistical outliers that don't match the norm? When everyone I read or watch who loves 4th edition gives reasons that all lie within one or two standard deviations of the mean, I'm allowed to start making blanket statements. Likewise, when I observe personal tendencies that all seem to conform to the average, I'm again allowed to speak in trends, groupings, and generalities.
Anyway, if you want encounters to be more interesting, don't use game mechanics. That simply reduces every opponent to combat tokens meant to be killed and little else. Yeah, I understand how the powers and stuff 4th edition gives to opponents makes them interesting to fight. What about other forms of interaction? The game is a system that encourages a certain style of play, and that style is to consider every encounter a fight.
Want to make those kobolds more interesting? How about all creatures (not just the PCs) go to negative hp? When the fighter deals that 4 hp kobold a hit for 6 damage, don't have it just die. It collapses, bleeding out. The kobold out of a threatened square with the next initiative then drags his dying friend out of danger by the arm. Next turn, he and another kobold hoist the body onto their shoulders and flee to a safer place where they can try to stabilize him or at least comfort him as he dies. He's their friend. They aren't just evil base-attack bonuses worth 1/2 CR, they're living creatures when you do that. Think realistically. Think the magic words "suspension of disbelief." (I'll probably go deeper into the whole "suspension of disbelief" in my next post on 4th edition.) And read what Justin Alexander has to say about how it is not difficult to design better encounters in 3.5 D&D so long as you approach the text without all your erroneous preconceptions about design purposes.
Anyway, to continue, a lot of this comes from the schizophrenic nature of D&D. It's always been a role-playing game built around a combat engine, an engine derived ultimately from Chainmail back in the 1970s. It isn't a role-playing game with a combat-resolution system as a part of its greater problem-resolution system, like, say, White Wolf. The D20 system addressed this, but the inclusion of miniatures and tactical rules, like attacks of opportunity, actually reinforced the combat elements, as did the removal of the ecology and society segments of every entry in the Monster Manual. More and more classes, toys, and feats all helped to create a combat-heavy bent to 3rd edition and 3.5. The idiosyncrasies this brought about play a huge role in Esper's dissatisfaction with 3.5. They also play a huge role in why the OSR was established.
Esper wants D&D to be primarily a combat engine, with all role-playing elements taking place outside of the actual pages of the rulebooks. Don't deny it, watch Part Two of his review. Every aspect of the game he raves about (except for the online and computer stuff) has to do with combat. Monsters have stat-blocks that describe all his abilities, attacks, and powers? Combat. Races have one good ability that you can use once per encounter? Combat. At surface level, this appears to be what the OSR is about. So why don't they convert to 4th edition? Why do they continually stick with an "outdated" system?
Esper seems to be a bit more mature than a lot of the people I'm going to take aim at, but I'm going to do it nonetheless. Most 4th edition players I've met are geeks, nerds, and dorks. Alright, fine, most gamers period are geeks, nerds, and dorks, but I'm talking about a specific kind--the kind that has a lot of deep-seated insecurities. They were bullied as kids. They sought solace in their hobbies and interests and developed a superiority complex and as a result they act like little Napoleons when they talk about comic books, argue over whether Kirk or Picard was a better captain, or play D&D. I saw this kind at Captain Blue Hen in Newark, DE one day while I was shopping for trade paperbacks of Sandman. They were recording a podcast and were trashing Joe Satriani for calling himself the "Silver Surfer."
"How dare he? Who is Joe Satriani to call himself that?"
I wanted to call them sad, pathetic little virgins, but they've probably got girlfriends (geek girls exist now) or wives (they're old enough to be married). Joe Satriani surfs, he has a silver guitar (upon which he surfs the frets), and he's one of the best guitar players alive. Frankly, more people will benefit from his musical talents than will ever read the damn comic. Grow the f--- up.
It's called a Napoleon complex. I saw it all over the gaming community in Newark, DE, when I was in graduate school. Their self-esteems are so fragile, they have to haze newcomer gamers. They play nigh-unkillable characters. When they die, they whine when they lose a level upon resurrection. They don't like to face the consequences of failure because it subconsciously reminds them of when they couldn't do a single sit-up in gym class or couldn't get a date to the prom.
I've had characters die. I rolled up new ones. If I was purposely f---ed over by the GM, I left the game. If it was just how the dice went, nobody was to blame. If it had been a product of incautious behavior or overlooking an important detail, the fault was mine. Hell, once I had a samurai who was defeated by a treacherous PC in such a way that he felt he had dishonored his ancestors and his lords. He committed seppuku. I basically killed my character because it was what my character would have done. And I rolled up a new one. It's how the game is played.
Actions have consequences. The players of my Forgotten Realms campaign are fully aware of that. Sometimes, they make bad decisions. Hey, if Star Wars was being roleplayed by the kind of gamers who complain about setbacks (like losing a level for having been killed and resurrected), what do you think they'd say when Luke's player got Luke's hand chopped off by Vader and lost the lightsaber duel against a more powerful opponent in The Empire Strikes Back?
Consequences make a game believable. Otherwise, it's just a mentally masturbatory game where you live out your fantasies of revenge and empowerment in a make-believe world. It ceases to tell any kind of entertaining or meaningful story. Some people can't get through John Updike's novels because all of his main characters are assholes. If that is the case, why do I want to watch a bunch of nerds and geeks who are angry about getting bullied turning around and bullying others?
MovieBob covered this pretty damn well in regards to video games, but the "Hard Truth" applies to D&D. Check around 8:35 and listen to what he has to say about Six Days in Fallujah.
Basically, 4th edition isn't challenging. "Balance" is so darn important because every single damn encounter is resolved through fighting (at least, that's what the system lends itself to and how the game is designed to be played). (As an aside, Justin Alexander's essays on "Fetishizing Balance" and balance types discuss how people approach balance wrongly in 3rd edition.) Yeah, you can run it differently, but the point is, because Ron Edwards is right and SYSTEM DOES MATTER, the system has an effect on the player's approach to the game and if it is designed for combat to resolve encounters then playing it any other way is going to bring about just as much house-ruling, inconsistency, and idiosyncrasy as every single previous edition.
The OSR method of playing is incredibly unbalanced and lethal because you're supposed to be smart, think outside the box, and find ways to avoid, kill, trap, or negotiate with the monster in order to get the treasure. Killing creatures earned next-to-negligible XP. Treasure earned lots of it. How to play OS D&D? Think outside the box, dammit! Solve problems! Exercise your damn imagination!
D&D 4th edition isn't designed for that. Since balance is so overly fetishized, it's designed to be the sort of "fun" that comes from "pwning n00bz" not overcoming actual challenges through brains. "Oh, but there's tactics!" Yeah, sure, fine. If I want to play a tactical game with miniatures I'll play Warhammer. I want to solve problems and how to separate the ancient red dragon from his hoard as a third level mage is a damn difficult challenge, but it's worth a whole hell of a lot of XP. If self-esteem, real, true, actual self-esteem is built through accomplishment, then it becomes apparent that OS D&D actually does more to build self-esteem than 4th edition does.
Esper's claim that from a design-standpoint 3rd edition and 3.5 is bad was basically refuted even before it was written by Justin Alexander in "Calibrating Your Expectations." Here's a quote:
And run the numbers he does. Justin Alexander demonstrates conclusively (in my opinion) that D&D 3rd edition and 3.5 is a highly adept simulation of reality that works extremely well without excessively clunky mechanics that wreck suspension of disbelief (before you say anything about realism and clunkiness of system, go take a look at Riddle of Steel). Johnathan Tweet, Skip Williams, and my God, Monte Cook designed 3.5. Seriously. Monty F---ing Cook.
I’ve been working and playing with the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons longer than most. Ryan Dancey sent me a playtest copy of the new Player’s Handbook back in 1999, almost a full year before it was released at GenCon 2000. I had been an outspoken critic of AD&D for several years at that point and, more recently, been involved in a number of heated debates with Ryan over the OGL and D20 Trademark License.
By the time I was done reviewing the playtest document and sending my comments back to Ryan, I had basically done a 180-degree turn-around on both. Wizards of the Coast had assembled three incredibly talented game designers – Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, and Skip Williams – to rework the system, and they had succeeded brilliantly. They stayed true to the roots of the game and captured the best parts of it, while shedding decades of detritus and poor design. There were still a few quibbles here and there, but they had taken advantage of the largest and most expensive design cycle for an RPG ever conceived and used it to deliver an incredibly robust, flexible, and powerful system.
One of the most impressive things about 3rd Edition is the casual realism of the system. You can plug real world values into it, process them through the system, and get back a result with remarkable fidelity to what would happen in the real world.
Some people will consider this to be a remarkable claim. It doesn’t take much experience with the roleplaying hobby before you're familiar with dozens of vehement diatribes on the lack of realism in D&D and the resulting shortcomings in the system. Whole laundry lists of complaints (aimed at hit points, the encumbrance system, falling damage, or attacks of opportunity, for example) have been generated. In fact, such claims are so prolific that making the opposite claim (as I have done) is practically a heresy of sorts.
But, in my experience, these complaints largely originate either from people carrying over their criticisms of previous editions (where many of the criticisms were true) or from people failing to actually look at the facts and run the numbers.
So what I want to do, rather than just making my claim, is to take a look at a few rules, actually run the numbers, and demonstrate how effective D&D really is at modeling the real world.
For nearly every complaint Esper had, I gave a discussion and occasionally posted a link to an essay (by Justin Alexander) on that exact topic which demonstrated that Esper wasn't approaching the game's design in a manner that maximized its actual potentials.
Justin Alexander's observations on the very design decisions of 4th edition are incredibly revealing into the very purpose of the engine's design. Another quote:
I know that's an enormous quote of text, but it essentially isolates two major problems of design and the illogic behind the design of 4th edition--problems that Esper and other gamers actually see as strengths. Make no mistake, they do! Esper's complaint about losing a level is indicative of the whole approach the 4th edition design team took regarding the rust monster.
Unfortunately, since Mearls started working at WotC, there are plenty of indications that he's swallowed the Kool-Aid. Which leads to the other big strike 4th Edition has against it, in my opinion...
DESIGN ETHOS AT WIZARDS
The current design ethos which seems to be holding sway at WotC is radically out-of-step with my own tastes in game design and gameplay.
Take, for example, an article Mearls wrote on the rust monster as part of the "Design & Development" column at WotC's website. Here we have a rust monster given an ability which corrodes, warps, and cracks metallic equipment and weapons. 10 minutes later, though, the metallic equipment and weapons are A-OK. They just repair themselves without any explanation.
This design is an example of the "per encounter" and "no long-term consequences, because long-term consequences aren't fun" schools of thought which the WotC design department seem to be mired in at the moment. But the result is a cartoony game system: My characters no longer live in a world I can believe in. They live in a cartoony reality where actions don't have long-term consequences and the grid-lines of the holodeck are clearly visible.
Another example from Mearls would be his blog post about skills from late last year, to which I have already written a response. I'm not saying that this skill system is one we're likely to see in 4th Edition, but I am saying that it shows that Mearls' design sense has radically altered since he designed Iron Heroes and The Book of Iron Might.
Let's take a look at a recent quote from David Noonan: "Powers unique to the new monster are often better than spell-like abilities. At first glance, this principle seems counterintuitive. Isn’t it easier and more elegant to give a monster a tried-and-true power from the Player’s Handbook? On the surface, sure. But watch how it works at the table. The DM sees the spell-like entry, grabs a Player’s Handbook, flips through it to find the relevant spell, reads the relevant spell, decides whether to use it, then resumes the action. See where I’m going with this? That’s a far more cumbersome process than reading a specific monster ability that’s already in the stat block. Heck, the physical placement of one more open rulebook is a hassle for a lot of DMs."
This quote is interesting to me, because it shows the type of wrong-headed logic skew that I see prevalent in a lot of the WotC design decisions of late. Basically the thought process here goes something like this:
Step 1: A spell-like ability looks easy to use, since it's a tried-and-true power from the PHB. But, in practice, the DM actually has to open up the PHB to see how the spell works. So instead of having all the information at their fingertips, they have to open up another book. And if the creature has multiple spell-like abilities, you've actually got to look at multiple page references in the PHB to figure out what the creature's range of abilities is.
So far, so good. This is all absolutely true.
Step 2: It would be easier if we put all the relevant information in the monster's stat block, so that it's right at the DM's fingertips.
Right again. Some people might complain about "wasted space", but I would love the utility of it. I have a similar reaction whenever I see "undead traits" in the stat block. You mean I have to flip back-and-forth through my copy of the MM to keep on top of this creature? It took me many months of DMing 3rd Edition before my undead stopped losing random abilities from that "undead traits" entry.
Step 3: So they shouldn't have spell-like abilities. Every creature should have a completely unique mechanic designed just for it.
... what the hell? How did you go skewing suddenly off to the side like that?
The problem is that Noonan is fallaciously conflating two types of utility:
(1) Spell-like abilities make it easier to use the rules because, as your familiarity with the rules for various spells grow, you will gain greater and greater mastery over a larger and larger swath of the ruleset.
(2) Putting all the information you need to run a creature in the creature's stat block makes it easier to use the creature because all the information you need is immediately accessible (without needing to look in multiple places, which also ties up books you may need to be using to reference other information).
There's no need to jettison utility #1 in order to achieve utility #2. The correct solution is to use spell-like abilities and list the
information you need regarding the spell-like ability in the creature's stat block.
(Which is not to say that a creature should never have a unique ability. There is no spell to model a hydra's many-heads, for example. The point here isn't to stifle creativity. The point is to avoid reinventing the wheel every time you want to build a car.)
We actually saw a similar logic-skew in Mearls' treatment of the rust monster:
Step 1: Rust monsters feature a save-or-die attack (and often you don't even get a save). The only difference is that it targets equipment instead of characters. Save-or-die effects aren't fun, because they simplify the tactical complexity of the game down to a crap shoot.
This is absolutely correct.
Step 2: The rust monster should still be able to attack, corrode, and destroy equipment (because that's its schtick and it's a memorable one) but it shouldn't be a save-or-die effect.
Step 3: So we should keep the save-or-die attack, but make the armor miraculously un-rust and de-corrode after 10 minutes.
... and there they go again, skewing off towards the cliff's edge.
(The correct answer here, by the way, is: "The rust monster will use the existing mechanics for attacking items. Because we want the rust monster's ability to be frightening and unusual, we will allow it to bypass hardness. The damage will also be inflicted on metallic items used to attack the rust monster. Magic items are affected, but may make a saving throw to avoid the damage.")
The game is purposely designed to allow the players to fight through a dungeon as close to consequence-free as possible. And fight is the key word here. All utility and non-combat abilities (especially spells) are relegated to long, time-consuming (in game) tasks or actions (like rituals). Basically, this renders utility spells, like knock, entirely useless. Most of the time knock is used is because you come to a locked or stuck door and need to open it quickly before your pursuers catch up to you. But since there are healing surges and "running away" and "losing a fight" isn't "fun" then why would you need knock for that purpose? Hell, why have knock in the game at all when the rogue can just keep trying to pick the lock ad infinitum?
As Esper describes the fact that monsters use different rules (in his second segment), what he's talking about is how the monster behaves in combat and what powers the monster has. This is because 4th edition has basically reduced all monsters to combat-obstacles to be killed, period.
Again, a quote from Justin Alexander:
This was before 4th edition was even released, and his predictions were correct. 4th edition is basically a miniatures game. It's Chainmail morphed into D&D (minus lasting consequences) all over again. So much for "progress." Like I said above, 4th edition is outdated and Esper is apparently unaware of his inadvertent hypocrisy.
This is yet another logic skew at work. They correctly identified a problem ("when combat and non-combat abilities are mixed together in the stat block, it's difficult to quickly find the combat abilities on-the-fly") and simultaneously came up with two solutions:
1. We will have a new stat block that separates the combat information from the non-combat information. This will make it much easier to use the stat block during combat, and if it adds a little extra time outside of combat (when time pressure isn't so severe) that's OK. (You can see the logic behind this solution discussed, quite correctly, by James Wyatt in another column.)
2. We will get rid of all the non-combat abilities a monster has, since they'll never have a chance to use them given their expected
lifespan of 5 rounds.
Now, ignoring all the obvious problems in the second design philosophy, why do you even need to implement such a "solution" when you've already got solution #1 in place?
(In case the design problems in the second "solution" aren't obvious, here's another quote from David Noonan: "Unless the shaedling queen is sitting on a pile of eggs, it doesn’t matter how the shaedlings reproduce. The players will never ask, and the characters will never need to know." What Noonan is ignoring there is that the reason the PCs might be encountering the shaedling queen in the first place is the pile of eggs.
If D&D were simply a skirmish game, Noonan would be right: You'd set up your miniatures and fight. And the reasons behind the fight would never become important. But D&D isn't a skirmish game -- it's a roleplaying game. And it's often the abilities that a creature has outside of combat which create the scenario. And not just the scenario which leads to combat with that particular creature, but scenarios which can lead to many different and interesting combats. Noonan, for example, dismisses the importance of detect thoughts allowing a demon to magically penetrate the minds of its minions. But it's that very ability which may explain why the demon has all of these minions for the PCs to fight; which explains why the demon is able to blackmail the city councillor that the PCs are trying to help; and which allows the demon to turn the PCs' closest friend into a traitor.
And, even more broadly, the assumption that detect thoughts will never be used when the PCs are around assumes that the PCs will never do anything with an NPC except try to hack their heads off.
One is forced to wonder how much the design team is playing D&D and how much the design team is playing the D&D Miniatures game.
The entire thing is all about the players having a superficial and ultimately empty experience that is "fun" but not "challenging." Once you figure out how the mechanics work and get enough tactical experience down, you can literally use a few simple math formulae to calculate the results of any given encounter simply using the given stats of the PCs and the mean stats for the opponents (which isn't hard, especially for minions). Most of my friends who quit playing 4th edition quit because they would spend 5 minutes calculating the results of a 1-hour combat session and their predictions were so accurate that the game became utterly predictable and boring.
Add-to-that the lack of consequences and what you have is something I am not interested in playing. Ever. I won't even try it. The very system irks me. I've not played with enough good GMs in my life to feel any sort of certainty or trust that whomever runs a 4th edition game and invites me will be willing to let me try to negotiate with the kobolds instead of kill them. I have the feeling that I'm going to echo lindybeige's complaints about the system when the DM says "you can't do that" to me whenever I try to do something that the game doesn't give me an express power.
Why would anyone want to play a game like that? Well, like I said, nobody in generations X or Y can seem to take failure. It hurts their precious little egos. So when they fail in real life, they blame Wall Street instead of getting back on the damn horse. Compare Esper's attitude regarding his character's death to this old grognard's tale I saw on rpg.net a few years ago:
I played a Magic User in Greyhawk .. THE Greyhawk... for a while. Up to 6th or 7th level when I retired him because I was tired of him and went back to my 8th level fighter.Someone else posted that one of the designers of 4th edition had played with Gygax as a preteen and was always complaining that his magic-user died, but the kid never learned how to play smart like the others--he wanted to zap and zap and zap away.
My favorite adventure was as a 1st level MU. I had heard about an entrance to the 3rd level of Greyhawk and went down. Alone. With 3 HP and a Charm Person spell. Just me. A 1st level MU. In Greyhawk Castle. With Gary Gygax reffing.
I hit 2nd level at the end of the night with enough XP to be one shy of 3rd. I ran, I snuck, I threw lanterns (fire, oil, and a handle in one convenient package!), I ran, and I ran some more. It was still one of the best single evenings of gaming I've ever had.
So, I have heaps and heaps of "no fucking sympathy" for people who complain it's boring to play a low level MU.
Behold. The "Me Generation."
On that same forum, one of the posters wrote: "Though I might argue that the amount of information that a new player has to understand by looking at a 4E character sheet is certainly more to digest than a OD&D character sheet. ... 4E also presumes... or at least encourages through example... a certain style and approach to play. OD&D had so few rules to "anchor" it that it meant that new players could make the game their own. "
The response? "Mechanically yes, but OD&D demanded a lot more out of it's players. Modern D&D demands less. ... [Presuming/encouraging a specific style] is a huge bone in 4es favor.
Again placing more demands on the player. Game design is about crafting a players experience."
I'll reiterate and link again: SYSTEM MATTERS. The worst thing about the whole system of consequences being removed and character death being so remote a possibility is that there's no real challenge (unless the DM basically goes out of his way to try to kill the PCs with extremely unbalanced encounters). Therefore, there's no real psychological reward. Oh, it's fun. But there's no real sense of player agency. By removing challenge and consequences and reducing everything to a series of combat encounters in a linear dungeon, the ability for the players to actually participate in the creation of a story (like the players are doing in my Forgotten Realms game) is diminished. I have half a mind to think that 4th edition is so friendly to DMs because it allows them to railroad the players so effectively and convince them that they're having a grand old time while he's doing it. There's no way in 4th edition the PCs are going to chase the brown bear off using bells, whistles, banging metal, and other things that generally drive bears off in real life. They're going to have to kill it because that's how the game works, that's how it is designed, that is how it is supposed to be played. If the DM allows for anything else, he is literally and most assuredly doing it wrong because he is not using the game for the purpose for which it was designed.
Again, I'll link Ron Edward's article: System Does Matter. And the above paragraph is proof. If you think a good DM and veteran role-players (as opposed to "roll"-players) in your group redeems your game, I'm sorry, you are wrong because your style of play is actually misusing the system, making it do something it wasn't designed to do. Therefore, any arguments that the "fun" and "role-playing" aspects of 4th edition are all dependent on the group composition and DM are hereby demolished.
QUOD ERAT DEMONSTRANDUM.
As lindybeige says in his review of 4th edition (linked above), 4th edition "is not a role-playing game at all. It is sort of a weird miniatures skirmish game, and an incredibly slow one at that." Yeah. I'll take 3.5 or OS D&D over 4th edition for the fantasy role-playing and Warhammer Fantasy Battle if I want to spend a fortune playing miniature skirmish games.
Next part, I will discuss the mechanics of the game a little and how it totally destroys suspension of disbelief, which in turn discourages immersion and role-playing.