Just a quick post to share the cheat sheet I made for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. It combines Page 42 with MM3 Monsters on a Business Card, with a few other handy references thrown in for good measure. I find it useful and hope others will as well. It’s a handy resource for those of us who have internalized a lot of the rules and status conditions.
Well, it finally happened. Just returned from our monthly D&D game and our entire party was killed. Suffice it to say that five 4th level characters couldn’t stand up to 4 Stirge Swarms and a Catoblepas. Rest in Peace, noble adventurers.
Brother Roderick, Human Cleric of the Silver Flame
Alrik, Dwarven Invoker
Alarich Hellekanus d’Deneith, Human Fighter
Lillithana, Kalashtar Avenger of the Path of the Light
Knappe Truc, Changling Rogue
It was a tough fight and I could see the DM realize what was happening. I think any DM who’s run for any amount of time knows that you rarely really want a TPK. Sure, we may wax poetic and threaten such actions, but ultimately all they do is derail a game. All rolls were made out in the open and it was just one of those things. But man, I feel for my friend and it makes me realize just how bad things can get with a few bad/good dice rolls.
This situation also showed me just how deadly swarms can be in 4th edition. The Catoblepas was tough, but it was the swarms that doomed us all. We just didn’t have enough burst powers and the terrain was very disadvantageous. Still, I hold no grudges and now I get a chance at playing a leader, which should be fun.
Yes, advanced dungeons and dragons. The old one, by Gygax (or the 2nd edition by Cook if you will).
Although Runequest and Rolemaster are games we play more, I do have a soft spot for the original AD&D. I think it has a lot of scope and potential, and people usually respond to it very well, once they are at the table.
So since I am bored, here’s a few different musings on running AD&D games. These are things more specific to AD&D, than broad, generic gaming advice.
1: What do I roll for this?
Its a common complaint that dice rolls are all over the place, but in a lot of ways, that can be a strength. As the GM, you have a lot of options available to you. Some ways to have a player resolve an action can be: An ability check. A straight percentage chance. A saving throw. Use the “spell learn” or “bend bars” rolls. etc etc.There’s a lot of mechanics in there, and they can be used for a lot of interesting results.
2: Say no to skills.
Skills have been standard in RPG’s since Traveller and Runequest. For AD&D, I’d stay clear of them.Look at the character and judge the situation. A ranger should never be rolling dice to see if he can find shelter, and a cleric knows about ancient religions. No hero should roll dice to ride a horse.When you factor in race, class and their background, you’ll know if they can do it or not. Bring out the dice if the situation is truly challenging.
3: Dont roll dice constantly
Rolling dice can be fun, but it can also break the game if everything comes down it.If you look through the AD&D rules, dice rolls are not actually all that common. The implication is certainly that they are rarely rolled, unless the rules specifically bring it up.There’s really two paradigms here: Roll often or roll rarely. A lot of games assume that you’ll roll dice frequently, and that you’ll have a high chance of success. For AD&D, I find it fits the game better if you roll fairly rarely, and with average or even low chances of success. The player should in most cases have a chance to solve the situation without resorting to dice. Think of them as the saving throw. Your plan didn’t work out, so we’ll give you a chance to bail.
4: Thief skills.
A few simple pointers: The thief should never be punished more than another character would, just for attempting his skills.The thief should never be punished simply for being a thief. Examine the situation. If any character could attempt it, the thief can roll for his thief skill to do it faster, better etc. If he fails, he still gets the same chance everyone else would get.
5: Hit points.
Yes, hit points are a mess. They still are. That being said, exploit the fact that they don’t all represent physical punishment in your descriptions. A 5 damage hit when the fighter is at 30 HP is a staggering blow he barely parried. The same hit when he is down to his last 8 HP is a deep gash in his arm, with blood flowing everywhere.”Hitting” does not mean you wounded them until the very end. Until then, you are just wearing down their defenses.
6: Saving throws.
Same deal. Let the players determine how their character resisted. A fighter might just shrug off the spell through determination, while the magic user knew intricate counter measures. As saving throws are based on threat, not defense (reverse of post-AD&D editions) use the freedom.
Whether you use the morale checks or not, the GM should always play creatures intelligently. Nothing saps suspension of disbelief faster than the heroes murdering 20 goblins, and the last 2 obligingly march up to get killed, just for the chance of inflicting 3 more HP of damage.When intelligent creatures are cut down, have them retreat, surrender, negotiate, etc. If the world seems to be a living, interesting place, the players will invest more in it, and may keep themselves alive longer.
8: Dont fudge dice.
Personal policy and some GMs hate this, so use if you please.All dice rolls I make are plainly visible to the players. If they know you will save them, the dramatic tension goes out of the scene. A little fear never hurt anyone in a game.On the flip side, don’t make impossible situations. Most fights should have alternate solutions, ways to improve the situation etc.Make them work for it.
Today we run our first session for my player’s foray into the Tomb of Horrors, which I had adapted for D&d 3.5 (I used the freebie by WotC as a basis, though I’ve done a lot of things my way). Since my players and I prefer the Forgotten Realms, I moved Acererak’s resting place from Greyhawk to Greenwood’s kitchen sink setting.
The characters were a (fairly unoptimized) party, consisting on:
- A bard, whose signature weapon is an intelligent, speaking scythe that she inherited from her father.
- A mature and somewhat overweight Guild Wizard of Waterdeep.
- An elven Tempest (basically, a Figther/Rogue with a couple of levels in the Tempest PrC for better two-weapon fighting).
- Two Aasimar twins (Paladin/Fighter/Pious Templar of Lathander), who had identical character sheets.
A final character (a human scout) was supposed to have turned up too (and he was to be the party’s trapfinder, as the Tempest only had one level of Rogue for now), but the player couldn’t make it in the end, so the party was missing that, plus a cleric type (since one of the Aasimar twins had been an afterthought for the player, who was initially going to create a cleric). This made me think that the whole thing was going to end pretty badly, but decided to go ahead anyway.
To give the whole thing somewhat of a background (and to tie it to the GDQ series, which I’m planning to follow up with, should they survive the tomb), I told them that evil was stirring in the north. Given that the Wizard and the Bard were friends prior to the story, and that the twins were already linked, I decided to make the Wizard an envoy from the Guild, sent to investigate the situation up north by the Lords’ Alliance, with the tempest acting as his bodyguard (hired by the guild) and set the Tomb somewhere within the Evermoors, mentioning that the party had met at Nesme, where the paladins had been told to meet the wizard to investigate a crypt that might hold some items that the guild wants to acquire. Meanwhile, the paladins get to slay some undead lich in the name of Kelemvor, so all is fine and dandy. Enter the creepy hill on top of the tomb:
The players spent some time looking around, and using a levitation spell to raise above the hill, discovering the skull-like setup of the stones. Then they spent a good while digging by the entrances, uncovering all three before moving in. After some discussion, they took to the left entrance at the wizard’s suggestion (“gut feeling gives me a good vibe for this entrance”. Famous last words?), where the bard moved in on his own, using a collapsable 10′ pole to prod around… Which meant that, from the entrance, he triggered the ceiling trap. Since he was doing this from the entrance of the tunnel, I decided to roll only 8D6 damage (instead of the 16D6 he´d normally have taken), and allowed him not to get buried. Still, he failed his save, and his ring of evasion did not work, so he took a pretty decent hit, but survived.
Seeing that the Wizard’s intuition was not that good, the players went for the second entrance (the real entrance to the tomb), and started following the red tile path. This made one of the paladins take quite a few saves to avoid falling onto pits (that he passed without much trouble, thanks to Divine Grace adding his Cha modifier to his saves). He also fell to the trap inside the chest on the wall by the wizard’s study, but his ring of feather fall, and the fact that he was already tied to a rope after falling on a couple of pits before this one saved him from all harm. After following the tile path and discovering Acererak’s riddle, the Elf tempest found that the wall behind the torture chamber drawing hid a passage, while the others were examining the glowing portal and the infamous Green Demon’s Head.
While one of the paladins was contemplating to charge through the Demon’s head (that anybody who has played the Tomb knows where it leads to…), the other decided to go and take down the wall at the torture chamber painting. The elf, meanwhile, at the demolisher paladin’s behest, had started surveying the bottoms of the open pits, and, thanks to some lucky rolling, found the secret door taking to the small crawlspace that led to the oubliette. Curiosity got the best of them, and they decided to go with this new route. To cut a long story short, some lucky rolling later, they had reached the room with the three chests, taken down the scimitar wielding skeleton without too much hassle (in no small part thanks to the bard’s clever spell selection), and got the magic ring within the chests. Since they didn’t search much, they didn’t find the secret door leading to the Hall of Spheres, so they decided to backtrack their steps to the initial room, and then went through the Torture Chamber door, to face off the 4-armed gargoyle.
The gargoyle, which I had taken from the 3.5 free conversion module without a second thought was quite above the CR11 shown on its stats, as it was proven when it dealt almost 100 HP to the Tempest in two hits (one of them a critical) on the first round of combat, dropping her down into negative HP (after I realized that the monster’s stats were somewhat out of whack and took its damage and DR down a bit. Otherwise, the Tempest would have died). After a really tough fight, where the bard got to shine again thanks to some timely cast heals and clever spells, as well as the bardic music, and where one of the twins took the worst part of the monster’s offense, the Gargoyle finally crumbled, dead (leaving the Tempest at -6 HP and one of the paladins at 4HP, with the other at about half HP). All this while, the Wizard was grumbling, as the spells he was trying to get from the Guild’s magical reservoire were never available. The players took the gargoyle’s necklace, found the secret compartment on it, and kept on, entering the gauntlet of secret doors that would take them to the Hall of Spheres, which they navigated without much trouble thanks to the wizard’s gaseous form giving him some insight on how the doors were supposed to open. From this point, their journey sped up considerably. They took some damage from the trapped false doors, explored the various illusory spheres until returning to the room of three chests, obtaining the gem of true seeing from the 3-armed statue (losing all the gems they had gained from the gargoyle in the process), and entered the chapel.
Somewhat baffled by the various good-aligned gods on the walls, caution got the best of them, and they avoided the portal, the altar and the benches in the room, and used the gem of true seeing, which allowed them to find the secret door that led into the lower areas of the tomb. Following the corridor, they avoided the three doors with the pits on the way, and came accross the reinforced door with the audible glamer. The paladin’s adamantite weapons destroyed the door, and the party proceeded forward… Right into the balancing floor trap. Some VERY LUCKY saving throws later (one of the paladins avoided falling into the lava by rolling a 25 on his reflex save, exactly the number needed), the floor was raising while everyone jumped off of it in the nick of time, and avoiding certain death once more.
Backtracing their steps, and using a wand of detect secret doors and the gem of vision, the bard finally found the hidden door on the third pit they had passed before (while they were saying “this lich was a real idiot. How did he think we’d fall for this a third time?”). Crossing it led them to the false crypt. Zone of clean air took care of the fear mists long enough to let the elf open the door to Acererak’s resting place… Or was it really his resting place? Entering the room, and getting ready to face the lich, one of the paladins saw the mace at the end of the stairs, and instead of acting carefully, he picked it up, making the Lich raise from his resting place. The fight begun, but a single hit from the Mace of lich smiting took care of the evil undead (natural 20 on the attack roll, then the lich failed its save vs. the disruption effect. It felt very fitting and heroic). With the lich’s death, the whole tomb started crumbling around them, and as the elf and the mace-wielding paladin were grabbing the jade coffer to salvage it before the tomb collapsed on their heads, the bard took out the gem of vision, and saw through the illusion. It was all a ruse. The characters stayed, ignoring the illusion, and came to the conclusion that this was just a decoy. Some more searching (with the aid of the gem of vision and the wand of secret door detection, once more) made them find the door to the lower crypts. Venturing forth into the tomb, they reached the Mummy preparation room, and at that point we called it a night, since we´d been playing for 8 hours already, stopping only for dinner.
Some thoughts on the session:
- Lack of a cleric certainly hurt the party on the only serious combat encounter (the 4-armed gargoyle), but it was mostly a non-issue on the rest of the tomb. Wands of cure light wounds + a bard to cast them was enough, given that the players avoided just about all the really dangerous traps thanks to a mixture of good luck and smart play.
- The bard player made a weak class shine through clever play. Good spell selection, a large amount of wands, and in general great support for the party made for a great asset to the group.
- Lack of a rogue was mostly a non-issue for two factors: the first was that the design of the tomb as a 1st edition module meant a greater reliance on clever thinking and experimentation than on “roll disable device”. I let them deal with most of the traps as a guy without disable device would have (the elf had a +10 or so to disable device, which wasn’t enough to really tackle most traps anyway), and they did fine, though they were very lucky with some rolls (like the saves on the lava pit)… Which takes us to the second factor. For some reason, the elf managed to roll between 18 and 20 whenever she was looking for a hidden door that was important to find.
- The more experienced players showed more restraint and creativity. The one paladin that almost went into the Demon’s head was the same one that was tempted to go into the chapel stomping about, whereas the other one was the one that kept testing for pits, that picked the mace, and that suffered the least HP damage of the two. Meanwhile, the bard was pretty spot-on when interpreting the riddle of Acererak, and using the gem of vision.
All in all, it was a hugely fun adventure (even though I did tone down the lethality of it all a little, to make for a more enjoyable experience for both my players and I) and I can’t wait for the next session to begin, to see how they handle the lower (deadlier, too) crypts of the Tomb of Horrors. If all goes as planned, the next session will be in 2 weeks from now, and I’ll post a report of it too.
These days I’m preparing The Tomb of Horrors for my gaming group, and with it, I’m checking out a few old modules and books for inspiration or simply to convert to 3.5 and play with my gaming group. Over the course of my reading, I’ve realized one thing: unlike many of the various splatbooks or sourcebooks for other games or editions, these books make me wanna play.
If I pick up the D&d 3.5 corebook (or the 4E, or even the WFRP 2nd edition corebook to an extent), I see a great book. The rules are, in most cases, well explained, the artwork is great, and they provide a great foundation to many hours of fun… But there is nothing in there that makes me hyped for playing (small footnote. WFRP’s careers do make me wanna play, but it’s a minor thing in the book).
Meanwhile, I read The Enemy Within, Against the Giants, any of the “Volo’s guide to…”, or the descriptions of the planes in the 3.0 Manual of the Planes, with their exotic locales and the various plot hooks, and the first thing that comes to mind is “man, this is cool! I could make this story that…” or “it would be awesome to play this…”
In the end I’ve come to the conclusion that we strive to make great books, with an awesome presentation, that are completely coherent, but we often forget to play up the “why do you wanna play this?” angle, and that definitely hurts the final product a little.
And to close with stuff that makes me wanna game…
Skill Challenges are probably one of my favorite parts of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. I love the framework it provides to an ongoing situation or story. I love that skills are actually really useful in a tangible and noticeable way. I use them quite frequently in my games and they’re a fantastic tool. Unfortunately they’re also quite hard to run in a fun and dynamic way. It’s taken me a good deal of time and effort, but I finally think I’ve hit upon the core problem of skill challenges and a rather easy to implement solution.
The core problem with a skill challenge is that it’s dead easy to fall into a very static “roll and repeat” cycle. The DM names a skill and difficulty, the player with the best bonus rolls, and you repeat the process all over again. It’s easy to understand why this happens, too – that’s how the rules are more or less represented. The Dungeon Master’s Guide does go into some good detail on framing the scene, but precious little is said about actually moving the story forward – and that’s what you have to do when running a skill challenge.
In my mind you should only make a roll during a “breaking point” in each scene of the skill challenge. This is the point where the PCs have to act or react, for good or ill. Furthermore, this action should move the story and change the situation regardless of success or failure. The fastest way to fall into a static skill challenge is by not changing the situation after every roll. If Bob the Bard fails his Diplomacy roll when speaking with the Duke that’s going to have as many consequences as a successful check. Either the Duke leans in and whispers about the assassination plot or he calls for his guards to oust the PCs – either way something happens and the story moves forward.
By changing the situation, even slightly, after every roll you bring in new skills and change how the players see the situation. The situation should never stay static once you roll. Something has to happen, for good or ill, and new skills should come into play. Which is easy to talk about here but hard to actually put into practice. The simple fact is that running skill challenges like this requires a good deal of improvisation and thinking on your feet. It’s not something that everyone is good at and I think it’s the main reason that the skill challenges are presented as they are now.
Furthermore, I don’t like listing what skills are used in the challenge. Instead I frame the situation and ask my players “how do you resolve this issue?” Players are a crafty bunch and often times they’ll come up with a unique solution that you hadn’t thought about using. Try to roll with it, assign a difficulty as best you can, and keep the action moving. This invests the players further into the story and lets everyone try and use their favored skills, ensuring that the action moves along at a brisk pace. If your players get stymied or stuck you can suggest a few actions, but by and large try and let the players think of solutions themselves. You’ll be surprised at how creative they can get when given the opportunity.
All of this is great on paper, but I know some of you are going “how in the hell do I plan for all these options?” The short answer is that you don’t: there’s no way to know everything your players are going to do. Instead I’ve found it’s much more useful to sketch out the situation and area and the possible reactions of all the characters involved. I don’t need to know that Fytor is going to try and leap across the chasm and try to beat up my lizard shaman – all I need to know is that the shaman has henchmen and a few traps littered around. Fytor goes from rolling Athletics to bridge the gap to rolling Acrobatics to evade all those nasty traps.
Even if you want something more structured you still need to move things along briskly. Try to map out where each successful and unsuccessful check will take the PCs. You don’t need a ream of notes, but knowing which skills the PCs will be rolling after every success and failure is rather helpful. Even a simple outline of the flow of events can be hugely helpful when it comes time to roll the dice.
In short, remember the following:
- Each skill check should change the situation and the skills available (even – or especially – on a failure).
- Try to let the PCs name what skills they want to use, if at all possible.
- If you know the situation and players involved you can wing everything else.
- Either say yes or roll the dice.
Here’s wishing you luck on your next skill challenge! They don’t have to be boring and they can add a lot to your game if you’re willing to just wing things a little.
Tonight I had the final and epic battle of a short 3 adventure campaign I ran for my regular group and a long lost gaming buddy who returned to us for a limited 3 month run. I’m happy to say that things went smoothly, everyone had a lot of fun, and the good guys won out in the end. Yet when I think back over tonight I’ve come to realize that the most memorable battle for me wasn’t the final encounter with the nasty evil menace, it was one of the previous encounters. The reason it sticks out in my mind, at least to me, has to do with the fight environment.
The more interesting battle took place in a temple that was built deep underneath a lake. It was filled with air, but the bottom level had the corners open out into the lake and channels of water that flowed around the room. Every round one of the channels would fill with water and try to wash away whoever was foolish enough to stand in them. It featured enemies who could swim and who understood the terrain.
This area forced the players and characters to think about where they moved and opened up some interesting tactical considerations and roleplaying moments. The poor swordmage got pushed into a channel of flowing water by the tail slap of a lizard man, but she managed to escape thanks to the quick thinking of her friends. That was interesting. It was dynamic. It was memorable!
The final battle, in contrast, took place in the village where the nasty monster from beyond the stars crawled out of the well. Sure, it had a lot of interesting things in the environment to use, but none of the players were forced to interact with them, or even encouraged. The fight was tougher, sure, but it was less interesting because the environment was so darn passive.
These days I think that an environment that changes the field of battle and provides interesting ways to use it is far preferrable to stagnant and passive environments. Especially in a game so tactically crunchy as 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve stopped thinking about the battlefield as a passive place and started treating it more like a monster or active participant in a fight. The terrain should move, or provide new options in a fight, or even just provide some really interesting set dressing.
Sure, this concept isn’t new to roleplaying and I’m sure that a lot of you out there have done this for years. I’ve done it myself once in a while, but this is the first time since I started running games where it’s in the front of my mind. And let me tell you right now, that’s a really good thing! It’s made my fights more interesting and memorable and really forced me to think about how the players might actually move about a space. It makes things seem more real.
So, the next time you’re planning that epic battle for your group, sit down and really thinkg about where it’s going to take place. See what you can do to make the battle more interesting by spicing up the environment. You might be surprised what a difference it makes!
So, I can’t just let my friends get all up in my blog and throw around their own opinions without adding my own, can I? I figure that it’s high time that I throw down and explain just why I love 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons to itty bitty little pieces.
My friends and those that know me through various message boards generally know that I’ve always been a big supporter of the latest edition of just about any game (Changeling: the Lost notwithstanding). Generally I feel that most new editions are actual improvements over the old ones, at least when it comes to my own preferences when it comes to roleplaying games. Now, in the past I’ve been a bit of an edition elitist when it came to my favorite, but thankfully my friends disabused me of my superiority and I’m now what you’ll call a positive champion. Yes, I like 4th edition over any other editions, but I realize know that it’s because the rules adhere to what I want in a game and not because it’s flat out superior. I’ll never say that one game is strictly better than another game or edition, but I will state that I think it works better for me.
So, why do I love 4th edition so very much? There are a variety of reasons, but the biggest is because I really love crunchy bits in a game, so long as those crunchy bits aren’t too complex. I love 4th edition, and Mutants and Masterminds, but I also like games like Spirit of the Century or Savage Worlds. I like my crunch on the medium to moderate level, not super complex like Hero or as fiddly as GURPs.
For me, 4th edition hits that perfect level of crunchy and “rules light.” Yes, there are a lot of powers and fiddly bits, but by and large they all follow one generic framework that’s easy for me to understand. I like combing through all the books looking for that perfect feat or power, I gather a great deal of enjoyment finding things like this. For me character creation is just as much a fun part of the game as playing itself. I love finding that combination of feats, powers, and skills that can be combined in an awesome way.
Some of my friends call me a power gamer, and I suppose that I have to cop to that to a certain extent. I don’t like breaking the game or coming up with stupidly powerful combinations of things, but I do like my characters to be really effective. System mastery and rules mastery are fun and enjoyable to me, and 4th edition definitely scratches that itch. And best of all once I know all those rules I can tweak or ignore them to my hearts content when I run a game.
I also like class base systems, and after running at least two or three games for groups of newbies I can tell you that classes are actually really valuable when introducing new players to the hobby. They’re a wonderful package of “cool things you can do” that are a nice shorthand for a new player to wrap their head around. If I have a new player who wants to help his buddies I can point him right at any leader class and then let them go from there.
I also love running games, and for me 4th edition has been a vast improvement over the earlier editions. I have all the tools, digital and otherwise, to create fun and dynamic encounters that are both flavorable and tactically interesting enough to make running them very enjoyable. There is just something about how 4th edition monsters work that I can so easily understand that it’s been pretty trivial to prepare an adventure. Compared to the previous edition my prep time is about 1/10th of what it used to be, which means I can concentrate more on creating interesting areas and plots than on what magic items an NPC might be carrying.
That and 4th edition is also interesting in that it’s kind of two games in one. On one hand you have your classic “kill them and take their stuff” challenge of a traditional D&D game (not to say that my games are that simple). On the other hand you have this wonderful tactical miniature style battle game when you start rolling initiative. I have so much fun figuring out how my group of monsters is going to beat up the PCs, running each combat like a little miniatures skirmish game. I live for this kind of stuff and 4th edition is pretty unique in that I can sort of get two games in one.
Finally, the rest of my regularly weekday group has always been a D&D group. It’s the game they like far mroe than any other and we generally use the newest edition. I’m lucky in the fact that my players actually enjoy the same system that I do, and that my good friend and fellow GM upstairs is just as enthusiastic as I am. We talk for hours about how to do various things and what we’re going to spring on each other the next time we run.
All that said, I still enjoy a lot of other systems too. The weekend group I have (I’m fortunate enough to have not one, not two, but three different groups) tends to dabble in a lot of different systems, and I have to say that it’s been really good for me over all to try out so many different things. Learning how other systems work just reinforces my love of 4th edition and all the other games, because each one brings something different to the table. And in this day and age all us gamers have no excuse not to use the perfect tool for the job. Or the right system for our preferences. And when it comes to a fantasy game, that right system is 4th edition for me.
“It’s during long pauses such as these that we often grow philosophical and ponder the deeper questions of gaming…
Just where did that tiger keep those 20 silver pieces?”
~GM Hold music (sednagames.com)
Lately I have noticed the discussion crop up on a variety of message boards over ‘Is Dungeons and Dragons really all about killing things and taking their stuff?” The discussion invariably then delves into people saying “Yes, but it can be about a whole lot more” or “Well X edition was a whole lot more about killing things and taking their stuff than Y edition” or the people who stick up and say “Yes, that IS what it is all about.” Yet one of the things I always notice about the discussion is that while gamers spend a great amount of time arguing how DnD can be so much more than killing things and taking their stuff or lambasting their least favorite edition while supporting their favorite no one stops to ask: is it OK that the game could fundamentally be centered on killing things and taking their stuff?
Everyone pussyfoots around it, like it is some dirty little secret that didn’t make millions of dollars for the video game industry. But, despite me being a White Wolf loving, story-based, hang-the-rules sort of roleplayer, I’m going to tell you straight: there is nothing wrong with the concept of a game being founded on ‘kill things, take their stuff.’
Now before you rush out and go have a Mountain Dew rampage on how plebian I am, let me explain. Let us, for a second; break down the basic structure of the “Kill Things, Take Stuff” plot. In my mind it has 4 stages:
Problem (There are monsters)
Action (The PCs go find the monsters – usually in the form of a ‘dungeon crawl’)
Resolution (The PCs kill the monsters)
Reward (The PCs get stuff from killing monsters)
The Problem -> Action -> Resolution -> Reward structure is a primer for a successful RPG story. It is one of the most basic, tried and true plotlines of DnD – or any other game. It can be as simple as shown about or it can be far more sophisticated:
Problem (Innocent children have been disappearing from the PCs hometown, and last night the mangled corpse of a child was found in a dark alleyway)
Action (The PCs start a careful detective-style investigation into the shady elements of this city)
Resolution (After many clues and some random encounters the PCs decide that one of the respected politicians of the town is actually a corrupt wizard who is responsible for this atrocity, so they confront him)
Reward (Defeating their foe, the PCs find and release the surviving children. The Lord of the city gives them a generous reward – or conversely they loot the dead wizard and take his stuff )
Either way and everything in between, the structure gives players what they crave: the chance to take actions that bring about solutions and give them rewards so they can go solve bigger and badder problems. To reiterate: players want resolution and reward. They put the work into solving the problems the DM presents them with, and in order to make the game gratifying to them, they want rewards for taking that action. While setting up a problem is easy for most any DM, working the game through to a conclusion is more difficult. Dungeons and Dragons sets up an almost fail-safe game structure where getting rid of obstacles (killing monsters, defeating traps, ect ect) grants reward and leads to a conclusion. At the end, the DM can tally up all of the treasure and XP and reward his or her players.
I’m going to argue that the creators of the original DnD intimately understood what made the game fun, and that resolution and reward were an integral part of the enjoyment of the game. That is why by-the-book you get treasure for slaying monsters and why the game seems set up to kill things and take stuff: it provides inherent rewards. I will go so far to say that the DMG should be required reading for anyone who wants to lead any game system, because beyond the rules specific to whatever edition of DnD you play, the book is filled with a wealth of information on how to structure a basic game plot. Don’t scoff at the seemingly simple examples. Because it is far more gratifying and fun to play in a campaign with a very simple plot that keeps you engaged, active and rewarded than playing in an interminably complex plot where you just keep running in circles never reaching a conclusion because you’re either not smart enough to figure out the clues or the DM just hasn’t figured out the end yet. (I see the latter happen most frequently in White Wolf STs, but that is the subject for a different rant.)
The DMG urges new DMs to start simple and if they and their players want to, they can refine the subtlety and complexity of their plots, as they understand the game and how it is played. Or don’t – if your players get their jollies by mashing monsters and saving villages from orc hordes, let them! Follow the basic rules of resolution and reward; and no matter whether your game is about complex political scheming or killing things and taking their stuff, you will be surrounded by a group of your friends who are all having fun and enjoying the game.
And in the end, getting together with friends and having fun is what Dungeons and Dragons is really about, no?
So 4th edition D&D has been out for a while, there’s a steady stream of books out for it, its received quite a bit of acclaim and popularity, and the inevitable question has risen a few times: Why am I not playing it ?
So to address these in a manner that illuminates my playstyle and preferences, something that any gamer could do well thinking about occasionally, here are the reasons I have chosen not to play D&D 4, after giving it a few tests after it came out.
Unlike a lot of people I am not viewing this in comparison to 3.5 (which I hate like the plague) or AD&D or the classic D&D games. I evaluated it in comparison to other fantasy games on my bookshelf, some old (Runequest), some classics with recent editions (GURPS, Warhammer) and some bleeding edge (Burning Wheel, Heroquest, Reign)
I realize picking on D&D for having character classes is a bit unfair, but it is the nature of the beast. I dont mind having a template that gives me direction when I create the character, but as the game goes on, I want to be free to develop my character in the direction I choose, rather than a pre-determined set of options.
This is the bigger pet peeve. As a player, I find level based advancement absolutely choking. I despise having to wait another 3 sessions to advance my character, as it prevents me from reacting organically to what happens in the game. Whats worse is that a level structure means there is only a finite amount of chances to make those changes. I can endure character classes if they are done in an open and entertaining fashion, but level based play is a killer for me these days
3: Character focus
I am lately finding myself wanting games that put the character to the forefront, their beliefs, their wants, their goals and desires. And to have mechanics that back that up. Burning Wheel, FATE and Heroquest are all good examples of this. D&D has traditionally never done this and the 4th edition is no exception.
There are two views of mechanics and roleplaying. One view is that the mechanics should stay away from the roleplaying, while the other is that the mechanics should support or encourage the roleplaying. D&D falls in the former school for sure. As does a few other games I enjoy, including my beloved Runequest, so its not inherently a killer in itself, but its a factor.
To me, it is completely uninteresting whether your character can swing a sword, hit 2 enemies in one blow and then leap 3 squares. What is interesting is that he has a burning passion for avenging his father, and that passion compels him in the game.
Rules should simulate reality or setting to a certain extent. With 4th edition, D&D has really moved to the end of the Game axis of the game-simulation graph. This obviously resonates with a lot of people, but it makes the mechanics appear arbitrary and uninsteresting to me. Simulation does not have to entail realism. A superhero game is highly simulationist for example, as is Bunnies&Burrows.
5: Handling time
I was shocked to discover how long 4th edition combats take. I had chalked this up to our inexperience when testing it, but reports from friends and various actual play reports online confirmed that the game is indeed designed to have all combats last around a 1 to 1.5 hour time frame.
I only get to game face-to-face 2-3 times a month, due to work and family constraints, so I can’t in good conscience devote that much time to every single battle we have, unless its an epic conclusion. Rolemaster and GURPS both move faster than this, at an equivalent number of combatants, and with similar amounts of record keeping, and they are both renowned as “crunchy” systems.
I have a reasonable hobby budget, but I prefer spending that on miniatures. There are very few roleplaying games I invest a lot of money in. D&D has a basic start up cost exceeding 100 dollars, simply for the 3 core books to play. If I want a setting to play in, thats another 35 dollars, and this still only gives me a handful of character classes.
Throw in another 35 dollars when we get tired of what was in the players handbook (and an active group will cycle through the 8 or so character classes pretty quickly). This is more than I’ve spent on most of my wargaming armies, and I can’t justify spending that amount of money on a game that I will only play occasionally, at most.
WOTC has set an extremely high cost of entry for their game, which boggles my mind. For the same cost, I can obtain the core books for 3-4 other games, and have a far wider variety of material to play with.
So those 6 reasons comprise my main reasons for passing on this game. I bought 2 of the books, I tested it, I came to realize that it will not fill any lack in what I am looking for in a roleplaying game, and I passed the books on to a friend who will find far more benefit, value and enjoyment in them, than I ever will.