Thursday, March 24, 2011

My D&D 4th Edition Legacy

So... After deciding to ditch 4e and move on to... or back to... 3X/PF I started to examine 4e and to focus on the strong points of of 4e. The right things that WotC did with 4e focused on slimming down the rule requirements for getting through a combat encounter: a simplified combat sequence for characters (free, move, minor, and standard actions), the removal of book keeping from dealing with the durations of spells and other abilities, and the standardization of stat-blocks for spells, abilities and monsters.

The first change: the modifications made to what a character can do during a round, simpley taking the guess work out of what a character can and cannot do in a round. The different actions in 4e are intuitively named. With 3X/PF, in the past, we had trouble figuring out what could and could not be done in a round. The problem revolved around dealing with standard actions, full-round actions, swift actions, etc. The naming of the actions in 3X/PF does not give much information about what one can do during the different segments. There was also the problem of having to choose between different action combinations, cobbling together different actions to best execute a character's activities for a given round. Often, we had to resort to consulting our D&D books to be sure we were using the differing actions correctly. Over time we kind of broke this component of 3X/PF; the lines between the different actions became blurred. The result was that, too often, a player would come up in initiative without being sure about what his character could or could not do. The DM would have to referee what a character could and could not do.This sounds great... right? DMs making rulings and running their games... instead of allowing the rules to run their games. But that is not what was happening... our DMs were turning into time keepers rather than referees. In fact, having to help manage the PCs' time clocks made it harder for our DMs to run their games; it was just one more distraction keeping them from focusing their attention on running their games.

4e simplified durations of spells and abilities. Basically, in 4e, everything has a duration of either a complete round, the remainder of the encounter, or the remainder of the day. This was a great, simple innovation. It took the book keeping required to track durations out of the game. During a combat, either an effect will last until the end of the encounter, it is very limited in duration (1 round) or it has run its course. In any case, the tracking required to keep a handle on what is going on, effects-wise, is minimal. In previous editions durations differed from one spell or ability to another, making the tracking of effects a hefty task for DMing any encounter.

The final change that I will be bringing back to 3X/PF with me is using a unified stat-block for spells, abilities and monsters. This simple innovation has eliminated the need that had slowly crept into the game of having to consult rulebooks to get through a session. The problem I did have with this in 4e was that the blocks tended to suffer from giving too much information. e.g. NPC/monster stat-blocks iclude the creatures' ability scores; the actual strength of an orc beserker is not important to me as a DM or a player... I only need to know what the attack and damage bonus modifiers are!

The only pushback I can see from bringing any of these 4e elements into my 3X/PF is the often heard critique of 3X/PF and 4e is that they have sacrificed the overall experience of playing and DMing D&D into a tactical game in which balance is more important than having a fun gaming session which flows from event to event. I agree wholeheartedly with Justin at the Alexandrian: D&D is not a tactical game. D&D is an RPG in which tactical encounters play a critical role. Balance is not required to have a great time playing D&D. In fact, I would have to say that balance can even hurt the game, taking away from the overall D&D experience. The strange thing about this critique is that the question of balance, in this case, would be reversed: gamers complaining about the lack of balance which this 4e mechanic brings into 3X/PF.

Finally, I want to say that I am not the only one out there doing these things: pulling elements of 4e back into older editions of D&D. I stand on the shoulders of giants. Almost nobody plays D&D right out of the box. Barad and Zak at gnotions and Playing D&D With Pornstars have talked about their own edition-mashed, house-ruled games. Further, the notion of bringing stat-blocks from 4e into other editions is also not totally my idea. Though, I have slimmed down the stat requirements that I use to run NPCs and monsters, I owe the idea of bringing a standardized stat-block into other edtions to Justin and Zak. Thanks, Guys. My next post, Dungeon Doors, deals with a simple mechanic for running doors in your dungeons.

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