Sunday, October 21, 2007

Part I -- Continuity of Rules

The foremost problem I see with 4E is as follows. I do expect some continuity with the rules of the game as previously constructed (OD&D, 1E, 2E, 3E, etc.). There's a lot of the mechanics of D&D that I want to be a "shared experience" (as they have for a few decades now), and to be communicated between playgroups and even generations of players. (For example, fathers and sons can enjoy baseball as being fundamentally the same game when either one was a teenager.) Unfortunately, the designers of 4E have made it pretty explicit that they feel free to start everything over totally from ground zero -- they're re-evaluating everything in the game from the ground up, and tossing in new stuff from scratch anywhere it strikes their fancy here in late 2007.

Here's a few examples that I can currently dig up (picking many off ENWorld's news site at http://www.enworld.org/index.php?page=4e ):
- Standard Races & Classes in the PHB are being totally altered. Apparently out are gnomes, half-orcs, barbarians, druids, bards, monks, etc. In come tieflings, eladrin, warlords, and warlocks. (As I may point out several times, compare the continuity of 1E->3E to this lineup in 4E.) Paladins can be any alignment, etc.
- Wizards don't memorize daily spells anymore (also called the "Vancian" magic system). Instead, they have fixed, "siloed" powers -- some usable every round, some every few minutes, some once a day. They have some kind of "weaponized" accoutrement whereby they have to arm themselves with an orb, scepter, staff, or book to cast spells. There's a designer quote that "Wizards will be able to cast 25th-level spells." And I guess Fighters have similar Powers themselves that work kind of like magic (as seen in some late 3.5 supplements).
- Classes aren't categorized by the classic four primary classes anymore -- you've got these 4 "Roles" which categorize classes by Leader, Defender, Striker, or Controller (for some reason).
- 1st-level characters are designed to be inherently "head and shoulders" above normal people in the world. (Presumably like Star Wars Saga starting 1st-level PCs off with 3 Hit Dice). Levels are said to come faster but make less of a difference from step-to-step. PHB goes from levels 1-30, which a lot of people are saying cover the same "sweet spot" as classic levels 4-14 or so.
- Saving Throws no longer exist. Instead, you've now got fixed defense scores (like magic Armor Classes) that magical enemies roll their attacks against.
- There's some kind of "condition track" whereby lost hit points degrade your abilities (creating, I suppose, a kind of "death spiral"). Spells are being totally revised; fireball doesn't do d6/level damage anymore, for example. Save-or-die spells are gone, being turned into hit point damage that triggers the condition track (it appears).
- The D&D cosmology of the "Great Wheel" is wiped out and replaced with totally different, new stuff. There's a new division between devils & demons -- demons are actually some sort of corrupted Elementals, now, I guess.
- Magic Items don't have prices or rules for PC construction, apparently (a great tool in 3E).
- Challenge Ratings are gone (another great tool in 3E).
- Alignment is heavily revised, apparently.

Anyway, I could go on and on and on. Suffice to say that lots of the shared experiences from OD&D up through 3E are being wiped out and replaced with completely different mechanics. (Which is even more disturbing when you compare 30 years of development and fine-tuning to the very rushed time constraints that the 4E writers seem to be under in late 2007.) Let me pick out one illuminating quote from the designers:

You can't really just convert a character directly from 3e to 4e. We pretended you could do that from 2e to 3e, but that conversion book was pretty well bogus. The fact is, as I explained it a lot at GenCon, that your character isn't what's on your character sheet: your character is the guy in your head. The character sheet is how the guy in your head interacts with the rules of the game. The rules of the game are different, so you'll be creating a new implementation of that character, but the character needn't change much.

(That's James Wyatt writing in his blog here: http://forums.gleemax.com/showthread.php?t=906388 ). Got that? It's actually impossible to convert a character from 3E to 4E. While there was a widely-used conversion book published for the 2E->3E switch, the designers are saying that no such conversion system is possible from 3E->4E. The best you can do is to take the general "feel" of your character (or monster or adventure setting) and reconstruct it from scratch in 4E. That's definitely a first, as it wasn't the case in any previous switchover points between versions of D&D -- that's just how different 4E is from anything that came before it.

There are stories from playtests where monsters have thousands and thousands of hit points, clerical healing fires off automatically at the same time as they attack, and the players feel like they're playing a completely brand new game and have absolutely no idea how something as simple as a goblin or a zombie is going to function against them. And the designers are trumpeting all of this as specifically a good thing. Me, I think it's a bad thing that you can't use all your preceding understanding and materials for D&D at all anymore.

One thing I'll say is that this "accelerate the changes" mode of designing is very much consistent with the movement I saw in the 3.5 Revised rules (which I also skipped). At that time, I identified the rather encyclopedic changes to the spell lists as radically more different than all the changes from 1E->3E combined (see my report here: http://www.superdan.net/down3-5.html ). In my opinion, it seems like 3E made some noticable changes to the game; 3.5 was a test to see how widespread changes could be and still have acceptable sales (with ever-accelerating changes through later supplements); and 4E is finally embracing an entirely different kind of game.

8 comments:

  1. You know, I have to agree that the 2e->3e conversion was pretty much useless. Maybe my character was an edge case, but at the time I was playing an Elementalist, for which there was no equivalent in 3e. If you recall, I ended up converting him to a cleric, but I was so dissatisfied by the conversion that I eventually gave up the character and created a new one.

    Though I can't say that their decision to have no conversion rules is a better option. But at last they're being up front about it now.

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  2. Yeah. I don't read quite that much into the "no 3e to 4e conversion". I think they are just admitting that the 2e to 3e conversion guide didn't work well if you took it too seriously. I found it a bit helpful in understanding 3e, but my own conversions to 3e from earlier editions were reimaginings.

    To me, 3e had plenty of continuity of rules problems itself. Maybe 4e is going farther, but 3e has already convinced me that I have to consider any new edition of D&D as if it were a completely new game. I'll call it "D&D" 'cause that's what it'll say on the cover, but it won't "be D&D" to me. Just as I feel about 3e. To me, C&C is more D&D than 3e, despite trademarks.

    Which is not to say that I don't enjoy 3e or that I won't enjoy 4e. In fact, since 4e ≠ D&D to me, I'm actually a bit excited about it. I'll be impressed if Wizards manages to make an RPG I can't enjoy.

    Although, many of the statements made so far do have me wondering about that...

    It is a shame, though. Classic D&D and AD&D were good games, but too many people regard them as obsolete because there's an in-print game that happens to have the same brand name. What bothers me more, however, is that D&D is still the de facto flagship for the hobby. It is still the game that will be many people's first encounter with pen & paper RPGs. I don't think 3e--as good of a game as it is--fills that role well. Whether 4e does any better on that count...I'll be waiting to see.

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  3. Well, speaking as a DM I did find that I got a lot of use from the 2E->3E conversion booklet (for converting NPCs in old adventures). At least the core classes, levels, abilities, spells, and magic items almost always mapped 1:1 to some (possibly renamed) entity in 3E. My understanding is that with 4E all of that stuff will totally be razed to the ground and recreated with different stuff.

    To respond to Paul's point, the one hair I'd split is of course the Elementalist wizards come from the 2E "Tome of Magic" supplement. I don't necessarily expect supplemental stuff to be directly converted, by I do assume that a stock core-rules PHB wizard should be transferable. With 4E that won't even be attemptable, because all the levels and powers use totally different systems.

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  4. Apparently Wizards has decided that legacy players are a dead socket. They're lookin' to pull in MMRPG players, I figure. The rule changes you describe certainly feel a lot more MMRPGy. I think this is fundamentally flawed thinking. They're not going to pry MMRPGers away from their MMRPGs with just a recognisable brand name. Of course, there's a rich tradition in business of being an inferior imitation of your competitor, so who am I to say...

    I'll tell you who I am, I'm part of the *actual* demographic for this game, or I would be if they'd decided that the die hard fans weren't worth their time anymore.

    Meh, I've still got my 3rd ed books, and I'll play that instead. Which is why I'm not attractive to them as a customer.

    All told, kind of a lose/lose for WOTC.

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  6. I've just found your blog and really like it--I'm working on a project to revise 3e to be more like prior editions, and all this OD&D input is amazingly helpful.

    I was looking at the Thumbs Down to 3.5 article, and it appears that Steven Cooper's analysis of spell changes is no longer available. Would you happen to have downloaded a copy of it, or know if he's hosting it somewhere else?

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  7. James, thanks for the kind words and the report on the dead link.

    I did save copies of Steven's 3.5 change documents -- I've updated the web article with a link to my own copy, or just grab it here.

    I also worked on a 3E-era inspired "Diminutive d20" ruleset up through 2008, I'll welcome you to check that for ideas (and you'll see it in some blog posts): here.

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  8. I'm glad you saved a copy of Steven's documents. I'm looking through that and Diminutive d20 now.

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