"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A few thoughts about my 4E game

I was going to put together a long post about the relative aspects of 4E vs B/X and then decided that I wasn't going to use my time in that fashion. Instead here are just a few quick thoughts about the 4E game I ran a while ago:

1. It is rules-light - I don't know what proportion of page count in 4E books is rules vs powers (rules exceptions) but it is heavily, heavily, heavily skewed in the direction of the later. No DM can remember all of them. If you have a regular group then the DM can remember the 20 to 30 powers the party has. But for a walk-in game during a meet-up, you don't even know what races and/or classes will be at the table much less the powers. The players just have to tell the DM what their powers do. But the framework upon which all of these powers hang is pretty simple.

2. I tried to keep a semblance of narrative combat - and I was surprised how easy it was. Before the session began I took a look at everyones' powers - not for mechanics (see above) - but instead for the fluff. I made a note of some key points of the fluff about each power and used those to narrate the effects in combat. It was much more than "I move to here and use my Vorpal Viceration power". The player may say it that way but after the dice were rolled I gave the narrative of dodging through the combat and their shining blade slashing through sinew and tissue using some of the adjectives from the powers themselves.

3. I incorporated the "Ming Vase" - and I was very liberal with giving out bonuses and penalties for rolling 20's and 1's. Another thing I did was allow of other effects if someone rolled a 20. For example, if the character was using some power that did not include the moving of the target but rolled a 20 I figured would be fun to move him anyway.

4. I kinda like Skill Challenges - but then again I like subsystems. In a lot of ways the skill challenge is just a formulaic way of doing a reaction roll or some other roll that is already present in B/X.

5. I find the races annoying - I like the fact that B/X is humanocentric. I like the archetypes of race as class. I did not have one human character at the table and while I have read the races sections of the 4E PHBs, I still don't know what archetypes many of the races are suppose to fill.

6. I converted one of Paizo's Pathfinder Society scenarios designed for organized play and it was really easy.

7. The session went faster than I thought. I feel bad about this one. I thought I had lots of material given the feedback I have heard that combats take too long. This was only a 1st level scenario so maybe this changes.

All-in-all it was fun. My biggest complaint was the loss of the archetypes of the various races and classes but I also know that OD&D and Dr. Holmes also say that players should be able to play races other than those presented in the books so maybe I should have a more open mind.

Edit: JB just made a comment on our Online B/X game blog that made me realize the other complaint I have with 4E. In B/X part of the feel and fun is the fact that your character is an average Joe that may become a hero or maybe not. In 4E you start off as a hero and are expected to do heroic things.


  1. Regarding #5: I've been thinking about this a lot actually, both in relation to 3rd edition and 4th. I don't think it's a bad thing to have crazy race-class combinations, whether a dwarven mage, or a half-dragon-war-alchemist-iron-priestess (or whatever the obscure new "kewl" class is). It's just not what I call "D&D."

    For people who want to play some type of open, catch-all fantasy game (like a Final Fantasy RPG or something), I'd be hard pressed to think of a better system than D20+. Again, it's probably not the game for me since that's not what I want in an RPG.

    The real question is: how smooth is it system-wise. I have written before that 4E appears to have been designed to appeal to WoW and on-line gamers. Can it out-play a video game? Is the mechanic smooth enough to do this? Does it offer anything besides a plethora of extra races and classes (WoW only offers 10 races and a dozen or so classes at last count). I think it's futile for a table-top game to try to "out-video-play" a video game. How does 4E perform in this regard?

  2. Patrick,

    If you were to strip-out your Classic-Play additions to the 4E chassis, would it still have been as fun to run?

    If, 'no', then it is the Classic-Play (+ 'Rules Lite') that did the flavouring.
    If, 'yes', then I suppose the RulesLight was the 'win'.

    Just curious, not a zinger or what have you.

  3. WRT the long-taking:

    Basically the higher up you go the longer it takes. The trouble is that the HP increases a somewhat faster than the damage does, so things just stop dying quickly enough. It helps a LOT to improvise morale rules.

  4. JB,
    With regards to video games, I have no idea. I have never played an MMO and I haven't played a video game of any kind in 5 years.

    I agree that for their ongoing success, tabletop RPG's should be stressing the things that make them different from MMOs.

    RE: "system smoothness" - It was a simple game to run. It wasn't as smooth for me as a B/X game but that is me bread and butter. If/when I have run 20 sessions of 4E, I would guess it would be a very smooth and tight system. I think the system math is currently very tight and time will tell if "Divine Power 5" breaks that tight math.

    I know that players today want to do "cool" things. While us old-schoolers know these cool things can be done on the fly with our preferred systems, I can also understand why players want their "cool stuff" codified in the rules. I know I have had bad nights or have played with bad DMs where the answer was "No" instead of "Yes". As such, I think 4E does its job admirably as the cool stuff is in the rules but it is a ruleslight system.

    I think that 4E can really shine using the "old school" precepts. The players and DM have to remember that the powers are not all there is to a character. But I can also see why people complain that the powers eliminate the ability to do crazy stuff like swinging from a chandelier. But this dilemma is raised in all versions of D&D - why kick sand in his eyes when I could swing with my sword?

  5. TS,
    Interesting but somewhat somewhat impossible to answer question.

    Is my DMing style "old school"? I hope so. But I can only DM how I know. I ran the game as I always do. I would like to think that the way I ran the game made it enjoyable. I also like to think that I could make a fantasy roleplaying session that uses flipping a coin for task resolution fun if I had a fun bunch of players.

    I didn't knowingly "break" any 4E rules - I just ran my game.

  6. Rob,
    I agree that it looks like HPs scale faster than damage output. I also think that part of the problem can be addressed by encounter design and roleplaying (part of which is morale as you have mentioned).

    I am no expert of 4E but I think that the way than one combines different monster types/roles, terrain, etc can go a ways to reducing this problem.

    Also, freely giving bonuses to attack rolls for previous high rolls, crazy ideas, the "Ming Vase", can also help. I would refer anyone once again to the Vincent Baker article Practical Conflict Resolution Advice at:

    Also roleplaying - morale, not always making the "optimal" tactical decision but instead the one that make the best roleplaying story. Mike Mearls gave an example at:

    I also understand that WotC has responded to the concern by changing how HPs for solos have been calculated in MM2.

  7. Nice to read an honest reaction to 4e from a B/X man! My own experience is very similar to yours. There is fun to be had. The basic rules are pretty slick, and I think that it is very interesting how WotC has produced a system that is immediately understandable to the vast hordes that have played collectible card games. I'm not one of those, but that's what my buddies tell me.

    Having now played about 10 sessions, I can say that combat encounters DEFINITELY take longer at upper levels. An hour, easy, for a single combat. I'm talking levels 4 and 5, by the way, and I can't speak to higher levels. Maybe times will come back down. My other comment relates to your "the DM can't possibly know all of the powers." My sense is that this is a bigger problem than you perhaps realize because it gives players a lot of power to fudge things in favor of their pet character, and it makes if very hard for a DM to keep specific rules out of their game. Finally, I'll say that one thing that I don't particularly like about 4e are all of the "recurring damage / save / effects" rolls. This layers a LOT of book-keeping on to combat rounds that frankly is a pain in the ass. What would be called "fiddly" in the boardgaming community.

  8. I have never played a CCG either but I can imagine how they have impacted 4E.

    As for not knowing all of the powers - I have 2 immediate thoughts:

    1. For a home game with a regular group, I think the DM would eventually be able to remember the various, or at least favorite, powers of the characters.

    2. For a walk-in game such as the meetup, there are two aspects, the first being that so long as everyone is having fun then no harm, no foul. The second is that while I am not gullible enough to actually believe it I do hope that most people are straight up.

    It does seem that WotC has spawned a secondary industry for products that help with all of the bookkeeping. Instead of using figs I just used 1" coloured flat foam cutouts and 1" coloured paperclips. Each color paperclip can be attached to the foam cutout. I also find that if I have one sheet of paper for each monster type, I can track things easier. I have lettered all of my foam cutouts so I write the same letters down the side of the page for that monster type and I can attach paperclips or write notes in the specific spots.

  9. That last part, about Becoming a Hero, really shows the 'feeling' has faded with the new system. For the worst. It is WoW without the computer.
    Rock on!

  10. For the worse for you and I but I do not disagree with WotC that most people play D&D to do heroic things.