Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What's in Your Red Box?

A few 4E enthusiasts have been bumping their nose against the increased complexity that emerges in combat as you get into the paragon tier. The trick is that while fights are still fun, they're a lot less predictable, which can mess with scheduling and planning, and problems like the durability of Elites and Solos becomes more of an issue.[1]

This complexity has had the curious upshot of increasing interest in the forthcoming Red Box for 4e. The hope is that it will include rules for people to streamline 4e while still keeping the elements that people really enjoy in play.[2] I share this optimism, but I am also impatient. The prospect of streamlining the 4e experience is a powerful one, and I think it's worth thinking about what it could look like partly for the fun of it, but also partly to cover bets: if the Red Box isn't what we need, then I suspect the internet will provide.[3]

In the absence of bounty of the internet, I find myself chewing on the things I'd love to see in a streamlined version of 4e. As I think about them, I'm sure that some of them are pretty far out, but it's not always clear to me which ones. So just to toss a few out.

5 Important Decisions
4e chargen has a LOT of decisions, but in my mind there are only 5 that really matter: Race, Class, Style, Paragon Path and Epic Destiny. Notably absent from this list is power source and stats. Power source is probably not a controversial drop - not only is it implicit in class, it simply doesn't carry a lot of conceptual weight. It's one of those ideas that -could- be a lot more central to the game, but just isn't.

Stats are trickier, but to my mind it's a simple thing - for a given class, stat spreads are usually pretty predictable. Some classes might have two or even 3 possible spreads you pick from, but those tend to be pretty flawed. Stats, especially in their intersection with Race, force the choice between interesting and effective, and that's a terrible choice. Just skip it, and make everyone interesting AND effective.[4]

Of what remains, four of them are hopefully pretty obvious. Race, class, paragon path and epic destiny are all pretty significant choices, and are the things you mention (outside of level) when describing a character. But Style probably merits a little explanation, since it's present in 4e, but lives in many different places. In short, style is what differentiates your character from some other character of the same class. In practice, this is a combination of elements - subclass, feat selection, gear selection and power selection can all weigh into this - but the concept is actually much simpler than that.

One guy wants to play a sword and shield fighter in heavy armor, another wants to play one with a huge axe, less armor and more mobility.[5] They sift through the feats, gear and powers trying to find a combination that reflects the idea in their head, but whether or not they find it is an utter crapshoot. Some concepts (even obvious concepts) are simply supported better than others are, and some require some particularly precarious combinations, like just the right magic items to pull off. For pure 4e, there's some joy in the fiddliness of figuring those combinations out, but for a streamlined version it would be nice to just skip the middelman and have the *kind* of character you want (which is to say, the style) be as clear and meaningful a choice as class.

MORE Skills, Fewer Powers, No Feats

So, I don't literally mean adding skills, but I wouldn't really reduce them, so they'll look bigger. Skills are already pretty streamlined. Sure, there are some changes I might want on a pure pipe dream level (decoupling them from level, for example) and I might suggest streamlining skill challenges to "Once around the table and go", but those are just wishful thinking.

Powers, on the other hand, obviously need to get pared down to streamline the game. To my mind, I would just fold them into the big 5 choices, above, and make them automatic form there.

Feats could be dropped without a problem, especially if the 2% utility from them get folded into Style. For the feats that people "have" to take? They should just be incorporated into the class and called a day.


I'm torn on levels. You could pretty easily break the game down into, say, 6 levels that each represented a five level band. That would simplify things, but I'm not sure it would do so usefully.

And with those out of the way, one last thing:

What I'm Afraid Of
My worst case scenario for redbox is that it's 4e with the decisions made for you. That is to say, imagine a 4e fighter pre-gen presented as a class - that is to say with all of his power (and maybe feat) choices made at each level. Not that this is a bad idea for a product - I think it'd be something great for a third party publisher to produce - but it's a very, very different sort of streamlining than I'm hoping for.

1 - By all reports, Monster Manual 3 has a lot more interesting Boss Monsters who aren't elite or solo. This is a welcome addition, if so.

2 - Personally, I'm also hopeful for the forthcoming Dark Sun books to help with this. To my mind, a lot of the excess complexity as you level up comes from tracking magic items. Dark Sun will (reportedly) have rules for playing with less gear, and that prospect alone is pretty cool to me.

3 - This is also an interesting option for third party publishing. Streamlined 4e is likely going to step away from the necessity of the character builder, which may well blow the doors off the barn, so to speak.

4 - Likelihood of stats getting dropped in this fashion? Nil.

5 - And if your thought was "Well, why not play a Barbarian?" then you now truly understand just how muddy this issue can be. There's a relationship between style and class that no version of D&D has completely nailed down. 3E probably came closest with its sheer volume of classes, but their mechanical shortcomings undercut most of the benefits.


  1. Thought-provoking post, as usual.

    Personally, I haven't had an issue with higher level fights yet, so some of this is new to me. Though the concept of D&D failing to really hum in those higher levels is not.

    What particularly made my gears churn is your statement about style -- the concept of the light armored more mobile fighter is something the rules have never really pulled off right.

    Sometimes I wish D&D was classless -- I think, or wonder, if that would be the only path that could lead to builds that fit style better.

  2. 1st Edition Shadowrun and d6 Star Wars let you create characters from scratch, but also had generic versions of characters you could just start with. I think that's something I'd welcome for 4e. It took me too long to create an "Elf with a Bow" when it's such a basic archetype for the game. Unless you want to play something unusual I'd rather just grab the default character and get started.

  3. I think a problem with reducing the number of levels is that most players enjoy level as a marker of their "success" in Dungeons & Dragons.

    Whilst it would work quite effectively in a streamlined game, it really is moving further away from the D&D paradigm than 4e already has done.

    Whether this is a good or bad, depends on what sort of game you are trying to play.

  4. There is something to be said for streamline dbuild options... One solution I have thought would be awesome would be an auto build funtion in the character generator. Pick a race, a Class, lvl... it pops up asking you your prefered weapon or eliment. Or even a quick questionaire modled after "you are a X" that always float around face book. Auto picks your gear Powers, feats, etc, based on your Concept/answers, of the level needed for the game.

    What are your feelings on the Psy Power Point system?

  5. @Rogue Classes are such a great, identifiable shorthand that I'm happy with them, at least in the context of 4e. That said, there's definitely a saturation point which I worry the PHB3 is the leading edge of.

    @stuart I totally agree, and if I were still in the business of making 4e products, I would be looking hard at making a book of "Standard builds" for just this purpose. I only fear the idea because anyone can do that, and WOTC is in a unique position to do more.

    @rev Well put, I could go round and round on that one.

    @Johnoghue Go forth and make the product!

    As for psi, I think it's mostly well built, but the space for potential problems is definitely wider than usual. That said, while the Psi _color_ is probably not to many people's tastes, the structure of powers (notably having at-wills get cooler over time and increased flexibility) may be more appealing in _play_. Of course, the extra options may also just be frustrating or paralyzing. Dunno yet. Haven't had a chance to actually play any PHB3 stuff yet.

  6. Those sound like Aspect categories to me. :)

  7. It sounds like you're talking about keeping the Heroic level game for Paragon. I don't see the point. The tiers are designed the way they are because they provide different styles of play.

    Seriously. Fewer powers, fewer choices, simpler combat. That's exactly the Heroic tier. You have marginally more choices building a first-level character than you're talking about for streamlined/stock choices. If that's the experience someone is seeking, they can perpetually play in Heroic and have an awesome time.

    I'm fine with stock builds as a way to circumvent the character creator. I grew up doing a lot of my gaming while camping, and I'd at least like the availability of fast character creation without a laptop. But if the issue is not what 4e makes available as raw materials (as in, simply playing Heroic if that's the experience you seek), but rather, how players are commonly using those raw materials, I think you're likely creating a new problem: getting people in over their heads before they actually understand the game.

    For people who already know the system well enough, it's easy to forget that building characters is a key component in understanding the game. If most people are just grabbing a stock character at paragon because anything else is too involved, chances are good that they don't have a good grasp on the mechanics and number implications. And THAT'S when you run into a weird experience.

    What I do agree with is that the sheer number of powers, while perfectly fun for me, is not the only option. If you're looking to streamline the game, powers are the first place to start. And I'd do it by using Skills to augment the smaller set of powers in a variety of ways. This would also allow you to get the experience you desire through execution more so than character building.

  8. My understanding is that Dark Sun will use the DMG2 rules for less magic items. As such, I think those rules are already in existence and (from my experiences with them) work well in removing the mundane aspects of magic items that is in 4e.

  9. I should also note that this simplification is also why I still far prefer The Fantasy Trip over 4E.

    And the simplicity of character creation means that there is not an emphasis put on preserving the player characters, which is more agreeable to my general philosophy.


  10. I found this old post because I thought I remembered you saying something about how Feats weren't needed. Strangely enough, RJS had a post about that today. Just thought I would share in case you want to chime in. :)


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