Friday, September 17, 2010

Red Box White Noise

So, the new Red Box is out in common distribution now, and D&D essentials is coming down the pike. I have the former and have pre-ordered the latter, and I've been holding off on talking about it too much until I've had a chance to really get my hands dirty with it, but a recent Escapist interview with Mike Mearls has created a bit of a furor.

The conventional wisdom is that Essentials is an acknowledgment that 4e was a mistake in direction for the game. This is usually declared with a smug sense of vindication and a plug for Paizo[1] but I find myself disagreeing with this interpretation. I've been equally willing to discuss the things I like and dislike about 4e, and I think that a lot of interpretations of Essentials are more about people's opinions of 4e than their opinion on Essentials.

Now, first and foremost I think Essentials will fall short of what I would hope for in one big way. I do not anticipate it resulting in any new opening of the 4e system, and that's a terrible shame. 4e is hard for a fan or small publisher to support. The rules for doing so are complicated, and any mechanical elements you may create will be relegated to the ghetto by the online tools. The quality of the tools, which is quite high, creates a barrier to anything that falls outside its bounds.

However, Essentials represents a potential crack in this facade. If essentials characters are sufficiently different from core characters, then the tools might need to be modified to allow for more flexibility. Realistically, I expect they're just make the character builder offer a branching choice (Create standard character or essentials character) but it's nice to hope.

This is important though because it speaks to the other problem I have with D&D - the disconnect between the rules and reality. That is to say, when a power does something mechanical like, say, stun two targets and damage and push a third, it's not always clear what has actually happened in the "reality" of the game to produce that sort of outcome.[2]

This is one of my biggest hurdles in dealing with D&D is this disconnect[3] but what's interesting about it is that it's not essential (if you pardon the pun) to the rules. There are plenty of powers that are easy to visualize, and there's nothing that mandates this confusion, it's just _easier_. If you think of mechanics first and describe a mechanically interesting outcome, it can be hard to reverse engineer a coherent explanation, and there's very little incentive to do so.[4] Easier to just add something vague and handwavey.

This also plays into why it's harder to write martial classes than anything else. The "everyone's a spell caster model" that is kind of implicit in the power system[5] gives other power sources more tools to fake this stuff. For a martial character, there are only so many ways to describe HIT BAD GUY WITH SWORD with the kind of simplicity that goes into other powers. It can be done with a lot more attention to detail (just listen to any fighting enthusiasts nerd out for a sense of how) but not easily.

The bottom line there is that if Essentials opens up the powers system to support more descriptive and "logical" powers, that's a very promising thing, something I'd be very excited to see. But doing it part way won't cut it. With an open system, you can put in most of a good idea and trust in the ecosystem to bring it to maturity. With a merely closed one, you can expect people to find a way around the weaknesses and patch things up. But with a strongly closed system, you're stuck with what you got, for good or ill. This fact has been far more of an anchor around 4e's neck than any failure to be "real D&D".

Because the reality is, 4e _is_ very well designed. It's a fantastic engine and a well thought out game. That doesn't make it perfect, or the best or only game out there, but just as people are complaining about the players 4e left behind, it's important to realize that a lot of people enjoy 4e. Trying to change 4e into something else that won't support them is a losing strategy. But making it into something bigger, something that can make room for old and new players.

Maybe it will be that. Maybe it won't. But I look forward to finding out.[6]

1 - And while I mean no sleight to Paizo - they're awesome - Pathfinder ends up being a blunt instrument that gets misused terribly in these conversations. Pathfinder really is that good, and quite big, but i point out that despite being open and fantastically well designed, it does not invite the same raft of d20 products surrounding it that D&D did. There are many ways in which this is a good thing, but as a yardstick for inspiration it is pretty short.

2 - This is also an issue with things like Daily powers, which I understand Essentials forgoes.(
EDIT: Some people have informed me that it's the martial classes -fighters and rogues - who forgo dailies. I actually kind of dig that).

3 - the boundary of which is really the Druid, as lead to some discussion.

4 - I very nearly killed myself with this on the Witch Doctor because I hadn't realized how loosely the color was tied to the mechanics in 4e. I designed those powers as color first, then expressed in mechanics, and in doing so I made much more work for myself than I needed to.

5 - Which is why 4e is really such a fantastic match for Earthdawn.

6 -
And if it's not? Well, I'll probably get back on the heartbreaker horse.


  1. I think you brushed upon the exact reasons why people either love or hate D&D 4th Edition or Pathfinder RPG.

    I think with earlier editions of D&D, and thus Pathfinder, the mechanics were designed to support a cool, realistic description of an action. A top-down design for mechanics, if you will (with reality being at the top). The mechanics make sense with the perspective of the world/physics/reality.

    With 4th edition, they went with a bottom-up design. Creating cool game mechanics (from the perspective of the combat grid and geo-spatial movement)and then trying to give it enough flavor text to explain what's happening, which is why there can be a disconnect.

    That disconnect obviously broke some vocal fans' expectations of the game.

    I definitely agree with you that 4e is a fantastically designed game, it just doesn't share the exact same design goals as its predecessors.

    I think that's great! It kept the brand from becoming stale and shook up the status quo. Hell, if I were re-designing it would have been point buy... at least 4th shares the class-based design of previous editions... it could have evolved even further.

    But this is people we're talking about and this type of argument can be seen wherever there are fans (music, movies, comics, etc.). Some like change and some don't; the more vocal pro/opponents then commence the arguing.

    I can see that the Essentials stuff is trying to smooth that disconnect that with the introduction of 4e, but I'm not sure if they need to go that route.

    I'd embrace 4e for what it does well and mitigate the disconnect with good description.

  2. "I think that's great! It kept the brand from becoming stale and shook up the status quo. Hell, if I were re-designing it would have been point buy... at least 4th shares the class-based design of previous editions... it could have evolved even further."

    This is the part that breaks the arguement for me. Too often people think to need to "shake up the status quo". Comic book companies are masters of this. But when you shake up the status quo you might kill the thing that makes the product popular. Adding Wolverine to EVERY Marvel comic team book or having a new person take over as Batman in DC Comics might shake up the status quo, but it it good for the long term of the product. No matter how much you shake up the status quo, most thing go right back TO the status quo. Change for just change sake is bad. Science and evloution don't work that way for a reason.

    You actions have repercussion, and WOTC is realizing theirs with 4E. While I am sure 4E sold well for them, I have to think for WOTC to put out this new Essential line, they must of have their sales of 4E off by at least 20 to 30% of what they expected. WOTC had a golden goose with D&D that gave them a golden egg every day. WOTC got greedy wanted the gold eggs faster and ripped open the goose to get them faster, which killed the goose. Now they are wondering what to do with this dead goose.

    I just wonder what the Christmas layouts for WOTC are going to look like this year.

  3. When you say "reality" in quotes, you mean in the fiction, right? In the fiction that is the game world and game story?

    To me, part of the appealing play challenge of D&D4 is the roleplaying task of describing the combat actions in play, of rendering them in the fiction. The game gives us a fictional output—something like, push 2 squares and deal 14 damage—and it's our job as narrators and fiction writers to translate that into a vivid action in the fiction.

    This is not so different from what, say, a WARHAMMER 40k does, except a straight-up war game doesn't typically involve the fiction-rendering. Strictly speaking, neither does 4E, which you can effectively play as a skirmish game, but that's a flexibility not a failing, in my opinion.

    That Essentials shifts the martial classes to a focus on basic attacks, rather than powers, because (let's say) basic attacks are easier to visualize... it saddens me a bit. It means that the design niche of a fighter or a rogue is potentially one of repetitious basic attacks. (Not that fifty uses of Dreadful Iron War Fury attacks aren't repetitious, too.) I'm concerned that the effort to find a separate non-power-based niche for these classes means that they'll be demonstrably less awesome than, say, wizards, who can deal damage AND move dudes around AND whip out cool dailies.

    Worse, it means that these classes play differently in the sense that they are easier to visualize because they are repetitive. In other words, "I hit it with my axe" becomes an effective level of detail in the actual roleplaying because, I guess that's all my dwarf fighter is doing, after all.

    I thought the powers presented an interesting roleplaying challenge. Was that challenge too challenging? That's sort of a shame.

  4. Yeah, I went and mucked that up. By "fictional output" of damage and squares moved, I mean the game gives us just an output to render into the fiction. You know what I mean.

  5. @will That's actually a fascinating interpretation, and not one I've seen elsewhere. As if one were to strip the color text from the existing powers and need to re-create it each time you use it. That is, in fact, pretty awesome.

    I'm withholding opinion on the impact on martial classes until I've kicked them around. Intellectually, I definitely see the danger of repetition, but at the same time I see many ways that could potentially be countered. And, heck, worst case scenario, backwards compatibility with the old version is pretty hot.

  6. I'm wondering if the fancy cool powers that fighters and rogues no longer have are essentially housed in magic items that they're likely to pick up. Makes their weird and wonderful stuff external, rather than internal. I think that lines up with how D&D used to play in my AD&D days.

  7. @cam I think, in ideal circumstances, what it does is open up the idea that "low magic" D&D might feel different than the default. And I'm good with that.

  8. The "disconnect" question aside, I think there's actually something quite positive about changing the classes such that different classes really play differently.

    In previous versions of the game there was a palpable difference between the way you played a wizard and the way you played a fighter, and that friction made the game more enjoyable for me. When I selected a character I had to think not just what dude do I want to be, but do I want to play the game more carefully and cerebrally, or crazier sort of balls-out bring-on-the-mooks?

    By eliminating dailies for martial characters I think they're restoring a more interesting sort of difference between the classes.

  9. Eliminating dailies makes the martials distinct, but it does it make them more fun to play? For my money, it makes them distinct at considerable expense. I *liked* having dailies.

    Does different mean better?

  10. Which makes this a great time for me to say, of course, that Essentials' compatibility with established 4E rules is wonderful. Someone who likes the new Fighter builds should be able to play with someone who likes the old Rogue builds without the game flying apart. It's a lovely approach to the problem, I think.

    If the new Fighter builds differentiate the classes enough to satisfy a player who actively seeks that differentiation, then: excellent! Let's play!

  11. @Jim You've help me crystallize something in my head. See, I absolutely agree that I like the classes to _feel_ different in play, and I too hearken back to old editions on this point. But what I've realized is that no one has made the case for why that difference in feel is a good thing without referencing how it used to be.

    I don't think this is malicious - there's so much shared experience with the old model of roles that it's just a shorthand to refer to it - but this is why newer players, those brought into the game by 4e, may respond to these assertions badly. To them, the case being made sounds like "This change should be made because this is how things used to be" and the escapist article and definitely come across that way.

    But, as I said, I think it's just accidental miscommunication. If WOTC were to take a moment to say "Ok, we want this particular feel because it's good in this way, and a good exampel fo it is this older model" then I think they'd get a lot more traction with new players and at the same time head off the respondent who immediately goes "So, you want to go back to the days of the one hit point, one spell wizard?"

  12. @Louis The comparison to comics is a fascinating one because comics have that huge gravity well of marketing. Change a character as much as you want, but eventually they need to go back to looking like they did for the notebooks that get sold at target or the Saturday morning cartoon seen by many more people than will every actually buy a comic.

    I think D&D has a similar gravity, but I don't think it's nearly as profound. It absolutely has room for experimentation, and in terms of pure gaming technology, it's got the brains to try some really brilliant stuff. But I think you're right in that there's not just design to consider - there's business. And as a consumer, there's no reliable way to tell what was a game decision and what was a business decision. What essentials is as a game and what essentials is as a product may or may not be the same thing, and I'm curious to see how that shakes out over time.

    I'm pretty sure they haven't actually killed the goose yet, but the regular colonoscopies are probably not good for its long term health.

  13. As far as I'm concerned, the classes in 4e DO feel different. Each class has its own way to influence the battlefield and WOTC has done an admirable job of allowing an insane level of customization and hybridization without those classes becoming indistinct.

    A different mechanic for how a class works is one way to do it. A different purview using similar mechanics is another way to do it. I can see why it's appealing to have a different mechanic for every power source, but the same mechanic with a different purview, as far as I can tell, is the best avenue to both balance and a feeling of distinctness.

    Without it, you end up with things like a class that's weak in lower levels, but dominates later, or a class that's naturally more colorful than the rest. When people complain about the same mechanic, it's most commonly because their favorite class doesn't make them feel special anymore because it's not superior in a more obvious and specialized way.

    In a weird way, this paints 4e as a naturally subtler game than previous editions. But, more importantly, it highlights a common reason that people have for preferring older editions: they're exploitable. Not in a cheating sort of way, but in a way that if you want something, you can get it. Even if that thing isn't fair or isn't fun for other people. Ultimately, whether they admit it or not, a lot of people couldn't give a rat's ass about balance or consistent design because it means sometimes it takes more work to get what they want.

  14. I really enjoy playing 4th Edition, in a way that 3rd never satisfied me. Essentials has me both excited and worried.

    I finally got to digest Heroes of the Fallen Lands last night; and I like it. HotFL gives new build options and class dynamics, in a similar way to how PH3 Psionics altered the idea of how encounter powers worked with Power Points. The Fighter and the Rogues don't have fewer powers, they just use them differently, all of the Martial powers are like utility powers that key off of using basic attacks.

    One of the rumors was that Essentials was 4th Ed's 3.5, or that it was going to change the basics of the game. Both are untrue. Essentials gives a mode and style of play that has yet to be explored in the previously published classes; but is still Core 4th Edition.

  15. @paul I actually agree that 4e did an excellent job of making the classes feel distinct, but what was noteworthy to me was that it was rarely the _powers_ that did so. Instead it was a function of class features like the marking or extra damage. This was one reason the wizard ended up feeling a little bland to me, and it's a reason some of the most interesting mechanical stuff (to me) has come in the exploration of the roles, such as the different ways different defender classes mark things.

    But for all that, differentiation among _powers_ was less compelling to me(at least until PHB3. which got far more experimental). This was counter-intuitive to me in a big way - the design of the game really suggested that powers were the engine to drive things, an they were well structured, expandable and well designed. But all the exciting stuff was in the less-supportable one-offs.

    That is to say, in large part, i could reskin a lot of early powers and move them form one class to another without feeling like I was breaking anything, especially if I moved them within a role. Over time we started seeing more powers that this couldn't work for, and I'm hoping that what DDE will provide is the kind of distinctiveness and interest I've seen in recent rules applied to some early design decisions (and, to my mind, early design mis-steps)

  16. I found the new rogue quite fun (caveat: at 1st level). At-will movement powers made the difference.

    @Will Putting the flavor of what's happening onto your actions is half the fun, but I find over time my groups do so less and less often. Having a ton of powers to go over and using the same ones repeatedly means everybody gets used to what you can do and it no longer seems novel. If we decide, then describe, we take forever to get around the table, too.

    The descriptive elements do make 4E great for one-shots, though! A bit of loss in the narrative excitement at higher levels certainly is preferable over having the game's math break down like it used to.

  17. I'm probably going to get myself in trouble here, but such is life I guess :)

    I'm one of those people who started playing because of 4th edition. No, it wasn't that 4e happened to be the current edition when I started playing. I made a conscious decision to start playing because of what 4th edition offered. (And while I'm at it, no I will not get off your lawn. The grass feels nice beneath my feet as I dance in the light of the full moon.)

    The game needs to change and evolve as the tastes and backgrounds of those who play change. I know a fair number of people who were tired of the old mechanics. They needed something more and the old rules _couldn't_ give them what they wanted. And there is a whole new generation of players who I'm not sure really want to play a medieval fantasy game similar to the older editions. And their perceptions of what is "realistic" just might be a bit different from those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s.

    Now it's time to add in additional class builds that give some of the flavor of the older editions. Don't want a magic heavy game? Here, use inherent bonuses and boons. Want a fighter that feels more like something from a previous edition? Great, enter a stance and use your melee basic. In a way, they just moved the bonus that used to be part of the standard action "power" to a minor "stance" and adjusted the damage output to make up for the lack of dailies (at least as far as I can tell from red box).

    With these little changes, I can still play the types of characters I love while others can play something that reminds them of home and apple pie. It's all good.

  18. I've been steadily playing 4e since it launched, and I agree that the basic structure is really quite fun. I also tend to agree that a lot of the powers don't provide enough flavor to a specific power source.

    The challenge I want to do is a blind taste test. Remove all of the power sources, power names, and flavor text from a series of powers, and then see if someone can identify which class or which power source they come from. In many cases, I think the answer is no, which is a pity.

    I suppose I could go back to Champions for this -- all power sources there were really special effects -- but yeah, I want classes and power sources to feel distinct.

    If I have a serious pet peeve about Essentials, it would be that to create it, they've had to generate a lot of errata that the game didn't need. Magic Missile is the obvious example -- if you are forced to rewrite an at-will power and multiple magic items, maybe you are doing something wrong. The slayer, knight and thief builds required changes to magic items and feeds that affected melee basic attacks.

    Essentially, I disagree with the premise that new books should have to break or revise tons of old material just to 'work'.

    My serious complaint with 4e, and it may grow enough to make me retire my campaign and run something else, is the combination of gigantic errata files and the character builder not being flexible enough to handle house rules. CB means that errata is rarely optional without a lot of manual fudging. Sure, I could build characters without CB, but why would I want to.

    I've rapidly reached the point where the player's handbook and monster manual are dead weight. Every page of the PHB has errata, and most monsters above 4th level in the MM don't do enough damage. I've said this, but I wish that WOTC had been willing to bite the bullet and call Essentials 4.5. Release revised core rulebooks, not a separate and parallel line of books. That might have let them fix all of the original classes that were not as well thought out, and that only really came into their own once their Power book came out (Paladins being one, but not the only example).

  19. I was all set to post, but I think Will said everything that I was gonna say. :)

    I will add that the description of fights is one of the things I truly love about RPGs -- it hits the same parts of my brain I used to choreograph/perform stage combat in college -- so I'm usually either running high-action games or playing the fighter-type. This may be why I have never really bought into the "dissociated" or "disconnected" mechanics complaint. (And honestly, putting in time on heavily abstracted games such as SotC or DitV helps a lot, as well. Mearls touches on that a bit in the full version of the interview.)

    Also, while I am not terribly intrigued by the Essential stuff for martial classes thus far, when considering the PHB1, Martial Powers 1 & 2, and the numerous Dragon mag articles, it's tough to argue that there's ever been an edition of D&D that's supported martial types as well as 4e.

  20. ...there are only so many ways to describe HIT BAD GUY WITH SWORD with the kind of simplicity that goes into other powers.

    Don't take this as an insult, Rob, but to me this idea above is a failure of imagination. Not in the sense that everyone should be a swordplay enthusiast and be able to describe lovingly-detailed strikes and parries and so forth.

    But in the sense that if everyone IS like a spellcaster, then why aren't we treating what their powers do the same way? Just a sword strike? Why?

    My friend Keith Davies is working on a D&D variant called Echelon that combines some features of 3E and 4E. Particularly, he's interested in how the mundane classes don't scale-up in terms of the "wow fantasy" factor.

    One of the examples he mentions is being higher-levels and having a high-level Riding skill: why shouldn't that let you, say, ride across water, or make your horse fly, or cross planes?

    Point is, I think this same kind of thinking can be applied to the problem you mention above. Why should a hit with a sword just be "a hit with a sword"?

    We've all seen 80's cartoons...80's it up! (Or would anime be a better fit for this generation?) Your sword strike is accompanied by a clap of thunder, or blasts out lightning, or you spin through the air like a corkscrew, or stun them with a dazzling display of sword moves...etc.

    And I'm sure others could come up with better because I just haven't thought about it much (that's just a minute or two's thinking above). But can't do much with just a sword strike? I don't know that's necessarily true.

  21. @raven No offense taken - it's a tricky point, but I'll stick by it for reasons which I think you actually prove. The thing is not that it's _impossible_ to find a way to make martial stuff as flexible as "Whatever special effects you can think of" in a given situation, but that it's harder. Your example of "super-normality" is a good one, and I was thinking that someone with a strong grasp of fencing/fighting terminology and an appreciation of subtle changes could achieve a similar effect for them. So while it's possible to find a way to do it, it takes more steps than the open ended alternative.

    (This becomes especially true in the context of 4e when the effects might not make sense with the weapon being used - ranged attacks for melee characters are the most obvious example, but the fact that a power works the same for a dagger or a polearm tends to suggest a disconnect).

    With that in mind, it sounds liek the essential model is just one more approach to solve the problem - less flash, more consistency. Some people will like that (probably including me), some people will prefer to keep the previous model, and the system will support that two. And, hell, if I reskinned the class so it was all scary telekinetics, that could work too. That's a good thing.

    But what's worth noting is that those limitation are, as they so often seem to be, more inspirational than anything else. In hittign friction and finding a way around it we end up with multiple fighter versions, Ideas like your supernormality and so on. That's a good thing.

    As a community, we have a very hard time acknowledging that one thing is harder than another, especially when there's an element of imagination to it, because we're fearful that that will be perceived as a lack in our imagination rather than a difficulty with the situation (That we will then accept anecdote as fact - *I've* had no problem, says the random rpg.netter - makes matters all the worse.).

    The thing it, even if it's true, it's a bad response, and definitely NOT the response you want in design, because anything that can be ascribed to a failure of imagination can be equally easily assigned to any number of other failures, most notably clarity of writing and design. Better to acknowledge friction and help people build the tools so that it never becomes an issue.


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