Monday, August 22, 2011

4 on 1

I had the unexpected pleasure of playing in a first edition AD&D game this past weekend. It was a long-standing game that my brother in law participates in, and they had an opening. This was pretty much the classic AD&D game in just about every way imaginable. They’d looked at other editions, played a little third, but stuck to first as adjusted by elements from dragon magazine and a few house rules. They were sufficiently committed to this that they had their own modified PHB, which was basically a scanned PHB with all the classes, spells and such inserted into it, and several players had printed and bound copies of it (I used the PDF – iPad FTW).

The DM did a clever thing where I was effectively a ghost helping the party out because my body was deeper in the dungeon, allowing me to establish rapport with the party before actually joining, so it’s a bit less of a “You meet a guy on the road” sort of situation. Unfortunately, the pacing of things was such that despite the very long session. We did not actually reach my body, so while I had fun, it was mostly observing and making wry comments (which I enjoy). But it also really created an opportunity to think about the game and contrast it with my 4e experience in a way that has only really been hypothetical for me until now. It’s been long enough since I really played 1e that I was doing a lot off old memories.

It was pretty interesting, because it really highlighted to me a lot of the things 4e (and, to be fair, 3e) did right, but it also cast into relief the bits that were missing that were very clearly part of the groups enjoyment of the game.

First and foremost, man, 4e makes the actual moving around and fighting better. There are several reasons for this, but the one I really want to call out is clarity. There were a lot of situations where figuring out what someone could do was sufficiently involved as to really bog things down, especially with regard to movement. This was particularly highlighted by one of the more RP-oriented players very clearly getting frustrated by her inability to engage in the fight the way the more twinked out guys were. (The fact that this was addressed with Manly Explanation likely did not help).

4e also really keeps fights more dynamic. Things took a kind of dull turn when the Big Climactic enemy cleric got silenced and cornered. It was a reminder about some of the insta-win elements of magic, but more, it made me think what a shame that there was no real push/pull/slide to keep things moving.

Where things were more telling was on the borders of the fight. Planning for an encounter and using spells and trickery to overcome a fight were really big focuses. The group made heavy use of Haste & Invisibility to make the fights into these terrifying blitzkriegs that were twice as much time spent prepping as fighting. Not necessarily as satisfying as fights, but definitely scratching a problem-solving itch. The ability to make a fight unfair through clever planning is very rewarding and not particularly supported in 4e.

There was also a lot of use of out-of combat magic, things like animating enemy corpses or using the item spell. This was most interesting to me because it was clear that some of it (healing, identifying stuff) was pretty much just exercises in bookkeeping, but other stuff (like item or enemy zombies) was cool stuff that the players felt it was cool that they were able to do.

There was really no more or less roleplaying than there would have been in 4e. The scenario only gave itself to that so much (Old temple, overrrun by Yuan-Ti) but the system really didn't speak to that. Outside of the fight, the amount of RP really came down to the player's interest in it.

There were also small things. The use of the vs. Armor Type table made weapons selection a little more interesting, though I'm not sure it's addition is worth the tradeoff of complexity. Chargen was also interesting: creating a level 10 1e character using only paper? SO MUCH EASIER than 4e.

Now, this comparison has all been useful to me so far, and offers interesting insights into the two games for me. I think it partly underscored why encounter powers are a cognitive problem for some players while daily's aren't. 1e is FULL of once per day kind of abilities, so that's part of the logic, but narrative time is a different method of thinking. On some level, I think that if encounter powers were framed slightly differently - perhaps in terms of needing a few minutes rest to recharge - they'd probably have more traction.

But what was also telling was that there were definitely two big elements that clearly were part of the fun for at least some of the players, but which are not necessarily things I'm inclined to support.

The first was related to system mastery. There was a very clear range of powers within the group, even though everyone was at similar levels. Some characters just had better powers, better gear and (not coincidentally) a better understanding of the rules that allowed them to exploit that (and yes, this included a guy with psionics). Worse, there was clearly some self-perpetuation of this. It was pretty clear in the dynamic that the most badass guys had first dibs on loot because making them more badass was "good for the party". I don't blame the guys for this - there's a solid tactical argument for it - but that's not the kind of arrangement I'd want to encourage.

A corollary of this was that it had clear balance issues. The big fight included enemies who were clearly tuned to be a threat to the party as a whole, which meant that they were keyed off the most powerful members of the party. Upshot being those powerful guys got their awesome on, and everyone else got to kind of play a supporting role. I admit I was watching that fight and I am not sure that my character would have been able to contribute at all, had I been corporeal.

For players who thrive on this element of the game, 4e must feel like castration - system mastery (and magical gear) can only pull you so far ahead of your peers. I can completely understand why that would be frustrating, but that's definitely not my bag. I'll play along - I'll have to to be effective - but it's a necessity more than something I'd enjoy. It also reminds me of the statement made early in 4e that it's less about the choices you make in chargen than it is about the choices you make in a fight. Looking at that now, that statement really holds up.

Anyway, the second element is a little more mixed, that of preparation. Now, I actually like the idea of prepping for a fight, arranging to bushwhack guys and generally benefitting from my own cleverness, but I think there's a balancing act. While there were a few bits of trickery and strategy, there was a lot more brute force application of "I Win" spells like Haste & Silence (to say nothing of the illusions) which feels a little bit less rewarding, but at the same time is utterly necessary because the DM needs to prepare for the possibility. There's sort of a vicious circle/arms race element to it. I actually remember this being an issue in 3e as well, but it's really noticeable how profound it is in this case.

But at the same time, this is perhaps the most interesting question to take back to 4e. Is there a way to support prep that's rewarding but not so overwhelming?

I think the answer is a clear yes, esp since I can think of two different ways to do it. But that's probably fodder for another day.


  1. One thing that I do really miss from earlier editions of D&D is the pre-fight preparation. I do not, however, miss how much such preparations could dominate an encounter. I look forward to seeing your take on how to support pre-fight prep in 4e, Rob.

  2. One really simple way to reward pre-fight prep is to award a surprise round. A small skill challenge or expending of resources could give the PCs that small edge of surprise. Actually, I think a surprise round is more of an edge than we often give it credit for. On top of that (or in addition to it) you could also let the PCs see the battlefield before the fight starts, and let them place themselves wherever they want.

  3. One great thing you could do is give out an encounter power to the player who does some great planning - a once per encounter perma-mark (-2 to hit), granting one player increased defenses during the battle, a modifier to a damage roll, etc. Additionally, you could also modify the stats of your monsters based on the pre-fight planning. If your plan is going to take them by surprise, reduce each of their defenses by one. These things don't have to be done beforehand either. It would be relatively easy to mod these on the fly.

  4. When I still lived in the Bay Area (*sniffle*), I was in a long running D&D game that was sort of AD&D 1.5. It included tons of the late supplements and a few 2nd ed rules thrown in for ease of game play.

    Your observations are largely dead on. Fight prep COULD make encounters really easy. Unless the enemy likewise prepped or had the proper resistances. Magic resistance was nightmare to deal with as a Magic User for instance (I still contend that in practice, a properly equipped 15th level fighter would own a properly equipped 15th level magic user, even if the MU can kill lots more low level characters faster. But I digress). Haste was the killer app, though we DID play with the aging rules. Happily, most of the PCs were long lived (Amusingly, my character made friends with some Slaad, upon whom he had caste Haste to help them with some battle they were fighting for the fate of Limbo. From that day forward, Slaad would occasionally pop in to ask for a buff. And my "ask for" I mean "demand").

    We TRY to do such prep in our 4e game, but no one knows much about anything, and nothing lasts more than a round, so it seldom works. I can't even figure out whether my character should be fighting minions, or actual monsters, or what heuristic I should use to tell me.

    One of the things I initially liked about 4e was the seemingly wacky variance in the sorts of powers different classes could throw around. I liked it because it was one of the aspects of 1e I particularly enjoyed. Unfortunately, further play, to me at least, revealed that a lot of these wacky aspects are just fiddly bits with different skins.

  5. One of the things that always annoyed me about AD&D was that not every effect one encountered in an adventure could be replicated "by the rules" by the PCs.

    I was happy that this went away in 2e and was completely gone in 3e. So the fact that someone who serves the same role in 4e as a PC, but is an NPC, has a completely different character sheet bugs the living heck out of me.

  6. Great post, Rob.

    I think, for a lot of D&D players, getting into a "fight" was a sure sign that they had screwed up. All of that stuff that you're calling "pre-encounter prep" is what another group might have called the whole point of play. After all, you didn't get XP for winning encounters, you got it for looting the dungeon. 1e D&D (in some incarnations) was definitely not a combat game.

    (I realize you know this, I'm just feeling chatty, I guess :)

    Anyway, I agree that there are fun ways to add preparation and dirty tricks into 4e play. I look forward to your follow up post.

  7. I don't miss the "buffing" angle of preparation. Adding bonuses to hit, damage, etc. was just very low on flavor, high on time consumption, and bad for balance. I do miss the preparatory spells that would provide tactical changes. Spells like Mass Fly, invis, veil... those added dynamic aspects to many otherwise dry encounters. In some ways 4E has made up for it - you get flashier powers and leaders have built-in instant buffing, but I miss the tactical changes that lasted as long as Mass Fly.

  8. Your comment about Fight Prep rings true. I have played with many gamers over the years in multiple systems where this has clearly been one of their favourite aspects of the game. It's not been something that I've been particularly fond of, so it has meant waiting for them to get ready while I make a cup of tea. No big deal in the end, it's just a different playing style.

    I think where the difference between AD&D and 4E come into play is that the same Fight Prep is not as straightforward in 4E and that has frustrated a lot of members of our gaming group.

    The thing that I do miss is the ability to use non-combat oriented spells in a fight. We have always had players in our game that would do strange things with Spider Climb, Web, Grease, etc in a combat. That kind of freedom to think outside of the box is not completely gone in 4E, it's just not as apparent or easy to pull off I feel.


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