More musings on 4e and my apparent software/hardware mismatch.


I usually don’t read gaming blogs (present company excluded), but a friend on LiveJournal (badlydrawnjeff) linked to a post this morning about 4e combat, I thought it articulated the reasons 4e probably did not click for me the one time I played it, and I thought I could boil that post down into a simple mathematical formula:

A) Powers: “we’re playing a card game now” +

B) Positioning minis: “we’re playing chess now” +

C) Too Many Choices: choices for movement, choices for hitting, choices for encounter/daily/etc powers… it leads to boardgame over-thinking and stagnation =

D) Combat is just too damned long.


But seriously, 4e is all about choices and options– lots of widgets and add-ons to really soup up your character for their tactical role in combat. And choices are great… but too many is just overwhelming, and at the end of the day does it really add that much to the gaming experience? If the playing field were leveled and everyone were playing by simplified rules, would you miss the complexity?

It seems to me there *has* to be a balance between the 1e/2e “move and roll to hit and roll damage” paradigm (where spellcasters with their multitudinous options and rules slow down gameplay, and really end up overwhelming high-level play) and the 3e/4e one where *every character* has multitudinous options which bog everything down (and, if this guy’s post is correct, really overwhelm game-play in the epic and paragon high-level tiers of play… they’re rebooting their campaign at 3rd level just to make it manageable again.)

Anyways, I wholeheartedly endorse this guy’s decision to “go off the grid” (I can’t wait to have time to read those rules this weekend), dump minis combat, and to attempt to simplify and streamline their 4e sessions. I’ll have to remember to try and read his follow-up posts. I wish him luck, but I really wonder if it’ll work… it seems like minis are so tightly interwoven into the core of the D&D rules now, that half to two-thirds of what a character does won’t mean much without them…

Let’s step back from the micro- and look once more at the macro-:

So, 4e Dungeons & Dragons: is it just a case that I don’t ‘get it’ at all? That this guy and his gaming group ‘get’ some of it, but don’t ‘get it’ well enough to run with the big boys in the rarified air of high level PCs?

I’ve made noises about wanting to try 4e again. A lot people I respect really, really enjoy it, and if I am to ever sit at a gaming table with some of them again, I had better make an effort to get onboard. And I probably will give it ye olde college try again sometime.

But I am also willing to accept that maybe my grade school and college simulationist power gamer is dead, and I’m now a narrativist indie hippie… that 4e just isn’t my cup of tea, never will be, and this is the fork in the road where I finally diverge from the bulk of the gaming population. Granted, it’s been what? A decade since the advent of The Forge and Indie Press Revolution? Given that most in my demographic cohort had this epiphany years ago, I guess it is just a case of arrested development! 😉

Oh, and: my love of BattleTech is just an aberrant outlier; don’t let it sully the data set and disprove the hypothesis. 😉

Don’t get me wrong: there are things I do appreciate about 4e. I really like that 4e attempts to give fighters (do they even use that term anymore?) a chance to do things besides swing to hit and roll damage; lather, rinse, repeat. There was a reason I almost always played magic-users in AD&D… the other classes were fairly boring and monotonous when combat came knocking. Now, in 4e, you have tactics that are mechanically reinforced by the rules, and everyone can do different things during a session besides vanilla move, roll to hit, roll damage.

I just don’t know if the sacrifice of spending 2-3 hours to resolve a single combat encounter is worth that reward though.

Another positive thing I’ll say about 4e: I do like everything I’ve been hearing about these Skill Challenges that seem to be all the buzz lately. But it strikes me there’s nothing inherently 4e-centric about those… it is simply a framing device for the mechanics, and if those mechanics were not WotC’s d20s but were instead West End’s d6s or White Wolf’s d10s, it wouldn’t matter. Am I right? You see, I haven’t actually read any 4e rulebooks, so I’m just assuming Skill Challenges are just a series of thematically-linked scenes involving various skill rolls to achieve a single strategic goal…

Oh well, my lunch hour is nearly over, so it is time to get off the soapbox. 😉


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11 Responses to “More musings on 4e and my apparent software/hardware mismatch.”

  1. Christopher Tatro Says:

    I disagree with a LOT in that post Jeff linked to, and thus in your underlying fundamentals here. 2 hours for a “minor encounter” is stupid long. If it were something big or complex, an hour or two is not out of the question. If the players were not focusing on the game but were instead surfing the web and making dinner or otherwise not paying attention and had to start from a cold-boot every time it came around to their turn, maybe a minor thing might take that long but is that the fault of the game.

    This past week it took us 2 hours to do a pretty seriously involved encounter in Bryant’s game but that was long, had some environmental factors slowing things down (we were in a zone of darkness, -5 to hit on every attack) and we were online instead of in person which adds some time. Other weeks we’ve been able to get through 3 encounters in that time.

    As for the number of choices causing paralysis, I haven’t played at high Paragon (15+) or Epic (20-30) lvl yet, but at lvl 12 I have about 15 powers (cards) to choose from, plus 3 magic items. A handful of those 15 are very situational. All but 2 or 3 of them once I use them, they’re gone for the encounter so as time goes on my choices are fewer. At higher levels you generally replace, not add, powers so you’re never going to have a whole deck as the post you link to suggests. I’ve read my power descriptions before so I know what they do. My first couple of times playing, sure I had to stop and read over my cards. That happens with every new game system.

    Making characters, yeah, the options are bloated and getting worse with every new release. That’s why the online Character Builder is, I feel, a necessity. Ali cranked out a lvl 25 Sorcerer the other night in half an hour to 45 or so minutes. Can’t imagine how long it would take with just the books. Familiarity helps here as well.

    If the trade-off is interesting tactical options that take a little longer vs “I swing my sword at it, roll for damage, next” I’ll take the longer combat any time. But that author is dropping hyperbole all over the place. Was there really not this problem in 2e? Really? Or is that selective nostalgia memory syndrome? Did you never have to sit around while the Magic-User or Cleric looked over his/her list to decide what to cast?

    tl;dr (I know how much you love that): you’re relying on one experience of play and an extremely biased and flawed source here. Maybe narrativist indie games are more your thing, sure, no prob there, but 4e is not the gamist/simulationist nightmare suggested here either.

    Oh and for balance, here’s a thread from this week about how long combats take:

    • johnobrien21 Says:

      Oh, totes (back at ya!): I freely admitted that 2e bogged down because of spellcasters… and that’s what made me tend to think this guy knew what he was talking about. I could easily extrapolate from the experience of being overwhelmed in my one 4e session, that if *everyone* has high level characters, things will really bog down, esp. at high level play. Yeah, familiarity helps speed things up… not just familiarity with the rules, but familiarity with one’s character. If you play a legit campaign, and slowly build a character from 1st level, the power curve is a lot more organic and comfortable.

      Plus, I’m not *entirely* down on rules bloat widgets and character customization… one of things I’m really digging in a Mage game I’m playing in is how I’m going to spend my XP…
      tons of options can be fun for a player. It is just hell for a GM. Which is why I know even if 4e ends up clicking for me, I can safely say I’ll never be a DM! I can barely keep HHMoA going, and that’s practically zero prep! 😉

      So, like I said, I’d be willing to try 4e out again. But I started to drift away from D&D during 3e anyways, so maybe this is just the end of a very long goodbye. 😉

      • Bryant Says:

        I can’t emphasize enough how important it was for me as a DM to realize that I didn’t have to worry about what powers the PCs had. The players will know; that’s all that matters. “I can do X, Y, and Z.” Cool!

    • johnobrien21 Says:

      There was one house rule I loved in that thread you linked to:

      “1 rule I found helped speed things up a bit:

      +1 for being fast.

      There’s no point spending 2 minutes thinking about getting a +1, when you get a +1 for having your action ready when your turn comes up.”


  2. Bryant Says:

    4e isn’t the one true game. Some notes in no particular order…

    You are correct on skill challenges. You could transplant them to any game with ease. The biggest problem with skill challenges is the name, which makes people think they’re supposed to be tough. Here’s what the name really means: “I challenge you, the player, to show me your cool roleplaying chops!” Skill challenges are a framework to tell a story and show off.

    I have already expressed my opinion about how the minis help me roleplay — namely, I can do tactically stupid moves in order to express my PC’s personality, and because that has a consequence, the stupidity means more. It’s awesome. But that’s me.

    I play with that Ryven dude who’s in the comment thread over there and I agree with pretty much all of what he says. Especially the bit about players who’re obsessed with playing out all the details.

    “In our previous session the Wizard took 15 minutes to resolve his turn in which he made two area attacks, plus teleportations.”

    OK, that is just slow play. I have a paragon level sorcerer who often explodes in one turn with an action point; his really time-consuming sequence looks like this:

    * Shift 2 squares (minor action, magic item) to get into position
    * Take a move action to get into position some more
    * Spark Form — shift 9 squares, attack people on the way with separate damage rolls for each attack. Generally around four attacks, so eight die rolls
    * Thunder Leap — an area blast 1, followed by another area blast 1, with movement in-between and separate damage rolls for each blast, using different numbers. Also I can push opponents I hit with the second blast
    * Check off the AP and add the 5 temp hit points I got for using the AP

    So that’s generally going to be 10 attack rolls and 6 damage rolls plus a lot of movement and shoving people around and decisions along the way if I kill something sooner than I expected. When I think I might be going to do this, I prep it all in advance — get my dice ready, work out my optimal path, and so on. Takes about five minutes. More than I want, but not fifteen!

    Key things:

    * Know what you’re gonna do
    * Roll damage first for area attacks, so the DM can check it off quickly
    * Have a DM who’s got a set up that allows her to check off damage quickly
    * Have a DM who doesn’t express disbelief that you just attacked 10 creatures at around 1d6 + 20 damage per attack
    * Do all the checking off of powers used after your turn ends, you’ll remember what you did

    And OK, there’s a lot there, but lemme tell you about the other side of the spectrum:

    * Cast Dragonfrost, roll damage and attack at the same time, tell the DM what happened
    * Shift 1 square for arcane technical reasons having to do with an awesome magic item
    * Done

    Under a minute.

    • johnobrien21 Says:

      Yeah, I know 4e is not the one true, and it may not be my kind of fun… but like I’ve said, so many people I respect and hope to play with again (points at you like the Angry Monkey from ‘Family Guy’) dig it, so if I want to ostensibly remain in the Ephemeral Circus (growing more ephemeral every year!) I better man up. 😉

      I really just need time and exposure in order to warm up to the tactical minis aspect of it I think. All these shift 9, blast 1… allow me to channel Dana Carvey’s grumpy old man character: Back in my day with AD&D, I’d just guesstimate the areas of effect for the magic-user’s fireballs and who’d they would affect w/o relying on counting squares on the map… and that’s the way we liked it! And hell, everyone always resented the magic-user… what with all their spells, slowing things down and shit. 😉

      All that being said, I tried to read the PHB this weekend, and that was… overwhelming. Chris already chewed me out over email, saying that “nobody should sit down and try to read every class power and every feat cover to cover… that way lies madness! Just familiarize yourself with the early levels, and then focus in on what class you’re going to play.”

      But sadly, I’m not a ‘kick the can down the road’ kind of guy… I need to see how all the widgets interlock and work together… I’m a closeted game designer for a reason. It’s my personality to get under the hood and ask “what’s this thing do?” Well, at least with games I do that… I’m more than happy to remain blissfully ignorant when it comes to how cars, computers, and other electronics work! 😉

      So anyways, long story shorter: I acquired a copy of ‘D&D 4e For Dummies’ yesterday… I figure I’ve certainly earned the monicker, so hopefully it’ll help make it click better.

      • Bryant Says:

        Oh, well. I officially give you permission to play D&D gridless. Bursts are 360 degree explosions, blasts are directed cones, and shifting is just moving without drawing an attack from the guy you ran past. I’ve read a fair number of play reports from people who play like that; I think it’d flow well enough.

        Also, Chris is right. Memorizing every power doesn’t tell you how the widgets work together, because any given game only has a limited subset of those widgets. The only way to fully evaluate a power is to see it in action. Once you’ve seen enough powers in action, you get to be able to make good guesses about how other powers work, but it takes a little while.

        The really huge paradigm shift is this: powers aren’t part of the rules. They’re just things you can do within the rules. The rules for playing 4e are like 32 pages max.

        • johnobrien21 Says:

          Oh, there’s no memorization going on… its not the Talmud! 😉

          I was just reading the PHB and trying to wrap my head around it, and envision using these various bits and bobs in a game.

          I’m hoping 4e for Dummies will help illuminate the rules then, because going thru what I waded thru this weekend (races, classes) and skimmed thru with ever increasing rapidity (powers and feats) I don’t feel like I had any real grasp on the actual rules… maybe once i get to the combat section?

          I’m realizing now, I should have also looked for the section on skills and skill challenges, since that’s the bit I’m kind of intrigued by. I did notice they really pared down the skill list and the way they do proficiency, so that I approve of.

          • Bryant Says:

            Oh, that’ll work pretty well for you, then! I hear what you’re saying.

            And yeah, the bulk of the rules are in the combat and skills sections. Don’t get too wrapped up in the skill challenge rules, because the WotC guys didn’t manage to write down what they wanted.

            Here’s how skill challenges really work:

            PCs want to do X, and I want to make a thing of it. I use the difficulty numbers from the book, and I figure the complexity I want this to be and use those numbers. Then I ask the PCs to make skill rolls to back up whatever they roleplay until they hit enough successes or too many failures, and I narrate accordingly.

      • Christopher Tatro Says:

        Man, I’m sorry if that came across as chewing you out. Completely not my intention.

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