March 10, 2009

4E D&D Is A Work In Progress

4E was new, it was exciting and it introduced new concepts to the game that was suppose to get old and new players jittery from all the excitement that should be able to fulfill our gaming needs for the next 5 to 6 years or so.

But one thing that stuck out to some people who read the PHB was that the book felt incomplete. There were some missing places somewhere along the ends. What was once there was not and even the newer things that were suppose to replace it felt like they belonged to a larger scheme of things.

I'm sure there were people who complained that there weren't any gnomes, or bards or barbarians or monks or certain class features like summoning, necromancy (and the other schools of magic by extension), animal companions, domains and all the other things that were all packed into one book back in the PHB for 3.x when 4E just started.

At the same time, looking at the DMG we are introduced to skill challenges; a concept which should be relatively new in terms of game terminology but not really that new in terms of idea and application. Then the math starts showing its wonky side just after one month the game was in, same goes for the Stealth skill.

There appears to be so many loopholes in the 4E game system and maths, it wasn't perfected yet as some had hoped.

Then 6 months down the road, Wizards start proclaiming new books and articles that would have summoning rules, necromancy themed spells (powers), animals companions, domains, gnomes, bards and barbarians and monks in the near future (temporarily leaving psionics out of the picture at the moment). We even got an errata on the DCs of skill chanllenges and the poorly abused and unclear Stealth skill.

It's probably one fact that despite the years of design and development when the rumors of 4E started surfacing, there probably wasn't enough time to really get use to the whole idea that was so radically 'progressive' from the earlier editions. It was easier to see the transistion from AD&D to 3.x than it is to see from 3.x to 4E.

Then again, seeing how the new books/articles are neatly organized in a release schedule there's something else that seems to be going at the back of my head. Perhaps the designers or marketing team or whoever made the call wanted to deliberately sell a game that had all the holes in them. That it is all part of a plan, a strategy that will 'benefit' both sides of the designer and gamer equation.

Here's how I see it.

4E is a very new concept, you have to admit (so new that Kurt Wiegel hates it). The way it works has been dramatically different from its predessecor, call it 'streamlined', 'cleaner', 'action-packed' or whatever.

Although the designers have been working very hard to find how to make these new ways work as a game and the developers have wrecked their brain over the maths to create a whole new game for a new edition, they weren't too sure how they could fit everything from before into this model and on time. So they decided that it would be best to release the main engine of the game and figure the rest of the working parts at a later period by extending their own deadline.

For a start, they give you the basics; power sources, roles, builds, powers, skills, paragon paths, epic destinies, encounter design, monsters, magic items, equipments & implements, saving throws and all that new mechanics to run the game on a minimal basis. Then to add on to that, they just introduce some of the same old races and classes in the new model and a couple other new shiny ones to keep us distracted.

While we are still ogling at the new gameplay for the next few months, the designers busily try to keep up with the beast that they have just unleashed. At the same time, they will have a better test bed than to rely on the NDA playtesters that fill a page at the back of the PHB. The playtest documents make this very imminent that there are still many things in the works and having gamers paying to have a privilege to test them as an Insider is a much better idea than to pay a lawyer to keep their mouths shut. Afterall, the designers' job is to make things to keep the fans happy.

The we have started a vicious cycle. The designers quickly finish working on the things that were 'suppose' to be in the 'core' books, they are released in a separate package that makes them compulsively necessary. When it gets into the hands of the players, they start adding these 'improvements' to their game which restarts the designers' deadline for the next set of things that needs to be fitted back in.

At the same time, they also figure out what works and what didn't work with 4E (skill challenges, rituals, low attack to defense ratio) through the feedback by the means of different channels (forums, blogs, Insider accounts) and try to find a fix because they know full well that down the line, they could just slot it somewhere between PHB X, DMG VII or MM XXV while we gamers rejoice as fanboys because of the new options that will be appearing in Martial Power (lost count). It doesn't only apply to fixes but to additions too. Based on our feedback, they would also find out what we liked that they haven't thought of before and start working on that as well. A splat over splat over splat that spells power creep.

We see things making a comeback, revamped or clarified that plays on our needs of having a 'balanced, fun, and more awesome than yours' rules system that cannot run on its own without one part or the other. Gamers will cry 'Why aren't there rules for playing as a psionic half dragon/half fiend/half celestial/vampire (yeah, go figure that out) Beholder?'. The answer that Wizards will give you is 'We are not there yet but wait till we get there. In the meantime check out, MM 6-9, DMG 3,6 and 8 and PHB 7'.

Alright to be fair, I predict that we'll probably won't see past PHB 7 because by then they would have a class for every role for every power source (it's going to happe sooner or later) but there's no telling how many splats will be made to expand the options for each power source or if Wizards even adds new power sources.

It's a model that works, you see. Designers have extra breathing space to find their feet in the water, players are rewarded with new stuff regularly and have lots to rant about and hope for a change and Wizards/Hasbro makes money on a high-rate turnover as new books are slushed out every month instead of just relying on a set of 3 books to run the game, ca-ching!

But what do we get along the way? Inconsistent and non-lasting rules all the way as designers are 'improving' our game and the marketing team tells you that the next book to going to provide a fix. Look at the Wizard, even Mike Mearls said that it was sort of a miss as they were still trying to figure out the controller. Powers will eventually go through a planned obsolescence. This is why 4E D&D feels very much like a work in progress and we are in the middle of the ultimate paid playtest.

To use a MMORPG analogy (yeah, I know I shouldn't go there), the game is indefinately in beta and we are buying the patches as the game moves along.

I really had no problem and even agreed to some of the sacrifices they made in 4E but If there's one sacred cow that I'm sad that it's gone is that 4E no longer relies on a 3-corebook model anymore. The churning rate of new books and new 'options' is at a rate that is confusing and daunting.

I'll be honest to say that I hate the way things are working now as it makes me feel like a fool keeping track of the latest releases when almost every one of them doesn't really add anything 'new' to the table but what should have been there all along. 4E is more about filling in the gaps than building on the foundation of a solid game system.

I could still play any concept I want with the 3.x books that I have without the (very tempting) supplements/articles but in 4E, I have to eagerly await for Wizards to do the class/build that I want to play as. All the rules I need to run the game in 3.x were in those 3 books but in 4E, we have rules distributed all over the place. Can you say rules bloat faster than Damage Reduction was stupid?

That's what I'm saying. In 3.x, we have 'supplements'. In 4E, everything is 'core' (campaign settings not withstanding)!

If only Wizards had released a seperate book that contained all the rules minus the classes, feats etc then players could just go buy the PHB 2 or PHB 4 after that if they were not interested in the classes in PHB 3 but as things turned out, the PHB 1 will also be the first thing purchased by a player (whether for convenient or corporate reasons).

I'm not blaming the designers, I'm not saying that gamers are stupid but I'm saying that is some kind of system going on and I hope that I'm damn wrong or no one seems to be aware of it.

Am I going to live with it? I guess I can't argue with hundreds of fans out there who are probably waiting to vorpal my head if they ever find me but it's a model that neither my willingess nor my wallet can live with, only my fandom. That said, I probably still buy PHB 2 but I'm going to have to make space for the next 2 to 3 more PHBs down the road. As a DM, it only gets worse.

If you can live with the idea that good things come to those who wait and can overlook several glaring mishaps in the mechanics (that is not proven to work without a hitch) and say that we don't live in a perfect world, I have no further arguments with you.

I'm hoping I can't say the same for Pathfinder.

Flame away (or leave a nice comment).


Donny said...

One slight disagreement, The "3 core" premise Is still accurate.

Think about it. You "need" a DMG.

You "need" a MM (any one will do).

You "need" a PHB...and look! Any one will do :)

The system is so modular and compartmentalized, I see any book standing on it's own.

Even martial and Arcane power...nifty, but unneccesary.

OF course, we are gamers...we WANT to buy them all :)

Precocious Apprentice said...

I fully agree with everything you say except that more is needed. The houserule-ability of the core 3 is amazing. It is easy. I need nothing further, and I will likely not purchase anything further. 4e works for me as is.

Wyatt said...

I agree with Precocious. I will keep my Eden Setting "1st Core Only" and continue to write materials for the first 8 classes and for the first books. I don't want to have people buying more products to be able to use the material on my website, when I KNOW that the first materials are flexible enough to do almost anything.

Keith said...

I guess I'd rather have the option to play with three complete core books. Errata is a different issue from missing material.

A publishing strategy that leaves out core elements for inclusion in later volumes is just a strategy to get me to spend more on the core. I'm not sure yet whether that works for me (I'll have to see how much PHB2 interests me and my playgroup.)

Questing GM said...

Hey Donny,

I agree with the compartmentalizing of the rules for each book to stand on their own but if a new player needs to know about the basic rules, he still needs to buy PHB I. The DMG and the MM however are not really subjected to this (yet) but we'll have to see the content that will be in those books.

Yes, I'm a compulsive collector too.

Hey Precocious Apprentice, welcome to the blog and thanks for commenting.

I'm not so sure about flexibility of the 3 core rules of 4E. Although reskinning is now ever more popular than earlier editions but how can you say that you are playing as a barbarian (as a distinctive class) without PHB 2 or Martial Power?

In 3.x, it was easy to say that you are playing as a swashbuckler or ninja by mixing a delicate amounts of fighter and rogue levels. In 4E, the powers in the PHB 1 is not meant for any concept that is not somehow related with the builds available.

Hey Wyatt,

I don't know if I'll be able to do that. One of the first questions that a new player asked me about 4E was 'Can I play a necromancer?' and it just stumped me.

Again, I'm not so certain about the flexibility of these rules. There are too rigid than 3.x.

Hey, Keith. Welcome to the blog.

While I can't really criticize Wizards for adopting this strategy of publishing books because it is very enticing and makes good business sense but it's the fact that I'm buying an incomplete game is what bothers me.

Sure, in 3.x we were bombarded with interesting and fun supplements but it didn't stop me from a running a game by only using just 3 books. The game was already complete as it is and the rest were extra (some very good ones at that).

In 4E, things are a little different. It's like every book comes as a piece of the puzzle with a little extra added features which makes it hard to avoid certain books in favor of getting what you only need. It's a 2 for 1 package that you don't really need.