Friday, August 10, 2012

D&D Post Op: Design Philosophies (Or: Can Someone Come Up With A Better Name For These?)

So in my last post (which no one who values their free time has any business reading) I examined these editions of D&D from a purely mechanical standpoint. I made that obnoxiously long post so I could make this one and have something to cite. This is largely hypothetical, as I didn’t really follow the development cycle of either edition of the game and am not particularly inclined to research them too thoroughly. I don’t want to talk about what the designers SAID they were aiming for, I want to talk about what they actually DID aim for.

Once again:

DISCLAIMER 2.0: I’m not unbiased in this; I prefer 4th edition to 3.5 for reasons I SWEAR I’ll elucidate by the end of this piece, but I’m not going to let my opinions color my commentary at all if I can help it.

As RPGs go, D&D has always been fairly narrow in its focus: when compared to GURPS, Savage Worlds, or the Cortex System it’s almost myopic. Its rules imply a fairly specific kind of game world that operates under a generally well-understood set of conditions: humans and human-like creatures mostly good, non-humans and monsters almost overwhelmingly evil. This is a stark contrast to other systems that aim for the broadest possible set of scenarios. The “G” in GURPS stands for “generic” after all. D&D started off attempting to simulate fantasy adventures, like those of old medieval tales and more modern classics like the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia. It has since become a very specific variety of fantasy all its own, the popularity of which has spawned novels in turn.

It’s easy to see how this happened. By 3.5 edition, there are no fewer than 3 different magic-using core classes, not counting classes that have a smattering of spells as features. In the fantasy epics D&D was originally meant to ape, magic was rare if it existed at all, or was the purview of gods or similar (Merlin from Arthurian legend comes to mind, as does Gandalf) In making magic available as a regular option, and putting the tools to create the magical swords, rings and staves of fantasy in player hands, an irrevocable barrier between the stories and D&D was erected. Some of the best campaign settings for any fantasy RPG look closely at what the comparative omnipresence of magic and divinity can do to the world. (My personal favorites are Eberron and Forgotten Realms, which start with the same premise and take it in very different directions. A topic for a later post, I think.)

D&D 3.5 and 4.0 both start with this paradigm, a world of swords and sorcery, where humanity coexists with a world of things both much greater and much lesser than they, and morality is mostly black and white. (Once again: humans good/orcs bad) 3.5 takes a more simulationist tack; spellcasters must work for their power and suffer weakness and frailty until they reach it, while those without magic maintain a roughly even balance with the enemies they face (assuming the DM uses the guidelines provided for encounter design) To paraphrase TVTropes: warriors are linear, wizards are quadratic. Any DM worth his salt has to acknowledge the effect this has on a campaign setting; either the PCs are the only characters to reach that level of prowess, or the world is dominated by magocracies because no non-magical force can counter the abilities a high-level spellcaster can bring to the battle.

That’s not the end of the simulation (I admit simulation may not be the right word, seeing as we’re talking about MAGIC here). The rules include a basically-functional list of prices for all manner of goods, not just those used by adventurers. The economy is fairly bare-bones, but there is at least an attempt at having one. Magical gear is a highly-integral part of character balance, especially for non-spellcasters (ironically enough). As armor class doesn’t go up without equipment, spells, or ability score increases, new armor can be the difference between victory and defeat. A lower-level character with high-level gear will be much more effective than a higher-level character with low-level gear, as long as the delta between the two isn’t too great. For better or for worse, 3.5 D&D is a decent simulation of what the prototypical Dungeon Fantasy setting would be like.

4th Edition starts with the same basic setting design as 3.5, but goes in a different direction. I imagine the designers looked at 3.5 and saw what people complained about (imbalance between magic and non-magic classes, lack of options for non-spellcasters, broken magic-item economy, difficulty in healing because of limited spells-per-day, etc) and decided to fix them in ways that were the polar opposite of what was expected. The broken magic item economy (in which non-spellcasters were helpless without magic gear that was often crafted by their magic-using allies, rendering them even more superfluous than usual at high levels) no longer exists, because the economy is mostly irrelevant to traditional adventurers anyway. The imbalance of powerful spellcasters is rendered moot by giving non-spellcasters similarly high-powered effects, while nerfing spellcasters back into video-game-style blasters instead of the reality-warping powerhouses they could become in previous editions. (Quoth a friend of mine: “I can FEEL the lack of options.”) Healing is simplified and partially divorced from magic or any kind of healing class at all, because real heroes can find it in themselves to push through things that would kill ordinary people. 4th edition saw what D&D’s core setting assumptions implied, and narrowed the focus of its ruleset until that was all it did.

The new class structure, where class and race are largely defined by what powers the character gets from them, undoubtedly bears resemblance to popular video games like World of Warcraft. This is not bad, in itself. World of Warcraft is successful at least in part because it encapsulates the dungeon-crawling fun of old editions of D&D. For better or for worse, 4th edition is what the system’s developers thought every fan of D&D came to the gaming table for. I think that this is the crux of the furor surrounding this edition of the game: D&D’s vision narrowed until the core archetype of the Dungeon-Crawling Adventurers was all it included, and gamers who didn’t play D&D in that specific way HATED it. In their eyes, and the eyes of those that thought similarly, the developers behind D&D 4.0 were laughing in their faces and telling them “No, silly little gamers. We know how to play D&D the RIGHT way and you’ve been doing it wrong all these years. This is hopefully not what the design team at Wizards of the Coast had in mind, but that’s what a huge number of players (many of whom had been die-hard D&D fans since the early days) extracted from the very DNA of 4th edition. Hence the firestorm. (Or if you’re feeling vulgar, the shitstorm. The storm of fiery excrement.)

Now, my explanation for why I like 4th edition more, despite the tightening of the game’s horizons, lack of freedom, and greater emphasis on combat mechanics. Simply put, I don’t run fantasy games very often. I’m not very good at coming up with unique campaigns in stock fantasy settings, for whatever reason. (Oh, this is a shameful admission.) I’m not a deep roleplayer; most of my NPCs are archetypical at best, stereotypical at worst. I’m also not very good at the kind of improvisational acting needed to carry off long-form dialogue roleplaying. What I AM good at is incidental RP, strong descriptions, both in-combat and out, and memorable snippets. My strengths as a DM come out in exactly the kind of scenarios that 4th edition focuses on, namely: well-delineated combat; and short, focused roleplaying sessions. 4th edition looks at dialogue between the PCs and NPCs and says “screw it, let the guy make his argument and roll a d20. Just like me. Other systems encourage dialogue and give combat the weight of lethality to make it matter. 4th edition says that combat should be FUN for everyone, regardless of their character class and level of experience with RPGs, and people shouldn’t be left out of something just because their character isn’t designed specifically for that. A shootout in World of Darkness is tense and exciting because any given turn could be your last, as a good shot can cripple or kill you. A pitched battle between an adventuring party and a band of roving goblins in 4th edition is fun because it’s supremely tactical. Everyone has a role to play, and at the end of the day isn’t that exactly what we ask for from RolePlaying games?

1 comment:

  1. Admittedly, I don't play much, beyond the occasional Play-by-post game, or the exceedingly rare Skype game, but I like 4e more than 3.5 for a very different reason. I am not a particularly deep roleplayer either, but I very much enjoy telling an epic story. And to me, that can be told in almost any system, but what it is best in is a system that doesn't try to regulate rules for roleplaying.

    If I want my Paladin to be a Chaotic Good freedom fighter, why shouldn't I be able to? If I want to play a Martial healing class, why shouldn't I be able to? 4e is very good in knowing where to stop, with it's rules. They provide rules for combat, and guidelines for exploration, but they don't try to regulate roleplaying.

    Combat is fun, but it's not why I come to (in my case) the computer screen. 4e provides the rules for what needs rules, and doesn't try to make decisions for the DM on how s/he and the party want to create a campaign world and a story.