Updating a Titan

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to post… I’ve been doing a lot of writing at work lately, so it eats a bit into my “write for pleasure” time. Sometimes it can be tough to keep the balance.

If you’re a long-time gamer (read: geek) like me, you may be waiting in heated anticipation for the Fourth Edition of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons pen-and-paper game to be released. 8 years after the D&D 3rd edition did a revision of the franchise, Wizards are trying to get these rules into the modern age.

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What was the problem? While purists thought that the original system was fine the way it was, clearly it was a work over time built by thousands of hands… this created a rule-infested soup that needed a revamp. 3rd edition was like a breath of fresh air compared to the relatively lifeless 2nd edition that was launched back when I was in college (wow), but it, too, replaced a lot of old rules with new ones that were cool but didn’t come up very often…The biggest thing 3rd edition added was combat options to a melee character. While spellcasters always had a boatload of options from direct damage to crowd control, the humble fighter didn’t have much other than “attack with sword” for the previous 25 years. Now they could do interesting things like Cleave, which allowed you to slice through multiple enemies. Unfortunately, perhaps to avoid ruining the classic balance between characters, the application of many of these abilities were extremely limited (e.g. you could only cleave after purchasing the feat with your limited slots, then only if you strike the last blow when they are adjacent to someone else, etc etc).

There were new moves that were for free to use, like grapple, but they were generally ignored for the purpose of swifter play. However, at least it started to scratch the itch that melee players had to be something more than a meat shield.

And that is the crux of it, people want options but they don’t want to spend hours on every fight to do so. Consider it the influence of MMO’s or shorter attention spans or whatever, but I feel it too. Roleplaying is fun, but D&D is very much about spells and combat… If I want to mostly roleplay, I’ll play something in the World of Darkness. If I want to spend hours on every fight, I’ll play something from Leading Edge Games.

D&D Preview - Races and ClassesIf you are someone who follows game design (and if not, what are you doing here?), you should consider looking at the D&D preview books that were released a couple of months ago. While the information is really an informal collection of articles that most folk will consider obsolete as soon as the 4th edition is released, I personally found it enriching to get into the heads of people who had to completely rework a 35-year-old game system without pissing off too many rabid fans.

Tackling an update like this is doubtless harrowing stuff, to revise a seminal franchise to the entire gaming industry, both paper and electronic. You have to decide which favorite aspect must meet the axe to progress, but also figure out which elements to retain so that it stays distinctively D&D. And people will hate you no matter what you do… (My wife still bears a grudge about the elimination of the ridiculous Chromatic Orb spell.)

Just as interesting reading about the successes and failures of D&D third edition… That team made tremendous strides in adding player choice but it was still lacking. Individual play styles led to aberrant in-game choices… you might say that “the way the game was meant to be played” was pretty different from “the way it was played”…

Probably nowhere else will you read about some of the statistical challenges they faced. For example, the game has always suffered from problems in the early and late stages of the power curve. They expressed rather well the fact that a “sweet spot” has always existed in the mid-levels of D&D, where there was suitable risk yet enough options where play was enriching. There is a lot of volatility in the results of any one encounter, where “volatility” is defined as a significant chance of extremely bad (instant death) and extremely good (success with no challenge) results.

D&D Preview - Worlds and MonstersIn low-levels, you have very little hit points that cause you to rather easily perish… This makes it extremely challenging for a DM to challenge the group without risking that one of them will just fall over dead on a bad run of die rolls. Plus first-level characters just don’t have any options other than “blast the thing”.

In high-levels, you are extremely survivable with a huge pool of hit points and many more options. While enemies do a fair amount of damage, the biggest tool in the DMs chest is either creatures that do a tremendous amount of damage (and -10 hit points is the only buffer against death, whether you have 5 HP or 500) that run the risk of killing the player outright, or by using status ailments and strange effects, which can easily eliminate the player if they don’t have the right counters for it. Plus, the DM and the players have so many options at their disposal that campaigns often collapse under their own weight.

Remember previously when I talked about predictability being an element of fun? Well, it’s true, including games where dice-rolling is all the rage. Dice provide a great tool by adding an element of chance and potential for dramatic failure and success, but you can’t make a game that’s entirely about chance… that’s missing the point. In those cases you are taking the game-playing out of the player’s hand and reducing it to a coin flip.

The “aberrant behaviors” mentioned above were mainly about using tactics that reduced risk and eliminated variability in favor of survivability. To me that sounds like a grind in an MMO. Nice to know that while many of their combat tactics are inspired by MMO’s, they also seek to overcome some of the MMO playstyle.

The books are expensive, $20 each for not a lot of “meat”, but they may end up in the bargain bin after 4th Edition releases. That would be the perfect time to grab them and put on your designer hat for a couple of hours.

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