Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why D&D4 Doesn't Suck

The first thing that must be understood is that the essence of D&D is found in what I call the "dungeon experience," using "dungeon" in the broader sense to include any kind of locale in which it's possible to have a fairly structured series of encounters; dungeons proper, as well as castles, manors, labyrinths and even wilderness areas.

But the real heart of D&D lies in the encounters themselves, rather than in the dungeon experience itself. Structurally, the game has always been about encounters. This is one of the things that contrasts D&D with many other roleplaying games. This has always been the case, in every version of D&D, when people actually sit down at the table to play it. In traditional D&D campaigns DMs structure adventures around encounters, and form the plot to fit them, rather than the reverse. Players manage their resources around encounters as well.

One of the things that D&D3.0 did that was a radical departure from previous editions of D&D was to enable more easily the structuring of campaigns which don't use the traditional encounter-driven adventure design philosophy, primarily by including a full-fledged skill system (replacing clumsy non-weapon proficiencies,) which allowed a much greater degree of mechanical support for games which had, for example, political intrigue as an important element. It was possible to do this before D&D3.0, of course, but prior versions of the game didn't specifically enable it, and groups who wanted it had to put it in by hand. Witness the utter lack of dialogue "scenes" with any narrative function in any AD&D1e module, even in adventures in which, in retrospect, such scenes would have been very appropriate. I point out I6 Ravenloft as the obvious example. L2 The Assassin's Knot was another. Both adventures have been denounced as the "beginning of the end" by the 'old-school' bunch, but neither departed even slightly from the traditional adventure format.

This facet of D&D3.0 might be perceived as a positive thing; indeed, anecdotal evidence suggest that it is seen as such by many. But scene-based adventure design and a play structure outside of a series of encounters is incidental to D&D play, even though some groups employed (and continue to employ,) such methods in their games. In enabling play outside of the classic D&D paradigm, 3.x represents a more powerful game system, in some respects, but it's also a game system that's less D&D than those which preceded it. This too might be seen as an asset by some, but to those who actually desire play within that traditional paradigm, it shouldn't be.

The paradigm itself transcends the game system employed; indeed, the case can be made that the choice of game system is largely irrelevant. Thus the long history of games such as Rolemaster which differ mechanically from D&D but which lend themselves to play in the same style.

But remember: rules matter. They are not the only thing that matters, but they do. All other things being equal, it's better to be using a game system that supports your group's playstyle than one that doesn't - it can make the difference between an ordinary campaign and an exceptional one. D&D3.x has all of the tools to enable the traditional playstyle, but also has other tools which enable play outside of it - a function, I suspect, of being designed by designers pulled from games other than D&D. I've come to believe that this dilutes the D&D experience for many.

There's also an issue of complexity. Now, I seem comfortable with the crunch level in D&D 3.5, but I don't think that anyone would care to try to make a case for its simplicity with a straight face. It's also unquestionably a dreadful game for the new hobbyist; if you have people that can teach the rules to you gradually over the course of play (the traditional method for learning D&D,) you'll probably be okay because there'll be someone to catch your mistakes. But for a 14 year old who doesn't know anyone already playing and who wants to learn the game by reading the books and then get his friends into it... that's a really tall order.

And so we come to D&D4th edition, a system many have denounced as something alien to D&D. And there's reason to think this, given that the changes made to the underlying mechanics are far greater than the changes from AD&D2e to D&D3.0. But I submit that, whatever the mechanical changes, D&D4 captures the D&D experience very well - better, I think, than 3.x did. In many cases it does so my making explicit things likes character roles and encounter-based play, both of which have always been around, implied by the rules rather than stated outright.

D&D4e's great weakness is that it's nigh-impossible to clue in to this just by reading the Player's Handbook; it takes actually participating in a game (or at least watching one in play,) to see it without a close study of all three core books. It looks very different on the surface, but in practice it plays just the same.

There's also some truth to the concern that D&D4 is designed like Magic: The Gathering; fairly simple basic rules with powers (or cards) that break or modify those rules in various ways. This is the Cosmic Encounter school of game design, explicitly employed in the crafting of MtG, and obviously used to assemble D&D4. It is not the design philosophy used in the creation of previous editions of D&D - any of them. But it's probably a better approach when it comes to introducing new players to the game, because complexity can be added at the desired rate.

So, yes: D&D4e was designed using a very different methodology. But if the output of two programs is the same, what difference does it make that one is coded differently than the other? It might, if one is coded more efficiently than the other - allowing it to run faster on a given operating system. D&D4e is more efficient than either version of AD&D, or D&D3.x, or really any other version save perhaps the earliest and most primitive designs.

I'll get to why I don't think OD&D or many of the retro-clones out there are viable options in a future post, but my point today is this: don't dismiss D&D4e as something completely different than D&D; it's not. It's not Gary's D&D, and it may not be your D&D, but it's somebody's D&D.

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