Archive for March, 2012
My last post described the perils of a game that is so balanced that it becomes difficult and dangerous to change the game to suit your needs. Two days ago, Greywulf made that same point. But much to my chagrin, he linked to his old series on the Rules Cyclopedia, where he made that point, and the point I made a few days back about how different sub systems have a benefit, in more detail, and far better than I did. Go read and enjoy.
So one of the many goals that newer versions of D&D have strived for is a “balanced” game. This vague term means many things to different people, but on the whole it usually applies to monsters and heroes engaging in “combat as sport” type conflicts, and the heroes all leveling with roughly equal powers and capabilities. Older versions of D&D were quite unbalanced. Fighters became less useful as level increased, and the puny magic users of low levels became spotlight stealing tactical nukes in later levels. Similarly, while encounters were generally gauged by level, old D&D had no qualms about throwing powerful enemies at weak heroes. Balance is certainly a laudable goal, and certainly allowing all players, regardless of class to enjoy roughly equivalent powers and relevance at all levels is a boon for all, but too much balance can also make a game harder to make your own.
OSR D&D players see don’t see the imbalances of old D&D as a problem, either because they don’t mind, or because they like to replace those unbalanced bits anyway. 4e players on the other hand, reasonably argue that if you have to replace whole swaths of the game to get a balanced game, then the game is fundamentally broken. But there is a pitfall in a heavily balanced game.
Consider the 4e player who dislikes Save or Die effects, or combat as war, or Vancian magic. If you’re playing old D&D, you can rip any one (or all) of these things out of the game, and still be able to play the game, in part because the nothing about the system relies on these things existing. Sure certain spells might be tempered by the fact that they’re fire and done type spells, but for the most part any component can be removed without major effect on the game as a whole.
On the other hand, 4e is a delicate balance of game mathematics. A 4e player who doesn’t like Vancian skills, or doesn’t like the assumptions of magic item availability have much more work to remove these elements and still keep a playable game.
Old D&D is a bit like a fresh jenga tower. Not very big, not very intricate and no so much balanced as it is capable of having parts removed and rearranged while still standing. 4e is more like a late stage jenga tower. Large, intricate and interesting, with each component perfectly balanced on the rest. But like a late stage tower, it also can’t afford to have pieces removed willy nilly.
It’s not wrong to have a balanced game, but if you want a game you can turn into your own, it may be better to start with an unbalanced one.
Once again, the Penny Arcade forums provide blog fodder. This time, the thing that’s got the 4e fans all atwitter is Save vs Death, and player death in general. Save vs Death is a very controversial concept apparently, one that for some people is enough “bad wrong fun” to turn them off of the game completely if they’re used. This is despite the fact that Save vs Death is a common element of mythology. Consider Medusa of greek mythology, whose gaze would turn any onlooker to stone, or the Basilisk. Of course, as the 4e fans point out, the Greek legends would have been rather dull if the story ended with “And Perseus accidentally gazed upon Medusa and was turned to stone. The End.” But D&D isn’t a book, or a movie. Sure, your character is supposed to be a hero, but heroes aren’t made until the end of the story. Frodo wasn’t a hero until the ring was destroyed. If he had failed, he would have been just another in a line of people who fell to the ring’s evil. The hero’s are the ones who beat the odds, whose side lady luck seems to favor. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t good or exciting stories to be told even of those that die. Do you suppose the story of Isildur was boring because he failed? Did those who tried to stop Medusa before have no heroic stories or pasts because they’re now statues? Why should it be any less so for your character?
Of course D&D recognizes that we have attachments to our characters, and if you spend years building a character, it sucks to lose it to a streak of bad luck. That’s why D&D has resurrection, to let you get back a character that you want to keep. So why the controversy? Why is rolling up a new character, even temporarily, such an imposition or a fun killing endeavor? Maybe it’s just a different way of looking at games and the world, but I look at a dead character as a “Game Over. Continue?” screen, as long as you keep putting in your quarters, the game isn’t over.
A forum post over at the Penny Arcade forums highlights something I like a lot about OSR style D&D over 4e D&D. Abbalah there writes:
This is why trying to actually make a game where the classes all use different subsystems is a terrible idea. The best argument that can be summoned for it is 'Doing things the 4e way is good design, but I'd rather have broken and badly designed in order to get marginally more mechanically-enforced flavor'
I think this is very badly missing the benefits that can be obtained by having different mechanics for different classes. Consider the 4 basic D&D classes, and how they used to be mechanically different.