Sunday, May 29, 2011

4E meets AD&D (pt 1)

Over at, Sersa has a very cool webcast going all about his whole Fourthcore design philosophy, and the one thing that has really piqued my interest is his 4E/Whitebox game, which he was tweeting about last night. From what he has made available on his website (scroll down on linked page above for player handout PDFs), this game seems to be based on 4th Edition D&D, with some OSR-inspired modifications; specifically, the elimination of Non-Armor Defenses and the return of the saving throws vs wands, breath weapon, gaze attacks, poison, etc, and a limiting of player options to the four basic classes of fighter, rogue, wizard and cleric. From our short conversation via Twitter, it's pretty clear Sersa is bringing his Fourthcore design style to play in that game, which of course only further intrigues me.

This stuff really got me gears rolling, and I was forced to crack open my old-school books again, and the perusal got me thinking about just how the game has changed, mechanically, through the years. Now, I'm not trying to start an edition flame-war here. Instead, I want to take a look at the best parts of the New School and Old School are and figure out how to make it all work together. This can be done, it's just gonna take some clever thinking.

Both 4E and AD&D have things they do very well, and things that are a bit clunky. Let's start by breaking these things down.

What I Like About 4E

The Core Mechanic: anytime you want to do something, roll d20, add the relevant modifiers, and try to hit the target difficulty number. Regardless of whether you're attacking a gnoll, attempting to swing on a chandelier, picking a lock or negotiating with terrorists, your actions can always boil down to a d20 roll. Some people might argue that the negotiations should be part of role-playing and not subject to the roll of a die; I would be one of those people, but the fact of the matter is there are people who aren't interested in that type of character immersion, and that's okay. No, really, it's okay. We're not all playing this game so we can talk with funny voices.

Powers/Exploits/Spells/Prayers: The statblocks for your powers, generally how you attack in combat, work very well. I don't care if you think they are the "WoWification" of D&D. They help make combat a lot more interesting than "I hit it with my axe" or "I shoot it with my bow".

Codified Combat Modifiers: yes, there is a difference between "stunned" and "dazed". Having a limited set of options for status ailments in combat, with set rules for each, is a good thing. Knowing how those rules work is an even better thing. If you have to keep looking these up, you haven't done your homework. Shame on you.

Balance: Balance between different types of characters is a good thing. Simple as that. Everybody gets a chance to shine.

Power Sources: Martial, Arcane, Primal, Psionic, Shadow.

Options: Some people might call 4E's abundance of options for character generation (races, classes, feats, etc) "bloat" or "power creep". I like to call it "color". If you build a genasi swordmage because you want a magic and sword-wielding warrior-sorcerer with a fiery temper and fiery abilities, cool, play it to the hilt. If you build that swordmage just looking at the stats and concerned only with how much damage you can put out, get the fuck away from my table.

What I Don't Like About 4E

Options: Wait, what? Wasn't that up in the things I like? Well, yeah, but it also drives me nuts. Honestly, there are too many options and yes, they do contribute to power creep within the system. Certain feats become "must-haves" to be a competitive character and "keep up with the math" and therefore are deemed "feat taxes" (go search the WotC CharOp forums if you don't know what I'm talking about). There are way too many options to even begin to understand how they all work and how to make things fit together. My players are casual gamers and don't own the books. Character creation can take well over an hour of just sifting through Players Handbooks (and God only knows how long things would take if we tried to use the website). It got to the point where I asked the players what kind of character they wanted to play, and found a well-optimized build for them on the WotC CharOp boards. This has actually worked pretty well, because now, whenever they level up, it's pretty easy. The build is already planned out, level for level.

Hour-Long Combats: This goes with options, but it is also it's own special thing. Tactical combat takes forever to resolve, even when you know the rules and have your strategy planned out. I'm okay with spending an hour and a half on a battle with the BBEG. But a bunch of lackeys guarding the door? That should be pretty straightforward. I'm pretty close to using all minions, all the time, except for the Big Bad.

Balanced Encounters take the thrill away, especially when the players know that they can expect "balanced encounters".

What I Like About AD&D

Just for clarification, I own the "Black Books", and that's what I'm basing this on. I never got to play any earlier edition of the game, although I do own the 1994 box set of TSR's "Classic Dungeons and Dragons".

Short combat (although, really, the rules are just as complicated as 4E).
Iconic character types with simple builds.
Rolling dice to determine ability scores.
Prime requisites and ability score requirements for classes. 
There's no min-maxing if you're using just the basic books. 
Random monsters and treasure tables. 

What I Don't Like About AD&D

Limit on spells/day for spellcasters. 
Different level progression/experience charts for classes. 
Nonhuman level limits. 
Nonhuman-only multiclassing. 
Race-restrictions on classes. 

Obviously, I don't have as much experience with AD&D as I do with 4E, so I'm not going to bullshit you with extended explanations of my thoughts on the AD&D things I like and dislike.

Character Generation and Adventure Generation

These are the two sides of the screen, aren't they? Each edition tackles them in radically different ways. I think really what my issues boil down to are these two things. I love the simple character generation process of AD&D and the randomness of exploration and adventure and finding treasure. I love the 4E combat system but loathe the excessive option bloat, the min-maxing, and the expectation of the "balanced encounter". Gone from the table is the conversation of whether to stay and fight or run and survive. Players know they will win unless they really screw up somehow. There's no true danger in a "balanced" encounter.

In Part 2, I'm going to revisit some of my D&D the CCG ideas, and see if I can use it to bring old-school style to new-school rules.


  1. I have to agree that starting an edition war is pointless; nobody wants to do that. But what I do want to do is pick at what I feel to be logical failings in your argument. You're free to enjoy and play whatever system you want; I may not understand why you like something, but I don't care and certainly don't object. What I object to is you attempting to justify your tastes using spurious logic and false claims about the objects of my tastes. 8^P

  2. So wait, why do you like 4E?

    "The Core Mechanic"
    -This is where it becomes clear that I'm reading the series from top to bottom. I have to repeat, though... why is using the same d20 for everything good? If that's your taste, sure, whatever, but it's not an inherently good think like "iconic character types." It doesn't strike me as a positive quality of 4E. And in practical terms, if you always use the same die for all rolls, and rolling high is always good... doesn't that make you extra vulnerable to loaded dice and similar cheating? I saw a "joke" d20 once, for example, where the 1 had been replaced by a second 20. Very subtle and hard to detect, but perfectly designed to take advantage of a "core mechanic." Having a "core mechanic" is like every computer in the world running Windows: there's no benefit, and lots of potential drawbacks in matters of both security and personal taste.

    -Hang on. You think that the system enforcement of using the same four moves again and again and again and again in every combat all the time is exciting and interesting?

    Your implied criticism of old-school gaming ("I hit it with my axe") merely serves to show that you've never really played OD&D. In any given combat, a fighter might be front-rank with that axe, or second-rank with a pole weapon, or back-rank with a missile weapon or a flask of flaming oil. Magic-users had the power to essentially end encounters with a single decisive spell, and thus had to carefully consider what spells to memorize, and what to use, and when.

    And, perhaps most importantly, there were a lot fewer hit points in those days. Even if all you did in a given fight was "hit it with my axe," you only had to give most foes a whack or two before you were done. Even if a 4E PC has three different at-will powers, their enemy has 50hp and ultimately they're going to have to repeat themselves a lot more than the axe-fighter you poked fun at.

    "Codified Combat Modifiers"
    -I agree with you that codifying this kind of stuff can be useful and reduces the amount of arbitrary DM fiat in the game. But who the hell are you to tell me the only proper way to DM is to memorize a hundred different status effects? I have a job, and a fiancee, and a difficult foreign language to master for the better job I hope to get later, and other responsibilities, and I don't have the free time left over to satisfy your self-righteous memorization fetish.

  3. "Balance between different types of characters is a good thing. Simple as that. Everybody gets a chance to shine."
    -So what you're telling me is that all players have the exact same tastes? All players like using the same mechanics to shine in the exact same way?

    See, I have to disagree. Sometimes I went for the meticulous planning and only-intermittent action of the wizard. Sometimes I went for the flavor-text-rich religious adventures of the cleric. Sometimes I went for the roll-a-handful-of-dice-and-be-done-with-it consistent foe-slaying of the fighter. Sometimes I wanted to have all sorts of crazy skills and played a thief. Never once did I think to myself, "Gee, I do so wish to spend the rest of my gaming days choosing from an endless series of identical Powers, differentiated mostly by flavor text that nonetheless lacks verisimilitude."

    And that's just the mechanical angle. Some people RP because they want to kick in doors and split skulls. Some people RP because they want to be clever, to use their wits to solve puzzles and evade foes. Some people RP because they want to bend the very forces of nature. Some people want to get henchmen and followers and titles and land and castles; others want to amass vast lore; others just want to make a list of the monsters they kill. All the versions of DnD before 4 had, as you say, iconic classes tailored and hard-wired to appeal to these different tastes. 4E is a buffet where all the dishes look different but taste the same.

    But wait! It goes even deeper than that! Not all players want the same amount of time shining! Some want to hog the spotlight. Others just want to hang out with their friends and maybe roll some dice and quote some Monty Python. And there's a whole range in between. 4E onlycaters to the OCD crowd who is willing to spend hours carefully constructing a character, as you yourself pointed out. Not everybody wants to or even can commit that kind of time and calculation.

    And finally! Your underlying assumption is flawed. If old-school DnD has one advantage, it's that ability to "shine" is limited only by the player's willingness to imagine doing stuff. You seem to believe that a character can only "shine" if their DPS is equal to that of any other member of their party, but rolling a Con of 6, or only casting one spell per day, never stopped any of my characters from shining by running around and accomplishing stuff in-game.

    Examples: -I had a character "shine" by catching a cockatrice in a bag and trying to beat it to death against a tree. The bag ripped (of all the times to roll a 1!) and he got killed, but it was a blast. -I had a character "shine" by assassinating a fellow PC who had idly threatened to kill him. We had a trial! It was crazy! -I had a character "shine" by singing an impromptu song about xorn during an orcish siege of the town we were in. My friends thought it was hilarious. -I had a character "shine" by hunting down and killing the demon-possessed general who had killed her family, then helping drive the demonic army out of her homeland. She was a fighter with a mere Strength of 12 and she's my favorite character ever.

    Is your ideal game really one where everybody "shines" just by being exactly as effective as everyone else in combat, where everyone uses the same mechanic, at the cost of hours spent poring over paperwork and min-maxing? 8^(

    "Power Sources"
    -In other words, you like the thin veneer of flavor text that covers the vast expanse of samey powers. I'm not impressed.

  4. "Options"
    -I actually agree with you here. But I also agree with you when you talk about "options" the second time. Where I draw the line and say that it's not worth it any more is the part where you have to buy four different fucking PHBs just to build a character. Pathfinder, in comparison, may be a damn heavy tome, but that one book is all you need.


    "Hour-Long Combats"
    -Oh God yes. I played a 4E campaign and nothing else, not even mass combat in Rifts, has left me so consistently bored out of my skull.

    "Balanced Encounters"
    -Again, I could hardly agree more. In fact, I want to add that the balance fetish in 4E is also imposed on the party with the formalization of roles; your strikers and defenders or whatever it was. 3E had the "each party must have a cleric" bug; 4E takes that and applies it to every role. My last campaign, I DMed for a mage, a fighter-mage, and a thief, no balance anywhere, and we made it work because everything was based on player action.

    And then again
    "Limit on spells/day for spellcasters."
    -Why? Because frankly I'm disgusted with the power creep that I've seen over the editions. It doesn't matter whether you use Vancian magic, or power points, or mana, or Fatigue levels; you need to limit magic use. So quit your whining.

    I am curious, though... if you don't like spells to be a limited resource, how does that jive with your possible upcoming defense of 4E's ability to do resource-management?

    "Different level progression/experience charts for classes"
    -Given that at high levels mages far outpower fighters, and given that (for example) rocket science is far more difficult to master than knitting, what you seem to be doing is criticizing a system that actually makes sense. Minus points for you.

    "Nonhuman level limits.
    Nonhuman-only multiclassing.
    Race-restrictions on classes."
    -I agree with you on these, actually.

    Now justify this dislike in the face of 4E's obvious matching of various races to various classes. Oh, eladrin make good rogues and wizards. If you want to "shine" you'd better make your eladrin a rogue or wizard. See, this is so much better than those old-school silly halfling rogues. 8^P

    Okay, that's enough for now, methinks. I suppose I could have said most of it more tactfully, but please do take everything I've said in serious good humor, as a rational challenge rather than an attack, and respond (if you care to) in kind. Thanks!