Over at Saveversusdeath.com, 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.
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.