So far in this series, we've been looking at what defines "Old School Gaming" and figuring out some ways to apply these maxims to the 4th Edition game. We've examined "Rulings, not Rules" and "Player Skill over Character Abilities", and so far I have found no reason whatsoever that 4E cannot be played in an Old School style.
Next on the list is "Heroic, Not Superheroic". In the Old-School Gaming Primer, the author makes the comparison of Batman to Superman to explain the difference between Heroic and Superheroic type gaming. Superman's actions can regularly change the world. Batman's influence is generally limited to Gotham City.
I will be the first to admit, when I first read through the 4E ruleset, I thought Epic Tier play would be kind of dumb. It's way too over the top. If I wanted to play a Superheroes game, I would play Mutants and Masterminds or Champions or even Heroes Unlimited or maybe Rifts. I just don't think fantasy gaming should be about getting your character to ascend to godhood.
The story of the common man who overcomes terrible odds to triumph over evil is way more interesting than the story of an awesome dude who became more awesome and more awesome and more awesome, ad nauseum. Yawn. PCs shouldn't have to automatically start out a "Cut Above" the common man. They should be the common man! Or woman.
Anyway, this can only really be achieved in 4E if you limit your campaign to the first 15 levels or so. Once you get to the end of the Paragon Tier, you're really looking and superhuman abilities for all characters, and monsters to match.
Ahh, there's the kicker. "Monsters to Match." This brings up the issue of balance. The Dungeon Master's Guide states in no uncertain terms how to build successful encounters to challenge your players. I think it's all honky. The whole thing is designed like World of Warcraft, to only throw monsters at you that you have a good chance to defeat, and the only time there's a threat of character death is when they've made a critical mistake with their resources (ie powers, items, etc).
The problem is that the game is designed to ensure that a player will almost always hit the bad guy on a D20 roll of 13 or higher, and quite often on a roll of 10 or more. All the way through the game, 1st level to 30th, that's how it's built, if the DM builds the encounters "correctly".
It is patently absurd to think that the only monsters a group of heroes should encounter are ones that they will be regularly able to defeat. This instills in players a sense of invulnerability and even righteous indignation at the possibility of an "unfair" fight. There is no reason players should expect a fair fight. Ever. They should be able to have the option of escaping, most of the time, if they find themselves over their heads. But if a group of greenback level 1 characters stumble their way into a dragon's lair, that dragon ought to be a big bad-ass dragon that cooks them up for dinner, not a "wyrmling". 4E players are missing out on a critical skill that is deeply ingrained in OSR gaming, and that is knowing when to stay and fight and when to run.
How can we introduce this to the 4E game, though? Ahh, grasshopper, we'll explore that a big more in the next post in this series!