Tuesday, June 7, 2011

4E meets AD&D, Part 5: Heroic, not SuperHeroic, and Forget Balance!

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!


  1. good post. I'm 100% behind throwing more at players than they can handle. Putting them in a sink or swim situation is what makes for some great games sessions and great game memories. They will either run away, their characters will die, they'll think of some innovative way to defeat the big bad, or they will roleplay their way out of the situation.
    That's how you play an RPG, in my opinion anyway. You don't make it all balanced and fair. If it is "fair and balanced" then how is is a challenge? If it isn't a challenge then how is if fun and why are you bothering to play?
    Ok, so it doesn't have to be a challenge to be fun, but challenges and adventure kind of go hand in hand. So to me a Table Top Roleplaying Adventure Game, should have some element of risk/danger/challenge that has to be overcome in some way. There has to be a good chance of failure, or else the success means nothing.
    Of course that's just my opinion.
    BTW, I've only run one 4e adventure "by the book". It was boring. Now, when I run 4e (which isn't very often)I just pick the kind of monsters that I think would best/most fun for the adventure regardless of level.

  2. So very true. Life doesn't always play fair, so why should an rpg setting be different? As good DM's it's our responsibility to give the players something that not only gives them the excitment and thrill of being a heroic adventurer, but also that element of realism in the way of, 'Oh god, my character could die if I get this wrong!'

    No need to be a bastard about it, but approach it with logic afore thought and keep things less than predictable and they will be putty in your DM hands.

    Another good posting - you need an edit: I think you meant to say 'bit' and not 'big'? ;o)

  3. Hang on hang on. You say "Anyway, this [the PCs being The Common Wo/Man] can only really be achieved in 4E if you limit your campaign to the first 15 levels or so." But I don't see why you make this claim. Even a 1st-level PC is already superhuman.

    The "common" man or woman has few, if any, stats above an 11, most don't have stats above a 12 or so, and an average modifier from stats of +0. The "common" man or woman, in real-world terms, can all to easily die from a single sword-thrust or arrow. The "common" man or woman, in a standard DnD economy, works for a handful of silver a month. The "common" man or woman is unprepared for a fight to the death in terms of martial skill and psychological toughness alike, and would swiftly be dispatched by almost any monster.

    So tell me, how accurately do any of those describe any PC, much less a 15th-level one? Or, in more general terms -- upon what factual basis do you make the claim that 4E PCs can in any way claim the awesomeness of struggling to victory after starting play with "common" status?

    Contrast this to old-school PCs. 3d6 for each stat, without all the extra dice, min-maxing and gratuitous piling of +2s that a 4E PC gets. As few as 1hp to hold flesh and soul together, and only rarely more than 6. Scraping together the cash to buy a single weapon and a pack full of equipment to earn their first haul of treasure. Slower attack progressions, fewer attack and damage bonuses, multiple attacks per round almost unheard of. Prone to fleeing, spiking doors shut, and needing to work hard to stay alive.

    An old-school PC, like a real person, thinks carefully about whether they want to get into a fight. They avoid combat when possible, and try to maximize any tactical advantage they can find when it's unavoidable. They start adventuring with almost nothing in terms of skills and equipment, and -- if they survive -- and if they're not, you know, munchkins -- then they've earned every bit of fame, wealth, and special powers or status that they have.

    A 4E PC thinks nothing of going into combat -- it's expected. This is in part because they start with a complement of magical powers ("healing surge," anyone?) and tools that would make even a mid-level OD&D character's eyebrows rise. And God help you if they don't level up soon, because otherwise they'll realize how boring it is to use the same damn at-will power twenty rounds in a row, slogging it out with some "low-level" enemy with 50hp.

  4. I disagree that the rules on how to create "balanced" encounters are honky. They're very valuable even when you don't want to use them! After all, since they do such a good job of telling you how to build a balanced encounter, they also tell you exactly what to do to create an unbalanced one, and to tailor exactly how unbalanced you want it to be.

    The equivalent rules in previous editions weren't so good at that, being either absent or not doing what it says on the tin. This led to some uncertainty about the actual difficulty of the encounters. With 4E, it's easier to have that "guaranteed TPK" really be that, rather than something the PCs can easily walk over without using their brains at all.

  5. @Ubiritan: great point! I agree with you that no, the rules themselves about balanced encounters aren't "honky". There are excellent guidelines on building balanced encouters in the DMG. What I think is honky is the recommendation that there be 10 generally balanced encounters per level, etc etc. When the players know they can expect a balanced encounter they're likely to win, the fear of death disappears.