Saturday, April 12, 2008

Backwards Thinking

I've got a bad head cold, so I need to take a break from writing this weekend, I think. That said, something has been bugging me and I figured I should vent about it here.

One of many issues that seems to cause the most consternation about 4e is that monsters and NPCs are (generally) built according to different rules than are player characters. A lot of gamers have a hard time with this concept, first because it's contrary to the entire philosophy of 3e, which emphasized a seamless mechanical continuity for everything, and because it's different even than 1e and 2e, which did not treat NPCs as monsters but rather as, well, characters.

What I find amusing is that the justification for this change is that creating NPCs is too complex and time-consuming a task for the DM. I agree that this assessment is correct. Pretty much anyone who's DMed 3e for any length of time, especially at high levels, can sympathize with the complexity and indeed tediousness of designing NPCs according to the 3e rules.

While I think the diagnosis is correct, the solution the 4e designers have chosen strikes me as backwards. Rather than create different rules and guidelines for monsters and NPCs because the rules for PC creation are too complex to serve as a model, why not make PCs less complex? There is an unchallenged assumption in modern RPG design that player characters can only be "unique" if there are a vast array of "meaningful" mechanical choices for players to make in creating them.

In my experience, basing a character's uniqueness on mechanics is a certain way to ensure that the character is hardly a character at all but rather more like a well-built CCG deck. Moreover, most rules, in order to maintain "balance" -- another bit of backward thinking -- end up creating a wide variety of false choices. Sure, you may now have dozens of feats and prestige classes to choose from, ensuring that no one else in your character's party will have the same exact ones as he does, but, in the end, most of these feats and prestige classes differ only in either flavor or in limited situations. In the end, what you get is characters whose uniqueness is predicated primarily by roleplaying -- as it always has been -- but with a unnecessarily baroque mechanical superstructure to support a Potemkin village of "choice."

From what I can tell, though, gamers like this approach and it's certainly one that sells more supplements, so I can't blame WotC for pursuing it, but is this better game design? I'm not convinced that it is. At the very least, I'm not convinced that raw 4e characters will have any more depth as characters than raw 1e characters, despite the greater amount of mechanical complexity. As I have said elsewhere, what D&D desperately needs is an Aspect system, as it would both reduce the mechanical complexity of the game and increase the flexibility of the core rules to allow for anything from the pulp fantasies I prefer to the more over-the-top wuxia insanity the kids these days seem to think is cool.

Obviously, it's too late for 4e to go this route. I expect that, within a few years, we'll be hearing that creating player characters is too complex and tedious and that this justifies the publication of a new edition to "fix" the problems of 4e -- assuming D&D continues to exist as a tabletop RPG at all.


  1. A friend made the half-joking observation the other day that TSR/WOTC/Hasbro have been anxiously searching for years a way to slap the Dungeons & Dragons logo onto the old DUNGEON! boardgame and sell it as an RPG.

    "No more than 30 minutes. Start to stop. We promise." The slogan for 6E, perhaps? ;)


  2. Hey, James! Check out this thread over at

    It's more about AD&D rather than OD&D, but I still think you'll find it interesting.

    On the topic at hand, I think 3e was a real wake-up call for me, and others like me. We'd always wanted D&D to offer more robust support for things like skills and backgrounds, and mechanical ways to differentiate our characters. Only, it wasn't as cool as we'd thought it would be when we actually got to play with it. Something's lost when you pass a dozen different character classes, somehow.

    And I never understood the need for mechanics to "build" monsters. You give the beastie the stats you need it to have. What's the problem?

  3. I agree with you that 3e was a wake-up call for a lot of people, myself included. I enjoyed the game quite a bit -- still do -- and I am intensely curious to see how the Pathfinder project unfolds, since I think it's animated by a lot of old school spirit, even if the rules themselves will be far from old school.

    On the monster issue, I'm of two minds about it. On the one hand, I agree that there's no need for specific rules or guidelines on how to build monsters; like everything relating to DMing, it's a fine art learned through hard experience. On the other hand, I like the principle behind such things, as it implies a degree of logical intelligibility that I appreciate. Still, my preference remains for game mechanics to be simple enough that these questions are largely moot. 3e failed on this score in spades.

  4. I'm afraid I never really enjoyed 3e much. As I built my first character, I couldn't help thinking that keeping all this stuff in mind was going to be a real pain. I saw lots of pitfalls for neophyte DMs. (I wonder how many adventures got thrown off the tracks when the PCs failed a must-make spot check?) And I couldn't help thinking that I'd seen these same sorts of things done better with GURPS. There's some point along the continuum of detail where I think you should just bite the bullet and embrace the baroque glory that is GURPS, and 3e passed it for me even before the splat books gave us gestalt characters and more feats than you can shake a stick at.

    True20 eases things back over the line for me, but honestly, my love of that system has everything to do with genre emulation. It plays very close to the novels I read, at least at low and mid-levels.

    With my current games, which are above par in terms of player quality, we don't need a lot of crunch, and it can actually get in the way. We don't Forge-y mechanics that impose literary structures on our games, since we're not really trying to create stories. We just need a simple system to adjudicate risk, help us maintain verisimilitude, and prevent disagreement about what actually happens when my skills collide with her magic. 3e is much too much. And I'm about to post another rant about 4e, I think, at Trollsmyth. Ah well...

    Anyway, enough pre-caffeine rambling. I hope you get to feeling better soon, and I look forward to seeing how you tackle pulp fantasy D&D.

  5. Pulp fantasy D&D is still on the drawing board. I've been a bit distracted lately with work on my SF RPG's first supplement, but I'll be getting back to D&D soon, I expect. I also have a couple of posts on other topics percolating in the back of my brain and I'll probably post them soon too.

  6. I FULLY AGREE!! (I know I'm commenting on all of your old stuff but this is revelation to me). There are so many choices that if you know how to manipulate the rules you can make a god out of nothing. I heard of a player who used such a combination of feats that he created a cleric that would benefit and become stronger if poisoned. So what did the character do? He would put snakes down his pants every time they got into a fight and was impossible to kill! Too many options, too many rules, means that there are too many opportunities for manipulation.