COLLECTED EDITION OF AN ESSAY BY JUSTIN ALEXANDER
It seems crazy to say this, but I’ve been talking about Keep on the Shadowfell since May. That’s a lot of time to dedicate to a single adventure. But, of course, a lot of this time has also been spent reading, analyzing, playing, and talking about the 4th Edition ruleset.
This essay is going to be about my playtesting of 4th Edition. Understanding these comments may require a little bit of context, however. So let’s start with that.
When 4th Edition was first announced in August 2007, I posted some Thoughts on 4th Edition. These primarily consisted of three points: (1) What WotC says about a new edition and what a new edition actually does are frequently two completely different things. (2) The design ethos being espoused at WotC did not fill me with confidence. (3) I wasn’t going to draw any conclusions until I actually had the rules in my hands.
In May of this year I wrote a series of essays on Dissociated Mechanics. These essays were written before 4th Edition was released, but provided a detailed dissection and analysis of what I still believe to be a serious flaw in the design ethos at WotC.
After the rulebooks were released, I revisited the subject of Skill Challenges. I was over-hasty in my reading of certain rules, but also far too forgiving in others (check the comment thread attached to that post).
If you’ve looked through some of this material, it will be clear that I had some serious reservations about 4th Edition. But I was also determined to approach the new system with an open mind. Ultimately you can talk a game to death, but it lives or dies in the playtest.
My initial intention was to take Keep on the Shadowfell and use the Quick Start Rules to play 4th Edition right out of the box — just as the designers intended it. I had high expectations that, with Mike Mearls and Bruce Cordell writing it, I would be able to just pick up the adventure and run it. Unfortunately, my first impressions of the module left me fairly disenchanted, and the 12-part series of remix essays should give some idea of the amount of work I had to put into the module before I felt comfortable running it.
Eventually, however, I was ready to go. And I have now run two separate playtests of the module: One for a group of experienced D&D players (my regular group) and another for a group of newbies (some of whom had never played an RPG before).
So let’s talk about my first reactions to playing 4th Edition.
Combat is the highlight of the game. It is interesting and dynamic. I was surprised, however, at the lack of a paradigm shift. Although the mechanics have been thoroughly shuffled, combats still largely play out the same way they did in previous editions.
One of the things promised in the preview material and hype, for example, was greater mobility in combat. But mobility has not noticeably increased at my gaming table. Some people claim that full-attacks resulted in 3rd Edition combats where people stood around and beat on each other, but that was never my experience: It was the desire to avoid attacks of opportunity that tended to lock opponents together (although this never stopped people from doing a lot of maneuvering at a small scale). Opportunity attacks are still in the game and, predictably, people are still trying to avoid them. And once you add marks into the mix, combat had a tendency to become less mobile, not more mobile.
The other major change that was promised was the ability to run combats involving large numbers of NPCs. But, personally, I’ve been running combats involving large numbers of NPCs for 20 years now. We did see a greater ability to run such encounters as 1st level characters, but that has more to do with 1st level characters playing more like 3rd level characters from previous editions than anything about the combat system.
PADDED SUMO WRESTLERS: There were also suggestions being made that combat in 4th Edition was going to be considerably faster. Even accounting for the slow-downs associated with acclimating to a new system, this was not our experience. Even basic encounters were chewing up huge chunks of time.
One of the primary reasons for this is that combats now resemble what I saw one person describing online as an “all-out brawl between heavily padded sumo wrestlers”. The number of hit points has been significantly increased and the expected damage output of the PCs has been significantly reduced.
The result was that we were very quickly seeing combats that had outlasted their welcome and degraded into “I hit him”, “I hit him again”, “I hit him again”, “I hit him again”, “… he’s still not dead? I hit him again”.
This problem appears to become exacerbated at higher levels.
MINIONS: My players were not impressed with the “prick ’em and they die” aspect of minions. They liked the target-rich environment, but the fact that they didn’t have to roll for damage made it feel as if they were never actually getting to land their blows.
They were also annoyed by the dissociated nature of the minion mechanics, which I found surprising because: (1) I wasn’t, and dissociated mechanics are probably my biggest problem with 4th Edition. And (2) It came from an unexpected direction. It wasn’t the fact that they only had 1 hp that yanked them out of the game world, it was the “never take damage on a miss” clause. This meant that they were making meaningful tactical decisions about which abilities to use based on whether a given target was a minion or non-minion — they were either bothered by the fact that they were making tactical decisions that didn’t map to their characters’ perceptions; or they were bothered by the fact that their characters had some sort of minion-detector.
Unknown to my players at the time of our 4th Edition playtest, I’d actually been developing a different set of minions rules for Legends & Labyrinths. Based on their reactions to the 4th Edition system, I’m glad that I decided to take a different direction.
FORCED MOVEMENT: The one element of the combat system that did feel as if it was adding a meaningful new dynamic to the game were the forced movement mechanics. The ability to shove people around the field of battle without suffering the rather heavy penalty of an attack of opportunity did give some unique flavor to 4th Edition combat.
We have not found forced movement to be particularly revolutionary, but this is also something that might change at higher levels when forced movement starts being more than 1 square at a time. Hard to say. If nothing else, it certainly encourages me to think that removing the attacks of opportunity from Bull Rush and similar maneuvers in 3rd Edition wouldn’t be a bad idea.
LEARNING THE GAME WITH KOBOLDS: I feel that kobolds were a bad choice to use for the initial villains in 4th Edition’s introductory product. In 4th Edition characters can take a standard action, a move action, and a minor action each round. And, as a move action, characters can shift (move 1 square without provoking opportunity attacks).
Kobolds, however, a racial ability (Shifty) that allows them to shift 1 square as a minor action.
Any villain will probably have some ability that “breaks” the general rules, but this one was particularly confusing because it made it quite difficult for players to distinguish the general rules for shifting. Both experienced and newbie players were frequently trying to perform shifts as minor actions, only to remember (or be reminded) that the kobolds could only do that because of a racial ability. (And this was despite the fact that I was playing with open stat-blocks to help the players figure out the mechanics.)
Running low-level combat encounters in 4th Edition is considerably more complicated than in previous edtiions. I would roughly estimate the level of complexity as being equivalent to a difficult 15th level encounter in 3rd Edition.
In my experience, there are three factors which determine how complicated an encounter is to run: The number of abilities the monsters have, keeping track of hit points, and making stat-block adjustments as a result of buff and buff-like effects.
MONSTER ABILITIES: In 3rd Edition, high-level creatures frequently featured many different abilities. Part of the complexity of running encounters was knowing what these abilities were and how they could be used to best effect. Part of mastering the system meant learning how to quickly discriminate between the abilities which were combat-relevant and which weren’t, and revised stat blocks helped make that distinction clearer.
In 4th Edition, the designers intentionally stripped monsters of their non-combat abilities and worked to reduce the number of combat-relevant abilities, as well. Their theory, as expressed by David Noonan, was simple: “We wanted our presentation of monsters to reflect how they’re actually used in D&D gameplay. A typical monster has a lifespan of five rounds. That means it basically does five things, ever, period, the end.”
Their logic was fundamentally flawed when it came to 3rd Edition, for reasons which I’ll only briefly summarize here: First, it ignores the fact that you’ll frequently meet the same type of monster more than once (in which case having some variety in what the monster can do is valuable). Second, it ignores the fact that monsters need to be able to react to the unexpected actions of the PCs (in which case having a wider array of tactical options is valuable). Finally, and most importantly, it neglects to consider that D&D is supposed to be a roleplaying game, not a tactical miniatures game. In a roleplaying game, even if you’re fighting, the reasons why you’re fighting are frequently important.
(As I’ve written before: “It’s often the abilities that a creature has outside of combat which create the scenario. And not just the scenario which leads to combat with that particular creature, but scenarios which can lead to many different and interesting combats. Noonan, for example, dismisses the importance of detect thoughts allowing a demon to magically penetrate the minds of its minions. But it’s that very ability which may explain why the demon has all of these minions for the PCs to fight; which explains why the demon is able to blackmail the city councillor that the PCs are trying to help; and which allows the demon to turn the PCs’ closest friend into a traitor.”)
All of these flaws in WotC’s reasoning remain equally valid when it comes to 4th Edition, but we can also add another one to he batch: Due to the “padded sumo wrestling” nature of the system, monsters in 4th Edition tend to have lifespans much longer than 5 rounds. Since their tactical options have been limited, 4th Edition monsters tend to do the same couple of things over and over again — they don’t have any other choice, after all. This is not only the result of the “padded sumo wrestling” combat, but also contributes to it by making the longer combats boring.
These problems with WotC’s design ethos, however, are relatively tangential to the issue at hand: Reducing the complexity of running combat. Reducing the number of abilties a monster has would, in fact, accomplish that… if the number of monsters in each encounter were the same.
But they aren’t. Not only is 4th Edition designed to have more monsters in a single encounter, but the system is specifically designed with the expectation that you will have a greater variety of monsters in each encounter. In 3rd Edition you might have a battle with 8 ogres, but they’d all have the same abilities. In 4th Edition you might have a battle with 8 ogres, but they’ll have five different stat blocks.
For example, demons and devils are generally agreed to be the most complicated 3rd Edition monsters to use in an encounter. A horned devil in 3rd Edition is a CR 15 encounter. They have roughly 14 abilities that could be used during combat (if you count both their different attacks and non-combat abilities which are relatively easy to ignore; in practice the effective number of abilities you need to keep track of is considerably lower).
Encounter A3 in Keep on the Shadowfell features 5 different types of kobolds who have, between them, 12 different abilities that could be used during combat. (And that’s not counting their different attacks, which — in an apples-to-apples comparison — would increase the number of abilities to 18.)
Making things even more difficult is that many abilities in 4th Edition are immediate actions: They take place during other characters’ turns. In 3rd Edition most creature abilities can only be used on the combatant’s own turn — which means that simply taking a few moments to look over a monster’s stat block on their turn was generally effective. But in 4th Edition it’s not enough to simply be able to quickly parse a stat block, you pretty much have to keep a large number of abilities in your head at all times so that your monster’s can take advantage of the triggers for their actions as they occur.
TRACKING HIT POINTS: One effect of the minion rules is to eliminate the number of monsters the DM needs to track hit points for (since any hit kills a minion). This is fine as far as it goes, but — once again — 4th Edition encounters are generally designed around larger groups of monsters. Which means, in practice, it appears that you’ll have just as many hit point totals to keep track of.
For example, looking at the first few encounters in Keep on the Shadowfell we find in the first encounter three creatures; in A1 five creatures; in A2 three creatures; in A3 seven creatures; and in A4 four creatures that need to have hit point totals tracked.
BUFFS: One of the things I hear people claiming is that there aren’t as many buffs in 4th Edition. This is not actually true. It’s true that there are fewer “permanent” buffs (in the form of equipment giving flat bonuses, for example) and it’s also true that there are fewer buffs to ability scores and the like.
But short-term bonuses and penalties? They’re all over the damn place. And, to make matters worse, they’re largely situational bonuses — by which I mean that you get things like a +1 for each ally adjacent to your target; -2 for being marked; +1 to a particular skill check if you’re within 5 squares of one character; -2 to a different skill check if you’re within 6 squares of another one. Marks just add to the laundry list of such abilities.
These situational buffs are the worst type of buff when it comes to adding complexity to battle. Permanent buffs from equipment, for example, are calculated into a stat block at character creation. And for oft-used buffs (like a barbarian’s rage or always casting bull’s strength on the fighter before a big battle), there are tricks and work-arounds (like prepping a second character sheet or stat block).
But for situational buffs you pretty much have to keep on your toes. You have to both (a) remember that the situational buff exists and (b) make frequent on-the-fly adjustments to multiple stat blocks as the buffs come and go (or move around).
THE BOTTOM LINE: I was always fairly comfortable with the level of complexity you’d find in high-level 3rd Edition encounters. It took a certain degree of system mastery, certainly, but it’s a level of system mastery that flowed pretty naturally into my blood the first time I ran a group from 1st to 20th.
So, for the most part, 4th Edition combat looks just fine to me. But if you’re someone who disliked the complexity of high level 3rd Edition encounters, you should be warned that this is par for the course in 4th Edition.
I’ll also say that I have little confidence that I would ever get to a point where I would be able to run 4th Edition encounters flawlessly. The multitude of situational buffs and marks are something that I’m likely to get more right than wrong, but I suspect there’ll always be something getting overlooked at some point during a session.
THE GOOD NEWS: I can’t vouch for this through playtesting, but it looks like this level of complexity stays pretty constant from 1st level to 30th level in 4th Edition. Like many things in the system, if they’ve hit your sweet spot then you’re going to be fairly happy for the duration. But if they’ve missed your sweet spot — or if you had many different sweet spots (and liked the variety of having different styles of gameplay) — then 4th Edition is going to be continuously problematic.
RANGE AND FLEXIBILITY: The range and flexibility of the game has been significant reduced.
(1) Although you can now go from 1st to 30th level, the scale of actual power wielded by your characters is significantly smaller than it was in previous editions. Both the low-end and the high-end has been lopped off.
(2) You have far less ability to customize your character.
(3) There is a much narrower range (an almost nonexistent range) of play-styles supported. In “Death of the Wandering Monster”, I talked about how there was a huge difference in previous editions between the ways in which clerics, fighters, rogues, and wizards played (for example). This could lead to “balance” problems if a particular group’s style of play catered to one style of play over another, but it also meant, in my experience, that different players gravitated towards their preferred style of play and, if they got bored with that style of play, they could switch to another style and keep the game fresh.
4th Edition, on the other hand, only offers different gameplay within the context of combat. And, even there, the differences are not as significant as in previous editions.
ROLES AND CLASSES: On this topic, however, I also want to suggest that you consciously toss out whatever preconceptions you may have about how the different classes play based on previous editions. They are almost assurredly wrong.
I also want to encourage you to go one step further and toss out whatever preconceptions you may have formed about how the different roles will play.
For example, in our experienced gaming group we saw that fighters are defenders. Based on how fighters had played in previous editions we had, unconsciously, ended up with some preconceptions about what it meant to be a defender and how a defender should be played.
We were wrong. Not horribly wrong, but wrong enough that until we sat back and re-analyzed our preconceptions the group was meeting with some frustrations.
THE NOVA CYCLE
Speaking of “Death of the Wandering Monster”, the 15-minute adventuring day predictably reappeared in 4th Edition.
This was an interesting thing to observe because the design team for 4th Edition swore that they had done away with the 15-minute adventuring day. But the reality is that, rather than fixing the “problem”, they ended up making it worse.
As I describe in “Death of the Wandering Monster”, the 15-minute adventuring day is the result of a simple mechanical incentive: By design, the spellcasters are supposed to deal more damage less frequently and the fighters are supposed to deal less damage more frequently. Over the long-haul, this should balance out. But the 15-minute adventuring day — in which the spellcasters go into a single encounter, nova their most powerful abilities, rest, and then do it again the next day — destroys this balance. Not only does it result in the spellcasters consistently out-performing the fighters, it also leads to the entire party being far more effective against the opponents that they face.
Some people dislike the 15-minute adventuring day because it feels unnatural to them. But the reality is that it’s actually quite natural. In real life, people rarely fight intense battles and then turn around and immediately go looking for another one. When historical armies have been forced to fight a second battle immediately after the first one, for example, it has generally ended poorly for them. And you’ll basically never see a boxer fight a second match on the same day.
It makes perfect sense, all other things being equal, for characters in a life-and-death situation to use every single resource they have available to end up on the “living” side of that equation. And if that means they have to rest up and gather fresh resources before facing the next life-and-death situation, that makes sense, too.
And ultimately, as I say in “Death of the Wandering Monster”, this leads to the conclusion that the best way to solve this problem is to create a world or story where there is a reason for the characters to persevere. And that solution will work almost as well in 4th Edition as it did in 3rd Edition.
I say “almost as well” because, as I mentioned before, 4th Edition actually ended up making the problem of the 15-minute adventuring day worse. And it did that by making the incentive for doing it larger.
To understand what I mean, let’s talk about the other solution for the 15-minute adventuring day: Removing the mechanical impetus for resting. In order to do that, you have to do at least one of two things:
(1) Completely remove any mechanical benefit for taking a long rest.
(2) Provide a meaningful mechanical bonus for not taking a rest.
4th Edition’s designers apparently believed that they fixed the first problem by making sure that every class was given at-will and encounter abilities — things they could continue doing for as long as they wanted to without ever taking a long rest.
But the nova-rest-nova cycle of gameplay isn’t driven by a character’s least powerful abilities, it’s driven by their most powerful abilities — the things that are designed to be used rarely, but which the nova-rest-nova cycle allows to be used frequently.
In 4th Edition, a character’s most powerful abilities are their daily abiltiies. Which, as the name suggests, still benefit from the nova-rest-nova cycle and the 15-minute adventuring day. But just as all of the classes were given at-will and encounter powers, all of the classes in 4th Edition were given daily powers. Which means that you’ve gone from having one or two characters who could potentially benefit from the nova-rest-nova cycle to having ALL of the PCs potentially benefit from the cycle.
Okay, so what about the other potential mechanical solution — offering some sort of mechanical bonus for not taking a rest?
You can accumulate X action points by going through 2X encounters per day, but this is irrelevant because you can only use 1 action point per encounter and you get 1 action point whenever you take a long rest.
You can also accumulate X daily uses of your magic items by going through 2X encounters per day. This is more useful because, unlike action points, you can use all of your accumulated daily uses for your magic items in a single encounter. But in order to gain that advantage you have to make sure you don’t use the daily use for your magic items in your first Y number of encounters in the day.
And that’s it. So, on the one hand, you have the ability to occasionally use more than one daily use of a magic item in a single encounter. On the other hand you have the ability to use all of your daily powers (including your daily use of a magic item) in every single encounter. It’s not hard to figure out which one represents the larger incentive.
Aggravating this problem even further, there’s the issue of healing surges. Characters have a certain number of healing surges per day, and virtually all healing in 4th Edition works by activating and using up these healing surges. Once you’ve used up your healing surges for the day, you basically can’t be healed any more and you have to rest.
In 3rd Edition, a group who wanted or needed to continue adventuring could invest in resources — like a wand of cure light wounds — that would allow them to do that. In 4th Edition, however, that same group will find itself literally incapable of pressing on.
Take, for example, my experienced gaming group. Because of the way our 3rd Edition campaign is structured, this group rarely experiences a short adventuring day. In fact, they’re usually scrambling to figure out some way to pack even more activity into every single day. This same group hit 4th Edition and, despite my efforts to jack up the sense of urgency in Keep on the Shadowfell, quickly fell into the 15-minute adventuring day. This was partly due to necessity (they were using up healing surges), but it was also largely because the pay-off for doing it was so much greater than it was in previous editions.
Okay, I talked about dissociated mechanics before the 4th Edition rulebooks came out. I was concerned because these types of mechanics make it more difficult for me to do the things I generally enjoy doing in a roleplaying game — immersive roleplaying and world-building. In a worst-case scenario, dissociated mechanics actively impede any kind of roleplaying — when the game mechanics require you to make decisions as a player which have no analogy to the decisions of the character, the game has stopped being a roleplaying game and become something else. (Not necessarily something bad, just something else.)
In practice, I found 4th Edition to be as disappointing as I expected in this regard. The experienced players did, in fact, feel more distanced from their characters by the dissociated mechanics and ended up roleplaying less and focusing on the mechanics more.
The newbie players, on the other hand, roleplayed quite a bit. But this roleplaying was noticeably divided from the mechanical portion of the game — it was like improvising a story around a game of Chess or Life rather than using the improv structure of the roleplaying game.
This type of roleplaying is not unusual for new players. It doesn’t really matter what system you’re using: If they latch on strongly to the concept of roleplaying a character, new players will usually become very creative and think completely outside of the box.
What I discovered, however, was that the dissociated mechanics strewn throughout 4th Edition made it very difficult for me to respond to their creativity.
New players tend to sidestep the game mechanics and interface directly with the game world. When the mechanics are directly associated with the game world, this is easy to handle: You simply take what the new players are telling you, interpret it mechanically, and resolve it. But dissociated mechanics, by definition, create an interpretive barrier.
This problem actually comes from two directions: First, there’s the “you can’t do that” problem. This is what happens when something should be possible in the context of the game world but is impossible in the context of the mechanics. These types of conflicts are black marks on the game design, but are relatively easy to deal with in practice: You simply invoke Rule 0 and let the logic of the game world override the illogic of the game mechanics. Managing the huge number of effective house rules this requires eventually becomes a headache, but in the short term it’s not insurmountable.
The other aspect of this problem, however, is more insidious. 4th Edition is filled with dissociated tactical decision points. (For example, the fact that certain powers are more useful against minions than non-minions and vice versa.) These have no touchstone with the game world, which means that whenever somebody is trying to engage directly with the game world every single one of these decision points becomes a stumbling block. Dissociated mechanics, by their very nature, insist that you pay attention to them instead of your character’s world if you want to play the game.
Long story short: Dissociated mechanics are bad and 4th Edition is riddled with them.
Note: This essay was written a little over a week and a half ago. Between the time I wrote it and today (as I post it), Wizards of the Coast has released errata for 4th Edition which corrects some (but not all) of the problems described below.
Since this essay still accurately describes my playtesting experience and serves as an apt critique of the rules as they were published, I have chosen not to rewrite it. However, I have added an Errata Addendum to the end of the essay discussing the changes that were made in the errata.
I’ve also talked about skill challenges before. Having completed my playtesting, here are my current thoughts on the matter:
(1) Skill challenges in their most general form are unusable as written because they’re so heavily dissociative. They are fundamentally disconnected from the game world (caring not about what the PCs have done, but merely how much they have done) and create strangely skewing probabilities, among other problems.
(2) Skill challenges in the specific form described in the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide are unusable because they mandate railroading. If you follow the rules in the DMG you are supposed to (a) write a script for the PCs to follow; (b) tell them the script; and (c) if they try to deviate from the script, punish them for it with more difficult skill checks.
(3) Skill challenges are unusable because their probability is wacky. I’m not going to delve into the maths, but basically what it boils down to is that a 65% chance of success on a skill check is the watershed: If you have less than a 65% chance of succeeding at the skill checks making up a skill challenge, your chance of success on any skill challenge is very small and shrinks rapidly towards the essentially non-existent as you increase the complexity of the skill challenge.
If your chance of success is exactly 65%, then increasing the complexity of the skill challenge is virtually irrelevant (even though it’s supposed to be getting more difficult). And if your chance of success is larger than 65%, then skill challenges actually get easier as the complexity increases (when it’s supposed to be getting harder).
This is obviously not working properly. And, when you run the actual numbers of the system, you discover that the PCs generally have about a 10-20% chance of succeeding on a skill challenge designed for their level.
(Here’s a fix for the probability issues that looks pretty good to me as I glance over it. The author has also done some interesting things in terms of adding some depth to the gameplay of skill challenges. I haven’t fully delved into it, but it looks like it’s worth checking out. Note that, while this fixes the wacky probabilities of WotC’s skill challenges, it doesn’t address the emergent probability skewing which is an inherent characteristic of the dissociation arising from open skill challenges.)
(4) Even if you fix the probability, skill challenges are surprisingly boring in actual gameplay.
In the best case scenario, skill challenges simply duplicate the gameplay of previous editions: The players propose a course of action, the DM determines the skill and the DC, and then a check is made to determine success. In this scenario you’re tracking a bunch of extra numbers and suffering from the inherent dissociation of the system, but you’re not actually gaining any sort of reward for your effort.
In the worst case scenario, skill challenges turn one interesting die roll into six to ten monotonous die rolls. (And you’re still tracking the extra numbers and suffering from the inherent dissociation of the system.)
(5) The only potential benefit you gain from using the skill challenge system is that it gives you a structure for rewarding XP. But the wacky probabilities alone assures that this “system” is just as likely to erroneously give you a larger reward for an easier challenge.
Here’s another example of this “system” in action, from pg. 73 of the DMG: “If you use easy DCs, reduce the level of the challenge by one. If you use hard DCs, increase the levelof the challenge by two.”
When we look at the table for DCs by Level on pg. 42 of the DMG, we can quickly see that this is complete nonsense. For example, at 10th level the values are easy DC 17, moderate DC 21, hard DC 25. The guideline is claiming that if you take a 10th level challenge with moderate DCs and redesign it with easy DCs, you should end up with something equivalent to a 9th level challenge with moderate DCs. But you don’t. At 9th level, the moderate DC is 19, not 17. A 10th level challenge with easy DCs is, in fact, equivalent to a 6th level challenge.
Similarly, a 10th level challenge with hard DC 25 is not equivalent to a 12th level challenge with moderate DCs. It’s actually the equivalent of a 20th level skill challenge.
The “difference” between a 10th level skill challenge and a 12th level skill challenge actually reveals the complete absurdity of this “system”. That’s because there isn’t one. The DCs by Level table on pg. 42 of the DMG assigns the same values to every 3 levels. So levels 10-12 are all grouped together and have the same DCs for skill checks. Despite the fact that they’re identical in every way, a 10th level skill challenge with complexity 3 only rewards 1500 XP whereas a 12th level skill challenge with complexity 3 rewards 2100 XP.
This “system” is worse than useless. It’s literally just generating random noise and isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
(6) I still think there’s some real potential in the basic concept of social skill challenges. But the extant system isn’t even a stepping stone towards achieving that: You basically want to throw out everything the DMG has to say about skill challenges and start over from scratch.
(7) I also discovered some interesting uses for the basic concept of skill challenges in structuring cooperative disabling of dynamic traps. Once again, however, this requires you to scrap everything the DMG has to say about using traps and skill challenges before rebuilding the system from scratch.
What it really boils down in the final analysis is that complex skill checks are a useful mechanic. In other words, when you have a specific task defined by a concrete goal and a single method of success — such as disabling a trap, disarming a bomb, or playing a game of Chess — that is best modeled as a sequence of discrete actions, the basic formula of X successes before Y failures is a useful way of representing that mechanically. Even the S-curve probability distribution works well for these types of scenarios (it becomes a feature instead of a bug as skill trumps luck in larger and more complex tasks).
You can even get away with generalizing this to some extent: For example, you can use this structure to say that you can disable a magical trap by making Arcana checks, Thievery checks, or by dealing damage to the structure of the trap. By allowing these disparate checks to all feed into a single complex skill check, you facilitate cooperation in a way that’s far more dynamic and interesting than just using the Aid Another action.
But the skill challenge “system” as it’s presented in the DMG? Dissociative, broken, and useless. Don’t waste your time.
SKILL CHALLENGES – ERRATA ADDENDUM
In response to the general public outcry over the shoddy and unusable skill challenge mechanics published in the DMG, WotC responded in mid-July with errata aimed at correcting some of the more egregious problems with skill challenges. I’m going to take a few moments here to take a second look at the problems with the skill challenge mechanics and analyze how they were (or weren’t) corrected.
DISSOCIATION: Nothing was done to correct the heavily dissociated nature of the skill challenge system.
PROBLEMS WITH PROBABILITY: The errata corrected the most egregious and obvious of the probability problems with skill challenges. Notably, more complex skill challenges no longer become easier for people with higher skill modifiers. However, the probability of success still varies radically as you move away from the baseline values assumed at each level. This means that min-maxing is heavily rewarded. It also means that, rather than encouraging the participation of everyone at the gaming table (the purported design goal of skill challenges), the system instead rewards the group for figuring out whoever has the highest applicable skill modifier and then having that character roll all the checks.
(This means that skill challenges are yet another example of 4th Edition providing a “solution” to a “problem” which actually ends up making the problem worse rather than better. Brilliant.)
This probability pattern also means that tackling a skill challenge a couple levels higher than your current level is much more difficult than tackling a combat encounter a couple levels higher than your current level (and vice versa).
However, with all that being said, the emergent probability skews of the system (which result from the possibility of multiple paths of succcess and the dissociated nature of the mechanic) still remain.
EXPERIENCE AWARDS: They partially fixed their inability to perform simple arithmetic by removing the XP guidelines based on using Easy vs. Moderate vs. Hard DCs. Instead, you just vary the level of the challenge to make it easier or harder. However, this ignores the fact that there remains a significant difference between a skill challenge which features Easy DCs for a given level versus a skill challenge which features Hard DCs for a given level. (Nor are any solid guidelines given for the proporion of Easy vs. Moderate vs. Hard DCs you should be using.)
They also fixed the discrepancy where, for example, 10th level and 12th level skill challenges were statistically identical but had significantly different rewards by simply limiting skill challenges to the mid-point of each level range. (So, for you example, you can have 11th level skill challenges, but not 10th or 12th level skill challenges.)
RAILROADING: They have removed all of the rules requiring the DM to railroad their players. This is excellent news, and since I was (AFAIK) the first person to post these concerns online (both here and at WotC’s messageboards) I feel like I actively contributed to having these pernicious passages removed from the rules.
SLOPPY DESIGN: Skill challenges are essentially one of the core mechanics of 4th Edition. And they royally screwed them up. I’m glad to see that they’re issuing corrections in a timely fashion, but it doesn’t exactly instill a lot of confidence in me that they so fundamentally screwed up the most basic balancing of a core mechanic like this. What does their complete failure here say about any kind of complex interactions in the system?
CASCADING EFFECTS: Because skill challenges are a core mechanic, they’re used extensively throughout the system. For example, they’re a major element in the design of many traps. Despite this fact, the current errata doesn’t correct the design of these traps to match the revised skill challenge guidelines.
DESIGN DISCONNECTS: On June 14th, Mike Mearls stated: “The system went through several permutations as we worked on it, and I think there are some disconnects between the final text, our intentions, and how playtesters and internal designers use skill challenges.”
What I find interesting is the evidence of this disconnect that we have now seen strewn around the handful of books WotC has published for 4th Edition to date. For example, the skill challenges presented in H1: Keep on the Shadowfell don’t match the guidelines found in the DMG nor in the errata. And the skill challenges in H2: Thunderspire Labyrinth? They don’t match the DMG, the errata, or the skill challenges found in Keep on the Shadowfell.
That means that we have seen literally four different iterations of the skill challenge mechanics coming out of WotC.
This is, frankly, bizarre. And it speaks, again, to the fundamentally (and inexplicably) sloppy design of 4th Edition.
USABILITY: It should be noted that the errata itself is fairly unusable in its published form. I know it’s standard practice in WotC’s errata to simply include the relevant changes, but in this case the changes are of a nature which makes neither the rulebook nor the errata usable.
Notably, the revision of the skill challenge mechanics also included a revision of the Difficulty Class and Damage by Level table on pg. 42 of the DMG. For those of you unfamiliar with 4th Edition, this table is the heart and soul of the system. I don’t think there’s been a table so crucial to the playing of D&D since the hit tables in AD&D1 were replaced with THAC0. And it’s been rendered unusable by the errata… which only replicates the three key columns which have been altered (without the other columns which give the information in those columns any relevance).
And since they didn’t get this problem fixed before they printed the Dungeon Master’s Screen for 4th Edition… well, that won’t fix your problem, either. You’ll need to recreate the table yourself by combining the information from the DMG and the errata.
Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.
THE BOTTOM LINE: For me, the bottom line hasn’t changed much. Skill challenges are still dissociative, (slightly less) broken, and useless.
4th Edition has gutted the non-combat portions of the game. It took me awhile to really come to grips with this because there is a large degree to which familiarity with previous editions causes you to simply glaze over what’s missing from the new edition. But once I realized what I was seeing, and really focused on the problem, it quickly became clear that the designers had decided that D&D was a game about combat, combat, and more combat.
NON-COMBAT SKILLS: The skill system in 4th Edition has been “simplified”. Part of this means reducing the flexibility and freedom of choice to be found in 3rd Edition (while gaining no appreciable benefit from the loss), but the other part of it is the systematic removal of non-combat skills and non-combat skill uses.
When I have brought this up in discussion with diehard supporters of 4th Edition, I have often been told that I’m wrong: There are still some non-combat skills and skill uses left in the game.
This is true. But if you cut off both my legs and one of my arms, the fact that you left me with one working hand doesn’t mean that you haven’t mutilated me.
Appraise, Craft, Decipher Script, Handle Animal, several Knowledge skills, Perform, Profession, Ride, and Use Rope are all completely gone. Disguise and Forgery have been dumped into the Bluff skill, but have no associated skill uses. (This is the entirety of their description in 4th Edition: “You make a Bluff check to […] pass off a disguise or fake documentation…”)
And when you look at the skills which do remain, non-combat uses for those skills have also been widely removed from the game. (On the other hand, several new combat uses for skills have been added — so it’s not that they were just paring the whole list down.)
In play, this wasn’t just hypothetically problematical. Twice in our very first session of 4th Edition the players ran straight into the wall of missing non-combat skills. And, of course, I was left improvising house rules on the fly to cover over the gaping holes left in the rules.
I don’t expect any rule system to be encyclopedic, but the advantage 3rd Edition had was a comprehensive structure of skills that made improvising non-detailed tasks really simple. In years of playing 3rd Edition, I can’t remember a single time I ran into a situation where I could say, “There’s no skill for that.” Which meant that my task in 3rd Edition was simply figuring out the appropriate DC to use. In mere hours of playing 4th Edition we ran into “there’s no skill for that” multiple times, necessitating the creation of entire mechanics. (The sheer number of mandatory minor house rules you have to track in order to run 4th Edition in a consistent fashion is truly mind-boggling to me.)
What leaves me scratching my head over this design decision is that, with the new method of handling skills at character creation, it was so totally unnecessary. The only legitimate complaint against having lots of skills in 3rd Edition is that some PC classes arguably don’t have enough skill points to take a significant selection of those skills. However, in 4th Edition that concern has been completely negated. So why not invest the 2 or 3 pages of text it would have taken to provide the same level of comprehensive support for non-combat skill use in 4th Edition that you had in 3rd Edition?
NON-COMBAT EQUIPMENT: I’ve talked about this before, but all non-adventuring equipment and most of the non-combat adventuring equipment has gone M.I.A. in 4th Edition. This includes staples of the dungeon crawling genre like 10-foot poles, chalk dust, and the like.
NON-COMBAT POWERS: Finally, when you compare the spells and class abilities in 3rd Edition to the powers and rituals available in 4th Edition the new game’s wholesale embrace of combat and systematic rejection of non-combat play becomes pretty obvious. And this, naturally, spills over into the magic items available in the game, as well.
As with skills, it’s not as if there aren’t any non-combat powers in 4th Edition. It’s just that the number of non-combat options have been drastically reduced, while the number of combat options has been increased.
COMBAT, COMBAT, COMBAT: Of course, it’s not as if D&D has ever been a combat-lite game. But 4th Edition puts its hand firmly on the combat side of the scale and pushes down hard. Frankly, the game hasn’t been this myopic in its combat-focus since the original 1974 boxed set… and that was when the game was little more than an expansion pack for the Chainmail tactical miniatures game.
The simple reality here is that D&D miniatures are, by all accounts, more profitable for WotC than D&D books are. It’s little wonder, I suppose, that we have been given rules that look like a tactical miniatures game and adventures which are explicitly designed as a series of tactical combat encounters complete with set-up instructions for the miniatures.
Personally, I have little interest in the direction this has taken the game. Tactical miniatures combat is not the primary reason I play roleplaying games. And, honestly, I feel that WotC has made a wider strategic mistake. They have stated that one of their design goals with 4th Edition was to appeal to a new generation of gamers and that, to win the attention of that generation, they would need to compete against video games like World of Warcraft and Diablo.
But the people who play D&D for the excitement of hack ‘n slash combat are the players you are least likely to retain in a head-to-head matchup with computer and video games. You can get the same basic style of combat in Diablo, after all. But you get it faster, with prettier graphics, and without having to do the math. Plus, you can play any time you want to. You can even play with your friends (whether they live near you or not), and with a minimal effort (no larger than hauling a sizable miniature collection around) you can set up a LAN party and play with them in person.
Don’t get me wrong: I like having a robust and tactically interesting combat system in D&D. But I believe that, if you want your pen ‘n paper roleplaying games to compete with the video variety, then you shouldn’t be trying to compete with the greatest strengths of video games. D&D will never beat the Diablos of the world when it comes to combat simulation, graphics, or ease of play.
Where pen ‘n paper roleplaying games can separate themselves from the video variety is outside of combat. It is the truly open-ended nature of the game — the GM’s ability to respond to any scenario or action the players might propose — that video games are still decades away from emulating.
I was hoping that D&D would move towards those strengths, while still retaining all the benefits of its dungeon crawling roots (this really is a situation where you can have your cake and eat it, too). Instead, with 4th Edition, the game embraced its weaknesses.
BALANCE AND PREP
BALANCE: I’ve heard a lot of people talking about how 4th Edition is “less broken” or “more balanced” than 3rd Edition. Personally, I doubt it. When you look at the poor statistical analysis being applied to problems like the 15-minute advenuturing day and skill challenges, I see no reason to assume that the system is particularly robust. I mean, if the designers couldn’t be bothered to calculate the most basic probabilities of their core mechanics, why would I assume they spent any time balancing the complex interactions between different powers and abilities?
On top of that, 4th Edition is so fundamentally different from previous editions of rhe game that the legacy of balance instilled into the system by 30+ years of playtesting no longer exists. Meanwhile, the playtesting for 4th Edition was significantly reduced in scope from the rigorous playtesting that 3rd Edition was subjected to.
So we have a game with (a) less playtesting and (b) demonstrated sloppiness in the design of its most basic elements. And you’re telling me it’s “more balanced” just because the designers told you that they “fixed the math”? C’mon. Within mere days of the game being releasd, the designers had already publicly admitted that they’d actually screwed up the math instead of fixing it.
It’s true that, as I write this just a few short weeks after the game was released, the character optimization boards have not yet ripped Pun-Pun size holes in the game. But it’s not like Pun-Pun cropped up in September 2000, either. (It took four years, a revision of the core rulebooks, and multiple supplements.)
EASE OF PREP: I’ve also heard a lot of people talking about how easy it is for DMs to prep adventures in 4th Edition. This is one of those areas where I’m fully willing to admit that my experience may be extremely different from that of other people playing the game, but frankly I can’t figure out what they’re talking about. Particularly since they seem to be primarily talking about the ease of prepping stat blocks.
For one thing, prepping stat blocks has never taken up more than about 5% of my time when prepping an adventure. It’s such a minuscule portion of the process that any time savings in that area is almost beyond irrelevant.
For another thing, with the exception of wizards (who had the extra hassle of trying to prep spellbooks), the amount of time spent prepping NPCs in 4th Edition has actually increased compared to 3rd Edition.Why? Because the number of decision points (due to powers) has increased for every single non-caster class (and has remained largely unchanged for the caster classes).
Nor is it any easier to create entirely new monsters or tweak existing monster stat blocks in 4th Edition.
However, one thing I do like in 4th Edition is the multitude of stat blocks in the Monster Manual. It really is a huge time saver to have a half dozen different stat blocks for orcs that I can immediately plug ‘n play into an adventure, instead of having to build every orc by hand from the basic stat block for the race. It’s a design choice that I liked in the later 3rd Edition Monster Manuals and it’s just as valuable here.
Unfortunately, the Monster Manual as a whole is probably one of the worst ever published for the game. Descriptive text has been pared down to a bare minimum… and often less than a bare minimum. It would be tempting to blame this lack of descriptive text on the multiple stat blocks, but that’s just not the case: Monster Manual V for 3rd Edition, for example, featured multiple stat blocks without gutting the descriptive text.
One example of this would be the guulvorg. First appearing in Monster Manual V, guulvorgs were recently created by goblin transmuters experimenting upon worg stock. Huge creatures with a tail of bulbous bone and blood which literally boils in their veins (and scorches those who wound them), the guulvorgs were given enough detail that they stood out as a unique variant of the standard worg.
In 4th Edition, on the other hand, guulvorgs “are often encountered in pairs (a male and a female). They are capable of bearing Large riders into battle.”
That’s the entirety of the creature’s description in the Monster Manual. And this is a pattern which is repeated over and over again throughout the book. If you already know what these monsters are, then the book has a high utility. If you aren’t already familiar with older editions of the game, however, the book is nothing more than a collection of extremely bland stat blocks.
This contributes heavily to the feeling that 4th Edition is nothing more than a tactical miniatures game.
And the dissociated mechanics in the Monster Manual are just actively painful to read. I think my “favorite” of the moment is the cyclops who has better depth perception because he only has one eye.
… I wish to God I was making that up:
EVIL EYE (minor; at will)
Range sight; the cyclops impaler gains a +2 bonus to ranged attacks made against the target. It can designate only one target with its evil eye at a time.
The Evil Eye is also an example of another 4th Edition design principle that I just can’t wrap my head around: Racial traits that aren’t.
In the case of the cyclops, every single cyclops stat block has an Evil Eye ability listed… but they’re all different. One grants a free basic melee attack; another grants a bonus to ranged attacks; another lets the cyclops shift 2 squares instead of 1; another applies a penalty to a target’s speed; and so forth. There’s no common thread to these abilities except that they’re all called “Evil Eye”.
D&D IS DEAD, LONG LIVE 4TH EDITION
I want to talk for a moment about my own personal history with D&D. I’ve previously described on this site how I first got into roleplaying games. I still remember walking into Pinnacle Games in Rochester, MN and seeing the five D&D boxed sets — the Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal boxes — spread out rainbow-like along the top of a shelf. I spent months saving my allowance money in order to buy one boxed set after another, with each new purchase expanding the scope and depth of the game for me.
This was during the summer and fall of 1989, and it wasn’t long before I had picked up the AD&D 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. Then I picked up a used copy of the 1st Edition Monster Manual, which I used in conjunction with the 2nd Edition rulebooks for nearly half a decade until the hardcover Monstrous Manual was released in 1993.
During this half-decade span, I was playing with classmates and discussing the game in a variety of online forums, most notably the ADND FidoNet echo. I remember fondly people like Bruce Norman, John Givler, Bruce Norman, Alesia Chamness, Linda Rash, Alaeseus Starbreeze, David Bolack, Laurie Brown, Dr Pepper, and many others. It was here that I first encountered the concept of PBeM campaigns, and watching multiple games play out in slow motion across the echo helped shape my perceptions of what roleplaying games were capable of. When Bruce Norman got an adventure published in Dungeon Magazine, it inspired me to start submitting my own work. John Givler’s prodigious output of homebrewed items, spells, and monsters taught my kit-bashing by example.
(If anyone reading this has text archives from those days, I’d love to hear about it. Mine are fragmentary and incomplete.)
In short, I was young and I was excited by my hobby.
But there was also something else happening during this time period: A growing dissatisfaction with AD&D. Why were the core mechanics such an inconsistent and random jumble? Why couldn’t wizards wear armor (even if they weren’t casting spells)? Why was the alignment system so punitive? Why did demi-humans have level caps? Why was there both a multi-classing system and a dual-classing system that produced such blatantly unbalanced results? And so forth. (This really just scratches the surface.)
And like a lover who has become discontented with his mistress, the existence of so many faults quickly made other foibles and quirks intolerable. Classes instead of a skill system? Vancian spellcasting instead of spell points? Hit points instead of a wound system? Pshaw.
I was hardly alone. Everyone I knew who played AD&D — both online and offline — had campaigns chock full of house rules trying to fix the foibles of the game. In the end, I was playing a version of AD&D using a binder of house rules thicker than the core rulebooks. And eventually I grew sick of doing it. By the late ’90s, I had stopped playing the game entirely.
Then, in 1999, the development of 3rd Edition was announced. I was skeptical and cynical beyond belief. And when Ryan Dancey announced his plans for the Open Gaming License, I found the entire concept absurd: The busted, archaic, creaky mechanics of AD&D were going to take the roleplaying industry by storm? Why would anyone use those rules as a platform for development? I got involved in countless online debates, scoffing at the entire concept.
So I read through the playtest document and I sent Dancey a lengthy list of comments. And then I playtested the game and sent him another list of comments. In short, I did my job.
And Dancey had done his: By the time I finished reading through the playtest document, I was sold on 3rd Edition. What I was holding in my hands was essentially the game I had been trying to create with my binder full of house rules: A unified core mechanic. A skill system coupled to a flexible class system. Arbitrary prohibitions replaced with logical consequences. It even took away with the alignment strait-jacket.
It wasn’t the perfect game. But it felt like the Platonic Ideal of AD&D that all of us had been struggling to find through our incessant house ruling.
And here was the real trick of it: It still played like D&D. It still felt like that game I had fallen in love with back in the summer of ’89 when I first peeled the shrinkwrap off the Basic Set.
Let me take a moment and explain what I mean by that: Yes, THAC0 was gone. Yes, the XP tables had been mucked with. Yes, the saving throw categories had been streamlined. Yes, skills and feats had been added to the game. In fact, the list of changes — if you wanted to be sufficiently nitpicky with it — could be almost endless.
But here’s the rub of it: Playing a fighter still felt like playing a fighter. Playing a wizard still felt like playing a wizard. And so forth.
Playing D&D3 felt as much like playing AD&D as AD&D had felt like playing BECMI.
Which — at the end of this long, winding road of nostalgia — brings me to my point:
Some of the names are still the same, but playing a fighter doesn’t feel like playing a fighter and playing a wizard doesn’t feel like playing a wizard.
Is it still a paper ‘n pencil roleplaying game? Yes. Is it still about exploring dungeons and slaying dragons? Yes.
Does it play like D&D? No.
The gameplay has been fundamentally altered. In similar fashion, both Chess and Stratego are boardgames featuring a highly abstract presentation of war played out on a grid. But Stratego isn’t the same game as Chess… even if you package it in a box with the word CHESS written across it in big, bold letters.
Sure, 4th Edition has the Dungeons & Dragons trademark splashed across its covers. But it isn’t the same game — any more than Rolemaster or Earthdawn or Exalted (all fantasy roleplaying games) are the same game. Or would become the same game just because you slapped the same name on the cover. New Coke may have had the Coke trademarks on its can, but that didn’t make it the same soda.
It should be noted that this isn’t to be taken as indictment of 4th Edition. There’s absolutely nothing about being “not D&D” that necessarily makes it a bad game. There are plenty of great RPGs which aren’t D&D, and Stratego is a fun game even if it isn’t Chess.
But the fact that 4th Edition isn’t the same game I’ve been playing for nearly two decades does play a significant role in why I won’t be making the switch to 4th Edition.
Back in 2002, Ron Edwards coined the term “fantasy heartbreaker”. He used it to refer to all of those games which are the result of their creators believing that they’ve taken the mousetrap (i.e. D&D) and made it a little bit better. In some cases they may be right and in some cases they may be wrong but, as Edwards pointed out, they were all doomed to failure. Why? Well, here Edwards goes off into an ideological rant that I think rather misses the point. But, in my opinion, the primary reason can be boiled down to this:
If I wanted to be play a game like this, I might as well be playing D&D.
There are many reasons for that sentiment to hold true, but I think there are two major ones:
(1) It’s much easier to find a group playing D&D than it is to find a group playing any other RPG.
(2) Most roleplaying gamers are already familiar with D&D — they’ve already learned the game.
So why would you go to the effort of learning a new game and then convincing other people to learn a new game in order to achieve an experience that you can already largely accomplish with a game you know and for which it’s easy to find experienced players?
Now, to be clear: 4th Edition will not be a fantasy heartbreaker. It’s got the Dungeons & Dragons trademark, tons of marketing muscle, and plenty of people who were either dissatisfied with 3rd Edition or just like anything shiny and new. From a commercial standpoint, it’s going to be a huge success by the standards of the industry. (The only open question is (a) whether it will be as large of a success as it could have been if it had taken a different route and (b) whether it will be a success by WotC’s standards.)
But for me, personally, I look on 4th Edition in much the same way that I’ve looked at the many fantasy heartbreakers I’ve read and played over the years. Only moreso. The game I love is not to be found here, and the game that has replaced it beneath the same shiny trademark is (a) intentionally designed to be inferior at doing all of the things that I enjoy doing with D&D and (b) sloppily designed in some fairly fundamental ways. And even if that wasn’t true, 4th Edition has failed to offer any substantive improvements or innovations that would justify abandoning my existing mastery of 3rd Edition in order to learn a fundamentally different game (which is, nevertheless, attempting to scratch the same itch).
D&D is dead. Long live 4th Edition.
But not for me.