The Alexandrian

The Importance of Choice

February 15th, 2011

A person is going to make a cake. They have five or ten pounds of really good, premium quality cake flour. However, something inexplicable happens in their head when they’re putting it together, they think: “Sure, I can use this really good flour and have a really good cake, or I can stretch it a little and make it only a little less good by substituting a cup of sand for a cup of that really valuable flour…”

Corrollary disease: “This flour is soooo good that if I add a lot more of it, the cake will be that much better.”

DADHACKER
(2002/12/30)

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: The meme that D&D is all about “killing monsters and taking their stuff” is a caustic one.

In recent years, however, this meme has only gotten stronger, largely due to the design methodology flowing out of Wizards of the Coast. (Although there’s certainly a feedback-loop between WotC and the echo-chamber CharOp branch of the fandom which exacerbates the problem.) Pointing to the core design of 4th Edition is trivial, but it can also be clearly seen in the growing predominance of My Precious Encounters(TM) in WotC’s adventure design both before and after the switch to 4th Edition.

Wizards clearly thinks they’ve identified some really awesome flour, and they’re just going to keep pouring more and more of it into their cake mix.

In Treasure Maps & The Unknown I mentioned that setting “kill all the monsters” as the default goal of an adventure inherently funnels everything in the game through the combat system, drastically narrowing the range of potential gameplay. More generally, I’ve talked in the past about the fact that D&D used to support a “big tent” of playing styles and gameplay options and that WotC’s quest to “fix the math” and “find the sweet spot” has systematically shrunk that tent.

Unsurprisingly people left outside of D&D’s shrinking tent have been turning to other games in droves, reportedly allowing Pathfinder to tie or out-sell D&D in recent months. (A level of competition D&D has never experienced except when it was briefly out of print during TSR’s near-bankruptcy.)

But I digress. For right now, I want to delve a little deeper into the significant, debilitating effects of setting “kill all the monsters” at the sole pinnacle of D&D gameplay.

EXTRA CREDIT: CHOICE AND CONFLICT

Let me start with this:

The video is very well done, but if you don’t want to watch the whole video, allow me to summarize the key points. It’s talking about the importance of choice (“good games feature choice at every moment”), and in order to better understand choice it breaks player actions down into several categories:

1. Autonomic Actions. (Breathing, keeping your heart beating, etc.)

2. Reactions. (Pulling your hand away from a flame.)

3. Calculations. (Decisions based solely on reason: A choice between options in which there is a clear correct answer. For example, buying a game for $40 instead of $60 when it’s the exact same game. Or, in a more complicated fashion, choosing not to place your hand on a hot oven.)

4. True Choices. (Requiring the overcoming of internal conflict.)

“Without internal conflict there is no choice, only decisions.”

Or, to put it another way, true choice requires you to have two objectives which are put into conflict with each other. You have to choose whether to pursue Objective A while risking or abandoning Objective B, or vice versa.

The problem with many games, as the video points out, is that the player is frequently presented with only a single objective (or several objectives which don’t conflict with each other). At that point, there is no choice: There is only the calculation of the best possible method of achieving your objective and/or the testing of physical skill in order to achieve that outcome.

One type of choice you see in many game is an “incomplete information problem” — where calculations are turned into choices by forcing the player to make the decision before they have enough information to make a reliable calculation. (Tangent: You’ll occasionally see discussions where people claim that you can’t have meaningful choice unless the players are completely informed about what each choice means, but this is not generally true. And it’s only specifically true in the case of a complete tabula rasa in which the choice is nothing more than a random number generation — but such tabula rasa states are so utterly unlikely in any sort of real gameplay that it’s not really worth wasting our time fretting about them.)

The other type of choice, and the one I’m most concerned with here, is the “incomparable”. This is often found in character creation systems, where you have to choose between two options which cannot be directly compared with each other.

“The problem with many games,” as the video says. “Is that they mask calculations as incomparables.”

The example they point to is World of Warcraft, in which the talent trees of character advancement appear to contain a multitude of choices. But experienced players know that these talent trees conflate down to just a handful of “best builds”. Why? Because virtually all of your choices on the talent tree are aimed at increasing your DPS or your healing output.

In other words, the “choices” on the talent trees are not fundamentally different. They are all ways of achieving one particular goal, and therefore there will almost certainly end up being one or two “best ways” to achieve that goal (calculation).

CONFLICT

You see where I’m going with this, right?

When you focus the entirety of D&D on combat mechanics, you are simplifying the game down to a single goal. The effects of this are clear:

First, it creates a market for “best builds”. More than that, when certain builds become sufficiently “best” they effectively break the game: You either play those builds or you’re being outclassed by those who are playing those builds. (If you’re supporting multiple goals, on the other hand, the problem is lessened: There may be a “best build for X”, but since X isn’t the totality of the game it doesn’t invalidate other character builds. Which isn’t to say that you need to toss concept balance out on its ear, but it does significantly reduce the pressure to turn everything into identical, bland pablum.)

Second, you can “fix the math” all you want in an effort to make all builds equal. It doesn’t change the fact that you’ve eliminated meaningful choice from the core mechanics of your game. (It should go without saying, of course, that you can eliminate large swaths of meaningful choice while still leaving some choices intact.)

In short, you are reducing your game to a mere calculation.

CHOICE

In considering the importance of choice in game design, take a moment to ponder the meaningful distinction between Chess and Tic-Tac-Toe. (The former has meaningful choices; the latter is a mere calculation.) Or the distinction between War and Poker. (The former is pure chance; the latter has meaningful choice.)

With that being said, of course, choice isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all of game design. For example, we embrace an element of chance in poker just as we embrace it in a typical RPG’s combat system.

But I do believe that, when compared to other games, choice is peculiarly important for roleplaying games. Because, in my opinion, choice is the defining quality of roleplaying games. I think the best definition of “roleplaying” is, in fact, “making choices as if you were your character”.

So when you begin removing choice from a roleplaying game, you are removing the entire reason for playing an RPG in the first place.

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34 Responses to “The Importance of Choice”

  1. Neonchameleon says:

    You see where I’m going with this, right?

    When you focus the entirety of D&D on combat mechanics, you are simplifying the game down to a single goal. The effects of this are clear:

    First, it creates a market for “best builds”. More than that, when certain builds become sufficiently “best” they effectively break the game: You either play those builds or you’re being outclassed by those who are playing those builds.

    You know, you appear to have described 3e almost perfectly here. Spellcasters were king, and optimizers ran rampant over the game in a way they really don’t in 4e. Regardless of the theory, by levelling things off so everyone is competent in life or death situations, and no one is overwhelming, putting far less pressure on people to go onto an optimising treadmill.

    (If you’re supporting multiple goals, on the other hand, the problem is lessened: There may be a “best build for X”, but since X isn’t the totality of the game it doesn’t invalidate other character builds.

    This may be true. But as far as D&D is concerned, it is only a minor factor. The single biggest spur for optimisation isn’t issues with DPR (which on the optimisation board are treated as a game). It’s balance issues between Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit.

    Which isn’t to say that you need to toss concept balance out on its ear, but it does significantly reduce the pressure to turn everything into identical, bland pablum.)

    Then it’s a good job that Shamans and Rogues aren’t identical. Or even close. And when you toss balance out on its ear, that’s when you get overrun by people optimising hard to avoid being BMX Bandit or who want to be Archangel Summoner. Balance is the counter to optimisation.

    Second, you can “fix the math” all you want in an effort to make all builds equal. It doesn’t change the fact that you’ve eliminated meaningful choice from the core mechanics of your game.

    Except not all builds are equal. If they were equal then there would only be one class – never mind roles. Of course if you eliminate more than 30 classes from 4e and then eliminate options beyond that you’ve eliminated meaningful choice.

    But that’s the strawman version of balance. The goal is to make sure everyone has a part to play and can do what they do sufficiently well that they are going to look good much of the time.

    (It should go without saying, of course, that you can eliminate large swaths of meaningful choice while still leaving some choices intact.)

    Which is what happened in 4e. Removing both Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit.

    In short, you are reducing your game to a mere calculation.

    Yes. If you take your case beyond the bounds of common sense.

    So when you begin removing choice from a roleplaying game, you are removing the entire reason for playing an RPG in the first place.

    Complete and utter balderdash. Angel Summoner has many choices. But there’s always one good choice. Send In The Angels. Every other choice by either Angel Summoner or BMX Bandit is so overwhelmingly inferior that because Angel Summoner can Call Forth the Angelic Hordes that is effectively the only choice going. Remove the Angels and the number of effective choices opens up.

    When one choice is clearly superior to another then you don’t have choice. You have an intelligence test. Balance isn’t about making everything bland, it’s about making sure as many choices as possible are meaningful. If that takes removing the “choice” of whether to summon the angels, so be it.

  2. Neonchameleon says:

    … apparently html in comments doesn’t work. Edited for flow.

    You know, with comments like creating a market for best builds you appear to have described 3e almost perfectly here. Spellcasters were king, and optimizers ran rampant over the game in a way they really don’t in 4e. Regardless of the theory, by levelling things off so everyone is competent in life or death situations, and no one is overwhelming, putting far less pressure on people to go onto an optimising treadmill.

    This may be true. But as far as D&D is concerned, the multiple specialisations it is only a minor factor. The single biggest spur for optimisation isn’t issues with DPR (which on the optimisation board are treated as a game with many of their best builds openly being unplayable). It’s balance issues between Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit.

    It’s a good job that Shamans and Rogues aren’t identical. Or even close – which undermines your comment about bland pablum. And when you toss balance out on its ear, that’s when you get overrun by people optimising hard to avoid being BMX Bandit or who want to be Archangel Summoner. Balance is the counter to optimisation.

    If all builds were equal then there would only be one class – never mind roles. Of course if you eliminate more than 30 classes from 4e and then eliminate options beyond that you’ve eliminated meaningful choice.

    But that’s the strawman version of balance. The goal is to make sure everyone has a part to play and can do what they do sufficiently well that they are going to look good much of the time.

    You only reduce the game to calculation if you take your case beyond the bounds of common sense. On the other hand, Angel Summoner has reduced the game to a mere calculation: how long will it take the angels to succeed.

    It’s balderdash to say that when you begin removing choice you are removing the entire reason for playing a RPG in the first place*; Angel Summoner has many choices. But there’s always one good choice. Send In The Angels. Every other choice by either Angel Summoner or BMX Bandit is so overwhelmingly inferior that because Angel Summoner can Call Forth the Angelic Hordes that is effectively the only choice going. Remove the Angels and the number of effective choices opens up.

    When one choice is clearly superior to another then you don’t have choice. You have an intelligence test. Balance isn’t about making everything bland, it’s about making sure as many choices as possible are meaningful. If that takes removing the “choice” of whether to summon the angels, so be it.

    * Never mind removing the ability to play a superhero because you want to play Call of Cthulu.

  3. rorschachhamster says:

    The example of BMX-Bandit and Angel Summoner is fitting – but Angel Summoner is the default for 4e, imo. It’s flashy, it’s powerful, it’s heroic on the first glimpse -and it is not, because Angel Summoner and his friends Mighty Masher and Bloodyhanded Backstabber can do away with everything with the blink of an eye (but it uses hours of game time – at least Angelic Summoner gets his cut-scene). You could put everything in a blender and get Mighty Summoner and Angel Backstabber and Bloodyhanded Masher – totally balanced and totally without interesting choices, but a lot of options. But options are not choices. The encounters in 4e are like the dumbed cr-system in 3e on steroids. Boring.
    Give me a party of BMX-Bandits against all odds and Hooray! for every time they actually succeed. And for the times they fail… at least they tried!
    No Hooray! for Angelic Summoner and his friends. They will never lose a balanced* fight, so they can’t win one, either.

    *(see what I did? :) )

  4. Justin Alexander says:

    Not sure why HTML isn’t working, but I’ll try to get that fixed.

    With that being said, Neonchameleon, you seem to have missed the point. My point is that to treat an RPG as if it were a combat skirmish game is a mistake. But your reply betrays that the idea of My Precious Encounter(TM) design is so deeply ingrained into your understanding of what an RPG is that you’re incapable of looking beyond that narrow paradigm.

  5. Sashas says:

    Re Justin Alexander:

    I’m with you up until the very last section. I disagree with all of your examples in that section, however. Chess and Tic Tac Toe are both purely Calculations. All supposed Choice in either is Calculation masked by lack of data. Their situations are in fact absolutely identical, except for a massive difference in scale. Similarly, the difference between War and Poker is that Poker has Calculation, while War doesn’t. (In all fairness, I can concede that Poker has Choice insofar as the player must reconcile the goals of Win the Hand and Win Money Overall.)

    That said, I do agree that Choice is the defining characteristic of RPGs, for basically the same reasons you put forward.

    Re Neonchameleon:

    “But there’s always one good choice. Send In The Angels.”

    What you are describing and responding to is defined above as a Calculation. A Calculation is characterized by having many means to achieve a single goal. In order for a set of options to constitute a Choice, there must be multiple goals available. To create an actual Choice for the Angel Summoner, I would propose the following:

    “Send In The Angels… but Where?” You (the Angel Summoner) have a Choice. You have time to save your Dad, or the Planet, but probably not both. If you’re as lucky as Luke, you may be able to pull both victories out of your hat, but you still have to Choose which to focus on, or make the Choice to split your energies evenly. Once you’ve chosen the goal(s) you will pursue, then the question of how you achieve those goals is answered by Calculation. In this case, it’s easy: Send In The Angels.

    The problem with focusing solely on combat in an RPG is that if you only have one goal (Kill Monsters), all of the Choices go away, leaving you only with Calculations of how to achieve that goal. Once you only have Calculations, there is indeed no reason to play the BMX Bandit when you can instead play the Angel Summoner, and 4e-style balance is required. This balance, in turn, takes some of your Calculations and masks them as Choices by making the values produced by the calculation as indistinguishable as possible. To use your example, Shamans and Rogues are in fact the same: both help the party kill the bad guys. The question of which is better at this task is a Calculation which, luckily for 4e, is rather difficult to answer.

  6. Neonchameleon says:

    An encounter is a scene. Nothing more, nothing less. Whenever you have a chance of failure that’s an encounter. And yes, it’s about short term goals. Which puts it head and shoulders above 3.X where the answer to both short and long term goals was the same: Play A Spellcaster. Spellcasters beat non-casters at short term goals and utterly *crushed* them at long term. The core reason I choose not to play 3e is because I want my long term goals to not be answered simply by riffling through a spellbook or praying to a God for the right spells the next day. An RPG is not a combat skirmish game – and I don’t treat e.g. Dread as anything approaching one. Dungeons and Dragons on the other hand is extremely combat heavy and has been ever since 2e removed the XP for GP rule. Because it’s so heavy and survival is such an imperative you need to be good at it with whatever character you play. I’m looking at a skirmish heavy paradigm because I’m looking at Dungeons and Dragons and the clue’s in the name (and the reward metric).

    As for balanced fights being the default in 4e – yes they are. Or rather unbalanced in the favour of the PCs. Do the PCs in my 4e campaigns risk death every time they start a fight? I took the wizard to 2 points off automatically dead yesterday when the party had used all its healing. (No, it wasn’t a balanced fight – I’m running sandbox and the party had wandered outside their level area. If I hadn’t started by using a 20 sided d10 as one of my attack dice by mistake, things would have been much worse). The previous fight was a cakewalk to the point it was barely worth rolling (an entire party plus half a kobold tribe vs a nasty kobold shaman). And the fight before that the barbarian was unconscious and would have died if she didn’t make the save against ongoing damage. There is a *substantial* risk of death. Which makes your complaints about Angel Summoner seem irrelevant. 4e people are all extremely well trained combatants – but it’s (at least since they fixed monster damage) not somewhere you escape without a scratch. Unlike the smart Batman Wizard approach in 3e (if you let them reach you you’d already screwed up). Angel Summoner is far closer to 3e’s CoDzilla than it is to the 4e SAS.

    Which is especially true as all balance really is is information. In a balanced system you can tell roughly what the chances are that things will happen. But 3e stopped publishing unbalanced encounters after there was a fan outcry when there was a roper in an otherwise low level dungeon.

  7. Andrew says:

    The video game Neverwinter Nights is different than playing Dungeons and Dragons. One character, and possibly a sidekick, chop through the game killing dragons and such as a matter of course. The loot gets ridiculous. Gear is chosen on the basis of ability to get through the game more or less alone, rather than for focusing on any specialization or style.

    Baldur’s Gate, it was a running joke that any conversation tree gone far enough resulted in the NPC attacking you.

    And really, when I’m running a game world, I want a maximum of interaction with the game world that you simply can’t expect of a video game that lacks the flexibility of an engaged person refereeing (though it crunches the numbers and tracks the rounds and rules far better and faster). The goals are different, the measure of success is different. I have a player who wants to make allies of as many factions in the game world as possible. That is not an option in a dungeon focused game, but could be in a role played dungeon. There is a great example of choice.

    One goal is to accomplish the mission, another is to form alliances. Sometimes you must choose between them–but sometimes not. This character having a voice in party decision making brings a different perspective to the standard decision trees.

    Rather than getting mired down in a discussion of the advantages and failures of various systems, I pose this question. What flexibility does the system offer for rewarding various styles of play?

    In other words, is the system flexible enough to reward both those groups that want to negotiate and use stealth and circumvent problems, AND those groups that want to gleefully mangle everything that is not on their side?

    Can the system handle court etiquette stories, and mysteries, and cross country races, and seduction, and training? Ultimately, the variety of systems available to resolve questions is an insight into the range of conflicts and choices supported by the game, not just overlaid on the game by “hand waving” and house rules.

    From that perspective, I think 3e is more flexible.

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    I find it fascinating, Neonchameleon, that you can lead off a comment by admitting that RPGs shouldn’t be designed as combat skirmish games… but then you apparently find it impossible to talk about anything except balancing D&D as if it were a combat skirmish game.

    (I’m also amused that the Amazon ad on this page is featuring BMX Bandits and Tic-Tac-Toe games.)

  9. Neonchameleon says:

    Roleplaying games aren’t tactical skirmish games. There is no way in which e.g. Dread can be described as tactical skirmish games. Dread is a roleplaying game based over Jenga. Jenga is at the core of Dread. And if you were to force one person to play using tongs, it would unbalance Jenga. Dogs in the Vineyard is not a tactical skirmish game. It’s a roleplaying ame based on something like liar’s dice. And this is at the heart of Dogs in the Vineyard. And if you were to have one player use loaded dice it would unbalance Dogs badly. Dungeons and Dragons on the other hand *is* based on a tactical skirmish game and has one at the core. And the in character rewards given by 2e and 3e Dungeons and Dragons are primarily for being good at tactical skirmishes (4e less so than 3e because of skill challenges, and 1e and older least of all). Dungeons and Dragons therefore needs balancing for this because it’s an integral part of what it is.

  10. Sebastien Roblin says:

    I don’t believe everybody experienced DnD the same way, neonchameleon. I started playing DnD as a way to experence epic (and to be honest, not particularly free-form) adventures which were roleplaying heavy. Combat abilities were very important, for sure, but at least as important was all the setting and monsters, both implied or explicite. The non-combat abilities of all sorts of spells, monsters, and magic items in 2nd and 3rd edition, and the inclusion of a diverse if admittedly clunky skill system in 3rd edition which implied that there were many things to master outside of strait hack-and-slash, were a big part of the appeal of the game. It never occurred to our original groups to play on a grid, (even though I was previously a war gamer). These non-combat elements were thoroughly stripped or down-sized in 4th edition (“who needs to know what a monster does outside of tactical encounters?” to quote one WoTC article.)

    Now I’m not saying you couldn’t run a roleplaying-intensive game in 4th edition, only that the system has removed a lot of the mechanical incentive/support for it. Skill challenges are interesting premise, but they are presented as a sort of mini-game that you can master by rolling the write sequences of skills optimally, discouraging players and DM from thinking how they could use their characters solve a problem in world/character. That’s not the only way to use the idea, but that pretty much how it’s been vaguely presented.

    3rd edition had its problem, and can be accused of being overly combat centered, but it still did worlds more to acomidate other styles of play. One of the biggest balance problems isn’t simply that casters were more powerful, but that certains classes such as fighters did indeed lack their own non-combat perks/bonuses that gave them explicite abilities to influence the world other than at the point of a sword.

    However, one problem particular to 4th edition is that a lot of classic abilities/spells that have non-combat/dramatic applications (a spell which paralyzes an opponent for an entire scene) were re-balanced in 4th edition to be optimized for combat (paralysis lasts one round, because being paralyzed for longer is too swingy) at the expense of them having a dramatic/believable effect out of combat and in the game world. (Oh wow, my wizards specializes in possibly inconveniencing people for 5 seconds at a time- no wonder they are so feared!)

    To be fair, I think neon chameleon is correct in stating however, that 4th edition still leaves meaningul choices for combat roles (apples-to-oranges type decisions, where you can choose to be better at high-damage output, minion-slaying, healing, mobility, etc.) However, because those decisions lack as much context out of combat, I find them less dramatically satisfying.

  11. Neonchameleon says:

    3rd edition is one of the last roleplaying games I’d use for anything that requires a lot of negotiation let alone an ettiquette story; by 7th level a PHB bard out of the box can break the game in half without trying. Two basic reasons for this – the fundamental brokenness of the diplomacy skill and the overpowered nature of the +30 to bluff from the Glibness spell allow for a “Social God Mode” that requires extensive DM ruling. This isn’t even smart play – it’s just obvious use of the character’s capabilities as intended. And that’s just one class, although the worst offender; even at first level Charm Person can be devastating to plots and plans.

    Because 4e lacks this “Get a bigger hammer” (or rather get a bigger spell) approach out of combat it, to me, makes it a much more viable game outside combat. There is magical support for non-combat tasks, of course. But it’s just that. Support. It doesn’t replace other things the characters would do (and the support is IMO far easier and more consistent than it was in either edition of AD&D). And it also e.g. gives a fighter much more to do outside combat than he ever had in 3e (2+ Int skills out of 36+ is far worse than 3 out of 17 and IME most fighters have a multiclass feat for a fourth*) – and a fighter with trained athletics, acrobatics, and endurance has a very different out of combat role from one with intimidate, heal, and streetwise. Everyone has something to contribute and no one dominates or gets to convert people almost automatically.

    As for context and worldbuilding, to me that’s always been the job of the DM. The ruleset can help (and I find the 4e monster manual surprisingly inspiring; the statblocks tell me how the NPCs think). Or it can hinder by producing nonsensical results. I find the 4e ruleset doesn’t break the larger than life gameworlds I want to run and play in and provides solid mechanical resolution; it’s no Dogs in the Vineyard but as a rules light system it works. 3e’s magic is just too strong and too versatile for me to not write any gameworld round the magic system.

    * And before you say feats, you get more of them in 4e and also get utility powers.

  12. Confanity says:

    Neonchameleon, you seem a little confused. You forget that 3E, despite being “combat heavy” had a wide range of problems to confront and a wide range of solutions, both inside and outside of combat, while 4E has exactly one problem: clear this encounter’s slate of monsters. (With skill encounters it’s not even a “problem;” you just roll the dice the DM tells you to roll until it ends.)

    The real issue is that in 4E, the one problem has one solution: calculate the best way to use your bag of combat powers. Do you want to grind a bunch of at-wills from the start in the hopes that a main enemy will show up or you’ll otherwise get a good opportunity to get the best return on your encounter/daily powers, or do you blow through your major powers quickly to thin out the enemy ranks and then grind at-wills until the encounter finally drags to an end? Because all classes are mechanically identical except for the flavor text, there’s nothing else to do and it gets rather boring rather quickly.

    Real DnD, on the other hand, lets you face a wild variety of situations that demand a variety of builds. Do you really think spellcasters are the win button? Then you’ve never heard of random encounters, I guess, which force spellcasters to keep something in reserve unless the situation is desperate. You’ve never thought that the party’s camp might be attacked after they nova their spells but before they rest up and gain new ones. You’ve never heard of antimagic or wild magic, of monsters with spell resistance, of bookworms (wizards’ bane!) or thaumivores or any of the thousand ways, from a pitching ship deck to biting flies to simple attacks of opportunity, that spellcasting can be interrupted.

    For that matter, you were so busy calculating the best monster-crusher than you forgot that PCs can also fight NPCs with class levels. ODnD, AD&D, and 3E DnD spellcasters are powerful, yes, but also squishy and easily interrupted unless protected by the party. I’ve played a monk whose build was very specifically anti-personnel; not the most useful against a dire boar, perhaps, but he could Hide and, in a single round, run from his hiding place ninety feet away from the party, Tumble through any enemy fighters not caught flat-footed, and then respond to each spellcasting attempt by an enemy mage with a stunning fist attack, among his other uses.

    I ran a campaign recently (using house-ruled Pathfinder) that was almost entirely devoid of combat. The party investigated a charge of banditry and argued in court that the defendant was innocent. They explored a Mewlip’s cave, took apart a fire beetle as an improvised lantern, and lost money on a friendly wager with the cave’s inhabitant. They hacked through the wilderness, forded rivers, climbed cliffs, slung together improvised rafts, entertained an elf, searched for buyers and bargained at the market to maximize their profit from the sale of some crystal goblets they’d gotten their hands on. They ran into some goblins, killed exactly one in a panic, then negotiated with the goblins’ dwarven master and agreed to fetch a Fetch Quest Item for him to pay off the blood debt for his slain servant. They went to a swamp where they had a Random Encounter Table run-in with a nixie whom, instead of fighting, they talked into being their guide through the swamp.

    They got no XP directly from their gold income. They got the vast majority of their XP, two levels’ worth, from rewards I gave them for quest completion, problem-solving, and clever roleplaying.

    This… is something that you can’t do with 4E. Sure, 4E has a handful of non-combat skills and abilities, but in this style of campaign the vast majority of any 4E’s character would be completely useless. Perhaps the magic users would be most successful (ZING!) because they have non-combat rituals, but the be-all and end-all of 4E is tactical combat… as you said yourself, not a roleplaying game.

    Now, I enjoy tactical combat as much as the next guy. I just prefer to get it from board games like chess, or computer games like Battle for Wesnoth. At least they don’t somehow use a spray of acid to attack my willpower.

    The point Justin is making, and which you seem to have entirely missed, is that a good RPG has many situations, both inside and outside of combat, and many possible approaches to those situations. 3E, despite certain misconceptions about how it should be used, is a very powerful and open-ended system that allows those situations and responses to be created. In contrast, 4E only has one trick, the Combat Encounter, and the details of that trick don’t even make sense if you think about them from an in-world rather than a meta/tactical point of view. It’s not an RPG, much less a good one.

  13. Confanity says:

    One more thought: 3E is a lot of fun even if all you want to do is make characters. I love building themed mages (Byron the dirt wizard; Piotr the fire sorcerer) and fighters (a guy with a shield in each hand, no sword, and all the shield-use feats I could get my hands on; a guy with swords on wires that he could throw and pull back, or use to make disarm and trip attacks. Took a lot of feats, including Exotic Weapon, Throw Anything, a couple two-weapon fighting feats, etc.) but lots of fun to build. Several priests with interesting builds made by manipulating the Domain system, what kind of energy they channeled, etc.

    You can make this sort of infinite variety in 3E. And while maybe some are clearly “better” than others in the DPS column, they were all fun to make and fun to play. 4E, in contrast, offers none of this fun and freedom. It gives you a selection of cookie-cutter characters (and to have all the choices, you need to shell out fifty bucks or so a shot for — what, three PHBs? Four?) that mechanically play the same in the end anyway.

    Give me, any day of the week, a DM willing to tailor adventures to my play style and a system that lets me play fun characters no matter how suboptimal they may be. If you can only have “fun” playing Bloody Angelic Mashers and generating the biggest possible numbers each round, then — IMO — you’re doing it wrong.

  14. Sashas says:

    Is anyone else reminded of the article on Fetishizing Balance?

  15. Neonchameleon says:

    “4E has exactly one problem: clear this encounter’s slate of monsters”

    Apparently you believe either 4e hands out lobotomies to DMs or you are too blinded by your irrational hatred of the game to actually bother considering it as a roleplaying game. (Or have only experienced Encounters, which is the 4e equivalent to the drop-in 1e dungeon). If that’s all you think *any* RPG has to offer then you are obviously not prepared to take it as an RPG.

    “that mechanically play the same in the end anyway”

    Once again, I see that you either have almost no experience of 4e or no appreciation of how it works. I have four currently active 4e characters – a bravura warlord who works on the principle “Who dares wins” and takes risks that seem superficially insane but actually play into deep plans (and whose main at wills either give someone else an attack instead of him or offer enemies a free attack on him at the cost of leaving themselves wide open), an insanely mobile wire-fu monk (a class that never really worked in 3.5 – and wire fu is incredibly useful out of combat as well as in it), a wizard who specialises in illusion and summoning and is a walking swiss army knife, and an assassin whose poisons are more use out of combat than in it and who specialises in slightly insane social plans and sneaking places you really shouldn’t be able to get. And none of them are at all like my previous Lawful Good Paladin (but neither Lawful Stupid nor Lawful Anal), whose main differences from a 3.5 paladin were the lack of a Pokemount and the lack of automatic Detect Evil (his life’s ambition was to get to Valhalla, dying in honourable combat against a superior foe even if he wasn’t going to go down easily. A red dragon counted).

    I therefore reject your assertion as being strictly false – disproof by counterexample. Not one of those five PCs play mechanically the same.

    “They got no XP directly from their gold income. They got the vast majority of their XP, two levels’ worth, from rewards I gave them for quest completion, problem-solving, and clever roleplaying.

    This… is something that you can’t do with 4E.”

    Something that my PCs would be incredibly surprised to learn given that that’s exactly how they’ve got most of their experience in the past five sessions. Once again your assertions that things don’t happen and can’t happen in 4e lose to the fact that they can and do and I have seen and done things the way you claim they can’t do. And in any contest between “This can’t happen” and “Here’s a counterexample” the counterexample trumps the can’t.

    “Give me, any day of the week, a DM willing to tailor adventures to my play style and a system that lets me play fun characters no matter how suboptimal they may be.”

    You’ve just summed up my reasons for liking 4e among other games. 3e is not on that list because I reflexively see combinations and have no wish to make the other PCs feel useless. Or to make the DM tear his hair out in handfuls by trashing almost everything he throws at us outside combat (as I’ve done in the past with a bard). In 4e I can not only make the character I want (and many of my favourite 4e characters such as Martel, my Bravura Warlord, simply don’t come close to working in 3e), I can be confident that by playing a smart character well I won’t be actively lessening the enjoyment of other people at the table.

  16. Confanity says:

    Neonchameleon;

    I reserved judgment on 4E until after playing through a campaign, actually. And I’m not going to say that it’s impossible to roleplay in a 4E context; when I was a child I would roleplay a bag of M&Ms, for Pete’s sake, so it should be possible. (Orange ones are double-crossing bastards, apparently.) I’m saying that 4E is simply not designed with roleplaying in mind and in fact discourages it.

    For example, as I noted, we encountered some giant ants. One spat acid at me. Fair enough. The acid was opposed by… my will defense. What?

    A warlord joined the party. Some decent roleplaying for the character by the guy playing him, really; he was a deserter from a mercenary military unit that had been trashed by the enemy. He even brought in a pile of phrases to use for Inspiring Words. But I’m guessing that next time you have a piece of metal shoved into you so that blood comes out, you don’t want the doctors to tell you “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” and pat you on the back and send you away. Because inspiration makes your blood go back inside?

    Or are you going to argue that HP loss isn’t actual damage, it’s just demoralization? The enemy’s sword or claw missing you repeatedly demoralizes you so badly that you lie down and pass away of sheer imbalance of the humors, perhaps? Despite that the enemy missing me repeatedly would actually raise my spirits. “Yeah,” I’d think, “my timing and dodging are so good that I can make him miss me by a mere inch and then press the counterattack with maximum efficiency.” Or at least that’s the kind of thought I had on opponents’ bare misses when I was in fencing club.

    But anyway, when you just get too sad because your enemies have missed you so often, you can restore your spirits with a misleadingly-named “healing surge,” right? But only so many times per day; I guess the brain gets bored of all that inspiration. But all characters have amnesia so the ennui wears off after they sleep. Oh, and for some reason your friend’s ability to inspire you (or, um, inspire your blood to go back inside, if it really is healing?) is limited by the job you do? Rangers get bored of inspiration faster than paladins do?

    How about minions? Tell me, when you’re roleplaying, does your character understand WHY they make the tactical choices they do? The worst moment in our campaign, for me, was when I tried you, you know, roleplay. I’d extracted some sort of poison fang from a monster we’d fought, and within the enemy stronghold, used it to set up a trap: a simple rope-and-lever affair that would stab whomever opened the door wide enough. An enemy heart me puttering around trying to set up a second trap, triggered the first one, took a hit from this poison fang — and was completely unscathed because they were a minion and there was some rule about the ways minions take damage.

    That was pretty much when I got fed up and checked out. The message was clear: don’t try to be creative, just do the damn tactical combat.

    Continuing, it’s clear that you don’t know what the word “mechanically” means. Here’s a real solid difference in how different classes work differently in combat in 3.x DnD: Playing a fighter? Minimal prep; when stuff goes down you roll handfuls of to-hit and damage dice and absorb counterattacks from any enemy left standing. Can be used any time. Rogue? Spend most of your energy on maneuvering for precious sneak-attack damage; if you roll dice, there’ll be a higher ratio of skill checks to attack rolls, and you don’t want to take a counterattack if you can help it. Or bring in some extra magic with Use Magic Device. Use: any time. Cleric? Depending on what you have prepared, bash heads, cast spells, repel/blast/command undead, heal party members. Lots of different ways to roll the dice, or not roll dice. Use: depends on how much of what you prepared; resources dwindle as the day goes on. Mage? Spend lots of time on prep; depend heavily on your list of prepared spells matching the obstacles you face during the day; avoid entering melee at all costs; roll relatively few attack dice compared to damage dice; have some of your effectiveness depend not on your dice but on enemies’ SR or saves. Use: depends on how accurate your predictions were, but the trade-off for having even more versatility than the other classes is that your dwindling-resource problem is even worse than the cleric’s; they at least can finish the day as a poor man’s fighter. Monk? Like a fighter, mechanically, but with more complexity. Do you want to grapple opponents or stun them? Pound them over time with Spring Attack or pummel them with a flurry? Use: any time.

    4E gives you exactly one option: relatively complex prep during character-building and level-advancement; have your lineup of “powers” determine your combat capabilities and style every single day unchangeably (no more wizard-style flexibility from large spell lists!); daily power; encounter power; at will at will at will at will ad nauseum. The fundamental structure of all classes follow this pattern; *mechanically,* they’re all the same. Some maneuver better than others, yes; some do this or that to the enemy; some give you fifteen different modifiers or situational effects to try and remember as they change each round, but when all is said everything revolves around use of Powers. Cookie-cutter is still cookie-cutter even when one is shaped like a star and another is shaped like a heart.

    So, yeah. I reject your “disproof” of my assertion on the grounds that you need to learn what “mechanics” are.

    You try to counter my comment on flexibility in character design (building characters around different ways to use equipment, different ways to use domains, different ways to use spell lineups, etc.) by pointing out that even in 4E you’re still free to use flavor text. But by that token, your 4E characters are no more mechanically flexible than my M&Ms.

    On that note, what do you mean wire fu doesn’t work in 3E? Did you play a version of 3E without the Jump, Balance, and Tumble skills, where monks lost their Slow Fall and supernatural jumping abilities, where nobody used the rules for tripping or grappling or disarming, where monks couldn’t deflect arrows or use stunning fist? Do you even know what “wire fu” looks like?

    I’m also amused by your implication that the ability to have a bonded mount and Detect Evil somehow crippled your ability to have fun with paladins in 3.5. What, do you suffer from a compulsion to use every ability a character class offers, even if you don’t like it? Did your clerics compulsively convert all their spells into healing and become unable to cast normally?

    One point of clarification: when I said “This… is something that you can’t do with 4E,” I was not simply referring to the awarding of XP, which of course is up to the DM in (almost) any system. I was referring to the *entire description* of my campaign, and I did so for a reason I explicitly stated: that the heart of each character build in 4E is its Powers list, and that these are almost universally combat-oriented. You can try to use them for other things, yes, but try this experiment: count the number of items in the 4E rulebook devoted to Power X that does this amount of this kind of damage on a hit plus this in-combat tactical effect etc. and compare that to the number devoted to non-combat ability descriptions like a 3E monk’s slow fall, diamond body, etc. And then calculate the same ratio for 3.x.

    Your final point is almost irrelevant, a condemnation of your DM for letting you be an ass at the table rather than of 3.x DnD. Your bard may have abused the (admittedly broken) Diplomacy rule (my campaigns use Rich Burlew’s variant), but I can think of lots of ways that even an NPC becoming “friendly” completely fails to “trash” non-combat situations. For example, if an NPC you want information or help from is friendly to you, there are still lots of reason for them to refuse — they can’t afford it, they’re afraid of the Big Bad, their wife won’t let them, their parents won’t let them, their church won’t let them, they don’t have it right now, they’re really busy but you can ask again on Tuesday, or they’re just plain selfish and, no matter how “friendly” they feel, just won’t go out of their way for you.

    “Make other PCs feel useless”? All that tells me is that you don’t know how to play with a team, and that all the challenges you faced were too simple. So let me see, your “win button” wizard makes the rogue feel useless, I guess, with Knock and Invisibility and Silence spells, yes? And makes the fighter feel useless with Fireball and Magic Missile etc.? And makes the monk feel useless by casting Expedient Retreat, Fly, and lots of Sleep spells? And makes the cleric feel useless by blowing up undead and… well, you can’t heal, so by casting Raise Dead, maybe? *All in the same day?* Either you’re ten levels above all the other party members, that you have so many spell slots, or each party member would only have had one thing to do all day, which is bad DMing. No matter how versatile and Win the wizard, they can’t be all things all the time.

    You claim that you can’t play your Bravura Warlord in 3E… but this is patently false. Your defining characteristics for him are 1. his motto and 2. his purposely tanking for tactical purposes, creating advantageous situations for his allies. If you’re really a genius of character building, then surely you can figure how how to do either of those in 3E, right? Here’s one example: taking an attack of opportunity to get in flanking position for the party rogue.

    And you refer to playing “smart” characters. Tell me, by “playing a smart character well,” do you mean “roleplaying a character with a high Int believably,” or do you just mean min-maxing? The former can be done in any game system, even M&Ms; the latter just means that you have combat-focused tunnel vision.

  17. Confanity says:

    *an enemy heard

  18. Confanity says:

    *Expeditious Retreat.

    Oh, one other thing I noted in passing last time but might as well re-emphasize: there is enormously more mechanical flexibility for character creation in 3.x’s single PHB than there is in all the 4E PHBs put together — if you got all of them, then you pretty much paid hundreds of dollars for a pile of flavor text that I can 100% guarantee you don’t even think about when the Powers are actually in use (especially since the same damn flavor text each time you use one of your handful of At-Wills would be maddening from the repetition by the end of the first encounter, much less the first session, first quest, or first campaign).

  19. Neonchameleon says:

    > For example, as I noted, we encountered some giant ants. One spat acid at me. Fair enough. The acid was opposed by… my will defense. What?

    There is only one published ant I am aware of that has any attack against will. That’s the hive queen who creates clouds of acid around her from a number of powers. The attack in question is a blast attack that always does damage – it’s against will to see if you can manage to hold your breath for the correct few seconds rather than inhale it and take extra damage. Now I admit I’d have written that one against fortitude – but will to hold your breath at the right moment is perfectly defensible. That said, a number of the monster powers (including that one) make sense if you can work out what the designer was thinking, but could do with a line of fluff-text rather than assuming the DM has a head for this sort of thing.

    > But I’m guessing that next time you have a piece of metal shoved into you so that blood comes out, you don’t want the doctors to tell you “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” and pat you on the back and send you away.

    Hit points have always been weird as a D&D mechanic – the only hit point differences that actually matter are the ones between 1hp and 0hp and the ones below that. Before that point you’re fighting on utterly unimpaired – completely ridiculous if you’ve really had a piece of metal shoved into you by an ogre. 4e just rolls with this and shrugs.

    >I’m also amused by your implication that the ability to have a bonded mount and Detect Evil somehow crippled your ability to have fun with paladins in 3.5.

    You misunderstand. Those were listed as the differences between a 3.5 and a 4e paladin. Detect Evil IMO is something the game is better off without. And the Pokemount mechanics are as silly as Come And Get It in 4e. But my point here is that the character is basically the same as in 3e (although generally more competent and flexible as 3 trained skills out of 17 beats 2+Int mod out of 36+) and also able to command attention in combat. But the RP is incredibly similar barring the DM invoking falling paladins.

    >4E gives you exactly one option: relatively complex prep during character-building and level-advancement; have your lineup of “powers” determine your combat capabilities and style every single day unchangeably (no more wizard-style flexibility from large spell lists!); daily power; encounter power; at will at will at will at will ad nauseum. The fundamental structure of all classes follow this pattern; *mechanically,* they’re all the same.

    All of which means that 4e classes are slightly more different from each other than clerics are from wizards. Or fighters are from monks.

    >On that note, what do you mean wire fu doesn’t work in 3E? Did you play a version of 3E without the Jump, Balance, and Tumble skills, where monks lost their Slow Fall and supernatural jumping abilities, where nobody used the rules for tripping or grappling or disarming, where monks couldn’t deflect arrows or use stunning fist? Do you even know what “wire fu” looks like?

    I played a version of 3e where the Monk had anti-synergy. In order to work in combat it was a choice between movement and flurry of blows. You’re right. 3e Monks get wire-fu out of combat.

    >do you mean “roleplaying a character with a high Int believably,” or do you just mean min-maxing? The former can be done in any game system, even M&Ms; the latter just means that you have combat-focused tunnel vision.

    If by combat you mean problem focussed, you might have a point. Combat is the time when the fighters, with their 2+int skill points come closest to being in the game, their hit dice, base attack, and fortitude being irrelevant the rest of the time. The best use of strategy is, and always has been, to make the enemy irrelevant. And Wizards are outstanding at that.

    As for roleplaying with a high int, there’s a difference between in character and out of character minmaxing. Choosing your levels with care is meta-game min-maxing. Choosing your prepared spells with care and learning ones you think will be useful is smart play. If you don’t do the latter then you deserve your darwin awards. Or are deliberately playing someone you’ve given huge flaws to in character (overwhelming arrogance being one).

    As for your point about non-combat powers of the monk, you get immunity to poson, immunity to disease, slow fall, a little healing, one daily teleport, spell resistance, and some capstone stuff at L17+. (Leap of the Clouds no longer exists for what it’s worth – it removed a 3e limit that was removed in 3.5 so became irrelevant). My monk’s able to fly short distances, self heal since forever (second wind) although there’s a L6 utility power to do that, but I’ll grant he can’t land quite as well as a 3e monk, needs a feat for poison resistance, and is only very disease resistant not immune. (and that’s at heroic) (He’s also damn spell resistant). Not too much difference – yours falls further mine’s better at going upwards. And has more skills if you want all the ones you listed. What you don’t get in 4e is the raft of non-combat spells. Which is a good thing. (Before you mention teleport, 4e monks can do that as well if they choose the right powers – encounter but shorter distances than Dimension Door). This means you’re pretty much left with the only things the 3e monk can do out of combat that the 4e one can’t are capstone abilities (at which point I point out Epic Destinies) and be immune to poison and disease. Doing well there when 4e monks literally get to fly short distances to make up for it if they choose – but unlike 3e I can run a monk all the way to level 30 and never gain the ability to teleport. As normal when talking about 4e, facts do not match your claims.

  20. Hank says:

    I may mistaken, but it seems to me that a large part of what Neonchameleon may have been saying was that “In 3rd ed, at higher levels things get wonky, doubly so with spellcasters.” and how that wonkiness did not jive with the type of world he had envisioned to play in.

    Sometimes I think that people forget that at tenth level your character is half-way to being a god/demigod in 3rd ed. It makes sense to me that by 7th level or so a party would blow away most challenges on the prime material plane. One seventh level fighter can kill entire tribes of goblins by himself, and kill them all in a few hours if the goblins would be nice enough to gather together in one place. Why shouldn’t one 7th level bard (half way to being the new god of trickatude) convince entire towns to believe some lie? Are two cones of cold much cooler, more useful, or more powerful than that?

    4th ed has people becoming immortal, but not really. And it is so “balanced” that a fight at first level feels and plays the same as a fight at 9th level or 24th level. I have played 4th ed for a couple years now, and this perception of balance is what I enjoy about it the least ( but I also enjoy save or die effects when used in moderation, so I may be the minority). It is why my next campaign will be pathfinder.

    BTW—I just found this site a few weeks ago, and has already stolen an unhealthy amount of time from me. Thanks for all the cool/neat/fun things that you have posted here.

  21. Justin Alexander says:

    @Hank: You make a good point, and it’s something I keep meaning to write about in greater length some day. A lot of people lock down the skill system to the merely mortal, but allow the wizards to keep accelerating into the superhuman.

    On a tangential note, here’s something to consider from OD&D: High-level fighters were assumed to automatically gain dozens, hundreds, and eventually thousands of followers. It was built right into the class description. Wizards weren’t.

    But as you move into AD&D2 and then D&D3, this assumption was removed from the game. So, basically, the fighters had their high-level toys taken away but the wizards didn’t. Which is why game balance becomes strained around 12th level and then breaks down around 15th.

  22. Confanity says:

    Neonchameleon;

    I’ve spotted the essence of our disagreement. You say, “generally more competent and flexible as 3 trained skills out of 17 beats 2+Int mod out of 36+”

    This is weird math. Having fewer choices makes you more flexible? So if I go to a school that offers algebra, statistics, geometry, and number theory, that makes me less flexible than if I had gone to a school that only offered algebra? In that case, if you want the most flexible character possible, shouldn’t you play a system where there’s only one skill? Imagine how flexible and competent your characters will be; they’ll have maximum points in 100% of the skills offered.

    Or maybe you’re claiming that because a 3E character, when assigning ability scores, could *choose* between more skill points, or fewer points but a bonus in some other area, that they had less flexibility?

    You also claim that the only time fighters are even “in the game” is when they’re using their combat mechanics. But that’s, as you note, proven wrong by even a single counter-example, and I happen to have played a pure fighter who was nonetheless “in the game” all the time. My character had, you know, a backstory, and goals, and a personality, and was able to think. Inside of combat, I chopped enemies into bits and took hits, because our party’s wizards were squishy and would have died without me. Outside of combat I interacted with the other PCs and NPCs. I joined the party planning sessions. I befriended a spirit of air. I had meaningful dreams. At 16th level I returned to my homeland, led my party in battle against the demon general that had killed my family, and when that campaign arc was completed I retired my character, who lived out the rest of her days as a governor of the formerly demon-infested province. Never did I just sit around “out of the game” and wait for combat to start.

    Yes, fighters are combat specialists, but as Justin has pointed out multiple times, you’re not playing the game right if the combat specialists are being eclipsed in combat by the generalists. And I further assert that if you can’t think of anything to do with a character outside of combat, regardless of their skill points, then you’re not playing an RPG.

    Finally, “What you don’t get in 4e is the raft of non-combat spells. Which is a good thing.” — To which I reply, No, it’s a terrible thing!

    1. Non-combat spells increase the range of things a spellcaster can do. This increases their versatility, but it also increases the need to make interesting trade-offs. Do you want to memorize Knock or Sleep or Magic Mouth? This also increases your creativity: if you’re in a situation that you hadn’t planned for, how do you adjust for it? I can tell you one thing: I’d rather have Ventriloquism in an unplanned-for fight than Magic Missile when I find myself suddenly need to create a voice coming from the next room.

    2. Non-combat spells add verisimilitude and color to the world. Tell me, when real-world explorers gathered up their gear, did they only carry a pile of weapons? Or did they also carry things with utilitarian or even entertainment purposes? And why would a set of gear called “spells” be any different? Really, I’d like to see even more non-combat spells (which a clever and inventive mind could conceivably use in combat, perhaps) that add color and role-playing options. How about a spell that gives the recipient pleasant dreams? How about one that records memories in a crystal for anyone to access? How about a threshing spell, that pounds sheaves of grain into straw and wheat, but could in a pinch be used to thrash an enemy?

    3. Non-combat spells are less boring. I’m far more fascinated by the potential of Grease (everything from practical jokes, to allowing you to slide heavy objects along the ground, to opening stuck doors or opening creaky doors silently) than Yet Another Damage Spell.

    4. Non-combat spells increase the scope of the game as a whole. Remember the days of “Create Food and Water”? You can feed starving people in town with that to win them over. You can cast it in an abandoned cabin in the woods to make it look as if it were occupied but the inhabitants had vanished just before sitting down to dinner. You can cast it in the dungeon where the evil baron has thrown you, while he thinks he’s starving you into submission. The more spells you have, and the more situations you can use them in, the more interesting the game becomes. Tell me, how many uses can you think of for Magic Missile?

    In the end, it’s clear that you’re not really thinking of the game as anything but combat, or at best dungeon-crawling, with flavor text thrown in. You think “roleplaying” is giving a personality to your combat style. You think, somehow, that less choice is more because having fewer choices allows you to collect a greater percentage of what’s available.

    Going back a bit: yes, hit points are an abstraction, and kind of a weird one when you go into the corners and poke around. But at least in 3E you had to go into the corners and poke around, whereas in 4E you need to suspend disbelief at the entrance. You say “4e just rolls with this and shrugs,” which is *my entire point.* They’ve given up on any pretense of role playing in favor of having a combat mechanic.

  23. Neonchameleon says:

    > A lot of people lock down the skill system to the merely mortal, but allow the wizards to keep accelerating into the superhuman.

    Part of the problem here is that there are bits of the skill system that are *explicitely* only slightly more than mortal. Take epic swim – DC50 to swim up a waterfall. Or epic jump – leaping small buildings in a bound might be hugely impressive but the wizard’s been able to fly since level 5. The difference in skill levels is quantitative not qualitative.

    > Which is why game balance becomes strained around 12th level and then breaks down around 15th.

    Ah, IIRC the only famous fighter at Gary Gygax’s table was Robilar – and he kept up due to a series of 1 on 1 sessions with the DM; I’d have used your numbers for OD&D. I’d have said play balance became strained around 7th level (hence E6) and broke around 11th in 3e, with older editions being better balanced at high levels due to more magical drawbacks (like spell memorisation time and fewer spells per day).

    Oh, and going back to 4e monks, I was wrong when I said they didn’t get Slow Fall. It’s a level 2 utility power (at will, free action, reduce falling damage you take by 5+ your level). It’s simply less obvious and, fitting in with the increased versatility 4e classes have, you have other options than slow fall; my monk has an active wire-fu ability in its place allowing him to leap once per encounter as if he was in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

    As for the Bravura Warlord, a 3e Marshal or a White Raven Warblade (or possibly Crusader) would be the closest fit. But I’d have to give up on a lot of the all round skill competence – and there are a whole lot of class features in 4e that actively support the playstyle making it a rash and brutal but highly effective one rather than rash and brutal – and suicidal one.

  24. Confanity says:

    Justin;

    Your comment above about the diminished role of fighters and the diatribe I just wrote, probably rather haphazardly, about variety in spells made me think: it seems to me that a lot of skills are going unused that were probably intended to see a lot more significance in play. I’m thinking about things like the Professions and Crafts and Knowledge skills.

    I seem to recall that it used to be standard for there to be a gap of weeks between adventures. PCs would rest and heal, of course. But wizards would go to their labs and research spells or create magic items. Clerics would go to their temples and pray. Characters with Craft skills would make things; characters with Profession skills would ply their trade for money. People had stuff to do to ground them in the worlds they were playing in. Even in mid-adventure, people would stop to make things they needed or do research.

    For that matter, didn’t the AD&D golem creation rules call for Craft checks? I’d love to see more magic item creation like that, with multiple PCs needing to work together for more than just Fetch Questing a rare component.

    I’ve almost never had a character without some non-combat skill, and you can get some interesting uses out of these in adventures. I once earned my passage on a ship with Profession: chef. Even my pure fighter had Perform: sword dance, and used it in play. The people who DMed for the group I played with always went with us when we did stuff like this, and in some cases even explicitly set up chances for us to use these skills.

    Is my experience really that much of an oddity, so that the vast majority of so-called roleplayers would just sneer at me for wasting skill points on something suboptimal? And how much published material out there calls, or allows, for non-combat skill use?

  25. Neonchameleon says:

    > This is weird math. Having fewer choices makes you more flexible? So if I go to a school that offers algebra, statistics, geometry, and number theory, that makes me less flexible than if I had gone to a school that only offered algebra?

    And you miss the point. If you go to a school that offers algebra, statistics, geometry, and number theory – and you get to pick two electives out of that list that makes you less flexible than me if I go to a school that offers only mathematics and that gives me algebra, statistics, geometry, and number theory as part of that mathematics course. The skills (like climb, jump, and swim) are strongly thematically linked – and it doesn’t take my entire skill allocation to get a fighter who is good at all three.

    > Imagine how flexible and competent your characters will be; they’ll have maximum points in 100% of the skills offered.

    Well, yes. Such a system would also offer no differentiation at all. There are advantages both ways. But I can’t think of a time I’ve wanted someone fit and athletic – who can’t swim (unless I made it a quirk).

    > but as Justin has pointed out multiple times, you’re not playing the game right if the combat specialists are being eclipsed in combat by the generalists.

    Or the game isn’t balanced right. One of the two. CoDzilla, Wild Shape, and Divine Metamagic all tell me which it is.

    > My character had, you know, a backstory, and goals, and a personality, and was able to think.

    None of which was helped by being a fighter. You were every bit as much use as a commoner your level would have been, and what you did was largely despite your character sheet rather than because of it.

    > 1. Non-combat spells increase the range of things a spellcaster can do.
    > 2. Non-combat spells add verisimilitude and color to the world.
    > 3. Non-combat spells are less boring.
    > 4. Non-combat spells increase the scope of the game as a whole.

    Believe it or not, I agree with all of the above. And if 3e were to top out with 4th level spells I’d barely be able to agree more. The problem isn’t their existance, it’s that there are too many and they are too powerful. 4e cut them back; it did not eliminate them – and people who only take combat utility powers simply confuse me. I wanted the 3e tree of non-combat spells pruned to prevent the game collapsing. But if it had been eliminated I simply wouldn’t touch 4e with a ten foot bargepole.

  26. Neonchameleon says:

    > Is my experience really that much of an oddity, so that the vast majority of so-called roleplayers would just sneer at me for wasting skill points on something suboptimal?

    I wouldn’t. And my 3e characters that didn’t have some craft or profession skills had other jobs (bards, rogues, spellcasters). But I can recall a total of one occasion when the actual result mattered. 4e, I ask them to tell me what they are doing and why they can. If a roll’s needed, they get a stat roll with the trained +5 if it’s written tightly into their background fluff text and +2 if they made up a good reason on the spot or it’s implied by their background.

    It’s useful to know and to have defined backgrounds. But it’s rare enough that craft and profession IMO don’t need a number. (And research can be covered by existing skills – it’s normally history, religion, arcana, or streetwise).

    > And how much published material out there calls, or allows, for non-combat skill use?

    I don’t know. Few of the ones I’ve looked at. (Not counting disarm traps).

  27. Confanity says:

    “But I can recall a total of one occasion when the actual result mattered. 4e,” [in which I house-ruled in something that was an actual mechanic in 3E but which I claim to have never used or needed when it was built into the actual system.] Surreal.

  28. Andrew says:

    This conversation is interesting to me. I started playing D&D with basic, around the turn of the century, because second edition seemed dense and thoroughly unhelpful. When 3e came out, it was really exciting. I liked the skills and feats especially, and the multiclassing simplicity, but the classes were rebalanced and etc. etc. I loved the system right up to 5th level, then it was more work than fun. (I hung in there as DM for my players and made the best of it.)

    I came to this site intrigued by the “Calibrate Your Expectations” article that finally helped me understand why my experience changed, and I’ve stayed because consideration of game design is interesting. I hope to someday design something that others will sift and analyze with such enthusiasm.

    However, after years of playing 3e, my personal play style got stuck on a number of points. I felt that if players did not map out my skills and feats to 20th level, they were not contributing properly; spending experience on what you did instead of who you wanted to become was frustratingly disassociated, but if you ignored your optimal builds, you ended up with a character with utility 5 levels lower. You just didn’t pull your weight, and the party deserved better.

    I also was frustrated by the spells. The lack of focus for divine spells (“Take anything for your list today! Don’t guess wrong!”) was somewhat helped by being able to swap some spells out, same with wizards able to memorize on the fly. The concept of spells burning out of memory frustrated me, and the rigid hierarchy of how many of which levels was novel at first but quickly difficult.

    Plus, I had five or so lists of spells to get for various sorts of days; leveling was heartbreaking as I had to go back and refigure my lists. So many spells for the PLAYER to memorize! Especially as the supplements kept coming. And as the referee DM, I had to know it all–or where to find it. Or at least try. Prep was hard. (Here’s a monster who can cast as a 9th level sorcerer! Enjoy working that out in addition to everything else it does…)

    So for me, neither the passion for 4e or the passion for 3e speaks to why I’m here; I like the conceptual engagement with dungeon crawling, the concepts of how associated mechanics improve games, and the inspirational ruminations on corners of role playing. (I use another system.)

    I will admit to some fascination that there are many people who feel passionate about proving that their system is better, or that people should like something they don’t. It’s okay for me to like one kind of music and others to like another kind of music; that doesn’t make either of us stupid. I do get a sense that people mostly like to get in there and debate it and fling hyperbole at each other.

    To conclude, I think there is great strength in reviewing the weaknesses of systems–because those weaknesses reveal what strengths we desire in our games. Let’s not lose sight of that as we compare systems. The goal is to improve the gaming experience, in the end. That is the only way any of us “win” these arguments.

    (I may have revealed that I do not ever go to game forums…)

  29. Confanity says:

    “But I can’t think of a time I’ve wanted someone fit and athletic – who can’t swim (unless I made it a quirk)” — Spoken like someone who doesn’t realize how rare a skill swimming is in many cultures. Ever hear the old trope about how pirates were deathly afraid of the sea because *they couldn’t swim”? What we’re seeing here is another way in which a note of realism — the distinction of very different skill sets, in real-world terms — is sacrificed in favor of making all the characters into generic superdudes.

    (Which brings me back to the monk issue. You whine about how 3E monks couldn’t jump around and flurry at the same time… but spending a single second thinking about it should help you realize that the more time you spending running, jumping, flipping, and tumbling around, the less time you have for punching and kicking! Go watch a “wire-fu” movie some time: characters who are flying around are not fighting, unless their opponent is also flying with them — in which case, for the span they spend flying & punching, they are in effect standing still for each other.)

    You also imply, incorrectly, that all the reduction in the skill list comes from this sort of condensing. Yet it isn’t: they got rid of stuff like Craft and Profession, and they cut out the Knowledge category in favor of explicitly listing the areas of lore you were allowed to study. No Knowledge: Botany or Engineering for you! You yourself have built a house rule to compensate for this loss, yet you won’t acknowledge it as a loss?

    I can see a possible response from you already: “But nobody uses those skills anyway!” Can you see how this is a problem that feeds into itself? If there were less emphasis on combat as the be-all of role-playing, i.e. if there were more reason to invest in Profession and Craft etc. skills, then people would spend more time putting points into them and DMs would spend more time giving players to use them. You can’t defend a system’s non-combat cred by pointing out how all the non-combat skills have been rendered useless within its framework.

    “CoDzilla, Wild Shape, and Divine Metamagic all tell me which it is.”
    -They tell you that you’re not playing the game right, I hope! This is simply yet another demonstration of how you seem to be blind to anything but combat. Yes, okay, a druid can turn himself into a huge bear all day after a certain level. So what happens when he’s in a social situation or otherwise needs to talk with a humanoid vocal apparatus? What happens when he’s in a tunnel? What happens when he’s on a rope bridge the weight of which won’t support a bear? What happens when he’s in ranged combat? What happens when there are civilians around who will panic at the sight of a huge bear? Or, for that matter, a too-friendly bear of the opposite sex? What happens when the druid who has been in bear shape all day discovers that s/he has a bear-sized need for calories, even after changing back? What happens during the winter, when a bear’s natural inclination is to hibernate? What happens when there’s a rope to climb?

    In short, all you’ve done is once again illustrate how combat-focused and how divorced from verisimilitude the play style has become in such a campaign.

    “‘My character had, you know, a backstory, and goals, and a personality, and was able to think.’
    None of which was helped by being a fighter.”
    -Bravo for completely missing the point. I wasn’t trying to say that choosing a class called “fighter” helped me be more effective outside of fights than a commoner would have been; I was simply refuting your claim that a fighter not in combat is not “in the game.”

    Re: non-combat spells: So, first you said approvingly that “What you don’t get in 4e is the raft of non-combat spells.” Then you claim that actually, you don’t mean that, you only mean that they got rid of the “too-powerful” ones. And Justin has, if I recall, discussed the issues of “scry and die,” but I’ve a challenge for you. Name any spell that’s “too powerful” for a wizard to have, and I’ll show you how a thinking DM could use in-game ways to counter any possible abuses of power. How’s that for a fun thought problem? 8^)

    Oh, and remember that any spell of which your only critique is that ‘it eclipses another class,’ doesn’t count. Part of the reason for those spells to exist is that a wizard can then help out a party that lacks class X (often a rogue) — if a party has a member of that class, then the wizard should 1. not be an asshole by needlessly duplicating a role and 2. take other spells, now that the base in question has been covered. Even sorcerers have limited spell slots, and as I’ve said before, if the wizard is doing all of everybody else’s jobs in a day without running out of juice, then the DM is simply not giving the party enough to do in a day. Nor, for that matter, are they taking advantage of all the little DM tricks that you can use to tone down a party that has gotten cocky, like night ambushes, random encounters, depriving them of sleep, etc.

  30. Neonchameleon says:

    >“But I can recall a total of one occasion when the actual result mattered. 4e,” [in which I house-ruled in something that was an actual mechanic in 3E but which I claim to have never used or needed when it was built into the actual system.] Surreal.

    I can recall one occasion in which it mattered in *3e* In 4e I’ve houseruled it from the DM’s side of the screen. And to me one of the huge advantages of running 4e is that I’ve never needed to consult a rulebook (other than a monster manual) while running. I’d rather houserule than have fiddly details all over the place. Which I suppose puts me closer to OD&D than to 3e.

    > Name any spell that’s “too powerful” for a wizard to have, and I’ll show you how a thinking DM could use in-game ways to counter any possible abuses of power.

    Of course a DM can use in game ways to nerf spells. That’s the problem with 3e. You need to set up the entire gameworld to manage the spellcasters.

    But I’ll start with the Bard list; I know it better than the Wizard list because I started playing Bards having heard from a lot of sources they were underpowered (which is where the Diplomacy abuser came from – my second game of 3.X). Glibness and Sculpt Sound are my first choices. Nerf glibness while allowing social situations and without resorting to an anti-magic field.

    > -They tell you that you’re not playing the game right, I hope! This is simply yet another demonstration of how you seem to be blind to anything but combat.

    If you don’t actually read what I’m saying or what you are, you can get that impression. Clerics are more useful out of combat than fighters; they have as many skill points and they have an entire spell list that has a lot of out of combat utility. I honestly didn’t think that it needed to be spelled out that out of combat skills lose to the same number of skills + full caster magic.

    The less combat focussed a campaign becomes, the deeper and wider the issues with 3e become. I love small spells like Grease or Minor Image used out of combat. What becomes ridiculous is either spells like Mass Flight used out of combat or when you have a good dozen twisty spells like Grease, Minor Image, and Hold Portal. Fishing in an oversized bag of tricks is not creativity. It’s simply finding the right tool for the job. 3e has so much out of combat stuff that you balance in combat because creative spellcasters destroy anything outside.

    That you appear to decry all criticism of 3e from an adherent of 4e as being combat focussed when my problem is that 3e makes things out of combat too easy is as much a reflection on you as your blinkers about 4e above.

    And for the record:
    >if the wizard is doing all of everybody else’s jobs in a day without running out of juice, then the DM is simply not giving the party enough to do in a day … like night ambushes, random encounters, depriving them of sleep, etc.

    Translation: You can’t ever let wizards and bards know to expect that the situations are going to be mostly social. You need to grind them down with combat. And you claim *I’m* combat obsessed? Go look in a mirror.

  31. Confanity says:

    Neonchameleon says, “In 3E I only used noncombat skills once and in 4E I don’t bother to use the actual rules, technically because the rules for it don’t exist but in my mind, because I’m old-school. I went to the system where verisimilitude is thrown out in favor of combat mechanics because I feel that spellcasters in the system with verisimilitude are completely unbalanced in combat, by which I mean they are completely unbalanced outside of combat, by which I mean who cares about verisimilitude when people with magical powers of glibness can be supernaturally glib, by which I mean that a party of armed adventurers in a fantasy campaign should know exactly what to expect and be ready for every combat encounter; the mere suggestion that a part of armed adventurers may or may not run into a wandering monster, and thus would need to stay on their toes and keep something in reserve even during down-time means that you’re “combat obsessed.”

    Do you even read the content on this site? Do you know how to use a random encounter table? Random encounters are not to “grind down” a party or its resources; they’re made to simulate a natural environment in which creatures really do move around. They don’t happen every hour or every day; they just happen often enough that the party knows they can’t just blow all their limited-use powers (spells, etc.) on one encounter and then rest unmolested. Lack of random encounters is not grind-free; it is a sterile and unrealistic environment. On the meta level, lack of random encounters is not grind-free; it is, as Justin has pointed out, a DM’s failure as DM by allowing the PCs to control the flow of action, to be the only movers and shakers.

    Back to the glibness: bards are supposed to be the social-mastery class. Having magical glibness doesn’t mean bards are “overpowered.” If a bard’s glibness is allowed to “break,” “trash,” “destroy,” “pulverize,” or “defenestrate” every non-combat encounter, though, you’re playing it wrong!

    You’re playing a world without any persistence, for one thing: sure, the spell allows you to lie really convincingly for a while… but think about it in real-life terms. People lie all the time, and it doesn’t matter how convincing they were at the moment; if they’re caught out later, there are consequences. If you use Glibness even once in a town, then people will remember you as the guy who can lie his ass off without batting an eyelash. Welcome to never being trusted again.

    You’re also playing in a world without believable characters in it. As [political discourse of your choosing] demonstrates, people can shower each other with facts all day and still end up without anyone’s opinion changed. People confronted with something really convincing that otherwise they would have no reason to believe may be taken aback by it, or given pause, or go along reluctantly, but they resist it still and there’s no reason why they wouldn’t have second thoughts.

    In a world where bards and Glibness exist, further, it’s only natural that people with the means and need would take measures against it. There are all sorts of ways that, for example, a court could, and would do its best to, prevent magical manipulation of the justice system — or at least, manipulation that’s not built into the system by the powers that be.

    In short, the ability to lie convincingly is hardly a game-breaker. Like fireball, another 3rd-level spell, it can be remarkably helpful when used correctly, but using it the wrong way, or in the wrong time or place, can be more harm to the user than benefit.

    So if you play in a world where you only bother to use non-combat skills once in all your campaigns, where the NPCs aren’t believable or intelligent, where nothing moves or takes action until triggered by the PCs, where actions have no lasting consequences and the DM doesn’t create any sort of sense of the world moving according to its own purposes outside of the PC actions, then sure, spellcasters are “broken” from level one. One of the drawbacks of spellcasters is that they’re squishy and would die without tank protection, but to you, any in-game reminder of this physical danger is a “combat obsession” to be avoided — and thus they’re free to wait until they see what’s coming, fill their spell slots with the careful mix of Spherical Cow spells necessary to make the rest of the party useless, cast them, rinse and repeat, and the rest of the party just kind of allows this to happen because… they enjoy being rendered useless?

    So you got fed up with this system and you moved to one with the intelligent NPCs and living world and even the ability to suspend disbelief stripped out, found yourself unable to minmax it, and immediately began house-ruling in all the non-combat and flavor stuff that was provided for by the old system but which you never used because you were too busy trying to make the rest of the party feel useless. Irony.

  32. Confanity says:

    Two comments to tack on:

    1. Sculpt Sound? You’ll have to forgive me when I ask how this is a game-breaker, especially since the sound is set when cast and you’d need to dismiss the spell and re-cast it to change any aspect of the illusion.

    2. You list two 3rd-level spells, I see. If your assertion that “bards are broken” is based on the Spherical Cow assertion that every bard ever played will be at high enough level to spam 3rd-level spells (which they can’t even cast until level 7), then you might want to rethink things.

    Again, as Justin has pointed out, normal human ability tops out at 5th level or so in 3E rules. A 7th level bard is already superhuman (in that their lies, if they want, are completely undetectable to even the most intuitive normal observer), so given that (as I mentioned above) they’re hardly game-breaking, why do you begrudge them the ability?

  33. strangexperson says:

    Glibness is a 3rd level spell available to bards only, meaning that it won’t be in play in a serious way until level seven. You meet a 3rd level cleric guarding a temple full of shiny things, and spin a fanciful yet supernaturally persuasive tale about why he should hand it all over and become your slave. He can’t spot any flaws in the story, or your logic.

    But! He’s heard of you. How could he not? You’re a maxed-out mid-level musician, his entire pantheon has probably heard of you. So, he casts Zone of Truth and asks “could you explain that one more time?” Assuming you fail the save, you now need to come up with an entirely new story, and explain any inconsistencies with the previous story, without making any explicitly false statements. The DM will probably be wanting you to spell out the actual logic of your argument at least partly in-character. Good thing you’ve still got that +30 on bluff checks, eh? You’ll need it.

    If the cleric in question is 5th level, still below the point where you’re supposed to be facing a reasonable challenge, you could get hit with an area Dispel Magic before discussion even starts, ending the Glibness spell. After all, if this is important business, it pays to check for scrying or invisible eavesdroppers. Planning to re-cast it right in front of him?

  34. Dan Dare says:

    So its been a few years of mulling this over. I think looking away from D&D is useful. So lets consider Call of Cthulhu. What kind of characters might a party of investigators need?

    Combatants? Sometimes. Every now and then a bit of muscle is useful.

    Sane, studious researchers. You bet.

    Spell casters? From time to time, especially if they can build up a repertoire and everyone else protects their sanity. Then learning much lore from the big black book of death can be a boon.

    Wealthy socialites? Indubitably. Schmooze with the upper echelons of society, pull on favors, hear the power gossip and see the problems from a high social view.

    Street smart folks? Yes, they are the ones that can operate in most places and most times and navigate a path through difficult social territories and avoid the angst and tensions of most places.

    Legal professionals can be pretty important. When you are found murdering the wealthy millionaire and claiming he was an ancient doppelganger a good lawyer is your only hope.

    Medical practitioners and alienist/psychiatrists are just a must.

    Each of these are things groups can benefit from having as main players, yet each can be replaced by henchmen and hirelings. So the players are free to follow their inspiration. Hopefully most adventures are going to include a need for most of these abilities to one degree or another and it may vary from adventure to adventure.

    Is a D&D style fantasy world in any less need of such richness? No.

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