The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘4th edition’

Stat Blocking with the Barghest

February 21st, 2011

Jeffrey challenged me to a barghest stat block using the “3rd Edition rules; 4th Edition format” style I talked about yesterday.

As I mentioned to Jeffrey in the comments, the first thing I needed to do was fix the barghest: Designing a monster so that you need to apply new HD to it in the middle of combat is just bad design. Oddly, the designers of 3rd Edition knew this, which is why they included a negative level template (-1 on all checks, -5 hit points, -1 effective level, lose your highest level spell and your highest level spell slot). It seems pretty obvious to me that the way to fix the barghest is to reverse this template (as shown in the stat block below).

Jeffrey also made the point that 3rd Edition’s “laundry-list” of spell-like abilities can be difficult to make work with a 4th Edition-style stat block. I believe the trick of that is to simplify the spell descriptions down to “essential information”. (On the rare occasions when you need more detailed information on the spell, that’s when you crack open the reference manual.)

What really made me interested in rising to the challenge, though, were some thoughts I had on how the 4th Edition-style stat block could be used for shapechangers. Traditionally, I’ve simply gotten in the habit of prepping multiple stat blocks for shapechangers (so that when they change shape, I can just swap stat blocks). But I had some thoughts on color-coding that might make it possible to run them from a single stat block: The colors on the stat block below are coded to conditions described in the monster’s ability. (In this case, coded to different shapes.) The monster can only use colored abilities when the code is in effect (e.g., that shape has been assumed). Black text can always be used.

There are some formatting errors below, but the process I used to build these stat blocks is time-consuming to correct. (So I apologize for being too lazy to fix them.) I have concluded, in retrospect, that supernatural and spell-like abilities should be coded to icons to further clean-up the lay-out, but that hasn’t been executed.

Barghest - 4th Edition Style Stat Block

UPDATE: And since I’ve got too much time on my hands, here’s a balor:


Pathfinder RPGYesterday I talked about Robert J. Schwalb’s theory that 4th Edition’s formatting was a barrier for players of 3rd Edition.

It is interesting to note, however, that Schwalb is not the only designer from Wizards publicly trying to figure out what went wrong in converting 3rd Edition players into 4th Edition players. Earlier in the week, Mike Mearls actually argued for genericizing the D&D trademark in the name of recognizing that D&D isn’t a game, but rather an experience that we all share regardless of which rules we use. (Or possibly he’s arguing that it doesn’t matter what we’re playing, as long as it has the “Dungeons & Dragons” trademark on it. The essay is a little vague in its kumbaya.)

Ultimately, of course, the problem is that they had a specific game that had been revised multiple times but maintained its core gameplay from 1974 to 2008. And then, in 2008, they stopped selling that game. Until they accept that, they aren’t going to find the solution they’re groping for. (To be fair, even if they do realize that this is the problem, there’s not much they can do about it: Publishing a new edition any time before at least 2015 would completely poison their market. And writing off the development costs of the DDI as a loss by obsoleting the current platform would basically amount to corporate malfeasance.)


The comparison to “New Coke” is often made here, but it’s not entirely apt: This is more akin to the Coca-Cola Corporation giving its original formula to somebody else before stopping their own production of it and then using the “Coke” trademark for New Coke. The result was completely predictable: WotC kept the people who were loyal to the trademark and they kept the people who prefer New D&D to Classic D&D. They lost everybody else.

How bad is it? Well, there are multiple reports that Paizo’s Pathfinder is either tying or beating Wizard’s 4th Edition sales. If Pathfinder represented the totality of 3rd Edition players who didn’t migrate to 4th Edition, that would still be bad news for Wizards. But, of course, Pathfinder doesn’t. How many 3rd Edition players are just continuing to play with their existing 3rd Edition manuals?

(It would be nice to imagine that Pathfinder‘s success can be attributed to the RPG market simply growing, of course. But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for such a massive increase in the market.)


Player's Handbook - 4th EditionWhen consumers are faced with an upgrade, there’s always going to be some portion of the customer base that says, “Nah. I’m good with what I’ve got.” (This applies beyond RPGs: Look at the varying success of Windows Vista and Windows 7 at winning over existing Windows customers.) In the case of D&D, the two most effective transitions in the history of the game were the transition from OD&D to AD&D and the transition from AD&D2 to D&D3.

In my opinion, both of those transitions were effective because (a) they addressed perceived shortcomings in the existing rules; (b) they worked to form a bridge of continuity between the old edition and the new edition; and (c) they were effective at reaching out to new customers.

Now, the actual methods by which these goals were accomplished were radically different. AD&D (a) aimed to codify a more “official” version of the game while also expanding the detail of the rules in an era when “more realism” and “more detail” were highly prized. It was launched with a Monster Manual that was (b) designed to be used with the existing OD&D rules (by the time the first PHB came out, a sizable chunk of the customer base was already using AD&D products in their OD&D games). And it was released hand-in-hand with a Basic Set that (b) remained highly compatible with the 1974 ruleset and (c) offered a mainstream, accessible product for attracting new customers.

D&D3, on the other hand, (a) radically revised a game that was perceived as clunky and out-of-date, which allowed them to (c) reach out to a large body of disillusioned ex-customers. They simultaneously (b) released conversion guides and used a massive, public beta testing period to get large numbers of existing players onboard with the changes before the game was even released.

The conversion to D&D4 failed for several reasons.

First, no effort was made form a bridge between the old edition and the new edition. (A crazy French guy screaming “Ze game remains the same!” like some sort of cultic mantra notwithstanding.) In fact, WotC went out of their way to insist that there was no bridge between the editions.

Second, WotC was attempting to reach out to new customers. But I maintain that they made the fundamental mistake of trying to pull customers away from video games by competing with video games on their own turf. That’s just not going to cut it. If RPGs are going to be successful in the future, it will be because they emphasize their unique strengths. Tactical combat and prepackaged My Perfect Encounters(TM) aren’t going to cut it.

Finally, 2008 was misidentified as being another 2000.

In 2000 WotC was dealing with an overwhelmingly dissatisfied fanbase and responded with a new edition that largely addressed that dissatisfaction without overstepping the boundaries of its “mandate”. It wasn’t perfect. Plenty of people remained dissatisfied (or hadn’t been dissatisfied in the first place). But there were also a lot of people saying “3rd Edition looks just like my house rules for AD&D” or “it’s exactly what I’ve always wanted D&D to look like”, and success followed.

In 2008, I think it’s clear that WotC thought they had a similar level of overwhelming dissatisfaction. But either they didn’t or their sweeping and fundamental changes to the game exceeded the “mandate” of that dissatisfaction. Or both. (Personally, I suspect they were misled by the echo chamber of the ‘net and a corporate decision to prevent OGL support for 4th Edition. They tried to solve “problems” that most players weren’t actually experiencing and simultaneously “fixed” them in an unnecessarily excessive fashion.)

In some ways this takes us back to the “New Coke” metaphor: The taste tests for New Coke indicated it would be a huge success. But the taste tests were fundamentally flawed: They were “sip tests”. And in sip tests the smoother, sweeter taste of New Coke won. But nobody buys their soda by the teaspoon; they buy it by the can.

4th Edition radically overhauled D&D’s gameplay in order to respond to complaints driven by CharOp specialists, armchair theorists, and other lovers of spherical cows. For a lot of people on the ground, the game didn’t have those problems and 4th Edition was a solution in search of a problem.


WotC’s corporate culture had clearly turned against the OGL by 2008. They no longer saw a massive network maintaining interest in their game and generating new customers who were all funneled back into their core products. Instead, they saw an entire industry profiteering on their IP.

The argument of whether or not WotC was right or not can be saved for another time. (Although I will note that every scrap of evidence I’ve seen indicates that the strategy works both in the RPG industry and outside of the RPG industry. D&D3, Pathfinder, and the OSR community all seem to have flourished under it as well.)

But given the existence of the OGL, the decision to stop making Classic D&D and start making New D&D was a disastrous one. The goal appears to have been to create an edition with enough fundamental incompatibility that the OGL couldn’t be used to support it, but the practical effect was to leave the largest network of material supporting an RPG in history all pointing towards a giant void.

A void into which it was absolutely trivial for someone to step.


My biggest regret is that I feel WotC missed an opportunity. There are, in fact, some significant problems with 3rd Edition.There are key abilities in 1st to 10th level play (polymorph, for example) that need to be fixed. And from 12th to 20th the game begins to crack and then break down. These problems require an overhaul of the basic foundations on which the game is built.

It is, however, possible to fix these problems without nuking the core gameplay which has been successful since 1974.

WotC chose the nuke option.

Meanwhile, Paizo couldn’t make those changes with Pathfinder while simultaneously stepping into the void vacated by WotC.

That’s the missed opportunity here: WotC had the chance to polish and improve Classic D&D; to take the next step with the game. Instead, they side-stepped and gave us New D&D instead.

Looking ahead, I think the time period right around 2014-2015 will be potentially very interesting: WotC would be able to theoretically roll out a new edition, and the question will be whether they’ll stick with improving New D&D or if they’ll try to revert to Classic D&D. (Or do something else entirely.) Meanwhile, if Paizo continues to solidify (or even build) their market share, then right around that same time they’ll potentially be in a position to attempt a 2nd Edition of Pathfinder that can be more radical in its efforts.

On the other hand, maybe not. The emerging long-tail economics combined with open licensing may mean that no revision of the 3rd Edition ruleset will ever be able to break 3rd Edition’s network of players and support material. The D&D trademark might have been able to do it in 2008, but in decoupling the D&D trademark from Classic D&D WotC seems to have created a massive player base that no longer has any loyalty to that trademark. The horse may have left the barn for good.

Does Format Matter? (A Response)

February 20th, 2011

Robert J. Schwalb has a post hypothesizing that 4th Edition would have been more widely accepted if it had been formatted differently.

Fourth edition’s presentation abandoned nearly everything familiar about the game’s look. Eight years of 3rd edition, I think, created strong expectations about how the game should read and since the game didn’t match the visual expectations, it certainly must not match the play experience.

He goes on to argue that 4th Edition wasn’t as big of a shift from D&D if you compare it to the proto-4th Edition supplements being published by Wizards in the last couple years of 3rd Edition (Tome of Battle, for example). This is true. But I think Schwalb is ignoring the fact that their proto-4th Edition supplements were bringing with them proto-4th Edition critiques even before 4th Edition was released.

Schwalb also includes a PDF of what 4th Edition powers might have looked like if they’d been formatted more like 3rd Edition spells and asks, “I wonder if those changes might have been more palpable had we shifted back toward the old presentation, even if doing so meant that the game would be harder to learn.”

I doubt it. Oh, I’ve seen some people comparing the new powers format to Magic: The Gathering cards and the like. But when you dig down into the real complaints people have about 4th Edition they tend to be either dissociated mechanics, abandoning the traditional D&D gameplay that existed from 1974-2008, dissatisfaction with the “miniatures are mandatory” combat, or some combination thereof.

Personally, I think 4th Edition has some great formatting. I’ve been completely sold on the idea that monster stat blocks should contain all the rules for running the monster since at least 2000 (when my earliest adventure prep notes for 3rd Edition prominently featured monster stat blocks modded to do just that).

So count me down pretty firmly in the camp of “I like the format, I don’t like the rules”.

And to that end, consider this small sampling of 3rd Edition wizard spells formatted with 4th Edition stylings:

Magic Missile Spell - 4th Edition Style

Alarm Spell - 4th Edition Style

Cause Fear Spell - 4th Edition Style

(The red hand indicates that spell resistance applies.)

And here’s a 3rd Edition Goblin using a 4th Edition styled stat block structured similarly to my own revised stat blocks:

Goblin - 4th Edition Style

I doubt that such formatting would really have been a turn-off for anybody. (In fact, Paizo’s reformatting of spells for Pathfinder spells is not terribly dissimilar, albeit slightly more conservative.)

In fact, let me go one step further: Schwalb hypothesizes that 4th Edition might have been hurt by its radical formatting shift. I think the opposite is true. I think 4th Edition’s superior formatting has attracted people who would otherwise have stuck with 3rd Edition. Significant chunks of the utility 4th Edition gets praised for (like including all of the rules necessary for running a monster in the monster’s stat block) is stuff that can just as easily be done in 3rd Edition.

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.”


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.


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).


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.


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.

Keep on the ShadowfellMy work on converting the archives of the Alexandrian over the past few days have been something of a trip down memory lane as I go digging through material I wrote up to half a decade ago. And occasionally stumbling across comments that I don’t think I ever saw because of the broken and disjointed commenting system on the old site.

One discovery that particularly caught my eye came in response  to the Keep on the Shadowfell: Analyzing the Design series I wrote as a precursor to my remix of the module in 2008. A couple people mentioned that the specific traps I had been talking about in 2008 had been “fixed to a large extent” when WotC revised the module for its release as a freebie PDF.

I was curious enough to check it out.

And discovered that they’d fixed almost nothing. The only two improvements I can identify are:

1. They allowed Arcana and Thievery checks to stack for the purposes of disabling the dragon statues. (A suggestion I’d made in my original remix notes.)

2. They made it clear when the arcane walls of the Whirlpool Trap would activate (“when a creature moves into the 4-square-by-4-square area between the statues”) and the location of the walls once they appear:

Revised Whirlpool Trap

But there are two problems with this “solution”:

First, as I discussed in my original essay on the matter, you’ve designed the trap so that it can’t be affected by anyone outside of the trap. (In order to disable the trap, you have to destroy the cherubs. And you can’t attack the cherubs if they’re on the other side of the wall.) They’ve removed the explicit references in the module itself to characters doing the impossible, but that doesn’t remove the larger design concerns:

(a) It’s not fun. In general, this means you will have one character inside the trap who needs to make several attacks against the cherub vases while everyone else sits around and watches.

(b) What happens if the character trapped inside the whirlpool is killed? As far as I can tell, the arcane walls just remain in place for the rest of eternity. (They can’t come down until the cherubs are destroyed; and the cherubs can’t be destroyed by anyone who isn’t caught in the trap.) Not only does this mean there’s no way to retrieve your fallen comrade’s battered body, it also means that the only path for reaching the Big Bad Boss of Keep on the Shadowfell is now blocked by two permanent walls of arcane energy.

Second, the trap breaks the rules. The Quick-Start Rules included in the original Keep on the Shadowfell included “Barriers” as one of the types of Area of Effect:

Barrier: A barrier runs along the edge of a specified number of squares. A barrier must cross at least one edge of the origin square.

This was problematic because the core rulebooks didn’t include “Barriers” and instead included rules for “Walls”:

Wall: A wall fills a specified number of contiguous squares within range, starting from an origin square. Each square of the wall must share a side — not just a corner — with at least one other square of the wall, but a square can share no more than two sides with other squares in the wall (this limitation does apply when stacking squares on top of each other). You can shape the wall however you like within those limitations. A solid wall, such as a wall of ice, cannot be created in occupied squares.

The original version of the trap was problematic in any case because it used the keyword “wall” to describe the arcane cage, and one just had to kind of assume that it meant “barrier” if you were using the Quick-Start Rules. You’ll note, however, that the revised version of the module is clearly using the rules for a “barrier” in its diagram.

So… no problem, right? The Quick-Start rules describe “barriers” and this trap, designed to be used with the Quick-Start Rules, now clearly follows those rules.

Except (and this is my favorite bit) somebody noticed that the rules for “barriers” were outdated and should never have been published in the first place, and so the revised Quick-Start Rules designed to be used with the revised version of Keep on the Shadowfell… don’t include the rules for barriers. The entire section was cut.

(Did they bother to replace these rules with the rules for walls which were supposed to be there in the first place? Don’t be silly. Of course they didn’t.)

So you have a trap which explicitly creates walls, but they don’t follow the rules for walls… and it doesn’t really matter anyway, because the Quick-Start Rules didn’t bother including rules for walls.

Epic Fail



Recent Posts

Recent Comments