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Well, what could be a more appropriate way to spend Halloween night than pretending to be an elf and fighting monsters, right? So it was that we gathered at the Rathbun house to narf on ham and candy, tsk in disappointment at how the kids just don't know how to trick-or-treat these days, and finish off sirfox's running of Keep On the Shadowfell, our foray into D&D 4E. Having gone through the entire adventure, I am now quite prepared to say that we've given 4E the fairest of shakes.

The verdict: "Meh." Not a reflection on sirfox's GMing, mind you — he's a fine GM and I thoroughly enjoyed his furry 3.5 game. No, it's all about the system.

For years I've heard complaints from gamers feeling like they were doing little more than moving pieces around on the gameboard with D&D, but I never particularly experienced that myself before 4E. Even the second edition days, when I was cursing the rigidity of classes and wishing that D&D had a proper skill system, I didn't feel this straight-jacketed into "You can choose from this bucket of powers or that bucket of powers. Any characterization that happens from there is entirely up to you and is really inconsequential."

This starts right in the core character creation process, with races that have random powers for no apparent reason (since when do elves teleport? [1]), classes that don't mean anything (no, fighters don't do damage, that's the rogue's job), and weapons that are there to fill a mechanical slot rather than have any resemblance to reality (until the flintlock, the bow was absolutely superior to any other personal ranged weapon -- but only rangers can use it effectively?).

So basically, the players' side of the screen pretty much sucks. Unless you're itching to play a character exactly like how one of the nonsensical classes is built, you're SOL. Yes, you can make a hybrid or take multiclass feats, but unless you're hybrid/multiclassing with another class within your "role" (i.e., striker to striker), you're just diluting your effectiveness.

The other thing, and this may be just a matter of the specific module, but it sure doesn't seem that way, is that the whole "delve format" and "balance by encounter" mindset leads to a string of staged fight after staged fight; certainly dungeons always had the danger of coming off this way, but rarely has it actually felt like that to me before now. Instead of "exploring a dungeon," I felt like I was following a flowchart. "Ding! You've reached the next encounter. Here's the map, here's the monsters, here's the terrain-hazard-of-the-fight. Go!" Granted, my character had a power that was made to push monsters around, but I pushed more enemies into pits in this module than I had in the rest of my 25-odd years of gaming combined. Because a) every encounter very specifically had a pit with a monster standing next to it saying "Push me!", and b) more often than not it was the most effective thing I could do, by simultaneously damaging the baddie and taking him out of the fight for X rounds while he climbed back up out. (A couple of monsters, I shoved 'em into the pit, waited for them to climb out, then shoved 'em back in again. It was funny a couple of times, but not exactly a great moment of heroic adventure.)

So basically, 4E, from a players' POV, lives down to every cliché complaint people have made about D&D in the past. "All combat?" Check. "No roleplaying?" Check. "Just about selling the next supplement?" Double-check. "Videogamey?" Triple-OMGYES-check. If 3.x ever felt like they were just tying the miniatures-skirmish game together with a pasted-on framework, 4E is much, much worse about it. It's a mediocre skirmish-fight game, and as a roleplaying game it's utter crap.

Now, the weird thing of it is, on the GM side of the screen there is some absolutely brilliant stuff going on, lots of things that can be retrofitted to d20/Saga Edition and give you the best of both worlds. And really, if your players don't care that the character classes suck (I don't get it, myself, but there are plenty of players who basically feel like it's all the same), 4E is a perfectly runnable game.

All that said, if sirfox wants to keep running it, I'll keep playing it, if only 'cause I'm always jonesing to be a player instead of the GM, and I'm certainly not going to spend the session kibitzing about the system. But I will say here and without reservation that I sure hope 5E, whenever it appears, brings us back up out of this new D&D dark age.

-The Gneech

[1] Don't give me any guff that eladrin aren't elves. They are.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 1st, 2009 03:33 pm (UTC)
I think that a lot of the player-side problems get summed up like this:

All combat has become spell based. Magic users make off better in this, in that they will always have something handy during an encounter, but they lose a huge amount of versatility.

Melee folks, however, seem to lose out on most of their big "spells" because the average calculation for difficulty/challenge/Amorclass expects everyone to minmax their critical stats.

Quite a lot of frustration comes from that. What would you think of this, as a house rule...

for the encounter powers, make them recharge 6 *if they miss*

As a DM, i was struck by how easily some of the critters in the encounter module could have two-shotted most of the party, or even one-shotted them with a crit. Healing still feels really odd, and nowhere adequate to put up with that amount of damage, even with everybody having their Second Wind.
Nov. 1st, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)
As far as at-the-table frustration, I'd be just as happy with "action point on the same turn allows you to try the encounter/daily power again." ...and the ability to roll above a 7 on a regular basis, of course.

My irritations with 4E are more macro-level conceptual ones, things like "they've decided that barbarian = 2-handed, so all barbarian powers only work when wielding a 2-handed weapon" and "Rangers are people who either do fancy bow shots or dual wield, oh and some have animal companions, what does wilderness have to do with anything?"

-The Gneech
Nov. 2nd, 2009 07:33 pm (UTC)
Most of the spell-like traits of 4e's Powers comes from want of balance. It's interesting to me that they decided to focus on this, since probably 90% of gamers aren't going to actually play Pun-pun, or accidentally make their character completely combat-green. But they wanted every player at the table to feel about as useful as every other player in as many (combat) situations as possible.

Regardless of the reasoning, it all becomes a resource management exercise. Switching to a miss:recharge mechanic both changes that dynamic and introduces complexity. Not necessarily bad, especially if it makes it more fun for your group (which imo is the whole point of gaming anyway).

Your two-shot/one-shot-crit comment, along with the_gneech's push-happy tactics may well be an artifact of the module. Over a third of KotS's encounters have pits or steep slopes. That seems... excessive? Also, while a 1st level 4e wizard will not drop from a cat scratch, he's still 1st level. One of the complaints about 4e is actually the opposite of your experience - that the heroes are buckets of hit points. I'm fairly certain this is not a reaction to 1st-3rd level, which is what I assume you were playing with KotS.

No matter what the system, or playing style, or whatever, the point is the fun. Like kesh said, finding the right system may not be as simple.
Nov. 2nd, 2009 01:56 am (UTC)
But I will say here and without reservation that I sure hope 5E, whenever it appears, brings us back up out of this new D&D dark age.

Melodrama, much? :D

I can understand your criticisms. Really, all Wizards' has done is file down what AD&D has been for a long time. It's a narrowing, and one that doesn't suit everyone.

That said, I'm wondering what you're looking for in D&D? You might be best off with something like old-school Rules Cyclopedia D&D, or moving to a totally different system for your fantasy swords & sorcery action.
Nov. 2nd, 2009 02:18 am (UTC)
What I'm looking for is easy: a Star Wars Saga Edition-ized 3.5 with decent computer support.

d20 was a huge step forward for D&D -- it drives me nuts to see it sliding backwards.

-The Gneech
Nov. 2nd, 2009 06:44 pm (UTC)
Ah, this again. "The cheesecake probably would have been better if I liked cream cheese." Disclaimer: I adore 4e, but it kind of crept up on me.

That said... you're right, it's not for the method actors and storytellers. Which is probably why both you and I have projects for fantasy-izing SWS. What 4e is is a fantastically well-polished game. Not a simulation, not a storytelling framework, but a game.

Oddly enough, one of the things that I really like about it is the fact that the roleplaying has been stripped out. You don't have tons of fluff to taint a homespun campaign - that's all in the campaign setting books.

Characters end up being just a bunch of numbers? That's great for roleplaying! Before seeing the monk class, I threw together a monk from the barbarian, without changing the crunch at all. It's a style instead of a rage, purity of body instead of rageblood vigor, monk's staff instead of fullblade.

I got more, but I'll drop it under sirfox's comment in a moment...
May. 18th, 2010 09:31 pm (UTC)
now that i've finally played 4e, i came back to this post to remind myself what your complaints about it were. :)

i completely agree that it feels like they made a design decision to give everybody basically the same numbers of the same sorts of combat powers that were about equally effective and worked in basically the same way, differing mainly in special effects (and what defenses they go against); and that this makes it feel very video-gamey to me.

specifically, it seems pretty difficult, as far as i can find, to trade off combat effectiveness for noncombat effectiveness-- it's hard to make a character who hides under the tables during fights occasionally whacking people in the shins but who knows everything about the ancient rite of mystical whatsit, what plants taste good when you're starving, and how to find your location on a map using a piece of string and spit.

(i've been looking some at warlords for this kind of character-- most of their powers seem to be "give a bonus to your allies," which is the sort of thing that could maybe make you still feel useful while at the same time having the special effect that you're not directly fighting yourself. i feel like it might be entertaining to play a "warlord" who was defined in-game as being a jester who's good at inspiring crowds, or a little kid who people feel an empowering rush of protective adrenaline when they jump in to defend, or whatever. but other than that, it *is* very difficult to find opportunities to take a power whose primary use is out of combat-- some classes sometimes have this option with some utility powers... and you can spend all your feats on having extra skills or being extra good at your skills... but...)

out of curiousity, does keep on the shadowfell have a big noncombat component to it? if it's a grinding mechanistic dungeon-crawl, it's surely gonna make the game feel like a grinding mechanistic dungeon crawl (though after rereading you talking about pushing enemies into pits, suddenly i want to throw my 3.5e pcs into a gnome workshop run that's entirely staged on robo rally game-boards.... ;) ).

anyway. i feel like the familiar character-class-differentiation mechanics were gone and that was disorienting to me. and giving everybody basically the same chance to hit with their attacks does feel a bit like it disadvantages fighters, simply because "hitting more often" was one of the traditional d&d fighter bits. but there are class-differentiation mechanics; they're just different ones. fighters are dangerous to ignore in combat, thieves backstab (somewhat traditional, really), warlocks curse (i played a warlock), wizards do area-effect spells, clerics heal. one game wasn't really enough for me to get a good feel for the new differences, so it was still disorienting.

wizards come off really really well in 4e; maybe too well. one game-mechanic difference between classes that i think not enough attention was paid to was that area-effect powers succeed more often than single-target powers because you get to roll more times and so don't have the whole attack spoiled by a single crappy roll. so if alice the wizard and bob the fighter have essentially the same at-will attacks but alice's daily hits every enemy in a 5 square burst and bob's daily does triple damage, alice is going to be, or at least feel, way more effective than bob most of the time. but that's a way in which classes differ, at least...

wizards also get a boatload of noncombat abilities, relative to most other classes. rogues at least get more skills than other folks, but i'm not sure it's quite enough. though they can have powers that expand their stealth abilities (in mostly tactical ways, but they translate some to noncombat), which is something.

Edited at 2010-05-19 09:57 pm (UTC)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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