Thursday, July 9, 2009

D&D4: One Year On

It’s been a little more than a year since Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition, launched, and after six months of playing it regularly and six more of watching it evolve I think I have finally defined what it is I don’t like about it.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy D&D4. I’ve come to terms with it in a way that allows me to enjoy it a great deal as a sort of beer-and-pretzels, fantasy-combat board game, in the same vein as the old DUNGEON! game or the more recent Descent and Runebound. I’m not being flippant – I really do enjoy these games and I consider D&D4 to be one of the best. In a lot of ways, I’ve been waiting for a game like D&D4 my entire life. But I don’t consider D&D4 to be a roleplaying game.

I have to define ‘roleplaying game,’ because I’ve come to realize that the term means something different for everyone, and that my definition is somewhat more strict than most. First and foremost, I consider a roleplaying game to be a system of rules in which I feel comfortable telling an interactive story for the benefit of a group of players. It has been said that a good roleplayer doesn’t need rules to roleplay, and I agree with this sentiment – I spent much of my youth ‘roleplaying’ adventures with my friends in the woods behind my parents’ house – but roleplaying without rules is just improvisational acting, not a game. Likewise, a game like Dungeons & Dragons without rules for roleplaying is just a fantasy combat simulation.

When D&D was originally released back in 1974, that’s all it was – a fantasy mod for a squad-level medieval wargame. Even the concept of setting beyond a hole in the ground with a city nearby wouldn’t be published for another year. I bring up original D&D to illustrate that I’m not trying to make a value judgement or a comparison to the ‘good old days,’ here – just because a particular game is not roleplaying, or a spate of roleplaying is not a game, doesn’t imply that they are somehow diminished. They’re just in a different genre, by my definition.

I have a deep and abiding respect for Gary Gygax (may he rest in peace), and I shared many of his opinions, but this is one topic on which we differed. He was of the opinion that roleplaying was something that happened outside the rules. To me, that’s not a roleplaying game; that’s acting while wargaming. There’s nothing wrong with that – in fact, it is exactly how I tend to play the fantasy board games I love so much. But to me, a roleplaying game is a game that unifies roleplaying and combat under a single rule system, or at least with related rules systems. There need to be out-of-combat rules strict enough to provide challenge when performing tasks outside the dungeon, and in-combat rules relaxed enough to provide opportunity for character personality to emerge in battle. This is where D&D4 falls short for me, on both counts: its vestigial skill system and its exhaustive power list.

I’ve been mocked, in the past, for wanting to expend character resources on a skill like ‘pottery,’ because doing so limits the dungeon-crawling efficiency of my character. But for me, creating a character is not about creating a single-purpose tool. My favorite campaigns are the ones where characters purchase homes, open businesses, and marry townsfolk (or other adventurers), and in so doing become relevant not only to the success of the campaign but to the success of the setting. In short, my favorite campaigns are the ones that encapsulate an entire life rather than individual dungeon escapades. I have trouble explaining this to other D&D players, I think because they consider activities like these to be external to the game, or at best a secondary game. But for me, spending hard-earned gold on a permanent home or business is just as viable an investment as purchasing a new weapon or suit of armor. I believe, therefore, that the same rules should govern both.

Most D&D4 gamers I speak to seem to agree that the skill system is crippled, but many of them don’t seem to mind it as its impact on traditional 4th Edition play is minimal. For me, the lack of a flexible, diverse skill system is damning – it robs me of even the most basic system of adjudication for non-combat actions. This is apparently not a common concern, but it is mine. If I want my character to make some money on the side shoeing horses, there should be a difficulty associated with the required tasks just as there is a difficulty associated with dungeon crawling. It’s all part of the same game.

My complaint with D&D4’s power list is more esoteric, and harder to explain. Players railing against D&D4 often claim that there is less choice involved in creating a D&D4 character than there was in previous editions of the game, and this is pretty patently untrue, as fans of the system are quick to point out. Wizards and clerics have lost a lot of options, but everyone else has definitely gained in the variety department. I think what my fellow discontents are trying to say, rather, is that in D&D4 all choices are laid out for the player, even hard coded, and there is no creativity involved in their selection.

In previous editions of D&D, players had fewer choices to make in the rules, but there was a lot of empty space in character generation as a result. Room to extrapolate on things. A character became a person not because he was extensively customized with established rules, but because he was so similar to every other member of his class and race that you had to look between the rules to personalize him. In D&D4, between powers and feats, characters are watertight. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great game design. I just don’t think spamming ‘Twin Strike’ encourages creativity, and I consider creativity to be a very important part of roleplaying. Can you rename Twin Strike? Can you reflavor it? Sure, but at the end of the day, every power has its own established, unique rules for execution and result. There’s only so much modification you can do without changing the mechanics. The mechanics of a power are definitive.

I think the best way to illustrate this particular point is to suggest an alternative. Even if a player likes the power list as written, I doubt they would argue that it would not be even better to have the capacity to design custom powers for their characters. And that is the “choice” that my fellow discontents are missing in D&D4. When all attacks were a d20 roll against THAC0 followed by rolling weapon damage – or to put it another way, when there was only one rule for attacking – there was a lot more room for personal embellishment. Every attack was different because every attack could be – the d20 roll governed only its success or failure. The power list removes that wiggle room by rigidly defining a character’s options during combat, and discourages embellishment by providing an effortless and universally recognized alternative.

And that about sums it up. By my definition, D&D4 is not a roleplaying game. It seems to me that D&D4 cripples roleplaying coming and going, as its combat rules are too detailed and its out-of-combat rules not detailed enough. Now, plenty of people are roleplaying using the D&D4 rules and enjoying it, and I don’t mean this piece to suggest that they are somehow doing it wrong. As long as they are enjoying themselves, that’s the ultimate goal, and I am glad to see them achieving it. The above are just the reasons why the new system doesn’t work for me personally. I had hoped for a long time that an increased number of supplements would ‘rescue’ D&D4 for me, but these issues are fairly substantive, and present in the core of the system. It seems unlikely they will ever be “fixed” in this iteration of the game, so I continue to look elsewhere for a roleplaying game with a system that will support the kind of long-running immersive campaign I prefer to dungeon master. I will, however, continue to enjoy playing D&D4 modules for enjoyment’s sake.