Sunday, 17 November 2019

D&D 4e: a daring triumph of design


I was up in the early hours of the morning the other day after travelling back from New York and suffering from jet lag fun times. I decided on a whim to open up the 4e Essentials Rules Compendium and read it pretty much cover to cover because that's the kind of cool nerd I am. When I used to play 4e in my two year campaign I loved the Compendium. Its digest size made it easy to sling in my backpack and it's really easy to read.

Fourth edition is maligned, and there are some fairly good reasons for that. It entirely revamped the game of D&D - it broke its own rules and altered the way the game was run. Sprawling billion room dungeons were replaced for the most part with larger set-pieces created for the larger than life combat the game necessitated. The spell lists of editions gone by were stripped away in favour of individual class spell powers. Hell, saving throws were pretty much removed - existing only for a few occasions (roll over 10 and you're golden). Abilities pretty much only focused on combat - very few had good roleplaying potential. 4e was a system shock, it was plunging your head into a bucket of ice.

But when I read the Compendium I realised how tight this game is. This is engineered, perhaps over-engineered, but it works. I read through some Dungeon adventures originally put out on DDI (remember that?) and Reavers of Harkenwold. Oh my, Reavers of Harkenwold. I've not run it, but this is a really great-looking adventure and others have corroborated this.

It struck me that in completely redesigning the game, the designers took a huge risk, but honestly I think the positives outweigh the negatives. Like, they really do - you just have to realise that you're playing a different D&D experience and lean into it.

While back in the day you had some class and racial abilities (still my favoured way to play), in 4e you fly right out of the gate with crackling lightning hands, magnificent duelling abilities and healing upon healing. You're not a pot washer with a stick - you're a Hero. These powers (daily, encounter, at-will, utility) basically put everyone on a level playing field. The 4e experience obviously skews towards big combat, it was specifically designed this way, and powers make combats exciting. You're not just attacking with strength or dex - powers allow you to use other abilities, meaning no dump stats. Everyone had a role. Literally. Controller, striker, leader and defender - yes, videogame parlance, but useful. Immediately you know what your character is about when it comes to combat, but there's no reason you can't have multiple roles.

4e knows it's a game and makes playing more intuitive as a result. I really don't hate measuring in squares instead of feet. From a game perspective - because you're playing a game - it makes sense. This extends to other aspects of its design.

Why all the focus on combat? Because combat is structured. You know where you stand with combat because of the feedback loop. Mearls Heinsoo and co wanted to make the game as easy to run as possible. Basically plug and play, give the DM bandwidth to focus on character development, NPCs and creating an experience. The way powers and spells are written are basically if this then that code - easy to parse. Ambiguity was tossed aside and replaced with concrete design, something Pathfinder would also do. The designers had vision - they knew the kind of game they were setting out to make.

This obsession with engineering a program that we call D&D translates the best to monster design. Kobold isn't just a little dragon chap with a spear. Now Kobold could be a Kobold Soldier, a Kobold Slinger, a Kobold Knight etc. Each plays differently, having their own roles. The DM immediately knows how to play an artillery monster and the tactics section makes this abundantly clear. They're also not just prodding you with a spear anymore - they're using powers, status effects, auras - lots of them. A goon might allow an ally to move after an attack, or have an aura that helps its fortitude. When I DM'd 4e I couldn't wait to see how enemies played. The game made it super easy to build an encounter. Plug and play.

Everything was an encounter. Why? It all comes back to the feedback loop. If the designers could make exploration like combat, it would once again free up DM bandwidth. Enter, skill challenges. Yes, these were confusing and badly explained. But at the heart of them, skill challenges were a daring piece of design. They could represent a group effort over five minutes, five hours, five days, or even five months. They never really were explained well, even in Essentials, but I admire what they were going for.

I'm going to wrap this up here by saying that no edition is better than the other. Each offers a different experience. It's a flavour. 4e is inspired by videogames, but that's not a bad thing. The designers dared to have a vision, even if that meant entirely reinventing the most popular roleplaying game ever.