D&D 4th Edition

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I’ve been reading through the free introductory rules for D&D 4th Edition thanks in large part to a full-court press marketing effort that includes the diverting “TinyAdventures” facebook app. I’d heard that Wizards had made more changes to D&D in their fourth edition than any previous edition — I think that’s debatable — but it did encourage me to at least take a look.

One thing you have to give credit to the designers of the latest edition for is that they actually appear to have created pretty solid mechanics. Third edition was full of ridiculously bad design decisions, including opportunity attack rules that were at best highly entertaining for rules lawyers, and a half-assed attempt to make character creation flexible that simply punished anyone who tried to make an interesting character.

4th Edition is, in essence, 2nd edition’s character classes with 3rd edition’s combat system — but both cleaned up and adapted to the MMORPG era. While it may seem annoying and oversimplistic to pigeon-hole character classes in MMORPG terms (e.g. defining anyone who buffs or heals as a “leader”) it actually is very helpful in monster descriptions (making the behavior of a monster actually a lot clearer).

D&D has fundamental conceptual flaws as a “role-playing” game (unless you define “role-playing” to be “whatever it is that D&D players do”), but if you accept that “role-playing” is essentially cheating during character generation, combat, tallying loot and experience, and rearranging your equipment — 4th edition seems to do it better than any previous incarnation.

If you’re looking for fixes to fundamental problems — e.g. the entire concept of character classes, levels, hit points, you’re either alive or dead or (very very occasionally) unconscious, alignments (versus personalities), armor making you harder to hit (rather than mitigating damage). What we do get is solid, flexible definitions (e.g. when is a character “helpless” and what does this mean?), a somewhat complex (given how unrealistic D&D is) but pretty thorough sequence of play, and a lot of the tedium and bookkeeping of D&D removed.

E.g. most powers are usable “at will”, “once per encounter”, or “once per day”. That’s clear, simple, and easy to keep track of. In particular, wizards have a nice selection of spell “powers” they can fire off like Tim the Enchanter instead of a ridiculously small set of one-use powers with very limited application. An “encounter” is any period of action between rests (short or long). There are some abilities that can only be restored by one long rest or two short ones. Monsters regain powers randomly during encounters rather than having to be tracked.

The rules are a bit more “object-oriented” too. Instead of everything being a member of a category (e.g. a monster is either a demon or a dragon, a spell is either conjuration or necromantic), there are “keywords” that act like mixin-classes (if you’re a programmer). So a monster can be an undead, demon, dragon and a spell can be necromantic and conjuration — which is both sensible, simplifying, and less annoying for close readers of rules. (Perhaps I like this because ForeSight has a generalized system of “adjectives” or “modifications” that works like this for virtually everything — it’s only taken D&D 23 years to catch up.)

One of the more interesting aspects of the new rules is how they seem to have reacted to, built upon, and generally improved on some of the fishier aspects of CRPGs and MMORPGs. E.g. characters can get a “second wind” once per encounter (more or less — there’s a daily limit) which essentially lets them recover some health by (in Martials Arts film terms) squaring their shoulders, puffing out their chests, and tearing off their shirts. The way the notorious “taunt” ability works in D&D4 is the way it ought to work in every CRPG — if you’re standing next to a fighter then you’d damn well better pay attention to that fighter or he/she will rip you a new one. In other words, “mobs” don’t attack warriors because “they generate more aggro”, but because if they don’t the warriors will kill them and they know it. Bravo.

(And a warrior who can’t actually hurt a mob won’t be able to hold its attention — again, as it should be. Versus every MMORPG I’ve played where a tank class basically can’t do real damage.)

D&D4 has enough of a skill system and — more importantly — the designers seem to have the right spirit in their examples (with skills being used in a free-flowing way to make stuff happen out of combat) for people wanting to actually role-play to have a good deal of fun.

I may have to actually try playing it.

Fruit of the Poison Tree

In my recent unemployment, I’ve been playing a bit of World of Warcraft’s latest installment, Wrath of the Lich King. As ever, Blizzard has provided a highly polished and often entertaining experience, although it seems to me that like most such games it carves out the rich middle of the market, leaving nothing but scraps for designers with more interesting and challenging ideas. In other words, it’s an inevitable result of free market capitalism and none the less depressing.

It’s interesting to trace the extremely annoying qualities of World of Warcraft to their roots — Dungeons and Dragons — but here’s the rough version:

In D&D you don’t create the character you want to play, you create (a) a member of a character class who is (b) horribly underpowered. So, from the outset, forget any ideas of playing a storybook character of your own devising. You’re playing a rigidly constrained character of — if you’re lucky — a game designer’s devising. More likely, you’ll end up playing something that is an accidental outcome of bad rules.

In D&D there are (rather bad) rules for combat, and almost no rules for anything else. It therefore falls to combat to resolve all major plot points.

In D&D, you progress in the game by gaining levels and (more importantly) equipment. If you’re lucky (and probably not very imaginative) at some point you’ll end up playing the character you originally wanted to play, but soon you’ll progress beyond that and get an overpowered parody of that character who scoffs at normal challenges and instead has to slay five dragons before breakfast to work up an honest sweat.

In D&D story is — at best — driven by location. (Often story is merely an accident created by location.) If you want a story involving A, then B, then C, then you place A in room one, and a corridor to a room containing B, and so forth. Ideally, the room containing A has a locked door which can only be opened after A has occurred satisfactorily. It is therefore crucial that geographic constraints be absolute. No magic can open the door to B before A has transpired. Indeed, A might be thought of “quest to get the door to B” and B might be thought of as “quest to get the door to C”.

In D&D armor is a Good Thing. The heavier the better. In fact, the only reason you wouldn’t wear Gothic Plate, say, everywhere and all the time is that you’re simply not allowed to by virtue of your character class. (Admittedly in very late model D&D there are some very minor disadvantages to the heaviest armor.) This rule provision is so ingrained that no-one has even sought to discuss (a) how the Universe enforces it or (b) how it might be transgressed. E.g. suppose you needed to keep a wizard safe from assassination… might you dress said wizard in Gothic Plate and suffer some disadvantage (no spell casting allowed, for example?)

All of these poisonous (and just plain stupid) concepts have made their way from Dungeons & Dragons, originally released in 1975, to World of Warcraft, originally released in 2004.

So, in World of Warcraft you are restricted to a character class. You start (slightly) underpowered but soon find yourself so powerful that you will casually undertake a half hour quest to — with no assistance — kill 12 dragons or perhaps a minor god. Every story point (with miniscule exceptions) is handled through combat (indeed conversations afford no player choices at all). “Instances” are literally a series of rooms where you must kill the denizens of each room in order. And the only reason not to wear heavy armor (which is always better in every respect to light) is that you aren’t allowed to.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see a little progress? To begin with, we’ll need to pick a different tree. The RuneQuest tree, or the Champions tree, or even The Fantasy Trip┬átree.

RIP Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax was, without doubt, one of the most influential game designers in history. He invented the role-playing game (with rules), as opposed to the role-playing game without rules, which has existed since before recorded history (heck, you can see kittens and puppies playing their version of “cowboys and indians”).

As with many absolutely groundbreaking pioneers Gygax’s work was so overwhelmingly influential that its many flaws have been treated, more-or-less, as fundamental pillars, so that the latest RPGs (paper or computer) usually contain many or even most of them, including “classes”, “alignments”, “levels”, “to hit tables”, “saving throws”, and so on. When viewed in large, his ideas are brilliant, but when viewed close up, every detail is terrible, whether it’s the historical research, the basic assumptions, the rules mechanics, or the quality of the writing.

Even so, not only has D&D spawned an entire class of imitative game designs, it has spawned comics, books, tv series, movies, computer games, scientific research, therapy, and training. More than an entire generation of geeks have grown up with D&D influencing their thinking and vocabulary. John Stewart makes D&D references on the Daily Show (as did Dave Foley in News Radio). The most successful computer game in the world right now is, unabashedly, a D&D derivative. Most of the key people at Microsoft, Apple, and Google have probably played D&D.

As a young gamer, I viewed TSR — Gygax’s game company — in much the same light as many of us today view Microsoft — a huge, unrelenting, capitalist monstrosity, destroying quality and diversity in its rapacious hunt for market share and profit. It was quite a revelation to me to discover, years later, that TSR was, more-or-less, a complete and utter boondoggle. So it’s particularly depressing to consider that such a hopelessly mismanaged enterprise managed to wreak so much havoc in the gaming industry. Just how badly must SPI have been managed to have fared so poorly against such hopeless competition?

Anyway, I was sad to read Gygax’s obituary on cnn.com (in fact I read his Wikipedia entry first, and it had already been updated). I don’t think he can be blamed for not being terribly good at the technical aspects of game design (historical research, logic, usability, writing) since his main contribution was really the idea of a formal role-playing game. It’s just a shame that his admirers have been so uncritical in their acceptance of his mistakes. (Indeed, just recently there’s been quite a bit of controversy over the efforts of the designers of D&D 4th Edition to fix just a few of the problems in D&D.)

Oh well, another 1000xp.

Marketing a non-D20 RPG

Well it looks like ForeSight Second Edition might just be published soon, and my thoughts are turning to the, perhaps unenviable, job of marketing a game firmly based on percentile dice (also known as D100): i.e. a pair of dice which when rolled give you a random number from 1 to 100.

The D20 juggernaut is basically a D&D thing. It’s not clear whether it’s an effort to keep third-party dice manufacturers happy, or a plot to convince people that the morasse of special cases, tables, and bizarre rules that constitute D&D is in fact a “system”. In any event, my reasons for eschewing D20s are technical, much as my reasons for eschewing 3D6 (as discussed earlier).

In any role-playing game there tend to die roll ranges for which exceptional outcomes are assigned. For D20-games these are rolls of 1 and 20. In other words, 10% of all resolution rolls (cases where a die is cast to determine what happens in a situation) result in something outlandish occurring (e.g. an automatic success or failure regardless of the odds).

Shit happens. But should it happen 10% of the time?

Now, in action movies and similar genres from which RPGs tend to take their cures, shit does indeed happen 10% of the time. But unfortunately, the 10% of the time we’re talking about is actually a gross understatement.

For example, a mid-level warrior in D&D will swing his/her sword three times in a single round of combat, which means he/she has three chances to have shit happen. If he/she is fighting a similarly capable opponent, that’s another three chances to have shit happen.

(For the statistically inclined, that’s a 1 – (0.9 ^ 6) probability of shit occurring in a single round — a few seconds — of combat, or roughly 47%. Most fights last several rounds. If this were a movie, this would be like half of fights having something ridiculous happen, such as someone trip over their feet or hit someone in the eye with a lucky shot, the moment a fight started.)

In RuneQuest 2nd Edition, a D100-based system, there were various tiny percentage chances of shit — things like a warrior slicing his own head off — happening every time someone did something. Of course when you did the math (and an article along these lines was posted to Murphy’s rules) you ended up with ridiculous results: in a battle of 1000 warriors lasting five minutes, some insane number would decapitate themselves, some far larger number would chop off their own limb, and so on. In each case the results were simply constructed by taking (1 – probability of ridiculous outcome) and raising it to the power of the number of times the dice would be rolled (50 for ten minutes of RuneQuest combat) — and that’s the probability that you will escape that ridiculous outcome.

When the probability of an extraordinary outcome is 10%, you know you’re in big trouble.

Of course, the extraordinary outcomes in D20 can’t be too ridiculous or the system would seem obviously broken. Instead they’re just low key enough to have lots of silly effects (e.g. because armor does not block damage but instead reduces hit probability, and because a roll of 20 is always a hit, a huge number of tiny attacks will automatically kill someone in plate armor) while not giving the feel of “critical hits” (the finest archer cannot kill a healthy 10th level paladin with a single ordinary shot) while neither implementing any concept of “degree of success” nor producing genuinely unexpected results to create drama.

Before I start rambling too far, I will mention one funny thing. D20 system is in fact D20 + D12 + D10 + D8 + D6 + D4 system. The D20 games rely on a ridiculous set of dice and use them to achieve an unnecessary level of granularity (a weapon either does D6 or D8 damage, nothing in-between).

Anyway, here are two possible slogans for D100 System games.

D100 System. Shit happens, but not 10% of the time.

D100 System. You already have the dice.