Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On Mearls and Balance, Game Expectations and Evolution.

Inspired by a conversation here and here and by Rob Kuntz' comments to my recent blogpost on the 4e promo movie...some thoughts...

I recently ran a AD&D game of a converted 3e module, Red Hand of Doom. Interestingly, the guys who played it at the convention were all older players who first learned on AD&D and older editions. They were very good, and turned the module on its head, with their goal being to avoid every single fight unless they absolutely had to do it, and to go right to the final guy to achieve the mission as quickly as possible. They used very creative ways to do it, some roleplaying, some taking advantage of the surroundings and environment. They kept me on my toes the whole time. It was fun and challenging to me as a DM to keep up with them, especially since I hadn't played in or run an AD&D game in over 20 years. Thankfully the stripped down bastardized 3.0 game we play is houseruled to resemble the older style of game, so it wasn't unfamiliar territory.

I don't think the newer school mindset would have understood that approach or thought along those terms at all.

Also, as to spells, much of the creative use of spells has been nerfed over the years, with the very detailed spell descriptions we see in later edition books. They specifically describe what you can or can't do with a spell. That is fine for consistent tournament adjudication, but takes a hell of a lot from the game of imagination and the creativity of the players. Rather than imagining what they could do, they have to see what the rules will let them do. A whole different mindset, but with kids these days having to go through metal detectors at school and taking it without protest, I guess having to conform to the rules is what they are used to.

As for balance, I never cared for it or thought about it. Sometimes your 12th level party came across 4 orcs on the road. Why? It made sense that the orcs of that level were there based on what was going on in the world that day. Just because the party is 12th level doesn't mean every encounter has to be a challenge for 12th level guys. In fact, it makes sense that the higher you go in level the less challenging most encounters will be. What's the fun in being a high level badass when everything you face is just as tough to kill as you are?

That being said, sometimes you randomly come across something that makes you run screaming like a little bitch while pissing your pants, both players and characters. Life's not fair. Sometimes you just get your ass kicked, or killed, totally randomly, or as the unforeseen but foreseeable result of a series of bad choices. Oh well. That's life. And death. To the extent the game represents that reality, I like it.

Speaking of reality, that's the other aspect of the game I don't like these days. I like what my guys are able to do to have some basis in reality, as long as it isn't magic based. Things like swimming, jumping, sneaking, etc. are real abilities people have. I don't mind skill systems which reflect some progression in skills like that. What I do have a problem with are abilities that a normal guy wouldn't have, which are essentially game mechanic based combat tricks, not based in reality. If I, Joethelawyer, picked up a sword and was trained in the ancient art of swordfighting by a master for 20 years, there is no way I would be able to do some of the things a fighter in 4e could do. I do like my games to be simulation-based.

I wasn't against 4e when it was first being talked about and previewed. I excitedly read everything I could find on it. When the game itself actually came out though, I realized why the game was so different than the vague claims made about it in the preview books and posts WOTC made. It was somewhat of a radical shift. It left me disappointed. Not only for the reasons deescribed above, but because the idea of different classes as professions with different skillsets was essentially gone. Now rather than the paradigm of a bunch of varied people from a living breathing medieval fictional society coming together to loot and plunder and explore, each adding their own unique abilities and talents to the mix (both as players and PC's), you had a homogenized group of PC's, all with similar things they could do every round. They were sort of morphed together, all powers essentially doing something similar, but each with a different name. Rather than a role in society, you had classes defined by role in a group, as if a dungeon group was the defining factor of roles in society. The rules were so restrictive that imagination was stifled

I like my characters to not just fight but to explore a fictional world around them. The kingdom to the south over the Mountains of Doom isn't ruled by Evil Strikers, its ruled by Evil Wizards damnit! I actually do want to create a book in a fictional place as I game, a book written by my characters through roleplaying with the DM. But I want it to be reality based, as much as possible.

To the extent that a game has so much of its core class mechanics and abilities divorced from reality for non-magical classes, and is so balanced around combat role rather than societal profession or role, and is designed with such a narrow focus due to catering to the greatest common denominator's lazy expectations and overindulged needs, the game loses it attraction to me.

Just so you don't think I'm picking on 4e, I feel the same way about 3.x and Pathfinder. I've had the opportunity to play Pathfinder rules as written these past few months. I wanted to learn the game most of you had been playing these past 10 years. We stripped many many things from our bastardized 3.0 game before we ever actually played it by the rules. Long story short, I don't like Pathfinder and by that same token the 3.x games, rules as written. It goes too far along the route described above which 4e lives on. I keep going back only because I play with a good group of players who know the rules intimately, so I am getting a good education in the game. And I'm still having fun. The group of guys I play with makes up for the rulesystem I am not in love with. I may take them up on their offer to play 4e with me someday, but from everything I've read and knowing my tastes and preferences as I do, I doubt even they could make up for the system dislikes I have.