Friday, November 25, 2011

Some Musings on D&D 4e

I've been playing D&D 4e for a few months now, so I can actually consider it, particularly in light of the complaints about it.

It's good.  It's not my favorite system, but it's grown on me.  It's not quite as crazy or gonzo as older editions, but it's still very much the weird fantasy mash-up suggested by older editions and personal anecdotes.  It still strikes the axis of "You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula."  I'm a tiger-man with a beat-stick and you're Tinkerbell with a magic wand.

That having been said, many of the complaints are valid.  Fights are fast in oD&D, but 4e fights are frequently at least an hour long.  Character progression is a little more compressed and things are a bit more linear.  The video game metaphor is apt.  There's not a whole lot of wiggle room — ten fights equals a level, and there's a certain budget of action in that level.

Another niggling detail: 4e PCs are high-powered. Previous editions featured people who learned a little magic or picked up swords and decided to make a living, but 4e PCs are destined for greatness. A first-level PC in 4e is more competent than one in any other edition — 3e and lower tended toward the murderhobo genre of guys who arm themselves simply to get gold. They engage in risky ventures, and will either die on the longest road or retire, likely with incredible wealth and power (both temporal and personal — the king probably isn't 20th level, but you are).

Of course, it's a game played by individuals.  This structure is not set in stone.  Despite the fact that I'm a fan of fast and deadly combat that runs in the background, the tactical setpiece battles of 4e have their own charm.  I'm used to running linear-ish plots, but there are always options — wander around in my plot, or go do your own thing.  I'm prepared for people to go off the rails, and then we'll start with random encounters and random dungeons and the exploratory grotesqueries that entails.

As for the lack of wiggle room — damn the wiggle room!  I use treasure parcels, but if it makes sense for more or less treasure to exist, then it happens.  The economy is static, but the PCs in my game buy and sell and haggle with abandon.  If you want to try to compete with the merchants, you can — but they've been doing this longer than you, and they know how to eke out a living doing it.  Can you compete?  Maybe.

The merchant, thing, by the way, is the real reason I wrote this — it's a rules thing (the economy is static so characters have a set, relatively predictable power progression), but it suggests certain things about 4e.  In the post-apocalyptic waste after the fall of Nerath, the merchants hold all the power.  Merchant caravans can travel the empty places between towns with near-impunity, because they have the resources necessary to defend themselves.  The merchant caravans and marketplaces hold a near-monopoly on everything, fixing prices at a certain rate.  If outsiders try to break into the market, they find it highly-difficult to compete — they'll be selling goods and services at little profit or even at a loss.  Many things that merchants sell are only really of utility to other adventurers; as such, adventurers breaking into the business have to find other adventuring parties to build a customer base.  Really, if you're not part of an established merchant house, your best bet is adventuring, which is just as risky as one would expect.  It almost seems like somebody should do something to break the merchants' stranglehold over the economy.

Anyway, 4e has grown on me, but I still find it a touch restrictive to run.  Playing doesn't really suffer from this problem, as I'm just following whatever adventure hooks are available.

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