Tag Archives: D&D

D&D 4E’s Influences and Problems

WOC2173672_500Strap in, it’s another meandering post about D&D!

When people talk about what influenced 4E, the first thing most people bring up is MMORPGs, especially World of Warcraft. It got turned into a catch phrase by 4E’s haters, and was routinely used without supplying any context that would give you a clue as to why it was a bad thing (or even a thing that mattered one way or the other). That it draws some ideas from MMOs is undeniable, though it’s also pretty clear that they carefully adapted those ideas to the medium at hand, which is why (for example) 4E’s Defenders are very different from a typical MMO Tank role. (They have to be in a game that doesn’t have any kind of aggro mechanic.) Although hardly anyone noticed, another thing that the designers have explicitly said they looked at was European board games, which is where for example a lot of the razor-sharp turn-handling mechanics came from. Mike Mearls and some of the other designers are also sports fans, and a lot of elements of 4E, especially with martial characters, make vastly more sense when you explain them in terms of basketball. Some people will rail about fighter marks being “mind control,” but sports fans seem to instantly grasp what defender marks represent if you explain it in terms of how defense works in basketball. A few times people have also tried to bring GNS theory into the list of influences, good or bad, and while Mearls and company were definitely aware of Forge theory and such, the rigor and focus of the design had so many other sources that I think it could have easily come about if the same team had never once heard of the Forge.

The one huge, glaring thing that routinely gets left out of discussions of 4E’s influences is D&D 3.5. Late in 3.5’s life people were exploring the limits of the system in ways they hadn’t quite done before. This was when terms like CoDzilla and Pun-Pun became widely known, and the D&D team, being the foremost group of people who were working on D&D as their actual profession full time, had to be listening to what the fanbase was saying. Not listening was one of 90s TSR’s biggest mistakes after all, and WotC launched their D&D venture with the aim of paying attention to what their fans wanted. 4E’s downright obsessive focus on game balance is clearly a reaction to the massive imbalances that character optimizers were able to unearth in 3.5. Charop still exists in 4E, but it’s nowhere close to the same level, and more importantly outside of extreme charop the difference in performance between a suboptimal and optimal character isn’t so massive as to totally obviate the suboptimal character. As someone with limited experience with 3.x and very extensive experience with 4E, whenever I looked through 3.5 books I was always struck by just how much wound up being familiar. The differences are considerable and important, but 4E is nonetheless a game that could only have come from people totally submerged in D&D 3.5 and the fandom around it. 4E is the game for which the Tome of Battle and Star Wars Saga Edition were intermediate steps, and which compared to any non-D&D game is pretty obviously an offshoot of the lineage that 3rd Edition started. To me it’s a reminder of the level of myopia that focusing too much on D&D alone can cause us.
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D&D Next and Slime Quest

For some reason I started paying attention to D&D Next again, and every time that happens I end up getting inspired to work on Slime Quest, my fantasy heartbreaker project. The big thing is that the status of the warlord class in Next is iffy at best, and I consider the warlord to be easily one of the very best new things in 4e, one of the few new things it added that was missing all along. If I find D&D Next palatable and if it has an open license I might see about making a warlord class (and I doubt I’d be anywhere close to the only one making the attempt), but right now I’m finding Slime Quest much more exciting.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that D&D4e was a good start, but needed some considerable refinement to get where it needed to go. It has a lot of vociferous critics who have an uncanny ability to totally miss its actual flaws, things that never got addressed, or that got addressed in a questionable way (Weapon Expertise feats as a fix to PCs attack values being insufficient for example). A true 4.5 Edition could have refined 4e into the game they’d been groping towards, though I’m not confident that Wizards of the Coast circa 2012 was actually equipped to do so. (I’m still struck by how much better the 13th Age playtest doc was compared to Next’s.) In my current push on Slime Quest I’m trying to pay close attention to those kinds of things and find solutions. I feel like for every good new idea (like advantage and disadvantage) Next has ten things where they’re feeling in terror from the progress that 4e made, all while ignoring its real mistakes. Of course, with Slime Quest I don’t have to worry about keeping D&D fans happy. If anything I need to do something different to differentiate the game from a zillion other fantasy RPGs, even when I’m specifically aiming to do something evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
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