burning out on D&D 4E

First, I feel like I should make something really clear: I like D&D 4E. I think it has a lot of good ideas in its rules, I don’t think its initial expression necessarily represents the videogamification of Dungeons and Dragons, and I don’t agree with the objection that “it isn’t D&D anymore” just because it differs (wildly) from both the mechanics and feel of the original game. I have a lot of good feelings about 4E and a lot of good that I could say about it.

With all that said, though, I’m burning out on it. I want to stay abreast of 4E developments, but I feel like I’m being buffeted by serious changes to all parts of the game. They’re not really easy to ignore, either, and it means that playing the game has a lot of cognitive overhead. The drain of these changes is starting to outweigh the fun of the game. (The fact that my gaming group is having a hard time even playing once a month is certainly also a factor in this.)

The first problem is the huge growth of core rules. It’s not so bad that the core rules are bigger than (say) 1E, for me. Things like “shifting” and “dazed” and “second wind” all work together nicely, and I think those core mechanics are around the right size. The problem is that the game is based on exceptions to the core rules: your character is defined by his powers and feats, each of which is a specific set of exceptions to the usual rules. Each power your character has is a specific action he can choose to take on each round. This is in distinction to things like skills, which just tie in to the usual, infinite set of actions your character might choose. There is a higher cognitive load generated by a list of 20 powers than there is by being told, “you can do anything you can think of.” This load applies when building characters or monsters, too – you have to carefully consider and optimize this list, even if you’re not an “optimizer.”

This was already apparent with the release of the first 4E Player’s Handbook, but the set of exceptions was fairly small. Unfortunately, it has continued to grow seemingly without bounds. Even more distressingly, not only has the list of powers and feats grown, but the way they work as exceptions has grown as well. Augmented powers, stances, “full disciplines,” and so on, have all made powers more complex as a rule system, and alongside the introduction of those concepts have come dozens (hundreds?) of new powers.

In January, Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea blogged about the importance of limiting options. He said:

At the time I’m writing this, there are 38 races, 60 classes, 3,031 feats, 7,476 powers, and 8,756 items.

It’s been about five months. Now I see 40 races, 64 classes (25 of which are only hybrids), 3078 feats, 8,126 powers, and 9,069 items. Clearly, there are a lot of choices to make. Choosing between them all is hard. It slows down character creation, and even when characters are complete, it means that understanding any given character’s capabilities requires careful reading of his sheet and then a lot of tactical consideration.

There is one truly excellent helper in dealing with all this complexity, by the way: the D&D Insider tools. The two main tools are the Compendium, which offers instant access to all the published rules for classes, races, powers, and so on; and the Character Builder, which lets you use those rules to build legal characters. Building a character without the Character Builder, even at first level and using only the Player’s Handbook can take quite a while. It’s a good thing that 4E characters are so hard to kill! Who wants to spend all that time making a character and learning how to use his abilities, just to have him offed by a couple of kobolds?

If you’re going to even approach having an idea of what everybody can do, you need to drastically limit your choices. The original Player’s Handbook has 8 races and 8 classes, 161 feats, 719 powers, and 720 items. Now we’re getting somewhere! If you play 4E, you remember the original eight classes: Arcanist, Marshal, Paladin, Ranger, Scoundrel, Templar, Warlock, and Weaponmaster.

Wait, what?!

My Player’s Handbook has: Cleric, Fighter, Mage, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Warlock, and Warlord. So does yours, actually. The list above, though, is what I find when searching the Compendium for classes defined in the PHB. At least they’re the same classes, right, just renamed? Well, mostly.

What happened? Well, last year, the makers of D&D released a set of “Essentials” rules. These rules provided new classes that were very much like the existing classes, but generally simpler, to reduce the complexity of making characters and getting started. So, instead of the Fighter class of the PHB, we got “Fighter (Knight)” and “Fighter (Slayer)” both of which required fewer choices during character creation and play. Great, I have no objection to this! I could use those books as the source material for a new game, but I could ignore them for now and stick to my existing, well-understood classes.

Unfortunately, following the release of the Essentials classes, they’ve begun issuing updates to the original classes to bring them in line, somehow, with the classes as described by Essentials. For example, the Cleric from PHB is now “Cleric (Templar)” or, as we see in the Compendium, “Templar.” The Cleric update article at wizards.com is free, and you can see the changes for yourself. They’re fairly significant, filling about a page and a half with substantial (non-typo) changes. This is not a new optional class, this is a significant change to the existing, three year old class. Already, Templar has replaced Cleric in the Compendium – but I can ignore the name change and stick to the published material, right?

No! At least, it seems, not if I want to keep using the Character Builder, which is all but strictly required for playing 4E. See, the Templar didn’t get added, it was instead slotted in where the Cleric used to be. When Character Builder is updated, and I level-up our party’s Cleric, he will become a Templar, and many of his abilities will change. It also means that this conversation is a near certainty:

  A:  I'm not sure what is meant by the little character sheet blurb for
      Holy Wrath.  Can you check the PHB for me?
  B:  Woah, the PHB is actually at odds with even the blurb!

These updates make the printed rules wrong according to the online rules. The updates aren’t errata, either, they are copious rule changes, affecting all the classes. There are also significant rule changes found in other updates outside classes, so that the rules available online differ broadly and widely from the rules as written. Every time you update your character, his abilities may change a bit out from under you. Magic missile might change whether it needs a roll to hit. A power’s area of effect might be cut drastically. You will need to notice these changes, because relying on what always worked before is no longer an option.

James Maliszewski, astoundingly prolific author of the excellent blog Grognardia lamented about the use of “version numbers” to describe D&D, begun by the “v.3.5” rules of 3E. These updates to 4E are taking us past release version numbers and into build identifiers. “We’re running a D&D v4.0 build 102391 game, until next Tuesday when the new patches are issues and we reprint our character sheets.”

It’s possible that this material is being produced to drive demand for the Insider tools, but I think that’s both cynical and wrong. I think, instead, it’s a result of the 4E prioritization of “game balance” gone wrong. A lot of game imbalances aren’t identified until the game is out of playtesting and into the wild. The Compendium has allowed the game’s authors to react to imbalance on the fly. Just like Blizzard nerfs World of Warcraft or Starcraft problems, Wizards can nerf Dungeons and Dragons. The problem is that adjustments to game balance in online games are very often invisible, or nearly so, because they affect the numbers used by the hidden game engine. Even when they’re visible, they rarely affect any rules that the player needs to memorize. The game simply begins to play a little differently.

Dungeons and Dragons is not like that, even if it seems like it could be. The game engine is in the mind of the humans playing the game, and now it must be continually relearned, instead of refined. So, I don’t think that 4E was a videogamified game to begin with. I don’t think the original rules as written made it something like that. I think, though, that the way it is being continually expanded and refined in place are emulating video game refinement in a way that is simply not appropriate or fun for a tabletop role-playing game.

So the dilemma for me is this: I wouldn’t mind running a game that was only the original core books, maybe plus PHB2 and one or two of the Powers books. I just don’t want to have to build complex 4E characters without the Character Builder, which cannot at present be made to support the rules as written. I don’t see much more 4E in my future, after my current campaigns.

Written on June 3, 2011
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