Wednesday, June 24, 2009

That 4e Aftertaste

So I've let it be known that, gasp, I enjoy the 4th Edition of D&D. On rare occasions when the moon is right and the fog rolls in at an angle most portentous, I even say I "love" it. But there's no denying to myself the fact that after sitting on the player's side of the DM screen, I can never seem to get the taste of 4e out of my proverbial mouth- and it's never quite a nice flavor.

I've found that I much, much, much prefer running 4th to playing in it. As a DM it's a plug-and-play affair. Sure, I've been going out of my way to throw higher-level encounters at my PCs (what DM wouldn't, faced with a party containing two great healers?), but I use the DMG to guide the encounter process. This leads to great, crunchy combats that rival any miniatures game I've ever played. They come out of the oven just right, like flavorless cookies, every time- not so challenging that the party is wiped, not so easy that my players feel cheated.

Even running 4e combat is fun as a DM; I get all these monsters with all their own intiatives, and I get to take tons of turns doing crazy, logic-defying supermoves! But for me as a player, 4e combat is, well, kind of dull. Sure, we have all these cool options- but most of the time it's miss, and then wait ten minutes for your turn to come back up. Sure, you keep a half-eye on the rest of the party and monsters as they move and swing and bellow and whatnot, but really you're just mad you missed with your encounter power again, and hoping to God you roll something higher than a 3 next round, even if it is with your crummy at-will.

When I DM I try to keep the encounters as interesting as I can, but after awhile everyone loses some steam. With huge stacks of HP, relatively minor damage amounts to ensure everyone gets their fair share of hits in, and easy access to healing, I find that combat always gets going, hits a sweet spot- and then just keeps chugging well beyond its welcome. Yeah, there are plenty of shortcuts to cut off combat- like retreat, surrender, and other such measures- but it's not necessarily appropriate for, say, some Giant Radioactive Zombie Slug to retreat. It is, after all, perfectly mindless- and very, very hungry (or so we should suppose). And is it really too much to ask for the engine of the game to handle things efficiently?

In the end I feel like 4e tries so hard to get around the "I swing my sword this round" psuedodillema that it goes right back into similar territory: boredom, a dearth of real options (how many characters wail on their best at-will most rounds? Yep, almost all of 'em), and real fatigue by the end. Combat just takes it out of you, like a gallon of Tijuana tap water.

So every time I play on the foreign side of the DM screen, I get that 4e aftertaste. And this is even before we consider things like- how tedious to roleplay some of these powers! I'm sliding around, moving enemies, causing supernatural terror in others- and with such repitition that descriptions can't help but get a little stale no matter what we try to do to make it all seem fresh, every round. Sure, "I swing my sword" gets hokey if you repeat it, but "I blah blah and shift blah and get +2 to blah until the end of blah (save ends)" sounds hokey no matter how much colorful language you couch it in while letting the DM know exactly what your power does and will continue to do while he tries to also run the rest of the combat.

My brief forrays into both Basic and OD&D gaming have shown me the beauty of short, abstracted combat. Just pissing around, running my friends through a dungeon for kicks with no real plot or anything, we were able to get a whole night's worth of adventure- multiple encounters and all- into the time it would take to run one solid combat in Aquea. And that included all the standard fare of old school dungeoneering: wandering monsters, set-piece encounters, mazes, traps, and secret door searching- not to mention a brief hireling fair and plenty of roleplaying (something that happens much more naturally, even in combat, when players aren't weighted down with pages and pages of character sheet).

Yeah, I know, this is all old territory by now. 4e combat is long, oh me oh my. But it goes beyond that, too. The aftertaste involves all that other stuff: how to roleplay powers, the lack of fear of anything, ever, because characters are made of titanium; I've even seen players get bored at all the roleplaying inbetween encounters because in 4e, you have part of your character sheet that talks about your character and then pages and pages of colorful powers that are basically only useful in combat.

You can talk to me about DMing until you're blue in the face but you won't convince me that 4e isn't meant to be a series of plotted tactical miniatures skirmishes. Yes, a DM can take the combat out of 4e. Yes, a session can go by without a shred of combat. Yes, yes, yes. But why should I have to wrestle with the system to get what I want out of it? It's certainly intimidating to try to change anything in 4e, considering the jumble of numbers it is. That shit's why I gave up programming as a teenager.

In the end, I say I'd rather play older editions- and, to be fair, I'd rather run them at that. But as a DM I'm happy when my players are happy- usually- and they're happy with 4e right now. I'm very excited to get into some 1e/OSRIC sometime this summer, though. Not only do I have a bunch of entirely new-to-the-hobby players already chomping at the bit to get into it, I'm really excited for the difference in logistics (our 4e game doesn't run if someone can't show, because the party is a fixed unit linked by XP and such; my 1e game is going to be a strict "if you're here, you get to adventure today, if not, balls" affair). And, with any luck, it will assuage- if not completely remove- that 4e aftertaste (without ever fully removing it, of course, because for all my bitching I keep running the damned game with a smile on my face- good gaming happens irrespective of the game, after all).

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