Grappling with 4th Edition–Part III (cont.)

25Nov08


PART III (cont.)–Social Agenda

3. Clear gamist priorities cast a wider net. In play, D&D4 presents to each player a range of clear, simple choices. On your turn, you get one minor action, one move action, and one standard action. You’ve got a handful of powers that fit in those slots. You’ve got your little token on the map showing you what kind of opposition you face. Because of niche protection, you know what your job in the party. Making that choice is usually pretty simple. Anyone who’s played a board game is familiar with the concept of “you can do one of these three things on your turn.” It allows some of our group who don’t have a lot of role-playing experience (like a 13-year-old boy and a longtime WoW player) to meaningfully contribute, and learn role-playing skills while they’re at it. Dropping these guys into a game where they need “frame a scene that addresses the thematic problem” just wouldn’t work. While I agree that everyone instinctively knows how to tell a story, not everyone knows how to talk about telling a story.
  What I can steal for my own game design: Clarity and simplicity, above all. Every moment, players should know what their options are, and what those options mean. Concreteness in situation (e.g., maps) is valuable because it syncronizes the SiS better than anything. Streamlining and structuring the avenues for player input into the SiS lays out the welcome mat for beginners (as well as for experienced players that that like to find interesting combinations).

4. Quick prep time leads to greater scheduling flexibility. Once character creation is done,* prepping for play is dirt simple. I can prep an encounter, including drawing the map, making little tokens, and writing out initiative cards, in about 15 minutes. This has meant that sometimes when Michele has come over for dinner, and we’d normally crack out a card or board game afterward, we play D&D instead–on a weeknight! It also meant that the two weeks when half the players couldn’t make it to the regular Sunday Shadowfell game, we were able to throw together a group of 6th level characters and have them storm an orc encampment in the same afternoon. These ease of prep also allows the game to fill the times when we’re too tired to meaningfully contribute to something more narrativist. I should note that this quick prep is due almost entirely to the wonderful design of the Monster Manual and its premade encounter groups. Just scan the index in the back at the party level and a few levels above until one of the monsters grabs you. Then, look up that monster, find the appropriate pregenerated encounter group, print out the stat blocks for those monsters, make tokens for them, draw a map, and roll initiatives. It does help that I’m pretty fast with the map-drawing.
  What I can steal for my own game design: Quick and easy wins the race. Just like gameplay is broken down into a series of managable, bite-size chunks, the same applies for prep. The lower the time- and energy-requirements of prep means the more varied real life circumstances that prep will suit (I recall only once that we had to cancel a game because we were “too tired to play”–something that’s happened far too often with other games). I think we’ve nailed this pretty squarely with Serial Homicide Unit (due before the end of the year–fingers crossed), but I’ve got to keep it in mind for future game designs. With Great Power… has quick and easy prep for Kat and I, but not so for other people. That’s a sign that I didn’t explain the procedure in as smooth a way as I might have.

I’ve got the last, most difficult piece of Serial Homicide Unit that I’d like to finish up soon, so I’m not sure when I’ll get back to this. I do have some more notes, though. Rob & Bill–is this analysis the kind of thing you were looking for, or did you want more “tales from the table”?

If I’m not back soon, Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

*Character creation is its own can of worms that I’ll talk about more in a later entry on the problems of D&D4.

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20 Responses to “Grappling with 4th Edition–Part III (cont.)”

  1. Rob & Bill–is this analysis the kind of thing you were looking for, or did you want more “tales from the table”?

    In a way, yes, this is what I was looking for. What I mean is I was wondering if there were something I was missing in the appeal of 4e. However, most of what you said is stuff I already knew, so I’m left with my opinion of the game largely unchanged.
    Thanks.

    • The appeal factor of 4e is all about elements of play that don’t light your fire, Rob. Delve no further. It’s not that you’re missing something. It’s that you don’t get your jazz from what it does.
      I do get my jazz from what it does, in part because I’ve always been first and foremost a system monkey. I love the moving parts in 4e, and seeing them in operation makes me grin.
      That’s your acid test. Does playing it feel like fun to you? (You MUST play it to render a judgment; it’s not super vicarious-experience-viable, IMO.) If no, proceed to “Not for me.”

  2. I agree with your #3 “thing to steal” – that sort of procedural clarity is very important to me. Partly, this might be because i have yet to learn good narrativist technique.
    What is interesting to me is the battle-map: before 4e i had never played D&D with a grid, and only rarely with a rough, relative sketch, but i’m not really sure it is possible to play 4e without a map, and i haven’t even tried! The map definitely reinforces the board-game-y aspect of D&D.

    • Oh, posted that too early!
      I meant to add that i do not really like the battle-map.
      (Though, part of this is due to my minis gaming background, where we gave up on grids and hexes back in the ’80s… Everyone has a ruler or tape-measure, but how many people want to buy a giant grid board? (I bought a mis-print wet-erase one for ~7$.) Plus, once you have done away with the grid you end up with a lot more flexibility in the rules; I usually consider that a good thing, at least for a war-game… You still can do facing, relative positioning, formations, zones of control, turn-costs & variable movement, cover, terrain features & etc – but you don’t have to be so fiddly about it.)
      But maybe i just need to use it more…

      • Hmmm. I haven’t played nearly as many minis games as you, but I’ve always found the opposite to be true. Once the game depends on rulers, everyone gets hypersensitive about what part of the figure they measure from, and succumbing to analysis paralysis about possible angles, and getting really riled up about people bumping the table. I find grids much more simple and clear (not realistic, certainly) because if you’re in a space, you’re there and that’s it.

        • Hah! Yeah there, there is that, for sure, but the games i play nowadays, like Stargrunt, are usually a little more fast and loose by design. (Space games are the counter-example though… i’ve only seen a couple that don’t use hard and fast grids…)
          Realism has always been a tricky issue, but really think the prevailing trend is toward games where the realism is in the feel the rules generate, and not the rules themselves – like all the Napoleonic/Colonial skirmish games that use cards for initiative and unit-control. But that could be my own preference shading my view!

  3. Rob & Bill–is this analysis the kind of thing you were looking for, or did you want more “tales from the table”?
    I’m with Rob. I’ve played a couple of sessions and 4E is ok. Its more like a board game or minis game than an RPG. With all the love I wanted to see if it was me. What you’re saying is consistent with what’s happening in games I’ve played. I understand why D&D needed to transition to a tabletop version of encounter combat. Maybe this will draw in some video game players. I still prefer more story, development, and consequences unless its just a pick up one off.
    Thanks for putting this together.

    • I’m beginning to think that my biggest takeaway from this whole thing is going to be about the virtue of “play the less-than-perfect game that people will actually play, rather than insisting on the more elegant/more story-driven/more whatever game that never actually gets play.” I’d love more story-driven game, but history has shown them to fall apart in actual practice. For a number of reasons. I’m finding it’s better to appreciate what I can have (and learn from it) rather than pine for what I can’t.
      Although, Kat is putting a decent bit of story into our game. You should come out for a guest role sometime.


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