Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Setting out to Break D&D 4.0 - Instead it Breaks Me

It seems like the vast majority of gaming bloggers around are D&D players, so they constantly discuss the merits of D&D 4.0 and for some incomprehensible reason they seem to like it. Some might say D&D is an "acquired taste" but I think it's more like if you've only eaten gruel all your life when the makers of gruel brought out porridge you might need to take a few weeks to get used to the texture but now that everyone is eating porridge instead of gruel you've come to like it. Me on the other hand... I was eating home-grown vegtables since I was a toddler have been dining on roast beef for the past 3 years and now I'm feeding my very own cow fermented corn to create kobe beef... and for some reason everyone is going on about this new porridge called Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition.

Actually I'm wrong. Porridge is the wrong analogy for what D&D 4e is to me, it's actually pablum. Elements of real RPG pureed into a paste that can be fed to infants because they're incapable of chewing anything with substance. Lately among role-players there's been circulating an arguement that strong game mechanics are incompatable with strong narration. D&D 4e certainly does nothing to invalidate that arguement, that is if you believe that it has strong mechanics; I don't. What Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition does have is extensive mechanics, however these mechanics are entirely geared towards killing things with dice, everything else is an afterthought and a poorly realized one at that.

My distaste for D&D is no secret, I've been a staunch critic of it since Hasbro bought Wizards and they released D20. I vowed that I would not even accept a D20 product on my hard drive as a PDF even if it were given to me by a friend for free. (Yes illegal and irrelevant because I kept my vow all through 3rd edition.) However the industry seems to be coming back from the D20 OGL that afflicted it and I don't see the new one effecting it in the same way so I thought maybe it was time to bury the hatchet, after all; gaming is my favorite hobby and Dungeons and Dragons is the original from which all others have spawned. So I put aside my original distaste for the overall product and decided to give it a try and use and abuse it in ways that no one else really would.

I've not played many actual sessions of D&D truth be told, currently in my 13 years of gaming the count is up to 4 and a half (the half being made a character and did a 10 minute prelude but never actually played beyond that). But one session that I remember having some fun while simultaneously being annoyed at was a session where I got to play a 2nd level Bard in 3rd edition that was loaded up with skills. The scenario was that we had come upon a small town that was being terrorized by a necromancer (the cues being a dismayed populace and a really big graveyard) this of course was to lead to our group venturing through the sewers through hoards of skeletons raised from the ancestors of these poor townsfolk, smashing their bones to dust, killing the vile necromancer that animated them and then taking any grave goods that might have been collected in the process as our own.

I decided to take a different approach. I felt that it was obvious that the town council must be corrupt to let the people of this town be terrorized so, and that these people needed to be free from such tyranny. I describe carefully how I as a 2nd Level Bard would go to the neighboring monastery and explain to the Paladins there about how the council of this town was letting such a horrible thing occur. I requested that these paladins help me expel this corrupt council and help me with installing a more benevolent one, in exchange I would set up a tithe from the town taxes to send to the monastery as a protection fee, and probably end up being mayor in the process.

As a Bard I had the means to do this easily, my social skills were well up to the task because D&D didn't really have a way to counter good social skill rolls. So I was about to become mayor of this town get tax money for doing so as a 2nd level bard before the rest of the group had even decided which entrance to take into the sewers.

One of the players however was insistent that what I was doing could not be possible because I was only 2nd Level, and that was stuff that higher level characters did. The DM too was balking, not because he could find fault in my plan but that it would thoroughly derail the game which was barely even starting, so in good grace I acquiesced to their requests and went into the dungeon and fumbled around as bards are known to do, the next session I found other things to do that weren't D&D and that was fine with everyone. But the niggling thought remained with me long afterwards:

Can a well-played social character break the game?

I believed it could because Charisma is the only social ability and by-and-large considered a dump stat by D&D aficionados. Plus there were really no rules governing what a person swayed by force of personality would do.

There's a web-video circulating where during a game of D&D one of the PC's meets a girl. The conversation between the DM and the player goes like this:
PC: "Will she have sex with me?"
GM: "Um... roll your Charisma."
PC: *Rolls coming up 18* "Sweet!" *Then in a singsong voice of triumph declares:* "18-plus-four. That means I SCORE!"

Me... I've actually slept with women in real life, so I figure I can put together a bit stronger rationalization than that, and if I'm packing a character with a character with +15 to his Diplomacy skill I should be unstoppable. With those two things on my side I'll be ruling the world in under 5 sessions barring the DM doesn't have a panic attack and ban me from the game before the 3rd one.

So when the Players Guide 2 came out I borrowed it from a friend and attempted to make that uber-social bard that would break the game. My strategy was build a character with as high a Charisma as I could get, get a high Wisdom to counter other characters like myself, pump lots of points into diplomacy, and bluff and then find out what point the system broke down where I could convince kings and emperors to do my bidding.

To the game's credit, it doesn't break like I thought it does. I managed to make my bard have a diplomacy bonus of +17 at first level, but skill base is determined directly by level - meaning high-level characters will resist a low level character's Bluff attempt, and diplomacy has no hard and fast rules for resistance which means after I abuse it more than twice the DM can just assign a difficulty of 50 and I'm derailed. Not that buying the DM beers and using some sound rationale can't get past that, but it's not the game breaking results that I was looking for. However this does reveal a deeper problem which I find much more disturbing... single focus gameplay.

99% of all the mechanics in D&D are geared towards you killing something. Now I'm not some liberal pacifist gamer that believes killing is wrong or anything but if I want to kill things with my fancy avatar I'll go play an MMOG! When I want to actually play a character and triumph through cunning or fail from lack of it I turn to tabletop games. Unfortunately Wizards of the Coast doesn't believe gamers like me exist, because there is no room for cunning or nuance in D&D's mechanics. Charisma is not a social stat, it is a combat stat that emphasizes feints and ways of killing your opponent by talking at them.

For example: The bard spell Fast Friends on Pg 69 of the Players Guide 2 says you leave your opponent in Reverie for a round but all this does is make them skip their attack. No social implications at all just a combat effect... Or Blunder on the same page it Hazes your Enemy's mind, something that would have all sorts of creative applications, but the effect once again strictly combat.

All this reminds me of an old game called Warhammer Quest which I wouldn't define as a role-playing game but more of a wargame/board game hybrid. You placed down tiles to represent the dungeon you marched through encountering monsters along the way until you killed the boss and got the loot. Then you left the dungeon and rolled to see if you went to a village a town or a city, the difference in the three was how easy it was to find buyers for your special loot. Then once you'd sold your loot and bought training for your next level you'd go back to squashing monsters in the next dungeon. This was a fun game and I enjoyed it immensely but it was not a role-playing experience, it wasn't trying to be.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition has that same single focus on fighting things in tight quarters and it really seems like the times between the dungeon fighting is just supposed to be glossed over so that the players can go back to their regular Vitamin D deficient lifestyles. This seems wrong to me because D&D has spawned some extremely rich fantasy settings; why have a Forgotten Realms setting when the game is obviously only meant for you to be crawling through it's sewers smashing at rats like a cameraman filming Dirty Jobs? Why create these rich vast vistas of gameplay opportunity if the only way you can effect them is by fighting off the randomly spawning threats that pop up within them?

Why would D&D give me a corrupt town if it never meant for me to become it's mayor?


  1. Ok I am only 1/3 of the way in and so far I agree with everything you say.
    EXCEPT: D&D...the ORIGINAL D&D set as compiled in the Rules Cyclopedia (one book for the whole of what I think of as D&D) is COOL and VERY amenable to house rule additions.
    so..yes...D&D that was printed after AD&D is basically expensive and unusable toilet paper. But D&D ORIGINAL D&D (rules cyclopedia D&D) is great.
    Now I'm gonna go read the rest.

  2. Read it all.
    All true and correct. basically the problem is 2 fold:
    1) You were not using OD&D (original D&D) where intrigue is common and the order of the day...they have the whole principalities of Galantri as a back-stabbing filled political mess of mages, not to mention the other war-like people reminiscent of the Romans, a duplicitous set of bastards if ever there was one....
    2) You DM was limited in imagination. this is a problem on this whole planet.

    Personally I would have put you in the middle of a small scale civil war between the paladins of various churches, not to mention the assassin and thieves guilds that have paid handsomely for their priviledges and/or failing that if the town was too small, the vicious attempts of the necromancer and corrupt council to assasinate you or discret you with much slander about you and the half-orc child you produced.... much fun. Also if you had persisted you would probably have died as a result of the powerful forces set against you, not because you are correctly using your advantages. I neve rliked the whole level thing in D&D either and in some versions I did away with levels alltogether. It was a pretty comprehensive set of house rules :)

  3. @ G: I never had an issue with OD&D, no problem even with AD&D, and your response is pretty typical of the games I play in and run in other systems. I'm a sandbox kinda guy and as a GM I like nothing more than to keep on supplying all the rope the players want to hang themselves with. All the games I play these days with the exception of the odd computer RPG have no levels. I don't like Level based systems at all either. The game I'm developing is completely without levels (and hit-points for that matter) and character development is actually based on time spent on applied learning. You being a student of human nature might actually find some of it pretty interesting. It will also include rules for sexual encounters and romantic entanglements, which are very solid and anything but juvenile.

  4. An excellent read, TK.

    Sounds like you make a good DM.

    I haven't played but it reminds me of early Adventure games where you got locked into a serial path. No deviation allowed.

    I look forward to seeing your gaming system. Will it be an evolving beast that can expand as imaginations suggest more sneaky options?

  5. @petermcc It's a simulationist system which means that we've worked pretty exhaustively to conform it to real physics and physiology. The first setting I'm building is sort of a old mythology vs new religion idea I've had for a long time that will be based in our own contemporary world.

  6. RAWR! As an older grognard turned 4'Teen - I've played all the versions of D&D when they were released, etc.. blah blah... since 1980 or so.

    But I still play 4E today. Why? Becuase it is what people want to play (at least in my circles). Personally, it doesn't matter what rule system I'm using. My campaigns generally have the same feel -- the biggest difference is in how combat is resolved. RP'ing works the same regardless of the system. Skill Challenges? Not a new thing, just a codified thing that good DM's have done in one form or another for thirty years. It's also one thing that alot of grognards hate about D&D ("reduces RP'ing to set of dice rolls, etc".. .maybe if your DM is an asshat).

    Anyway. I'm open to new games, but usually i rest on the PHB/DMG/MM becuase well... maybe I'm a creature of habit. For instance... WHY in the world did I "upgrade" my iPOD? I use it exactly for the same thing I did with my last one (which works fine still). I upgraded because the new one was cool, shiney, and had a new car smell. But all the same it was familiar. I didn't buy a new MS Zune for the same reason I didn't but C&C or S&W.

    looking forward to seeing what you do here. thanks for stopping by the core mechanic, even if most of my posts are 4E centric.

  7. See... the argument that if a game handles social within it's system reduces role-playing to dice rolls doesn't hold water with me. I've played many games with extremely strong social systems that have extensive powers that influence social interaction greatly and they've only enhanced the role-playing aspects further. Thanks for stopping by yourself.

  8. Sounds like your problem isn't with the game, but with the unimaginative DM's you've played with. D&D is a blank canvas: you can make it any sort of game you want.