D&D 4E Bridging the cognitive gap between how the game rules work and what they tell us about the setting


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James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
Right, I would assume that the 3e project started out as basically "lets clean up 2e and replace THAC0 with increasing AC as a base DC for attacks" (an obvious idea that I actually implemented as a house rule in 2e, though it proved to be too much work to keep explaining it to people). I mean, clearly WotC needed to roll out some sort of new edition to get the game back in print anyway. IMHO the changes ended up being less than incredibly well thought out, but it was a logical move and they did create a much cleaner game in most ways.
Ascending AC was actually debated for 1e, so it's not surprising that it was eventually adopted. The 3e team talked to a lot of players, and adopted a lot of people's AD&D houserules as well, leading to them commenting that, when showing off the game, people would often say "Oh, that's what we've been doing for years!".

Despite all of this, there were some mistakes made. Here's a few:

*Assuming people would mostly play the way they did in AD&D, with traditional Fighter/Rogue/Cleric/Wizard parties, with Clerics doing nothing but heals and Wizards doing nothing but damage spells.

*Not taking into account the ramifications of making foes less likely to save against caster's spells- crack open an AD&D book of spells and see how many "save neg." entries you find, lol. Once you realized that you could reliably see enemies fail saves, control spells became king.

*Overestimating the value of Feats at higher levels. The most demanding Combat Feat in the PHB can be taken by a 6th level Fighter (but would take a non-Fighter another 3-6 levels to acquire). And once completing this Feat chain, the Fighter gets to start at the ground floor of another chain two more levels later, when casters are getting 4th level spells.

*Item Crafting Feats. Doubling one's magic item budget is just bad. Doubling is bad.

*Making classes too front loaded, and not giving classes more reasons to stay single-classed. I can honestly say I never saw a single-classed 3e Fighter above level 6. And we won't even talk about the Ranger!

Then as soon as Sword and Fist came out, they completely abandoned the original idea of Prestige Classes instead just making them "better classes", giving people the incentive to abandon their original class ASAP, forcing them to plan out how to do so, forcing them to make odd decisions to satisfy often arbitrary requirements- and releasing new Prestige Classes all the time, so you could find your previous choices invalidated by other ones- all with no retraining system in sight!
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I don't think the base game of 2e was very messy (I prefer NWPs to 3e style skills), but the supplements definitely layered on a lot of stuff. All weapon proficiency style stuff, kits, specialty priests, etc. Making a character early on was easy. With the Complete Supplements involved it was even more of a bear than 3e.

Let's not even begin to contemplate the Player's Options books.
 
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James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
I don't think the base game of 2e was very messy (I prefer NWPs to 3e style skills), but the supplements definitely layered on a lot of stuff. All weapon proficiency style stuff, kits, specialty priests, etc. Making a character early on was easy. With the Complete Supplements involved it was even more of a bear than 3e.
Oh absolutely. PHB, my Fighter can choose to specialize in one weapon. The best weapon they can choose for this purpose is probably the longsword, maybe the short sword for a two weapon build. The best armor they can get is maybe banded mail and shield (if memory serves, or was it splint?) so you know, if they spend a ton of money, they can have an AC of 3 (less Dex modifers). And that's it!

Adding the Complete Fighter's Handbook, suddenly I could have 2 weapon specializations as a Myrmidon, Gladiator, or Samurai, dual wield with two long swords, or walk into the game as a Swashbuckler with AC 4 (less Dexterity) wearing leather armor and no shield!

It didn't take 2e long to go completely off the rails, once we added Bladesingers, Vindicators, Battleragers, Mythos Priests, Sylvan Elves, and Humanoids to the mix, let alone Psionics or Planar Races!
 

Ascending AC was actually debated for 1e, so it's not surprising that it was eventually adopted. The 3e team talked to a lot of players, and adopted a lot of people's AD&D houserules as well, leading to them commenting that, when showing off the game, people would often say "Oh, that's what we've been doing for years!".

Despite all of this, there were some mistakes made. Here's a few:

*Assuming people would mostly play the way they did in AD&D, with traditional Fighter/Rogue/Cleric/Wizard parties, with Clerics doing nothing but heals and Wizards doing nothing but damage spells.

*Not taking into account the ramifications of making foes less likely to save against caster's spells- crack open an AD&D book of spells and see how many "save neg." entries you find, lol. Once you realized that you could reliably see enemies fail saves, control spells became king.

*Overestimating the value of Feats at higher levels. The most demanding Combat Feat in the PHB can be taken by a 6th level Fighter (but would take a non-Fighter another 3-6 levels to acquire). And once completing this Feat chain, the Fighter gets to start at the ground floor of another chain two more levels later, when casters are getting 4th level spells.

*Item Crafting Feats. Doubling one's magic item budget is just bad. Doubling is bad.

*Making classes too front loaded, and not giving classes more reasons to stay single-classed. I can honestly say I never saw a single-classed 3e Fighter above level 6. And we won't even talk about the Ranger!

Then as soon as Sword and Fist came out, they completely abandoned the original idea of Prestige Classes instead just making them "better classes", giving people the incentive to abandon their original class ASAP, forcing them to plan out how to do so, forcing them to make odd decisions to satisfy often arbitrary requirements- and releasing new Prestige Classes all the time, so you could find your previous choices invalidated by other ones- all with no retraining system in sight!

You have not even touched on the worst problems, which were the stripping away of almost all limitations and consequences of spell casting and putting in place a concentration system that was so easily gameable that it basically didn't exist. At the same time saves for fighters were tanked completely at higher levels, leaving them useless in an environment where spell casting and spell-like powers prevail. That's on top of the 'full round attack' fiasco which almost entirely strips them of either most of their damage output, or all their mobility, making each round a choice between bad and worse.

As you say, they assumed everyone just played as if it was 2e. My assumptions would be that the 3e playtest was a 'friends and family' kind of thing, and it wasn't carried much beyond 6th level in any consistent way. Then some rules were probably tacked on at the very end with a kind of assumption that they wouldn't have much impact. It works, and if your players are 'well behaved' it works OK, but the GM will have to crush anyone who really tries hard, or else let the game get super gonzo.
 

I don't think the base game of 2e was very messy (I prefer NWPs to 3e style skills), but the supplements definitely layered on a lot of stuff. All weapon proficiency style stuff, kits, specialty priests, etc. Making a character early on was easy. With the Complete Supplements involved it was even more of a bear than 3e.

Let's not even begin to contemplate the Player's Options books.
Well, CORE 2e, the PHB and even the first few softback source books, is manageable. It is still AD&D with all its warts though. The combat system is a little less ambiguous about certain things, but it is still pretty muddy as to exactly what the process is for being 'in melee'. Some of the optional rules and subsystems are unworkable, but assuming you have a bit of received lore you can easily run it without TOO much trouble. OTOH oddly the exploration rules are much LESS developed than in 1e. Dungeon exploration turn structure is basically AWOL from 2e.

I think the fundamental problem is that there's no really solid substructure to build on. There isn't any formalized mechanism such as feats and powers, or even a single consistent casting system, so when things got added they were just all over the place. This is a place where 4e, particularly, excels. Roles and power sources nail down the thematics of classes, and their niche, and then its pretty obvious how 'builds' can be incorporated, feats are pretty consistent and have lots of examples, etc. 2e didn't have to get messy, but the discipline of constructing a core, and then building your baseline options using the same rules that are used to build new stuff later on, made 4e much less likely to 'go crazy'. 3.x is a bit in between, and I think overall 5e does pretty well in this department. 1e would have had 2e's problems, but for whatever reason TSR eschewed that sort of extension back then (wiser heads?).
 

I think the fundamental problem is that there's no really solid substructure to build on. There isn't any formalized mechanism such as feats and powers, or even a single consistent casting system, so when things got added they were just all over the place. This is a place where 4e, particularly, excels. Roles and power sources nail down the thematics of classes, and their niche, and then its pretty obvious how 'builds' can be incorporated, feats are pretty consistent and have lots of examples, etc. 2e didn't have to get messy, but the discipline of constructing a core, and then building your baseline options using the same rules that are used to build new stuff later on, made 4e much less likely to 'go crazy'. 3.x is a bit in between, and I think overall 5e does pretty well in this department. 1e would have had 2e's problems, but for whatever reason TSR eschewed that sort of extension back then (wiser heads?).
I think 5e has the same advantage 1e had. A glacial release cycle compared to 2e, 3.X, and 4e. 1e only ever got one major splatbook in ten years and it (Unearthed Arcana) was utterly ludicrous in places. 5e has had two (Tasha's and Xanathar's) and some stuff in some supplements and hasn't reached the level of gonzoness. 2e by contrast had a lot of shovelware. And 3.X and 4e both had successively more solid cores.

That said I wonder where 4e would have gone next if there had been no edition war; the obvious stuff had been made by the end of Martial Power 2. And the Essentials spin was also running out of stuff to put out.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
That said I wonder where 4e would have gone next if there had been no edition war; the obvious stuff had been made by the end of Martial Power 2. And the Essentials spin was also running out of stuff to put out.

Maybe they would have tried to make other games?

Imagine that!

We could be arguing about any number of other games at this point instead of rehashing the edition wars and beating the same dead horses!

And maybe that would have convinced other designers that there’s more to RPGs than D&D, and all the people making retroclones and knockoffs would have put their design chops to something maybe more worthwhile?

Imagine that!
 

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