where did all my options go?

06.2008 at 3:47 pm 1 comment

I found a post on a site that was directed to another site that was redirected from another site called Enworld. I’d second the comments from this post. “Well said” is what I’d have to say. Very good post. It’s a long read, but it’s well worth it.

4E – Where did my options go? – The New Paradigm
Got a long one here for you all.

So I’m a long time lurker here on ENWorld. I decided it’s finally time to start a thread. I’ve been playing 4th for a few months now, as an NDA’d friend of a couple WotC employees. While I can’t discuss specifics, I can talk about impressions I’ve gotten, and I feel like I’ve got a good grasp of the feel of the game and how it works.

Anyway… I’ll get around to my point now.

I keep seeing a lot of discussion on many, many threads regarding options. I see a lot of people, both pro and anti 4e, saying that the game is more constrained, you can’t do as much with characters, so on and so forth.

I’ve seen a lot of people try to argue the opposite. They’ve discussed “party optimization” instead of “character optimization”, or compared a 1st level 3e fighter to a 1st level 4e fighter.

Furthermore, in a not obviously apparent, related topic I’ve seen many, many arguments about how 4e is better in play than it looks from just reading the book. My own experiences agree with that one.

Despite that, I and many others are having an absolute blast playing the game. So, why is that? If the game really is constricting, if there really are less options, then why is it that it’s still so much fun? And how does that relate to the recurring theme that it’s more fun in play than in read-through?

Where did my options go? – The New Paradigm!

3e – What we’re familiar with:

In the previous edition (3.x) which, to put it bluntly, the vast majority of us here are familiar with, the majority of character options were built into the character creation process. It started with the very strong modularity of the system. At any point, at any level, I can take my next level of whatever class I might want (assuming prereq’s met). When I want to build a level 20 character, I’ve got 20 “units” of build, purely based off of class levels. I can take a bit here, a bit there, and go for it. Or I can take all 20 of one class.

Even further, you’ve got feats and skills. Spellcasters have spells. Tons and tons and tons of options. Given enough time, with just the PHB, I can create hundreds of level 20 characters, all noticeably different. Admittedly, a lot of them would be poor to unplayable (10 Ftr / 10 Wiz for example). Still, that’s a *ton* of options.

However, once you’ve gotten your character built and you’re actually playing the game, your options drop dramatically. With the exception of the open-ended spellcasters (and what I mean by that are the Wizard and Cleric types, who aren’t constrained by a “spells known” maximum), the rest of the character types were still very limited in what sorts of actions they could take. This is definitely true in combat, but even expands into the non-combat arena.

While your melee fighter type character can choose from many different options to begin with, once he’s in combat he’s got his one or two things he does over and over again. The heavy armor fighter runs up and stands next to the monster, hitting with his greatsword. The spiked chain fighter does his tripping, or his moving with Opportunity attacks. The rogue gets into flanking position and proceeds to sneak attack. This does not generally vary from combat to combat either, except in situations where the monster is somehow “immune” to whatever your schtick is (undead for the rogue, for example), and then you generally spend the time trying to come up with creative solutions that vary from brilliant to extremely frustrating for the DM.

This isn’t just in combat though. Given the lengthy skills list and the ability to have such variance in skill point allocation, you’ve got a couple different ways a character can be. You can specialize in a few select skills, maximizing their points for your level, or you can try to spread the points out into multiple skills. The first works throughout, but the second generally only works at lower levels. By the time you hit the double-digits your “ok at lots of things” concept starts to turn into “poor at lots of things”, and then “barely able to do lots of things” at the top end.

So suppose you stick with the familiar specialist concept. Given how lengthy the skill list is (40ish, right?) you really can only be *really really* specialized in a couple things. You take hide/move silent and great, you’re fantastic it it. What do you do in game? You try to solve problems by sneaking around. You take Jump and Swim? What do you do? You try to find ways to jump or swim your way past challenges. From level 1 to level 20 you’re trying to sneak past things or jump past things.

So, to conclude and reiterate this point: 3e’s paradigm is to provide you with maximal options at character creation. However, this comes at the cost of most characters losing options during actual play. The only exclusion to this is with the open-ended spellcasters, for whom options are maximized nearly throughout. I’ll discuss this a bit later.

4e – The New Game:

Contrasting the 3e paradigm is the 4e one. And a contrast it definitely is, as the methods of the system seem designed to flip the situation around to its opposite.

As much as we want to argue that 4e has lots and lots of options, and it does, comparing the sheer number of characters I can create with a 3e PHB and a 4e PHB the 4e one comes out far behind. The system is not modular in the same way. Once I pick my starting class, that’s my class throughout. Now, as I level I do have the retraining option, so I can switch things out that I don’t like with things that I do. That’s nice, but it doesn’t mean much when I’m simply creating a new character from scratch.

There are a lot of feats, but they’re largely restricted to a race or class. Multiclass options are there, but they mostly allow small uses of another class’s power, not a full gaining of that class’s skills. The skill list is significantly smaller and the mechanics of skill training and skill usage makes specialization difficult if not impossible in some cases.

The arguments that I’ve seen for the value of these changes from both posters and designers focus on a couple things: Game balance and Fun. Game balance is easy to see. The “economy of actions” concept keeps the length of a combat round down, and keeps each players turn length fairly similar. The redesign of the wizard, in particular, means that all characters have a “chance to shine”, rather than the wizard being able to do basically anything, with the right spell. Hit points are standardized, BAB’s are standardized, skill values are standardized, all these things prevent a lot of the swingyness and mean that most characters, of any level, are going to be at least useable if not excellent.

How about the Fun part though? Well, that comes in, in play. 4e’s focus is not on Creation Options, but on Play Options. It’s a hard concept to explain, but I’ll do my best.

Take something simple. Say there’s a rogue power that damages an enemy and slides them three spaces (I’m sure there is, but not having played a rogue I don’t know the names off the top of my head). It sounds like a simple thing, in read through. In play, it has amazing versatility. I can slide the enemy into flanking position, so next turn I can get to do Sneak attack. I can slide the enemy around the fighter, so if it wants to attack me next turn it has to deal with the fighter’s “stickiness”. I can slide it away, trying to protect a squishier wizard or warlock in the back. I can slide it off a cliff, into a trap, into a damage zone cast by a warlock or wizard, into rough terrain, and so on, and so on.

It’s one power with a simple read through, but once you’re actually in combat it gives you a ton of options that are all dependant upon the specific combat situation you find yourself in.

And that’s just one of your powers. You’ve got others. Some deal more damage. Some might blind or immobilize a foe. Others might hit more than one foe at a time. And you can use them in whatever order you want. I can put myself in a position where sliding my foe might be useful, or if it’s not, I can merely go for maximum damage. Maybe *now* is a good time to immobilize rather than slide, so I can.

In 4e combat is constantly shifting. Monsters move around, traps and terrain change your ability to move or your reasons for it. The standard/move/minor action concept means you get just as much attack whether you stay in once place or you move around the field, so often it benefits you to reposition during a fight.

Skill use is also adjusted in a similar manner. A reduced number of broader skills means that you can do more with any individual skill. Thievery now covers pick pocketing, sleight of hand, trap disarming, forgery, and maybe even disguise in some cases. One skill, lots of usability. Stealth now covers both moving quietly and hiding. Nature now covers handling animals, knowledge local (in the woods), knowledge nature, and even some alchemy in potion brewing (with the right ritual). Arcana covers both knowledge and spellcraft and even detect magic, as well as lots of rituals. When I choose a skill to train in 4e, I’m now choosing to be better at a long list of different, related things. I’m getting blocks of skills for one training, rather than excelling at individual parts of that block at the expense of other parts.

And even further, rebalancing the way skills work to include the 1/2 level on a roll means that a character doesn’t have to be highly trained and specialized to get use out of a skill. A wizard with decent dex can actually succeed at a sneak check now, just not as often as trained rogue. A non-charismatic dwarf might still be able to bluff his way through something. Sure, it’d be a difficult roll, but we’re opening up more options during game play here. I wouldn’t even try something like that in 3e because the way the system is designed, at mid-high levels your chance of success would be zero.

So to conclude this part: 4e reduces the number of character creation options in the name of game balance, but vastly makes up for it in the amount of “in play” options available.

Still reading? Thanks. Last part!

Finally, to tie up the beginning with the end, here we go. So we keep seeing people saying “it doesn’t read well, but when you play it, it’s great!” Why? Well, look at what I just said. They took the options we’re familiar with, and replaced them with options we’re less familiar with. I look at the book and see only a few races, a few classes (both less or equal to what the 3e PHB had), with the removal of a lot of the complexity that character creation used to have. It’s more simple to make, easier to “throw something together” and completely lacking in the beloved modularity of the previous game.

You see powers that say “Do 2(w) and slide the target 3 spaces”. Does that give you an excited tingle up your spine? No. It sounds pretty bland on paper.

How about “Switch places with an ally as a move action”, “Close burst 1, do some damage and teleport 5 + Int mod squares”, “Gain concealment when you move more than 3 spaces”, and “Gain +5 to sealth checks until the end of your next turn”. Individually they all sound pretty simple, not very exciting…

Then I see my buddy’s fae-lock use a minor to activate his +5 to stealth checks, do a move to switch places with the fighter who’s surrounded and getting beat on, use otherworldy stride to damage everyone around him and uses the teleport it gives to get himself out of being surrounded as a standard action, and then rolls a stealth check at the end because he trained in that skill and has concealment from his other warlock power. He makes a high stealth roll and the enemies can’t see him.

The fighter is saved, the monsters are hurt, confused, and can’t retaliate on the guy who just screwed them, the DM is boggled and the warlock can sit back and bask in it. Those were “just encounter powers”, he’s still got his “powerful” dailies left.

Bring on the 4e, bring on the in game options. I loved sitting around tinkering with character builds for hours, but I don’t think I’ll miss it much. I’m having too damn much fun actually playing the game!

Game on!


Entry filed under: Scouring of the Shire: d&d evolution.

release the rage excellent question, marty

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. truth9  |  07.2008 at 3:16 am

    Where did all the updates go?

    You’ve started a new game, but I know nothing about it!


    I need details.

    I’m already going through withdrawal.


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