Monday, August 16, 2010

My Final Thoughts on 4e

It has been long enough and I have played the game enough to really talk about it now. So here are my thoughts on 4e. As if all of you asked.

I think in some way the OSR is really just a big arrow pointing to the fact that the system's inherent flaw is the system's own modularity. Though I don't think that the OSR is self aware enough to really realise it. We (the OSR) keep coming back to how rules light/simple/free form/whatever the old school games are. But we don't see why we keep coming back there. When we look at the lineage of AD&D and its successors we see something that we don't see. Our minds pick up on it but in an intuitive way rather than a frontal lobe sort of way. Like the art experts in Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" with a glance we know something is wrong, but we can't really explain it.

4e is a marvel of mechanics in the tabletop rpg business. Each piece is simple, elegant, almost self explanatory, and modular. That is the beauty of the system. It really works well (in that all the parts work together) and lends itself to an "evergreen" marketing format. However I think the major flaw that everyone knows is there is that it is modular.

For comparison lets look at cells. These things are generally in a biological sense fairly simple. They do one job. Examined on their own they have their functions and have a purpose of working with other cells. Just a few cells working together make a simple system. This system can be documented and fairly well understood. But each time you add a cell you increase the complexity of the system until you have a very complex system like the human body. Though I would not say that 4e is as complex as the human body I think the idea here can be understood.

The more pieces you add, the slower the game must become because the system becomes more complex. The amount of information needed to play the game will easily exceed the body of knowledge known by the players. And I think this is what the OSR has discovered and not really articulated: when the amount of information exceeds the body of knowledge at the table the game will slow down because people need to look up or explain a rule or more importantly an exception to the rule. In 4e the rules at the table increase as the characters progress. This is because the abilities offer exceptions to the general body of rules and thus must be treated as rules in and of themselves.

The older format of RPGs embraced by the OSR is small and compact enough so that the information needed to play does not outstrip the body of knowledge sitting at the table. This is probably a result of necessity informing design as in its birth D&D had to be able to be sent in the mail. Now days page count is not really limited. Whereas OD&D simply had the rules of the game and spells to add complexity, 4e (along with 3e) has the rules of the game, character ability exceptions, skills, feats and spells. All of these interact together in different ways increasing complexity and outstripping player knowledge. Given that 4e has many more classes than its predecessors the explosion of rules interactions is mind boggling. This is what makes 4e so complex, slow and in the end at higher more invested levels harder to play. It is a beautiful, well made and very complex game. I think the OSR sees this and opts out to something that can carry the same story with less work.


Scott said...

I think the idea that as the number of new options increases, the complexity of the game also increases is a flawed one. This is why:

At the game table, no matter how many books come out, or how many online supplements are released, a player who is part of a group that uses only the PHB needs to know roughly the same amount as a player in a game that uses ALL books.

That player needs to know his class. He needs to know his set of powers, feats, path/destiny features, items and rituals (if any). He doesn't need to know every other class in the game. He needs to know some superficial details about his companions' classes, and he needs to know the game's rules.

By and large, this hasn't changed from when the game was released. Yes, there are more options for how you can modify your character, but the digital tools suite makes this a largely trivial task.

Taken as a whole, the game continues to expand, yes. This does not automatically mean that the game's complexity in play will also expand. There is a leap of logic here that is not supported.

Anonymous said...

I suspect most people who say 4e is slow or complex are being more than a bit unfair or speaking from a position of hearsay/not knowing. It's far less complex than 3e and requires far less book referencing than any other edition I've played since 1978. (Well, at least as far as AD&D and Basic are concerned..)
Yes, even if you are playing an epic level goliath invoker (that's several options not included in the PHB). Because why? Because everything is on the character sheet, and because there's very little left to interpretation. I've never carried so few books to games in my life, and by the end of my AD&D days, I was carrying a small library wherever I went.

The *real* difference between old and new is exactly that-- that 4e relies less on DM interpretations and spot-rulings, which I think it does to it's own benefit. Some people have an issue with that. Not me. But hey, personal preference!

But extra races and classes? No problem.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the author as far as his opinion of 4e goes and I think he supports his ideas.

I think the previous poster saying the game continuing to expand doesn't automatically mean that the game's complexity will also expand is easily proven incorrect with 4e when the game stops so someone can check the exact definition of a slide, push, pull, whatever, etc. or..ahem, needs a "digital tools suite" to keep track of stuff.

Now, like the author, I like 4e.

For me personally, I like it as a tabletop one encounter affair. Maybe similar to the popular D&D Encounters ironically, which it seems well suited for...or as I like to call it Magic: The Gathering, The RPG.

Precocious Apprentice said...

Even your example of a bioogical system doesn't add up. We "play" in our bodies every day, yet we seldom become so overwhelmed that we cannot handle it. Even when considering the most complex thing we do as organisms, reproduce, we still do not get overwhelmed by our own complexity. It takes no brains at all to reporduce. Well evolved systems function on simple concepts expanded in fractal fashion, and the handling of complexity is spread over many "governances", with each one only having a much smaller scope.

Handling time is much greater with 4e than any of the OSR favorites, but the modularity of the game has nothing to do with that. It is just inherently more complicated. The modularity actually cuts down on some of the handling time because all you need to know are the exceptions that you are playing with, not every exception there is. In the same way that biological systems are "modular", and hence individual systems self regulate with input from other systems, gamers can self regulate with input from other players. Play your character, and everything works out.

JDJarvis said...

More options do increase complexity. 4e manages to mitigate that complexity by similarity of options and/or consistency of language.

3.x was and is a more of a bear with options. My father, who has been a member of my D&D group for over 30 years now still gets lost. He has one class out of an optional rule book and needs to reference that book and the main rulebook when playing and it's always a pain in the ass as he can't keep straight what is in what rulebook and any special ability the DM hasn't committed to memory requires play to slow down.
4e has just smoothed things over a bit and normalized exceptions with complex rules.

I find players often like the tweaks and benefits but are prone to not what to have to be hindered by recording all related data and keeping track of "picky" rules. Placing a burden on the DM to keep track of many dozens of exceptions present.

Steamtunnel said...

@Scott- yes the player can handle his character and the abilities and can keep track of what they say and how they work, but the rub comes in the feat/skill/power interactions not just within the player's character but also of anything the character encounters. There are a lot of interactions to check.

@PA- few analogies carry over completely. It does start to break down when you run it that far, but as far as I know my D&D game does not create a self aware system when we play. A self aware system does not need to understand itself to function. I am simply saying like biology or a car there are a lot of interactions between the parts.

@psekler13- Yeah everything is on the sheet (or on the cards) but the same is true in all previous editions. And in truth not ALL the information in 4e is on ALL sheets. Some roll with just a name of an ability on a sheet.

Thanks for you comments guys!

Brendan said...

@Scott While your point is partially true from the point of view of a single player, it is entirely untrue from the point of a referee. In earlier editions, the only class crunch elements that a referee really needed to be familiar with were the spell lists. In 4E, in addition to all the feats and skills, each class has its own list of powers. This is a heavy load, even if you restrict a campaign to the PHB options (which most players don't much like, in my experience; they want to be able to play assassins and avengers and the whole lot).