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4th Ed D&D

"BTW, who knew that so many people disliked Vancian spellcasting? The entire audience in yesterday's seminar cheered and clapped when we told them it was (mostly) gone." -Mike Mearls, in his blog at Gleemax.com (Gleemax? WTF is up with that name? Brain Candy, anyone?)

So 4th Ed is coming. They're turning the game on its ear.

I you recall back in the day, 3rd Ed was simply 2nd Ed D&D rewritten by engineers - "Why have eleven different mechanics (THAC0, saving throw tables, etc.) where one will do, each with different specifics (d20+bonus vs. difficulty class/armor class)?" Most of the mechanics stayed the same, though they did introduce a few new concepts, like the new Sorcerer class.

4th Ed seems to be throwing a lot more stuff out the window, leaving the mechanics in place, but changing the nature of the game. Rather than a reframing of the same content in a more structured set of language, it's much more about changing the content of the game.

The guiding principle for a GM in 3rd ed is "each encounter should take away 25% of the party's resources" making the game almost completely a resource management game. Here, let me just quote James Wyatt:

See, in 3e there's a basic assumption that an encounter between four 5th-level PCs and one CR 5 monster should drain away about 25% of the party's resources, which primarily translates into spells (and primarily the cleric's spells, which determine everyone else's total hit points). What that actually means is that you get up the morning, then have three encounters in a row that don't reallly challenge you. It's the fourth one that tests your skill—that's where you figure out whether you've spent too much, or if you still have enough resources left to finish off that last encounter. Then you're done. So basically, three boring encounters before you get to one that's really life or death.

It kind of makes sense, mathematically. The problem is, it's not fun. So what lots of people actually do, in my experience, is get up in the morning and have a fun encounter: there are multiple monsters that are close to the PCs' level, so the total encounter level is higher than their level. There's interesting terrain and dynamic movement. Sometimes there are waves of monsters, one after another. Whew! It's a knock-down, drag-out fight that could really go either way. And it's fun!

So you get up at 8:00 AM, you have that fun encounter, and you rest "for the night" at 8:15 AM. Repeat as needed.

They're designing this out of the system.

I think I got a taste of things to come at this Gen Con. Setting up characters to play with my friends in the Undermountain mini-campaign, we were told that if anywhere was the place to twink out characters, this was it. So I made a moderately powerful character (I still don't have 3.5ed twink-fu, even though I have skimmed most of the books) while my friends made characters based on the two books I don't have, Magic of Incarnum and The Book of Nine Swords.

They had totally alien mechanics. "Soulmelds", "Maneuvers"... and they were able to continue using them through the whole adventure, long after my Favored Soul was reduced to using a Cure Light Wounds wand to do all his healing. Used up all your maneuvers? Take a swift action to get them all back. That soulmeld's bonus isn't good for this fight? Switch it out for something else.

I didn't quite understand everything that was going on, but... the more I think about it, the more I realize that these books represent a test injection of the new mechanics into the D&D community. Another thing to look at for hints of where they're going is the new "Skill Tricks" in the book Complete Scoundrel, I think.

Anyway, as far as the game goes... the fact that these things are slipping into 3.5 has made me feel like the game needs a reboot. Incarnum and Nine Swords characters totally outclass traditional characters, in a way that not even the twinkiest new Complete book classes ever did, and it's throwing the system out of balance. So I guess in some ways I'm glad to see it become official.

What does this mean for my campaign? Well, I'm going to wait and see. But one thing I am sure of - I will be buying 4th Ed when it comes out.



( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 19th, 2007 07:51 pm (UTC)
Other signs of things to come
Dragon Shamans (auras and breath weapon)
Reserve Feats (ability to shoot fire out your hands til the cows come home, as long as you have a fire spell available to cast)

"Touch of Healing" and the Dragon Shaman's healing aura ability both work for free, basically, at a certain rate of healing, until a character reaches half health. This seems analogous to certain other games' "reserve pool" mechanisms that I've seen.

Aug. 20th, 2007 03:02 am (UTC)
And a magazine article about these changes explicitly says Nine Swords stuff is making it into the base rules.

They also hint at core races getting dropped. Hmm.
Aug. 21st, 2007 06:37 pm (UTC)
I'm kind of left scratching my head over the and "knock-down, drag-out fight that could really go either way" stuff. I mean, if it really could go either way, you're going to end up with a lot of dead PCs after just a few shots on goal.

So I'm not sure I'm encouraged by the belittling of "making sense mathematically." It needs to make sense mathematically. That's a necessary (but not sufficient) condition here.

If they're designing around something other than the dungeon crawl because they're finding that people don't like them, then that's one thing. But what is being described here isn't a correct design for anything but one-shots. I'm going to try to charitably assume that this fellow just isn't explaining himself very well.
Aug. 30th, 2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
Recent books
Interestingly, I have played quite a bit with Magic of Incarnum and Tome of Battle: Bo9S, and they're both somewhat weaker than the previous `core+complete' material at high levels.

Incarnum, in particular, is all about wacky special effects, but the power comes primarily from versatility, especially at anything but low levels (at really low levels, 1-~4, you can specialize in one thing enough to make it really powerful, but only in that fairly small range). The increases Incarnum characters get over time is mostly in added versatility -- you can reshape more/faster, you can bind to more places, and you get more essentia (cool points to invest in your wacky abilities).

ToB adds a bunch of special effects to fighter's attacks, but there's almost always a serious cost -- I call it the action economy. Most of the ToB options are either standard, swift, or immediate actions (very broadly, Strikes are special attacks, and are standard actions; Boosts are short-term buffs, and are standard or swift, and Counters are reactions to your opponents, as immediate actions). For example, a (certain kind of) ToB character, you can make an attack that bypasses all DR and Hardness, for example, but it takes a standard action to do so, meaning that you have to give up your full-attack goodness (which cuts your expected gross damage by probably 1/3, at the relevant levels). Alternately, you can break out some reeally nifty Counters (my favorite being a counter-charge maneuver that cancut out much of the brokenness of mid/high-level Mounted Combat), but it cuts out whole swaths of options for you until the end of your next turn.

In general, this does not result in a dramatic increase in round-by-round character power (nearly all casters and mostly-casters are more powerful than the Incarnum-users; Complete-book beatsticks are more powerful than ToB characters (especially with PHB2), but it does greatly increase the round-by-round options of the characters, and that, I think, is the glimpse of the future. The meta-game for beatsticks in 3.5 is ``how do I always get my Full Attack/Charge?''. The meta-game for ToB characters is much more like the caster-game, where you look through a meaty set of options, including `full attack', and probably 25-50% of your options are good in any given situation.

Concrete example: in the `very epic' game that I just recently ended, the party has a highly-controlled encounter with some of the biggest bad-guys in their (small) world. One of these guys I modeled as a 21st level ToB character, of the `weaker but harder-hitting' variety (SwordSage), and I dropped a 9th level maneuver (Inferno Blast) on the party (the moral equivalent of a 9th level spell). The effect is basically 100 points of fire damage in a 60' radius, Reflex half. The results went like this: Evasion, Evasion, Save for 20 damage (after Fire Resist 30), Failed save by immune to fire. Net result, 20 points of damage. Now, the effect was meant to be flashy, not deadly (I didn't really want the party to engage this particular foe at that time), but this same guy would have been much better off just full attacking.

In short, I think that you're probably somewhat over-reading the power addition of the new stuff; plus, you probably haven't really seen the `old stuff' really pushed to the edge. Incarnum characters are generally *less* powerful than traditional characters, except in very narrow areas, and ToB characters have a `power range' that mostly overlaps with traditional beatstick characters (and can't hold a candle to Mounted Combat cheese, except in the ``you can be my torchbearer'' sense).

I had to cut out a section on stuff showing through in recent books.. second post, I guess.
Aug. 30th, 2007 05:32 pm (UTC)
Glimpses from the Future
I totally agree, though, that aspects of the future game are appearing in the recent books -- hardly surprising, given that the designers say they've been working on 4e for 2+ years (even given Wizards' deep pipelines). Your comments about Reserve Feats, for example: spot on. Other things that I think are signs from the future:

  • When did you last see an arcane caster class without Armored Mage (or Invocations, or some other method for wearing armor)?

  • The `Pillars' no longer seem to be `Spells, Skill+Abilities, and BAB+Feats'.

  • Look at the huge list of Swift/Immediate spells, and you have a pretty good idea what the special abilities of the 4e world might look like, even without reading ToB or Iron Heroes. In particular, I'm thinking of base abilities with restrictions, plus optional choices that let you overcome the restrictions (Sneak Attack, plus Swift Spells that let you Sneak+Crit Undead, for example).

  • Almost all conditions (debuffs, in the mmo world) now have counters of some sort, generally as spells, but also as special abilities. This gives the `decurser' some actual legs in D&D.

  • Basic hit-point healing is very cheap or free, with limits (up to half, slow, etc). This lets some clerics use their resources (actions, spells) on things other than pure healing, while still preserving the Hazardous Duty Healer role.

  • Skill Tricks are a sign that people are thinking about the skill system, but I don't think we've yet seen much of their hand in this area. In particular, the existing skill tricks seem to run the gamut from `*maybe* worth 2 skill points' to `better than feats and some PrC class features'. I take this as a sign of trying to shoehorn in things from a too-different system.
  • Most of the recent setting books I've seen have heavily featured what they're now calling ``dynamic environments'', and there are now something like 5-6 stat block formats, encounter descriptions, etc -- all designed to make describing scenes (like we used to do in LG) more transparent and accessible, while providing more special, exciting results. Specifically, it's not just ``good flavor text'' any more -- hallways that are slick with ichor and slime now usually (instead of rarely) have small mechanical effects as a result.

  • MM5, in particular, has many monsters that work together explicitly (not that you can't use them solo, but many of their abilities are group-based), leading to the `larger opponent groups' usage.

  • Group-buff abilities have really come to the fore (Marshal auras, Dragon Shaman auras, improved Bard-song and -spell buff, plus smaller things in the ToB and PHB2.

Since I couldn't be at the announcement of 4e, I was mostly relying on hearing about it from friends, and the vocal part of our friends seemed to be somewhat negative on the whole... It's good to hear that I'm not the only one who's looking forward to 4e, even if not for the same reasons. :-)
Aug. 30th, 2007 09:25 pm (UTC)
Re: Glimpses from the Future
Oh, don't get me wrong, those guys critically fumbled the Big Announcement(TM). It's just the content we're learning about afterwards that's restoring hope :)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )