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Monday, 13 September 2010

The Game Is Afoot...

Settling down with Rachel to watch our recording of yesterday's Italian Grand Prix, the event was preceded by a documentary on how safety had been improved over the decades to reduce the risk of driver fatalities (in the '50s, apparently, it was very much part of the sport!).

This struck me as the perfect analogy for the changes made to Dungeons & Dragons with its latest iteration - Fourth Edition - which I got to test drive yesterday at a "Worldwide Dungeons & Dragons Game Day" in Gravesend, to mark the launch of the game's new starter set - its old school aping "Red Box".

The Game Day took place in The Three Daws, a sprawling, multi-roomed, riverside pub, with the top floor taken over by groups of neophyte 4th Editioners.

One table, which had already started playing by the time I turned up with Simon (a fellow 4e virgin, from Tunbridge Wells, and possible new recruit to the Tuesday Knights) had a five-strong party, while our party started with three players/three characters.

After a couple of encounters though our gamesmaster, Matt, allowed the party's wizard, James, to take on a second character - a dwarf fighter.

I was Brannus, a second level human fighter with a magic sword, while Simon took the role of party cleric.

The (five-encounter) adventure we played was Sunderpeak Temple, a direct sequel to The Twisting Halls adventure that comes in the Red Box set.

Matt was excellent at shepherding us through the rules and the rather overwhelming number of options our low-level characters had available to us.

As an introduction to the game system the adventure played out like a railroaded succession of combat encounters, with no real chance for roleplaying or exploration.

But that was okay; that was what I was expecting - and anyway, I know how to roleplay and explore dungeons, it was the actual mechanics I wanted to sample.

With all the powers (and everybody gets powers of some kind to a greater or lesser degree) and movement abilities measured in "squares" - and the fact that the whole level was laid out before us on a battle mat (although not the monsters) - 4th Edition can feel like more of a boardgame than what I would consider a 'true' (if there can be such a thing) roleplaying game.

But again, I put some of this feeling down to the nature of the event and the fact that we were there to learn the system, rather than do proper roleplaying (for example, we didn't bother with any monetary treasure or even accumulate experience points as we went along).

The day was enormous fun, we all enjoyed ourselves, our hosts were amiable and there was a pleasant, welcoming vibe throughout the event - which, at the end of the day, is all you could ever ask for from a gathering of roleplayers.

Personally, I just loved the chance to run around swinging my +1 vicious greatsword (which had the potential of doing up to 38 points of damage on a critical hit... sadly I only rolled one during the event).

That said, I'm still not sold on 4e as a viable option to run for my tastes. While it's not as much a "rule for everything" system that Third and 3.5 appeared to be, there's still a lot of mechanical information that the Dungeon Master and players have to juggle (even before we get into the fun of 'ongoing damage' etc to remember) that didn't really seem like my cup of tea.

Take, for instance, my second level fighter - he had two basic attack options (melee and missile), which is fair enough, but then five powers - some of which could only be used at certain times, while others had to be 'triggered' by certain events and others he could use all the time - and a feat (which he never got to employ, as it only worked if a monster had an attack of opportunity against him!)

And my options were all reasonably straight forward - being primarily additions to either my attacks or my damage roll - whereas the cleric and the wizard's powers had extra effects, which could influence other people as well, have ongoing effects etc

James the wizard had the particularly bizarre - to an old schooler like me - "magic missile" ability, which effectively turned him into a machingun-toting, gunfighter, firing off two auto-hit, low-damage, blasts every turn... which was great for mowing down one hit point minions.

It's changes like that, and the increased hit points for all and the healing surges (which allow character to regain lost hit points during, or post, combat) which I can see make the game fun to play (and even, to a degree, echo house rules I used to use for the Tuesday Knights in our original Castles & Crusades game), but also contribute to the feeling that the game is now designed to allow the characters to survive by default, whereas I'm more used to - and comfortable with - a higher threat level and survival is earned.

That's not to say the game is a push-over now. One encounter saw the three main PCs unconscious and our last-minute arrival, the dwarf, saving the day by battling the final monster to the death.

And in our climactic encounter we took on a black dragon!

Admittedly a young one... but still a dragon.

I never expected to be playing a second level character, facing off against an acid-spitting dragon, and know there was a fair chance I would survive (admittedly if the dwarf hadn't landed the killing blow when it did, Brannus might have rotted away from the ongoing acid damage he was suffering).

Another of my worries had been the time element. But in just under four hours we managed five combat encounters - admittedly, as I've already said, with no "roleplaying" in between - but the combats were as thrilling as any I've played old school style - just "different" - and certainly, for us anyway, didn't drag (even though the black dragon started off with the better part of 150 hit points).

However, the other table of gamers (who had more players, but had started before us) still hadn't finished the adventure by the time we'd wiped the floor with the dragon!

Final verdict: I don't think I'd ever run a game of 4e, but it certainly seems to have the potential for great enjoyment as a player - as long as you can keep a handle on all your options/powers/feats/bonuses etc - if you have a Dungeon Master who is completely au fait with all the various nuances of the rules.

Undeniably entertaining to play, there are inescapably strong video game and boardgame overtones and influences that suggest - even with the canny 'old school' marketing of the Red Box - this new system is really aimed at new players coming from the computer game generation who are used to bashing their way through an adventure to the Boss Fight at the end (cf. the machine gun mage above); respawning if they die (or not really dieing in this case); and being guaranteed - if they keep on playing - that they will get to the predetermined end of the adventure.

To an old timer like me - who doesn't really grok computer games these days - it reminded me of a more complex version of the many fun games I had of HeroQuest, when that Dungeons & Dragons-inspired boardgame came out in 1989. This is definitely not a bad thing but probably not what I would want to play on a regular basis.


* On a related note, I met up with a great group of lapsed gamers on Friday (again, thanks to the Wizards Of The Coast UK Forum) in Tunbridge Wells; three turned up to the pub and a fourth couldn't make it. Although a couple of them were Magic players none had role-played for about a decade and were looking to get back in the saddle.

Originally there had been talk of starting a 4e game from scratch, but it turned out none of us were particularly married to that idea - that had just been how we'd discovered each other through Wizards' forums.

After a brief chat we've agreed to start a 2nd Edition game in the next couple of weeks (calendars had to be checked and all that), with the option of maybe somehow eventually merging them with The Tuesday Knights next year, so I can run my "dream OSR mega-campaign".

Well, that's the theory anyway!

As I said to Rachel, on the drive back from Gravesend yesterday, if all goes according to plan 2011 could be a golden year for gaming - with potentially five new bodies joining the table.

8 comments:

  1. Interesting. My experience of the game matches pretty well with yours (although Magic Missile, wasn't automatic when I played; that's new), except that my experience of combat was almost the opposite of yours.

    We found that combats went on far too long, and that there was no danger involved, so every fight ended in multiple rounds of us chipping away at the opponents' hit points, having already expended all out big powers.

    It sounds like your GM had a better grasp of the combat mechanics, which is a plus point.

    Sorry you didn't like D&D4 (well, not that sorry, as I dislike it intensely), but I'm pleased you made some gaming contacts nonetheless.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't dislike 4e per se, it's just not how I'd want to play D&D for an extended period of time.

    I keep coming back to the fact that we weren't really getting the "full experience" in this condensed session, but it was a lot more "board game-y" than I was expecting.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have heard that some groups have had success playing D&D4 without the miniatures, counters and playmat, but it's not something my group did, and I can't imagine how it would work.

    So yes, it did end up feeling like a board game a lot of the time, but I don't think it has to be, so your hunch about not seeing the whole game is right. I have had D&D4 sessions with lots of roleplay, exploration and the like, but the vast majority have been wargame-like slogs, although again, your GM seems to have had a better grasp of how to make the fighting bits flow than mine did.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Oh, and yes, it reminds me of Heroquest a lot too. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  5. "I have heard that some groups have had success playing D&D4 without the miniatures, counters and playmat, but it's not something my group did, and I can't imagine how it would work."

    To me, it's not much of a role-playing game it you need mats, counters and miniatures. Most of the RPGs I've played haven't bothered much with those - and PBeM games often don't use 'em.

    So, yeah, it sounds more like a boardgame with bits of potential roleplaying. Or a cardboard version of a multiplayer video game. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

    Oh and I once played a roleplayed version of Heroquest where I came up with a whole history and personality for the dwarf character. That was quite fun.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "To me, it's not much of a role-playing game it you need mats, counters and miniatures."

    We've often used figures, counters, dungeon tiles, play mats etc for some of our games - long before 3rd & 4th Ed D&D came along - but mainly for reference, visual aide-mémoire etc Never really to "count squares" in a wargame/boardgame manner.

    My slight issue with 4e is that the miniatures and play mats appear to be integral to the rules if you want to run the game as written (or close to). And that's what turns it into HeroQuest!

    ReplyDelete
  7. All this talk has me hankering to play Heroquest!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Me too ;-) But sadly, my old set is long gone (foolishly) and I can't afford a new copy - via eBay - as I'm not a millionaire!

    ReplyDelete

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