Start with a Maxim, End with a Maxim

Starting Maxim: No one is perfect.

A good game. Not a perfect game. I shold have figured that out when they put a dragon with a sword on the cover.

No game is either. The key difference being that we don’t stop spending time with someone simply because they are not perfect. Yet, when imperfections start to fester in a gaming system our eyes inevitably wander. Case in point: The “5-minute” workday. I was an avid 3.5 player. I spent a lot of time on the forums. I was no noob. This concept existed as a problem only in the smallest sense of the word. Few people argued about, few people pointed to it as an issue in need of immediate attention. However, when 4e began its marketing rollout, the term gained traction. All of a sudden, one of the issues with D&D of the past was that it had this “5-minute” workday. Hell, I bought into it to. I bought into it because I wanted to play 4e, so I convinced myself 4e had solved a problem. In reality, 4e was just a different model of how adventurers use the resources available to them. 4e went on to ‘fix’ a variety of other issues nestled into the pages of past editions. Easier monster design, classes balanced against each other, smoother DM prepping, and a streamlined skill list to name a few. Either you saw these fixes as positive evolutions, or you saw them has mutations to a game engine you loved/cherished/enjoyed. What I am driving at here is that I wasn’t fully cognizant of the problems with 3.5 until 4e told me what they were. I knew there existed certain parts of the game I didn’t enjoy: I didn’t like that a high-level wizard could whammy my equivalent level rogue ad nauseam. I didn’t like that it crafting accurate NPCs and monsters became a practice in mathematics . . . Or so I thought. 4e and I are on temporary hiatus. It has nothing to do with Essentials (a good direction in my mind); it has nothing to do with Fortune Cards (chill out people); it has nothing to do with how I feel about WotC (seem like good shepherds for the world’s most important RPG brand). It is just that after 2 years of heavy, consistent gameplay, I’ve come to the conclusion that 4e prohibits me in certain areas of the game I enjoy. It is not fiddly enough. If you look at the infinite number of options the DDI Compendium displays, you’d think I’m crazy. You could even argue that 4e is built to be fiddly with its large emphasis on modular powers and focus on reskinning. However, as of late, I’m coming to see those as false options. Ironically, I think 4e’s ease of use and digital tools are to blame.

  • Classes
    • Each class has a series of builds. These builds seem to be presuppositions of certain archetypes an average player may use. 4e makes it very difficult to build a character that goes against the grain and remains viable. If you play a fighter who does not rigidly fit the builds available (and is optimized to meet that build’s expectations), the character is in danger of becoming moot. This is not an improvement from 3.5. At least in 3.5 a player could go off course and stumble on to something unique and exciting. As written currently, neither the 4e PHB nor the Essentials books entertain that spontaneity or creativity very well.
  • Monsters
    • Sure monsters are easier to build. I thought that was great at first. But, is it too easy? I don’t feel as if 4e creatures are very unique. They all either have an aura, a rechargeable attack, and/or one of few heavily used conditions they lay on you. Rinse. Repeat. 4e combat has become less exhilarating for me as time has rolled by because these conditions and auras are actually more difficult to track on the battlefield than monsters from earlier additions. Also, while I know the weakened condition can simulate poison, stench, and necromantic leeching, it takes an active, energetic, and always engaged DM to make sure the descriptor outweighs the terminology of the condition. Especially, when you put that weakened tile next to the player.
  • Powers
    • Another issue I have developed with 4e, and maybe the biggest, is that the power structure seems to rob the creativity from my players. Fighters rarely worry about carrying ranged weapons, rare is the player who looks to engage with the environment unless they know a terrain power is in play, and rarer still is the player who doesn’t depend wholly on his suite of powers to interact with a foe at all. I think that is a shame. The ideas a player can come up with will always be more varied than a deck of power cards.

Other things bother me for their story detail (magic . . .) or the way they flavor the game (dependence on magic items), but I want to make something clear: 4E is a fine game. I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it for the last two years. The community of 4e players and designers is top-notch, and in no way is this post meant to rile them up or denigrate the game. To borrow a cliché’, “It’s not you, it’s me.” I’m sure a dedicated soul could point to a lot of flaws in my points above . . . that 3.5 suffers the same maladies, that a good DM can overcome the issues I’ve laid out here, that I’m missing a key perspective.  I’m not pointing these errors out in hopes of showing what’s wrong with 4e; I’m pointing them out because they are the things that currently bother ME. Which brings me to my closing maxim: The grass is always greener. I love games. I want to learn them all. Secretly, I hope that I’ll find the perfect game. A game with the cinematic scope of 4e but the good fiddly bits of 3.5. A game that embraces ease of use by the players but also indulges the DM in houseruling and tinkering. So next week, I’ll start looking at some of those lawns. And while I’m sure I will eventually pick up 4e again, I hope you join me as I try something a bit different.

Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Matthew A. C. is a struggling writer, professor, family man, and gamer. Yes, he struggles at all those things. However, he's been fortunate enough to publish a few things here and there. You can find his RPG stuff at RPG Now and follow him on twitter (@thelastrogue).

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About Matthew A. C.

Matthew A. C. is a struggling writer, professor, family man, and gamer. Yes, he struggles at all those things. However, he's been fortunate enough to publish a few things here and there. You can find his RPG stuff at RPG Now and follow him on twitter (@thelastrogue).
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