Sunday, March 7, 2010

If this was a design goal of 4e, EPIC FAIL!!!

From this interview with one of 4e's lead designers, Andy Collins (responding to the question, "What is the audience for today's Dungeons and Dragons, and how is that different from the audience for my Dungeons and Dragons, growing up in the '80s and early '90s?"):

"People today, the young kids today, are coming into exposure from D&D after having playing games that have very similar themes, often have very similar mechanics ... they understand the concepts of the game. So in some ways they are much more advanced as potential game players. But in other ways, they are also coming from a background that is short attention span, perhaps, less likely interested in reading the rules of the game before playing.

And I'm not just talking about younger players now, but anybody. I know when I jump into a new console game, for instance, the last thing I want to do is read the book. I want to start playing. And that's a relatively new development in game playing and game learning. And we've been working to adapt to that, the changing expectations of the new gamer."

So... one of the design goals behind 4e was to make it so that you didn't have to read the rules before playing?  So that you could just jump into play and go?  Um...  

Let me make one thing clear before I go any further.  I am not a 4e hater by any means.  I have played the game, I am currently DMing a 4e campaign, I appreciate it for what it is.  And what it is, is not a rules lite game!  No way, no how.  Even a player with experience in previous editions of D&D is going to face a steep learning curve when thrown into 4e combat.  I don't know how many times now I have reminded my players as they move straight through squares that are threatened by a monster that they are going to incur an opportunity attack.  The guy playing a cleric in my campaign is now in his second campaign and has been playing 4e for months now.   He still constantly forgets that if he doesn't shift back one square when next to a monster, when he uses most of his (ranged) powers he is going to incur an opportunity attack.  Terms like "Close Blast 3" and "range 10 burst 1" are hardly intuitive when you are looking at the text of a combat power.  Heck, looking down at the little cards that are printed out by the character creator it is not at all obvious (until you figure out the color coding) which powers can be used at will, once an encounter, or once a day (yes I know it says what type of power it is, but there are a lot of little blocks of text crammed into those cards...).  And don't even get me started on the use of skills such as dungeoneering or nature to learn about monsters.  Who is going to think to do that if they haven't read the rules?

If the designers of 4e were trying to make a game to appeal to "the young kids today" who have a "limited attention span" (which I think is complete and utter bullshit in and of itself, but that is neither here nor there), and wanted to make a game that could be picked up and played without reading the rules, they failed.  Plain and simple.  Total, epic, rolled a natural 1, failure.


  1. I'm having trouble seeing how setting up the game so the PLAYERS can jump in without prior knowledge is a bad thing. When I test ran 4E for my group to see if they'd want to play this edition, it was nice handing them power cards for their first session and not having to crack open a book for them to understand their characters. I was able to coach a complete D&D newcomer how to play her first level cleric in like, 5 minutes. No rule books cracked, and I explained things as they came up.

    How are they going to know what skills to use? Ask the DM.

    Design fail or DM fail? You decide.

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  3. @ Rev. Lazaro - "I'm having trouble seeing how setting up the game so the PLAYERS can jump in without prior knowledge is a bad thing."

    Its not a bad thing. It would be a great thing. I just don't think 4e is anything like a game that you can play without knowing the rules.

    Sure, as a DM, I can teach them. I am pretty sure that is not what Andy Collins was talking about (I could be wrong). I read that quote as saying that Andy thought the new generation of players they were trying to attract to D&D expected to be able to start playing the game without knowing the rules.

    You are talking about teaching the players the rules - it makes little difference if the DM or the book teaches the rules, if there are a ton of rules that you have to learn, you still have to learn a ton of rules before you can effectively play the game.

    Compare that to say, OD&D, where combat was literally as simple as "If you want to attack something, you roll that d20. If you roll high enough, I will tell you that you hit and you roll a d6 for damage." That was it. No variable damage for different kinds of weapons. No bonuses to hit for high attributes (let alone bonuses that you have to remember from feats or powers).

    Spells were similarly simple - the vast majority were self-explanatory simply by looking at their title. Invisibility? Oh, that makes you invisible. So things can't see you, can't attack you, etc.

    Try explaining to somebody who hasn't read the 4e rules exactly why something can still attack you just fine (albeit at a penalty) when you are invisible - it makes very little intuitive sense. Try explaining how the Rogue that has a good stealth is actually more "invisible" than you are when you are magically invisible - the list goes on and on. 4e is a great game, a really well designed game, well balanced and almost impossible to fuck up your character through poor feat or power choices - but it is not simple. It is not something that you can play without knowing the rules (or I guess you could play it without knowing the rules, but you would be interrupted every step of the way by someone telling you, "No, that is wrong, this is the rule. You have to shift first before you can do that ranged attack. You have to roll a skill check if you want to find that secret door. You have to rest before you can use that power again. Etc.").

  4. The really good example when comparing 4e to OD&D, or really any edition up through AD&D 1e, or even 2e without the non-weapon proficiencies (which were actually an optional sub-system, like many other parts of 2e, although many people seem to have ignored the "optional" tag in front of them) is how you execute actions outside of combat.

    Again, I am not bashing on 4e - I am just saying that if the design goal was to create a game that you could play without knowing the rules, they totally failed.

    Lets compare how you do something outside of combat in the earlier editions with 4e (and 3e too, but that is beside the point).

    Earlier editions: The player describes what they want to do. The DM either just decides that they did what they described, or, if there is a chance of failure, the DM may roll some dice herself to see if it worked, or she may have the player roll some dice. In any case, the DM would tell the player what to roll if the player did have to roll some dice. So outside of combat, the earlier editions really were a game that you could play without knowing any of the rules. Riding a horse, swimming, bluffing the town guard, researching in the wizard's library - all the things that are now governed by a skill check mechanic - those things were either covered in the rules on the DM's side of the screen (for stuff like searching for secret doors, for instance, where the DM would roll secretly so the player wouldn't know if they didn't find something just because of a crappy role or because it wasn't there) or were not covered at all and were ruled on a case by case basis by the DM. The player did not need to know any rules.

    In 4e, obviously, that is not the case. At its most basic level, the player has to know the skill check mechanic. OK, that is pretty simple - you roll a d20 and try to roll high. OK, then you can assist someone. So you have to know that you can assist someone, and roll a 10 or better on the d20. Then you have to remember that it is modified by your training and ability score. Easy enough, especially if using the character creator which will factor all that in for you. Then you have to remember the armor penalty - so then you have to take off your armor and try again, after refiguring out your bonus... get the picture? You have to know a lot of rules to play 4e. That is all I am saying.

  5. I'll agree to that.

    I started as a 4e player last September, playing a ranger. It was all ranged attacks from the rear of the party, with no charging or much shifting needed. I still never remember to shift when I can, unless my DM mentions it to another player or myself. (Although, I do find the whole automatic granting of an opportunity attack, without some sort of addition surprise/reaction check on the part of the monsters first, more than a little weird... Can you give any insights from your side of the screen as to why that would be? The only reason I see - and it's totally a weak one - would be doing so would further drag out combat.)

    Last session, I started playing a wizard in a different campaign. Unfortunately, I had to be a 6th level one, so there was effectively no learning curve for me.

    I was in over my head.

    I thought I knew what quite a few of the spells should do from back-in-the-day, but I had no clue how the spell mechanic was actually supposed to work. Like you said, the spell card descriptions weren't much help, aside from telling me how much damage was possible, and I ended up with more useless ones because there is a significant difference between a burst and blast.

    I'm curious if your group has any complete newcomers to the game, and if you notice they find it easier than someone with "X"e D&D experience, who has to either forget how the game used to work or completely translate the way they used to play, into how they now have to play, for 4e to work?

  6. What the designer above fails to understand is that most, if not all, console games have a tutorial at the beginning, in which the controls and concepts are explained, arming the player with all they need to play. The really well-designed ones give the player the basic concepts and through understanding those, the player can infer how later concepts should work, getting to know the "psychology" in the game design, as it were.

    That's not in D&D4. Well, it sort of is, in that the game is just as complicated at first level as it is at tenth, but that's not exactly the same sort of thing. There's no learning curve, just a learning wall.

    Oddly enough, the only tabletop rpg example of something similar to a video game tutorial I can think of is the solo adventure in the 1983 Basic rules, but even that's not quite the same. Close, though.

    Anyway, if the designers of D&D4 were trying to emulate video games in that regard, they failed. I can't imagine that they intend for the GM to do the coaching, as Rev. Lazaro suggests, because the rest of the game seems to be so GM-friendly that it would be odd for them to simply dump such a huge task on that person.

  7. @Carl - As far as the goal stated above is concerned, yes. Big fail. But I think what they were really doing was making a game for today's gamer that was rules familiar. The 4E rules are similar in many ways to concepts commonly used in console RPGs and MMORPGs (and this is a subject I know a poop-load about, trust me. In that sense, it will be easier for today's gamer to grasp. (See the post titled "Why 4E?" on my blog for further explanation - no I don't know how to do links yet, sorry). Despite my players' knowledge of recent computer gaming trends, I still felt like I was assigning homework when I asked them to read the PHB (there's a post on that subject, also at my blog).

    @biopunk, @kelvingreen - Part of the "learning wall" that you both experienced is likely actually due to the fact that you played previous editions of D&D. Playing OS D&D puts numerous expectations in one's head. Then 4E comes along and throws out almost all of those expectations and starts over from scratch. For my group, that's good. They never played D&D previously, so they have expectations derived from computer gaming, which 4E then fulfills.

    Overall, good/bad? Not my problem. Fun for my group? I think it will be, and I hope so. Goal as stated in the designer's quote? Fail.

  8. I dunno man. I've managed to introduce over a half dozen complete newbs to rpgs using 4e without them reading a single page before the game. All they need to know is the core mechanic and to ask if their character can do something, and get an answer on how to do it. So long as there is at least one good rules guy at the table, no one really needs to open the rulebook. It's all on the character sheet and power card

    The game takes some time before it really gets rolling, because there are some concepts that the players need to learn as you've stated above but in general these concepts do not need to be known until it is used. I think that this may be why for most game groups, especially ones that play casually once a month, the game feels slow. It's because the players may be unprepared or keep forgetting what this rule or that one is!

  9. What's particularly odd is that in the same context Andy Collins said, "I can't imagine how the 10-year-old version of me learned basic Dungeons and Dragons from the old blue book games that I got back in 1981. If you handed me that game today, there is no way I would have the patience to learn it."

    So the 45-page Holmes Basic D&D rulebook is too complicated, but not the 1,000-page core rulebook set of 4th Edition? Huh?

  10. Well, 1000 is a bit of hyperbole. It's closer to 800 and that's only if you count the MM and other random non-rulesy pages in the books. And large swaths of that you don't need to memorize as a player, or even a GM, so long as you know the basics of combat and skill interaction.

    Now, I do not think the game is a game that is easy for everyone at the able to jump into without any idea what they are doing. But before it was released, looking at the preview module and character sheets I was able to reasonably understand what they were going on about in under 10 minutes. Now, did I knwo everything about the game? no... could I have played? Yeah, I could have.

    And it's hard to parse what he really means. I'm not sure if that is a comment on the old rules, or more a comment that if right now was his first exposure to gaming and you handed him the books he'd have trouble actually internalizing them... I know personally there are rules systems which are not complicated that I just haven't been able to learn because I cant get myself to focus on them. Were I 12 and absorbing it all as I came into contact with it I'd have it by now, but 30+ years later it just sits on my shelf while games I'm familiar with (like Pathfinder and 4E) come down and get played.

  11. @eabod - that is an interesting point. All of my players have tons of experience with previous editions of D&D, so perhaps those assumptions that they are bringing in to the game hindered them rather than helped them.

    @Mike(aka kaeosdad) -
    first, congrats on introducing a lot of new players to rpgs! Good job. Second, that is awesome that in your experience the newbies were able to dive right in without knowing the rules. I will say that this is basically exactly what we tried to do with the new-to-4e-players in my group - nobody read the rulebook first. Unfortunately, in my experience they got really frustrated because they were more or less constantly being told that what they just did in combat was "wrong", and myself or the one other guy in the group that knew the rules extensively would explain what they "should" have done, and then they would struggle to understand it, and then they would make the same mistake again.

    I guess why I really do not feel that 4e is an intuitive game or a game that is easy to play without knowing the rules is that the tactical nature of combat makes many actions clearly flat out wrong in the context of the positions of the minis on the mat. If your power affects everyone in the area of its effect, you shouldn't cast it now dude, you are going to kill the rogue! If you are surrounded by those annoying little minions, no you can't just blast that ranged blast power, or to be more accurate, you can, but they will ALL get to attack you before you do it. Etc.

  12. @Carl: what we did is make extensive use of pg.42, and adjudicate a lot of things if we didn't know the exact ruling. If a player didn't make an optimal move we just left it at that. If a player was indecisive we skipped that players turn and moved on to the next until they were ready to jump back in. Also the newbs asked tons of questions, sometimes its best to just explain things as they come up.

    so snap decisions, at least one person at the table with a real good knowledge of the ins and outs of the game, and learn as you go.

    Also while pointers and tips are helpful, it's always fun and rewarding for newbs to stumble upon a good combo or strategy themselves.


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