Sunday, October 23, 2011

Gaming Reflections for a Sunday

Confessions of a 4E Survivor

Hill Cantons had a recent post about running a version of Greyhawk where the Archclericy ofVeluna was a repressive state, and the campaign involved pushing the players to foment a rebellion in Veluna; he was a bit apologetic (now) for working out some angst-ridden issues through the medium of the RPG.  But it's very honest, isn't it?  Running a game is expressive, and the DM can't help but to influence the game based on a wide range of internal factors - aesthetic tastes, political views, artistic influences, high minded goals.  I'm right there with you, Chris; circumstances this past week inspired me to reflect on my own gaming philosophy and how I got here after some rather forgetful experiences.

I started this blog almost a year ago after returning to old school gaming, the current Greyhawk campaign, after  a year long 4E experiment.  Prior to the Greyhawk campaign, I had been running a kid's game using Moldvay BX, and running an adult game using 4E.

When we returned to old school gaming, I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve - I wanted to run a game where the players could go anywhere; I'd just present an interesting world for them to interact.  The game would use lots of random tables and rulings on the fly.  It would heavily feature dungeons or site-based locations that encouraged exploration.  I was on Dragonsfoot prior to blogging and I really liked the maxim, "We explore dungeons, not characters". Of course, since becoming a member in this online blogging community, I've had the opportunity to classify and reflect on a lot of these techniques and identify what makes them work in terms of game theory.  I'm well along the path of having a personal philosophy of gaming.

While doing some reflecting this week, I had a bit of an epiphany; if our 4E game hadn't ended in such an ugly manner, we might still be grinding our way through it like Plato's cave dwellers, not remembering the outer world of the forms.  My philosophy was born like a phoenix out of the ashes of a disastrous campaign.

Apologies in advance to anyone who still really likes 4E; this may cross over into 4E hate, and I don't mean to wage any edition war.  My priorities in a game are just different than folks that still play 4E, and I have friends that do like it still.  First, let me take a moment and discuss how the DM's side of those games went:  prep for the following week started at the end of the previous session, where I'd quiz the players on their intention for the next game night.  During the week, I'd prepare the 2-3 encounters for the next adventure, building highly intricate and detailed encounters with all of the monster roles (skirmishers, brutes, artillery, etc), interesting terrain, and some hand-picked treasure based on what the character's needed.  In 4E, magic items are a necessary buff so players can make their numbers, and the DM is recommended to hand-select the items based on group need.  Prior to game night, I'd have the battle map pre-made in dungeon tiles, I'd have all the right monster minis pulled, and usually when the players showed up, we could practically start with the minis on the table, ready to fight.

Looking back, there's a world of difference between prepping the two styles; 4E involved lots of intricate planning to create those detailed encounters, and time spent doing all the physical props - the right tiles and the right minis.  It wasn't like preparing for a role playing game; weekly prep was more like army building for one of those warhammer games.

The tactical fights were complex and very challenging; skirmishing in 4E is tight.  However, all we had time in a game session was for a couple of fights (each encounter could be an hour or more).  There really wasn't much exploration, and only a modicum of story.  In between sessions, players would pour over their characters, looking for ways to tune their proficiencies and power selections.  Character optimization for the next week's fighting happened weekly.

We had this one guy who hadn't played D&D since 1E, we'll call him Darth K, and his expectations were all set by 1E games when he was a kid; every week he would bemoan the fact that there were no wandering monsters, that treasure wasn't randomized, that he couldn't go anywhere on the maps or do anything, that hijinks were discouraged, that every week was a scripted set of linear encounters prepared by me.

It reached a head one night when a patron gave the group the adventure for the night, and when the group retreated to plan how to tackle the mission, Darth K pipes up, "This mission blows.  Let's pass and take the next mission."  Jaws dropped.  "No, seriously, let's hire some other adventurers to do this adventure for us, we can offer them less money and pocket the difference.  Then let's head out of town and find something new to do.  Besides, my character has some role playing reasons why he'd skip this one - it might involve breaking a law and snooping around, so I'm going to pass no matter what".

That derailed the game for the night; we had a smaller crew that night, and they started arguing for and against doing the mission, and then I chimed in pointed out that they could do something else, but we'd break for the night because these were the only battles that were prepared; 4E wasn't good for improvising new battles on the fly.  It was a bad scene all around.  In the ensuing email discussion, it came up that each 4E night was a rail road from a role playing perspective, because only a single delve or mission was prepared, and the players had to do it or there were no battles; Darth K ended up calling me an inflexible dick, everyone else had no back bone, 4E was a shitty system, and we could all go to hell.  He quit.

In retrospect, I was indeed a crappy 4E DM; maybe someone else would have done better.  I didn't have the time or energy to build multiple adventures per week; most of the time I'd have a couple of different plots leading to the same adventure (hiding the rail road tracks a bit), but this particular time was a down week, and it showed.  Darth K was lacking in some social skills, and was insensitive to the amount of prep time I put in each week, but he wasn't wrong, either; there were material differences between how 4E was working and the kind of game he really wanted to play, and the need wasn't met.

Shortly after Darth K's blow up, the 4E game started to wane in attractiveness.  As mentioned, I was running a kid's game in parallel to 4E, using Moldvay BX.  I'd laud from time to time how free form the game was, and how much fun it was to prepare and run; I finally got the 4E adults to agree that starting a sandbox style campaign using Moldvay BX would cure the 4E blues and let the guys engage in a free form game, too.  It was a leap of faith, and a willingness to let go of all the monetary investments in 4E, but we haven't looked back.

I've had a rough week this week - I was away at a conference, and lots of fires blew up back at the office, requiring long hours in the evening and weekend.  It seems like a strange time, a midst some work chaos, to get all introspective about a personal gaming philosophy, but there it is:  everything our current play style represents is a direct consequence of those blow ups and personality clashes that derailed the 4E campaign.  Darth K was more of a gamer acquaintance than friend; if there was real substance there, it wouldn't have ended a friendship.  It's unfortunate, too, because he was a good gamer and he'd be absolutely delighted with everything about our current campaign; I've often considered dropping him a line.

Okay - that's a bit of cathartic navel gazing; I'm thankful for the experiences, because it sent us in a new direction, and the rest of the group is enjoying our return to D&D's roots immensely.  Back with regular posts shortly!


  1. This is it, really. 4e is a great game, it's just not an RPG, and it most certainly isn't D&D, and everyone else that's on the apologist track for it is wrong.

    Flat Wrong.

  2. Also: I'm glad for it, happy to have you for a peer.

  3. The tactical fights were intricate and very challenging; skirmishing in 4E is tight. However, all we had time in a game session was for a couple of fights (each encounter could be an hour or more). There really wasn't much exploration, and only a modicum of story. In between sessions, players would pour over their characters, looking for ways to tune their proficiencies and power selections. Character optimization for the next week's fighting happened weekly.

    This was exactly my experience of the game too, and the main reason why our group moved on to other things. it is a good thing that Pathfinder came along, because our D&D4 GM is very much a fan of the new and refuses to play a game that's not current -- and retroclones don't count as current, for some reason -- but is also a big D&D fan, so I don't know what we would have done.

    I think we're happier now as a group, so I would suggest getting in touch with Darth K and rebuilding that bridge.

  4. -C : I really enjoy your blog, bit you're wrong. Flat wrong.

  5. Nice post! I totally get where you're coming from, and find myself in a similar boat. I'm still playing 4E in the weekly Encounters format at my FLGS. It is very difficult to run 4E with old-school exploration and role-playing, but I still believe it's doable. It just takes a lot of investment on the part of the DM into the system, to grok it properly to be able to build encounters on the fly. Then of course there's still the issue of combat encounters taking so long to resolve, which cuts hard into exploration and role-play time.

    Regardless of all that, your 4E books aren't wasted. There's a lot of good stuff in there that can still be used in old-school games. The core setting and all its fluff is very evocative; the points of light idea is very old-school, and i'm using a lot of it to run my Microlite74 games right now.

  6. Interesting - I run 4e, I try to run it as sandboxy as possible, certainly I always try hard to avoid "You must do Delve X or there is no game tonight". If PCs turn down a mission, and you have absolutely nothing prepped and no way to improvise, you can always hit them with a couple wandering-monster encounters (5 creatures of PC level or so) to fill out the timeslot. That's one advantage to 4e's lengthy battles, and IME a spur of the moment battle on a Paizo flipmat is not noticeably inferior to one of those much-prepped terrain-intensive affairs.

  7. Anyway, I basically aim to run 4e as if it were Moldvay B/X. I may lose some of the benefits of 4e in terms of cinematic terrain and skill challenges, but I don't like those elements much anyway, I very much dislike "movie set" encounters that break my SoD.

    In my Wilderlands sandbox 4e campaign I typically prep ca 3 possible short adventures, and the PCs can choose which thread to follow up on. Last night they chose an option I hadn't prepped and we had to break 25 minutes early (from a 3.5 hour session), which felt a bit of a let-down but certainly nothing like "No game for you tonight!".

    So I think the problem was more your poor DMing exacerbated by poor 4e DMG DMing advice, rather than inherent limitations of the game system.

  8. Sully:
    "It is very difficult to run 4E with old-school exploration and role-playing, but I still believe it's doable. It just takes a lot of investment on the part of the DM into the system, to grok it properly to be able to build encounters on the fly. "

    I just go with "whatever seems reasonable" in terms of world-sim, possibly with reference to whether the monsters are within 4 levels of the PCs - if not it'll be a cakewalk or massacre, but that was true in 3e too.

    The simplest encounter that works well is a monster group of 3-7 standard monsters of 2-3 different types - maybe a leader (tough guy or spellcaster/controller), a couple archers/artillery and some soldiers/brutes. I'll normally pick them from two facing pages in whatever monster book I'm using. I can do that on the fly very easily; I typically use a either a blank Paizo flipmat & draw plausible terrain, or a predrawn Paizo flipmat. I use the DMG2 Inherent Bonuses system so no need to worry about treasure.

  9. I'm fully willing to accept my share of the blame for my 4E game crashing and burning; some friends that still play 4E just want different things from their gaming experience than I do, and they're happy with treating it like a war game. The reflection that went into this post was the recognition of a dialectic process, the pendulum swinging from what I was doing back then, to an approach that made it easier to run games with a different approach. System *can* encourage or discourage a style of play; you're one of the few 4E DMs that runs it as a sandbox (and even you recognize the issue with the encounter level sweet spot).

    Sully had a good point; I've kept all the Worlds and Monsters books, because there are so many good ideas for cosmology, origins of monsters, classes, the default campaign setting, things like that. One of these days I'll get around to creating stats for 4E specific creatures, like all those elemental Archons, for use with the old school stuff.

    @Kelvin: I am thinking of dropping Darth K a line, see if time has softened any grudge. Life's too short, right?

    @-C: I like what you do, brother, I've gotten a lot of good ideas on improving the game by hanging over at Hack and Slash

  10. Beedo:
    "System *can* encourage or discourage a style of play; you're one of the few 4E DMs that runs it as a sandbox (and even you recognize the issue with the encounter level sweet spot)."

    Re the monster issue and what makes a fun encounter - using high level monsters in 4e works ok after the lowest levels, I use monsters 7 levels higher than the PCs and they do ok. In both pre-3e and 3e, low level monsters are no threat to high level PCs; in 4e they stay threatening longer but there is a problem in that they can take too long to kill. I went over to halving all monster hp, IME this makes 4e play a lot like older editions.

    I agree in general about system; my experience of 4e though is that nothing in the core system, as laid out in the 4e PHB, discourages sandboxing. It is the 4e DMG's approach to the game - no random tables, pre-set 'treasure parcels', a sample adventure that is a linear railroad - that discourages sandboxing.

    My experience with old-school games - I started on 1e AD&D and I ran a couple OSRIC campaigns prior to my current 4e campaigns - certainly makes sandboxing in 4e easier; I'm not restricted to running a script set for me by Slavicsek & Mearls.

  11. Thanks for sharing this -- I too am a lousy newer-edition DM who NEEDS the older systems in order to do what I do. I tried running 3.5e and it was a total headache for me.

  12. I've never played 4E (well, ok, I played it once for an encounter), but what you describe is exactly what I'd expect of it. Too each his own, of course, but its a bit too "gamey" and structured for me.