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46709 Posts in 5588 Topics by 13299 Members Latest Member: - Jason DAngelo Most online today: 33 - most online ever: 429 (November 03, 2007, 04:35:43 AM)
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Author Topic: [D&D]Balance killed my game  (Read 9480 times)
Patrice
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Posts: 133


« on: July 23, 2009, 12:35:39 AM »

All my D&D games since the 3.5 came out were boring. So much for actual play. Just boring. Boring to the point my players and I have just quit playing D&D altogether after having a long try at 4th Edition. And strangely, we've also quit playing World of Warcraft since WLK is out. And oh, Guild Wars since GW:EN too. No creative agenda clash, no social issues, no special reason: we're just bored.

But there must be a reason. There has to be. And there's a common feature in all these cases, these games have achieved balance, in the same way some planes fell under the reign of Law and Order in Moorcock's fictions: frozen in stasis. D&D4, for instance, lets you choose character builds, manage your powers, pick a careful choice among skills, and it's fun because you think it's going to let you shine, to show your guts and sense of strategy, much alike Talents points in WoW or skillbar builds in Guild Wars. But then, you play. And when you play you realize that the game has been so much balanced that whatever choice you make is, deep down, equal to all choices. As you level up again and again you realize another thing: you can't really die.

I have set a dire level of challenge in my late D&D4 adventures, and no player died ever. And I can tell you, I'm not a piece of cake when GM-ing Gamist. Not that I delight in PK, but if the engine of the game is driven by the risk of death, not being able to die makes the game a bit less interesting, don't you think?

The myth of competition between players seems to me as having been such a red herring to the 3.5 and 4th designers that nodding to this has flushed all life out of the game. When you have rules that emphasize cooperative play and fluff text openly disallowing competition, why would you want to reach a total balance in addition? So. Sounds like what is considered as "having an opportunity to shine" has more or less become "look, that's for your skill, Step on Up, bud!". This is not what I call Step on Up. I love combos, I love the slight discrepancies in rules that allow you to grin and say "look, I'm doing that, and that and now I use this and look, look... KA-BOOOOM, see you in Hell". I remember having designed a healing skill build in Guild Wars. This build allowed me to heal almost instantly 130% more than any other healers. During the two weeks before it was nerfed, I've had my share of glory.

Now, I didn't complain about the nerf, that's part of the sport you know. In OD&D or the totally unbalanced AD&D2, the nerf came as a GM's fiat or a new houserule bending and we all were happy with that. I have no solution really but I say, if all choices are equal, why is D&D offering a choice? It's not. And tell me, where is the Step on Up then? Gone. What you have as a spare notion of "fun" is waiting for your turn to shine and pray that the adventure has been designed good enough to provide your character its due "spotlight time". The result looks similar but gut-less, strategy-less and... Fun-less.
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Jasper Flick
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« Reply #1 on: July 23, 2009, 02:30:58 AM »

This reminds me of the recent thread [3.x/4e] Encounter XPs are not a reward, they are a pacing mechanism. It touches the issue of non-challenge as well.

I see no "your chance to step on up, bud" in D&D 4e, I see "nobody is useless" and "you can choose a few different tactical flavors of combatant". Mind you, in that regard it works great. It's a well-oiled encounter machine, family friendly, without teeth. If you ask me, the engine of the game absolutely isn't driven by the risk of death or competition. It's driven by living the hack&slash fantasy dream.

Now I must add that the most straightforward way to rack up the difficulty is simply postponing extended rests. The first encounter of a sequence will never be tough. It'll only get interesting past the fourth encounter or so.

What's interesting is that your explicit examples of joy come from pre-game character optimization. Creating a character build that works great, then showing it off during play. Is this the focus of your interest, or just part of a broader scope?
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Callan S.
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« Reply #2 on: July 23, 2009, 02:42:39 AM »

When I ran 3.x ages ago, it was primarily because I found an online maze generator that would roll treasures and monsters for me, along with a nifty maze. Hell, it was a fun toy in itself. And when I plugged in party level, I would put in party level, say, +3 or +4? And it was typically three players in the group, so a man lower than a standard party. And the map generator would actually add on some party levels as it chose from a range. I did massage the maze a bit, but basically I'd often look at a monster and go "Your hot! Your a keeper!". Ah, the first level party hearing the rasping breath of a flesh golem behind a door...and thinking better of it...I think flesh golems were CR 7 or something. Then again I put a red dragon in our only game of 4E so far, telegraphed something hot and horrible was behind the door, and they still went in. I think they knew it was basically a one shot, though (Wish I had a map, monster and treasure generator for 4E...)

Anyway, what I mean to say is - a dire level of challenge? D&D now almost literally has a dial you can turn all the way up to thirty in 4E. If there was no risk of death, no, it was not a dire level of challenge, dear boy! Turn the dial up another notch/spin the wheel on the rack one more time!

Or, watering that down, why are you certain you were giving dire levels of challenge?
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Patrice
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Posts: 133


« Reply #3 on: July 23, 2009, 07:35:44 AM »

I see no "your chance to step on up, bud" in D&D 4e, I see "nobody is useless" and "you can choose a few different tactical flavors of combatant". Mind you, in that regard it works great. It's a well-oiled encounter machine, family friendly, without teeth. If you ask me, the engine of the game absolutely isn't driven by the risk of death or competition. It's driven by living the hack&slash fantasy dream.

That's the bright side of the exact same thing. If you get to the essence of what you're saying, you're saying that D&D4 (or 3.5 as far as I'm concerned) is not intended to fulfill a Gamist Creative Agenda. We've actually come to the point of Simulating the Gamist oddity with such a broad aim at the casual audience and such a fear of the hard-core that... the game isn't even Gamist anymore as such. No more Step on Up but Right to Dream. Do you see the twist in it? It's "we have the right to dream upon stepping on up", in which the Step on Up standard had become the genre of the simulation. It's still labeled as Challenge/Build/Guts/Taking Risks but it's just a label since no strategizing, no risk-taking, no character creation build really makes a difference enough to shine. There's but two options here: either D&D3.4 and 4 are failed Gamist endeavours or they are Sim-oriented games built upon the cheesy rip of the brand's original tremors. Back when we were heroes.

I've played D&D3.5 and 4 by the book more or less. And when the book didn't provide enough challenge, I've set all the encounter dials to "Hard". I admit I've not gone beyond that. I didn't remove the extended rests, I didn't crash the ceiling with the challenge level but if I did, would I be playing the same game? I consider as a weak solution you both guys telling me "look, you didn't try to play the game as it isn't intended, so that's your fault". Huhu? Now character building isn't everything, Jasper, I wholly agree with that, it's just what came as examples since I was thinking about WoW's WLK at the same time.

This being said, I can understand how and why players like playing this version of D&D, the Sim game in which we dream about challenges, but how long? Won't at some point the players realize the illusion of it? Okay now that's maybe addressing Sim at large and that's a bit silly of me but... To think of D&D as a purely Sim game breaks my heart a bit.
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Adam Dray
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« Reply #4 on: July 23, 2009, 08:08:48 AM »

Man, I think you're doing it wrong. If you don't find surviving 4E games challenging, then either your group is way smarter than mine or the challenges aren't sufficiently tough.

Daniel ran a 4E mini-campaign of 4 linked one-shot adventures. I played Tobias, a young and ideal cleric. I made suboptimal choices when I built him. These choices put the entire party at a severe disadvantage and almost got us all killed several times. Because we advanced three levels between each game (the progression was 1st, 4th, 7th, 10th, if I recall correctly), I had a chance to learn from my mistakes and correct them as I went. By the time we reached 10th level for the fourth session, we were all pretty well optimized and fighting well together. We had to earn that, though.

Let me point out that I believe 4E optimization is as much about optimizing the party composition and riffing off each other's powers as it is building a singularly strong character. I have never heard this "myth of competition between players." When people say D&D 4E strongly supports Gamist / Step On Up play, they don't mean competition between players. They mean challenge, which is related to competition but is a different beast. Even discounting the character build portion of play, one must admit that the tactical game offers challenge as a core part of play.

When you talk about balance ruining the game, do you mean the inability to find winning loopholes? I think 4E has a few of those, too, if that's what is fun for you. In any case, I have had a vastly different experience with 4E than you, apparently. From building a character optimally to using my powers optimally to functioning as an orchestrated party to win encounters, all of the 4E play I have encountered has offered rich opportunity for our Gamist agenda.

I'm not trying to talk you into liking the game or anything. Play something that pushes your buttons. I'm just saying that my friends and I seem to have exactly the opposite reaction to 4E than you did.
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Adam Dray / adam@legendary.org
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Patrice
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Posts: 133


« Reply #5 on: July 23, 2009, 09:49:26 AM »

Mmmh. My group is basically made of old-timers. People used to the 3.0 tactical thinking and to cooperative teamplay. They're good tacticians. Yet, since the random factor used to be high, they faced several huge drawbacks with every "edition" before the 3.5. After the 3.5 was released, that was gone. On a side note, it took us about a dozen sessions to level up to the 10th level with the 4th. That maybe explains a bit of the tactical mastery, I dunno. That's 4 sessions you're talking about. After 4 sessions, we were pretty happy with the 4th too.

That was before we understood how little choices mattered and how weak was the influence of our "tactical thinking". I take your point about team-building vs. char-building and admit, of course, that the challenge aspect of the Gamist agenda seems to be addressed throughout the game. But I maintain that deep down, it's not. Because the level of risk you take doesn't really matter, it's just your routine facing the encounter's routine

Addressing challenges implies choices in my opinion. Tactical choices pregnant with tactical outcomes. What you consider as choices are just plain mistakes. The first 2-3 sessions you still make them, but soon you learn enough and you contend with the routine. From that point on, there's no choice anymore. That's what I mean by balance ruining the game. That's where I feel the same about WoW in which, for each given class, the game gives you dozens of options, none of them being useful except one. It's another way of ruining the Step on Up system. When you get there, the game doesn't provide any thrill anymore, but a railroaded version of tactics in which you pretend to Step on Up. My point is that you actually don't. It's like "and the winner is... E-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y! Three cheers for everyone, you're all fantastic!".
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Adam Dray
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« Reply #6 on: July 23, 2009, 10:09:24 AM »

I will definitely defer to you on certain technical issues about play, since you likely have more actual play experiences than I.

My main point though was that the challenges in D&D (especially 4E) are a group thing, not an individual thing. The Step on Up components are largely doing your part in the group. Did you guys feel that the challenges your party faced weren't challenging? Were there no, "Hey, we really smoked that monster!" or "Wow, we barely got away from that dragon" type moments?

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Adam Dray / adam@legendary.org
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Jasper Flick
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« Reply #7 on: July 23, 2009, 10:17:41 AM »

Hi Patrice,

Just to be clear: I'm not judging out. I don't say you're doing anything wrong, neither am I implying that character optimization or anything like that is bad. I'm just trying to get a handle on your preferences.

Me showing the other side of the coin is basically acknowledging what you expierence, trying to shed light on why this is the case. D&D 4e has the two conflict of interest dials, as defined in Rons' Gamism essay, set to their lowest ever, and the book doesn't provide useful guidance for turning them up. That's what I concluded by reading the book and playing the game. So if you want to tune things up, you'll have to do it yourself and yes, you might end up playing Drifted D&D 4e.

Getting back to you, you said D&D 3.5e and 4e ruined it for you. Does this mean that D&D 3.0 did in fact provide what you want? Or do you harken back to older editions of D&D? Did you play D&D 3.0 a long time, or perhaps short enough that the disappointment just hadn't surfaced yet? I don't know, that's why I'm asking.
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Patrice
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Posts: 133


« Reply #8 on: July 23, 2009, 12:15:36 PM »

Sure, Jasper, I wasn't assuming you were judging nor was I willing to exhibit my experience as some sort of point, Adam. That's the problem with the written media, I'm fine with you guys pointing things but I just can't spill emoticons all over the text to show I'm happy with this debate going on :).

Quote
My main point though was that the challenges in D&D (especially 4E) are a group thing, not an individual thing. The Step on Up components are largely doing your part in the group. Did you guys feel that the challenges your party faced weren't challenging? Were there no, "Hey, we really smoked that monster!" or "Wow, we barely got away from that dragon" type moments?

This happened a bit because I kept maintaining pressure and tension, but after a while, I couldn't sustain the illusion ever. At the beginning, none of us had a good grasp of the system, and everything was very challenging but that phase didn't last very long and that's after that we began to get bored. If you want to get a feeling of challenge, you need to believe in it. To believe some of your skill weighted the balance so much that you won victory. The problem is that, at some point, we didn't anymore.

Quote
Me showing the other side of the coin is basically acknowledging what you expierence, trying to shed light on why this is the case. D&D 4e has the two conflict of interest dials, as defined in Rons' Gamism essay, set to their lowest ever, and the book doesn't provide useful guidance for turning them up. That's what I concluded by reading the book and playing the game. So if you want to tune things up, you'll have to do it yourself and yes, you might end up playing Drifted D&D 4e.

It's maybe as simple and straightforward as you say: dials are so low that for us they can't fulfill our Gamist needs, mostly because of the "belief" I have mentionned earlier. I've come to realize through all this rambling that I price really high combination mechanics in Gamist designs and games. That's, in my opinion, the difference between 3.0 and 3.5 (aside from the whole OGL thing that fully allow and acknowledge whatever Drifting you're doing, up to allowing publishing it). The 3.0 has loopholes, which as such doesn't interest me, but allow tactical combinations. There is a chance for the unexpected. Now, I've maybe not played it long enough - 20? 25 sessions? - and I'm maybe identifying too much "tactical skill" and "combination". Will I give D&D4 another "drifted" chance? Yes. If only because I want to see where it leads. But in general, I prefer to go for another game if the game I'm playing needs too much drift to be good for my needs.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #9 on: July 23, 2009, 03:02:04 PM »

Hi Patrice,

Do the rules say you can't go five levels (or whatever) over party level, or do they just say that would be hard? If it says you can't, yeah, to do so would be ceasing to play D&D. But if it doesn't, then you would be playing the game, just in a poorly documented way. One of the (perhaps devious) things about D&D (pretty much any edition) is that you can never pin it down and say 'Well, because of X, it's bad/not for me/not for an agenda' because the game leaves a whole bunch of ambiguous options that someone can come along and say 'well, you could have done Y instead!'. D&D has evolved, essentially, to avoid standard methods of critique this way - perhaps a bit like the AIDS virus, that keeps changing so the immune system can't keep up (oh boy, am I gunna get in trouble). Every time you say X makes it bad, a Y way of doing it comes up. It's the game which miraculously can never fail - supposedly. And probably every other traditional RPG that followed in it's mould, too.

I'm not so much saying it's your fault - I'm more prompting an improvement in critique/immunilogical responce, because the game text is essentially designed to defeat conventional critique. You have to nail it at a more sublime level (which a half listening audience probably wouldn't get). My own is that it's more like a programming language and thus is essentially stone soup - I'm putting all the flavour, taste and heartyness in and the book does fuck all to add any of those things. That's why when I found that map generator it prompted quite a few games - because it put in the effort and I just did a little massaging. Even then mine suffers from "You could have bought supplements" and then I counter with "Why would I buy more stuff when I got nothing from the original product?" which is countered with "It was never designed to do that, because of X, Y and Z" and so on and so on.
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Patrice
Member

Posts: 133


« Reply #10 on: July 23, 2009, 03:35:37 PM »

Thing is, Callan, my issue doesn't lay so much upon the challenges being not deadly enough as it lays upon the options being too limited. One damn stupid thing D&D designers didn't quite get (yes, I dare :) is that providing endless lists of powers don't actually provide more tactical choices. It's just providing more color upon an existing limited framework of powers (okay maybe they've got that after all and just want to sell power-filled books or whatever, I dunno). If I raise the challenge level, I'll just outright kill my PCs without providing more possibilities for Stepping on Up and Challenge. That won't give us the belief in how our tactical skills allowed us to win.

I love your use of random generators and the massaging part, it's a great way to twist the game. Or maybe to play it as another game entirely. It'll deserve a thread of its own someday :).
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Ayyavazi
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« Reply #11 on: July 23, 2009, 04:05:07 PM »

Hey Patrice and Callan,

So, I like 4th edition. But don't worry. I'm amused by the aids comparison. It is so accurate its scary. And Patrice, I don't care that you dare call the designers stupid. They can be. They have a very focused brilliance, and when made aware of the other 99% of design, I think their brains shut down. But this topic isn't about bashing designers.

No tactics or skill? Really? How much have you compared and contrasted the power lists for classes within their element? That is, within their role of Defender, Striker, Leader, and Controller. Yes, the difference between classes with the same role is certainly a matter of flavor, and the choices amount to the same basic framework. But the little differences in tactics define the class. For example, a cleric has a balance of melee attack powers and ranged attack powers. The warlord has melee attack powers and ranged attack powers in the form of granting attacks to allies, which is just different enough to change the way a group would handle a given fight.

Likewise, within the individual power use, the powers are subtly different. There is a lot of overlap to be sure, and you are right that the level of difficulty keeps pace almost the entire time. But here's where the real strategy comes in: choosing powers as a group and thinking as a group about how to use them and when. Some powers move monsters around, others take advantage of that movement. Some powers afflict an enemy with a status, others take advantage of it. The challenge in 4th is not individual achievement, but group achievement through group tactics, all the way from character creation up through actual play.

Another instance is in the limit to use of your abilities. You only get to use encounter powers once each encounter, and dailies once each in game day. So, as the game day wears on, dailies thin out and characters have to rely on their bread and better to see them through. And if they are trying to rest to get them back, give them a hard time occasionally. Interrupt their sleep, give them no good location, give them a story that has to be completed in the next six hours of in game time. So, when do the players use their dailies? Do you coordinate, or just wait for something tough to show up and blow 'em all at the same time? And what about encounters?

I have more but have to go.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #12 on: July 23, 2009, 04:35:37 PM »

Thing is, Callan, my issue doesn't lay so much upon the challenges being not deadly enough as it lays upon the options being too limited. One damn stupid thing D&D designers didn't quite get (yes, I dare :) is that providing endless lists of powers don't actually provide more tactical choices. It's just providing more color upon an existing limited framework of powers (okay maybe they've got that after all and just want to sell power-filled books or whatever, I dunno). If I raise the challenge level, I'll just outright kill my PCs without providing more possibilities for Stepping on Up and Challenge. That won't give us the belief in how our tactical skills allowed us to win.
Okay, here's another way the D&D virus adapts - it's not about the tactics, it's about the guts! Just choosing to face up to the odds is step on up! Of course, the design gives you a whole lot of 'choices' which don't add up to much (A +2 to hit is going to affect things...10% of the time...so 10% of the time you step on up...), so it doesn't quite make sense as to why all that's there if its about guts of facing the odds. But at the same time you can't say it doesn't have gutsy gamism!

Observe the meme mutate and adapt!

Ya gotta nail it in a more fundimental way than that.

Mind you, in another thread of mine I proposed making a program that generated 100 random rules and someone said groups could find a way in such a game. I was gobsmacked! If a hundred, genuinely random rules isn't by general consensus considered crap, can anything be considered crap?

Quote
I love your use of random generators and the massaging part, it's a great way to twist the game. Or maybe to play it as another game entirely.
Nay! The monster tables are optional! Massaging their results does not mean I ceased to play the game as they are optional results! *sarcasm upon myself intended, even as I did this and as a group we enjoyed it for several levels*
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contracycle
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« Reply #13 on: July 23, 2009, 05:35:20 PM »

In a way D&D seems to me inversely gamist.  The toughest, riskiest, seat-of-your-pants conflict happens at 1st-3rd level.  Advancing an armourless mage to cast Sleep on a bunch of goblins is both risky and decisive.  Trading sword blows with anyone when you have say 10-14 hp is inherently risky.  By 10th level, not so much.  They've got +3 sword and stuff and you have 100hp.  If you roll 10d6 for fireball and lightning bolt, it is more likely to fall on the mean than if you rolled 6d6.  Things get steadily more aggregated, less decisive, more attritional as you level.  And then you take that and add a challenge rating system that scales opposition, and you end up with a largely pointless treadmill.  All that really changes as you level is the special effects; if anything the combat itself becomes more and more grind-like, with less and less opportunity for a single action, or even dumb luck, to change the course of events.
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Patrice
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« Reply #14 on: July 24, 2009, 01:40:14 AM »

Contracycle, I think you may be referring to former editions of the game here. What I've noticed with D&D4 is rather "it's too hard to grasp and too easy to master". The first sessions were slaughterhouses, mayhem, sheer player killing madness. But as soon as the players got the idea, with all the elements Ayyavazi is referencing (teamplay, synergic use of powers and abilities, timing of limited use powers), the game lost its interest. From a distance, it seems they match into strategy thinking, but they don't. When we got back into level 1 with this knowledge, the adventure wasn't a match anymore.

Your reactions, Ayyavazi and Callan, as well as the fact I've just stressed, make me think that, as Jasper pointed it, the game is maybe Gamist brand after all, but with dials set at such a low level that it loses its interest for more committed gamers. When you tell me, Callan, (and that's basically what Ayyavazi is also telling) that good tactics grant me 10% to shine and change the challenge facts, I lose all interest in it. Especially since this good tactics is a standard use of your powers, as easy to put in motion as if it had dropped straight from the book.

So, as I wonder why I lose interest I've come to think that the game prevents Gotchas! and doesn't rely upon combo logics. It's not just a matter of scope, it's the level of detailed thinking involved to refrain players (DM included) from anything able to swing more than this 10% change in the challenge. That's why I've called this thread "Balance killed my game". I think the Guild Wars engine (will you allow me to compare Tabletop RPG and video games engines?) is a good example of what renders the opposite choice in design: thousands of options that DO matter, much alike M:TG. It combines personal options and team options with full efficiency, even giving way to whatever cunning players will find to tweak it. D&D4 is a pretense of that, but the real thing doesn't even fall close to combination use, it actually forbids it (I have yet to check what the hybrid classes will open, though).

Granted then, it's probably just a matter of scale. I don't call a 10% change a change, others do. Mind, it's a matter of scale in Efficiency (Forge meaning).

One more thing, I'm not trying to tell the whole game sucks at all. There are a few brilliant ideas inside and if you take the whole tactical choice thing as a way to "style" your character and team, you sure have a lot to play with. What turns me off is that these choices eventually matter so little in the task resolution that, as far as my Gamist needs (habits?) are concerned, they're pointless.
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