[D&D 4e] Using D&D for Introduction to Roleplaying?

Started by Aumpa, July 31, 2009, 09:08:57 PM

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Jasper Flick

What jumped out most for me was that you wanted to play a diplomatic wizard but didn't really get to do so. Basically, by picking up those languages you said "Hey GM, put these creatures into the game so I can talk with them!" though you probably didn't think of it that way. The GM didn't pick up this subtle hint and totally ignored your concept. Same goes for the backstories: they didn't matter. I guess you were simply fed a pre-existing adventure regardless of your own contribution. That probably didn't help you to "get into character" much either.
So I'm guessing you want a stronger connection between your character and the situation. It's probably what you'll be gunning for when you run your game.
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Hi Aumpa,

Given a campaign of 4E we just wrapped up, your experiences with D&D 4E are not very surprising to me. Before I go into details - to be clear - this post is intended to steer you away from using 4E as your intro game for a set of new players.

A little bit of background: the group I usually play with are made up of a mish-mash of locals. We've played together for a few years, with some people coming in and dropping out of the group during that time. We've played maybe a dozen different games together, with slightly different group make-up between games. We're not afraid to try new systems, and a few of us (myself included) are what you might call a "neophile" when it comes to RPGs. I'd say about half of us are more into new-form, "indie" type games and half are more comfortable with "traditional" type games (D&D, GURPS, World of Darkness, etc). Coming out of a heavily drifted Ars Magica campaign, we decided the next game we'd try was D&D 4E. We'd never played any version of D&D together before with the notable exception of Castles & Crusades, a very old-school-centric version of d20/3.x. The predominant notion in the group was that D&D was counter-productive to what we wanted out of role-playing, which seems to generally jibe more with your idea of things (character- or story-first, de-emphasis on tactical combat, etc), and many in our group were skeptical to say the least.

The first session of the game was spent learning the rules in a large combat scenario. It became evident that some players - even players who originally balked at the idea of playing D&D at all - were really grooving on the "visuals" created by cool powers and the tactical elements of movement. The idea that "colour" was separate from the mechanics (such that a Warlock's attacks might actually be visually described as demons who rips people's souls out of their bodies) worked very well for these people.

One player failed to see the point entirely. He complained that the combat was not realistic enough, and took no interest in describing visuals at all. He didn't come back for subsequent sessions, although we still play other games with him (interestingly, including games which do not emphasize "realism" at all, and which have very strong visuals - it seemed to be the combination of tactical wargame and lack of realism that bothered him).

The game continued strong for several sessions after that, with the remaining players being pretty jazzed about the combat sequences. Then it seemed that tedium started setting in for a couple of the players. There were concerns about "not role-playing enough" (in the "speaking in character" sense) and that the story moved slowly due to the long encounters. The encounters themselves became less interesting when the players had already tried out all their techniques and narrated through the various visuals available to them. Mixing up the encounters with totally different sets of creatures with different tactics, integrated traps and puzzles, and so on seemed to help somewhat, but the concerns above were repeated a bit too often to believe that these players were truly having optimal fun.

We tried out a few techniques, like ensuring that each encounter was "story-changing" (as opposed to, frex, Keep on the Borderlands' multiple goblin ambushes), mixing in some Skill Challenges, and such. It kept the steam up for one session, perhaps, before the tedium re-emerged. The lack of character growth (in the XP sense) became a big factor for one player in particular - he wanted to get some new tricks to keep the encounters fresh, not unlike a bored MMORPG grinder. The question of XP rewards came up - should we boost it? Or remove it, and just level the characters whenever it seemed appropriate? Or skip forward in time to Paragon level? From my point of view, the XP reward cycle is a tricky thing, and removing it altogether in favour of scheduled character rewards removes a big factor of play which tie in with the tactics of the encounters and Skill Challenges. Rather, my opinion is that every action that's consistent with successful D&D play should be rewarded with XP - that means solving traps, overcoming social challenges, hitting specified story points, etc. All other play should be minimized - that means planning, resting, in-character chatting, etc.

Eventually, one guy who was really into the tactics of the encounters took over DMing from me and wrapped up the immediate storyline for the rest of us in a suitable yet convenient way. He claimed he could've kept playing for a long time and still had fun with the system, but that was exclusively due to the boardgamey, tactical elements of it. The rest of us were more or less bored witless with 4E and anxious to bite into something else with more character- and story-centric goals. Interestingly, the guy who took over DMing is also a very enthusiastic "indie-game" GM and another of the neophiles in our group.

To summarize, in my experience with straight-up rules-as-written D&D 4E, the game is definitively designed to cater to wargamers who want to dabble in setting their scenarios in continuous stories and see their characters advance mechanically. In this light, it is a fantastic game.

However, as soon as you start bringing "role-playing" sensibilities into this game things start to flounder. Conflicted and complex characters? No rules or guidelines to be found. Social interactions? Other than very two-dimensional "Skill Challenges" designed to be overcome in rather binary ways, not supported. Interlocking backstories? Useless in this context. Character development other than mechanical progression towards more skill and power? Not at all.

Of course, you can drift the game to support all these things, but I see a large population of existing D&D 2/3.x players who are determined never to touch 4E because their existing drifted techniques to support such play is specifically de-emphasized. For example, the emphasis on cool combat Powers and Feats make trading combat-oriented characteristics for abilities more commonly used out-of-combat or used mostly for colour a really bad deal. In D&D 3.5 and earlier, it's almost an assumption that the "party needs a non-combatant" to get you out of traps and social hazards - not so in 4E, where all characters are combat-ready and the non-optimal character/player simply has less of a chance to shine.

If I were to focus in on just one of your statements - the removal of XP from the game's equation - I'd say this is a clear indication that you're looking for something very different than what 4E offers. Rather, I'd suggest that emphasizing the continuous accumulation of XP in every possible game-supported situation is exactly how the game should be played. Removing XP from 4E would be like removing Artha from Burning Wheel, if that tells you anything.

Not to proselytize, but for what I think you're looking for, you may want to have a look at Burning Wheel (for a relatively complex system), Don't Rest Your Head (drift the setting and rename the mechanics if you like), Sorcerer (& Sword?), or FATE (for a moderately crunchy, non-tactical, non-lethal, but sometimes over-the-top system) for character- and story-driven play. I think all of these games are suitable for beginners, assuming the GM knows them well - and if the GM doesn't, remove BW and Sorcerer from that list and you should be fine. For a more traditional "starter" game, have a look at Castles & Crusades - same dungeon-crawling, monster-slaying, treasure-gathering goodness, but a less tactical, crunchy, battlemat-heavy system than 4E.


To provide a more to-the-point summary of my long-winded post:

If you want to "train" your players to play tabletop RPGs the way you prefer them, I don't think D&D 4E works with your playstyle. The majority of us who played in the aforementioned mini-campaign really liked the game at first due mostly to the novelty and, frankly, excellent design of the game - but it quickly got boring for those of us whose preferences lay squarely with character-driven story play, and in that sense 4E "teaches" a very, very different style of play.