Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Now you're gaming with power.

(This entry is reposted from my livejournal, and so can be viewed in its original form here. Enjoy!)

So one morning the Rabbit woke from uneasy dreams to find that she had become a giant power gamer. Unlike Mr. Samsa, however, she is not of the opinion that power gaming-- and here I am speaking specifically of tabletop gaming, and more specifically of D&D 4e-- is not the vile cockroach of play, incompatible with Good, Proper RP. In 4e, it's actually very much the opposite, that I have found. And I further have come to suggest a theory, which has a lot to do with why, I think, that 4e turns some players so completely off.

Okay, so things 4e does badly-- there are three of them that spring immediately to mind, and they are all character creation.

The first is materials. The books-- except for the setting books-- are confusing collections of powers laid out in such a way that you always suspect you're missing something. And you are. There's a ton of unreleased-as-yet info, Dragon Magazine Articles and the like that might do Just That Thing you're looking for, once you've realised what that is (getting to that.) What you really want are a bunch of setting books (so good!) and DDI Character Builder. Hopefully someone has told you that, or else you'll find that you've shelled out a lot of money for something that is not going to be much use if you've, say, just been invited to a game and need to put together a character real quick. Which brings me to the second problem.

That 'real quick'. Yeah, not so much, especially if you're never looked at this stuff before, character creation is the most confusing and slow process in the whole game. This is a problem when you (I wish I could find [info]theferrett's post on the topic) are looking at D&D as a product-- they lose a lot of customers right when said customer try to start to think about building their first character, especially if they've played a lot of previous editions. 4e expects you to be, at least stat-wise, a min maxer. Seriously-- unless this is going to be a no combat at all game (and why would they do that? Combat is /fun/ in this edition!) For the love of Moradin, max out your attack stat! And match your race to your class, not the other way around (3rd problem, getting to that). Seriously, being effective in combat is /awesome/, and the combat is seriously cinematic and beautiful when you can. This is most apparent when you're looking at a Grappling Fighter-- so yeah, in our Chessenta game, B's Grappler frigging-- and this is no-shit built in-- grabbed a wyrmling dragon by its tail and slammed it into the wall. For decent damage. And thus moved it where /we/ wanted it-- or rather, away from where we did not want it to be. This is not something I have ever seen done well previously, and that's kinda sad. Artificers send tiny constructs whizzing through the aid to aid their friends and befuddle their enemies. Invokers summon flaming angels down to do their will, Druids shift smoothly from wolf to humanoid and back again, Assassins slip in and out of their enemies shadows and don't even get me started on a well executed teleport.

None of which matters if you just can't bloody hit-- and this here is my theory-- the game's monsters are base-statted in such a way that /they/ are certainly optimized. If your party is not, you have a serious problem. A DM running the monsters flat and at recommended numbers will wind up tearing through their party and not knowing why-- conversely, a DM whose players /have/ optimized, looking at the monsters available for the levelled encounters (and the recommended monster party makeups, et al) and thinking they need to be nerfed a bit-- such a DM is going to wonder why the hell the party keeps cleaning up the encounters in a couple minutes. This is before we even get into the sexy beasts that are fantastic terrain and traps.

So okay, problem number 3. I hear a lot of worry from people that 4e, considering the Powers mode of play for combat, is too mechanical and doesn't give enough room for RP. Nothing is further from the truth-- except in one area, also at character creation. That is, you've really got to choose class first, then race. You /want/ to match your skill bonuses with your class's preferred stats, and more specifically, your build's preferred stats. Then you want to make sure that all of your attack stat bonuses are decent. They try to make class your primary role play outlet, and that is true, but that's also a bit counter-intuitive, and I can definitely understand feeling limited. But this has been true in all editions, if you think about it, and more so when there were stat /minuses/ for certain races too. I mean, I once played a multi-classed Gnomish Ranger-Mage back in 2e-- technically, so against the rules it's not funny. Now, you /can/ pick whatever you want, there are no limits per-se. But for the reasons mentioned above, picking race against stats will be very sad for you when you realise that you just can't hit anything, and if you're a Leader, you're not healing as much as you /could/ be if only you had picked That Other Race... and if you had your heart set on being a tank, but you also wanted to be pretty much anything for which Strength isn't a main stat, you're spending feats on making up that deficit, or you're playing a battlemind. Now, I am ignoring the builds, which do have some solutions for this, but once again, we're talking about people new to the system, who are thinking about making their first character, and right now are in the process of being brutally overwhelmed. My first 4e character a Gnome Cleric in an online game, and I didn't understand, at the time, that I didn't /have/ to use a weapon. If I had realised that I could be implement only, my power choices would probably have been much better. Fortunately, there were 2 paladins in the party, and a /lot/ of players, so I didn't have to worry about much-- which was good, coz I couldn't hit anything for shit. Mostly, I was running off of good will and a lot of effects that still did what I wanted most on a miss. My next character was a little better-- Tiefling Artificer at least has Int as a bonus stat, which is the most important thing. Cha isn't helping me out any, but Con and Wis are /good enough/. Ballast handles herself pretty well, but the DM allows her to not get targeted a lot of the time-- and he has that bloody god-awful Storm Sorcerer to worry about if he is wanting to try to squish a squishy caster. Now, I understand that Essentials, when it comes out, may have some solutions for that. We'll see when it happens.

But anyway, so you want to play a race that's sub optimal for your class. there's a couple of choices here.

a) suck it up and pick a class based on the race you want to play. This is okay, but problematic if you already have the roles that work for your preferred race covered. Mostly, you don't want to play in a party without a Leader. THAT IS BAD. Or a party with all Leaders. Yes, even if one is a Warlord. Don't please make rabbits cry. Also don't get her started on All The Controllers ever. Seriously, I am so tempted to find a defender or leader multiclass for my psion.

b) suck it up and pick a race based on your class, min maxing all the day long. You might play something you'd never considered and wind up liking it! I got both my Revenant Assassin and my Wilden Shaman that way, and honestly, I really like those. The only trouble with the Shaman is, from an RP perspective, it's kind of hard to get into the mindset of a giant plant with an affinity for astral bears. I keep wanting to play her like Swamp Thing, and sort of hulking around silently. But it is definitely different.

c) Go gimped. And if you have the party support, aren't afraid to learn the hard way, and have a DM who will let you respec liberally, there's not really anything wrong with that. But go in knowing that this might not be the easiest deal for you, and don't be afraid to talk the situation over with your DM, if you're just not having fun.

Interestingly, the reason that I say you might not have much fun being gimped isn't actually a selfish, "wow, I am not as cool as everyone else and don't look badass," thing. It's more a, "I could really be helping my party members with this stuff, but I just can't make it work! And I find that I am being a burden/draining resources (esp healing) that are very limited, and pulling things down. Woah! Not cool!"

At least, this was my problem.