Chad Perrin: SOB

1 September 2009

Mike Mearls explains my D&D preference

Filed under: Geek,RPG — apotheon @ 11:47

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

Referring to OD&D, as contrasted with 4E, 4E Monster Manual designer Mike Mearls said:

The players reacted more by thinking “What’s the logical thing for an adventurer to do?” rather than “What’s the logical thing to do according to the rules?”

This is exactly what I like more about any other edition of (A)D&D than about 4E; the rules of 4E really seem to encourage thinking in terms of the rules rather than thinking in terms of the characters’ motivations much more than any previous edition. There’s nothing wrong with preferring the 4E approach (what some call “gamist”, and others call “ludus”), but it gets frustrating sometimes being told by 4E fans that my preference is “wrong” because 4E is better for “roleplaying” than previous editions. This is usually followed by a statement like one I saw earlier today or last night (I don’t remember which) that Craft skills are useless at higher levels because you can get better armor by purchasing it than by making it yourself — which of course is a ludicrous example of missing the point of roleplaying. This is in contrast with my own take on the lack of Craft skills in 4E — that their lack means your character is less fully fleshed out with details that might lead to a high-level character painstakingly making a ring himself to give to his true love when he proposes marriage.

Yes, it’s true, that ring won’t give you better armor at higher levels, but it does contribute to a roleplaying experience with more depth. The difference is what priorities are being served best by a given system.

20 Comments

  1. 4E emphasises adventurers doing adventurous things – it’s geared to tactical roleplaying rather than simulating a wider roleplaying experience (until the rules appear in a later book of course).

    I miss the Craft rules as well (Profession rules not so much) – not least because there’s the satisfaction of running the kind of encounters you mention – which is a shame.

    Comment by satyre — 1 September 2009 @ 12:35

  2. Of course, Sauron would be high enough level that he should be able to buy any magic ring as well rather than bothering to make one. ;)

    All snarkiness aside, thanks for sharing that quote! I really enjoy many aspects of 4e, but some facet of it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on keeps rubbing me the wrong way. I think that quote finally crystalizes it for me. D&D has always felt like writing a novel together than trying to win a game together.

    However, most of what I like about D&D is rules neutral, so if I can overlook the gamist leanings of 4e and enjoy the benefits of it (namely the structured flexibility and greater consistency of power levels), then I’m good. Of course I need to find a group to play with that doesn’t include the type who froth “Elf barbarian?! That’s a dumb combination – just look at the ability score bonuses! Pick goliath or dragonborn instead.”

    Comment by Ken Marable — 1 September 2009 @ 12:45

  3. The 4e rules are about encounters, not stories. That’s not to say DMs and players can’t use 4e to tell stories, they just have to do more of the work themselves.

    Comment by Oz — 1 September 2009 @ 01:02

  4. The question that must be asked, is do you really need those ranks in craft(jewelry) on your character sheet to be able to roleplay a character crafting a ring for his beloved? Surely this is something that can be done without dice, or simulated using a skill challenge (endurance, athletics (strength), thievery or acrobatics(Dexterity) and some social skills to procure the right raw materials) if you want to play it our via dice rolls?

    If the character has the fact that he trained as a jeweler in his background I would be willing to give a bonus to the rolls in this circumstance.

    Comment by Phaezen — 1 September 2009 @ 01:17

  5. “but it gets frustrating sometimes being told by 4E fans that my preference is “wrong” because 4E is better for “roleplaying” than previous editions”

    I remember that guy. I believe his name was Mr. Strawman. Seriously, I don’t recall ever seeing 4e fans claiming older editions are wrong or that there is more roleplaying inherent to 4e than older editions. Now, 4e fans often have to defend against accusations of “rollplaying” because of things like the removal of craft skills. It’s odd to me that in the same post you bring up the freedom of OD&D (which had no craft skills and no roleplaying rules at all) and decry the exclusion of craft skills from 4e as a hit to the roleplaying opportunities inherent in the system. You see a conflict there at all?

    Craft skills did not equal roleplaying. Either a group roleplays or they don’t. If they did in 3e, the craft family certainly could help flesh things out. But it was also very limiting. You couldn’t simply describe your character as being good at anything that fell under the umbrella of craft/profession/perform without justifying the background note mechanically with the expenditure of skill points. Your fighter would have a hard time being both an accomplished painter and ballroom dancer with his 2 skill points a level. 4e, like OD&D and other older editions, leaves such details where they belong – in the background and in the realm of roleplaying. I can have a dwarven fighter with a talent for metalsmithing make a ring without having to sacrifice fighter skills in order to justify making the character I want. This is a good thing.

    Comment by Thas — 1 September 2009 @ 01:33

  6. It’s less of a good thing when you don’t want fighter skills in the first place, which is where the system inhibits roleplaying somewhat. If you want to have social or artistic or intellectual skills to the exclusion of combat skills, you can’t. The system doesn’t support that, and never really has. Third edition made an attempt, but even then, if you were level 20 with a d4 hit die and 1:4 BAB progression, you could take on an armed level 1 barbarian with your bare fists. Fourth edition simply stopped pretending that it was anything other than a tactical combat/high adventure system. Indeed, the reason why you add half your level to everything is so that you don’t have to worry about anything but increasing your combat prowess. It’s a very good system for what it does, which happens to exclude many potential avenues of roleplay. So if combat and tactics and killing monsters are what you want, by all means, go for Dungeons and Dragons. Personally, I think it’s quite banal, so I give DnD a fairly wide berth and stick with systems that support my own proclivities. Ccombat, tactics and monster hunting are good times, but I find strict leveled progression, forced combat prowess and the insanely high fantasy power scale of DnD to be irritating, so I prefer my monster hunting in a deadlier, more flexible system. I’m even in the midst of reworking the system behind Unknown Armies to run Dark Sun, which I think will be a wonderful change, as such a gritty, dark setting doesn’t belong attached to a high fantasy system. If that works out, I might similarly alter a few other settings.

    Comment by DamnedScholar — 1 September 2009 @ 02:05

  7. Well, I’m a 4e fan and I know I’ve posted on your site agreeing that if you are trying to balance a game in a non-combat oriented way, then a system like 2e is better than 4e.

    However, I cannot in good conscience agree with what you are saying here. If the GM is flexible, open to player suggestions and isn’t reliant on the rules as be-all and end-all, and if players put time into their backgrounds and personalities, 4e is just as good as any Old-school version, and better than 3e, at allowing depth and flexibility in character backgrounds.

    Having rules for something does not automatically make it viable, and my experience is that people who are inclined to role-play and make deep characters won’t have trouble doing it in 4e. I had more much trouble in third, and slightly more trouble in 2nd making the character I really wanted, without also seriously compromising their combat playability. It’s a fine line, ultimately, and since D&D is, to my mind, a Fantasy RPG that emphasizes combat and high-adventure, I think keeping things open-ended is good. There is always Burning Wheel for the gritty, realistic role-player.

    I am having a bit of trouble making a gritty, low-magic environment work with 4e, though. I ended up compromising and going with a brutal, high-magic, spirit-rich environment instead – sorta dark ages Malazan Book of the Fallen-style. I found that worked better than the bronze-age, low-magic setting I developed for 2e and tried to port in.

    Comment by wickedmurph — 1 September 2009 @ 03:34

  8. satyre:

    4E emphasises adventurers doing adventurous things – it’s geared to tactical roleplaying rather than simulating a wider roleplaying experience (until the rules appear in a later book of course).

    I think that pretty well sums up some of my own issues with 4E.

    Ken Marable:

    Of course, Sauron would be high enough level that he should be able to buy any magic ring as well rather than bothering to make one. ;)

    That’s hilarious.

    D&D has always felt like writing a novel together than trying to win a game together.

    I have a difficult time feeling that way about 4E.

    I feel your pain about the “builds” focused min-maxer players. I try to avoid that type.

    Oz:

    The 4e rules are about encounters, not stories. That’s not to say DMs and players can’t use 4e to tell stories, they just have to do more of the work themselves.

    I think that’s a very astute observation. Thanks for contributing.

    Phaezen:

    The question that must be asked, is do you really need those ranks in craft(jewelry) on your character sheet to be able to roleplay a character crafting a ring for his beloved?

    Do you really need a base attack bonus to roleplay a character who can kick ass in a fight? Why not just stay home and daydream, rather than get together with a group of friends and use rulebooks? Do you need rules at all?

    The answer, of course, is “no” — but they (the other players and the rulebooks) really do add something to the experience. Why is it so difficult to understand that this can apply to more than just straight-up combat?

    Thas:

    Seriously, I don’t recall ever seeing 4e fans claiming older editions are wrong or that there is more roleplaying inherent to 4e than older editions.

    Maybe that’s because they aren’t saying it to you.

    It’s odd to me that in the same post you bring up the freedom of OD&D (which had no craft skills and no roleplaying rules at all) and decry the exclusion of craft skills from 4e as a hit to the roleplaying opportunities inherent in the system. You see a conflict there at all?

    Craft skills can help enable roleplaying.

    Less abstracted game mechanics can help enable roleplaying.

    3.5 is an example of where having craft skills helps enable roleplaying. OD&D is an example of where less abstracted game mechanics can also enable roleplaying. 4E is an example of where removing craft skills and piling on ever-greater thickness of rule abstraction can hinder roleplaying.

    Where’s the conflict?

    Craft skills did not equal roleplaying.

    No, they didn’t, Mr. Strawman. They did, however, help enable roleplaying depth.

    Your fighter would have a hard time being both an accomplished painter and ballroom dancer with his 2 skill points a level.

    That’s a problem with the skill system — particularly the way people get skill points — and not with the Craft and Perform skills themselves.

    4e, like OD&D and other older editions, leaves such details where they belong – in the background and in the realm of roleplaying.

    I’m of the opinion that abstracting the rules away from the in-game action, and making them too fiddly with the usefulness for dungeon crawling, sucks some of the life out of the roleplaying — and that throwing out skills with a roleplaying use because roleplaying shouldn’t use rules is a great way to eliminate a lot of the unique detail of a character. The best option would be to have both the rules that support roleplaying and a less abstracted, tacticool set of rules overall, though there has to be a little give and take.

    Unfortunately for my preferences in gaming styles, 4E has chosen to go another route, by both throwing away some roleplaying support in the rules and turning the game system into a test of tactical number crunching.

    I can have a dwarven fighter with a talent for metalsmithing make a ring without having to sacrifice fighter skills in order to justify making the character I want. This is a good thing.

    Let’s say you throw away all rules pertaining to roleplaying — all of them. What do you have left? How is that anything other than another step in the direction the old Battle Chess game was heading? How is that not equivalent to an extremely complicated game of chess?

    DamnedScholar:

    While D&D certainly isn’t as roleplaying-focused as certain other games, it still provides opportunities for some pretty intensive roleplaying. Sometimes, it’s fun to have a high fantasy character for such roleplaying, too. It has just gotten really, really difficult to make a character that suits a roleplaying intensive campaign with 4E, in a lot of ways.

    wickedmurph:

    However, I cannot in good conscience agree with what you are saying here. If the GM is flexible, open to player suggestions and isn’t reliant on the rules as be-all and end-all, and if players put time into their backgrounds and personalities, 4e is just as good as any Old-school version, and better than 3e, at allowing depth and flexibility in character backgrounds.

    It can be done. It isn’t “just as good”, because it doesn’t offer support for the background (and future) development of the character as much (or, really, much at all). How the hell is it better than 3.5, when you can do exactly the same stuff as in 4E — but you can’t do the same stuff as in 3.5 with 4E unless you graft 3.5 rules into 4E and adjust all the careful point balancing?

    Having rules for something does not automatically make it viable

    Of course not. Having rules that actually provide greater flavor for roleplaying certainly can help, though. It’s not like I’m saying that every time someone comes up with an idea for an additional rule it should be added to the game because rules are automatically gooder.

    I had more much trouble in third, and slightly more trouble in 2nd making the character I really wanted, without also seriously compromising their combat playability.

    I was always just willing to sacrifice my character’s Ultimate Bad-Assness to get a good character with depth and an interesting background. I don’t see why that’s a problem, given a roleplaying oriented campaign.

    There is always Burning Wheel for the gritty, realistic role-player.

    Different game systems create different flavors for the game, and beyond a certain point, a lot of roleplaying focus can start limiting the types of roleplaying that are viable. While that’s great if the game (and character) you want to play fits with the flavor and assumptions of the system, it’s not so great if what you want is something else. This is why I’d love to play Burning Wheel sometimes, and not others, even if I’m in a roleplaying intensive mood in both cases.

    I am having a bit of trouble making a gritty, low-magic environment work with 4e, though.

    I’ve noticed that adjusting the system with house rules has a tendency to bring the whole combat balance house of cards tumbling down in 4E. Meanwhile, I find it a lot easier to do gritty low-magic stuff in 3E. In fact, Iron Heroes is a published variant of D&D 3.5 that is designed specifically for that — and the Midnight campaign setting does gritty low-magic stuff really, really well, too.

    Comment by apotheon — 1 September 2009 @ 05:24

  9. Thank you for articulating this point, this is much how I fell about such things. I like to have numbers and mechanics to hang off of a skill, for reference if nothing else. In fact I discussed similar themes at length on my journal last month.

    Comment by Sean Holland — 1 September 2009 @ 07:04

  10. Good lord, that’s some detailed replying. :)

    “3.5 is an example of where having craft skills helps enable roleplaying. OD&D is an example of where less abstracted game mechanics can also enable roleplaying. 4E is an example of where removing craft skills and piling on ever-greater thickness of rule abstraction can hinder roleplaying.”

    I don’t agree with any of that. I think 3.5’s craft umbrella limits roleplaying, as I’ve pointed out. There are just too many things that you can’t do. When you introduce a new mechanic into a system it helps define the core assumptions of that system. The craft skills created a situation where you were required to mechanically justify what is essentially background details that don’t see much actual game play and don’t require dice rolling to resolve most of the time. A bard should not have to roll dice to see if he can play a song. He’s a professional musician. Dice should come in only when the situation is more dire (having to use your bardly skills to entertain a tribe of hill giants that otherwise will entertain themselves by playing baseball with your face). I prefer 4e’s focus on stating out the adventuring aspects of a character, his class and his adventuring abilities and leaving the rest as background details between the player and the DM, where it belongs. I should be able to play a famous painter who picks up a sword when my home is overrun and takes the fight to the monsters of the world. In 3e, I can’t do this without mechanically justifying it by purchasing a high craft (painting) skill, which I am obstructed from doing by the system. Most of the time when dice really matter in a situation, it’s not the ability to paint that is in question, its the ability to engage that talent in a contest or under dire circumstances where other stats are really at play. Take a bard challenging another to a musical showdown. Both bards can play, sing and dance, perform rolls are unnecessary. What matters is their ability to gauge the crowd and play to it, to work in feats of acrobatics, or knowledge of the local region and its history. 4e’s skill challenge system builds a much better, more dynamic and dramatic encounter than 3e’s ‘roll a perform check’ mechanics. Nothing in 4e hinders roleplaying, the assumption is absurd. Skill challenges create a mechanical framework for roleplaying based encounters to thrive. It’s a much more elegant system than the single check.

    “That’s a problem with the skill system — particularly the way people get skill points — and not with the Craft and Perform skills themselves.”

    I agree, to a degree. 3e’s system would have been much better off with background skills separated from adventuring/class based skills, allowing characters to pick background skills under a different distribution of points (perhaps age and int based, without class considerations at all). That would have helped. I think 4e’s solution was even better – relegating such things to character background and development where the freedom to do what you want in that area is between you and the DM. I much prefer freedom to arbitrary limits that are further hampered by my class choice, which makes little sense. Wizards devote the most time to class based study and yet generally have the most freedom, mechanically, to pursue other interests, while fighters are the class with the lowest entry fee and the tightest skill restrictions.

    “Let’s say you throw away all rules pertaining to roleplaying — all of them. What do you have left?”

    OD&D? :)

    I agree, assuming you generally feel this way as implied in your post, that character skill should be a determining factor in relevant roleplaying situations (negotiations, etc), as opposed to the older editions way of player skill and DM fiat. Where we disagree is in what needs mechanical representation. I don’t think things that primarily exist as background detail require direct mechanical representation. How often does an adventure or crucial plot point actually hinge on a character’s ability to craft something? Once maybe twice in a campaign? And in those dire circumstances, as I said above, what we really need to test is something else, not the ability to successfully paint something or dance, but a test of smarts, fortitude (the general trait, not the stat), knowledge or a number of other factors that are statted because they arise out of the adventuring skill set.

    Comment by Thas — 1 September 2009 @ 08:37

  11. Sometimes, it’s fun to have a high fantasy character for such roleplaying, too. It has just gotten really, really difficult to make a character that suits a roleplaying intensive campaign with 4E, in a lot of ways.

    Much as I’m not the biggest fan of the genre, I think the problem is more to do with the architecture of the game (a rigid class-based system that forces combat prowess unnaturally). You can do high fantasy with other systems, and I’ve personally found GURPS to be wonderful for fantasy-style games.

    Comment by DamnedScholar — 1 September 2009 @ 08:57

  12. Sean Holland:

    Thanks for the comment, and the link. It was an interesting read. I sympathize pretty strongly with the way you describe the benefit that skills designed to support the roleplaying aspects of the game can provide — and, to emphasize a point that many 4E fans seem to think is contrary to good sense, I think it’s a good thing when my character’s priorities are so artfully illustrated by the simple fact that one must sometimes sacrifice “adventuring” effectiveness to have skills the character would pursue for his own reasons.

    Thas:

    Good lord, that’s some detailed replying.

    I don’t like to leave anyone feeling ignored, and I especially don’t like to leave anyone feel like I’ve decided that the best way to “refute” an argument is to just pretend it doesn’t exist. I get too much of that crap to want to give it out to anyone else, so I try to address all salient points with meaningful arguments, and clearly point out the arguments others make that I don’t think carry any salient points at all so people will at least understand why I didn’t address them. Of course, I can’t respond to everything — I’m going to miss something from time to time, being a fallible human just like everyone else.

    Since you said a lot here that deserves replies, I’m afraid you get to bear the brunt of my detailed response this time.

    The craft skills created a situation where you were required to mechanically justify what is essentially background details that don’t see much actual game play and don’t require dice rolling to resolve most of the time.

    I don’t see the problem yet.

    A bard should not have to roll dice to see if he can play a song.

    If he actually spent points in the skill, he doesn’t have to spend points. There’s a rule in 3.5 that allows you to “take ten”, thus getting the equivalent of an average roll — and the level of your skill determines how far above average your performance reaches. Average for someone with eight ranks and a +3 attribute modifier is much better than average for an amateur with no talent (one rank and a +0 attribute modifier).

    In 3e, I can’t do this without mechanically justifying it by purchasing a high craft (painting) skill, which I am obstructed from doing by the system.

    Unfortunately, one of the implicit assumptions of any edition of D&D is that your character is young and inexperienced. This applies to combat capabilities just as much as it does to skills (see “character levels” for evidence).

    4e’s skill challenge system builds a much better, more dynamic and dramatic encounter than 3e’s ‘roll a perform check’ mechanics.

    All the “Skill Challenge” system has done is formalize what gamers have been doing for decades with the skills in their favorite game systems, including D&D 3E and even the proficiencies from AD&D 2E. Giving the process the name “Skill Challenge” doesn’t invent a new way of doing things. It just makes it sound more Official.

    Nothing in 4e hinders roleplaying, the assumption is absurd.

    Tell that to Mike Mearls.

    Skill challenges create a mechanical framework for roleplaying based encounters to thrive.

    It looks to me like they create such a rules-heavy feeling of Officiousness that they may cause people to become more concerned with the mechanics than with the roleplaying aspect, turning yet another aspect of the game (beyond combat) into a tactical number-crunching calculation rather than letting it flow naturally. Of course, that’s a worst-case scenario; for people who have been effectively doing what the “Skill Challenges” section describes (but without standing on ceremony to do it) for decades already, chances are very slim (I hope) they’ll be so easily influenced by the “gaming” focus on the process presented in the book.

    3e’s system would have been much better off with background skills separated from adventuring/class based skills, allowing characters to pick background skills under a different distribution of points (perhaps age and int based, without class considerations at all).

    That’s not what I meant. What I meant is that fighters and wizards get the shaft, and the system should have been designed to allow all classes to have useful skill point allotments rather than screwing over certain unlucky classes — especially when one of those unlucky classes is supposed to be the profession of scholars.

    I think the idea of separating “adventuring” skills from “background” skills is a bad idea. Some skills will be useful in “adventuring” more often than others, most of the time, but all of them might come in handy. Furthermore, when I make a character and he or she has skills on the sheet, to me they are all background skills, because without a background that justifies a skill, my character won’t have the skill. Backgrounds are not, to me, merely an excuse to have a bunch of numbers for throwing at monsters in the hope of destroying them.

    I think 4e’s solution was even better – relegating such things to character background and development where the freedom to do what you want in that area is between you and the DM.

    I think I’ve always had that freedom, and having a flexible skill framework to modify or ignore as I see fit is pure win over lacking that flexibility and having it pared down to half the coverage (if even that). This is especially relevant with a game system so painstakingly balanced that an ill-chosen skill system modification can cause the primary advantages of the system (simplicity and balance) to come apart at the seams. By contrast, it’s easy as pie to shoehorn new skills into 3.5 (and, by extension, Pathfinder RPG), change the way skills are acquired (as in the case of Knowledge(Local) as Roleplaying Reward, and even jack up the skill points for some or all classes to ensure nobody feels hosed without completely throwing off the balance of the game (possibly by trading in feats for skill points).

    I don’t think things that primarily exist as background detail require direct mechanical representation.

    I think that if it remains nothing but “background detail”, you aren’t roleplaying the character you made. Former blacksmiths, pages, and serving wenches who take to the adventuring trail because of boredom, necessity, or tragedy are to a significant extent shaped by those “background details”, and they should definitely come into play when you’re involved with a roleplaying intensive campaign. Otherwise, you may as well play 4E and not have background at all.

    How often does an adventure or crucial plot point actually hinge on a character’s ability to craft something?

    In the campaigns I play, there’s usually a lot more going on than the primary plot and the Adventure Du Jour. Subplots, side pursuits, dalliances, grudges, and other matters that have little or nothing to do with the central plot of some “adventure” are constantly cropping up, and sometimes actually dominate the game for a while without a single dungeon crawl or confrontation of an evil sorcerer coming up — and no, that doesn’t make the game “boring” if character development is a core interest for the players.

    DamnedScholar:

    I think the problem is more to do with the architecture of the game (a rigid class-based system that forces combat prowess unnaturally).

    Oh, trust me, I do struggle with the linear development and “class” structure of the game from time to time. With a good GM and the right character concepts (concepts which, at times, don’t fit into games that don’t have the linear advancement problem, ironically enough), this can be made into a rare and minor annoyance at worst a lot of the time. It doesn’t work all the time, 100%, but it works well enough that with a good group of gamers it doesn’t get in the way of great roleplaying.

    You can do high fantasy with other systems, and I’ve personally found GURPS to be wonderful for fantasy-style games.

    I’ve found it to be passably good at the best of times, and atrociously overwrought and prone to breaking the flow (and, thus, suspension of disbelief) with absurdly overcomplex rules. This is especially problematic with high point value characters (a fact of which I’m being reminded every time my GURPS group gets together to continue the ongoing superhero campaign). Pretty much everyone in the group regrets our choice to go with GURPS for this, at least a little bit.

    Comment by apotheon — 1 September 2009 @ 10:45

  13. You have a good point about take 10. That does simulate a skilled guy phoning it in without any real risk of failure much of the time.

    “Unfortunately, one of the implicit assumptions of any edition of D&D is that your character is young and inexperienced. “

    It’s a basic assumption, but its not a binding assumption. In every other edition of D&D except 3e, I can effectively play an older character and reflect his experience and pre-adventuring life without being hampered by the need for mechanical justification. Now, 3e, along with a couple other editions had rules in the PHB for the effects of age and age by race charts. 4e doesn’t have that in the PHB since they didn’t detail an assumed core world this time around, leaving that to setting detail. Just to be clear, I like mechanical backing for social interaction, I think it is necessary and I am firmly on the side of character skill over player skill (after all, I don’t have to show the DM exactly how I use my glaive-guisarme to penetrate the Black Knight’s defenses). Where I disagree is the need to stretch the skill system in such a way that points must be spent on skills that will rarely see use and the point pool can’t be high enough to provide the flexibility to cover the infinite possibilities of character backgrounds because it has to balance itself against giving away too many skill points that could be used to manipulate the system. That’s the flaw I see with 3e’s approach and why I think dividing skills into background skills and adventuring skills would have worked. It’s why I think 4e sticking to adventuring skills and leaving the rest to background details is a great idea. 3e’s skill system limits character freedom, it is not flexible at all. Sure, it is easy to houserule, and I did. But so is 4e. The system is not nearly as delicately balanced as you claim. A quick perusal of EnWorlds House Rules forum will find a number of skill system modifications for those that like mechanical representation for things like crafting that work quite well. One common one is to let PCs pick a couple of background skills that are then counted as trained and, depending on the house rule, either get the half level bonus or not (I would tend to not, preferring to make rank increases based on use). Nothing there unbalances the system in any way.

    In a skill based system (which D&D is not), a focused, lengthy skill list is to be desired in a lot of cases. In a class/level based system with a skill system attached, I feel that the fewer skills, the better. I like the broader coverage 4e skills give, and prefer that in a skill system in general. It is, by design, flexible and encompassing. Savage Worlds is a good example of a more skill based system that also uses a shorter but broader set of skills to cover a wide range of things. I really like, in that system for example, that Fighting covers everything from fists to flails and Shooting covers bows to Capital ship based laser batteries. I like in 4e that thievery covers everything from cutting a purse to cracking open a vault. I understand that split of social skills among three rather different skills, but I would honestly prefer a single “face” skill that represented a characters social abilities. The manner in which he utilizes that skill could be supported with roleplaying (Joe is a paladin and does not lie) and mechanical aid (feat – Liar – +2 to social checks involving lies or misrepresentation). Anyway, I am heading off on a tangent. The point is, I like the freedom and flexible of shorter, broader skill sets and really like the way 4e is focused on adventuring skills.

    “It looks to me like they create such a rules-heavy feeling of Officiousness that they may cause people to become more concerned with the mechanics than with the roleplaying aspect”

    I assure you they do not. I have ran numerous skill challenges and you can see great examples of the roleplaying potential of challenges in the work that Critical Hits and At-Will (two blogs on the network) have put out on skill challenges. Groups who play mechanically will certainly do so with challenges, but they will with anything else anyway, that’s the way they play. My issue is with the claim that 4e inhibits roleplaying (and that is not what Mearls is saying above).

    “I think that if it remains nothing but “background detail”, you aren’t roleplaying the character you made. Former blacksmiths, pages, and serving wenches who take to the adventuring trail because of boredom, necessity, or tragedy are to a significant extent shaped by those “background details”, and they should definitely come into play when you’re involved with a roleplaying intensive campaign. Otherwise, you may as well play 4E and not have background at all.”

    That’s not what I am saying at all. Let me see if an example from my 4e campaign that actually ties together nicely with everything we’ve been discussing will help. One of the players wanted to play an Eladrin who was alive before the Feywild was corrupted by the Shadowfell (homebrew setting details) and the elves and Eladrin fell from grace. He wanted to be an accomplished Eladrin musician, famous, who had turned to the arcane arts after the fall in an effort to reclaim his homeland from the corruption that inhabits it. This is a big, ongoing campaign detail and possible later plot. Without the need to mechanically justify his musicianship, we were free to bring this very nice concept to life. Many of the Eladrin have become as corrupted as their ancient homeland and react with hostility to the famous singer trying to remind them of their past, others react with open reverance. He was a celebrity. Centuries of study left him a capable composer, songwriter, singer and musician (skilled with a range of instruments). This could just not be done in 3e (which isn’t to say that 3e was especially limiting or anything, some concepts simply cannot be pulled off in certain editions, I just think 4e is the most flexible with character creation yet). As for gameplay, none of this stays in the background. The PC writes snippets of songs often, plays for the group at camp, entertains local crowds, influences groups and weaves his background into everything he does (the character was made before bards and doesn’t weave his magic and music out of fear of what corruption that might tap into).

    One evening he was entertaining a local crowd in a tavern in a new town when I decided the local minstrel would take issue with this. The minstrel was playing at another local establishment and losing his audience to the PC. He decided to not take this lying down and went to the tavern and challenged the PC, intending to put him in his place. A skill challenge took place and no perform rolls were needed. The PC utilized his knowledge history to find some older songs about long dead regional heroes and his diplomacy skill to read the crowd and play with their mood. A couple of other PCs got involved, the gnome barbarian simply removed some patrons from a table right in front of the small stage and sat down, alone, sharpening his dagger while staring, unblinking at the rival musician (intimidate, which worked, adding a success). Another PC used a utility power to boost his skill checks, the PC used some cantrips to add to his show for another success. Finally, nearing the end of the challenge, he decided to finish off the minstrel with some Dueling Banjos but with lutes and they made opposed dex and knowledge checks (to represent the especially complex riffing required) and the PC finished off his rival with a flourish. They had given the townsfolk the best show they had seen in quite some time and the PCs received bonuses in the rest of their dealings with the townsfolk, with the exception of friends of the rival who reacted negatively to the PCs and led to some unpleasantness later.

    The skill challenge provided the perfect framework for what was an extremely memorable RP encounter, and it did it seamlessly. Multiple skill rolls are not the innovation of the skill challenge mechanic, the innovation is the framework itself with which to design skill based encounters on a similar scale and frame to combat encounters – structured (everyone takes turns), overt goals, consequences for failure that are not tied to simply failing a skill check, and flexibility (you can do as much with the challenge framework as we’ve always done with the combat framework).

    “while without a single dungeon crawl or confrontation of an evil sorcerer coming up — and no, that doesn’t make the game “boring” if character development is a core interest for the players.”

    Easily a third of my sessions involve no combat whatsoever and roleplaying and character development don’t stop when combat starts. There’s just as much or more roleplaying to be had during combat, which are the more stressful situations the PCs will face together. An RP heavy group should no more resort to number crunching in combat than they do in skill based or purely RP based scenes.

    Comment by Thas — 2 September 2009 @ 08:20

  14. Oh yeah, one last thing –

    “atrociously overwrought… with absurdly overcomplex rules…”

    I agree completely with you about GURPS. GURPS kept me from generic RP systems right up until someone finally shoved Savage Worlds in front of my eyes.

    Comment by Thas — 2 September 2009 @ 08:24

  15. It’s a basic assumption, but its not a binding assumption. In every other edition of D&D except 3e, I can effectively play an older character and reflect his experience and pre-adventuring life without being hampered by the need for mechanical justification.

    In any edition of (A)D&D, you need “mechanical justification” for the majority of experienced character concepts, and the justification isn’t there. How do you play a 40 year old veteran of foreign wars in AD&D 1E, knowing he has a 50% chance of getting his ass kicked by the 17 year old peasant who picked up a sword and decided to go traveling with him? It’s a problem inherent to the linear progression of characters; everybody starts at first level.

    In fact, it’s just as easy to justify a character whose 40 years of experience isn’t related to adventuring skills as any other edition, and (more to the point) it can actually be reflected on the character sheet, just by house-ruling it away; say “You get X many extra skill points, with Y as your maximum rank in any of your noncombat skills — but Y doesn’t go up until your class level says it does. In exchange for this, your first level has to be in an NPC class.” Meanwhile, in OD&D or 4E, all you can do is say “Tough tittie. You’re first level. Just pretend in your head that your character isn’t incompetent.” At that point, the most “reasonable” approach is to just say your character has amnesia if you want him to be 40 years old, which is about the stupidest plot point that Hollywood uses.

    Where I disagree is the need to stretch the skill system in such a way that points must be spent on skills that will rarely see use and the point pool can’t be high enough to provide the flexibility to cover the infinite possibilities of character backgrounds because it has to balance itself against giving away too many skill points that could be used to manipulate the system.

    Some campaigns may have to deal with munchkins. I basically just don’t play with those gaming groups, though. As such, my preference is for solving the problems we’re discussing by giving players flexibility in character creation, and not for trying to maintain a perfect hair’s breadth of balance in character power at the expense of that flexibility. I’d rather hand out extra skill points if needed than tell people “No! That’s unbalancing.” I like having players I can trust.

    It’s why I think 4e sticking to adventuring skills and leaving the rest to background details is a great idea.

    That’s why I think it’s a terrible idea — because, in my games, that kind of rigid control of the party’s combat balance isn’t necessary or desirable. On the rare occasion a muchkin slips into the group when I’m running a game, (s)he typically doesn’t last long, one way or another. Either the player learns to play nice or gets fed up with the way the game does’t glorify his or her character’s uber-powers and leaves.

    Sure, it is easy to houserule, and I did. But so is 4e.

    It’s always easy to house rule a game system. 4E is very difficult to house rule in terms of what the rules already cover without completely throwing the system out of whack, though — and in terms of what the system doesn’t already cover, it’s far too much work to house rule stuff because there are huge categories of stuff that simply don’t exist in the rules, so that to create one single house rule outside of strictly combat-oriented stuff you basically need to create half a game system.

    One common one is to let PCs pick a couple of background skills that are then counted as trained and, depending on the house rule, either get the half level bonus or not (I would tend to not, preferring to make rank increases based on use).

    That’s an excellent example; you basically have to create an entire “background skills” system almost from scratch, and even then you don’t end up with as much flexibility to the system to simulate all the possibilities inherent in real world skill acquisition and development, since you can’t give up adventuring expertise in favor of background skills. Further, you still end up with skills that suit someone 17 years old, the way you describe it, because changing that aspect of the background skill system would make it wholly incompatible with the rest of the game, making it look like a wheelbarrow bolted onto the back of your Porsche 911 to get more cargo space.

    Meanwhile, in 3.5, you could just throw extra skill points at someone and — guess what: you don’t have to worry about things getting out of balance. Worst-case scenario, depending on how many points you give the player, you may have to limit that player to NPC classes for first level. The problem is that 4E rules complexity is focused within a much narrower scope, with tightly coupled rules structures so that changing one small thing affects a lot of other stuff, and even bolting on something largely unrelated to the rest ends up having to conform to the assumptions of the existing rules to avoid becoming in essence a whole new mini-game’s set of rules incompatible with the rest. In 3.5, by contrast, the rules complexity is more widely distributed, and less tightly coupled, so that making huge changes in parts of it don’t affect anything else.

    A prime example of this is the fact that I pretty well loathe the assumptions of the magic system in any edition of D&D (though I’ve learned to overlook it). It’s damned easy to swap in an alternative magic system, though, and the Midnight campaign setting did so with a much, much better (for its setting, at least) magic system. I’ve created dozens of alternate magic systems myself in the past. It’s trivial to do so without “unbalancing” the game. 4E pretty much destroys that capability — but swapping out the magic system doesn’t really matter in 4E, because the whole game suffers from the same problems that prompt me to replace the magic system itself (internal structure that doesn’t relate to any reasonable in-character assumptions, et cetera), and those problems are exactly the same across all classes.

    Once again, making a change would basically destroy the benefits of the 4E system — conceptual simplicity, tactical complexity, and combat capability balance. Play 4E for the benefits it has, and don’t bother trying to give it the benefits it lacks, because doing so destroys its inherent benefits and essentially eliminates the reasons to pick 4E in the first place.

    I assure you they do not.

    I hope you’ll forgive me for relying on my judgment rather than yours. Assurances do not equal well-supported arguments. Anyway, you can’t really make a judgment like that without:

    1. knowing what it’s like to do much the same thing for a decade before 4E came out, and

    2. giving it a couple more years of regular play to see how the rules change the way people think about it all.

    At least one of these requirements (number 2) will surely not have been met in your case. We haven’t had enough time to see the effects of making skill use feel more tactically rules-oriented yet, in many cases. Anyway, even if it doesn’t cause the effect I described, it’s only because it doesn’t really change anything from the way we’ve all been using skills for decades, in which case all this “Skill Challenges are great!” will have turned out to basically be a way for people to say “I never used the skill system to its full potential before, probably for reasons of being a combat monkey min-maxer!”

    I have ran numerous skill challenges

    I have, too, in effect — but I didn’t need the 4E book creating a sense of rigid guidelines of play to do it.

    Many of the Eladrin have become as corrupted as their ancient homeland and react with hostility to the famous singer trying to remind them of their past, others react with open reverance. He was a celebrity. Centuries of study left him a capable composer, songwriter, singer and musician (skilled with a range of instruments). This could just not be done in 3e

    Why the hell not?

    The PC writes snippets of songs often, plays for the group at camp, entertains local crowds, influences groups and weaves his background into everything he does (the character was made before bards and doesn’t weave his magic and music out of fear of what corruption that might tap into).

    Great. It sounds like that player is Doing It Right™. I think you picked an example that doesn’t really prove anything about the differences between the editions, though.

    A skill challenge took place and no perform rolls were needed.

    . . . and, judging by your example, the only thing that was not represented in the duel of musician skills was the fucking musician skills. It’s like if you modified the plot of The Deveil Went Down to Georgia so that the guy who proved himself the greatest fiddle player alive and won a golden fiddle in the contest could have done so even if he had just started learning to play the fiddle a couple of months ago.

    The only way to represent actual musical skill in a case like what you described is to either add the skills you say the system doesn’t need back into the game or just turn the whole thing into an arbitrary decision without resorting to an existing part of the game system at all. Real musical skill is simply outside the scope of the rules, period.

    the innovation is the framework itself with which to design skill based encounters on a similar scale and frame to combat encounters

    That’s not innovative. It’s just an overly rigid way to explain what we’ve been doing for decades.

    structured (everyone takes turns)

    There’s the overly rigid part.

    Easily a third of my sessions involve no combat whatsoever and roleplaying and character development don’t stop when combat starts. There’s just as much or more roleplaying to be had during combat, which are the more stressful situations the PCs will face together. An RP heavy group should no more resort to number crunching in combat than they do in skill based or purely RP based scenes.

    The 4E system makes combat success more based on manipulating the rules and crunching the numbers than on in-character decisions. That’s my point. Oh, sure you can still focus on the in-character decisions, but then you’re basically assuming the characters for some reason believe that things that have little to no effect on the outcome are actually critically important, and ignoring what you actually know about how the game system works.

    . . . and this is exactly what Mike Mearls was talking about.

    Comment by apotheon — 2 September 2009 @ 10:40

  16. My issue is with the claim that 4e inhibits roleplaying (and that is not what Mearls is saying above).

    I’ve been thinking about this statement of yours, and came to a conclusion:

    I shouldn’t have used the word “inhibits”. 4E doesn’t really inhibit roleplaying, per se. It just fails to support it in ways 3.5 supported it — doesn’t encourage and enable certain aspects of roleplaying the way previous editions did, and creates some definite conflict between roleplaying and “gaming the system” at times in ways previous editions did not.

    Comment by apotheon — 2 September 2009 @ 10:55

  17. Full Disclosure:

    Thas’ most recent on-topic comment here has been moved to the Dead Letter Office, being almost nothing other than over 1600 words of logical fallacy, passive-aggressive and thinly veiled attacks, and trolling. He made another comment following that, in response to me telling him about the logical fallacies in his commentary, that was off-topic and prominently displayed his opinion that I’m a “douchebag”. I didn’t feel that was worth saving anywhere, so I deleted it.

    edit: More trolling has been deleted. News flash, Thas . . . further trolling by you will also be deleted. While I’m at it, there’s a difference between the pejorative meaning of “censorship” and what I’m doing here, which is called “moderation”.

    Comment by apotheon — 2 September 2009 @ 01:41

  18. The following is a copy of Thas’ comment that was moved to the Dead Letter Office, but edited so that all of the overt trolling, most of the logical fallacy, and anything that is basically just an attempt to “dispute” what I say by ignoring it, has been removed. I’ve enclosed his words in blockquotes, and responded to them here. I’m not interested in just repeating myself and fending off trolling, so I decided after much thought that I should just edit his trollish commentary down to what’s actually useful for further discussion and respond to that. Remember that you can see the whole thing in its original form in the Dead Letter Office if you want to read his trollish behavior in all its unedited glory.

    And it could never do one of my favorite class choices ever very well at all, the classic, with us practically from the beginning, fighter/wizard. I find 4e does it well.

    No edition of D&D, all the way up to and including 4E, really does wizards well at all — so of course fighter/wizard concepts aren’t going to do very well. Of course, there are some fighter/wizard style classes in D&D 3E books other than the PHB that do better than any dual-classed character does it, which is at least an improvement over the dual-class character approach. I don’t see 4E improving on that, especially since 4E’s answer is to just mix and match class capabilities and blur the lines between classes even more than it already does by default, resulting in the wizard class ending up even more watered down by way of how it fits into the world. This kind of mix and match approach somehow manages to actually keep the major detriments of a class-based system without giving character classes sufficiently unique qualities (especially in the case of spellcasters) to give them their own particular flavors the way earlier editions did.

    The game is balanced, but it is not a delicate balance that is easy to collapse. New monsters, powers, classes, 3rd party supplements, etc. abound and they don’t break the game. The math is printed plainly in the books for all to see which act as easy guidelines for modding the game and keeping things balanced. Adding skills does not upset the balance at all. Giving free background skills doesn’t hurt at all and doesn’t require a whole new subsystem that might muck up the works.

    New monsters, powers, classes, and supplements that don’t ever step outside of the core mechanics are not the same as actual changes to the rule structure of the game. Minor tweaks to how the rules themselves work are the kinds of house rules that bring down the “game balance” house of cards. Simply inventing a new power isn’t in the same class of rules change at all. In fact, I had already made a point suggesting that additions to the game are not the same as changes to parts of the game that already exist, and may not have as destructive an effect on the system’s overall solvency.

    Tacking on a separate background skill system is an especially good example of that, in that the only reason it doesn’t throw game balance out of whack is the fact that it doesn’t interact with the rest of the game system at all. That, however, is also its limitation; one cannot really make a secondary, entirely separate skill system into an intrinsic part of character development along with the rest of the rules that define the character. Everybody then has exactly the same percentage of character capabilities devoted to each of different categories of character capabilities, which is absurdly rigid and only increases the overall sense 4E gives us that characters are basically just interchangeable cogs within the broad categories of their “Roles”.

    Adding new skills as part of the existing skill system is an exception to these exceptions, though. While it avoids the problems of inserting artificial divisions between adventuring skills and background skills (greater overall complexity, no ability to balance character priorities against each other, et cetera), it introduces a new problem. Unlike the case of powers (for instance), the skill system in 4E is pretty obviously designed with an assumption that skills are limited in number. Adding scads of new skills without adding more skill points will cause issues, particularly where new skills provide rules support for more specialized capabilities, because to make a character who can reasonably be called competent in a given field will require more points to be spent in that field of endeavor. Adding more skill points, meanwhile, would create the “nobody has any weaknesses” problem in a way that it doesn’t in 3E, because the skills in 4E start out providing much broader coverage.

    In order to make it work without either screwing character concepts (by ensuring some players just can’t get their characters to have the necessary skills for their concepts) or destroying the point of a skill system entirely (by ensuring everyone can just make his or her character supremely competent in all of the necessary skills for the game), one would basically have to create a whole new skill system from scratch, throwing away the old skill list. This could probably be achieved most easily by importing the 3E skill system.

    judging by your example, the only thing that was not represented in the duel of musician skills was the fucking musician skills.

    The dueling was resolved with dexterity checks to cover their ability to out-complex the other player and int checks to cover the complex on the fly riffing. A separate skill is often not needed when you view the skill system as a broad umbrella and not narrow, rigidly defined singular skills. Pulling off a stellar performance is rarely about how technically proficient you are at playing. Kurt Cobain knew basically 3 cord by his own admission and the Rolling Stones have been rolling for 40 years and not a one of them is a highly skilled musician. They are all simply adequate and magical together. Performance is about all the things I listed and more, that’s the fun of handling it with a variety of creative skill uses instead of just perform check after perform check.

    Dexterity is not a musician’s skill. Using it in place of such a skill is tantamount to saying that two people with equal dexterity are always equally skilled at playing musical instruments, resulting in someone who just picked up the banjo a month ago having exactly the same skill as someone who has been playing it for thirty years. Using Dexterity in place of musical skill just guarantees that a wizard who has been playing blues guitar since he was six is going to be worse at it than a rogue who just started playing for the first time last week.

    The claim that “pulling off a stellar performance is rarely about how technically proficient you are” is patently false. It is always about that, to some extent, because technical proficiency is what allows you to play without flubbing every twelfth note, getting out of sync with the drummer (if you have one), and so on. It’s true that the rest of the factors mentioned can indeed play into the overall quality of the performance, musical skill itself is the foundation on which all of that must be used to build a great performance. I know this first-hand, as I’m exactly the guy who can make use of a lot of the capabilities from your “Skill Challenge” example, and my manual dexterity isn’t bad, but I manage to flub about every twelfth note when I play my bass — because I haven’t been playing long.

    The comparison of Kurt Cobain to the Rolling Stones is kind of a strange one, in that the Stones were never really held up as the exemplars of masterful technical skill. Even so, I think that comparison is pretty silly, considering it seems to completely fail to recognize the differences between talent, skill, and inspiration, all of which are important to determining the quality of a given performance.

    The 4E system makes combat success more based on manipulating the rules and crunching the numbers than on in-character decisions.

    So does 3e, to a near ridiculous degree. No D&D system has been more ridiculously gamed than 3e, from sacks full of weasels to infinite gold loopholes with the crafting rules, to the trip fighter, it’s all rules manipulation and what the system allows. The problem with your quote is that Mearls was describing OD&D and it could describe the way things worked in BECMI and 1e as well. But 2e, 3e and 4e are modern D&D systems where the system determines the world. Your flaw here is that you think the example Mearls gives doesn’t apply to 3e.

    In 3E, carefully planned ambushes, researching one’s opponent, and similar in-character stuff makes far more of a difference in one’s success in combat than one’s careful selection of the order in which one should use one’s “powers” to produce the most effective “combos” based on the character’s “build”. This is the major point of departure between 3E and 4E in combat, because the latter makes how one chains powers together in combat and positioning of miniatures into an accounting nightmare for those of us who are more interested in roleplaying our way through combat than rollplaying our way through — selecting actions based on our characters’ personalities rather than based on what the rules tell us is the most advantageous manipulation of comparative stats.

    Any game is going to be subject to twinks abusing things, of course. The munchkins will always find a way. Worst-case examples such as Sphere of Annihilation mass accelerators don’t prove that one system is more prone to min-maxing abuse than another; it’s the general case that’s relevant, and in 4E number crunching min-maxing approaches to combat aren’t even considered “abuse”. That’s just the way combat is done in 4E, because in 4E combat is about tactical miniatures wargaming more than it is about roleplaying.

    Of course, what Mearls said does apply to 3E to some extent, but not nearly to the extent it applies to 4E. Mearls’ comment was specifically about the tactical dynamics of 4E, where every single action taken is a calculated choice from among a (growing every level) set of numbers-gaming “powers”. While 3E does offer more complexity in how one develops a character concept in many ways (not all of it good), it doesn’t bring that complexity to the moment-to-moment tactical decisions in combat the same way 4E does. This places it closer to OD&D than 4E can get, in Mearls’ comparison.

    Comment by apotheon — 3 September 2009 @ 11:12

  19. I think that comparison is pretty silly, considering it seems to completely fail to recognize the differences between talent, skill, and inspiration, all of which are important to determining the quality of a given performance.

    Comment by silver ring — 8 October 2009 @ 07:00

  20. I’m confused. Which comparison do you mean? If I had to guess, I’d say you probably meant Thas’ explanation of how a skill challenge makes the world a better place, but I’m not really sure.

    Comment by apotheon — 8 October 2009 @ 10:39

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