It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? I know. I’ve been focusing my attention on a lot of OTHER things in the past year, and I haven’t had much time to write about games in that stretch. The one time I did wasn’t even on this blog. >.> It was quite ranty, too. Written merely a day after I gathered up all my old D&D dice in my Crown Royal bag and bashed it on the sidewalk. Let’s put it this way: At the end of the day, I was severely questioning the validity of the (pre-4th Edition) d20 system as a way of accurately measuring characters’ skills at something.
I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but many many times I’ve passed on the wisdom that defines the difference between D&D 3.5 and 4th Edition. Setting aside the fact that 4th is arguably Darker and Edgier than its predecessor in terms of flavor, it seems to me like most people who’ve tried it and hated it are quick to point out its functional similarity to World of Warcraft. I’ve never played WoW, so I can’t make an honest comparison here, but I think I understand where they’re coming from in terms of the game’s flavor. Wizards of the Coast took all the things that made character-building a difficult, time-consuming, and somewhat luck-based process and simplified them to the point where leveling up usually takes about ten minutes. It reduces the time spent erasing and rewriting things on your character sheet so that you have more time to actually play your character.
Here’s the thing that Wizards forgot, though: We’re nerds. Some of us actually liked the “erasing and rewriting things on your character sheet” part. And that part of the audience is the one that will likely cling to 3.5 forever, if they haven’t already taken up Pathfinder. (Spoiler alert: My main playgroup hasn’t. After trying and giving up on 4E, they’ve pretty much decided to shun every other attempt at updating D&D. Tough break, eh, Paizo? :< )
I, for one, wasn’t exactly thrilled with 4E’s skill system. Don’t get me wrong, I like 4th Edition as a game and am probably the only writer on this blog who does, but I think they handled the skill system very very poorly. You can’t just have every character uniformly get better at every skill as you progress through the game. That takes away from their individuality. And it’s flat-out lazy game design.
But the rest of the changes, I am good with. Sure, maybe the leveling system is a little too homogenous, but now that every class has “powers,” there’s no a longer an expectation that wizards do everything important and martial classes are just meat shields with which to protect the wizard. To quote one John Gabriel, “even the fighter has a hundred different ways to hit someone with a sword.”
Anyway, I’m going into too much of a tangent. -.- I’m telling y’all things that you’ve already known for about 4 years now, and I can hear you clamoring, “Okay, we get that, but what does it have to do with you questioning the pre-4th Edition d20 system?” Well, this actually has to do with the other way Wizards is using the flavor of D&D 4E to appeal to the World of Warcraft crowd…
As I said above, my main playgroup swears by 3.5. But we’re also one of those playgroups that doesn’t take the game all too seriously and remains detached from our characters. And we have to. It’s kind of a survival mechanism. We’ve been exposed to so many acts of evil Dungeon Mastering (adaptive damage resistance, good guys turning out to be bad guys, etc.) that we’ve become hyperparanoid. We literally will not start adventuring until we have a Paladin in the party, and an NPC Paladin will not suffice. We need somebody with maxed-out Charisma and a kick-ass amount of skill ranks in Sense Motive. Because they’re going to be spamming it. A lot. And Detect Evil, while we’re at it.
In short, we’re one of those D&D adventuring parties that expects failure. You know, kinda like Cubs fans.
It’s funny that I should mention a baseball team here, because 3.5 is a lot like baseball, in that it’s a game based on failure. In what other profession besides baseball can you “step up to the plate,” fail to do your job 75% of the time, and not only manage to keep that job, but make exorbitant amounts of money doing it? Think about what a hitter has to deal with when they’re facing down a really good pitcher. They could throw a fastball at you, and you could swing too late to keep pace with the ball’s blazing speed. They could throw a changeup at you when you’re expecting a fastball, and you could swing at it much too early. Or they could throw a breaking ball at you, and that ball could sink much deeper than you anticipate and make you miss your swing. Every pitch, every “encounter,” is dangerous in its own way, and when taken together, they ensure that even the best hitters will fail to do anything most of the time.
As I write this, the best hitter in the major leagues is Matt Holliday of the St. Louis Cardinals, with an average of .379. Even he fails to get a hit far more often than he succeeds. But Holliday is also not the only player on his team. There are eight other men who have his back, each with their own skill set, and one of them is even a pitcher himself. Suddenly those odds of getting a hit don’t look quite so dismal. In fact, in the world of baseball, a .379 average is considered godlike.
In the same way, many of the reasons your D&D 3.5 adventuring party can survive – or even thrive – in the treacherous game world have to do with the fact that you aren’t traveling alone. Odds are, you’re going to have somebody on your team who has just the right skill needed to get past an obstacle or disable that dangerous mage who’s trying to kill you. Taken individually, all your characters might look like they suck – indeed, they always have a very real chance of dying – but as a team, they have the ability to overcome any adversary. Even if it means somebody in the party has to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Yes, characters die all the time in World of Warcraft, too. But in that game, resurrection is cheap. Even if your raid party is totally wiped, your characters won’t be erased from the game world. They’ll just respawn.
Which brings me back to 4th Edition. The horrible sad truth about 4E is that, while the team dynamic still exists, the game imitates World of Warcraft by appealing to players who have a strong will to keep their characters alive. That’s me. I’m one of those players. I put a lot of thought into my characters and love to roleplay. Why in the world would I want to put them at too much risk? They’re too awesome to die! DX
And that’s kinda what it feels like. Your 4E character is literally too awesome to die. Between mechanics like Action Points and Second Wind, as well as powers and abilities that do things you’d need a million and one feats to do in 3.5, there’s not much that can stand in the way of your character’s goals, even in a solo campaign. Not until Paragon Tier (11th-20th level) do the encounters become legitimately challenging, and even then, if you’re a martial class, you could make an attack roll of 7 and still expect to hit something. The only counterbalance to this is that everyone and everything has a much higher hit point total. In that sense, 4th Edition has more in common with the high-scoring game of basketball than the low-scoring game of baseball.
For those of you who got bored and skipped ahead, here’s the bottom line: D&D 3.5 is a game predicated on the expectation of failure. D&D 4E is not. Which one do you think players are more likely to be frustrated with?
As it turns out, there is no clear answer. It’s all a matter of taste. Those who love 3.5 are used to racking up frequent failure miles. I had to watch a lot of baseball before I learned that for myself. Now I feel like I can pick up a d20 again with confidence, and shake it off when I go 0-for-4 in a battle.
Join me next week as we find out what the hell is going on in Mir- …I mean, NEW PHYREXIA! o.o *jazz hands*