Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Red Box: "Ooh, Shiny!"

I have to admit that I've been curious about 4th edition (A)D&D since its fist appearance. I don't have a huge problem with most of the way the game is designed. I like that it backs off from 3rd edition's "rule for everything" approach to gaming. I'm a little torn about powers, though, because on the one hand they're a very cool idea, but on the other, they're a very dumb idea. Where the game really falls apart for me, though, is the uncompromising emphasis on combat.

According to the designers of 4th edition, it was meant to emphasize a style of play that "skips to the good parts," so that a game session isn't "four hours of play packed with twenty minutes of fun." The problem with that philosophy is the way the game designers defined what was fun. Apparently, according to the folks who wrote 4e, the sum total of fun to be had is in tactical combat, and everything else (like, say, crawling through dungeons to explore their every nook and cranny) can be left behind.

The game doesn't even have a "Craft" skill among the list of options for trained skills. Think about that for a second: the game actually disallows training your character in a skill that some game designer judged to have no immediate combat or dungeoneering application. Presumably, because someone who wants to play a craftsman would be giving something up in the combat-utility department, rendering that character sub-optimal and throwing off the game's carefully orchestrated balance.

What really wigs me out about 4th edition, though, is how freakishly inflated creatures' hit points are. The gelatinous cube in the new Red Box has 157 hit points! In classic D&D, conversely, it wouldn't be uncommon to see one with 15 hit points. But, as near as I can tell, weapon damage (at least for low level characters) isn't increased in anywhere near the same proportions. So basically, the whole design scheme of 4th edition is a great slight-of-hand trick, whereby hit points are increased tenfold but damage is left alone, so that combat can be stretched out to eat up time. If you did divide the hit points of 4th edition monsters by ten, and then you did the same thing to damage dealt, you'd find that 4e monsters had HP totals comparable to OD&D monsters, but the characters would be forced to slog through grindy combats dealing 1 or 2 points of damage a hit. (I don't know how this scales at high levels, but that's how it looks to work for 1st and 2nd level characters in the new Starter Set.)

It's kind of like that sample game in Mentzer's Red Box (you know, the real one!), where your fighter and the snake exchange blows that deal only one point of damage apiece, because the game is explaining the concept of "hit points" but hasn't quite gotten around to rolling damage yet. Can you imagine playing a game of OD&D, but instead of all hits dealing 1d6 damage, all hits deal 1 damage? That's basically the essence of 4th edition combat. It's a deliberate time-sink, the consequence being that a game of 4e doesn't leave room for much of anything else.

All I can say about that is, how terribly boring! I love a good tactical combat, but battles in general ought to be few and far between. That's the essence of a well-paced adventure. Most of the time, the characters ought to be exploring or interacting with the game world and its inhabitants. That's where the real action is! I shall always take as my motto the line from the AD&D 2nd edition rulebooks, which explicitly stated that AD&D is not supposed to be a combat simulator. A roleplaying game is not a wargame!

Of course, there was much about the underlying attitude of 2nd edition which was and still is to be admired. Not only did that game clearly downplay the relevance of combat, it was also very clear about other qualities that made good roleplaying games. The rules were relatively light, with many of the more complex systems marked optional, and it almost went without saying that they were really just a toolkit of suggestions for DMs to create their own campaigns with. The standard method of generating ability scores, unlike 1e and 3e, was straight 3d6. Player characters were "ordinary but brave" individuals who only became heroes through the course of playing the game and gaining experience. Low scores weren't to be discarded, they were a resource to mine for creating flawed, interesting, fun-to-roleplay characters! And "advanced" character options, particularly sub-classes like paladins and specialist wizards, were both marked as optional (because they weren't supposed to be appropriate to all campaigns) and, when allowed, difficult to qualify for if generating ability scores the usual way. All of this adds up to a very well designed game, the pinnacle of the AD&D line in my opinion.

Now, granted, it's still just a hair too complex for my tastes. I already have basic D&D, so why play anything else? But if I were ever in a situation where I absolutely had to play one of the four advanced editions, 2nd would be my choice, no contest.

So, back to the new Red Box. I bought it, partially to satisfy my curiosity once and for all, but mostly for its retro appeal. Honestly, it's a really nice box! Very sturdy, two inches deep, plenty of room to store all of the materials I might want to put into a portable gaming kit. And while the rulebooks, character sheets, and power cards found therein are all but useless to me and already discarded, the monster tokens are kind of nice and might see some usage at my table.

At the moment, I'm using my shiny new box to store my Basic Set (the 1981 edition), Expert Set (the 1983 edition), Engines & Empires, dice and tokens, a folded up Paizo Flip-Mat for tactical battles, and my referee's screen (a custom job I whipped up with four panels of appropriately steampunkish artwork, 44" x 6" laminated cardstock). I only need to toss a few pencils, blank character sheets, and pages of graph paper into the box, and I have the most portable gaming kit I can ever remember having put together. It's a far, far cry from my 3e days, when I had to schlep a full dozen hardcover books to every game session, along with a tackle-box full of miniatures and a big rolled-up battlemat. The follies of youth, etc., etc.


And, of course, the obligatory Farscape quote.

JOHN: Look at that.
AERYN: What?
JOHN: That's it. Earth. Minus the sunshine.
—Episode 1.13, "A Human Reaction"

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