A short while ago I started a new tag: “Theory” which basically covers posts that are my long-winded meanderings about wargaming or roleplaying games. Lately I’ve been working out my problems with D&D Fourth Edition, a game I continue to run but whose days may be numbered. In trying to put my finger on the problem, I stumbled across a bit of a analogous situation when I was at the library…
A friend of mine recommended that if I liked the TV show Bones I should reach the series they are based on by Kathy Reichs. So I hopped across the street from my office and picked up the first “Bones” novel, Deja Dead. Now I like “science” cop shows like CSI and Bones and NCIS because they are clever and usually feature a good ensemble cast. Bones has David Boreanz and a woman who isn’t “classically” good looking but appears to perhaps have a hobbit in her woodpile.
Deja Dead, on the other hand, was awful. First and foremost, it wasn’t a mystery, it was a crime novel. There’s a difference. In a mystery, you can determine based on the clues who the murderer is before the show reveals it by ascertaining the clues as they are revealed and putting them together. A crime novel is about process, in this case graphically depicted in detail with a generous helping of male chauvinism on the side. In Deja Dead there is really no way to foresee the outcome of the book, because they haven’t done the process yet to reveal the individual who has never appeared in the novel to this point. That’s the difference between it and the television show: usually the person who is responsible has appeared at some point in the past like the old man by the side of the road in a Scooby Doo episode.
The completely unsympathetic main character and anvil-dropping obviousness of the plot aside.
Totally unsatisfied by my experience, I decide to go back to the classics (theme, anyone?) and picked up one of the best mystery novels ever written, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (sometimes titled Ten Little Indians). The plot of the novel has been copied so much that it has become a trope unto itself: ten people, stranded on an island, with one being the murderer slowly picking off the rest of them in unique ways until finally the last few get to the climax. It’s gripping stuff, and with the absense of forensic science, the focus is more on opportunity and motive, which means you follow the plot and the characters very closely.
Following that up, I read Cards on the Table, again a fairly straightforward plot. An obnoxious wiseguy invites four “sleuths” to dinner with four people he believes have gotten away with murder. During the evening’s festivities, the host is killed by one of the four suspected murderers. It’s a classic “locked room” mystery, one that could’ve easily been solved with DNA evidence or even fingerprinting (which appears not to have been available in 1939) so Poirot must rely entirely upon psychology and old-fashioned gumshoeing. Again, a good mystery, and one that I really only predicted based on the “who’d be the shocking swerve” answer.
In the middle of this, I ran a session of D&D4E in which the PC’s are called upon to defend a giant spider farm from goblin raiders (based loosely upon the adventure “The Spider Farm” by Stuart Marshall which can be found on Dragonsfoot) The adventure basically broke into 1) the story set-up, 2) the PC’s fortifying the farm like they are the A-Team, 3) the goblins raid the farm, 4) the PC’s tail the goblins back to their hideout and then launch an ambush. The final ambush was pretty brutal for the PC’s, since they basically went with the “sack the quarterback” tactic while still holding off way too many opponents. I should’ve punished them harder.
In reflecting on the game, I realized that in many ways, Fourth Edition is a lot like Deja Dead, in that the focus is largely on process. By that I mean that 4E’s rule mechanics heavily favor the how of combat, but largely gloss over the roleplaying dimension, even delegating it to a die roll. So gameplay involves decided when to use your “once per encounter” power, and the tactical dimension of moving a miniature around on a board. Combat is richly, even minutely detailed much in the way the lab-work of Temperance Brennan is.
Now imagine how that might extrapolate if you were to play the D&D version of Cards on the Table, where the focus becomes about character. I’m not talking about heady, “storytelling style” LARPing, but rather when a GM turns to a player and asks “what is your character doing?” the player has to actually invent the action, rather than consider which of the powers he is going to employ now. The player is rewarded for characterization, creativity, and cleverness, not tactics.
Let me sum it up with one simple example: the search. This example is described in detail as one of the “Zen Moments of Old School Gaming” here, but here’s the short version:
The PC’s enter a room of a dungeon which contains a chair, a table, and a moose head mounted on the wall. The GM asks the player(s) “what are you doing?” and the player responds “I’m searching the room,” what happens next?
In later editions of the game, the GM or players rolls a Search [DC15 or CL5] roll.
In the earlier edition, the GM would ask “how are you searching the room?” and play goes from there.
Or to put it another way: in earlier editions, combat was abstract and noncombat detailed. In later editions, combat is detailed and noncombat abstract.
So the final question becomes: which gratifies the players more? Rolling enough damage to finally kill an opponent, or being creative and clever and developing a character?
And that–that–is what my problem seems to be about.