Friday, November 19, 2010

Musings on Essentials and D&D in general

I was just sitting here reading through Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms and listening to The Nut Gallery Review episode 52 (a very good movie and game podcast by occasional Geek Gazette contributor  Jason James) when I realized how much I missed Pathfinder.

I started playing Essentials when my daughter asked to learn D&D and at first I really liked it. Perhaps it was just the fact that Essentials was new and shiny or maybe it was because I was thrilled to see my daughter taking an interest in gaming, but now the game is losing its luster. For some reason Essentials just isn't as much fun for me to run. My daughter is having a good time, which is the most important part, but I keep getting bored. I just keep feeling as I'm boxed in, stifled.

Don't get me wrong I still like Essentials far better than I did original 4e, but the more we play the more I find that I just don't like the system as much as I do 3.x/Pathfinder. I tried running Essentials the same way I have been running games for over 20 years, graph paper and no minis, and with a few minor tweaks it works just fine. Although I have found that running one on one games with the 4e system is a bit more difficult. I never gave the claims that 4e was too team oriented much thought until I started running solo adventures. It isn't impossible, it just requires a bit more prep.

Thinking that perhaps I needed to change my DMing style and run the game in a manner closer to how it was designed, I broke out the battle maps and monster pogs that come with the DM kit. My daughter didn't care  for this much (she suddenly had a hankering to play Heroscape after our first time playing this way) and I didn't like it at all. It felt very much like playing a board game and neither of us liked having to take the time to work out the various minis related rules during combat. It really slowed down the game and drained any sense of cinematic adventure that we tend to emulate in my normal style of gaming.

Granted this was my first time really running  a game like this so I wasn't 100% comfortable with it, but it didn't take long for me to figure out that I'm not fond of that style. Perhaps my experience would be different if I were on the other side of the screen, but since I've been DMing pretty much every game I've played for the past 20+ years I can't say for sure. Things might also feel different if I were running a full party instead of one on one adventures, but I doubt it. I actually think it would have been an even worse experience. I've run more than a few systems in my time and have not gotten as bored as I did running the more tactical style 4e is designed for.

While I'm happy to know that I have Pathfinder, tons of 3.x books, all of my older edition books, some great OSR games and countless other system to fall back on, I'm actually kind of sad that I find myself not enjoying the current edition of D&D. I really want to like it, especially now that I've gotten my daughter to play. She'll play whatever I want, but I wanted her to love D&D as much as I did at her age. 

I've been playing D&D for over 20 years and until the release of 4e I've never thought negatively about an edition of the game. I've had problems with certain books or aspects of various editions, and definitely taken issue with WotC on a few occasions, but never have I had a problem with the system as a whole. It's kind of depressing.

While I was thinking about all of this the nutgallery gang were discussing M. Knight Shyamalan's and their thoughts about his movie(s). This got me to thinking about my issues with 4e.

As I said before I have had issues, though not as many, with every edition of D&D as well as nearly every game I have ever played. No game is perfect. So what would I want WotC to do to make me like D&D again? What could they do to bring back all of us that gravitated towards Pathfinder, the OSR games or any other system that has replaced D&D on countless gaming tables?

Honestly I don't know, but this did get thinking about how WotC seems to view those of us that just can't stay or even get on the 4e bandwagon as acceptable losses. This thinking is what helped Pathfinder tie D&D for the #1 RPG slot recently. It also seems to drive the critical view of WotC that I and many other gamers have expressed over the past few years.

Unless I've been misinformed WotC owns the TSR name. Why don't they use it for special products?There are many of us that enjoy older editions and the OSR games. So why doesn't WotC release special or limited edition revised versions of older editions? I'm not talking about 4e with artwork from an older edition slapped on the front, but an actual revised version of older editions.

I'd pay $50 for an all in one AD&D rule book in a heartbeat. Something like an AD&D Rules Cyclopedia with revised/updated rules, some monsters and maybe even some setting info would be great. They could even take a page from S&W and have both Thac0/Descending AC and BAB/Ascending AC for those of us that do not remember Thac0 fondly.

Since 3.x is still going strong as Pathfinder, why doesn't WotC do the same thing for 3.x? Why just give up those customers? Update, revise and streamline 3rd edition(fix the stuff that Pathfinder didn't), release it under AD&D with a nifty TSR label as an all in one, stand alone Rules Cyclopedia type book and I'm dropping another $50.

If none of that seems possible, I'm sure someone will be happy to point out why, then why don't they find out what makes people love the older editions (OD&D thru 3.x) and what people do like about 4e/Essentials. Then release a completely separate AD&D game combining as much of all the best parts of each edition as they can. Granted this won't make everyone happy, and the game may suck, I don't know, but as someone pointed out on one of the OSR blogs (sorry I can't remember who), the majority of OSR games are based off of 3.x anyway. It can be done.

Why has WotC let Paizo take such as large section of their customer base? I'm not complaining. As far as I'm concerned Paizo outclasses WotC on multiple levels and I've been a Paizo fan since they started publishing Dragon. I hope they not only continue to tie WotC for the #1 spot, but I won't complain if they completely crush WotC and end up owning the D&D brand. (I know it ain't happening, but I can dream) Still from a business POV it just seems counterproductive to be ok with driving off customers.

It would be a different matter if they were just losing a few customers, but when it is enough to allow a publisher that stuck with the older edition of your game to tie you in sales, that should speak loud and clear to the suits and bean counters. 4e is a fine, solid game for people who like that style, I'm not saying the game is bad. In fact I think 4e is mechanically superior than the older editions in several ways, but for me it just can't stand up to 3.x, Pathfinder or the ton of quality OSR games available in terms of fun.


Jonathan said...

Interesting thoughts.

I'm in a third camp. 3.5 edition D&D was my introduction to role-playing. I've played 4e, Pathfinder (though not often), and M&M.

For my money, Essentials is looking like the D&D I wanted 4th Edition to be when it first came out.

The problem is, almost all of the people I'd normally play with have moved to Pathfinder. Which wouldn't be a problem, because Pathfinder is fun enough to play once I finally sit down. But...

The players in my area are Greyhawk veteran power-optimizers. This wouldn't be a problem, except the character building process they insist on still feels like the same old taxing monstrosity I started to dislike about 3.5 edition ages ago. All of their characters are min-maxed like mad from stats to feats to magic items, and I feel like I have no choice but to do the same or fall behind. I know that many 4e players do exactly the same thing to the Nth degree, but I'm not one of them and I don't like feeling like I have to be. I'm tired of playing adventurer savants. This isn't a system issue, really, so much as an issue with a particular style of game.

I'm not a fan of X/day features, something Pathfinder has done almost nothing to address for the spellcasters - and free 0-level spells are kind of a joke. The few 3.5 edition books that actually fixed this problem for me aren't allowed, because they aren't Pathfinder books. I would happily convert the classes I wanted to play to meet with Pathfinder standards, but no one is willing to let it into their "by-the-book-only" game table. Again, this isn't really a system issue so much as a DM issue. Things like this are why we have DMs instead of computers.

The biggest issue for me isn't even mechanical. I've found since 3.5 that reading the books is taxing because there's no clear breakdown between the fluff and the crunch. They just bleed into each other, as if the designer didn't even acknowledge that there was a difference. Pathfinder has done nothing to correct this; reading class features feels almost painful as a result. If I didn't have experience with other game systems (4e + M&M) I wouldn't even know that there WAS a difference between Effects and Descriptors.

When I look at 4th edition, I feel like it's a lot easier to envision the character I want to play without the numbers interfering, and if what I want doesn't exist in the system yet, I can just pick something that's mechanically similar and refluff it until I've got what I want. The system feels mechanically robust enough that I can change a LOT about it without breaking anything, and that's a quality I place a high value on since picking up M&M.

I imagine Pathfinder would stand up to a great deal of tinkering as well, but I've yet to meet anyone who would allow it.


1) I play Pathfinder in order to get my D&D fix, because even with all the issues I have with it, any D&D is better than none at all.
2) I work with my other friends and do my best to introduce them to role-playing through D&D 4th edition and M&M in an effort to gain enough DMing experience to create the kind of gameplay I always wanted and never got.
3) I buy books like Heroes of the Fallen Lands and the DC Adventures Handbook in order to encourage good game design.
4) I blog about it. :D

Anonymous said...

I've been DMing since before 3.5e came out, which isn't too long compared to you but I can definitely see the appeal of Pathfinder. I stopped a couple of months ago because it required so much prep work to DM ... it was so easy to come up with new NPC / villain concepts, but took so long to stat them out. Especially for homebrew settings.

Right now I'm running two D&D Essentials games, one for my girlfriend and our friends and one for just her. I agree; DMing starts to feel like just pushing pieces around, at times, especially in solo adventures. Although in our group campaign, I got excited when one player started RPing in the middle of combat, and later on when another switched to the (more interesting) Essentials Controller Ranger build when it came out.

I think what I'm starting to learn is ... first, the more the merrier. Second, skill challenges are really fun ways to get everyone to improvise and RP. And third, just plain "combat encounters" don't cut it anymore.

The fun in 3.5 used to come from players making up stuff for their characters to do, and turning the tide through narration. I'm still a newb at Essentials, but I think what I need to do is find a way to allow that again within the game rules. Exploitable terrain features might grant just enough ambiguity for that, if I'm creative enough at designing them. (Like for a premade example, one of my players used Mage Hand to telekinesis one of the braziers over onto the Goblin Hex Hurler in that one encounter.)

Jonathan said...


Actually, 4e has a whole table and section on things like that in the DMG; ways to improvise new moves in combat using creative uses of skills and terrain, complete with suggested DCs by level (though errata has lowered the DCs since then). It's a great tool - or at least a starting point for DMs who want a rule for players being creative. I really wish it saw more use.

But you're dead right - traditional encounters just aren't enough anymore, especially in a solo game. Players and DMs both need to move past the RAW in EVERY system. :)

Geek Gazette said...

@ Jonathan

I completely agree with the x/day issue. I've always hated that. My players and I also dislike the cast and forget. Here is our houserules for magic.
1) Spells known are exactly that spells that you know. They are not forgotten and can't be erased from your spellbook/memory and changed until level up. (This keeps players with magic users from loading up on spells specifically for a particular encounter. They have to be more creative with what they have on hand and think about what is useful when they pick their spells.)
2) Spells per day = Casting points/power. What ever you spells per day are is added together into a lump sum total. That is the amount of magical energy you have to cast the spells you know. If your spells per day add up to equal 10, then you have 10 casting points to use how you see fit. You can cast magic missile 10 times or you could cast light 3 times, magic missile 3 times and then 4 other spells, basically any combination of spells you known until you use up your 10 points. Then you have to rest, just like the rules say to regain your ability to cast. To me that is more realistic and emulates what people see in the movies, which is the Point of reference for most people, and every player I've ever had liked this way better than the system in the rules.

I am beginning to think that my main problem with 4e/Essentials is that it feels like they are trying to tell me /force me to run the game a certain way. I've been doing this long enough to know that I can change damn near anything I want, but in 4e/Essentials it feels like I'm actually fighting against the system to do it. I think that is what bothers me about the game.

I may not have been a fan of 4e when it came out, but I have openly admitted I like what they've done with Essentials. I thoroughly enjoy reading the books, which is the first time I've been able to say that since 4e came out, and I will keep rereading them and trying to find better ways to adapt the game to my style. I genuinely want to be a fan of the current edition, but I just don't get the enjoyment out of it that I get out of playing Pathfinder or 3.x. With Pathfinder and 3.x I feel like I have way more freedom to do what I want. I can run anything from a very tactical game to a loose high adventure pulp game without feeling like I'm swimming against the current.
To me, and everyone has different opinions so I'm not saying mine is the right one, Pathfinder and 3.x just feel like the rules are there for you to use how you see fit. In 4e if feels like they are meant to be played as written, but if you force it you can run it differently. Like I said that's just my perception of it.

Unless 5th edition is everything good about

Geek Gazette said...

my last reply got cut off for some reason so here is the rest of it...

Unless 5th edition is everything good about 3.x/Pathfinder and 4e combined I think that Pathfinder will remain the primary fantasy rules at my table for years to come. As far as I'm concerned Pathfinder is D&D.
Pathfinder is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination and they did not correct everything that was wrong in 3.x, but they made huge steps in the right direction. Personally I'd like to see Pathfinder 2nd edition (when it is released in 10 years or so) to just continue improving on the 3.x foundation, but still maintain compatibility.

Geek Gazette said...

@ feathertail & Jonathan

You are exactly right, adding the RP elements does improve the gameplay a great deal. My daughter is still new enough she doesn't know that at most tables you couldn't get away with a lot of the things I let her get away with.

She rides up to an encounter on her horse then does a somersault over her horse to land infront of the enemy. She dodges their attack by running up the side of a wall and lands on top of a barrel, sword drawn. Pointing her sword at the enemy she tells them to surrender or feel the sting of her blade.

That's how she thinks in game. Most people I've gamed with don't even come close to considering anything that daring, bold or creative. She hasn't been corrupted by rules yet. She is still plays the game like I did when I was her age. PC's aren't normal people, they are bigger than life action heroes. Too many gamers get bogged down with rules and mechanics.

As for prep time, Essentials only as a slight edge on Pathfinder. Both have a huge advantage on old 3.x prep time. Although for me trying to work out monster roles and what's appropriate for the encounter takes me more time than prepping a 2 whole Pathfinder encounters. I generally don't even prep for PF, I do most of it on the fly. I have a list of monsters by level/cr and when I need something I look up what page it is on and run it straight from the book.
As for NPCs I don't stat them out, except main villains which I stat out like a regular PC. Instead I have a short list of the NPCs in the Pathfinder GMG and just turn to the appropriate page if I need an NPC with stats.

BTW if you don't have a Pathfinder Character generator you should absolutely use this one:

Pathfinder Character Generator

I use this all the time to create main villains, pre-gens for new players and my players use it to create all their PCs in Pathfinder games. It is free, customizable and the best I've found so far. I can't recommend it enough. Plus it print out a pretty nice character sheet. You'll still have to write in your spells, weapons, armor, magic items and things like that but it will do almost everything else for you.

Jonathan said...

@Geek Gazette:

You know, it's funny, I tend to look at Essentials vs. Pathfinder and see the exact opposite; maybe it's just familiarity? The 3.5 rules have been used a lot longer, so maybe it's just that you're used to them enough to ignore them more effectively? :)

I dunno, I'm reaching. I came to the conclusion awhile ago that that's pretty much how ALL Rpg's are meant to be run. Use the rules if you need 'em, DM's best friend the rest of the time.

I'd probably be a lot happier with Pathfinder if the DM's here let me use my library of 3.5 edition materials, but hey, what're you going to do? As it is, Essentials is the D&D I want to run - and play, when possible.

(For that matter, giving the monk an armor bonus that doesn't stack with Mage Armor would answer the other half of my problems with Pathfinder/3.5)

And I know exactly what you mean about the Essentials books - they're a joy to read. The fluff is great, it's all well presented, and it just feels right. I keep the books in my backpack half the time for casual reading.

Also: thanks for the character generator! That'll save me loads of effort for the game tomorrow night. Figured it's about time I give up on 3.5 spellcasters entirely and try out a rogue. If I have to play with power-optimizers I might as well play the cheesiest optimized "striker" I can put together on short notice, right?

Geek Gazette said...

@ Jonathan
I don't discount the possibility of familiarity, I am more comfortable with the 3.x rules. However, I didn't have the "going against the grain" feeling when I first started running HEX or Star Frontiers or Starblazer Adventures or Buffy, or All Flesh Must Be Eaten or just about any other game. I just get that feeling with 4e products. Again this bothers me because I want to like Essentials as much as I like Pathfinder.

I can't believe they won't let you use 3.5 material. I've had people at my table using 3.0, 3.5 and Pathfinder all at the same time. Because I'm pretty lose with the rules this poses no problems for me. I just say that any differences in the PCs is due to regional/cultural differences. So far this has never been a problem. The primary concern at my table it fun. If we aren't having fun then it isn't worth playing. I actually wish I knew gamers that were more into participating outside of the game. Letting me know what they do and do not like, what kind of games they want me to run or even just taking over the DMing once in a while so I can play a PC. Maybe my next group will be a bit more into it.

I keep a the current Pathfinder Adventure Path and one of my Essentials books in my backpack as well. For reading or just in case I stumble upon someone who wants to game. The second one has never happened, but you never know.

For a free Char Gen I think that the one I posted is the best I have seen. I've communicated with the creator and made suggestions and he seems like a heck of a nice guy. He's always updating it and adding new material and features. Really nice thing for him to do all that work and make it available for free.

Jonathan said...

@Geek Gazette
You know, I suspect very strongly that if I'd been exposed to Pathfinder at your game table I'd like it a lot more. The guy running it here seems to feel like if Paizo didn't publish it, it might as well not exist. I wish I could game with you instead! :)

Of course, these are the same people who always tell me that Wizards published too many books, and that they, "killed Living Greyhawk," and that they don't like 4E because of LFR; I can't condemn a company for having a lot of ideas combined with smart business sense, and the living campaigns never appealed to me. I just wanted a good home game.

I do a lot of reading, on purpose, trying to see the companies who make the things I like as more than just faceless entities. I used to complain that 4E had too many weird races in it, until I realized that they were there because SOMEONE asked for them, and WoTC listened. I didn't like the miniatures heavy aspect until I realized that WoTC did their research before making the game, and learned that most of their focus groups used miniatures anyway. The people I play with here complain about that, too, despite the fact that they use miniatures for Pathfinder. I have a great time pointing out that little disconnect... /rant over.

I'm not sure where you're getting this feeling from, but that's only because I don't have it myself. I do feel that 4th Edition provides the DM with a lot of tools. That it goes out of its way to be helpful, especially to people like me who are just starting to DM.

I don't think it demands that you play a certain way, but like most RPGs it might well assume you will. It's a subtle difference.

But Essentials has done a great job of doing a lot of things well in that regard. I especially loved the section in the rules compendium where it explains the assumptions of the default setting, offers ideas of ways you could flip them on their head, and then explains the currently available settings in terms of what's different about them.

I'd highly recommend reading some of the thoughts on 4e over on - he has a lot of good ideas about different ways to use the system, and I tend to mine from there a lot.

Jonathan said...


Just realized that you link to Greywulf's Lair on your page, so you probably don't need me to tell you how awesome it is. :P

Geek Gazette said...

@ Jonathan
The only people not welcome at my table are rules lawyers. Well even they are welcome, but their rules lawyering won't last past character creation. If it adds something to the game I could care less if the rules contradict it. Fun is the key concern.

I'm not really sure why I get that feeling from 4e either. Like I said I don't really get it from any other game. I'm not giving up on it and will continue to run Essentials games for my daughter. Maybe I'm just in a funk and need to push through it. Maybe it is my personal negative view of WotC, and my preference for 3.x/Pathfinder, is impacting, subconsciously, my view of the game.

Everyone I've ever games with prefers to play with non-core races. I have no issue with that and actually wish they would put more races in the core books. I buy a lot of Pathfinder products and I make a photocopies to keep in a binder of alternate races for players to use if they want. They always use it because almost no one owns more than one or two books, except me.

I've never been a fan of miniatures. I use them for reference in game, from time to time, but almost never during combat. Usually it is during actual roleplay sections of an adventure. So while I understand the reasoning behind WotC and other companies assuming their use, I just don't like it.
The only issue I have with companies putting out tons of product is that I can't afford it all. Other than that I want them to put out everything they can come up with.

4e made a lot of improvements in regards to Dming, but I still find it easier to DM Pathfinder. Again I have no doubt this is just due to my familiarity with the rules.

I don't take blogging as seriously and am not as popular as nearly all the other people on the network, but as a member and a gamer I try to keep up with all of the RPGbloggers. So I definitely follow greywulf's stuff.
I also follow the 4eBloggers Feed, the Old School RPG Feed, listen to the 4 Geeks 4e podcast, as well as the the Power Source podcast to keep up with 4e and RPGs in general.
As a Pathfinder fan I never miss the Chronicles: Pathfinder podcast or the 3.5 Private Sanctuary podcast
I follow other blogs and podcasts related to gaming (plug for my friends over at The Nut Gallery Review whose link is in the post).

Jonathan said...

@Geek Gazette:
I don't blame you for not liking miniatures. I avoid them whenever I can, too, especially if you don't have tons of stuff to keep track of - graph paper works fine. You could probably get away without that if you can keep track of enough in your head, M&M style. I really want to try going without them for 4e one of these days - would probably be a lot looser and less tactical, but still fast and fun.

I wound up backing out of the game last night - by the time one player finished telling me all the reasons Pathfinder was better than 4E and Paizo walks on water, it just wasn't fun to be there anymore, and when I finally broke down and asked the DM to let me play a warlock in a last ditch effort to preserve some fun for the evening, he actually sneered. Then he told me that there was "a reason" it hadn't been updated to Pathfinder.

I don't think I'll be playing Pathfinder with them again... :(

I love the non-standard races and classes, but of course I can't afford them all either, so I tend to be really picky about what I buy and when. I'd LOVE a good M&M game, or even Essentials Only 4e, but it's looking more and more like I'll have to DM it myself for new players unspoiled by prejudices.

For all that, thank you; this and my other friend have kept me from blaming it on the game itself. As it stands, I'd play Pathfinder - just not with that DM. Not with that kind of spirit toward fun. I want to like the game: the stories are fantastic... But this kind of toxicity isnt worth it, not even for D&D.

Geek Gazette said...

I don't care what system you play, if the group doesn't fit your style, you won't have fun.
I don't know your group and can only go off of what you said, but they sound like they wouldn't be much fun to play with. They sound like gaming snobs. I'm die hard Pathfinder fan and think Paizo is great, but they are far from perfect. Even as a Pathfinder fan I still have some issues with the 3.x system. I'd love to see a simplified/common sense magic system for one.
All I know is from what you've said you'd me more than welcome at any table I was running. Find another group that you have more in common with. If you can, I understand gaming with what's available. I live in a rural area with a very limited number of gamers and no FLGS. We don't even have a book store.

If you want fun Pathfinder stuff get the "Genius" materials. I think the pdfs are still on sale for under $2. Each one(that I own) is stand alone and contains just the information for a select few races or a single class. I have the Death Mage, Shadow Assassin and several others. They are pretty good.
Also your DM is wrong about the Warlock. Tome of Secrets , I believe it was the first Pathfinder compatible product released, has the Warlock, Shaman, Knight, Spellblade and several alternate races. I bought the pdf when it first came out and I think it is a good supplement.
I believe it was a pretty popular book and got some pretty good reviews. FYI.
The Pathfinder Bestiary also has the info for using Tieflings, Goblins, Orc, Drow and several other "monsters" as PCs. You can build anything in Pathfinder that you can play in 4e or Essentials.

Hope you find a group that you like and have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Jonathan said...

Actually, I've seen the Tome of Secrets, and upon closer inspection, yes, it does have the Warlock - so thank you for that. Unfortunately, the DMs I'm dealing with don't believe in 3rd party sourcebooks, and Cubicle 7/Adamant Entertainment might not be up to their "Must Be From Paizo" standards. Something about the 3rd Party books not being play tested enough or something. While I disagree strongly with that belief, it is their table. (I especially disagree in light of the fact that Paizo started as ... that's right, 3rd Party Content.) :P

Somehow, they have it in their heads that allowing fewer books for the players makes it 'easier' for the DM. I don't think that's quite the right approach (the DM doesn't need to learn every book, he only needs to learn the ones his players bring and ask to play from), but then again that's probably because I keep getting shafted by it. The classes that look fun are inevitably off their list!

I told my buddy who still plays with them that if they let me use Tome of Secrets I'll come back to the table, but until then I'm just going to keep aiming to make 4th Edition/M&M work for me, even if I have to build the group myself from scratch. Right now it's looking like that's my best solution, anyway; I'm not holding my breath.

On the plus side, I just picked up the second Essentials book, and I'm loving it every bit as much as the first one. So, that's a plus. I've even found a few intriguing blogs about playing 4th Edition more like AD&D - while that isn't my first instinct, it sounds like it might be fun to try some time. Dunno if you've seen this one already, but here's the link:

Anyway, thanks again! :)