Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Conflicts between style of play vs. system

First I would like to say thanks for all the positive words and well wishes after my heart attack last month. The sentiment was greatly appreciated. My recovery is going quite well, I’m finally back to work and getting stronger every day.
Secondly, this post is not an "anti-" anything post. It is not intended to start a conflict and is in no way an edition wars post. It is simply an personal evaluation of the way my gaming groups tend to play and the issues we have had with various systems/D&D editions.
That being said, heart attack or not, I’m still a gamer and the past two months have given me a lot of time to not only read and enjoy the many great posts on the RPGBN, but to also catch up on reading or re-reading my RPG books.
            The first books I dove into were my newly (re)acquired 2e AD&D books. Reading those books not only brought back many fond memories of games past, but I also realized something about the style of play that seems to be consistent with all the groups I've gamed with.
            My realization was that my groups and I tend to be more focused on story and less so on crunch. We seem almost unable to play games with the Rules as Written. With the exception of when I first started playing using the D&D Expert rules, I have never, to my recollection, tried to run a game as written. Even with the Expert rules I seem to remember my attempts to run it RAW lasting a very short time. Houserules and tweaks came about almost immediately. 
            When I and my group(s) moved on to 2e I don’t remember anyone ever using any of the optional kits or proficiencies. Everyone pretty much stuck with the basic classes and the simplest, most basic version of each of them. Occasionally someone would run a specialist wizard, but that was about as “out there” as any one I played with ever got with their PC’s class. They spent more time worrying about back-story and personality. We also tended to ignore most of the percentile rolls and instead just used a d20 roll with a target number; similar to the DC of 3rd edition.
            Once we moved on to 3e, the only difference for most of my group(s) was that we now had rules that supported the positive AC and BAB that we had started using during 2e. When it came to PCs everyone pretty much stuck with Cleric, Fighter, Thief, Ranger and Sorcerer (Wizard if they wanted to specialize) as the basic classes. My players rarely ever wanted to play a Paladin, Bard or Druid and no one ever (seriously), ever wanted to play a Barbarian. The only time a Prestige Class was ever used in our games was during two sessions where I actually got to take a break from DMing and run a PC. Even on those very rare occassions I generally ran a Sorcerer or Necromancer. To be honest after my initial read through of the 3e PHB, I never even bothered to keep up on the rules or details for anything other than the classes my players used. This remains true even with Pathfinder.
            Another thing that all of my 3e groups seemed to agree on was Feats. They barely used them and this also remains consistent with our Pathfinder and 4e games. I’ve just gotten used to it and it probably wouldn’t take much for a player to throw me off my game by using feats that I am, for the most part, unfamiliar with. Sure my groups did/do use some feats, but the ones used are pretty consistent and few.
            Everyone pretty much sticks with using toughness, silent spell, still spell, combat casting, two weapon fighting, blind fight, exotic weapons and maybe dodge.  There are probably a few more, but that’s just about it. As they go up levels they may retake some feats like toughness or maybe a greater version of one of the feats they already have, but rarely ever will they move beyond this list.
To some this may seem dumb. It may also seem like we aren’t utilizing the full potential of the system, but for my groups having to keep track of the effects and “rules” for various feats is a headache and detracts from the fun we are trying to have. They want feats that give bonuses that can be added to their numbers and forgotten about. They don’t want to keep track of a bunch of numbers.
Until the internet I always thought that gamers were extremely rare. At any given time I’ve been lucky to known 3 other people that were regular gamers. As I got older girlfriends, spouses, in-laws and children were added to the mix. My groups often contain these new or casual players of various ages, most of which do not own a single rulebook and may only show up for the occasional game (sometimes once per year). Making the game easier to play is essential (no pun intended) to keeping things going.  Generally I am one of the two people at the table who has ever read the books and knows any of the rules.
With my groups we only consider encumbrance when someone tries to do something ridiculous like carrying a full sized dragon and all the gold back to town in their cart. We use the -/+ 2 rule for just about everything else, completely ignoring rules for concealment and being flat-footed. Distances are estimated by what would make sense or make the situation more exciting/interesting and we never speak in “squares”.
Skills are another area where we ignore a majority of what is listed. No one takes a profession and very rarely will anyone take a craft. The primary skills my groups use are Perception (Spot, Search), Knowledge(the most popular skill choices), Thieving Skills(sleight of hand, stealth), Use Magic Device, Survival, Acrobatics, and Diplomacy. That is pretty much the only skills that my groups have ever had any concern with in 3e and now Pathfinder. The remaining ones have always seemed pointless or better served by using a different skill. This is something I believe 4e got very, very right.
When I moved on to re-reading my 4e books the differences in the way my groups play and the way that so many others seem to play became even more apparent to me. (I’m making assumptions based solely on what I read on blogs and forums.) My group at the time gave 4e a chance when it was first released and to be honest we didn’t care for it. None of us could put our finger on it, but something about the system just felt wrong. Yet, for some reason when Essentials came out I found that I liked it.
At first I thought my fondness for Essentials was due to the few tweaks they had made to the classes, the updated rules, the digest format (I really like that) and the fact that I had left 4e sitting for so long that it now seemed fresh to me. After all Essentials is 4e with different builds for the same classes and errata included in the rules. Now I realize there is more to it than that.
When 4e first came out there were a lot of options for character builds. No matter what class you played, you had to keep track of your different powers, whether you were bloodied, marking enemies and how many healing surges you had. More than with any other edition we had to actually keep track of where everyone was located, the proper use of their powers often depended on it. While it is still there, this just doesn't seem to be as prevalent in Essentials. It seems easier to ignore.
The limited choices you have with classes are one the major complaints I hear about Essentials and one of the main things that appealed to me and my players. The character concepts are quick and easy to do without a computer. Sure the powers are still written with the mini and map gamers in mind, but for many of the builds this even seems to be less evident that it was in original 4e.
With Essentials, character creation is fairly easy, especially with the Character Generator, as is setting up adventures. Although when doing it the “old fashioned way” I found the time saved is minimal compared to character creation and adventure building in Pathfinder. I can create a PC or adventure in just about the same time in both systems using a pencil and paper. Still I do concede that 4e has the slight advantage here.
I am a bit more familiar with Essentials than I was with original 4e when it came out but to me it still seems easier to play Essentials in the way we’re accustomed to playing. I can run a game without a map or minis easier with Essentials than with Original 4e. This may just be my perception or it could be the fact that I’ve put more time in with Essentials than I did with 4e, but it still seems true.
So while I have come around to 4e thanks to Essentials, I do still have issues the system and I don’t see me abandoning Pathfinder anytime soon.
Having a solid group to game with is something that I dream of having one day. Over the years I have been lucky to keep a group of at least 4 - 5 players for more than 6 months only a couple of times in the past decade. With my gaming groups divorces, marriages, moving, family responsibilities, new girlfriends/boyfriends, jobs, school, other responsibilities and in a few cases incarceration have made gaming regularly and on the same schedule nigh impossible. More often than not I am running games for 1 or 2 PCs.  4e Essentials just does not work well for this kind of game.
I’ve had many people argue differently, but in my 20+ years of gaming (I can’t believe it has been nearly 25 years…. Wow, I feel old) I have never run into a game that required as much thought to run a single PC adventure as I have with 4e & Essentials. (I don't include Rifts in this statement because it is time consuming to run no matter how many players you have. I'm also sure there are games that are much more difficult to run, but I haven't played them.)
Another issue that we still have is that there seems to be so much to keep track of in Essentials. Which is one of the things we did not like about Original 4e. Granted I know the rules to 3e, Pathfinder, d20 Modern, and Hollow Earth Expedition (these are the only systems my groups will generally play) much better than I do 4e/Essential, I’ve been playing them longer and have more experience with them. So maybe rules familiarity has something to do with my perceptions regarding this.
However, my very first 3e and HEX games were both single PC adventures that I ran just days after getting the books and they were no problem to run. Yet after months of running Essentials I still get a feeling of dread when I have to prep for a single player game.
I really do like Essentials. I enjoy reading the books and I want to love playing the game. The things I like about the game are huge bonuses as far as I’m concerned, but the game is so geared towards a specific style of play and party size that it makes it a little more difficult.
I don’t want this post to come off as me bashing 4e because it isn’t. If anything it is me making comparisons, thinking out loud if you will, and trying to find ways to reconcile my gaming style with the system. If nothing else this is about me realizing some things about myself and my groups and what we look for in a game. Maybe these issues are common among gamers, or maybe the people I know are just strange, either way this is how things are.
Before anyone starts screaming about how we should play OSR games, there are some issues with them as well. First none of my players likes the idea of races as classes and to be honest after so many years I’m not fond of it either. Second, none of us like descending AC or THAC0. I may be extremely fond of 2e, but THAC0 is not one of the things I remember fondly. Last but not least I’m still having a hard time convincing the few players that are still around to play an OSR game. While I own nearly every OSR game as well as many older D&D books, if we were going to actually go old school, which is not likely, it would be with 2e. The problem is that most of them are younger than I am and they equate “old-school” with “out of date”. Since game sessions are so few and far between I just gave up trying to convince them otherwise.
However, something has arisen that may allow me to run a Basic Fantasy and/or a 2e AD&D game in the near future and if that works out I’ll try to post something.