Tuesday, October 25, 2011

4th Edition D&D Design Decisions

This is a few years out of date, but I felt like talking about D&D, and since I'm not currently running game, I thought I'd talk about some of the stuff that changed between 3rd Edition D&D and 4th Edition. While all editions of D&D seem to draw inspiration from a standard set of sources, different editions use different basic ideas when designing the basic parts of the system. 4th Edition was designed to be a more transparent edition, one where players would be able to see the workings of the system as they created their characters, and do the designers looked for inspiration from more modern, popular sources; in some cases, this meant video games.

One of the key ideas for creating characters in 4th Edition is the choice of role. There are four roles, roles that will likely seem familiar to players, current or former, of games like World of Warcraft: Controller, Defender, Leader, and Striker. These roles, in a very loose sense, correspond to the roles of Crowd Control, Tank, Healer, and DPS. While they appear similar, and their general ideas are similar, they serve different roles.
  • The Controller role (which may be the role with the least, or at least most confusing, definition) is about battlefield control - characters with the Controller role can alter a battlefield, lighting things on fire or freezing them with ice, forcing enemies to face the player characters (PCs) on the Controller's terms. They can also inflict a wide variety of status effects on targets, making enemies more vulnerable to other attacks, stunning them temporarily, or preventing them from moving. the Wizard class falls into this role, using walls of fire and bolts of lighting to redefine the battlefield.
  • The Defender role is about defending the other characters in the party. While there are a number of Defender classes, they accomplish this by generally targeting one (or several) enemies, and making them choose between targeting the Defender (and thus avoiding the other characters) and targeting other characters at a penalty to attack - the Swordmage, for example, can mark an opponent, and if that opponent attacks a character who is not the Swordmage, the Swordmage, regardless of where he is, can either teleport himself to the enemy, or the enemy to him.
  • The Leader fills what is traditionally seen as the healer's role, but healing is only part of what a Leader can do. The Leader can give bonuses to allies, penalties to enemies, let allies take additional actions, heal, and generally do all he or she can to assist the party - while also contributing to defeating enemies. The Cleric has long been a Leader sort in a healing role, though the new Warlord class from 4th Edition tends more towards increasing the combat ability of fellow party members, thus ensuring the party's battles end sooner.
  • The Striker is, like the MMO role of DPS, a damage-dealer. Their job is to inflict as much damage to enemies as possible, whether up close or from a distance. While they can also inflict status effects on enemies, these tend to be things that make inflicting more damage easier, rather than things that stun or immobilize an enemy. The Barbarian is a good example of a Striker; the Barbarian charges into battle, relying on a high amount of hit points to protect her while she rages, causing her to hit enemies harder than normal.
All classes in 4th Edition fall into one of these four roles, though they also tend to have a secondary role, as well; something they are good at, but not as good as their primary role. This gives everyone something to fall back on if they are having difficulty performing their primary role, or just feel like switching things up during battle. Fighters, while primarily Defenders, can also perform adequately in the Striker role, while Warlocks, who are primarily Strikers, can also inflict a number of status effects on enemies, giving them some ability as Controllers.

Each class each has a power source - something that tells you where his or her ability comes from. The power source tends to give some indication of how a character's power will work, and what they might do. A class with the Martial power source, for example, is not a student of the arcane, or a devotee of the divine, but rather gains its ability from intense exercise, practice, and study; there is nothing truly supernatural about Martial characters, they are just near-superhumanly good at their jobs, whether Ranger, Rogue, Fighter, or Warlord.

The current power sources are Martial, Arcane (wizardly magic), Divine (power from the gods), Primal (power coming from spirits of the land), Psionic (power from mentally-derived abilities, like telekinesis), and Shadow (abilities derived from a connection to a shadow plane). The power sources help to differentiate between classes of the same role; the Martial Defender (the Fighter) performs the duties of his role in a different way than an Arcane Defender (Swordmage), Divine Defender (Paladin), Primal Defender (Warden), or Psionic Defender (Battlemind). Almost every power source tends to have at least one - and sometimes several - classes that fall into each of the four roles.

These two things together - the role and power source - help prospective players to determine which class will best fit the sort of character they want to play, and avoid a character choice that will make them unhappy with their character later. And, despite the standard class names, there is no reason why a character could not choose a class - say, the Fighter - and call himself a Ranger, Swashbuckler, Guardian, or something else instead. Essentially, these things help to show the player what the designers of the game intended when they created the class, so that it is easier to find a better fit.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Getting Back Into the Dm's Chair

It's been some time since I've DMed a full game of D&D - that is, a game with a full party, rather than just a couple of people. I started DMing not too long after I started playing D&D, way back in the early 90s; I was 12 or 13 years old, and, if my players from back then remember much about our time playing, they probably remember a lot of power fantasies; vorpal swords and hammers of thunderbolts, fighting dragons and demons, in a group known as the Savage Seven. I still have an illustration of the characters of the group sitting with all my gaming books; it's one of the few stray pieces of paper I have kept since those days.

After playing with that group, I moved to Omaha, Nebraska, and slowly, I found a new group, composed of friends from school and Boy Scouts. We played D&D, for a while, as well as games like Marvel Super Heroes and, for a short time, Rifts. My longest-running game then, though, was as the Storyteller for a game of Werewolf: The Apocalypse that spanned several of my high school years. My character in that game still inspires my e-mail address. I wasn't the only DM for the group, but I was the most constant. At least one of my players in my Werewolf game still considers it one of their favorite games ever.

After that, I moved on to college. For a while, I was just a player with the college's gaming group, even attending a few RPGA events. But when the 3rd Edition of D&D came out, I started DMing again, this time with a group composed, mostly, of the few friends I had at college. Lagos the half-elf ranger, Gr'b Ngk the half-orc barbarian, Braghmin the halfling cleric, Rafe the human thief, Varandel the elven monk, and Kaeiri the elven paladin went on a number of adventures during those years; I still have my notes from some of them. I ran a short-lived Werewolf game, too, though D&D was my game of choice; I was still fascinated by the new 3rd Edition.

After that, I spent several years away from gaming, watching 3rd Edition turn into 3.5. I played little in those years, mostly from lack of players and motivation. Then, in 2008, 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons came out, and I became far more interested in finding games to play in. Mostly, I've played in short-lived games with a few friends, and most recently as a player in a game that lasted about 6 months. And now I'm looking to get back into DMing.

I am hoping to recruit most, if not all, of my players from school, and so I imagine I'll get a mix of players with a variety of skill levels; some will have played D&D, some not, and they may or may not know 4th Edition. I've been trying to bone up on my introductory materials, just in case; thankfully, Wizards of the Coast helpfully provides a set of Quick-Start Rules on their website. 4th Edition is a big change from previous editions, but has made some big, and I think much-needed, steps in balancing things out between classes

My game is going to be pretty simple in concept; while I hope for some experienced players, I'm not assuming anyone has any great deal of knowledge (or experience) with 4th Edition. The game I plan to run is going to be based around a series of modules I've picked up, all of which I've enjoyed reading; I'll start with them, and see where players want to go. I like 4th Edition's combat system, but I'm also a fan of getting the players to develop their own stories, so while I have modules ready to use, I'm ready to run right off the rails if that's the direction they decide to go. No fancy house rules, no themes to complicate things; just a group of 1st-level adventurers, of various races and classes, getting together in a town called Fallcrest in the Nentir Vale to go out in search of fame, fortune and adventure.

Should be a good time.