4 on 1

I had the unexpected pleasure of playing in a first edition AD&D game this past weekend. It was a long-standing game that my brother in law participates in, and they had an opening. This was pretty much the classic AD&D game in just about every way imaginable. They’d looked at other editions, played a little third, but stuck to first as adjusted by elements from dragon magazine and a few house rules. They were sufficiently committed to this that they had their own modified PHB, which was basically a scanned PHB with all the classes, spells and such inserted into it, and several players had printed and bound copies of it (I used the PDF – iPad FTW).

The DM did a clever thing where I was effectively a ghost helping the party out because my body was deeper in the dungeon, allowing me to establish rapport with the party before actually joining, so it’s a bit less of a “You meet a guy on the road” sort of situation. Unfortunately, the pacing of things was such that despite the very long session. We did not actually reach my body, so while I had fun, it was mostly observing and making wry comments (which I enjoy). But it also really created an opportunity to think about the game and contrast it with my 4e experience in a way that has only really been hypothetical for me until now. It’s been long enough since I really played 1e that I was doing a lot off old memories.

It was pretty interesting, because it really highlighted to me a lot of the things 4e (and, to be fair, 3e) did right, but it also cast into relief the bits that were missing that were very clearly part of the groups enjoyment of the game.

First and foremost, man, 4e makes the actual moving around and fighting better. There are several reasons for this, but the one I really want to call out is clarity. There were a lot of situations where figuring out what someone could do was sufficiently involved as to really bog things down, especially with regard to movement. This was particularly highlighted by one of the more RP-oriented players very clearly getting frustrated by her inability to engage in the fight the way the more twinked out guys were. (The fact that this was addressed with Manly Explanation likely did not help).

4e also really keeps fights more dynamic. Things took a kind of dull turn when the Big Climactic enemy cleric got silenced and cornered. It was a reminder about some of the insta-win elements of magic, but more, it made me think what a shame that there was no real push/pull/slide to keep things moving.

Where things were more telling was on the borders of the fight. Planning for an encounter and using spells and trickery to overcome a fight were really big focuses. The group made heavy use of Haste & Invisibility to make the fights into these terrifying blitzkriegs that were twice as much time spent prepping as fighting. Not necessarily as satisfying as fights, but definitely scratching a problem-solving itch. The ability to make a fight unfair through clever planning is very rewarding and not particularly supported in 4e.

There was also a lot of use of out-of combat magic, things like animating enemy corpses or using the item spell. This was most interesting to me because it was clear that some of it (healing, identifying stuff) was pretty much just exercises in bookkeeping, but other stuff (like item or enemy zombies) was cool stuff that the players felt it was cool that they were able to do.

There was really no more or less roleplaying than there would have been in 4e. The scenario only gave itself to that so much (Old temple, overrrun by Yuan-Ti) but the system really didn’t speak to that. Outside of the fight, the amount of RP really came down to the player’s interest in it.

There were also small things. The use of the vs. Armor Type table made weapons selection a little more interesting, though I’m not sure it’s addition is worth the tradeoff of complexity. Chargen was also interesting: creating a level 10 1e character using only paper? SO MUCH EASIER than 4e.

Now, this comparison has all been useful to me so far, and offers interesting insights into the two games for me. I think it partly underscored why encounter powers are a cognitive problem for some players while daily’s aren’t. 1e is FULL of once per day kind of abilities, so that’s part of the logic, but narrative time is a different method of thinking. On some level, I think that if encounter powers were framed slightly differently – perhaps in terms of needing a few minutes rest to recharge – they’d probably have more traction.

But what was also telling was that there were definitely two big elements that clearly were part of the fun for at least some of the players, but which are not necessarily things I’m inclined to support.

The first was related to system mastery. There was a very clear range of powers within the group, even though everyone was at similar levels. Some characters just had better powers, better gear and (not coincidentally) a better understanding of the rules that allowed them to exploit that (and yes, this included a guy with psionics). Worse, there was clearly some self-perpetuation of this. It was pretty clear in the dynamic that the most badass guys had first dibs on loot because making them more badass was “good for the party”. I don’t blame the guys for this – there’s a solid tactical argument for it – but that’s not the kind of arrangement I’d want to encourage.

A corollary of this was that it had clear balance issues. The big fight included enemies who were clearly tuned to be a threat to the party as a whole, which meant that they were keyed off the most powerful members of the party. Upshot being those powerful guys got their awesome on, and everyone else got to kind of play a supporting role. I admit I was watching that fight and I am not sure that my character would have been able to contribute at all, had I been corporeal.

For players who thrive on this element of the game, 4e must feel like castration – system mastery (and magical gear) can only pull you so far ahead of your peers. I can completely understand why that would be frustrating, but that’s definitely not my bag. I’ll play along – I’ll have to to be effective – but it’s a necessity more than something I’d enjoy. It also reminds me of the statement made early in 4e that it’s less about the choices you make in chargen than it is about the choices you make in a fight. Looking at that now, that statement really holds up.

Anyway, the second element is a little more mixed, that of preparation. Now, I actually like the idea of prepping for a fight, arranging to bushwhack guys and generally benefitting from my own cleverness, but I think there’s a balancing act. While there were a few bits of trickery and strategy, there was a lot more brute force application of “I Win” spells like Haste & Silence (to say nothing of the illusions) which feels a little bit less rewarding, but at the same time is utterly necessary because the DM needs to prepare for the possibility. There’s sort of a vicious circle/arms race element to it. I actually remember this being an issue in 3e as well, but it’s really noticeable how profound it is in this case.

But at the same time, this is perhaps the most interesting question to take back to 4e. Is there a way to support prep that’s rewarding but not so overwhelming?

I think the answer is a clear yes, esp since I can think of two different ways to do it. But that’s probably fodder for another day.