Thursday, June 12, 2008

Back and Fourth

I wonder if anyone is contemplating an OD&D conversion of H1: Keep on the Shadowfell.

On the various blogs and boards that I frequent, there seems to be a remarkable lack of understanding between the grognards (self-styled or otherwise) and the unaffectionately dubbed 4ons (before this, it was 3etards, which also got a giggle from me). I think some of this friction could be due to the lack of a shared vernacular when it comes down to what each edition contributed to the style of play.

Ask a grognard about "shifting" or "feats" and the best you'll get is a blank stare.

Ask a fan of fourth edition about re-rolling hit points at every level, or the concept of "Race as Class" and you'll be met with the same reaction.

Many of the conversations are one-sided, with the OD&D gamers sounding suitably venerable and crotchety (with frenetic exclamations that often begin with "back in my day") while the newer 4th Edition gamers who have migrated from a crunchier 3.5 are busy drooling over potential synergistic exploits and cool factor.

For instance, after the "shift" to Third Edition, character optimization became character concept. I fail to see anything really wrong with that. My OD&D players optimized the heck out of their characters whenever they were given the chance, and as a DM (a mantle that when worn, does not give you the game-given right to be an ass) I encouraged this. The magical sword found in the crypt in Chandlerwood, the musty tome of forgotten fire magics found in an abandoned monastery near the Lavafalls, a set of Gnomish Thieves Tools that when commanded would be wielded by small spectral gnomes who actually climbed into the lock to pick it, the players loved these things because they made the characters more awesome. I know, "These goodies were handed out based on DM fiat" you protest! "Players had no where near the control that they have now!" Wrong. The only thing limiting player control is the DM, and as "bringer of fun" it's your job to insure this happens, not to tell your story. Seriously, your story is only mildly interesting at best.

But back to our sheep, what would be nice, however daunting, would be some transcripts of Actual Play for each of the editions, for the same adventure. This would do wonders to eliminate some of the fluffiness that causes the veterans to weep and the greenhorns to cheer. The crunch is what could serve as a universal language, the much-maligned "Common Tongue." Even though OD&D didn't have rules for governing some of the things that the newer editions do, gamers and game masters everywhere still have the same baseline of creativity. All D&D games edition-neutered can be just as fun and memorable as each other, but very few have attempted to accept the challenge of dissecting why. Less rules in OD&D served as a springboard for creativity and house rules, but people are house-ruling things in 4e right out of the box. Why is this? The reasons seem to revolve around either More Balance or More Fun. The problem is Balance can be an enchantment applied to a FunBane sword. Just as Fun spells counter Balance.

A first level Mentzer Dwarf could Cleave as a critical hit house-rule (on a natural 20 naturally) with the approval of a non-adversarial referee. Is this balance, or is this fun? It is highly likely that 4th Edition is no more fun or balanced.

I think we all forget that there is no wrong way to have fun, and that D&D has been about fun since its conception. It is not now, nor will it ever be, "more fun." Rules and mechanics simply don't do that. Instead, rules and mechanics are there to tell you "how" and "when" and "where" a predetermined amount of fun can take place. While certain groups and play-styles may lend themselves to certain editions, they do not limit.

My initial reactionary thoughts on my WoAdWriMo contribution for this month were as follows:

A Chaotic Evil Dragonman Wizard and his Neutral Evil half-devil henchmen are disenchanting magical items across the land and systematically destroying the economy, it is up to our intrepid band of Neutral Good gnomish PCs to stop him.

Instead, I might try to eviscerate as much fluff and IP from H1 (a dangerous task, all things considered, as the last thing I want is to cleave through a swarm of legal minions). As purely a thought exercise, I believe that that Fellshadow Fortress is just begging to be a rollicking OD&D romp.

Or better yet, design an adventure that can be run in any version of D&D, so that my dreams of uniting players from all editions under a common banner may someday be realized, or at the very least, help to bridge the chasm of incredulity that players on both sides of Edition Canyon seem to be camped on.

Perhaps even better, an OD&D adventure with 4e feel and vice versa. Hmm.


  1. Do we know what the 4e feel is yet? We've only got two adventures, and beyond the tactical complexity of some of the encounters (most of which grows from the powers of the PCs and monsters) I'm not seeing much in 4e that feels distinctive to the beast.

    In fact, I'll commit a bit of blasphemy here and say that, what we've seen of 4e encounters looks a lot like 1e encounters. The "traps" remind me a lot of some of the crazier rooms in S2 - White Plume Mountain. The idea that combats are not just limited to a single room but can spill from location to location, with enemies rushing in once the alarm has been sounded is familiar to G1 - Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and A2 - Secret of the Slavers' Stockade. The Slavers series is also full of tactically-interesting terrain features as well.

    - Brian

  2. Hey Brain! Thanks for the comment! Your blog has been on my daily-read list for weeks now and it's great to hear your thoughts on my ill-formed ramblings.

    As for feel, I agree that what we've seen so far is hardly enough, but there are at least a few "feel-y" assumptions that I'm safely entertaining:

    The FAQ format for NPC dialog -was this an abstraction for entry level DMs to be able to "leap right in" without having to worry about too much improvisation, or is this a portent of things to come?

    Tactical Movement. Following the late developing trend of "mechancial terrain hazard/boon" (Bloodrock(?) squares that provide bonuses to damage, hit chances, or what-have-you) from 3e, the new chessboard combat system seems to just beg for more of this. I'll be the first to admit that I really don't like the idea of having to outwit my players by being able to move my "pieces" around the board more efficiently than them. The tactical movement knife seems to cut both ways, providing for more dynamic combat while encouraging a DM to be an "adversarial instructor" of the rules until the players figure them out. Will it then become an arms race to design encounter areas that work against players in purely tactical ways?

    There are portions of some of the published adventure material that make some rather strange claims, such as monsters not fleeing an area to assist their compatriots, assuming that "their friends can handle it." Turning area based encounters into something radically different than the dynamic, living dungeons I love. I believe there's even a "spawning" point for skeletal minions in H1 somewhere (don't have it handy) that allows players to bash 1 HP foes to their heroic heart's content. Other than a hand-wavy "don't rest here sign" I fail to see the purpose of this (unless players can gain XP from minions...shiver).

    I agree that there are many facets of the few Fourth Edition encounters we've seen that do seem to conjure up some of the older adventures. It's the crufty DM tactical advice blocks that seem to be out of place. With the older adventures, the most memorable encounters seemed to rely a lot more on good old-fashioned improvisation after studying room/area descriptions. So far Fourth Edition doesn't seem to facilitate this.

    I'm still chewing my cud over most of these things and thinking out loud. I'll probably dedicate a future post to it, especially when I have a chance to kick the tires of Fourth Edition with actual play.

    Thanks again!

  3. Thanks for the kind words.

    I'll be looking forward to more from you and your girlfriend. Unless I get a surprise invitation to play some 4e, though, I seriously doubt I'll be getting any hands-on experience with it any time soon, so I'm most anxious to see what others think of the game. As you say, the carefully scripted multiple-room encounter areas actually seem to discourage "living" dungeons. The sneaky bits of G1 and A2, for instance, where the entire dungeon could come down on your head if you're not careful seem to be discouraged in 4e. Still, that's one of those things a good DM can always adjust to personal and group tastes.

    - Brian




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