Tell me how to play 4E and OD&D (so I can ignore it)

I love advice on how to be a better player, and metrics for gauging how well I achieve that goal. For example, I enjoy meditating on the “Guidelines for Selection of the Best Players” Gary Gygax wrote for the tournament version of The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth (1978):

  1. Active before passive
  2. Thinking/reasoning before rash
  3. Bold before timid
  4. Uninjured before wounded
  5. Alive before dead
  6. Leader before follower

Other factors of importance are: Is the player responsible for monster kills either through actual attack or devising methods for others to slay? Has the player managed to acquire a considerable sum of treasure above that held by others in the group? Who looted the magical items gained? And by all means, remember to reward the fellow who causes the party to be saved from certain destruction or who was clever enough to avoid fighting and still managed to gain their desired end.

I’ve had the good fortune to be asked to write some official player advice for D&D 4E. With Eytan Bernstein I co-wrote the warden installment of the Essentials series, which guides players through creating a member of that class and using their abilities effectively in combat, and under lead designer James Wyatt I wrote several chapters of the Player’s Strategy Guide, which “offers up advice for building the best possible player character from the options available (including tips and tricks for using D&D Insider‘s tools) and better fitting them into your party.”

Recently over at EN World there’s been a heated thread about the Essentials articles that has inspired some thoughts about player advice across the editions.

  1. A lot of new-school advice focuses on the solo pre-game of building your character. For better or worse that pretty much doesn’t exist in the old school, although I’d love to read an article on getting the most out of the equipment list (that being where you can spend the most time and effort customizing your dude before actual play begins).
  2. Hierarchy is the original sin of player advice. It’s hard to talk about becoming a better player without the implication that someone is the best and all others are worse. In Gygax’s guidelines above, the hierarchy is explicitly built into the tournament judging format and focuses on players. Modern discussions use optimization as their yardstick: how well does this character perform under an assumed range of combat conditions? The focus on the player as the one who makes the choices for that character is implicit, which I think is dangerous. A lot of the heat in the EN World discussion seems to me to come from people swallowing the hierarchy “I know how to make a character that’s better than your character, so I’m better than you.” Because the link between player and character is concealed, people don’t respond directly to the assertion of superiority but instead defend against it circuitously: “No, your character isn’t better and let me tell you why.”
  3. Complexity is the fuel for the fire. The wealth of mechanical options and affordance for statistical analysis of tradeoffs in 4E makes these discussions interesting. In OD&D, you don’t need a lot of processing to see that a magic-user shouldn’t enter melee and that the party is better off if every PC has seven henchmen and each henchman has seven sacks and each sack has seven giant rats, so there’s not as much to talk about.
  4. To create a hierarchy you need to base it on a set of assumptions. OD&D players have few choices with a high granularity, so the assumptions are big and obviously meaningful to the story. What kind of armor you choose depends first on whether you’re a cleric or a fighting man, and second on whether you place a higher priority on not getting hit or on the ability to run away, sneak around, and swim a river or wiggle through a chasm without spending a lot of time taking off your armor first. When you evaluate a piece of old-school player advice like “Always wear plate and carry a shield” it’s easy to think about the assumptions behind that and whether or not you agree. The new school gives you many more choices, each with a low granularity. The author of a 4E character optimization guide would have to spend as much or more time laying out all their assumptions as they did giving advice. Even then, players might not be able to tell whether those assumptions applied to their campaign if they didn’t keep close track of how many enemies of which roles they tend to fight, which energy types their allies and foes use most often, etc., etc.
  5. The most interesting role of player advice is that it highlights the moments when a player puts something else ahead of well-informed self-interest. For me, the greatest part of an D&D game is when a magic-user rushes into a melee to save a companion, or a fighter’s greed lures him across the river without stopping to put his armor back on afterwards.  Good advice helps you survive until you reach those awesome moments where you decide to throw it out the window. Gygax’s tournament guidelines are rich and koan-like because the contradictions are built in; will you choose to be “responsible for monster kills” at the expense of “unhurt before wounded” or maybe “alive before dead?”
  6. The part of 4E I like least is that it’s hard to tell when you’re following good advice, and not as meaningful when you throw it away. In the EN World discussion, IIRC someone says something along the lines of “what if I want to take sub-optimal choices for roleplaying’s sake” and later someone says “in an average encounter, can you tell the difference between a well or poorly optimized character?” When I was writing about player strategies, I came to a series of difficult realizations. First, the group I play 4E with didn’t do almost any of the things I’d identified as good tactics. Second, I couldn’t make good tactics happen on my own. The outcome of combat has been balanced to hinge on the actions of five players working together as a team, each of whom make at least three choices per round from among maybe a dozen available options, so my own decisions are a pretty small percentage of the total. (Removing the ability of a single OD&D character’s turn undead or web to dramatically swing the outcome of an encounter was a design goal of 4E.) What that means is that I had to find a way to get other players to cooperate on good tactics without feeling like I was telling them what to do and depriving them of their own choices. The final realization was that even once I did so it didn’t make that much difference. We fought two encounters, one with the kind of coordinated party tactics I’d written about and one without, and came out noticably worse the second time. After the battle I asked my fellow players why that happened, and they agreed it was a string of bad dice rolls. I’m not even sure they were wrong; it’s hard to tell the difference between a run of luck and whether or not everyone makes player-advice-approved choices. I admire that 4E gives everyone lots of choices every turn, but personally I’d rather trade that for the occasional chance to be the one whose decisions shape the entire session, when I’m the fighter with the only sword that can hit the shadow. Knowing that turning and running is the optimal choice makes it all the more heroic when I ignore all advice and choose to stand and fight.

7 Responses to “Tell me how to play 4E and OD&D (so I can ignore it)”

  1. 1 Jack Colby
    November 11, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    Really interesting article. Rather than say one or the other edition is bad or good, it highlights how different they really are, in design goals and gameplay.

  2. November 15, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    I’m not sure I fully understood all your points, but isn’t there are a difference between min/maxing a character build and optimizing one for particular role?

  3. November 15, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    You’re probably not the only one who doesn’t understand, Michael, so if you let me know which parts are unclear lots of readers will benefit from an improved explanation!

    I don’t see a difference between min/maxing and optimizing; AFAIK both are terms for trying to make choices for your character away from the table that will give them the most strengths and fewest weaknesses during play. To do so you have to make some assumptions about what will happen during play. For example, if you expect that your party will fight many encounters before taking an extended rest, you might recommend taking the durable feat so that you don’t run out of surges. If you assume that you’ll usually have one or two combats per game-day, then durable is a less valuable choices.

    The point I was making above is that the assumptions in 4E are more hidden and less obviously about the game world. In deciding whether or not to wear platemail, both you and your OD&D fighter is thinking about whether he expects to encounter monsters he’ll need to run away from, or rivers he’ll need to swim. Deciding whether you’ll run out of surges is a more abstract consideration about game elements that are less meaningful to your character than they are to you as a player.

    Thinking about that, another important difference is that since most of the (few) choices in OD&D happen at the table, it’s easy to change your mind during play – you can always take off your platemail and maybe trade it for a suit of leather armor you strip off a corpse. 4E offers many more choices that happen away from the table and can only be retrained when you level up.

    (Oh, and for the sake of completeness I see optimizing for a role as asking “what pre-game choices in general do I need to do to be effective?” – optimizing for a build is saying “which choices are going to synergize with the choices I’ve already made to make me more effective?”)

  4. November 17, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    Interesting…but the only advice I have is in regards to point 6. In the campaign I am running, we have a party that is pretty “sub-optimal” in it’s makeup. A warlord, fighter, warlock, ranger, and swordmage. Yes, we have a leader, but his healing abilities have the trade-off effect of displacing many of his best abilities.

    Now. While most of the players do their part, the warlord and fighter nearly always stand out. Why? Because they both are built around a very specific core concept that has shaped the way they play. The warlord was a combat medic, until his liege died in his arms. As such, he PLAYS like a combat medic, that just happens to know a few battlefield tricks.

    The fighter is a crowd control specialist. Utterly useless against a single, powerful foe, but death anytime enemies cluster around.

    The key to the players getting the most out of their characters – both tactically and on the roleplaying front is to design them around a specific theme. In my experience, a straight up fire mage (wizard) is much more memorable AND fun to play than a generalist with lots of flashy elemental schticks. I look at it a lot like DIablo II or WoW in that respect only, each character starts out identically, and speciates according to the individual player.

    I feel like I am rambling, so I’ll stop here.

  5. November 18, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Your ramblings are always welcome, Donny! Glad to have the link back to [your blog] to read more of ’em. (Did y’all know all along that you could click on someone’s name in comments to follow them back like that? I just discovered it.)

    The CharOps guides and the Essentials series both focus on building individual characters, as does your good advice about designing around a theme. Earlier in my post I think what I’m talking about is that in OD&D, it’s easy to start out without a concept at all and do it the other way around, so that they way they play shapes the core concept of the character. Alex Schroeder’s blog has a [good practical example] of what he calls back-loading a character. It’s harder to do that in 4E because you have to make so many choices before you can get any actual play experience of the character, and there’s a temptation to pre-select your options many levels ahead of time according to a planned build rather than letting your character choices be speciated by your individual responses to events in the campaign. (This is as much a mindset as a ruleset; 4E has, to its credit, allowed retraining and removed many of the pre-requisites that made planning well in advance much more essential to optimizing in the 3E era.)

    What I’m talking about in #6 is following advice about optimizing an entire party. The transition is perhaps non-obvious, since that advice isn’t in any of the things that have been published yet! To connect your point to mine, though, I’m saying that there’s a tension between party optimization (tactics) and individual character identity (roleplaying): for example, playing a combat medic can create friction when the rules and/or the other players expect a battlefield commander. That tension exists in OD&D – there’s always pressure on magic-users to take the sleep spell, the clearly optimized (even unbalanced to modern eyes) choice – but I think it’s heightened by the 4E design principles that every character should contribute to combat and skill challenges.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009

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