Posted by : David Guyll May 13, 2009

Aside from early reviews on Monster Manual 2 and complaints about the monk playtest, I stumbled upon a thread that caught my interest: does this generation of gamers demand a fair, easy game? Having taken game design courses, I'm going to throw the "easy" part out the window because its utter bullshit, especially if you've played half the games that are currently on the market (whether you can chalk it up to genuine challenge or Fake Difficulty).

The general tone of the argument mostly pertains to the removal of too much randomization from matters of character generation to literal life or death task resolutions, and its something I've gradually noticed over the few D&D editions I've played. Case in point, when we played 2nd Edition we always rolled stats and hit points, but when we got into 3rd Edition started relying more and more on the point-buy method and allowing you to take the average hit points from your Hit Die. Now in 4th Editon everyone does point-buy and you get flat hit points values.

Is this bad? I dont think so, since it better allows players to make an informed decision about the character they want to play as opposed to the character they end up with after the dice fall. There is no system mastery or Trial And Error: you can pick what you want to play, and it will always work. This is not to say that all choices are equal, but that any player of any level of experience can combine anything and it will always end up being functional.

Lets take a look at Josh's halfling tempest fighter, Jester. Were Josh to attempt this in 3rd Edition, he would be saddled with a lower-than-average Strength and weapon damage, making him incredibly ineffective at doing what he allegedly was supposed to be good at doing: melee damage. Since he is Small, his grapple is made of suck, allowing even more things to just pluck-and-chuck at their leisure. In past editions this would be more difficult and less effective, and I'm sure you couldnt even try in OD&D (I cant remember if halflings could be "fighting-men").
In 4th Edition this concept is not only viable by default, but is made very effective with only a minor amount of work, which is the important part: Josh can play what he wants to play, and his concept isnt hosed right from the start.

2nd Edition used to require that you roll each stat in order (and I'm sure that past editions enforced the same generation method). Forget what you want to play. Go through the motions first and lets see what your options are. Of course, some players liked to have a feeling of legitimacy and would roll up several sets of stats and pick the one that hit closest to home. I'm surprised that we (as in my group) waited until 3rd Edition to routinely use point-buy. That being said, it wasnt as bad as Warhamer Fantasy Roleplay or Traveler, but thats still no excuse.

On the topic of rolling ability scores is rolling hit points. Hit points are a measure of how much punishment your character can take, depending on the narrative. Rolling hit points is a very bad idea because with just a few nasty rolls your character can go from a Stone Wall to a Glass Cannon, just without the offense that makes you temporarily useful. Static hit points let players know exactly what they are going to get, and to plan accordingly (if they want more, they can take Toughness or improve their Constitution score, for example).

Save-or-Die effects can easily lend themselves to Luck Based Missions, since usually there is no way for the group to predict when they will encounter one, or how to defend against it. The really lame thing is that there are SoDs, and then there are flawless counters for each of them. Like, a monster might be able to kill you randomly by staring at you, unless you have this one spell active or item-worn that is a surefire protection against it. The problem with this is that the magical iterations of these make them limited by virtue of the spell system, while the item versions of these are often very expensive.
I've said before that I never thought SoD effects were challenging. They're just lame. They arbitrarily kill you without giving you a chance to realize whats going on and react to it. In most cases you wont even know its coming until it hits you, and for all your strength and resilience there is always a 5% chance that you will instantly die.

On the other side of the claim, not only did Wizards remove many randomized elements that added absolutely no fun or challenge to the game, but they also elevated the relative power of the adventuring party. The two cited examples are altering character resources to more than just "per day" and also allowing every character to potentially participate in any situation without the need for a specialized build or additional features.

It used to be that spellcasters had extremely limited ability to actually cast spells. From OD&D to 2nd Edition, a wizard could cast one spell per day (and in OD&D didnt get attack spells until level 3), which basically meant that you were useful for one round of combat in a given day. 3rd Edition upped the ante by giving out around three 1st-level spells and slew of 0-levels (cantrips), allowing you to be slightly more effective in a given day, but not by much. Basically, you were playing a wizard that was only a wizard part-time. Eventually, at higher levels, you could do your thing on a more reliable basis, but its not really fun playing the waiting game hoping that the campaign actually lasts that long.

Nowadays, wizards can cast spells all day. Does this make the game easier? Possibly, but I think it makes things more fair and thereby makes the wizard an attractive choice for more than really dedicated (or bored) players. I think it might be easier in the sense that wizards can participate in combat effectually (ie, not wasting their time missing with a crossbow), but mostly I think it just levels the playing field for all classes: fighters can swing their swords all they want, and wizards can cast spells. Each class gets to do the shit that their class is all about.

Changing tangents, I am still boggled that people would complain that every character can join in on skill challenges and combat encounters. This just blows my fucking mind. I've played in D&D games where one player would go do something, leaving the rest of us in the cold to stack dice and in general stop paying attention. Is this fun? Is this something, like many legacy mechanics, that we we're supposed to just suck up and endure? Hell no. I like the idea that if we run into a trap, that everyone can provide assistance, or if it comes down to words that we dont just push the bard forward and let him roll a single Diplomacy check.
I'm not okay that as a DM I need to specifically try to juggle various sub-systems of a game just ot make sure that every player can hog the spotlight, especially when its clearly not necessary. I'm more than happy to just plan whatever the fuck I want, knowing that no matter what my group can overcome the problems I throw at them even if they lack a former party lynchpin.

Is 4th Edition too easy? I dont think so. I think people are confusing the fact that its so much more accessible to anyone, than with the overall difficulty of €learning/playing the game as opposed to the challenges that the party faces. Players can more readily assess a situation and come to an informed decision instead of leaving it up to the DM to pull a resolution out of his ass. They yanked a lot of arbitrary and bullshit mechanics that seemed to only exist to purge fun, and made it easier to play the character you want instead of leaving it up to fate.
To cite an example, even if the party doesnt know that trolls are vulnerable to fire, they arent up shit-creek if they dont have fire. They can still take them down, its just slightly harder. If they do have fire, then it makes things a bit easier. Its a much bigger disconnect from all other Editions where they literally would not die. Likewise, if the players dont know that there is a medusa in a dungeon, and run into a medusa, you wont accidentally kill your party with a few bad rolls. Players get a chance to react and respond instead of just all dropping dead.

The evolution of the game mechanics, I think, is largely due to a growing understanding of what makes games (generally) fun even if it means discarding past methods, and I'm perfectly fine with that.

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