Posted by : David Guyll April 23, 2014
So why is it that—besides, you know, 3rd Edition did it—they see the need to provide a second method that allows you to stat up NPCs as if they were player characters? It is nice and all that they do not "have" to have an assumed amount of treasure, but given that more mechanics do not make for a more realistic or engaging character, I do not see what the actual benefit of this method is. Mike provides no actual rationale for this, but if I were to bet money on it I would say it gets a pass for exactly the same "reasons" that pseudo-Vancian magic and Hit Dice do.
He claims that the "core magic system makes running high-level spellcasters easier", using his own games as an example, where spellcasters "usually only have two or three scaling spells prepared". He reasons that this way you can just note their effects and use them multiple times, which is all well and good...except that you could have done the exact same thing in 3rd Edition, too.
In my experience the problem with 3rd Edition spellcasters had more to do with prefabbed monsters/NPCs that had spells and/or spell-like abilities, as they would usually have a hefty list of options—many that were often useless—to pore through, and if you did not know what a spell did you had to pause the fight to look it up in another book. If it did what you wanted, good, if it did not, then you went to another spell, and the process started all over again (maybe even in yet another book).
It got so bad that when I was running Age of Worms I started making blocks of bonuses that a NPC spellcaster would get if it was aware that the characters were showing up, as well as how long each would last (if it had a duration of over a few minutes I would just say "entire fight"). Otherwise I would just start from the top of the list and slam the characters with the highest level spell on tap, because it usually made the most sense.
The "method" Mike describes is how I generally approached it when I would design a spellcasting NPC: rather than go through the trouble of listing every single spell she had, I would just pick what was needed (ie, attack spells and self-buffs) and say that she prepped a bunch of them. There was still the problem of going through all of the available spells, since most supplements made sure to add heaps of (often situational) spells. The only exception was if said NPC was a wizard (or other class that had a spellbook); then I had to go through the trouble of filling out a spellbook because the characters might snag it when the dust settled.
Then 4th Edition came along and changed everything. Rather than mull through a Player's Handbook, Arcane Splatbook X, or Dragon magazine for spells (which would have been much, much easier with something like DDI), I can just make up whatever the hell I think the NPC should be doing, and thanks to the aforementioned easy and reliable monster math I can crank out an evocative, competent spellcaster in a fraction of the time, and I do not even have to ignore all of the excessive details.
So, wait, why are they also including the option of taking a long time to make a NPC, again? I am legitimately curious as Mike does not back up this "design" decision, he is just states that it exists, as if being able to take longer to do the same thing is some kind of feature.
My knee-jerk reaction to any mention of Challenge Rating is "Whyohgodwhy?!" If you are fortunate enough to be familiar with how 4th Edition handles creating monsters and were never exposed to 3rd Edition's Challenge Rating "system", allow me to elaborate on the omitted flaws.
Imagine if 4th Edition's monster math often did not work (and truth be told it often did not in the beginning), and in the rare instance it did it was mostly due to luck as opposed to anything approaching actual design. Imagine that you go through the motions of creating a monster, but there were a lot more steps since they were essentially full-blown characters in their own right. Then, when you finally got it done rather than get an accurate bead of what sort of party you should throw it against, you ultimately end up having to "eyeball" it, by which I mean find the closest monster possible and probably have to tweak the stats or Hit Dice, or come up with bullshit "racial bonuses" to whatever in order to make it "officially" work.
As you might expect, this led to monsters that were much stronger or weaker than their Challenge Rating would suggest. Sometimes this meant saving throw DC's that were almost impossible to overcome/almost impossible to fail, or monsters would take a long time to kill/die with little effort. It makes me think of the infamous ghoul TPK incident from the designer's own playtest, the one time we fought a tendriculos in 3rd Edition and got our butts handed to us despite being a party of six and a couple levels higher than its Challenge Rating, as well as one of my 5th Edition playtest sessions in which the characters had to beat on zombies forever in order to take them down.
Fortunately they are also going to (kind of?) include 4th Edition's method, which has you pick a Challenge Rating and use the "boilerplate" stats it provides as a mathematical foundation. Granted he provides no actual examples or mechanics for us to look at, and while I doubt it will be as elegant and reliable as 4th Edition I cannot imagine that it would be worse than 3rd Edition (especially if they stick to that whole flat-math thing). But, as with NPCs-as-characters, this begs the question why? Why include both methods when they are intended to achieve the same result, but only one actually works (and works faster)?
Also, why call it Challenge Rating instead of just using levels? I have heard of people playing at level 0 in 4th Edition and previous editions; are we to believe that level 0 is okay, but fractions are somehow bad? The only "problem" with fractional levels is that level would become a cohesive indicator of power.
Frankly this just sounds like more traditionalist-pandering: yeah, they are going to include 4th Edition's methods, but do not worry, you will also be able to spend more time building NPCs and maybe get a monster that performs as envisioned. This is not design, this is just lazily chucking in rules from previous editions to try and appeal to fans of those editions. The thing is that if all 5th Edition does is let me kind-of-sort-of emulate an existing good game, then I do not need it: I already have that game.
Why not look at both methods, figure out what works, discard what does not, and actually, you know, design some rules? Really the only part of the article that I am tentatively interested are the various dungeon tables, but given the lack of design, direction, and innovation we have seen in everything else, I am not expecting anything particularly amazing, or really even noteworthy.