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January 08, 2008

4th Edition...Alignments

In case you haven’t heard, Wizards of the Coast is coming out with Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition. I state this early so that you will know this is a gamer article, with little to no non-gamer use, save perhaps as a sociological study or a modern history piece.


I’m pretty much against it. My base rule is to wait at least one year after its release before I seriously consider playing it. This doesn’t mean I won’t purchase the books or protest the online community (I’ll more than likely join it).


Of course it’s too early to tell for sure one way or another and the reasons for hating and loving it are legion. More flavor for the fighter classes, civilization as points of light the vast darkness, and rules simplifications in some areas are three examples that get me excited to see the new edition.


The idea of roles, the defender, striker, controller and healer are rather neutral elements in this getting to know 4th edition journey. If fighters can work at being controllers or healers (though obviously not as good as other classes) and wizards can take on defender or striker roles, then I’ll be excited. Based on current information, it would seem that this is the way that it is going. There are some fears that the rogue will become the primary damage dealing class, which I distain due to philosophy that rogues, in a table top role-playing game, should be better suited to social situations and sneaking around (which includes “striking” in fast and quick at unsuspecting targets) and the fighter should always outclass the rogue when it comes to dealing damage. But the idea that the rogue will outclass the fighter seems to be born more out of online fear than hard facts.


But the more I read, the more I hear, the more I dislike what is coming, or at the very least I dislike the idea of what I think is coming.


Take recent revelations about the wizard class:


“Even though we want wizards to have a little less "concept sprawl" into all forms of arcane magic, that doesn't mean that every necromancy, enchantment, or illusion spell will be stripped out of their spell lists. You won't be able to really build a specialist Enchanter, but you can still build a wizard with a couple of handy enchantments.” http://www.enworld.org/ January 7th, 2008.


This implies that either “some” or “many” of the necromancy, enchantment and illusion spells have been stripped from the wizard’s spell list. Previously, the wizard class was the epitome of magic use (1st edition even named the class “magic-user” and only when those characters reached higher levels could they call themselves “wizards”). A wizard could develop a wide assortment of spells to cover every situation and the player was left to his or her intelligence and creativity in preparing the best choices for a given day or encounter. With three “schools” of magic stripped down, that leaves only 5 left; abjuration, conjuration, divination, evocation, and transmutation. In classical fantasy, such as Howard’s Conan works, the archetypal wizard bad-guys were necromancers, enchanters and illusionists (with conjurers as well). So from a Dungeon Master’s view, his archetypal foes for the player’s have been stripped of their powers. Perhaps other classes, such as the bard and warlock, will take up the slack, but gone (apparently) is the ability of the DM to have some peasant describe the inhabitant of the dark tower as a vile ‘wizard” giving rise to the fear of either fighting a foe with a large assortment of spells or fighting a foe specialized in one of the classic schools of magic.


Alignment is another area that is being changed;


[Wizards of the Coast] are greatly reducing [alignment’s] scope because of the harmful pigeonholing it's done in the past.” http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/13/13546.phtml




“One major change to this system in 4E is the fact characters can choose to be “unaligned,” having no significant impulses towards good or evil. Characters can still choose to be good or evil (law and chaos are not mentioned), but most characters and monsters will be unaligned. Unsurprisingly, most spells and powers that revolve around alignment are now gone.” http://www.enworld.org/showthread.php?t=213815


“Harmful pigeonholing”… perhaps, maybe with inexperienced players. To the more experienced players this is idiotic. Dungeons & Dragons has always been about heroic battles, good vs. evil, and the vanquishing of terrible foes. It’s always been stated that alignment is a general outlook for most people, with the common populace often being neutral under a particular social alignment (often dictated by the structure and nature of the ruling class). In other words, those in power dictated the national alignment while the population generally remained neutral (or slanted to the alignment of their species – I’ll use ‘species’ throughout as I prefer it to ‘race’). Only when player’s start claiming that their character needs to do something stupid because they are chaotic, they can’t have fun because they are lawful, they can’t be angry because they are good or they have to be a serial killer because they are evil does alignment become an problem, but it’s a problem of the players, not the system.


“Unaligned”. Neutral by any other name would still play the same. While it is true that the neutral alignment is often implemented as a “balancer” philosophy (which is then extended to nature and the idea that a neutral character seeks balance in the natural order), it has also been used, quiet effectively, for the common man.


“Each race seems to have a clear “homeland”. http://www.enworld.org/index.php?page=4e


Okay, so in the core books they are using the whole civilization as “points of light” and as such Wizards of the Coast feels the need to separate the species into different areas. I dislike where it’s heading here, though there isn’t enough information at hand to argue one way or another. If it’s used as a guideline, as a general idea that elves prefer the woodlands and humans prefer the open plains, then fine. If they build and structure abilities and powers around these homelands then I’ll be annoyed.


One of the core issues with 4th edition is the removing of “fluff” powers. They started this with the demons and devils and their transition from 3.0 to 3.5. In 3.0, many of the more powerful demons and devils had a vast array of magical abilities, some useful in combat, others not. In 3.5 they removed many of the powers, scraping away the non-combat abilities more often than not.


A typical monster has a lifespan of five rounds. That means it basically does five things, ever, period, the end.

Giving a monster detect thoughts or telekinesis, for example, makes us feel like those monsters are magically in the minds of their minions and are making objects float across the room all the time. But they aren’t! Until the moment they interact with the PCs, they’re in a state of stasis. And five rounds later, they’re done.” http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/dd/20070803a


And they are correct about the five round lifespan. But that’s five rounds once initiative is rolled (or, possibly, five rounds counting the surprise round). What about the “role-playing” time. PC’s may scry or spy or just outright visit the creature in question, it’s not in stasis, it’s living. The monster may stalk the characters, detecting thoughts when it can…living. It may escape from the battle to live beyond those five rounds. The whole move of 4th edition to streamline combat, make it exciting, fast, and fun is great but it is being done at the expense of role-playing possibilities.


“If a DM can’t quickly find and easily adjudicate the five interesting things that monster is going to do, then the whole at-the-table experience suffers.” Ibid.


Which, like the alignment issue, is the problem of the players (specifically the DM) and not a problem with the system.


This is the issue that irks me the most, as the prices of the books continue to increase, as the demographics continually point to older (and therefore more self-sufficient and able to afford the books) audience, they are dumbing down the game. And while any experienced DM can add or subtract what he wants, why take away the “fluff” powers which would help new players think outside the box.


It is a terrible thing, that box, that thinking only of the five rounds of combat that an opponent plays upon the field of battle. It reduces the game to a complicated form of chess. It lays out the five things that creature will do, that all creatures like it will do, each round every time it is encountered. And if the creature escapes to fight another day, the players will have no surprises, there will be no awe as the creature cannot tap into different abilities, change its approach, learn from its mistakes. The box is shrinking, and as it does it creates more work for the DM to tailor encounters, so much so that a DM is better off playing 3rd edition or creating a new role-playing game herself.


Of course, 4th edition isn’t yet released and I don’t know the whole story. Perhaps the good will outweigh the bad. Perhaps the bad only appears to be so now amidst all the speculation. In six months we’ll see.