Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Warning, Boring Game Theory Post Ahead!

Over at I was chatting in a post with a topic discussing whether 4E or 2E were effectively "more complicated" with sub-systems for rules and such. In the process of discussing some examples (such as the Web spell) I hit upon a major personal revelation about why these systems are so different, and why this can lead to such widely varying opinions among gamers about which one is "better" as D&D and which one was clearly spawned by the Anti-Christ of gaming (except I'm pretty sure Bobby Cotick doesn't care about the paper and pencil hobby, but, well....)

So here's the original posts for posterity. I initially responded to a discussion between Voadam and Cain, who basically were arguing from different perspectives about how much information in each edition was really front-loaded on a character sheet vs. how much required referencing and look-up in the books. My answer: they're both right; both editions are heavy on variable content that can and often will be referenced, but the difference is in exactly how that information is parsed out and presented. Read on:

4E does, in fact, have just as much info to look up as 2E did....but, the key difference that 4E brought to the table is a new form of Information Management. 4E was designed to be played from a character sheet and a handful of power cards. It was addressing the Information Overload issue that prior editions had, something seen as a feature by some and a bug by others, but clearly always an issue. For better or worse, this attempt at reworking how the game's information is parsed out and managed is what makes 4E so different from prior editions of D&D.

For example, here's the text from Web, to use the example given, in AD&D 2nd edition:

Web (Evocation)
Range 5 yards/level Components: VSM Duration: 2 turns/level Casting Time: 2
Area of Effect: 8,000 cubic feet Saving Throw: neg. or -
A web spell creates a many-layered mass of strong, sticky strands similar to spide webs but far larger and tougher. These masses must be anchored to two or more solid and diametrically opposed points-floor and ceiling, opposite walls, etc.--or the web collapses upon itself and disappears.
The web spell covers a maximum area of eight 10-foot x 10-foot x 10-foot cubes and the webs must be at least 10 feet thick, so a mass of 40 feet high, 20 feet wide, and 10 feet deep may be cast. Creatures caught within webs, or simply touching them, become stuck among the gluey fibers.
Anyone in the area when the spell is cast must roll a saving throw vs. spell with a -2 penalty. If the saving throw is successful, two things may have occurred. If the creature has room to escape the area, then it is assumed to have jumped free. If there is no room to escape, then the webs are only half strength. Creatures with less than 13 Strength (7 if the webs are half strength) are stuck until freed by another or until the spell wears off. Missile fire is generally ineffective against creatures trapped in webs.
Creatures with Strengths between 13 and 17 can break through 2 feet of webs per round. If the webs are at half strength these rates are doubled. (Great mass equates to great strength in this case, and creatures of large mass hardly notice webs). Strong and huge creatures can break through 10 feet of webs per round.
Furthermore, the strands of a web spell are flammable. A magical flaming sword can slash them away as easily as a hand brushes away cobwebs. Any fire--torch, flaming oil, flaming sword, etc.--can can set them alight and burn them away in a single round. All creatures within flaming webs suffer 2D4 points of damage from the flames, but those free of the strands are not burned.
The material component of this spell is a bit of spider web.

Whew. Got tired just transcribing that (OCR wasn't doing a good job)

Now, for the 4E web:

Web Wizard Attack 5
You call into being a giant web made of thick magical strands that hang in midair, trapping those within it.
Daily ✦ Arcane, Implement, Zone
Standard Action Area burst 2 within 20 squares
Target: Each creature in burst
Attack: Intelligence vs. Reflex
Hit: The target is immobilized (save ends).
Effect: The burst creates a zone of webs that fills the area until the end of the encounter or for 5 minutes. The zone is considered difficult terrain. Any creature that ends its move in the web is immobilized (save ends).

I will let the two stand side by side for comparison. For extra credit, I challenge someone to condense the effective mechanics of 2E's Web into the same space and font as the 4E Web spell for ease of access on a character sheet.

One of the reasons 4E's Web can work like this is because, it being a D20-based system, several larger unifying mechanics are working behind the scenes to support it, and therefore no specialized systems are required to explain how to handle certain circumstances and conditions as with the 2E Web spell. Conversely, 2nd edition's version is working hard to provide a rational approach to modeling Web in a sort of "thought experiment" style or approach, which is actually pretty appealing in its own right; the game is basically taking a specific application or event (the spell) and then fitting it into an existing rules framework in a manner which tries to be consistent with the simulated fantasy world as defined by those rules.

The 4E version is taking a specific set of mechanical applications derived from the main rules, which lead to specific effects that are then applied to the actions in the game, but only provides a brief analysis of what is "going on" in the fantasy world (the descriptive fluff), and also dispenses with features of the older version that could become complicated or lead to "hang ups" in the gameplay (such as whether there are two points to which webs can adhere to; 4E lets them hang in midair, negating that whole discussion.)

So one problem with the 2E vs. 4E approach here is also a matter of perspective: how can webs bind to thin air? If you subscribe to the 2E method, you need a rational description of how the webs come to be and work. 4E eschews that in favor of "a wizard did it," which ironically is rather true, too.

I can't say either version is "worse." Just different. But I think 4E undisputably has designed a more effective economy of information in its design, thus why it can seem to have a gazillion subsystems yet requires almost no time or effort in cross-referencing and rules argumentation at the table in play. And that, ultimately, is why I love 4E's style and approach so much.

And a follow up:

As an addendum to my prior post, there's one side observation I have about 4E and 2E (especially since I run both right now for different groups):

Because 2E is exceptions-based, and builds most of the subsystems off of rational evaluations of how things "should work in a fantasy world," when conflicts arise in the rules, it is generally easy to resolve: both sides can state their case for why something ought to work a certain way, and the majority opinion of which one makes more sense in context prevails. Failing that, there is always the DM's final call.

Now, technically the same logic can (and in my game does) apply to 4E, but it's really not "built in" as an assumption like 2E...there's no way it could be a feature of the rules and retain the "economy of information" that it does. Therefore, the default approach in 4E (and which most groups other than mine that I've experienced seem to use) is that when a conflict arises, both parties can state their case for why a given element should work the way they think it does, but the ultimate arbiter of how a given feature works is defined by the rules. The rules, in turn, accomodate this by providing a hard-and-fast set of rules that apply to everything.

3.5 did the same thing, but the key difference is that 4E has condensed the rules to the point where memorization of its "hard and fast ruling" is easy for everyone, while 3.5 was far too convoluted for most groups to get through a single night without a meltdown requiring extensive researching (cough >grappling< cough). EDIT: This is at least partially because 3.5 was busy trying to build a universal ruleset that modeled everything under the sun; it was trying to accomplish what 2E did with more common sense and less fanfare, but in the process added elaborate subsystems to what was otherwise a simpler unifying mechanic. To my eyes, at least, 3.5 is a weird amalgamation of the older edition approach merged with the rule-for-everything approach; it doesn't "get better" until it sheds this methodology and turns in to 4E, where the rules dominate and the "story elements" emerge from the rules rather than the other way around. Thus why I love 4E and 2E but 3.X....not so much (unless the group I'm playing with likes to run it 2E-style! Like my awesome Pathfinder group).

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