Outside a smattering of voyages into a few modules from earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons when I was still a teenager, my tabletop roleplaying game experience has been shaped by 4th Edition D&D. It was not until this past weekend I realized how much 4th Edition has influenced my view of how games should play and run.
Readers of the blog will note that I have spent some time playtesting a new roleplaying game called Blade Raiders. The game is very different from 4th Edition D&D and it still feels great to play. During the start of a new campaign with the system, I found myself slipping into a “4e” mindset – for better and for worse. Below, I process a few observations about habits learned while playing (almost exclusively) 4th Edition over the past two-plus years and discuss our first session of a Blade Raiders campaign.
Building a Badass
When I created a character for our playtest earlier in the year, I experimented with the Blade Raiders system and chose a combination of non-magical and magical talents. I certainly wanted to create an effective character but I was more interested in learning the system and trying new approaches to character design. But for the campaign, the “4e switch” flipped in my head and I was dissecting the various talent options in a surgical fashion.
- How can I get the greatest bonus to hit?
- How can I max out my damage per turn?
- What talents will be most useful to me in the most circumstances?
Character optimization is not unique to 4th Edition D&D, but it is where I learned that craft! The Character Builder was (and remains to be) a wonderful tool to experiment with character creation; with a few clicks, one can see just how effective his or her character will be in combat and non-combat situations. It teaches the player the importance of statistical bonuses from a combination of skills, feats, traits and powers. And perhaps more importantly, it encourages and rewards that type of optimizing behavior. After all, why wouldn’t a player choose the options that produce the most damaging effects in combat?
So I examined he options in Blade Raiders and based my choices on the questions above. I chose talents that gave me bonuses to attack and damage rolls. I basically created a 4th Edition Striker in the Blade Raiders system. And my character, Bryce Brevard, was absolutely death on wheels. While I racked up kills and rejoiced in my ability to slay foes quickly, I experienced a creeping doubt that I was being “that guy.” You know, that guy on a basketball team that takes all the shots and celebrates the win by himself while his teammates look on in annoyance. It dawned on me that other people around the table were playing Blade Raiders – but in many ways, I was still playing 4th Edition D&D.
One feature of 4th Edition D&D is a DM and player get to roll a lot of dice. Seriously, a sh*t-ton of dice. I love dice – even when I hate them – and it is great to roll them during a gaming session. Fourth Edition D&D gives players multiple dice to roll throughout the course of gameplay. A single round of actions from one low-level character in 4th Edition will likely require at least one d20 roll and multiple damage dice depending on the weapon and power used. By mid-paragon, my rogue was rolling a d20 followed by as much as six d8s for damage with one power against a single target. And more dice were added if the rogue used an Action Point or some type of magical item.
The sheer number of die rolls in a session of 4th Edition is pretty staggering. I may not play 4th Edition again for a while, but if some of my fellow researchers out there are interested, I’d love to know just how many dice are rolled during a standard three-to-four hour session – how many d20s, d10s, d8s, etc. The die-happiness of 4th Edition is something I took for granted until I played Blade Raiders. The game mechanics are built on one type of die – a d10. That fancy new set of dice I have? Not needed. A lone d10 is rolled for an attack and a lone d10 is rolled for damage. Weapons have a modifier; a dagger is d10-4 (min 1) whereas a warhammer is d10+5. As a veteran of 4e, even the fact that I only had one d10 in front of me was too much to take during our playtest. I had to use one d10 for attacks and a different d10 for damage.
In building my character, one of the considerations was finding ways to roll more dice more often. Weird? Maybe, but this is how 4th Edition has shaped my approach to tabletop RPGs – more dice equals more fun! In looking through the talent options in Blade Raiders, Dual Wielding immediately leaped off the page. It allows the player to attack twice during each round. Perfect!
In addition to Dual Wielding, my talent choices included Slayer (bonus to damage) and Fighter (bonus to hit). The three talents combined to make my character, Bryce Brevard, well-prepared to lay waste to the foul creatures of Aveggor! In my mind, Bryce filled the striker roll – hit quick, hit often and hit hard. What I found as the night progressed is that thinking in terms of 4th Edition roles for my character boxed me in to expect other players to approach the game – and their character – in the same manner.
One of the really interesting things about Blade Raiders is it purposely avoids standard frameworks of classes or roles. Yes, there are two different healing-related talents and an assortment of magical talents, but they can be combined in any number of ways. Instead of taking the Fighter talent for Bryce, I could have selected from magical talents such as Mender (healing), Firecaller, Portalist or Earth Mover. I would remain a fun “striker-like” character, but I would also be able to perform some magical spells.
Every other player in the group selected a combination of magical and non-magical talents, creating interesting hybrids along the way. Many of which I did not know how to conceptualize around the table, “Wait, one second you’re wielding a greatsword, the next you’re firing a bow and now you’re casting a spell to move rocks around to form a stairway for the party? What is happening?” In a long-running 4th Edition party, you get to learn each character’s powers intimately – sometimes better than the other player using the character! (but that is another discussion). And you know what the characters are meant to do.
Tank. Healer. The roles are clearly defined. Even those players who get fancy with multiclassing are still primarily serving in one role for the party. Blade Raiders allows for more flexible – perhaps not in the total of options available but in how they can be combined. It provides more cognitive flexibility to character creation and gameplay, which I learned I need more of after starting the campaign!
My Myopic Mindset
I truly love 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. It’s the edition that led me back into gaming after a long break and I enjoyed many a day and night playing it with various groups over the past three years; I hope to continue playing it from time to time. The design of the game very much shapes the way players and their characters can function. This was not entirely noticeable to me until after I started another campaign in a different system. Having not played much of other tabletop RPGs, my view of how to play a RPG is quite limited.
My tendency to think in 4th Edition terms will continue, and that is not a bad thing. Another fun feature in Blade Raiders is that players can create their own powers by spending Career Advancement Points (think of a combination of XP and Action Points) and discussing with the Storyteller (DM). For example, I could create “martial powers” that cause “status effects,” allow me to disarm a combatant or perhaps provide a bonus to an ally attacking the same target. I could do anything.
And that is at the same time wonderful, challenging and unsettling. I just hope the other adventurers will allow Bryce to get his bearings in the world before kicking him out of the party!
I wonder, how have others had their approach to RPGs shaped by their “primary” game of choice? How do you remain flexible when playing different systems?