11 December 2012

Episode 4e : A New Hope?

Good morning, True Believers, and sorry it's been over a month.

  LOTS of things have happened since I posted my Top Ten, so let's sum up.  I finished my Bachelor of Arts degree in Military History with a GPA of 3.791.  Now I just have to wait until February to actually have my degree conferred.  We are moving closer to adoping Z and K, and I can't wait to share photos of them with the world.  Z saw Star Wars for the first time last night - he started it once before and fell asleep as we'd started it too late at night.  He loved it, and wants to see it again.  I am *so* trying to score him the toddler Millennium Falcon now...  K is now W A L K I N G.  It's amazing how quickly they grow.  And also amazing all those "dad" moments I've gotten lately just playing and spending time with the kiddos.  I'm halfway through my weight loss, havign lost 38lbs and having another 38 or so to go to hit my TXSG height/weight.  After that, I'm trying to knock out another 17lbs or so to hit an even 200.  Also, for the first time in four years, I'm no longer the lead game master for the Royal Dragoon Guards.  That's right, I did not seek re-election as Battalion Commander instead opting for the top player spot, Company Commander.  I'm now the lead player, and letting Bobby Dean GM for a while.  Six months, at least.  If he doesn't suck, and he won't, we'll see if he runs for another six.

  OK, gaming.  Well, first of all, since I'm not currently enrolled in any college courses for the first time in two years, I can put together a regular game session.  Since the Royal Dragoons are a major sci-fi campaign and Bobby runs an occasional Star Wars game, I decided to do something fantasy-based with my game.  I also wanted some folks I don't usually game with.  I got both wishes, having created a D&D Essentials group with two players I don't normally game with, and one who I usually only game with at RDG.  Randi and Bobby round out the group.

  I know, I know.  Why 4e Essentials?  You guys know I'm a grognard, and that my desert island book is the Basic D&D Rules Cyclopedia (I even had Aaron Allston sign mine.)  You know I've run AD&D 1e using Rules As Written.  (We never even played it that way back in the 80s.)  You know I regularly re-read and occasionally 1-shot things like Marvel FASERIP, Star Frontiers, Melee/Wizard, Car Wars, Gangbusters, Top Secret/S.I....  so why in the name of all that's holy did I decide to run a game using what is largely considered to be the least D&D of the D&D games?

  Basic answer?  Because I've never done it before.  Sure, I've run Essentials when I used to DM D&D Encounters at Rogue's Gallery.  That was a cycle of modules that covered levels 1-3 over and over again every few months.  I've never dreamed up my own campaign and run it "in the wild" for a group.  I wanted to give this a shot before deciding that the Old School was the Only School.  One of my players in particular is giving me a lot of gas about running 4th Edition, claiming that all the rules get in the way of the story.  Well, time will tell - and after two game sessions, it's already started to.  The GM and the Players are what makes story happen, not the rules.  But more on that later.

  I'm going to lead off with why I hated 4e at first, and what caused me to decide to give it another try in its D&D Essentials incarnation.  Part of my problem was that the game dictated HOW to run D&D to its Dungeon Masters.  Thou shalt have five players.  Thou shalt bludgeon them with roles and party balance.  Thou shalt hand out this much treasure and no more.  It shall take this long to level, and encounters should be balanced to party level.  Oh, all your players really should be the same level or the math breaks...  Stuff like that.  On the player side, I didn't like martial classes playing like spellcasting classes.  Also - since 3E the game has really encouraged the use of a battle map and counters or minis.  I never used minis much in older editions - which is to say at all, except to mark marching order.  I didn't hate the idea... just didn't like the more-or-less requirement.  4e made that even more mandatory with powers that relied on relative placement of combatants.  Do not want, really.

  Well, with Essentials came a new take on 4e.  If it constituted 4.5 is a discussion for another time, but gone were things that just tweaked me off.  Martial daily powers?  Gone.  Martial marks?  Gone.  In their place were stances, which made perfect sense, and defender auras, which also made a lot of sense.  Something about the Essentials builds just felt more D&D to me.  I tried playing a Warpriest, and lo and behold I felt like a badass Cleric from the days of old save for the turning ability.  I could fight, heal and move all in the same round.  Maybe this wasn't so bad after all...

  So I decided to get into the D&D Encounters scene and stayed there for over a year.  I really started to enjoy the game, and the playstyle.  I realized that there was a good game under the hood of 4e... it just wasn't what I called Dungeons and Dragons.  And that's OK.  So I started planning to run my own campaign to test some of my assumptions... and got back into college, and got my two awesome foster kids.  Gaming went on hold except for the RDG commitment.  So here we are, and I'm getting this Essentials game going - so what do I like about it?  Strangely, some of the things I hated when I had it mentally tagged as D&D.

  First and most obvious - the battle map and map-based combat.  This game, unlike the versions of D&D I prefer, requires them.  Powers are written in bursts and blasts and ranges and adjacent and aura and you really, REALLY need a map to make them work.  The powers are so much a part of each character that you risk really bringing the game engine crashing down on you if you just try to fudge it.  I used to see that as a bug in my normally narrarative style dungeon mastering.  What I needed to do was look at the way it played on its own merits, not as a replacement for my beloved BD&D and AD&D.  Okay, so what does the system do?  It's a tactical combat system in which each class has its role to play and each character potentially has a completely different set of strengths, weaknesses and abilities to bolster the party as a whole.  I used to hate that Fighters were now referred to as "Defenders" and expected to be meat shields...  but that's just codifying the way low-level mages hid behind the fighters anyway, isn't it?  In fact, the Defender Aura makes them better at it than old-school D&D fighters were in a way.  I also liked that spellcasters never ran completely out of spell juice.  I loved playing Magic-Users in BD&D, but damned if it wasn't annoying to be out of spells... and that happened a LOT at low levels.  In the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, Venger never ran out of those cool magical bolts...

  OK, so looking at the way the game PLAYS, the PCs have to have a sense of their own abilities and those of their allies.  They have to learn to use those abilities together to accomplish goals in combat.  It's... tactical.  Hey, wait- I love tactical.  It's no different from the way we obsess over BattleMechs in Battletech and their capabilities and how they work together and separately and how best to employ them and how NEVER to employ them.  So... my favorite part of Battletech can become part of my fantasy games.  OK, I can dig this.  It also reminds me of the great XBox game "Gladius" and Final Fantasy Tactics.  I had always listened to people rail against 4e saying that it was too much like a video game, or an MMO.  Thing is - I'm beginning to see that as a feature of this particular game.
  Is it what I want out of all of my D&D?  Negative, ghostrider.  Does it work for this campaign?  It's seeming to.

  What I mean by that is I've begun to write this campaign as if I was writing a classic 8-Bit RPG.  The enforced pacing I had hated so much in the DMG was now my ally.  I could use that pacing in writing the campaign arc - since it took X number of encounters to go up a level, and encounters were figured as level-appropriate...  So this means that I can now plan the pace of the game based on those assumptions.  The ability to reskin 4e monsters is pretty cool, too.  I've already decided that I'm going to include some creatures my players won't expect - like Oktoroks and Leevers.

  We have played two sessions, and tonight is a third.  I'll blog more about this game after that session, as I think three sessions is enough to get a feel for where this is going and if it's working or not.  Right now, I'm cautiously saying it's working well - even my staunchest 4e hater is having a blast...