It seems to me that there is a disturbing trend of late, arising in blogs, in forums, and on twitter. D&D 4E seems to be coming under steadily increasing criticism, and its mechanics called into question compared to the “wonderful” mechanics of D&D Next. Sure I get that, to a certain extent, it feels necessary by WotC and some members of the community to dethrone the current edition to make way for the new one, particularly when it seems that Hasbro and Wizards refuse to look at any other business model for D&D than to support only one version of the game at a time. But there is something really sad, and even a bit repellent, when you see WotC designers throwing parts of 4E under the proverbial bus, just to somehow justify their own design goals in D&D Next.
What’s even worse is that some of these new Next mechanics have no appeal to me at all as a veteran D&D DM and player. I’m pretty open to a lot of different game mechanics, and have played a ton of different RPGs over the years, besides all the versions of D&D. But when you have a game mechanic that is working just fine in current and past systems of a game, then have someone from WotC come along and throw crap all over it and claiming it’s “bad”, it’s not exactly going to inspire loyalty, given that the “bad” mechanic was originally created by WotC itself!
And exactly how long ago was it that WotC and all of the 4E community were championing the mechanics of the current form of D&D? It wasn’t all that long ago I think that we all weathered together the slings and arrows of angry edition warriors, out for 4E blood, because it wasn’t “real D&D”.
So I felt it was high time to step up and defend D&D 4E against the propaganda wants to use it as poster child for the “bad” mechanics, while trying to convince the community that D&D Next mechanics are so very, very “good”.
There was a recent Legends & Lore article which discussed a D&D Next design concept called Bounded Accuracy. The gist of this article was that D&D Next would not have attack bonuses, saving throw bonuses, or skill bonuses that would increase solely by level. They would only increase as a result of new Character Themes, Class features, and through magic items. This would have the laudable effect of allowing low level monsters to continue to be threatening challenges for even high level characters, make it easier to adjudicate skill checks and improvised scenes, and make it more apparent for DMs and players to get a sense of difficulty and of relative strength.
Personally, I think that while Bounded Accuracy might be able to do all of these things, it also has some fairly awful side-effects, such as making heroes feel inferior and stymie any general feeling of advancement in the game.
First off, it’s probably important to point out that Bounded Accuracy has never existed in any version of D&D. I was quite boggled in fact when I actually saw commenters to the L&L article praise WotC for bringing Bounded Accuracy “back” to D&D. Let’s be clear here, that with only one real exception, Bounded Accuracy is a contrivance of D&D Next, so really this mechanic creates a “feature” which has the potential to be off-putting to many D&D fans. I certainly felt no real excitement for this particular design goal…
So in previous editions of D&D, going as far back as you like, you had only one combat stat which truly had Bounded Accuracy: Armor Class. Armor Class has never increased simply by level, with the exception of a few odd classes out there like the old Monk, and has always been dependent on ability scores, gear, magic items, and spells to increase it. Other combat statistics like attack bonuses, saving throws, and in later editions, skills, all increased over the course of the characters’ careers, every time they gained a new level.
Generally speaking, the armor classes of monsters increased with level as well (or HD), making higher level critters more threatening – but not always. In older editions, D&D designers always threw a few monsters into the game that were exceptions to the rule. Some high level monsters had weak ACs but piles of hit points, while some low level monsters had unusually high ACs but died in only a couple hits.
And of course, higher level monsters have always been able to hit more accurately and for more damage than low level monsters. Historically, character ACs, particularly Fighter and Cleric ACs who wear heavy armor, eventually reaches a point where low level monsters can only hit the heroes on a 20, while higher level threats can hit them around 30-50% of the time, and a monster which might be considered “out of their league” will hit them all the time!
But Bounded Accuracy wants to change all that, taking the advancement of combat statistics completely out of the game. Low level monsters and high level monsters would have almost the exact same percentage chance of hitting character AC, while player-characters will have the same ability to hit monsters back, so that even a low level character can slice into a dragon nearly as well as a high level hero. This also means that monsters never become better at warding off spell attacks, as saving throws do not increase, but then again, neither do the characters. In essence, the only thing which differentiates a high level threat from a low level threat, whether hero or monster, is damage output and hit points. Presumably, from the Open Playtest materials, monsters will continue to gain more and more hit points and their hits will continue to deal ever increasing damage. From the Playtest characters, we see very little change in damage output over the three levels, and some modest gains in hit points.
So which combat scenario feels more heroic to you?
You’re a heroic Fighter, after leveling up several levels, can now wade into a battlefield full of low level orcs, and mow them down like weeds. You can hold off packs of them, cutting them down in droves, because only a few of them will actually hit you. You hold the onslaught back, butchering them several at a time, while your comrades blast apart the warband with spells and deadly missile fire!
You’re a heroic Fighter, after leveling up several levels, marches into a battlefield full of orcs, are quickly surrounded and cut to ribbons while the rest of the party watches helplessly. Despite your level gains, your ability to hit and kill orcs is relatively the same as it was when you were a newbie adventurer, because bounded accuracy assures this. Your armor has not vastly improved, which still allows the orc packs to stab, slash, and bludgeon you to death. The surviving heroes run screaming from the field, pursued by the bloodthirsty orcs, and are hunted down and torn asunder, one after the other.
The first version of this story is pretty much any version of D&D you want to name from OD&D to 3.5/Pathfinder. Obviously, this sort of mass melee warband thing was not something you would see often in 4E, as it had a different encounter building strategy. In 4E, DMs would likely scale up orcs to around the same level as the party on the fly, so that even without Bounded Accuracy, monsters never went out of style and would still awarded decent experience points because they still posed an equal level threat. Of course, an encounter could be constructed to give the same feeling of dealing with old massive orc warband. That “old school” style of encounter could still easily be simulated in D&D 4E by using low level minions which have little chance of hitting the heroes, and could be easily hacked apart.
But until Next, no edition of D&D expected that a high level Fighter was going to die at the hands of a pack of 1st level monsters – so how exactly is that an innovation? And does anyone who has ever played a version of D&D actually want to feel that non-heroic?
Now as far as skills are concerned, I’m in complete agreement with some of the points made, but I don’t think Bounded Accuracy is the way to resolve them. Raw ability score bonuses, with a few small bonuses to represent training, simply does not feel like a real skill system to me. Does anyone think that a mathematical genius who never studied history is not going to be on the same footing as a moderately intelligent individual who has spent years reading history texts? Under Bounded Accuracy, they would have the same chance to answer a history question, just so that there is the illusion that all characters can contribute to problem solving.
Don’t get me wrong, D&D 4E’s system of skills does not sit right with me either, because leveling up should not increase all skills across the board evenly. It’s a nifty game mechanic to make character advancement easy and quick to do, but it’s also not particularly my favorite, because of the ever growing and adjusting Difficulty Check numbers. For me, 3.5/Pathfinder probably has the best system of skills and skill advancement in D&D, combining static DCs as recommended by Bounded Accuracy, with the ability to increase a few key skills each level, to represent ongoing training and study over a character’s career.
But overall, Bounded Accuracy sounds like a mess o’pottage to me, sacrificing the feeling of being heroic against low level monsters by exchanging in a mechanic which is really quite un-D&D like.
Fallacies about Feats
In a recent blog by a D&D designer called Feat Taxes and Bloat, the feat system of previous D&D systems (3rd, 3.5, and 4E of course) was actually a “bad” mechanic and that the new Theme system of D&D Next is a “good” mechanic. Getting rid of those nasty feats and replacing them with shining bright Themes is definitely the way to a better D&D game, and we should all embrace Themes so that there will never be Feat Tax and Feat Bloat again.
I think I shall reserve the right to disagree. Thank you.
First off, there is no such thing as a Feat Tax in 3.5. I both DM’d and played plenty of D&D 3.5 for years, and I never saw a set of feats that were required to make a character, or character class, viable on up into the mid-teens. Now I never did run an Epic Level 3.5 campaign, so maybe that’s where Feat Taxes come into play, but for characters levels 1-15, I saw feats chosen because they fit with a particular character concept – and occasionally to optimize a character. No matter how good a player is at role-playing, the optimization honey pot is sometimes just to irresistible to ignore for a whole fifteen levels of character development.
In 4E, there was undeniably a couple of feat taxes, due to some math incongruities between heroes attack bonuses and monster defenses, and vice versa. Also, there is almost always been a NAD score which is really low on a hero, and will almost certainly need a boost by a feat. But it should also be noted that these incongruities could have been fixed by WotC at any time. And it still can be!
WotC has already shown a willingness to post errata, and make changes to existing powers, monster attack and defense numbers, and a whole plethora of other attributes. And further, those changes can be implemented in DDI and Character Generator as soon as the errata goes public. So at any time, the attack and defense feat taxes could be fixed by simply adding a bonus to the Character Advancement table at the start of the Paragon and Epic Tiers. In fact, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting’s inherent bonuses go a long way to resolve feat tax, but they still don’t fix it completely. But using inherent bonuses, and dropping a +1 to hit, AC, and NADs at 11th level and another additive +1 at 21st level would totally handle the problem. Admittedly, I suppose that some players are frustrated by having to take a couple Expertise and NADs defense feats, but really, are a couple feats that big a deal over the life time of a character for 30 levels?
The fact that the WotC blogger also seemed to suggest that there were damage feats that were mandatory to be a viable hero was also a bit strange. In fact, he suggested that characters were forced to take certain feats from Level 1 to Level 6 just to survive. Again, I’ve got two D&D campaigns running – four campaigns if you include reboots – and there is simply no indication that feat choice in the heroic tier saves a character from certain doom, or transform them from weak to just adequate. Now there are some feats that optimize a character, but optimized is not merely adequate. We’re talking about a character at the pinnacle of effectiveness, eschewing character concept in favor of character power. But I have yet to see character optimization as a necessary trait needed for viability and survival.
And let’s face it, the damage output enhancement feats are actually a joke if you really look at the numbers. Damage output feats do nothing special against minions, and are directly affected by character attack accuracy and the length of combat. Given that characters hit about 50-50 during a combat, and that combats last 4-6 turns most of the time, taking a feat to gain a couple of extra damage points per attack is almost inconsequential to the overall monsters’ hit points!
Feat Bloat is the other design “hobgoblin” here, and I fail to see the big deal about offering players many different options for customizing their characters. Feats come in three flavors: add-ons, increased options, and exceptions. Add-on feats give a character a completely new power, skill, or ability. Increased option feats give a character additional options or bonuses to powers and skills they already have. And exception feats offer a way to circumvent a minor rule, making that character the exception that proves it.
But the problem that some folks have is that there is a proliferation of these types of feats, giving players too much choice, and occasionally making a feat which is too potent for the game rules. I find it fairly humorous in an ironic way that a WotC designer would poo-poo the expansion of feats and feat bloat, since all of the design team has had a hand in creating the so-called problem in the first place!
And certainly, Feat Bloat doesn’t seem to hurt Pathfinder’s popularity much at all. Pathfinder adopted almost all the SRD/3.5 feats, and have been steadily adding more to their feat lists with every new product! And we’ve certainly heard plenty of arguments here and there claiming that it’s Pathfinder’s popularity that is the reason 4E is being retired in favor of D&D Next!
My own complaint about feat bloat is based upon a need I feel to simplify feat lists and to remove those feats which are redundant. The feat lists in CharGen are cumbersome and difficult to use, and could be given tags and categories to make them more easily searchable. And there are plenty of feats which were made obsolete by improvements made on them in the “Heroes of” books, such as the ones with simple bonuses that were replaced with more complex feats which have the same bonus plus an add on effect. Do we really need to keep both on the rosters? I don’t think so personally, and I’d love to see how many feats could be weeded out if someone at WotC still actually gave a rat’s posterior about 4E.
And what about Theme Tax and Theme Bloat? It’s been suggested that DND Next Themes are a way of creating a linkage between feats, creating a thematic reason (ie. fluff) for them to be part of a character building mechanic. But honestly, how can the designers not see that this is just a horse of a different color? Aren’t we going to end up in the same quandary about Themes as we are about Feats?
Honestly, I can’t imagine the designers of D&D Next stopping at just 50 or 100 themes. I’ll lay odds we’ll see a constant parade of specialized racial themes, regional themes, and setting themes coming out as more and more products are released. Dragon Magazine will probably feature new Themes submitted by well-intentioned fans who want to see Asian cinema, Gladiator movies, and maybe even Steampunk represented in their characters as Themes. And 3rd Party Publishers and Next bloggers will be coming up with lists of Themes on their own, adding more and more Themes to the bloat.
And we’re kidding ourselves to not see how a Theme tax won’t come into play. Certain Themes will simply have a drawing power to certain players, and will begin to be seen as the optimal Theme for a particular class build and role. And isn’t it likely that players will choose themes that contain certain bonuses to attack, damage, AC, and saving throws if they feel they are falling behind in one of these areas? So in essence, some Themes will be deemed “essential” for class and character viability, making them the “tax” for playing in a D&D Next game.
And really, so far in the Playtest, all we’ve seen of a Theme is a stack of feat-like things connected under a fluff text framework. Some of these feat-like effects are useful, some less so, but it all forces a character into becoming more homogenized and less individualized. In essence, WotC designers are saying, “Sorry kids… you have too much freedom to create a character using feats chosen because they are interesting to you or because you like what they do for your character. You can’t be trusted to make decisions like that on your own, your own ideas for a character concept are inferior to our own, so you have to take this set of feats we pre-designed for you… and like it.”
Of course, WotC designers would never say that to the players, and they might not even realize that is a message and vibe they are sending out by striking down feats as “bad”, and supplanting them with themes as “good”. But when you take away character build options, and replace them with a more rigid system that allows less flexibility, it’s hard not to see it as a disappointment.
And by the way, that’s what made 4E character themes so awesome and why they were so well received. They were adding yet one more way for heroes to differentiate themselves, add an additional layer of complexity, and help to create an even more diverse background for the character.
Going forward, I anticipate we’ll keep hearing more and more that D&D 4E was “bad”, and how this or that D&D Next mechanic will be sooooo much better. I can only hope the D&D community will see through the propaganda, and evaluate a new mechanic for its merits alone. Turning D&D 4E into a “straw man” to prove the value of new mechanics is neither helpful nor inspiring to the process of creating D&D Next, and it suggests there’s a bit of sad desperation trying to make the Next version of D&D into something that most of us even care to play.
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!