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Mordenkainen Speaks: What would the Great Gygax think about 4E, Pathfinder, and D&D Next?

MordenkainenI can proudly say that I’m what some would call a “lifetime gamer”.  Dungeons & Dragons gave me my introduction to role-playing games back in in 1978, and the Avalon Hill “bookshelf games” started my war / board gaming fandom a couple years later.  And although I’ve played many different styles of role-playing games from wide range of publishers, my favorite RPG will always be some form of D&D – pick any edition, and I’ll gladly join a game!

But for the vast majority of my more than three decades of D&D play, I’ve been a Dungeon Master: the guy behind the screen; the campaign creator; the adventure writer.  I was a Dungeon Master from the first time I ever sat down to play D&D, and it would be more than a year before I would be offered a chance to make up a character and play on the other side of the screen.  So one might say that I was a self-taught DM, but honestly, that would not entirely be the truth.

As older gamers can attest, the creator and founder of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, was very keen on instructing Dungeon Masters how to play “his” game.  The original Dungeon Masters Guide was exactly what its title claimed it to be: a guide – a comprehensive crash course in running a D&D campaign, from designing encounters to world building, and everything else in between!  And the early few hundred or so Dragon Magazines were filled with tons of ideas for running different styles of campaigns, variant rules, and even advice on how to resolve some sticky situations arising in games (i.e. the old Sage Advice columns).

But Dungeons & Dragons has evolved quite a bit over time, and has changed quite a lot from the RPG that Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and other authors labored to create back in the 1970s.  Wizards of the Coast developed 3rd Edition, 3.5/d20, and finally D&D 4E, which has recently been abandoned along with its fans, in favor of a new version of the game which they hope will have a broader gamer appeal.  And Paizo’s Pathfinder continues to be a strong force in the D&D gaming community, despite it being quite different from older versions, and has no access to original setting material.  And of course, D&D gamers of all ages continue to play nearly every edition every created, seizing upon their favorite version of the game which best suits their groups’ style.

garyBut I find myself wondering what would the voice behind Mordenkainen think about the D&D 4E, the rise of Pathfinder, and the upcoming D&D Next?  As a gamer who has been around the RPG block a few times, I’ve thought a lot about the direction Dungeons & Dragons have gone over the years, and how my own gaming philosophy compares with those of the man who created my favorite pastime.  So while I can’t claim to personally know the mind of the late great Mr. Gygax, I think it’s interesting to consider some quotes from the man himself, and how they might pertain to the current D&D edition, its biggest rival, and the edition that is yet to come!

Quote #1: “The essence of a role-playing game is that it is a group, cooperative experience. There is no winning or losing, but rather the value is in the experience of imagining yourself as a character in whatever genre you’re involved in, whether it’s a fantasy game, the Wild West, secret agents or whatever else. You get to sort of vicariously experience those things.”

With respect to this quote, which appeared in the New York Times article Gary Gygax, Game Pioneer, Dies at 69 (5 March 2008), I think all three games – D&D 4E, Pathfinder, and D&D Next – lives up to his litmus test of what a role-playing game is all about.  While the three versions of D&D approach game mechanics like character design and combat quite differently, they still allow the players to envision a unique and detailed alter ego in a fantasy world environment.

Quote #2: “The adventure is the thing, not ‘a story.’ If you want stories, go read a book, if you want derring-do, play a real RPG and then tell the story of the adventure you barely survived afterwards. The tale is one determined by the players’ characters’ actions, surely!”

Like in the previous quote, I think that D&D 4E, Pathfinder, and D&D Next all can fulfill Mr. Gygax’s game philosophy.  But of the three games, I must admit that 4E’s encounter driven adventure design makes the storytelling aspects a bit stilted.  As much as I like D&D 4E, adventures require more planning under the current edition, and aren’t as easy to run “off the cuff” as adventures I used to run in previous editions.  Some of my older players who have been gaming with me since college days night be surprised that some of their best loved adventures from bygone campaigns were invented at the table on the fly – and that’s something that 4E doesn’t lend itself to, at least as far as my experience has been as a DM since 2008.

Quote #3: “The worthy GM never purposely kills players’ PCs, he presents opportunities for the rash and unthinking players to do that all on their own.  Those players who have their characters act rashly or do plainly foolish things can speak of their part in the tale posthumously ;) ”  (from Dragonsfoot Forums)

I’ve always taken this DM philosophy to heart.  I hate character death and TPKs, but I acknowledge the fact that they happen sometime.  However, I never seek to kill characters, but I do create hard encounters where the heroes have to work hard to survive, and if they showboat or get sloppy, then the grim specter of death will definitely be stalking around the gaming table.  D&D 4E has some of the hardiest characters around and it’s pretty hard to stomp them out with a “reasonable” encounter. Pathfinder characters tend to be pretty tough as well, but so far D&D Next characters tend to be downright fragile.  Having tried several different iterations of Next, including the first “super secret” version which came out before the public playtest.  Character death was far too easy to cause, and the early monster designs were brutal.  The version I playtested at GenCon a few months ago was moving in the right direction,  there still needs to be work done to make characters feel like heroes, and not peons.

Quote #4: “The new D&D is too rules intensive. It’s relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It’s done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG…”  GameSpy interview, Pt. 2 (16 August 2004)

This quote came right in the middle of the 3rd Edition and 3.5/d20 era of Dungeons & Dragons, and clearly Mr. Gygax didn’t have much in the way of warm fuzzies for this edition.  By inference, I would also assume that he would have even less liking for Pathfinder and D&D 4E which are also quite rules intensive, and have fairly powerful character classes and might be considered non-archetypal.  On the other hand, the playtest rules I’ve seen for D&D Next so far have embraced this gaming philosophy, and is less rules intensive, although some character classes still are moving away from OD&D and AD&D archetypes.

From my personal experience, I do understand what he was railing against with respect to a change in the Dungeon Master’s role in the campaign, but I am not sure I think it’s a bad thing.  In previous editions, there was a certain amount of time wasted at every gaming session arguing over DM decisions.  Certainly, a DM could take a very “it’s my world, like it or leave it”, but that’s a pretty harsh stance to take with your gaming buddies.  The later editions of D&D like 3rd Edition and 4E, as well as Pathfinder, codified many combat and adventuring rules so that players didn’t have to play the “DM May I?” game, and knew the limits of what their characters could and could not accomplish.  D&D Next seems to be moving in a direction of having fewer rules, and letting DMs adjudicate more often during a session.

The Man behind Mordenkainen was big on DM empowerment, and on letting Dungeon Masters be the final arbiter of rules in the game…

Quote #5: Gary Gygax’s Afterword (AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, pg 230)

“IT IS THE SPIRIT OF THE GAME, NOT THE LETTER OF THE RULES, WHICH IS IMPORTANT. NEVER HOLD TO THE LETTER WRITTEN, NOR ALLOW SOME BARRACKS ROOM LAWYER TO FORCE QUOTATIONS FROM THE RULE BOOK UPON YOU, IF IT GOES AGAINST THE OBVIOUS INTENT OF THE GAME. AS YOU HEW THE LINE WITH RESPECT TO CONFORMITY TO MAJOR SYSTEMS AND UNIFORMITY OF PLAY IN GENERAL, ALSO BE CERTAIN THE GAME IS MASTERED BY YOU AND NOT BY YOUR PLAYERS. WITHIN THE BROAD PARAMETERS GIVEN IN THE ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS VOLUMES, YOU ARE CREATOR AND FINAL ARBITER. BY ORDERING THINGS AS THEY SHOULD BE, THE GAME AS A WHOLE FIRST, YOUR CAMPAIGN NEXT, AND YOUR PARTICIPANTS THEREAFTER, YOU WILL BE PLAYING ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE. MAY YOU FIND AS MUCH PLEASURE IN SO DOING AS THE REST OF US DO!”

The capitalization is all the author’s original presentation, so I think it was clear that he felt strong enough about this issue to make sure his words blasted off the page at the reader’s eye.  And I’ve certainly fought my share of gaming table “lawyers” arguing their cases for why a particular rule or spell or ability should work this way and not that.  But one of the reliefs I have had in 4E, and one of the reasons I like it so much, is that I don’t have to memorize every power, every spell, and every ritual just to run the game, and rarely do I have to arbitrate how a class powers function.  D&D 4E’s AEDU powers are really just compartmentalized little rules, and their functions are almost universally straightforward and easy to implement during a game.  But then again, I sometimes feel that AEDU powers are a bit restrictive, and make it hard for players to extemporize their actions both in and out of combat, their characters bounded by the rules contained on those power cards.

Then again, when discussing the rules of any role-playing game, the Great Gygax had a very quotable commentary to make about RPG design as a whole:

Quote #6: “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.”

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!


About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

Comments

6 Responses to “Mordenkainen Speaks: What would the Great Gygax think about 4E, Pathfinder, and D&D Next?

  1. Excellent blog.

    By way of variance, I have found 4e D&D dramatically easier to run “on the fly” than previous iterations of the game, back to 2e (which was where the bulk of my early play experience comes from). If one were to break free of the “AEDU dictate everything you can do!” and start allowing PCs to improvise actions with skill checks (as Essentials notes as a direction), then it opens up a whole world of variety and improvisation.

    All my 4e games are almost entirely improvised on the spot, as that’s just how I DM. When I go back and try to do that for 3.5 or Pathfinder, on the other hand, it becomes clunky and cumbersome.

    Cheers

  2. Baz Stevens says:

    I disagree with a lot of your findings. Rather than clog up your comments, my rebuttal is here. http://rpgtreehouse.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/the-continuing-deification-of-gygax/

  3. @Erik – Thanks! And I’ll have to try and encourage my players to try and break out of AEDU constraints more often. They did it all the time in previous editions of D&D, so I know they are capable of it – perhaps AEDU is just a bit too much of a honeypot for easy role-playing?

  4. Philo Pharynx says:

    Odd, our group has never had a problem breaking out of AEDU. I’ve also found that I have an easier time making up adventures on the fly with 4e. In part because I can feel reasonably sure that an X level monster is going to be more equal to another X level monster than in other editions. The other point is that 4e monsters tend to only have a couple of odd things, if any. I don’t have a spell list that I always forget to use.

  5. @Philo – In retrospect, I think I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to making up adventurers on the fly. I am forever tweaking monsters or building completely new ones, and can’t seem to just pull a critter out of the Monster Manuals and just use it. When playing older editions of D&D, unless I was making a specific named NPC enemy for a combat, I rarely felt hung up about just cracking a monster manual and dropping critters into combats. I’ll have to work at liberating myself from my own obsession with monster design… lol.

  6. Jeremy Mac Donald says:

    Well I tend to be in the boat that 4E rewards planned encounters and does so significantly more then at least early editions though, for different reasons, maybe not more so then 3rd edition.

    In my experience while its possible to just say ‘and that’s a fight guys’ in 4E this has a tendency to highlight 4Es weak points while hiding its strengths. One of the things 4E is really exceptional at is environmental effects. There can be a lot of moving parts to an encounter but its very difficult for the DM to design all of those moving parts on the fly. So a DM that sits down and plans out encounters can take time and effort to make sure that there are interesting and exciting elements to each encounter. Can work out what the rules are for the conveyer belts or the fact that massive blobs of flour dough are falling from the roof and might land on people or whatever the DM can think of to make this encounter interesting and exciting.

    On the other hand 4E is a game with, generally, long combats and this just gets more and more pronounced as they level up. Every encounter, complex or simple, requires the miniatures to be placed and then runs through a sequence that involves not just the execution of tons of unique powers but all sorts of interactions as players and monsters use interrupts and even free and opportunity interrupts to influence the combat.

    The end result is your going to spend a serious chunk of game night on any encounter whether its one that comes up because of the players seat of the pants actions or the DMs dark and stormy night assault on the inn (with minion allies on the players side and helpless victims that must be defended). The well thought out and planned encounter with many interesting features though has the potential to be that ‘epic scene’ the players will remember years later much more then the ‘off the cuff’ encounter and the complexity it adds only increases the length of the encounter a reasonably small amount compared to the total running time of any encounter.

    Bottom line – every encounter is going to be a long one – but you can really focus on what makes 4E combat shine by going for broke in the design of as many 4E combats as possible.

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