4e: Easy to run, but is it as easy for players?

Posted on January 5, 2011 by

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My 4e game is dead.  It has been for a while now.

Yep.  Elvis dead.  JFK dead.  Dead.  Dead.  Dead.

There are a few reasons for this, some personal on my end, but mostly logistical and scheduling.  Then there’s burnout, but not the ever popular “DM burnout”.  Not that, as I’m willing to run a game whenever I get the chance.  I love running 4e.  Are you kidding?  4e was made to be run.  Whether you’re a newbie as I was in 2008, or a veteran of many wars, 4e begs to be run.  In my opinion, it is simply the easiest and most accessible version of D&D ever produced (for the DM).

But what about the other people sitting at the table?  How easy is it for them?  Does the ease of the game for DM’s translate over to the player’s side of things?  I don’t know that it does anymore.  I’m not sure it ever did.  And this may have contributed to the death of my 4e game.  Thinking about this led me to post the following thoughts on twitter:

Weird and bizarre thought:  I’m coming to the conclusion that 4e is easier for the dm to play, than the players.  Whereas before it may have been the other way around.  And that led to my group tuning out, while I wasn’t ready to tune out yet. Fwiw.  The complexity was flipped to the other side of the screen with 4e. Interesting thought, hadn’t seen it before until talks with players.

I think the game was designed with the beginner DM in mind, and a strong effort was made to make the game as easy as possible to run as they could make it.  We see it in the adventure layouts, the stat blocks, and all the DM material available out there.  But for beginner players, well, we see a butt load of options, classes, races, feats, powers, items, this that and the other to the point that you needed a piece of software to create a character with in order to play a pen and paper rpg.  Think about that for a second.  The amount of options available for players is so great that it’s best to create your character with software, because otherwise you’d have a hard time finding and keeping track of all available options for your pc.

Now don’t misunderstand me… I am not saying the 4e is so convoluted that novice players can’t possibly pick it up.  That would be a ridiculous statement, as thousands of people play the game and enjoy it.  What I’m starting to believe though, and saw in my own group was that this is the first version of the game where the complexity has shifted over to to the other side of the screen and has landed on the player’s laps, for better or worse.  And I think that this shift has been gradually coming over time.

When I think back on my first D&D character, I look at a 1e Barbarian, created with the Unearthed Arcana book.  He was relatively easy to play.  He had an axe I believe, and that’s all that he did.  He swung, and went barbarian shit crazy on people.  There wasn’t much depth to him, or to my needs as a player.  He was what he was.  An axe swinger.

My DM on the other hand, had a monumental task.  He was juggling seven or eight players, while using the old AD&D approach of winging it for encounter building, running an abstract combat in his mind without a grid or battlemaps, and making sense out of the old stat blocks.  He had a tough job, a job that was very rare that someone would want.  A job that I know I wouldn’t have wanted at the time.  Screw that.  I’ll keep my barbarian, thank you very much.

What happened after that?  2e came along, and for the most part it was more of the same.  The DM had a far harder job than I did.  My dwarven fighter was easy to run, even with those stupid non-weapon proficiencies.  Swing his axe, hurl an insult, rinse, dry, repeat.  Then towards the end of 2e, someone decided that it would be a good idea to add complexity to characters and fights.  The black books came along and skills, powers, combat and tactics were introduced at our table… and quickly rejected.  Why?  Too much to worry about.  Slow phase, medium phase, whatever.  We didn’t need it.  Our job as players was supposed to be easy, that’s why we were players and not DM’s.  They had the hard job at the table, remember.

And then 3e came about, and it changed D&D for ever.  Or so say the cool kids.  It was never my cup of tea.  I never really fell in love with 3e, or what I thought it did to the game.  In my mind, a lot of DM judgement calls and refereeing was taken away and placed as a rule in a rulebook.  Now the players could call the DM on calls and say “oh no… see here?”  But aside from that, it made characters a hell of a lot more complex.  It added feats, and ranks, and skills, and prestige classes, and this and that, and a ton of shit that I didn’t care about, or need, or want to figure out.  It made me think too much as I built my dwarf fighter.  I didn’t want to think, I wanted to swing my axe and hurl insults. And I couldn’t.  Because first I had to figure out class ranks, and half a rank and whatever, whatever.  I didn’t like it.  It became a chore for me to make a character.  And for Dm’s?  Could I try it then?  Had it gotten simpler?  Well, I’m still trying to figure out challenge ratings, so no.  And I walked away from D&D.

And well, 4e comes along.  And 4e is a game that practically begs you to run it.  Everything is so well done for a DM to just come along , sit, and run a game.  Monster stat blocks, adventures, encounters, delves, tactics.  It is a newbie DM’s perfect introduction to the craft.  At least it was for me.  And players?  Well, they were bombarded with options from the get-go.   Tons of classes, tons of races (some too weird for my game), powers, feats enough to fill a digital compendium and character builder with.  And for many, that’s a great thing.  It means options and customizing.  It also forced them to become tactical thinkers and wargamers.  Like it or not.  It is what it is. 4e puts a strong emphasis on combat.  Yeah, I’m saying it, so what?  My group enjoyed the tactical aspects to an extent, although they hated the 45 minute to an hour long fights.

So players were given tons of stuff to create their dream character with,  but for many, it was too much.  Too many things, too soon, too fast.  The game isn’t even three years old yet, and they’ve already pulled the reigns on this stuff.

What the heck do you think Essentials is?  Nothing was touched on the DM’s side of things.  That aspect of the game is perfect.  It still is.  But players?  If you need the character builder to build an essentials character you are just damn lazy.

And what’s my point in all this?  I’m not even sure anymore.  I think my point is that the game developed a complexity over time that has shifted over to the players.  And in my case, that complexity led to a group burnout that turned them off 4e.  The erratas, the multitude of powers, options, classes, feats.  At the end, it didn’t matter to me, the DM.  I had my encounter for the night and I didn’t care what PC showed up or not.  They are the ones that worried of the striker, or the leader, or the controller was doing his job right.  Not me.  My job was so simple I could run an adventure without reading it beforehand.

So what’s next?  Well, I know 4e is off the table for now.  Permanently?  I can’t say.  I wish it weren’t, as I truly enjoy running it.  It made me as a DM.   Star Wars Saga?  Maybe.  Star Wars d6?  We’ve gone to that well too many times methinks.  Dragon Age?  That seems to be the next big thing for our group.  Fantasy, made simpler.  At least for them.  For me as a DM it isn’t like 4e is.  No way.  It’s not hard to run, but it’s no 4e.  I’d be willing to bet that a newbie dm would have a harder time with it than with 4e.

We shall see.  I really just want to roll dice.

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Posted in: 4e D&D, Gaming