I am again preempting my planned column. It feels a little odd to write about the specifics of encounter design when I am sitting here with newly purchased goodies in the D&D Essentials line: specifically the Red Box D&D Starter Set, Rules Compendium, and Heroes of the Fallen Lands.
When the Essentials line was announced, the usual Internet-fueled hyperbole about the end of the gaming world as we know it erupted. When such a reaction is so prevalent, immediate, and sadly expected, it is difficult to weed out the legitimate and well-reasoned concerns amid so much venting of spleens and gnashing of teeth. I will admit right now to being neither a revolutionary nor a reactionary. I don’t consider all change bad, and I don’t embrace change for its own sake. With that mindset, I held off on forming an opinion of Essentials until I got a look at the goods.
Of all the new (or changed) rules that Essentials brings with it, the most controversial is probably going to be the new character class builds. These builds, particularly the rogue (thief) and the two new fighters (slayer and knight) deviate from the well-established class structure that we’ve seen with previous 4e classes. As you know if you play 4e at all, the classes (until now) are on equal footing in terms of structure. No matter what class you choose, you have access to roughly the same number of at-will, encounter, daily, and utility powers. While the powers may differ, the basic structure is the same.
The reasons given for the new structure of class powers in 4e were many, but one of the big reasons discussed was the discrepancy between the power levels and play of the classes. In previous editions of D&D (and its many clones) lower-level spellcasters in the Vancian magic system could easily run out of spells in the first encounter of the day. This led to the dreaded phenomenon known as the “five-minute adventuring day.” The first encounter would end, the spellcasters would be out of spells, and the players would immediately want to rest for the day so they could regain their spells. This system also tended to make the non-spellcasting characters more powerful at lower levels, as they never ran out of their favorite attacks: fighters could always power attack, and rogues could always sneak attack. Certain classes had to play a resource-management game, while others really did not.
I was happy with the direction that 4e took with the structure of the classes. People who never played wizards in the past because they didn’t like the spell system could now put on the pointy hat, and people who only played spellcasters because fighters were “boring” could now use martial powers that were just as exciting as many spells. I liked the balance. But as someone who has played since well before the original Red Box set was released, the superior balance did come at the price of uniqueness. There was something special about playing a fighter in 1st Edition D&D as opposed to a cleric or a wizard or a thief. I think the Essentials designers must have asked themselves after the release of 4e if there wasn’t a way to keep most of the balance while still making things unique within the classes. I think Essentials, as we are beginning to see it, is the answer to that question.
However, I think a more important question is this: does D&D really need that balance at all? Let’s answer by looking at games in general first.
To put it simply, the reason games like Monopoly and Candy Land and Snakes and Ladders work is because everyone uses the exact same rules. The player who chooses the thimble does not get to re-roll dice if they are unhappy with the results. A player cannot ignore cards that send them back to the gingerbread man. No player can climb up a snake once per game. Most competitive games work in this way. All the players are on equal footing at the start, and only skill, luck, or strategy differentiate the players as the game progresses. Hell, many would say that “Rock, Paper, Scissors” is the perfect game because of its symmetry.
A competitive game where the players start on unequal footing, like Talisman for an example, can show how unbalanced a game can be. Don’t get me wrong, I have played and loved Talisman for many years, but if you have to play the elf, you are pretty much assured to get your pointed-eared ass kicked by the prophetess, who is discarding adventure cards right and left. And yes, a game can still be unbalanced and fun. But I am looking at functionality. I can use my head as a hammer; the nail still gets in the wall as long as I can stay conscious long enough, but that doesn’t make my head a good hammer. (Insert your own hammerhead jokes at my expense here.)
But D&D, at its heart, is not a competitive game; it is a cooperative one. The game can certainly be played different ways, and there are different types of players and player expectations within the game, but for the most part one player does not “win” D&D at the expense of other players. If all the players have fun, they win. If one character is more effective or powerful, that often helps the team move through the encounters more easily and effectively, which generally means more fun. That is, as long as the lack of balance does not get too severe.
In earlier versions of D&D, and especially in 3rd Edition, there were some design issues which made it possible for one character to get way too powerful. It is one thing to have a character make a greater contribution to the success within an encounter or adventure. It is another thing to have the character complete the encounter or adventure without needing the other characters to participate. When the druid’s animal companions and summoned creatures can push aside the rest of the party and splatter all the bad guys in a couple of rounds, while the druid is still dishing out wizard-like spells, then something is amiss.
So can a designer somehow tame the pendulum and create a system where the structure of character classes isn’t identical, but still keep the game balanced enough so that one type of character does not shine above the rest on a regular basis? Can each class have a little more uniqueness without unbalancing the game too much?
What I have seen so far from Essentials moves in the right direction. Playing a slayer fighter or thief rogue is going to be a very different experience than playing an existing fighter or rogue. But no matter which class you play, there are still plenty of options for each character in each round. There are still fun choices to be made during character creation and leveling.
I am a little concerned that we might see the return of a dilemma along the lines of the five-minute adventuring day, though. The move to 4e, as I noted earlier, made players of all character classes relatively equal in the resource-management game. Healing surges and powers were something everyone had to keep an eye on, so generally everyone was ready to rest at about the same time. With the release of the new rogue and fighter classes, which have no daily powers related to the class at lower levels and rely on basic attacks that are modified by at-will and encounter powers, you are now looking at a situation where some characters are ready to rest relatively quickly while the others have not used those resources.
On the other hand, I like how easy to teach these new classes are. I played in the Red Box D&D Gameday last weekend, and the younger players at the table were able to pick up the rogue and fighter characters pretty quickly and be just as effective—if not moreso—than experienced players playing the warpriest and mage.
Of course, that in itself worried me. Newcomers dropping loads of damage on the bad guys with the characters relying on basic attacks outshining those that had to deal with resource management at low levels began to sound a lot like something terribly familiar.
I am not smart or prescient enough to know if, as these characters increase in level, one flavor is going to be much more powerful than another. It will be an interesting experiment to see how these character types compare as they move through heroic-tier play and into paragon and heroic.