Qu3stion and 4nswer, Part 3

One of the funniest gam3r comments complaints whines that Gamer Bling has heard regarding the launch of 4e was that 4e doesn’t stress role-playing. That it is really just a miniatures game in RPG clothing. In fact, Gamer Bling heard several gam3rs argue that 4e isn’t a role-playing game at all.

Even Lone Wolf’s brogue-alicious Colen MacAlister, who is ordinarily a very intelligent guy, fell for this argument, and relayed it to Yours Truly at Gen Con 2008. Of course, by Gen Con 2009, he had actually played 4e, and vowed that he could never return to 3.5. Gamer Bling has also taken this vow.

Now, when he originally heard this argument, Gamer Bling was given significant pause to wonder. How can a game be definitively proven to be a role-playing game, or to stress role-playing? By definition, role-playing is not something that can be classified, categorized, and ruled upon. Doing so makes it a rule-playing game.

Simply put, to quote the august Mike Pondsmith, who is an amazingly creative guy and has given Gamer Bling many freelance dollars over the years, as well as allowed him to vent his frustrations regarding the First Edition Gamer Bling Official Companion upon a stack of boxes of old product, “RPGs are ‘let’s pretend’ with rules.”

This necessarily splits the content of an RPG into the role-playing part of “let’s pretend” and the rule-playing part. The rule-playing part deals with the effects of interactions: his sword versus her head (as Gamer Bling immediately commits a Freudian slip that clearly reflects his opinion on the First Edition Gamer Bling Official Companion). The role-playing part deals with the style of interactions and the motivations behind them.

Any gam3r worth his weight in pretzels must necessarily understand that any RPG book must focus primarily upon the rule-playing portion of the game. After all, most of us instinctively know how to play “let’s pretend.” Heck, most of us do it at the movies, when we agree or disagree with the activities of a character and whisper back and forth about it until the people behind us call the usher and we get ejected from the theater.

In point of fact, the Second Edition Gamer Bling Official Companion is a fan of making many comments during movies, though fortunately she only does so when we are watching movies at home. At times, the Gamer Bling Official Companion can be a regular pit bull of opinion, and when a movie is unrealistic Gamer Bling often wishes she would just let it go and suspend her disbelief from a noose dangling from the ceiling fan.

In any event, Gamer Bling was moved to wonder whether or not WotC had, in fact, created an RPG that wasn’t an RPG. But to make a determination, he first had to figure out how to go about analyzing the data.

The first thing that Gamer Bling decided was that he was NOT going to do it by word count. No way. He’d be up all night for weeks, muttering “three thousand seven hundred and forty two… three thousand seven hundred and forty three… three thousand seven hundred and forty four… um… zzzzzzzz…”

Even page count isn’t necessarily accurate, since (a) pages can have dramatically different numbers of words, and (b) Gamer Bling keeps getting distracted by all the pretty pictures. On the other hand, comparing page count to total book length is a reasonable estimate of how much gravitas a subject is considered to have.

Eventually, as Gamer Bling ruminated on the issue, it basically boiled down to the questions “What sort of examples do the rulebooks give?” and “What priority do the rulebooks imply?” and “How can I make some actual money doing this blasted web page?” Even ten dollars would be fine. That’d pay for pizza.

So Gamer Bling did a side-by-side comparison of the 4e rulebook and the 3.5e version that Gamer Bling has with a gold foil stamp on the cover that says, “GenCon 2003,” because it gives Yours Truly a chance to taunt people with his ownership of the book before he eventually puts it up on eBay to pay the Gamer Bling Monthly Access Fee.

The first thing that strikes Gamer Bling is that the 4e rulebook is friendlier (“How to Play” vs. 3e’s “Introduction,” and “Making Characters” vs. 3e’s “Abilities”), but that does not bear on whether or not it is an RPG, just how easy it is for n00bs like Josh to learn.

The introductory section takes three pages in 3.5 (1% of the book) and eight pages in 4e (3%). In addition, the 4e PHB provides an example of a role-playing session dialog before it presents the core mechanic of the game. In contrast, 3.5 moved the role-playing example so far behind the core mechanic that it apparently tripped over the index and fell right out of the back of the book. Oops.

Maybe that’s because in a real 3.5 RPG session there is little talking as folks spend so much time looking up the rules for grappling.

The next several chapters of both PHBs take players through the task of making their characters. In 3.5, they start with abilities, then race, class, skills, and feats. Then 3.5 ends with a pitiful 8-page chapter on “description.” So 3.5 demonstrates (intentionally or not) that description is the last thing you should think of when building your character.

In contrast, Gamer Bling is of the opinion that one must have the character’s gestalt before trying to bring it into life with abilities and such. 4e starts that part of the book with a 20-page chapter on “Making Characters,” which includes a section titled “Roleplaying.”

Gamer Bling looked; nowhere in the 3.5 PHB is there a section labeled “Roleplaying.” Zing.

3.5 spends a page—a whole page!—with charts for height, weight, and age. 4e ignores that almost entirely, leaving it in the hands of the players with no more than brief guidelines. Role-playing versus rule-playing. Zing.

In contrast, 3.5 spends a pitiful half a page on “Looks, Background, and Personality”—what, no eye-color charts?—before getting back to “Customizing Your Character.” 4e spends two pages discussing Personality, Mannerisms, Appearance, and Background.

After the introduction comes the Races chapter. Which makes sense, since if you parse out the standard PC intro, “I’m playing a” is the introduction, which is then followed by the race and then the class, as in “I’m playing a dwarf fighter” or “I’m playing a flying fire-breathing Syberis kobold rogue/sorcerer/arcane trickster so I’m better than you.”

In 3.5, each race gets a description and a black-and-white head shot or two. In 4e, each race gets a description with a full-color illustration. Each version gives racial rules and abilities, physical qualities, personality, etc.

The big difference is this: In 3.5, “Choosing a Race” is the title of a section at the start of a chapter. It deals with how your race/class combo can impact how potent your character is. In contrast, each race in 4e has a small section labeled “Play a [race] if you want…” and follows it up with three reasons, two of which are pure role-playing and personality issues, and only the third deals with race/class combo.

Next, we check out classes.

3.5 spends 40 pages, 14% of the book, on classes. 4e spends 126 pages, or 40% of the book. Now this is not a fair comparison, of course, since the 126 pages includes many, many options for each class. Because apparently (according to gam3rs) having options precludes role-playing, while renaming your skill from “move silently” to “footpaddin’ ” is extraordinary role-playing (see the end of the 3.5 Description chapter if you fail to catch the reference).

To compare the classes more equally, we should lump the Magic and Spells chapters in with the Classes chapter for 3.5. But that, too, is unfair, as we shall discuss presently. So instead, let’s look at how the classes are presented.

In 3.5, the section starts out with a brief description of a generic [classname]. There then follow the sort of adventures the class takes, what the class is like, what their alignment is likely to be, their religion, background, best races, opinions of other classes, and role in the party. Then we get into the game rules for the class.

4e starts out with a pull quote and a big ol’ illustration to set the mood. Then, in a rare case where 3.5 presents role-playing material first, 4e has a block that deals primarily with game statistics. But then 4e follows again with a larger description of the [classname]. Following that, players can pick a slant for their [classname], which is again prefaced with a solid description.

So the way that 3.5 and 4e present classes is fairly even. The big difference is in how 3.5 and 4e present sample adventurers.

In 3.5, sample adventurers are placed in the classes section and presented in emotionless game-stat format: “Human Sorcerer Starting Package / Armor: None (speed 30 ft.) / Weapons: Shortspear (1d6, crit x2, range inc. 20 ft., 3 lb, one-handed, piercing)…”

In 4e, sample adventurers are placed in the races section and presented in role-playing personality format without any game stats whatsoever: “Donaar is a paladin of Erathis [who] believes that the dragonborn race is destined to rise from the ashes of its ancient empire…. As a reminder of his heritage, he keeps a piece of the shell from which he hatched in an amulet around his neck.”

Next, Gamer Bling observes that both 3.5 and 4e give roughly equal treatment to the chapters on combat (10%) and adventuring (3%). The sole difference is that in 4e, the chapter on adventuring comes before combat, while in 3.5 combat comes first. But of course adventures should be more important, right? Because adventures lead to combat, but not vice versa, right? So which version pushes adventuring to the rear? Why, 3.5.

Skills and feats get more or less equal attention, although Gamer Bling will point out that skills and feats have less import in 4e than they do in 3.5, because the class abilities are so much more flexible and impactful.

The equipment chapter in 4e is longer, because it has magic items. So call that a wash.

Finally, the last 40% of the 3.5 PHB is devoted purely to spells. That’s over one third of the book devoted to effects that 4 out of the 11 base classes cannot use. Worse yet, another 3 out of those 11 can’t use nearly all of the spells, being restricted in level to 6 (bard) or 4 (paladin, ranger). That’s an awful lot of the book devoted to a few classes.

This fact requires barbarians, fighters, monks, and rogues to employ feats to develop an identity. But that’s an argument for another day.

In conclusion, Gamer Bling presents another fun Deathmatch table:

Category 3.5 4e
Gives a sample dialog for a roleplaying session X
Has a section named “Roleplaying” X
Presents description before game stats X
Gives roleplaying reasons to play a race X
Sample characters are descriptive, not stat blocks X
Adventuring is presented before combat X
Is the version Gamer Bling sold off on eBay X

So remind Gamer Bling… which version stresses role-playing?

~ by Gamer Bling on 10 February 2010.

15 Responses to “Qu3stion and 4nswer, Part 3”

  1. Zap! Biff! Kapow! Take that, 4e critics who haven’t played the game!

    Excellent post, bookmarked for arguments’ sake.

    • Wow. Gamer Bling notes that your reply was posted at 6:32 a.m. Eastern time. You are either up very late, very early, or living on the other side of The Pond. Whatever the case, it’s clear that you have your priorities right: Reading Gamer Bling > Sleep.

      Gamer Bling salutes you.

  2. Very good analysis and an interesting take on the issue. I’d agree, based on your analysis that 4e does seem to stress the role-play aspect more. It would be interesting to repeat this process with 1e AD&D to see how good a role-playing game that is.

    One thing I’ve notice comparing 4e to older versions is the difference in spells / powers.

    The vast majority of 4e powers are simple mechanics – x damage to y area. The only things that vary from this are Rituals which always strike me as an afterthought to the game system.

    Compare with 3.5, and particularly, 1e and more spells are ‘narrative’ driven. i.e. the GM has to work the effects of the spell in the game. In short, more role-playing and imagination are involved. Spells such as Augury, Detect Lie, Pass Without Trace rely on the GM to decide or interpret the effects.

    I’ve not done the analysis so this is just the gut impression of someone who is not keen on 4e. You mileage may vary etc etc.

    But I think 4e’s focus on easy to understand mechanics is what drives the criticisms about its lack of Role-Playing. With earlier editions, the mechanics are buried in a confusing mass of rules. With 4e, they are front and centre.

    Whether this is a good thing or not is just down to personal taste.

    • “The vast majority of 4e powers are simple mechanics” – With this, Gamer Bling agrees. He believes this is to ensure that the burden on the DM is as light as possible.

      Gamer Bling disagrees with you with respect to rituals however. They are not an afterthought but a necessary balancing mechanism. See this post which includes a brief statement of Gamer Bling’s position regarding rituals. Perhaps he shall write it up more fully as a post of its own.

  3. Neither. Both suck and combat is far too long in each. Add to that, needless reliance on both class and level restrictions and you’re better off finding a completely different system. This debate is now boring.

    • If you’re disillusioned with D&D, as Gamer Bling was for many long years, try Paranoia or RuneQuest or Cybergeneration, some of Gamer Bling’s longtime favorites.

      As for lengthy combats, as an old-school grognard wargamer, Gamer Bling enjoys the tactical challenges. And once the players are experienced with the system, combat can skim along quite nicely.

      As for class and level restrictions, both of those were yanked in 3e, so it appears you are behind the times. Either that, or Gamer Bling misunderstands your comment.

  4. It then comes down to 40% of class powers vs 40% of spells in 3.5. Which one stresses on role-playing?

    • A new post will be forthcoming to deal with spells and powers. But in this respect, it seems to Gamer Bling that 4e is more even-handed.

  5. If 4e is indeed more roleplay heavy than 3.5 and maybe the older editions, then why do we have tons of people hating it? Do they hate the fact D&D is more of a roleplaying game now?

    • Honestly, Gamer Bling believes that it is because 3e was such a success. Gam3rs have invested so much time and energy into 3e that they do not want to make a change. Within Gamer Bling’s gaming group, the most common comment from his fellow players was that they had spent a lot of money on their 3e books, and they didn’t want them to be made obsolete. But playing a different game does not make an RPG obsolete. What makes them obsolete is if you play a different game, like it more, and never return to the first game.

      So start with a few gam3rs who fear the obsolescence of their books, and get them to start a chic trend of hating 4e. Throw them a lifeline in the form of Paizo vowing to print Pathfinder so they can still use their 3e books. Then get a bunch of sheep to follow out of ignorance, blindly accepting all the hat3rs’ arguments. So there you have it: gam3rs hate 4e out of fear and ignorance.

      Curiously, of Gamer Bling’s group, one has, like Gamer Bling, cashiered 3e. one has never tried 4e (he has the worst work schedule). And the rest play both 3e and 4e, meaning nothing has been made obsolete.

      So Gamer Bling does not understand why some people adamantly refuse to try 4e. Lack of interest is one thing, but apathy does not generate hat3rs. Stubborn and adamant refusal to try 4e reminds Gamer Bling of nothing so much as Gamer Bling Expansion #1 and Gamer Bling Expansion #2 when a new food is placed in front of them.

  6. The best way to ignore the opinion of others is to work from the standpoint that the very foundation of their decision making is faulted and that people who agree with them are sheep. Honestly, this argument is BORING. People play what they want to play. You can’t write the magical blog that will suddenly enlighten people to like 4e any more than someone else can write the magical blog that will make them hate it. You’re entitled to your opinion… but the moment you can’t respect that people will have other opinions without calling them misguided or sheep, your own opinion loses all merit.

    • Gamer Bling entirely agrees (although for a moment he wondered which comment you were responding to: his or that from Disillusioned). And Gamer Bling has no problem with people who have tried 4e and don’t like it; play whatever you want! His problem is with people who rabidly, vehemently hate 4e for reasons that don’t actually hold any logical water.

      If Gamer Bling were to say that he hated, say, Neville Chamberlain because of Chamberlain’s naive belief that he could trust Hitler, that’d be one thing. But if Gamer Bling were to say that he hated Neville Chamberlain because Chamberlain was Chinese, that would be an entirely different case. That would be a demonstrably faulty foundation, and Gamer Bling would feel compelled to point that out. Not only that, Gamer Bling would feel justified in labeling anyone who followed that logic as being ovine.

      Gamer Bling enjoys 4e; that is obvious. He defends 4e due to the number of rabid, unthinking arguments he has heard against it from people who have never read the books or played it. And he defends it not because he believes 4e is superior, but because the arguments are inherently flawed, and Gamer Bling hates faulty premises.

      Gamer Bling has neither the power nor the desire to consign 3e to the trash bin of history. He does, however, hope to open people’s minds to the fact that they ought to give 4e a try before denigrating it.

      Someone once did that to Gamer Bling with regard to his opinion of sushi, for which Gamer Bling has been forever after grateful. Gamer Bling is hoping to pay the favor forward.

  7. As someone whose initial response to 4E was “This isn’t a roleplaying game”, I’d like to offer the leftovers of my slice of humble pie to anyone who wants it. Drawing conclusions from a read-through is one thing, drawing them from actual play experience is another.
    I think the whole question of roleplaying is down to the group you play with, and your own ability to get into your character. My group is generally very good at roleplaying. We’ve had entire sessions of roleplaying and zero combat, which may be a surprise for those who (like me, initially) saw these rules as combat-heavy.
    I ran a game on Sunday which involved a short combat against two thugs right at the end. My players really enjoyed the game and want more.
    I humbly retract my reservations about 4E. But I still like 3.5. And a bunch of other games.

  8. Style of gameplay might be one reason they dislike it. Perhaps Gamer Bling can write an article about the distinct 4e and 3.5e gameplay.

    • Your wish is Gamer Bling’s command. And Yours Truly has already been putting some cranial bandwidth to it.

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