Wednesday, December 29, 2010

4e Rules with an OSR vibe: Is It Possible?

Since I'm going to be playing in a 4e game in a week or two and (hopefully) running a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game in the not too distant future, I'm looking at my current D&D life and wondering, "Are they TRULY incompatible?"

If there is something that seems to unify 99% of the OSR community, it's the thought that the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is an abomination.  I certainly didn't like it when my brother shared it with me a few years ago.  It was way too video-gamy for my liking.  What caused me to give it a whirl was the simple fact that if I wanted any kind of regular game, I'd need to start joining the Colorado Springs Living Forgotten Realms games.  As I played, I gained an appreciation for the difference the edition brought.  It's not my D&D, but it's what's out there.

Reading a lot of the OSR blogs out there really helped reconnect me to what I loved about gaming back in the 80s when I started playing.  One thing that I don't share with many of my 20+ year gamers is a complete loathing for 4th Edition.  I do recognize, though, that they are vastly different games.

How incompatible ARE they?

In a GameSpy interview, Gary Gygax has this to say about 4e:
The new D&D is too rule 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 where a player can play any alignment desired, not just lawful good.
Edit: Okay, I edited that out.  When I saw the quote, it was attributed to his opinions on 4e, not 3.5, and in my haste, I didn't look close enough at the original source interview to see that it was done about four years before 4e was released.  My bad on that one. Thanks BryanD for fact-checking where I didn't!

I picked up Matthew Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, which seems to be a pretty good handbook for what OSR seems to be.   Looking at the four "zen moments" which define Old School D&D you've got:
  • Rulings, Not Rules
  • Player Skill, not Character Abilities
  • Heroic, not Superhero
  • Forget "Game Balance"
Understandably, Gygax and Finch park their car in the same garage.  I'm looking at the details in Finch's Primer and my 4th Edition Rulebooks and am now convinced that you can play Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition in an Old School manner.  You just won't be able to use any adventures I've seen published for 4e.  This isn't a big deal for me.  I could be wrong, but I don't think I started using modules heavily until 2nd Edition.

I am going to posit that you CAN run 4th Edition in a manner befitting Old School D&D.

How?  Well, I'm going to address each of Matthew Finch's points and explain how you can run 4e differently (but without changing the game) and capture more of an OSR feel.

Rulings, not Rules: Okay, there is no denying that 4e is rules heavy.  I touched upon it a few months ago, and I agree that 4e is a "statute law" game where OD&D is "common law."  There are certain things in 4e which are codified in the rules that used to be the purview of the DM.  Jumping across chasms, for example.  The 1st Edition Player's Handbook doesn't have any rules that I could find about how far a normal character can jump.  4th Edition covers it under the Athletics skill.  Does this mean that the rules are more important than the DM's ruling?  Not just no, but hell no.  It just means that the DM will have to make a call for less circumstances.  In fact, the architecture of the rules makes it easier for a creative DM and a creative player to do things a little different.

Again, it comes down to negotiation, JUST LIKE OLD SCHOOL D&D.  Let's look at "The Ninja Jump" example from the Primer.  Here's how it would have gone down at my table.

GM: "You're up on the ten-foot high ledge, and down below, the goblin is about to attack Frank the Cleric."
John the Roguish: "I grasp my sword, blade downward, and leap off the edge, driving the sword blade deep into the goblin's back using the weight of my body and the fall to cause tons of extra damage."
GM: "Okay, you aren't in melee contact with the goblin, so your normal powers don't apply here.  I'd actually call this a charge, since you are moving in a straight line with an attack after it.  Of course, you are also falling 10 feet.  And the goblin will have to make an Athletics check to remain standing.  Sound good?"
John: "Here we go!"
GM: "First, we resolve the attack.  Take your charge attack."
John: "Wow.  That was an epically bad roll.  Even with my bonuses an 11 vs. AC"
GM: "Not good enough.  The goblin manages to avoid your blade, but there is still the matter of 170 pounds of rogue crashing into him.  And... I rolled as awesome as you did.  He's prone.  Let's see what happens with that fall.  Okay, you fall ten feet, so you take... 4 points of damage and are prone.  Make your acrobatics check.
John: "14.  No damage."
It's all fun & games until a Goblin ninja jumps YOUR ass.
GM: "Okay, you're in the same square as the goblin, so move yourself out.  You and the goblin are prone.  Frank, you're up."

It's not the horror story that some people make it out to be.  The difference between OSR and 4e is simple: OSR requires DMs to make up rules, while 4e requires DMs to interpret them.  If a GM can't interpret the rules to allow players to do cool stuff, then he needs to learn the rules better or learn how to think outside the box.  If a PC feels hemmed in by the rules, then he needs to open up his imagination.  Don't blame the system, blame the players.

Player Skill, not Character Abilities:  If a puzzle becomes a bunch of die rolls, it's not really a puzzle.  It's a bunch of dice rolls.  Let's look at the Spot check debate.  It's really easy for a lazy DM to say that players can just roll Perception and find everything.  The 4e Player's Handbook describes searching as something that occurs within the squares around the PC.  So, to search a room, the players are going to have to move around and describe their searches, coupled with some Skill checks.  The ten foot pole?  An item bonus on Perception checks in certain circumstances.

Heroic, not Superhero:  Okay, sure, 1st-level characters in 4e are far more survivable than OSR 1st-levels.  I still don't quite consider them superhuman, though.  The Warlord I made for my upcoming 4e campaign is a half-elf who basically has a knack for inspiring his fellow adventurers through his battlefield vision and sheer arrogance.  Standing behind them in battle, he targets enemies with his longbow, helping his friends fighting in melee bring down the opponents while exhorting them on to greatness.  There is nothing superheroic about anything a 1st-level character can do in 4e.  Sure, he's no farmer with a pitchfork, but that's kind of the point of the game, isn't it?

Forget "Game Balance":  That's easy.  Throw out the modules.  Most OSR DMs do that anyway.  Sure, the rules have these carefully balanced formulas which determine what kind of monsters you should fight at whatever level.  I can't say I ever followed the 1e monster stocking tables, either.

It's funny.  I grew up immersed in two things: D&D and Punk Rock.  You here people talk about the new bands and how much they suck compared to the old school.  What people don't realize is that there was JUST AS MUCH CRAP back in the 70s and 80s as there is today.

It isn't hard to run 4th Edition with an old-school edge.  It isn't hard to write a 4e sandbox.  All you have to do is think for yourself and move beyond a hard and fast adherence to every word written in a rulebook.  You take the framework of a system and inject YOUR vision into it.  Creative players and a creative DM will be able to make magic happen regardless of what version of a game you are playing.

I issue this challenge to anyone who feels that they can't have an old-school game using the 4th Edition rules:  Work out a time where I can run you through a game.  I can even take an old module and adapt it.  After we are done, you still might not like the game (No matter what anyone says, it's a new game with an old name), but I am certain you will realize that the biggest problem with 4th Edition isn't 4th Edition, it's crappy people and crappy adventures.  When good people surround themselves with good people, a good game will result.  Don't let "them" tell you how to play 4th Edition.  Play it your way!

After all, isn't that what punk rock is all about?