As a DM, I think I’m learning to hate 4E D&D. This is a strange feeling for me. I was a huge defender of D&D at release, and I love class and level systems. As false as they seem compared to “real world” thinking, I find that I enjoy these more than freeform advancement systems. I like Dragonborn, I love the new Tieflings, I like a lot of new mechanics (not all, but a lot), but something is starting to wear on me in my looking at D&D through DM eyes, and that is the difficulty of creating a new playing space inside (and this word “inside” is important) the game. D&D 4E is a pain in the neck to homebrew for, and here’s why I think this… feel free to disagree, but I wanted to get this out of my system.
The Bad Side of Balance
I’m a pretty big fan of the way the 4E writers have struggled to achieve a “heroic baseline” of balance in the system. I like the fact that they have improved, streamlined and evened out a lot of the class/race issues of past editions. This has a couple of seriously negative impacts though.
Whenever an option appears that is “off-the-curve” is becomes immediately apparent as a problem. This happens whether the option is poor or excellent. Options which are poor simply disappear, as no one takes them. This means that a chunk of options in the game simply might as well not exist. But the worse issue is overpowered options, which cause breakdowns in play. But broken mechanics aren’t really my issue; I just wanted to point them out.
The bigger culprit is that the balance of the game mechanics relies on numerical issues improving at a certain rate over a certain span. PCs in any edition of D&D prior to this one have never had more reason to min/max, more reason to stick to ONLY their prime attribute scores and to specialize. Despite the improvement of say, letting PCs raise two attributes by a point at levels 4,8, 14, 18, 24, and 28; the problem remains that you will only raise the two attributes vital to your class powers, with the occasional (rare) exception where you blow a point to help qualify for a feat at some point. And despite the promises of a game where magic items mattered less than in 3E, you are still defined by your gear.
My case in point. A first level wizard is more accurate than a 30th level wizard, relative to level. Because a 1st level wizard hits without the aid of a +6 magic wand. Take the 30th level wizard’s wand away and he won’t hit anything even remotely on level. So now, instead of providing some form of bonus, the items are actually mathematically necessary. This same holds true for armor, weapons, totems, neck slot items… everything. (I recognize that DMG 2 offered some solutions to this issue in the form of inherent bonuses, etc. But that requires changing the system from player expectation. More on that later.)
Finally, the balance issues create weird discrepancies. PCs have ACs that are all very similar, and one or two of their defenses will be high’ish, but then they will always that weird, lagging defense. And armor is a joke. Since it was important to keep AC within a certain range, without regard to class/race/role, it becomes imperative that a hide wearer is still within a point or two of a plate wearer at the table, because otherwise it skews the mechanical curve. But a warden with no emphasis on WIS is going to have an abysmal Will defense at higher levels… (just one example). Or a rogue is going to have an awful Fortitude defense, assuming Artful Dodger (lagging, 6 points behind a Reflex and 7 points behind AC, and that’s a PC rogue starting with a 14 in CON, and taking Robust Defenses at Epic). A Goliath Fighter in Godplate, with a shield and Robust Defenses lags a full 12 points behind his AC in Reflex.
This discrepancy is even worse in the case of skills… Skills are going to be highly skewed across levels, and it’s rare to see players take training in skills on their class list that don’t directly correspond to an attribute they are high in, except when they have to. (and this is a completely different post, but don’t get me started on how the class skills often seem to have been decided by random chance instead of thoughtful design.)
This skill issue is reflected in the revamping necessary to fix the Skill Challenge system to make it possible for ‘untrained’ characters to succeed in challenges of skill. This is reflective of a system-wide issue created by the absurdities of “balance.”
I get it, I know what they were trying to achieve, and it’s a good try. But the quest for certain kinds of mechanical balance have created a whole new set of issues that are starting to make me wonder if the cure is not worse than the disease.
That said, my original point was how these issues cloud the situation with home brewing. It is very difficult to create balanced content for 4E that is also mechanically interesting. I’ve been creating content for my games for a long time, and not just older versions of D&D. I enjoy adding to the game. With 4E though, it feels like a house of cards waiting for a strong wind whenever I add something.
I mention this because of player expectation. As I wrote above, the DMG2 offers some interesting alternatives to items. The alternate rewards system creates a way to allow PCs to stay mechanically constant without the need for +6 Plate Armor or a +5 Executioner’s Axe. Well, that’s great, but I have two problems with it: 1. PCs now have two separate “level” bonuses, the basic one they get for leveling and the alternate reward one that happens every 4 and 5 levels. 2. It changes player expectation. Now, whenever a player sits down at my table I have to explain that, “well, we do things a little different around here…” and that creates a cognitive problem for some players. This is a bigger deal if you don’t play with the same group of buddies all the time, but rather, semi-strangers. When I add something to the game, change something about the game, or whatever, I want it to not throw off players’ sense of expectation. In many games, this is easier because “expectation” is less mechanically rigid. Not so 4E.
But balance is the smallest of the three issues in my title… Check back in a few days for the second installment… The Falseness of “Always Say Yes.” In the meanwhile, comment, question, poke and prod. I need fresh eyes on this issue, mine are tired.