Getting to Grips with 4e, Then Losing it Again

A funny change happens to the way we play Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (4e). Actually, the change is not funny, but rather that no one seems to notice. At least, no one mentions the change explicitly. When we first start playing, we keep track of the warrior's mark, warlock's curse, bloodied characters and all other manner of status effects with a bunch of coloured tokens. Personally, I find the use of the tokens a distracting overhead. Even though red tokens are easily seen as marking bloodied characters, a yellow or blue token is essentially meaningless without context, and we certainly do not have enough colours to cover all status effects. I feel I am playing a tabletop miniatures game far more than an RPG, which, although not a bad experience in itself, is not what I want from RPG night.

It strikes me one night that, after more than a year of playing 4e, there are no tokens on characters or monsters, yet we are still tracking all the various status effects without fuss or forgetting anything. At some point since we start playing 4e, we make the transition from using tokens to abandoning them. To me, this indicates we have become more comfortable with and more understanding of the system. From no one mentioning or perhaps even noticing the change, I get the impression that maybe 4e is a fairly decent game after all. I am, for the first time, feeling positive about continuing to play 4e. It's a shame, then, that my optimism is harshly shattered only a few weeks later.

We engage a major enemy in a climatic battle, where both opponents and environment need to be overcome with ingenuity and cunning in order to be victorious. It will not be easy, but with some co-operation and clever use of powers it looks like we can quickly gain an advantage in the encounter, and we put the plans in to action. For my own part, I use a daily item power to get me close to the boss and then use an encounter power in an effort to negate some of the environmental factors and get the boss closer to everyone in the party.

As I start my attack, the boss uses a power of her own that interrupts mine, sending me fleeing. I question what actually is the effect, check my character sheet several times to see if I can negate it, and ask for further clarifications about whether I can save from the effect or not, before finally resigning to the fact that there is nothing I can do. My encounter power, usable only once per combat, is lost. It is not that I miss with the attack, the power is simply gone for no effect.

My character sits lonely far away from the action after fleeing uncontrollably, and I honestly sit there wondering if there is any point in coming back to the fight if my most powerful attacks can simply be robbed from me. I feel ineffectual, as far from being heroic a supposedly mighty adventurer can be. My powers are not powerful when they are unavailable at the whim of someone else's imagination. And it's not just because the situation works against my favour that I am feeling disillusioned.

I charge back in to the fight, by which point a giant spider has turned back from the newt I polymorphed it in to and moved to help protect its master. Rather than face losing another power against the boss, and risk tearing up my character sheet, I attack the spider with a daily power. I wild shape in to a wolf and move to rip at my target's tedons, where a successful attack will knock my target prone. I hit with the attack, and the giant spider, as eight-legged as normal-sized spiders, drops to the floor. Apparently it doesn't matter that the target has more than two legs, or that it is ten feet in diameter and probably quite stable, a quick nibble on a leg sends it falling to the ground.

Of course, I am supposed to feel powerful at having knocked a monster prone, with no save or modifiers to the attack for any increased stability it may have, exactly countering my emasculation from ten minutes ago. But I don't feel powerful, I feel silly, comic, contrived. The effect may be working in my favour but it's only renewing and reinforcing my impression of 4e as being a heavily simplified RPG and little more than a stylised board game. We end the evening only half-way through the fight, so I'll be returning knowing what I am facing, both in terms of the character combat and expectations of what type of game 4e is trying to be. I hope I can avoid getting quite as frustrated as this evening, but 4e looks like it has the potential of confounding me still.

3 Responses to “Getting to Grips with 4e, Then Losing it Again”

  1. Zubon Says:

    What if we changed the visualization on the trip attack? Sure, the text says trip, but in this case, you were so awesome that you seized the spider by a limb and reared back on your hind legs, flipping your jaws upward and casting the spider towards the ceiling. It tumbled one and a half times before crashing down upon its many-eyed head, momentarily dazed and scrambling for new purchase.

    Or something like that.

  2. SmakenDahed Says:

    I think it's fair to say that D&D has had an element of table top strategy gaming as soon as you start using miniatures. It has moved more towards supporting this style of play over the last two (and a half) editions. 4e definitely takes combat in that direction - I suspect it was intended to do so in order to drive miniature sales up even more (though you could argue if they ever delivered the virtual table you wouldn't need miniatures so much).

    But that really only comes into play for combat.

    Yes, some of the abilities and counters seem a little ridiculous or unreal, but most of the actions being performed are unreal already. 4e definitely has more 'success on miss' type abilities though and little other modifiers. Maybe your DM felt bad for you burning the encounter power and let the trip happen easier than it should have? (I'm not familiar with the druid class - assuming that is what you're playing)

    Another way to look at it is maybe you grabbed several spider legs in your mouth and tored them off the bug causing it to stumble and fall.

  3. Elf Says:

    Yes, you're both right that I could make an elaborate and awesomeful reason for why I was able to knock the giant spider prone—which is an automatic success on a hit for that power—as I have done it before. When I was able to grapple a large undead dragon and keep it immobilised, we had a good chuckle around the table as I described how I was keeping the dragon in place by biting my badger teeth in to its tender areas, causing it to wince whenever it tried to move.

    The problem almost certainly comes down to how my feeling of being awesome had been completely stripped of me shortly beforehand. I wasn't seeing heroes doing battle, I was seeing bare game mechanics mocking me. If I am in a better mood, all is well. I think the game, and module designers, just need to be careful about how it presents obstacles to the adventurers.

    As for the problems only occurring in combat, I quite agree. Unfortunately, many of the modules so far printed treat 4e as presented in the PHB, an excuse to jump from one encounter to another without any of the 'boring' bits in-between. If we want to elaborate on the role-playing, or try to overcome encounters in unanticipated ways, it relies on the GM doing a lot more work, and I don't think our group is ideally suited to creating full adventures or campaigns all the time. Relying on printed modules used to offer a choice, now we are finding it is 90% combat, if only because the system and module simply don't offer alternatives.

    The group and I have had plenty of fun with 4e, and will continue to play and enjoy it, but we are looking at trying more alternative systems now than ever before.