Showing posts with label 4th Edition. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 4th Edition. Show all posts

Sunday, December 12, 2021

How Not to Present/Market Your RPG: Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

 Edition wars have been around for a long time in role playing games and have affected a wide variety of role playing IPs. TSR experienced a major edition war regarding Advanced Dungeons & Dragons* when they released the 2nd edition of the game*. Players complained about the removal of Demons and Devils from the monster manuals and critiqued a number of the rules. At the time, the company was often referred to as T$R. They weren't alone though. GDW has experienced a number of edition wars over various Traveller* rules sets, with the original "Classic Traveller" rules set coming out as the still dominant setting and style. Games like 2300 AD* and MegaTraveller* were excellent, but they didn't click with the audience the way one might hope. Even Champions had a bit of an edition war with the release of their 6th edition rules* set. The 5th edition of Champions* expanded the player base and had a number of excellent sourcebooks and supplements, It also marked a return to the base mechanics after a FUSION version called Champions New Millenium had its own edition war. The game had hit the telos of its initial design, so any new rules set would have to make significant changes. It did and that split the fan base. For the record, my favorite version of the rules is 4th edition*, but I own all of them and think they are all very good.

When a fan base is divided, it can lead to a reduction in sales and open up the market to competitors. That's one of the reasons that many companies have taken a careful tack when releasing a new game or a new edition. Paizo and Wizards of the Coast opened up the playtesting of new editions to the public in order to incorporate the fan base in the design process for the Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition respectively.

The point of all this prologue is to say that when 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons was released, edition wars were nothing new in gaming and they were something that any marketing and design team should have been aware of and should have been seeking to combat. Instead, they made what I consider to be a couple of major errors. The first was in the physical layout of the rulebooks and the balance of mechanics and background material presented within them. The second, and much worse, is that they attacked their consumer base and disparaged their own rules sets. They made a "this new edition is better and all the older ones sucked" pitch. Needless to say, this was not a wise choice. I'm leaving out the third possible error, tying the game to a digital platform that never manifested, because that involves a very unforeseeable murder/suicide.

Let me return to what I consider to be the first error in the presentation by looking at the differences between how 3rd edition characters and 4th edition characters where presented to players in the books. Let's have a look at the first page of a 3rd edition character class, the Cleric. Don't worry about what the actual content of the mechanics is, rather look at how things are presented. There is a ton of background and explanatory text, both for what a Cleric is and what their abilities are. Yes, there's a lot of content there and it's wordy. That might be intimidating to some, but it is filled with rich information.

The Cleric for 3rd Edition D&D

Contrast this with the 4th Edition Cleric. Once again, it's not the actual mechanics I'm asking you to examine. Look at the layout. Where we have only one "spreadsheet cut and paste" in the 3rd edition presentation, we have four or five in the 4th edition layout. In some ways, it's a cleaner layout. It's more approachable, but once you start looking at the ability outputs it becomes very much like reading spreadsheet outputs and less like reading abilities. The presentation is mechanics focused, almost as if they intended you to fill out cards or something similar. The fact that they later sold "power cards" makes this more and more evident. It looks far more like a Magic the Gathering card breakdown manual, or a video game hint book (back when those existed), than it does a role playing game manual.


The Cleric for 4th Edition D&D

Back in February of 2011, a couple of years into 4e, Robert J Schwalb who worked on the design team, wrote a blog post asking if "the format matters." In that piece he wrote:

Fourth edition’s presentation abandoned nearly everything familiar about the game’s look. Eight years of 3rd edition, I think, created strong expectations about how the game should read and since the game didn’t match the visual expectations, it certainly must not match the play experience. Yes, there are considerable mechanical changes that alter the play experience somewhat, but compare how the game plays now to how the game played in the twilight of 3rd edition. Just look at Tome of Battle, Complete Arcane, and many of the variant rules presented in Unearthed Arcana (complex skill checks, healing surges, and so on). In them you can find the proto-rules that would eventually evolve into the mechanical underpinnings of 4e. They are different, but not as different as I imagine some folks believe. I wonder if those changes might have been more palpable had we shifted back toward the old presentation, even if doing so meant that the game would be harder to learn.

 Let's have a look at what Robert's reformatting of the Cleric (now I wish I'd selected the Cleric for the others) looked like. Note that Robert hasn't filled in all the content, so don't worry about the lack of text. Just look at the layout. One thing that should strike you is how this looks exactly like 5th edition playtest materials and that it looks very similar to 3.x's layout. Had the design team opted for a presentation like this, it might have been slightly less shocking and been one less hurdle to overcome in order to minimize edition war effects.

Robert J Schwalb's Reformatted Cleric

Regardless of how formatting would have had the potential to minimize anti-4e backlash, there is one thing that is certain and that is that the marketing team did the game no favors with their marketing campaign. Below, I've embedded the D&D 4th Edition Teaser marketing video. You can watch the whole video and you can feel the meta-cognitive irony and seeming disdain for earlier editions of the game. In particular, I'd recommend watching at 1:31 for the "Okay, what is THAC0 again" question and to 2:26 to see how the 4th edition marketing represented 3.x by mocking that version's rules for grappling.

D&D 4th Edition "Teaser" Marketing Video

The entire video is filled with snide commentary and the THAC0 and grappling jokes, while representing genuine critiques of those editions by some players, have a mocking feeling. This is a tone that 5th edition largely managed to avoid until "THAC0 the Clown" in the recent Witchlight adventure. The unifying thing between the 4th edition marketing and The Wild Beyond the Witchlight is Christopher Perkins. Perkins has written some of the best D&D content out there for several editions of the game, but I find his repeated mocking of THAC0 staid. At least he waited until later in the 5th edition cycle to pull out the anti-THAC0 joke from the dustbin. Had this attitude been evident earlier in 5th edition, rather than the "we love the old editions so much that Keep on the Borderlands is our playtest module" attitude, the game might not have gotten off to the great start it did and Critical Role would have continued promoting Pathfinder instead of D&D.

Those are what I see as the main flaws marketing and presentation wise of 4th edition, but those aren't the only challenges the game faced. It really did change much of the focus of the game in a new direction. Where 3.x built upon the 90s trend of "a rule for everything" in games like Champions and GURPS. The stat blocks for doors and magic items regarding how difficult they are to break look a lot like Champions. The fact that you can run an entire campaign simulating how many gold pieces characters earn running a tavern via skill rolls just screams GURPS. Third edition might not have been point buy, but there was a rule that answered how much a Bard earned for its performance. One could more easier "Roll" play with 3rd edition in role playing situations than in any other prior rules version due to the incorporation of a broad array of skills and 4th edition stepped away from that level of granularity. It substituted a focus on ease of play and clarity of tactical mechanics. It was not, as many claim, "more" miniatures based than 3.x. Anyone who has looked at the flanking rules and rules for zones of control in 3.x knows that to be false (with 3.5 being even more miniatures focused than 3rd straight). 

In a conversation with game designer Leonard Pimentel (Prowlers & Paragons* and By this Axe I Hack!*), he mentioned 5 key flaws/obstacles presented by 4th edition. I agree with most of them and think that these, in combination with terrible presentation and marketing, lead to a significant edition war and loss of sales. Those flaws are:

First, the presentation was poor. Or perhaps it’s better to say it was a failed experiment. Every power every ability every whatever you wanna call it was choked in meaningless flavor text. They simply overdid everything which made understanding your character and their abilities a perpetual chore.
Second, I really feel that they fail to understand how unpleasant it is to have abilities you could use only once per day succeed or fail. Every character is structured to work with this unpleasant dynamic.
Further I don’t think that they understood the psychology of how anemic the at will or encounter powers would look when compared to the daily powers. This exacerbated the frustration of the fact that your best power or powers or mostly One-A-Day type abilities that we’re gone whether you succeed or fail that using them
I also think they overestimated peoples desire to use miniatures or underestimated how many people prefer theater of the mind and always have.
They also completely disregarded the sort of role-playing game Golden rule which is that most combats should last approximately three rounds.
As you can see, the first thing mentioned is the presentation. The other points I think are worthy of a great deal of discussion and deserve posts of their own. I know that many reading this have strong opinions about 4th edition and might think, "but I hate it because of x and y." I'd ask these people to really think about how presentation affected their opinions. After all, as discussed in the "zones of control" article linked above, the game has always been miniatures focused and much of the "video game/collectible card game" feel was due almost solely to presentation. As for the marketing...below are a couple more examples of just how potentially off putting it could be, especially the Gnome/Tiefling video. The ironic ridicule of the Gnome put of some of my friends and it runs against the growing cosmopolitan and non-Tolkienesque style of play.

Tiefling vs. Gnome

Interview with a Dragon

Interview with a Mindflayer

* Affiliate Link

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Remember when D&D Combat was "Simpler" and "Easier" to Understand than 5e? Me Either. Part 1: Some Initial Thoughts

GamerGrls by Jody Lindke ©2011
Back in September of 2019, Cam Banks wrote a brief response to people who argued that they missed the "good ol' days of gaming" when combat was easier to learn and play than the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Cam's response was direct and to the point.

My response was a little snarkier than Cam's and included a reference to the Weapons & Armor chart in the 1st Edition AD&D Players Handbook (sic).

The point that each of us was making was that it is a myth that older versions of D&D were "rule light" that were easier to learn for newer gamers, or were somehow superior to more recent versions of the game because of their ease of play. Dungeons & Dragons has always been a complex game with arcane rules for combat that could be intimidating to new gamers and veteran gamers alike.

I've been a fan of every edition of Dungeons & Dragons that I've had the pleasure of playing. Yes, I even LOVE 4th Edition D&D. I think it has a nice balance of tension at the heart D&D system, whether to focus on role playing or on tactical combat. Each edition of the game has tried to fall somewhere in the middle, allowing for players who favor each kind of play to have a good experience, but I think that 4th Edition hit an almost perfect balance between the two. I would also argue, and this might shock some people, that it was less a tactical combat game than most of the editions that preceded it. This is especially true of 3rd Edition, which is the most granular simulation of tactical skirmish combat ever designed. 

There are so many sub-systems in 3rd Edition that you can essentially solo-play "SIMTavern" by using the skill rolls and random encounters without the need of a DM. I'm not writing that as a critical statement. It's a remarkable achievement that appeals to a sizable group of gamers that includes me as a card carrying member. I've spent many an hour using GURPS and Hero System to do exactly this type of gaming, and prior to 3rd Edition I never thought D&D was a good "SIMCity" rpg.

But this post isn't about the underlying skill system and how well it can be used to simulate day to day activities in a Bayesian's Daydream of game play. This post is the first in a series of posts about D&D combat and how complex it has always been. This series will cover Original Dungeons & Dragons, using both the Chainmail and Alternative Combat System variants, Basic D&D (Holmes, Molday/Cook, and Mentzer), AD&D 1st Edition, and AD&D 2nd Edition.

Today's post is just an overview regarding the motivation for the series of posts, which is a desire to argue that there never has been a truly simple era of D&D combat. As Cam stated above, each edition has its problems and gamers have adapted to those problems. Smart people have been confused by D&D from the beginning. If you read the first few issues of the famous Alarums and Excursions fanzine (you can order them from the source here), you'll see that some early gamers misinterpreted the spell system and Lee Gold initially thought that saving throws were based on rolling 2d10 and adding them together.

Lee Gold Discussing Saving Throw Probabilities Based on Assumption of 2d10 Added Together

While modern gamers may wonder how a game designer like Lee Gold could have this assumption, one need only look at the older twenty sided dice to see that they were numbered 0-9 twice. Thus it seems natural to infer that the alternative combat system and saving throw system were based on a roll of two of these dice added together. Later editions discussed this more expressly and included recommendations for how to convert these dice to "true" twenty-sided dice.

Modern gamers have the advantage of beginning play upon a foundation of norms established over decades. Early gamers didn't. This made early D&D even more confusing than today's game. Though I will argue in the next post that using the Chainmail system for D&D combat is even more confusing than today's game, even for a gamer with strong foundations in both role playing and modern miniatures games. Had I not played Warhammer I would have been in the dark on how to play Chainmail, even having read the rules several times. Though after examining those rules, rules it seems no one actually used for D&D, I think they would work quite well and eagerly want to try my hand at them.

Tomorrow, I'll delve into D&D Chainmail. For now, I'd like to know if any of you have tried it.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Remembering RPG Campaigns Past -- Meet The Crusaders

When I was and undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Reno I ran a DC Heroes campaign that lasted for a couple of years. It is the most successful superhero campaign I've ever run. I had the luck to have a great group of gamers who were willing to cut loose and have a great time with the genre and who felt free to push the limits of the DC Heroes game system. This campaign is one of the reasons that I think DC Heroes is the best set of rules to play a superhero game, though Marvel Saga System comes in a close second.

The premise of the campaign was pretty simple. I wanted to run a game where the characters were on the same power level as the Justice League, minus Superman and Wonder Woman, and I wanted the game play to have a touch of the feel generated by the Giffen/Maguire/DeMatteis run in the Justice League books. I wanted a mix of action and comedy. To be honest, based on my experience in running RPGs, I knew the comedy would come whether I wanted it or not. It's is the DM's Lament to want to run a game that captures the epic tales of the Eddas and Beowulf only to end up with Monte Python's Holy Grail. Instead of fighting that tendency, I decided to roll with it. The title of the campaign was Justice League: Auxiliary. The premise being that the characters were members of the Justice League, as then managed by Maxwell Lord, but where the second string of the team.

What a team it was too. The membership included an interesting mix of characters about whom my wife (girlfriend at the time) drew a couple of cartoon strips that ran in the school paper The Sagebrush. That brief strip was called "Meet the Crusaders" for obvious copyright reasons.  Over the next few days, I'll be presenting the Crusaders to you and will be including statistics for them for a number of role playing games. The primary games I'll be using to emulate the characters are Wizards of the Coast's excellent 4e based Gamma World game and Pinnacle Entertainment Group's Savage Worlds.

First, let me introduced the team to you.


Gabriel was character who believed himself to be the Archangel Gabriel and who exacted swift justice on any he viewed to be in violation of his very strict code of morality. During a battle with the god Ares, he attempted to use his Aura of Fear power and ended up not only succeeding at cowing Ares but in causing the entire continent of Europe to quiver in fear as his pushing of the power extended the aura over the entire geographic area. The character was played by my good friend, and best man at my wedding, Matt.


One of the great things about the DC Heroes system was it's ability to make almost any superhero and my friend Robert's character Aquarius was one that really demonstrated the strength of the rules. Robert wanted to play a super strong character who was a living water elemental and who could transform his hands into any weapon he imagined. In this particular case, the powers were called Omni-Arm, Density Increase, Dispersal, and Water Control powers. Robert was a relatively new gamer at the time, and had never played a superhero game before, so in the early sessions he tended to limit his use of Omni-Arm to turning his hands into sledge hammers. That changed soon enough.

This is just a glimpse at two of the members of the team. I want to save the other strips for when I present each member's statistics, so you will be seeing these strips again as well as those for Jynx, Vanguard, Spirit, and perhaps the most bizarre superhero ever made...Jody's beloved "Less" who was a character inspired by John Carpenter's THE THING and Larry Cohen's THE STUFF. Who is Less? Why is Less called Less? You'll have to wait for his entry.

To bide you over until the next entry, and I promise it will be soon, here is a glimpse at what the Gamma World statistics sheet (page 1) will look like.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Printable Minis are an Underappreciated RPG Resource. #RPGaDay 23, 24, and 25

Another day, another couple of days missed #RPGaDay and a catch up post.

Day 23 -- Which RPG has the Most Jaw Dropping Layout?

I know that this is going to be a really controversial opinion, especially with how beautiful the new Starfinder book looks and how amazing every book Monte Cook has been putting out lately looks, but in my opinion the D&D Essentials Player's Books had the most jaw dropping layout.

No, they weren't as artistically beautiful as the books I just mentioned or Symbaroum, DC Adventures, or Tales from the Loop. Those books are all stunningly beautiful works of art, but jaw dropping layout isn't about the illustrations (though they matter). For me, what matters most about layout is how it leads the user through the information. It's a matter of design and not art and when it comes to design, the D&D Essentials duo are stunning.

These two books break the rules down into consumable chunks that are clear and concise, must like the Moldvay/Cook B/X D&D rules, but their real beauty is in how they guide players through the character advancement process. If you open up to the Fighter: Slayer section, it is broken up by level and tells you what choices you need to make at every level. You don't have to flip between sections of the book, the options are clearly articulated there and presented in a manner that aids the learner through the process.

Day 24 -- Share a PWYW Publisher Who Should be Charging More.

There are a lot of great publishers offering Pay What You Want (PWYW) products on RPGNow/DriveThruRPG and I have more than taken advantage of the products available. Sometimes I pay more than the "recommended price," and other times I'll pay as low as $0. I usually feel very guilty when I don't pay any money because the truth is that what I want to pay is more than that. We all have limited funds and it's great that some publishers are able to offer some of their products as PWYW as loss leaders for their other products. A lot of other people have promoted pro-groups like Evil Hat Productions, and they are a big PWYW publisher with professional quality books, but I'm going to focus on a small segment of the hobby that can make all of our games better at very low cost. That segment is the printable miniatures segment and it features some great PWYW publishers.

One of the publishers I really like is Kev's Lounge which has a really nice balance of PWYW and pay a small fee for miniatures bundles. There are some very strong illustrations in the series and they print out very nicely. Marshall Short, who runs the excellent Patreon Printable Heroes, uses patronage to fund some fantastic miniatures. I'll add one last publisher, who's work isn't free but is wonderful, with Jess Jennings. Jess' line of Trash Mob Minis are perfect for gaming with grownups and kids. The cartoony style is fantastic and the characterizations are really fun.

Day 25 -- What is the Best Way to Thank Your DM?

Single malt scotch.

Okay, as great as single malt scotch is, there is one better way to thank your DM. It's actually pretty simple. Come to your sessions on a regular basis, come prepared to play and without looking at your phone every five minutes, and be respectful of your DM's time and energy. We put a lot of work into DM-ing and some of us really like to do it. We can only do it if you show up, and we want you to show up because we really like having you as players.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Four #RPGaDAY Questions in One Blow! #RPGaDay -- Days 8 to 11

Sorry I missed a couple of days, but the prospectus for my dissertation took priority. Writing everyday, either here or on something else, keeps my brain working in a way that helps my prospectus, but I still have to write the prospectus too. As a reward for completing a draft, though I already know some areas I'll be improving this weekend, I'm ready to answer the questions I missed.

Question #8: What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2 hours or less?

There are quite a few RPGs that fall into this category, including CHILL which I talked about earlier, but I'm going to focus on one that's a little controversial here. The single best game for short sessions that I've ever played is D&D 4th Edition Essentials. With the Essentials rulebooks, and the Gamma World boxed set, Wizards of the Coast took what was a well designed but poorly executed and confusingly written game and turned it into one of the best introductory role playing games ever published. The Essentials editions accomplished what Wizards of the Coast was trying to do with their Red Box reproduction for 4e and created a new "Basic" edition of the game. The character classes in the Essentials edition were "pre-optimized" and the feats offered in the books were just enough to add flavor.

And don't give me any of that "4e is a great tactical game, but terrible role playing game guff." <Insert Cranky Old Man Voice>If you didn't get good role playing out of 4e, that's all on you and not the rules. Because role playing is about your actions and has nothing to do with rules sets. I ran 4th Edition, and especially Essentials, for two years at my Friendly Local Game Store (Emerald Knights in Burbank) with a mix of experienced and new gamers. The rules in the Essentials books were simple enough for the new players to understand and some of the best ROLE playing I've ever engaged in was with that group.<Exit Cranky Old Man Voice>

The Lost Crown of Neverwinter adventure for D&D Encounters is second only to The Veiled Society in my mind as the adventure most likely to go off the rails into it's own magnificent story line fit for launching a campaign.

Question #9: What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions?

The quick and easy answer, also the cheap and lame one, is to say any role playing game. When you own as many rpgs as I do, the likelihood that you'll ever get to play them all is remote. Given the monolithic dominance of the D&D and Pathfinder brands in players' minds and interests, it's hard to get to game in other rule sets some times. Add to that a limitation of only being able to game once a month, and playing 10 sessions become 10 WHOLE SESSIONS! To me that's a mini-campaign. I've seen some great answers to this question online, ranging from Savage Worlds to Shadow of the Demon Lord. Since I love those games, and the Fantasy AGE game too, I'm going to keep those as D&D alternative recommendations for games to play for years when you are tired of D&D.

For the 10 session rule, I'm going to recommend Symbaroum. My reason for recommending Symbaroum for a short campaign isn't that I don't think the game can handle a long campaign, rather it's that they've written a great short campaign for the game that fits perfectly in 10 sessions or so. Symbaroum is a deeply evocative game with excellent art work. It also has a rich setting and easy to PLAY rules. The presentation of the rules in the book aren't the most intuitive, as you have to skip around a bit to get to the rules since they put a lot of the rich background in the front and put character creation just before the background section and the rules in the middle and back of the book. Yes, that's a complaint. The translation is clear and playable, but I'd have liked a more logical order to the rule book especially given how easy the game is to play. It's a fantastic system that is close enough to D&D that players can pick it up on the spot, but different enough that it has its own feel.

Speaking of "feel," Symbaroum is also that rare game that captures the feeling of fantasy literature. D&D is a great game to play, but I never feel like I'm playing a novel. There are just too many options, in part because D&D is trying to capture the feel of a genre (for the most part) and not a particular setting. In focusing strongly on setting, Symbaroum adventures feel like collaborative novels. I mean this as a very high complement. This is one of the best RPGs I've read and watching the folks at Saving Throw Show play the intro adventure is a perfect demonstration of how great this game is because they learn and play in the same session.

Day 10: Where do you go for RPG reviews?

Where do I go for reviews? Where do I go for reviews? C'mon man. I write a blog about gaming with my kids and friends and write my own damn reviews (okay, I don't do it often enough). I've even written for The Robot's Voice man...I've been paid to review stuff...(ed. note: Stop the Gamer Rage!)

Okay, snide gamer rage aside, I do have a couple of places I go. I'm friends with a TON of gamers on the Book of Faces, so I'm constantly checking out what they have to say in their posts. I read Tenkar's Tavern, and he sometimes reviews things, I also read some of the reviews on DriveThruRPG/RPGNow. Nerdist is a good place to read reviews, though they should hire ME to write for them (ed. note: I told you to STOP that.). I listen to Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws' podcast. For the most part though, I love the diversity of product offerings in the hobby so much that I'm kind of review immune. I buy a lot of RPGs and bad reviews don't stop me from buying and I often own them before a good review comes out. I wish I wrote more frequently about the games I think are great. Reviews play an important role in promoting products in this very small market and I feel guilty when I don't promote games enough.

Day 11: Which "dead game" would you like to see reborn?

Whew! All caught up. Man, this is a tough one. There are some great games out there that have been abandoned or gone out of print because they never caught on. People I follow have already mentioned James Bond 007 by Victory Games/Avalon Hill and Dream Park. A very good retroclone of James Bond 007 called Classified is available and you should track down Dream Park if you can. For my money though, I'd really like to see the Good Guys Finish Last and Villains Finish First superhero role playing games by Better Games be reborn with a new and beautiful edition with updated artwork.

The designers at Better Games were ahead of their time with their "Free Style Role Play" games. These games used descriptors to both describe what characters could do and to determine how much damage they could take. A "robust" character would have more physical damage boxes than a "smart" character, but the "smart" character would be able to take more mental damage. Those aren't actual descriptors, at least I don't think they are, but it gets the point across. The game system used a very simple 2d8 system where the difficulty of using the power and the roll needed in order for it to be successful were related. Additionally, and this is pretty genius. This particular game wasn't just a superhero role playing game. It was also an emulation of running a comic book title. As you did better, and achieved ignobles (goals in the game), you got more powerful and your comic book reading audience increased. With an increased audience came more difficult challenges, but also better art etc. I only wish that the good folks at Better Games hadn't been so tied to artists who were emulating the IMAGE style. It dated the game, even then, and I think dissuaded people from picking up a great product. I'd love to see it relaunched with high quality and thematic art.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Asymmetry and Class Design in RPGs

Source: Stuart Robertson

In the early days of role playing games, there was a lot of push back against class based games like Dungeons & Dragons. Critics didn't like the inflexibility of classes and believed that they were overly restrictive to player options. This criticism still exists today in the debate between skill based versus class based games, but as strong as these debates seem today they are muted versions of games past.

I believe there are a couple of reasons why the debate has become less heated over time. The first reason is that class based games have expanded the options available to various classes. Most class based games allow Wizards to use swords and armor, though they might have to forgo certain other advantages to do so. The second reason is that the underlying logic behind having class based games, as articulated by J. Eric Holmes in his classic Fantasy Role Playing Games, is that classes were created to foster teamwork and that they are very good at creating fun shared experience play. One of the advantages of table top role playing games is their ability to foster friendship, and one of the best ways they do this is through the synergies created by soft-asymmetrical classes. A final reason I believe that the debate has become muted is that modern class based games are often even more asymmetrical in play than earlier ones, even as the mechanics seemed to become more symmetrical.

Where different classes played slightly differently, often using wildly different mechanics, in early class based games, in modern class based games players can choose to play entirely different game experiences. How so? In Dungeons & Dragons 3.x, players can choose to play a tactical miniatures game, a skill-intensive dungeon crawl, or a narrative storytelling role playing game. These are all potentially completely different experiences. You could do this with earlier editions of the game? Yes, you could. What makes 3.x different is that you can play these three ways, plus you can play a pub running simulation where you never interact with other players, a magic item design factory game, an art dealership game, or a mercantile simulation. Interestingly, with the exception of the magic design factory game, you can do all of these as solo game play experiences. The 3.x game system has mechanics that allow for simulated economy games. All you need is to take your character with a high Craft(Beer) and have that character make decisions about what kind of beer her or she wants to make, buy the supplies, make the rolls and you know how many cp, sp, or gp the character earns each week. You can do this until the character dies of old age.

If an economic Sim is what you want to play 3.x can accommodate you. Come to think of it, when I look at most of the complaints against 4e they actually come down to a complaint about the reduction of asymmetrical play more than anything else. You can narratively role play the crap out of 4e. You can free-form play it without miniatures. You can story tell with it. There are tons of game design options as you add more sourcebooks. What you cannot do, is run an inn using the basic mechanics of the game.

This trend of asymmetrical play in D&D, and in RPGs, started early. You can look at the War Machine and Dominion rules in the old BECMI Dungeon & Dragons game, GURPS, Champions 4th Edition, or Runequest. These games all have mechanics that allow for simultaneous asymmetrical play experiences. Not just the soft-asymmetry of classes having defined roles, but actual different play.

If you want more discussion of asymmetry in game play, here is a video by Extra Credit discussing asymmetry in computer games. It inspired this post and has me thinking about whether I've personally experienced periods of simultaneous and asymmetrical play in any past campaigns and wondering if you have any stories of your own experiences of asymmetrical play to share.