Monday, March 7, 2011

Fun With Any Edition: D&D 4th Edition

I’ve been reading a lot of posts lately about some really negative stuff – the “death of the OSR”, the “commercialization of the OSR”, and the constant bickering and complaining about how much any form of post-TSR D&D is “teh suck.” 

So, for today, I thought I’d buck the trend and start a series of posts about having fun playing any edition of D&D.  See, my various gaming groups and I have recently pretty much come to the conclusion that we really don’t care what edition (or even, what game) we’re playing.  It’s really about the common experience of being together in the same location, hanging out, sharing stories, and killing some bad guys and taking their stuff (or, sometimes, trying to figure out how to accomplish our goals without having to kill the bad guys). 

I guess I should clarify – it’s not like we just figured this out.  We’ve known it for a really long time.  But it wasn’t really until a small subset of us started to play Cal & D a few months ago that we kind of articulated what we meant – there are really fun, cool, interesting rules mechanics in each edition of the game (and also in some non-D&D RPGs, of course).  But, these in and of themselves don’t make the game fun.  What makes it fun is actually playing in a group with your friends.  Complaining about what sucks about editions you don’t like online is actually not fun.  So, we’ve started to swing toward the Chinese Menu approach.  In the words of the wise Egg Chen, “We take what we like, and we leave the rest.”  It’s sort of the same way that most people approach religion. 

So, also to buck the trend, I’m going to start this series by talking about one of the most fun times I’ve had playing an RPG by starting with 4th Edition D&D and then “working backward” over future posts in the series.

My first exposure to playing 4th Edition D&D was in a one-shot that my friend Cal organized shortly after the rulebooks had been released.  He was really excited about certain aspects of the rules, specifically the monster rules, which is something he still raves about.  Once people had accepted the invitation to play, we were told that we would be given our characters once we showed up, and he’d help us through the rules as we went along.

So, I showed up and was handed a character background with the name “Tapp Erhard” written at the top of the page.  The very first line of the background sold me: “You are the right head of a pygmy Ettin.” 

If, somehow, you aren’t familiar with an Ettin, it’s basically a really stupid two-headed giant. 

I kept reading. I controlled the left arm (since I was the right head, of course), and I learned that my brother Nale controlled the right arm.  I was the “smarter” of the two heads (which meant I was Intelligence 10, I think, whereas Nale was Intelligence 6).  I did things like tell Nale that he should wear a spiked pauldron over his shoulder to “protect him”.  However, it was really there so that when Nale did something stupid and I slapped his head with my left hand, he would slap me back with his right hand but instead hit the spiked pauldron. 

It was around this time that everyone was telling everybody else who they were playing and I said my character’s name aloud for the first time.  If you haven’t said “Tapp Erhard” out loud, give it a shot.  Shortly thereafter, my friend Shane, sitting opposite me at the other end of the table, shouted out that he was Nale Erhard!  Somehow, it had stupidly never occurred to me that another player would be controlling Nale.  I just assumed that the DM would play him as an NPC. 

We had a lot of fun, but some very frustrating moments because we actually each controlled our “half” of the Ettin as a separate character.  We got separate attacks and everything.  The only thing that we didn’t double was the movement.  So, I had to try to convince Shane at the start of each combat where we should move to, and Shane, playing to type, would argue with me because Nale was an idiot.  Sometimes Shane would move Tapp/Nale in completely the opposite direction because he didn’t know left from right.  We were even two separate classes – I was a warlord, and Shane was a fighter.  Our physical stats (Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution) were the same, but our mental stats were all completely different. 

The rest of the party consisted of Bondari Quickhand, a halfing rogue that Tapp thought was “an arrogant little prick, Valtrex Harpyslayer, a halfling ranger who basically worshipped Bondari like a god to the point that it made everyone uncomfortable, Zoloft Merrymaker, a half-elf bard (“way too cheery, and he likes to chat up other men more than is healthy”), and Cialis Oakenstaff, a human wizard (“actually has the gall to think he’s the smart one in the group.  What a complete fool”).  Of course, all of these players had completely different thoughts on their characters and also different opinions about the other players, which created some really… interesting in-game encounters.

Mechanics-wise, the DM did some really fun things with the various characters' "Powers", which I have to admit are one of my least favorite things about reading the 4th Edition Player's Handbook.  I hate read page after boring page of a bunch of different powers that all start to sound the same after awhile.  However, the DM had read them and made sure that our powers all worked together to create some interesting in-game effects.  I remember specifically that my character, Tapp, had a power called "Lead by Might".  The trigger was "When you strike someone in melee, even if it's Nale" (who, as a reminder, was the name of the "left head" of our shared Ettin character).   The effect was "The target follows your commands until the beginning of your next round, though it can't use encounter, daily, or rechargeable powers."

Nale, on the other hand, had a power called Bright Idea.  The effect was that he automatically succeeded at one INT or WIS based check (in effect, he used this power instead of rolling.  It could also be used in combination with an Action Point to figure out what to do next if the party was stuck.  This was made all the more hilarious because, again, Nale had an Intelligence of 6 and was the dumbest character in the entire group.

I really thought the DM did a great job of taking the mechanics of 4th Edition and making them much more interesting when applied to the characters he had created for us.  It didn't really feel like we were playing a tabletop version of a MMORPG, which is a criticism I hear levied against 4th Edition all the time (and one I've made myself). 

I actually don’t remember much about the specific quest we were going on, or why Tapp and Nale had joined this merry little band of adventurers, but we had a complete blast.  The character names that the DM had saddled us with were enough to get our creative juices flowing.  I remember there were two NPCs named “Sheikh Jabuti” and “Sultan Pepar”, at which point one of us shouted out “some of these jokes kind of push it... push it real good.”  There was the inevitable “puh-puh-puh-poison” joke that arises from a group of people that spent part of the early 90’s wearing Z-cavariccis and going to clubs in L.A.  I also seem to remember that Cialis Oakenstaff had a power called “Remain Erect” but it specifically said in the rules to consult a cleric if the power hadn’t worn off after more than four hours.

Yep, we were a bunch of guys in our mid-to-late 30s still laughing and joking at the same kind of things that would have made us crack up back when we were 12. 

Isn’t that part of what D&D is all about?

Note: I added an addendum to this post here, getting into some of the actual game mechanics that made this game fun.

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