The Alphastream Game Design Blog
(Originally posted in 2012 on my WotC blog)
One of the hardest times for any gamer is when a new edition is announced, and particularly when tiny glimpses of the upcoming changes are seen. This is the time when what we see becomes a mirror. In the changes we see approval or rejection of our own interests – even though the designers clearly aren’t writing the edition for or against any one of us.
That mirror is no nicer to us than it was to the queen in Snow White. Not only are we not the fairest of them all (not even close!), but we are just one of so many gamers out there. The reflection and what it says is often harder to take the closer you are to the game, the bigger a fan you are, and the more you have done for it. It can be so very frustrating: does the game to which I was so loyal not love me back? Are these other members of the community really so different? Are they traitors? What’s in their pocketssesssss, my preciousssss?
I’m an activist at heart. Both growing up in Colombia and working in the environmental field I’ve seen how some passionate actions just don’t translate into change, some really hurt progress, and others are very effective. The hardest action can be to pause and observe, but it can be invaluable if then creating an effective action.
Passion can run afoul of frustration. When we feel frustrated our words get twisted away from our intent (to positively change the game) and become negative (actually hurting our chances to make the game better). They also feed the frustration of others, especially thanks to the Internet. Both 3E and 4E saw plenty of loud frustrated voices, but few of those helped the edition in any way (usually they hurt the edition).
Those of us that are fortunate to have seen D&D next can offer no solace. Non-Disclosure Agreements don’t allow for that. It is also very difficult to win these arguments. It is so very easy to look at a review purporting to be a leak and to become absolutely incensed – maybe to post our own negative thoughts. Like the Dark Side, this is the quicker more seductive path. It isn’t more powerful than the positive Force, but as I’m sure Yoda would say, it is sure easier to blog and post about!
Negativity and frustration can blind us to alternatives. Everything becomes an obvious attack and we naturally want to fight back. A harder but more positive approach is to take that deep breath, analyze the options, and gain perspective. The more we can glimpse this point in time and compare it to others, the more we can study our table and compare it to others, the more we can understand an issue and the potential for positive change.
Playing through previous editions and blogging about them has helped me see that no single edition has been perfect. Each traded one aspect for something else. In looking at 4E, my favorite edition, it has many aspects that left gamers wanting. Across all the people playing we hear too many players and DMs saying their game lacks flavor and RP and story. Droves are saying it takes too long. Tons of DMs exclaim they don’t know how to challenge their players. 4E can answer all those and other issues, and you or I may not experience some or any of these issues, but that is not the case at enough tables. We can see how this sustains and exacerbates the edition wars.
Progressing solely forward from 4E to a true 5E would likely be very harmful to the game. Even merely refining 4E would likely not be enough. The game can benefit by picking up some important pieces that were left behind. Reducing the edition wars is a worthy cause. The challenge is always in figuring out which bits are nostalgia and which ones really make for great gaming, while deciding which 3E and 4E innovations should be retained. This is why D&D Next’s playtesting is so critical. To get those answers, painful questions have to be asked and reactions evoked. Also, time is needed. The playtest for 4E was by all accounts too brief – there was insufficient time for designers to properly react to the feedback and to iterate improvements. D&D Next clearly has a very different playtest process and an entirely different approach.
The one-hour dungeon is a really evocative concept. I suspect Mike Mearls could have chosen 3-hour or 2-hour and played it safe. However, 1-hour is an excellent choice to solicit reactions.
Let’s break down a possible way of reacting.
1. What is our initial take-away and why?
Our first reaction is very valuable. It can actually be very easy to forget it later, as we see other parts or hear the perspectives of others. Recalling that first impulsive reaction is helpful.
I’m an RPGA guy, and before that an “I don’t need sleep” college guy, and before that a “I don’t know what sleep is, give me more sugar” school kid. I love a 4-8 our adventure. I’ll take a 24-hour adventure. My first reaction is that I don’t want a 1-hour adventure. I don’t even think it should exist, and it might be bad for the game, trivializing it.
2. Historical Perspective: Why is this being asked?
In analyzing a D&D Next topic I like to think about why this came up. One possibility is as a reaction to reports that 4E play is dominated by very long combats. They can be incredibly long at some tables. Speeding up play could perhaps be more fun. Looking back, previous editions had far simpler and shorter combats, which allowed for those other pillars of play.
Another possibility is from the marketing perspective. Getting new players to sit down for 4 hours is tough. Completing an adventure such as Against the Giants (even a part of it) can be a challenge even for an established group. Completing a campaign can be legendary.
3. How does the extent of this problem compare across all gamers?
I run a lot of RPGA Organized Play games, I travel to large conventions, and I travel to work (often setting up games in other states or even countries). These games help me get a perspective on gaming across many different groups. I also read the accounts of others, which helps me hear different perspectives. Is the one-hour dungeon something that speaks to an actual problem? If so, how widespread is it?
The topic of 4E play being long and AD&D or Basic being short comes up often online. This impacts many gamers and is a factor in determining what edition to play. The underlying aspects that contribute to 4E’s length (many of which I love) are often criticized independently (example: players spending too much time analyzing their power options).
I also take a look at the environment around me and the different demographics. My generation is aging. Many of us have bigger responsibilities. In my own home game, and it greatly pains me, some of my players wouldn’t mind my shaving a half hour off the weeknight game. At PAX I see the success of the 1-hour delve and 2-hour intro session for bringing in new players. Those same new players did not try longer games as often. Encounters play (1-2 hours) may now be roughly the size of LFR play (4 hours, sometimes longer).
Looking at organized play again, we’ve lost players that prefer more time for story, exploration, and RP. Those players have switched to home campaigns and to other RPGs’ organized play programs. It would be nice to have them back, because some of them are great promoters, authors, and people to have at a table.
I also see that for all the brilliance of the set-piece 4E movie-style cinematic encounter, it is a far cry from the fluidity we enjoyed in previous editions. If I spend 2 hours crafting a fight in a volcano, including awesome lava bridges and special terrain powers, I can’t easily shift that to a different location if the PCs want to go left instead of right. In AD&D, I could more easily improvise – without having years of experience as a DM. I could also run 6-10 combats in a 4-hour session, plus RP, plus character developing spotlight moments, plus cool story moments, plus NPC interactions, plus explorations and choices – and all very fluidly if I so chose.
Take Keep on the Borderlands. I find the adventure boring as written. Where it excels is in potential. If you take each of those caves and create intrigue between them… then the fun can start cooking. It’s the sort of adventure where the ogre in the cave can be a solitary fight, or appear when the goblins pay him off, or show up unexpected at a critical moment – even outside the caves. It is far harder in 4E to be that flexible, especially as a new DM.
I also have to think about what I and others think we might lose. Do monsters have to be very simple for shorter adventures? Do we lose character flexibility? Will we lose the awesome 4E terrain innovations? Listing these kinds of concerns can help me get a feel for what we want to keep.
4. Re-assess the question
It is around this time that I like to go back and re-read the D&D Next topic. What exactly is being asked and offered?
Here is what Mike/Wizards is stating as a goal: a fulfilling 1-hour adventure. One hour where you had a pretty complete adventure and had a really good time. He isn’t saying Ashes of Athas should be more like the 1-hour D&D Convention Delve. He is saying that in 1 hour we should be able to have a cool adventure that has opportunities for all the pillars of play and not feel thin. He also isn’t saying all games are 1-hour games.
I try to envision a positive outcome from these changes.
At the home campaign level, it wouldn’t be bad to be able to run a side-trek or short adventure in 1-hour. It would sure make it easier for many to get home games off the ground, especially on weeknights. With a bit more time, say 1.5 or 2 hours, I could cover far more story and adventure ground than I do now. It would be nice to do more with each session, and to have more combats per session. When I think of 4 hours… could I get most of a story arc accomplished? That has potential…
For stores, people could actually play a home campaign at a store. That’s really hard to do now, but if the game could be light and easy, maybe it could be. And maybe the store would serve beer (ours does) and could be more of a hangout.
Imagine if Encounters wasn’t a single encounter, but more like a complete chapter. Maybe traditional organized play could be set up so adventures came in 2 parts… you could play all of it in 4 hours at a con, but also do half at a time at a store or other public location. Much easier to reserve that room at a school or other public place for 2 hours.
Imagine if the 1-hour delve at conventions actually also had story and puzzles and real interactive exploration. Imagine if a longer adventure did that and more – if you could complete real changes during organized/living play in a 4-hour adventure. Instead of 3 encounters, an RP encounter, and a skill challenge, imagine accomplishing the equivalent of a classic adventure. That’s a compelling vision. Lighter and smaller combats would give DMs more capabilities to change up the adventure based on player choice. A 3-hour classic could really resemble the tournament scenarios of old.
6. Formulate my stance
Now I go back and figure out where I stand. I really like 4E. I really like the goal of a 4-hour D&D adventure. But, looking at the past, at how other tables play, at commonly voiced issues, and at organized play challenges… I can see where Mike is coming from with a 1-hour goal.
However, I want this to be an option. I find myself preferring the goal of a 2-hour adventure. Part of this is that those earlier visions (such as a richer Encounters session) are great, but likely come at the expense of some of the great innovations of later editions. It is fun to have more complex monsters with roles. It is awesome to have at-will powers and still have a spellbook. It rocks to have cool intricate combats with terrain.
Yeah, a 2-hour adventure. That’s what sounds right to me. Still, 1-hour isn’t a terrible goal if we watch the other issues. PCs and monsters and combats should be simple enough to run quickly, but robust enough to be fun if I play for 8 hours. That’s what I like and what I’ll offer as constructive feedback.
I feel much better. With proper playtesting, Mike and all the other fantastic staff at Wizards (and I mean it, they are top notch) will see what works and what doesn’t. I am very glad they are asking this question. A less competent and aspiring company wouldn’t recognize the issues in 4E, wouldn’t see the problems 4-hours poses to some demographics, and wouldn’t give the playtests the time to work themselves through.
Having gone through this thought process I lose my frustration and most of my concerns. I have a feel for the issues and I’m eager to be part of the discussion in a positive way.