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RPG Rules, Settings and Enjoyment - Part I

In this, the first installment in my roleplaying blog, I'm going to forgo flow or structure to my blogs, and just talk about whatever comes to me as it comes to me. Since it's something I'm currently thinking of, I'll start with the relationship between a game system (the rule set) and game enjoyment and imagination.

I'm currently playing two fantasy setting games, one using the Pathfinder setting and rules and the other is the default/generic Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition setting and rules. On the surface, they're both exceptionally similar games; Pathfinder uses a game system derived from the D&D 3.5 OGL (Open Game License), and had created their setting initially for use with Wizards of the Coast's D&D 3.x games, and D&D 4e is WotC's current D&D rule set. So, these games, while differing in rules, use exceptionally similar game themes and settings, differing only in specifics/details. Both are standard fantasy wizards and warriors types of settings with a pantheon of gods that interact with the mortals and a slew of mortal races that live together and battle one another with swords, axes, armour and magic. For both games, the dungeon masters (DM) are using pre-generated adventures and campaigns for us to play in, rather than creating their own. On this basis, they should be equally compelling.

That said, I have vastly different feelings about the two games; I just can't seem to really care about the 4e game (the game itself, I greatly enjoy getting together with my friends for each game, that's a separate concept!)! I feel that this difference in giving a crap comes down to the game mechanics, the rules of play, and how they interact with the setting, and thereby the imagination. This seems like a fairly valid point to consider, since the setting used in D&D 4e is the same used for the former 3.x system, which I enjoyed very much. Dungeons and Dragons classically is a fairly rules-intensive game, with comprehensive rule sets to cover all kinds of different scenarios (contrast with a rules lite system that uses a simple rule set to cover as many actions as possible with a single rule), so in both of these games, the rules intersect pretty heavily with how characters might interact with the world around them. As such, the rules need to be sensible and easy to use, as well as maintain the thematic flavour of what is possible in the setting.
For me, I find that the 4e rules, which have been a little streamlined compared to the 3.5 and Pathfinder rules, miss the mark intersecting with the game setting to create a compelling, immersive experience… when playing, I don't really feel like I'm a character interacting with a world, I feel more like a person tracking rules and just comparing numbers rolled on dice. 4e was designed to function more like an MMORPG without a computer; it removed a lot of character options to make for a more uniform game experience, and boosted low-level character strength, making characters more capable seeming when the first start adventuring. While this power boost is kind of nice (in old game editions, low level characters are quite squishy (weak) and limited in what they can do), giving characters more potential actions to start, I've found that the boost is somewhat illusory; while there appear to be more options, in most circumstances there really is just one that applies, and it applies over and over again… the situation is really the same. When a character can beat hordes of monsters right from the start of their adventuring career, for me, it somewhat cheapens the character's growth and increase in power as they move on and persevere. Contrast this with how the rules work in Pathfinder (or D&D 3.5). While Pathfinder does increase the power of characters compared to the original 3.5 system, there are still clear differences in capability as characters advance; it's still difficult for a level 1 character to defeat a single goblin, for example, where in 4e as soon as you leave your village, you can kill a cave's worth.

Basically, it's harder to succeed in Pathfinder/3.5 than it is in 4e. Not only in combat, but in social interactions, it's harder to succeed. In Pathfinder/3.5, there are some social skills that come in to play with rolling dice, but for the most part, success or failure omes down to your character thinking on their toes and saying the right things. Alternatively, in 4e, most social encounters come down to die rolling and comparing results; the characters need to gain x successes in order to proceed; there's very little need for players to make decisions at all, it mainly comes down to how the dice fall.
As a result, I've found that I care more about whether or not I DO succeed in my Pathfinder game than the 4e game. This means that I'm more invested in how my character interacts with those around him, which makes the stories we're building take hold in my mind and encouraging me to be creative and let my imagination run, considering all the ways the story could proceed and the relationships he might build with the other player characters (PCs) and non-player characters (NPCs) around him; whereas the rules for 4e leave me sitting outside of my character and his situations… I don't need to think of clever ways around impediments, simple die rolls will determine success or failure.
Of course, there are ways in which both systems succeed or fail in creating a fun, immersive experience for the players, but, from my experience D&D 4e rules seem to fail in this regard more than it succeeds.

(Ran over the character limit, so... continued in Part II)

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