Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Original D&D, 4th Edition D&D, and "Game Balance"

I recently read a minor flame war on the Wizards of the Coast message boards discussing whether or not Hasbro should sell the D&D license to Paizo Publishing. Like Kobold Quarterly, I am neutral on the edition wars and love all editions of D&D -- including Pathfinder -- equally. I am a supporter of role playing games in general and only Synnabarr and FATAL occupy my list of RPGs to avoid.

My love of the various editions can probably be seen in my having recently begun a series of posts featuring house rules for the 1st Edition "Moldvay/Cook" Basic set that makes it play more like the current 4th edition system. It's a fun experiment and one that I think will bear some interesting fruit.

One of the things that I have noticed as a feature of Original D&D (and the Basic Edition) is how both versions of the game support inter-team dependency and reward the players working together toward a common goal. The fragility of characters in 1st edition, combined with their overt specialization, enforced inter-dependence, and the modern edition's focus on tactical combinations has a similar effect.

That's why I was surprised to read in the "Should Paizo..." thread that one of the things that some players hated about 4e was that it highlighted team play and didn't support a "go for your own" style of game where the players don't work together.

Maxperson (one of the individual's avatar aliases) wrote:

"So, if I may, the argument against 4e is that when you work together as a team you do better at fights?"

Let me correct two misinterpretations. First, it's not an argument against 4ed. It's simply something I dislike about 4ed Second, the argument is that 4ed math is set up with teamwork in mind, so it's more or less essential, rather than optional. Your average player is not going to be on the same level as the guy who claims to have beaten an elite as a solo character in 4ed.

"And this is unrealistic because... (?!?)"

Not everyone does or should have to work as a team.

Maxperson's assertion that 4e enforcing teamwork was a new phenomenon in D&D surprised me. It seems to be an echo of a certain kind of play that some in the OSR community refer to when describing their own gaming history, but it isn't one that I ever experienced. D&D for me has never been a game of wandering self-interested mercenaries each out to get the fat loot at the expense of the other players. I only played in one campaign that remotely resembled that scenario, and it ended friendships. D&D isn't Diplomacy or Risk it is a Heroic Fantasy.

I have to say that I sometimes wonder if my opinion that D&D has always been designed to encourage teamwork and encourage moral behavior is misguided. Otherwise, how can I explain those who argue that an edition that makes D&D about teamwork is a bad thing?

Thankfully, I went back and read my copy of J. Eric Holmes' excellent Fantasy Role Playing Games. Holmes wrote the first Basic D&D set, so he knows a little of what he speaks when it comes to the design intentions of early editions of D&D.

Holmes writes:

I don't mean to imply that the designers of games set out to teach us little moral lessons about everyday life -- except Gygax.

"Except Gygax?" So Gygax did intend to teach us moral lessons about everyday life Dr. Holmes? How?

In the D&D world fighters can not do magic, but magicians are so weak that they need to be protected by fighters. Clerics can heal wounds and do a lot of fighting but are no good at long distance offensives because they can not shoot arrows or throw offensive spells. The constraints of the rules practically dictate cooperation and mutual respect for the talents and weaknesses of each class, and I find it hard to believe that Gygax was not fully conscious of the principle when he wrote them.

Gygax calls this "play balance" and insists that it is not good for one character to grow too powerful with respect to the others.

Holmes goes on to say that it is other games that go against the cooperation principle, but not D&D.

So...D&D has always encouraged cooperation. It has always encouraged teamwork. The fact that 4e has strengthened this interdependence back to levels akin to those of Moldvay/Cook basic, is one of the things I love about the game.

It's fine to play games that don't encourage teamwork.  Games like Paranoia and Boot Hill where players actively act against one another are quite fun.  But D&D is an abstraction of Heroic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery.  These genre are not quite as mercenary as some might portray them...even when they are purely mercenary like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser they still work together.
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