A brief glimpse into a thought process

I’ve begun to really avoid gaming forums lately, mostly because I can find myself having wasted a good hour of my life with little gained but a stomach full of “nerdrage.”  Moreover, I’ve rarely seen a place that offered a fair and balanced critique of the different editions of D&D that didn’t quickly degenerate into something less.  RPGForum?  4E is the beloved.  TheRPGsite?  4E (or FATE) is emblematic of what’s wrong in the RPG universe.  And don’t even get me started on the disputes between people over which is their favorite retro-clone.  That has all the feel of “which is better, this store brand of diet cola or that store brand of diet cola?”  It’s mostly the same syrup and carbonated water, and costs about the same.

What does have me in knots these days is that I decided to get off my terrain-building butt and actually run some fantasy game for some people sometime soon.  (Vague enough for you?)  And for some reason my brain has seized up on which system to use, diet cola analogy be damned.   So I sat down and wrote out what I like about each game, and then let myself argue the opposite point.  I’m good at this.

What do I like about each option?    

Labyrinth Lord: Straightforward character creation
Basic Fantasy: “Old School” option with some more intuitive rules tweaks
C&C: The SIEGE engine rule for arbitrating certain random checks
4th Edition:The theoretically easy way of building encounters
Now to counter-refute

LL: that “straightforward” character creation is because it is virtually crunch-free and offers little in system-supported character concepts. An elf is an elf is an elf.
BFRPG: It’s a mishmash of various gaming systems.
C&C: after a certain high-level point, things like “stat bonuses” are negligible, which undermines the idea that high Strength low-level characters are physically stronger than low Strength high level characters.
4th Edition: that “encounter building” mechanism has more railroading in it than you might think, especially at the low levels.  Level 1 or 2 encounter?  It’s gonna be kobolds and goblins, no matter what.
Then, looking over it all, I basically weigh what my professor used to call the “existential cash vale” of each statement, or in other words “does this really matter?”  Out of all of them the critique of BFRPG seems the shallowest, and sounds like something I read on Dragonsfoot somewhere or something (probably along with “it has a boring name”).  Even in writing this I can think of a better one: 1st level Clerics don’t get any spells, preventing them from performing their primary group-purpose until 2nd level, assuming they live that long.
In addition, having slowly unwound some of the more rules-locked thinking in my mind, there’s nothing stopping me from employing some version of the SIEGE engine in BFRPG whenever I do need an odd random check.  There was even an old Dragon article many moons ago about multiplying the stat by four and doing a percentile thing.  Houseruling is okay….Houseruling is okay….
The critique of 4E is based on something I tried recently as I sought to ascertain which rules system to use.  I basically sat down and created an adventure with each system.  What I found was that 4E’s “suggestions” about encounter creation and the whole “level” value to an encounter constituted a pretty tight rein on what I could do at levels 1 and 2.  There’s only about ten creatures at levels 1 and 2.  Of those, some are really not viable (e.g. halfling slingers) and others are simply variants of the same creature (kobolds and goblins).  So if I didn’t want to do a kobold or goblin warren, my choices were pretty limited.  I tried to come up with a were-rat lair with giant rats, dire rats, and rat swarms, but that brought a lot of level 2 creatures into play.
Now the logic of the game mechanic is that after two or three sessions, this will be moot, because you will have already moved up to second level.  But it still feels restrictive.  That I can’t use orcs or gnolls or hobgoblins or anything like that because they have been ramped up to level 3 or 4 or 5 is a deliberate attempt to make them more noteworthy adversaries for mid-heroic tier encounters.  Great, but here’s what it feels like (and frankly, the recent supplement Dungeon Delve proves this):
Your D&D 4E campaign, in outline form:
Level 1: kobolds
Level 2: goblins
Level 3: orcs or skeletons
Level 4: gnolls
And frankly, it wasn’t easier.  It wasn’t any easier to figure out which five or six different creatures would be an interesting encounter any more than just picking different monsters from earlier editions of the Monster Manual.  The latter is just more speculative, although I wonder if that isn’t really a myth about how easy or difficult different encounters are in 4E.
And I’m not even getting into the whole “I’d have to throw out my Gothica pieces because in 4E you need 40′ by 50′ rooms at a minimum” stuff.
At this point, the argument in my head is just about whether or not I want bards and rangers and half-elves in my game, and what was gained by leaving them out.


  1. I’m not sure I’m following the argument that 1st level play means kobolds and goblins only.

    I don’t have my MM in front of me, but there has to be other monsters at 1st level. Even if there wasn’t, and Kobolds and Goblins were the only creatures available at 1st level, 1st level characters should be facing 1st, 2nd, 3rd and even 4th level encounters at level 1. That gives way more leeway to choosing monsters.

    Add to that the idea of quickly modifying monster levels to represent things like injured or sickly monsters and you have even more variety. This was in a preview issue of Dragon IIRC.

    Really, what monsters do you want your 1st levels to face?

    With all the faults of 4E, this is a really odd thing to complain about. At the very heart 4E’s encounter system is a tool for DMs who either don’t have the game experience or desire to properly balance encounter difficulty and rewards with player levels. Since this is a tool there is nothing stopping people from ignoring it in favour of designing their own encounters after their own ideals.

    Perhaps the complaint is more about the diversity of monsters at first level rather than any problem with the encounter system.

  2. There are fifteen 1st level monsters. Two of these are riding horses and halfling slingers (good if you want to go on that killing spree through the halfling equestrian farm). Three are kobolds (the Slinger, the Minion, and the Skirmisher) and three are goblins (the Blackblade, the Cutter, and the Warrior). Another two are almost identical (the dire rat and the giant rat), leaving you to round out the lot with the Fire beetle, stirge, decrepit skeleton, Spiretop Drake and Stormclaw scorpion.

    So, if you’re building encounter groups at first level your choices really are part A (kobold or goblin) and part B (rat or bug), with the occasional stirge or drake thrown in. It just seems to me that there was more flavor at the lower levels than there is now, probably because really players aren’t supposed to be here long enough to notice. One kobold warren, one goblin warren, and there’s onto 2nd level. To contrast, level 8 has 27 options. And by then you can do more “n+2 and six n-1 flunkies”

  3. While it’s true that there’s not as much different monster races in the MM, that is perhaps more to do with the additional options for specific monster races.

    MM2 will help, if you don’t mind paying for another book.

    If you can, check out Keep on the Shadowfell. Remember that this is meant to be an iconic introduction to 4th, and thus heavily features kobolds and goblins because they are iconic low-level monsters. However there’s also a fight involving humans, a halfling slinger (who don’t have to be good), a gnome and some guard drakes.

    Later there are fights against an ochre jelly and a blue slime.

    Don’t forget that you can put players against monsters above their level. It isn’t a CR 1 monster = party of 4, it’s 500xp worth of monsters vs. a party of 5. That’s a lot more flexible than the previous edition. Of course, only half of the encounters at first level should be ER 1. There should also be a couple of ER 2 and ER 3 encounters. Keep on the Shadowfell even throws an ER 6 encounter at first level characters, although it’s traditionally been the TPK encounter of the adventure.

    What type of encounters will the other games allow you at first level?

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