March 15, 2009

Grognards and 4'Teens - Making them all happy at the same time

In response to a comment by Thanuir left in response to my post " Old School vs. New School: Have we lost our way? ".

There are differences in the _mechanics_ of resource management between Old School and New School D&D, true. 4E lends itself to heroic combat where guns are blazing and the PCs are in a constant firestorm. OD&D is more sudden, deadly, and possibly even mysterious. I guess some might consider this a trade off 4E carries due to "The Tyranny of Balance", a phrase Donny the DM coined.

Now, every campaign I've ever played in had its own houserules. So, allow me to ask this question - how many houserules, or what kinds of houserules, would be needed to make OD&D more like 4E?

How about to make 4E more like OD&D?

As a molecular biologist, I'm intimately familiar with the notion of subtle differences between two things (genes in this case) that have profound effects on observable outcomes (phenotypes). These differences can be quantified - makes me wonder if we could really put our finger down on the (small number of) characteristics that separate the OD&D Grognard tribe from the New School 4'Teen tribe. If so, what would those be? How many aspects of the rules would have to be changed?

I guess what I'm asking here is "What houserules would need to be put in place to bring OD&D and 4E and PF players together at the same table, and have everyone be happy?"

Is that even possible?

If so, what would that game look like?


  1. I could write house rules to make OD&D look and play mostly like 4e. However, this would only make the 4e fans happy, the OD&D players probably wouldn't want anything more to do with the game than they currently do with 4e. The problem is the games are polls apart in objective and in "attitude."

    OD&D is about GM rulings and lots of house rules to customize the rules to your campaign's needs. It's about fast, abstract combat. It is about normal people trying to become heroes and often dying fast, horrible deaths instead of become heroes.

    4e is about tactical combat where everyone starts as a powerful hero with a limited set of carefully balanced abilities. Death is certainly possible, but many of the risks in OD&D (save or die, level lose from undead, rust monsters, etc.) have been removed from the game in the name of combat balance and character survival.

    Checkers and chess look similar at first glance. They are played on the same board and you move pieces around the board trying to capture other pieces, but the games are actually very different. I doubt you could modify one to be like the other and make both checkers players and chess players happy. OD&D and 4e (or even 3.x, to a lesser extent) are like that. Two very different games that appear very similar -- provided you don't look at them very long or very deep. Trying to modify one so that players of both could play it instead of their current favorite seems just as unlikely to succeed.

  2. The Chess/Checkers vs ODD/4E comparison is perfect, and resonates well with what people in general have been observing.

    Good insight.

  3. It's impossible.

    To make an anime fandom comparison. A lot of people like robot shows. But there's distinct kinds of robot shows. There's Real Robot Shows – these usually try to be scientific, contemporary and realistic in their depiction of robots.

    Then there's super robots. These try to be badass, over-the-top, with insanely powerful robots, larger-than-life characters, dramatic, world-ending situations. Super Robot shows aren't about research, social commentary and plausibility – they're about being awesome.

    Some people can stomach both real robot shows and super robot shows. Some people like one and hate the other. You'll never get a show to be both these though and consequently will never get the fanbase that hates one or the other.

  4. I think that to play an old school style game of 4e there are a few points, some mechanical and some purely style to consider.

    First I think is to emphasize more on exploration and less on skill rolls. By this I mean rather than use a skill roll to resolve a situation such as disabling a trap or searching a room for treasure an old school way of doing this would be to give more descriptions on objects in the players surroundings to interact with.

    Although there were a lot of save or die traps in old dnd if a trap is that extreme there should at least be some clues that the players have an opportunity to pick up on to possibly avoid a gruesome fate. Hell, if it's a save or die type of trap, it being 4e why not a skill challenge or die type of trap?

    Mechanically keeping track of encumbrance and rations would add to giving the game an old school vibe. I think the endurance skill rules supports this if I'm not mistaken.

    Another thing to consider is encounter balance, in short don't worry about it but at the same time give the player's sufficient clues as to what they could be dealing with.

    This is where I think 4e's skills could be emphasized a bit. On a successful roll give the players some lore and knowledge of an area, a group or any creatures they come across as a reward for being trained in the skill.

    Going in blind only to get smacked upside the head by an extremely tough encounter without any warning just plain sucks.

    On the other hand if you were given enough clues ahead of time but didn't stop to think about whether your party was prepared for this or not could end in a unwanted but possibly deserved tpk.

  5. I think this whole "split" is in everyone's heads. D&D is about the gameplay, not some small mechanical trappings that can just as easily be houseruled or discarded. If you take a player from any edition who isn't a zealot about his edition being the "One True Way" and invite him to a game of D&D, he will recognize the game and have a good time. It doesn't matter if its a 4e player joining a BECMI game or a OD&D player leaping into a 3e campaign. It's all D&D and it's all good. The gamestyle is informed by the DM and the group. Some like simple dungeon crawl games, some background heavy, some roleplaying heavy, some with lots of political intrigue (which no D&D ruleset supports, yet it thrives anyway), most games have a mix of several of these. It's all good.

    Discussing the merits of this rule or this method is all well and good, but getting lost in this "One True Way" nonsense telling people that their version isn't D&D because it doesn't have save or die, or because only 3 classes is too primitive or because crafting is central to someones D&D experience is just inane. It's meaningless blather.

    As a poster on EnWorld is fond of saying - it's all D&D and it's all AWESOME

  6. Thasmodious said "If you take a player from any edition who isn't a zealot about his edition being the "One True Way" and invite him to a game of D&D, he will recognize the game and have a good time."

    This isn't always true. For example, I find detailed, tactical combat with minis and battlemats incredibly boring in RPGs. I want fast, abstract combats that are usually over in 10-15 minutes of real time. That seldom happens in 3.x or 4e combat, so I find generally 3.x and 4e not very enjoyable to play. It's not that those editions aren't D&D or I'm some type of edition zealot, but simply that games ran under the rules of those editions aren't much fun for me.

  7. "Death is certainly possible, but many of the risks in OD&D (save or die, level lose from undead, rust monsters, etc.) have been removed from the game in the name of combat balance and character survival."

    This type of stuff is still a content issue and can be taken care of with house rules. I see the point that as published it does not support it but still it doesn't stop you from running the game that you want to run.

    If you want to use 4e and add these type of elements into the game there's nothing stopping you. Unless you're a rules as written nazi then sucks to be you.

    There is no such thing is one true way and at the same time nothing is impossible.

  8. OD&D has very fast character creation: Roll a bunch of stats, pick a class/race, select equipment, go.

    4e has slow character creation: Assign or roll or whatever stats, pick race & class, powers, feats, skills, equipment, then go. 4e assumes that characters are of the same level, though that restriction can, I assume, be pretty safely ignored, so it is not necessary to generate all characters at high levels to start with.

    If the gameplay is lethal, people will be creating characters a lot. This does not fit well with long character creation. For this reason I'd argue that one would have to either learn 4e by heart or significantly simplify it if one wanted to have plenty of actually lethal situations.

    How can you explain that there exist people who enjoy one game more than the other? It is not simply a case of one being better, obviously, for if it were the supporters of the worse one would seem quite out of their minds, which they are not. Since both games are still enjoyed, it must be that they are enjoyable in a different way(s).

    Also, roleplaying is am emergent behaviour. Small changes in ruleset can have huge repercussions in gameplay.

    As for modifying the games to resemble each other in style of play; honestly, I'd say it would be more trouble than it is worth. It would be easier to build on old editions, as they have less tightly integrated parts.

    Honestly, I'm not even certain that the premises are compatible. 4e with tactical combat, older editions with exploration; time combat takes is away from exploration and vice versa. It would, at least, take considerable design skill to merge the two styles.

  9. Well... greywulf recently posted about a 4E game where they made their characters OD&D style... made me chuckle to no end.

    Ok Ok... this is all well and good; from these limited discussions it is clear to me that there is no middle ground. OD&D players have their table, 4E players have their table. In a way it is unfortunate - becuase there's so much experience on both sides of this divide that it is a shame that the two tribes can't cross pollanate each other.

    I guess people are set in their ways prehaps. Personally, I would welcome the opportunity to play a 4E or OD&D campaign that used elements from the other tribe's system.

  10. Jonathan;

    I don't think most people are as extreme as the prominent rpg bloggers; people blog because they are passionate about roleplaying, so naturally there will be plenty of strong opinions. Most people I play with are willing to at least try almost anything, though they do have their preferences.

    Also: At least I can adjust my expectations if I am told what the playing will be about. Yesterday I played a veritable rambo in sort of Shadowrun game where the point was tactical game play and succeeding at the mission; today I'll play very storytelling-focused sort of Nobilis where I'll be making my character's life as difficult as I can while keeping the game fun. Doing this in the Shadowrun game might have killed it.

    I think people can do this with different editions of D&D, too; tell people what they are supposed to enjoy in a particular game and they can try it or whisper "No.", and move on.

    Also, there's plenty of technique to steal from both styles. I don't even play D&D and still find plenty of insight at Grognardia and alike.

  11. "4e is about tactical combat where everyone starts as a powerful hero..."

    This pretty much sums up the two things I find wrong with the core of 4e.

    a) Why TRY to be a hero when you can BE one?

    Previous versions of DnD have been concerned with the journey. You don't start as a Hero... no one does. You become one through deeds and trials. 4e shoves you past all that.

    Unfortunately. for most of us still clinging to the OD&D concepts... we LIKE that journey. We want to see the characters grow with the story. We LIKE having faults to overcome... feet of clay and everything that comes with it.

    b) Now it's more Tactical.

    If I want to play a tactical game, I've got plenty of Avalon Hill and SPI on my shelves, as well as a whole slew of WarMachine minis. There's too many companies that actually do *tactical* gaming better than 4e and when I feel the need to Armchair General, I'll play one of them.

    When I sit down to a role-playing game... I'm there to Role-Play. It was the whole reason Dungeons and Dragons evolved out of Chainmail... people wanted more than the "tactical" aspect. Combat became just one part of the game.

    Unfortunately, now TSRWOTCHASBRO, in their infinite wisdom(?) has reversed that.

    Even to the point that even comparing 4e to MMORPGs is inaccurate. 3e was more like MMORPGs, with slotting slightly-generic skills (feats) as you're character grew in strength.

    4e's much more a First-Person Shooter now. Sure, there's a slight whiff of a story arc, but it boils down to "you kill monster X, you get stuff."

    With all that said though... I do have hope for DnD. In it current incarnation it does resemble Classic DnD to a degree... it's back to being a role playing supplement for a miniatures game taking us back to a point before all the house rules and such turned that little brown book into the first modern RPG.

    Which given me hope for 5th ed when they realize.. "hey... I'll bet we can add more role-playing to this!"

    Till then, I still have Dungeons and Dragons:TOE that I can play, and teach others to play as well :)

  12. I think 4E is what you make it. Sure, the game is more tactical... but is there really that much MORE of the RAW devoted to combat than any previous edition of the game? I think the RAW was always mostly focused on combat mitigation, and the "fluff" was usually secondary aspects of it. However, I would say that the later editions of the game DEemphasized the fluff (unless you were playing in a specific setting like FRCS or Eberron), but the amount of combat centric rules is the same now as it has ever been. True -- 4E is tactical, but as Greywulf has (is) shown on this blog, there is no reason you can't play an OD&D style game using 4E rules. I mean, there is much more to 4E than just the "first person shooter" aspects of combat. In my own game, there's tons of emphasis on roleplaying. Ok, the characters at level one don't start out as peons -- but thier journey is just as interesting as it has been in any campaign I've ever run. This is why I'm sorta torn between these two camps or tribes or whatever you want to call them.. Grognards vs. 4ETeens. I see the benefit of the 4E system of combat mitigation, but also see alot of value in the OD&D style of ROLEPLAYING. I guess it comes down to that.

    @nachtwulf - welcome back! hope I didn't drive you away with my other post and response about grognards.

  13. You never really started out as peons though, ordinary farmers and the like. This is an exaggeration being spread from both ends - that older editions were about ordinary people and 4e starts with superheroes.

    Martial exploits aren't superhero powers, they are just more descriptive, both flavor and mechanically, than "I swing my sword" over and over. Comparing hit points now with hit points then is ignoring that games use different scales. 3e PCs had a lot more HPs than OD&D PCs and I remember a lot of this superhero stuff when it came out, too. The scales are different, the assumptions are different, encounter design is different. It's about as easy to die in your first encounter of 4e as it was in 3e or 2e, all of which are generally a bit more survivable than 1e and especially OD&D.

    OD&D combat was very much a tactical minis game (it was the Chainmail rules after all), and 4e has come back to that. It's a great way to handle combat.

    Jonathan is right, D&D rules have always (since the game didn't tell you to refer to other games for rules) always had about the same focus and content. The two most complex, rules heavy parts of the system have always been combat and character creation. That's never changed as the focus of the rules of the system. Whether a group roleplays or not, or what their combat to noncombat encounter ratio is has never been determined by the rules system, its been determined by the individual game and the DMs and groups.

  14. Thasmodius, what do you think of this post:

    The tone of combat is very different, at least for that blogger, which is quite sufficient to show that the game is different, too.

    Also, I wonder why all the people who regularly play old editions and who try 4e find it very different if they are so similar.

    One has to discard a large number of people if one claims that 4e and the old editions play in similar way.

    (This is, again, not to say that they can't be made to play in similar way; it just takes tweaking and work.)

  15. You have to disregard a large number of people if you deny that 4e plays very similar to older editions. I've played all editions and I run the same kinds of things I've always ran. My tastes have changed over the years, certainly. I started playing when I was 7 and DMing when I was 8. As I grew, so did my game style. But that style was never thwarted by an edition of the game, even when the editions of the day didn't support it. My longest running campaign was heavy with social and political intrigue and deep, multilayered plots and very little dungeon delving, things D&D has never supported through its system but we did anyway. Many groups do, or have done, the same thing.

    Many of the same people you are talking about who say that 4e plays very differently, and mean it negatively, said the same of 3e. The mechanics have changed, the game has not. D&D has always been primarily about adventuring. It still is.

    I'm not saying there is no difference in the way the game plays, just that the game that is being played is the same. Where 4e is especially similar to OD&D is that it is more narrowly focused on dungeon delving, which was definitely the central focus of OD&D, BD&D, and 1e. 2e had a more narrativist lean, 3e a more simulationist lean (I use those terms in a loose manner). But it's still all about adventuring.

  16. Thasmodius;

    You play D&D in a way that the rule changes don't greatly influence. (If I used D&D with my usual style of roleplaying, I would, too, since there is little in the way of blood being shed in combats.) It does not follow that the changes are irrelevant to others, since many others play in different ways.

    There exist reasonable people who say that to them new editions (I include 3rd and 4th as new editions) are different in play, and they go as far as to saying why. By claiming the editions are similar you are saying that they are wrong or they lie. I am rather more inclined to say that those people play in a way that capitalises the differences.

    There also exist many smart people who say that there is not much of a difference when it comes to their play. They are probably correct; they just play in a way that minimises the differences.

    I can't claim that the editions are completely and utterly different without claiming a number of bloggers are stupid or deceitful. Neither can you claim that the gameplay is not different in major aspects. What we can say is that the editions are different in some important aspects and similar in others.

    The extent to which the editions are different or similar is up for debate, but I am not really interested in that. The playing styles for which they are different is a more interesting matter.

  17. Re: the exchange between thanuir and Thasmodius:

    I find these distinctions really interesting. Myself, I fall on both sides of that line depending on my mood—sometimes I don't care what the rules set is, and sometimes I really, really do. It just turns on what kind of play style I'm in the mood for.

    Thasmodius, what you say applies not just to D&D, but a lot of non-D&D fantasy RPGs. I can use Savage Worlds, Burning Wheel, AD&D 1e, or 4e to play out the same "gameplay". That doesn't mean that AD&D 1e and the Burning Wheel are the "same game" minus a few different numbers in a few places. There are games that I can play with BW that I can't play with 4e, and vice versa.

    However, it's pretty cool for you that your play style is relatively immune to changes in the rules. You'll avoid most of the bumps that people are blogging about.


By submitting your comment below, you agree to the blog's Terms of Service.