D&D 4e – A Board Game?

In a post on his blog, John Wick makes some very good points about the differing goals of a board game (victory) and a roleplaying game (character development) and argues that D&D, especially 4e as it’s cast, is more of a board game than anything else.

Now, a lot of the people in my gaming group hate John Wick with the fury of a thousand suns, because he is an asshole.  I concede this point; however, he’s an asshole who frequently makes good points.  I see their point too, however – his anecdote about his thief named Rav seems to be an example of people who “roleplay” as a thinly veiled excuse to make the other gamers’ lives more difficult.  Although perhaps he would have stuck by his ideals and, if the rest of the party had caught him stealing and decided to lynch him for it, applauded the resulting story.

 My related thought is that I hear a lot of people say that “a roleplaying game’s rules have nothing to do with roleplaying; you can turn Monopoly into a roleplaying game if you want.”  These are people without enough experience in RPGs.  There are many, many games which base character progression off of roleplaying (XP for RP being the most basic implementation) to giving bonuses in-game when a character is pursuing their loves and hates. 

Here’s some examples as a public service to those who have never heard of such a thing.  Minor copyright violation is the soul of the Net after all.

Here’s the Experience Point Awards section from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Typically, each player should receive between one and five experience points in a game session. Everybody who participates gets one experience point (call it the “You Drove a Half Hour . . . oh, and Picked Up Twizzlers Before Playing” award). If the characters succeeded in thwarting evil through teamwork, heroic butt-kicking and creative thinking, an additional one or two points should be awarded. Players who stayed in character and helped move the story along should get another one or two points. At the end of major story arcs, another point should be awarded to everyone in the group, plus one more at the end of the Season Finale.

This is one of the more trivial examples, where character advancement simply isn’t linked to kills and loot but participation and forwarding the story.

Here’s the experience section from Over the Edge.
These are actions for which you can award dice to PCs:
• Doing things. A full session of talking, lying, being lied to, fighting, sneaking, watching your back, following clues and so forth should be worth a die, unless the PC was generally incompetent.
• Succeeding at some major task, such as solving a mystery,
neutralizing an enemy, or gaining a hard-won prize.
• Getting severely torqued, betrayed, tricked, and jerked
around, but surviving to tell about it. “Experience is what you
get when you don’t get what you want.”
• Executing a brilliant maneuver. If a PC dumbfounds you by
thinking his way out of certain death or manipulating a situation the way a pianist manipulates a keyboard, another die for the pool is a concrete way to acknowledge the feat.
• Excellent role-playing. A player who breathes life into a sheet of paper (the PC) adds depth and wonder to the series. Again, awarding a die acknowledges this proficiency.
In general, one die should be awarded for each session of worthy play, plus dice for any exceptional accomplishments. A PC who struggles well, vanquishes a foe he’s been after for three sessions running, and imbues his character with energetic personality might get three dice for
that one session (one for a session’s play, one for defeating his enemy, and one for good role-playing). At the rate of one or two dice per session, it will take a PC about three sessions to develop a new trait. If that’s too slow or too fast for your style of play, be more or less generous awarding dice.
So here you can see character success and failure being rewarded, along with role-playing.  As an aside, this is one of the things that pisses me off about D&D 4e.  Per the example above – Jonathan Tweet, you KNOW BETTER. 
Now to an advanced topic (there’s others, but this is really just the first PDF I pulled up) – an example from Hearts and Souls, a supers RPG.

The Heart and Soul of a hero is their drive—their  determination, if you will—to succeed no matter  what the cost. This Drive is their motivation,
but it is also that little extra heroic oomph  that they can dredge from within themselves to  succeed at nearly any task, when all hope seems lost.  Drive is a central element of H&S play. It is the  reason your characters do what they do. It is the  core reason that they are super-heroes.
There are 4 primary drives for heroes:
  • Love
  • Guilt
  • Community
  • Spirit of Adventure
(etc etc etc)
Drives in Play
The Drive in play allows the player to re-roll  dice that did not return acceptable or successful  results by creating a thought bubble or spoken  monologue (both shared aloud with the group),  that details why the hero should succeed.
Examining Doctor Radiant in the introduction, one  can see his drive being used to let him succeed  at a task (essentially re-rolling the dice until  he succeeds). The character’s Drive allows them to continue to attempt actions, as long as their  player can justify it to the Editor and other  players—within the context of their Drive and  using a monologue to deal with situation at hand.
One particular possible implementation of many, but one that puts the actual character, not their +1 weapon, at the core of the matter.
There are dozens of examples of game mechanics that foster roleplaying in ways big and small.  D&D traditionally has none of them, except for a small blurb about “Well, I guess you could give XP as story awards”.

5 responses to “D&D 4e – A Board Game?

  1. I read John Wick’s take on 4e and think it’s food for thoughts.

    Firstly, I must say that while I do not know John Wick personally, my interactions with him (private and public) in the last 10 years or so have convinced me he is not an asshole at all.

    But he was one of the first “online rockstars”, RPG designers who used forums and emails to exchange on gaming. Part of the reason is probably gratification and promotion but a big part of it seems to be that he genuinely means well and cares about gamers and gaming.

    I think he makes stands out of idealism. I guess you might point out to real-life examples and say that does not prevent one from being an asshole but I just can’t see it in John Wick. I see harmless idealism mixed with pride and a fiery personality.

    And I must confess, although I like the “gamist parts” of 3e, 4th edition seems to take it to an extreme.

    And while advancement (XPs in D&D) tell you a lot about how to play a game, other components will also tell you a lot and it seems D&D does focus mechanically on combat.

    You are totally right about his example about his thief Rav, though. John should know better. He deliberately went against the game’s premise and concludes it’s the game’s fault.

    You can’t find fault in Monopoly because you can’t play freaking Twister with it. There has to be a focal point in all games, RPGs included.

    But I’m glad that John Wick is still going. He sent me the chapbook of his next game, House of the Blooded and it does look fantastic so at least, he is backing the criticisms with actual games. HotB is shaping up to be his best work so far.

    Concerning Jonathan Tweet: I think the focus given to 3e was very much deliberate.

    Take care!

  2. I think Wick’s famous “black die”/karma mechanic/story ensures that none of my gaming group can do anything but hate him.

    Here’s an explanation from SuperFudge:

    Karma dice are a concept I borrowed from John Wick…

    First, when players do something the game master doesn’t like, the game master drops a black die into the bowl.


    Any time a player is making an important roll, the game master may remove one of the black dice and say, “You fail.”

    …The karma dice should be used to punish and reward both in-game and out-of-game behaviors…

    This one addition to the world of gaming makes “death squad” the most frequently uttered phrase at our game table whenever Wick’s mentioned. It’s actually quite harmful because whenever we try to move towards *any* kind of more formalized role-playing in our group it gets brought up as the dreaded Nazi bugbear of the far extreme.

  3. I’m an asshole?
    When did that happen?

    Personally, I think it happens when people mis-read what I write in articles like Play Dirty and on forums. I try to write with a sense of fun and humor, but unfortunately, either I fail to make it come across or people interpret the signal the wrong way.

    Thanks for the link, by the way. I hope to meet you at GenCon so we can talk face-to-face about this “asshole” issue without the noise of the internet getting in the way.

    Take care,

  4. Hi!
    I’ve been dm’ing games for the last 20 years, since d&d (ad&d) 1.st edition.

    In all my years of gaming, my group and I had the same problem, over and over: COMBAT is too slow.
    A SHORT combat with 5 players and, say, 8-10 monsters/npcs takes about half to one hour.

    That not only disrupts the ongoing of ANY story, but poses a fair more complex problem: we spend 80% of gaming (real world) time in combat, IF NOT MORE.
    The fact that the greatest majority of published material (e.g., “adventures”) focus again on a series of “encounters” does not help at all.

    I would like to know if someone here thinks like me. I AM CURRENTLY CREATING A PROGRAM TO PLAY ONLINE. I also like to know if there’s people willing to playtest it with me when it’s ready.

    Here are the goals
    – Make combat time (real world time) to a maximum 25% of gaming time.
    – Make the game world significantly less magical. Eliminate spells and spellbooks. Make magic free.
    – Eliminate LOOTING, MONTY HAUL and HACK-AND-SLASH only adventures.
    – Eliminate classes. Characteres should behave more like people and less like archetypes. KEEP, however, cooperation and specialization if desired.
    – KEEP d&d combat and traps just like it is – ok, it’s like a board game but we love it. Find a way to use all cool spells (I.E, FIREBALL!!!) without disrupting idea 2
    – Keep characters stats, skills and the like COMPATIBLE with current 4th and old 2nd and 3rd editions material.
    – Play online. Make the interface simple and FAST.
    – Never, ever, even in the face of the worst possible torture run a wandering monster 🙂

    Read more here – http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?t=563940

    • Hey man, I had to cut 90% of your comment, it was just too long. Sounds like a good thing you’re doing though so I left the comment and linked to the rpg.net post you made on the topic.

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