Restrictions in Choice; or Why I Prefer 4th Edition

I’ve written before about how I prefer D&D 4th to 3.5, and, at this point, I’ve played both enough to really have a feel for both systems. I feel like 4th Edition is simpler, but definitely more restrictive. There’s less freedom to mix and match abilities and classes, and to create something truly unique with the mechanics. 3.5 is a game that you could play in almost any fantasy setting; want a game where magic is rare and unknown to players? Then restrict it to certain classes and have everybody simply walking round, using feats and swinging their swords with max base attack at everyone. Same if you want to go in the other direction; magic users only game? Well, there’s a magic user for every possible eventuality and even just the standard wizard has enough variety in its spell choice to let you play a party of them without stepping too much on each others toes.

The same cannot be said of 4th Edition. Even with the classes that have had the most time to build up a variety of powers and feats, once again such as wizard, there is little room to have multiple members of the same class in the party. Sure, your Daily powers might be different, but 60% of the time you’re probably going to be using the same At Will powers. Even with the Essentials products or variant classes from certain sourcebooks, there’s just not enough choice regarding powers or change to the class’s base mechanics to enable multiple members of most classes in a party.

As an example of this, in my current 4th edition game, a new player was looking at his options for building a character, and was really interested in the class of Sha’ir, which I personally love and think is a great class for flavour that I’m glad they ported over from 3.5. However, we already have a classic wizard in our party, and when I looked at Sha’ir, all it really was is a wizard with a cool familiar and a few unique mechanics; fun stuff, but when it comes down to the session to session business, he’d be throwing much the same stuff out as our wizard friend.

But, I hear you cry, Sam, I thought you liked 4th Edition? And in truth, its lack of ubiquitous variety is actually the very thing I like about it. I don’t want my D&D to have the potential to be any setting with any combination of characters. I actually want my D&D to be just that; high fantasy adventure. If I want to play a game of badass wizards doing wizardry, I’ll play Ars Magica, or Mage (either the Ascension or the Awakening). If I just want to be a group of sword swinging adventurers getting by on their skill and wits, I’ll play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. However, if I want to be a diverse party of adventurers who go questing, with a wizard, a cleric, a fighter and a rogue, then I’ll play D&D, and, in fact, I’ll play 4th Edition, because it has plenty of options but only for doing the things that a D&D game should be about, and to be honest, I feel like I could do with more structure in my roleplaying games.

One of the most stressful things for me is when I play in a game with a million different options, because I’m one of those people that wants to find the best character for me in a game; I don’t want to make something and just go with the flow. I’d actually prefer to be able to do that, but what can I say, I’m something of a perfectionist. 3.5 is a game like this for me; there are probably a hundred books for that game, each with 5+ different classes or prestige classes in there, and I can spend literally weeks of stressful late nights pouring over books and pdfs, trying to find the right class or combination thereof, to make the character I want. With 4th Edition, I just take a look at the index of available classes and pick what I want to be. I can choose which type of that particular thing I want to be, but I can be sure that whatever I make, it’ll fit comfortably within those classic roles.

Everything else aside, I think it’s this quality that draws me to 4th over 3.5; it seems like a more directed game. It knows the experience it wants to give to players, wheras 3.5 wants to be, or at least ended up being, a little of everything, and not really succeeding at any of them, at least to me.

Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to be a player in quite a few games, which is something of a novel experience for me. In the past, I’ve been the much-lamented “forever-GM”, and so being a player in no fewer than 3 roleplaying games on a weekly basis is some pretty unusual. I’m used to running 3+ games a week myself, but I don’t think I’ve ever been a player in more than 1 game at a time, and I think this strange convergence of events has made something very apparent to me that I don’t think I’d ever really come across before; GM fatigue.

For those who’re unclear what I’m talking about, GM/DM/ST/Whatever Fatigue is, in truth, the gamekiller and is probably the number 1 cause of the collapse of roleplaying games, at least in my experience. It’s when the person who actually runs the game, creates the game world, keeps track of the course of the adventure and makes the world actually come to life gets, at best, a general feeling of ennui about the adventure they’re running, or at worst, comes to hate the game and world that they have to devote large amounts to time to keeping alive. You come to care less and less about your game and its world; you stop planning your sessions a week in advance and filling all your spare time and paper with notes, and instead your sessions become hurried things you slap together a scant half hour before your game starts. You’re no longer enthused to tell your story or make your world live, and in the end you tend to simply go through to the motions so that the weekly game that’s been running now for 6 months doesn’t die a death. And then it does anyway, because eventually you get to that session where you’ve got nothing planned, and you’ve got so little inspiration for your game that you can’t even come up with something new on the spot, so you tell your players that you’re taking a break this week, or you’re not feeling well, or your parents are visiting, or whatever excuse comes to hand.

Sometimes that’s it. Sometimes, you just need that little break. Sometimes you just need to think about something else for a couple of weeks, and then your enthusiasm for the setting bubbles back up. You’re watching a film and something a character does makes you think about how you could do it better, or it just inspires you to want to finally get to your climactic conclusion. You plan a session or two, fired up again, message your players, tell them it’s on again, and everything picks back up.

And then sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes that first week break becomes two. You realise you didn’t write a session this week either, and since you’ve already skipped one week you’d rather not rush a session now. You’d rather take two weeks, but have a great session when you’ve had time to think about it. But then, you still can’t think of anything, you still can’t get inspired, so you push it back another week, and now your players are asking questions. They know what’s going on. Anyone who owns their own set of dice has seen it before. They’re enjoying the game, but they’re your friends too, so they don’t want to push. And so it ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper, as you all just stop talking about the game, and life goes on.

In my experience, GM Fatigue is a simple result of something as all consuming as world building being on such a demanding schedule as a weekly game, or even a monthly game, especially after your initial adventure idea has been used up. Once you’ve beaten the orcs threatening the village, you might have some vagues ideas about killing the orc king, or stopping the hordes attacking the kingdom, but it’s not as clear as the original idea any more, and it’s less exciting. You’ve just had your hack and slash, dungeon crawling fix, and so you either need to up the ante, or change what’s going on, or you’re just rinsing and repeating the same game again. So you move further away from your original ideas, the things that interested you about the game. It’s kind of inevitable.

So, why, you ask, have I started experiencing this so much recently? I think that, in truth, it’s because I’ve suddenly become blessed with so many awesome friends who’re volunteering to run games for me, and throwing ideas around for games, that it’s just easier for me (and some of my other friends as well) to hang up our GM hats. In the past, when I was one of the few people in my circle of friends regularly running a game, I felt that I couldn’t just give up on games, even if I, as a GM, was totally bored with them.

After all, there’d be no-one to take over. If I stopped running, that adventure, that slot in the week, that chance to get together with my friends and roll dice, would disappear. But now, if I decide to take a break (which I just have with one of my games that’s run for a few months now), one of my friends immediately steps up to run something else. It’s a pressure release valve that I just didn’t have before, and I’m not 100% sure whether it’s a good thing. Obviously, in general terms, it’s great. Having a circle of friends who share my interests to the extent that they’ll happily step in to run something is wonderful. But in a personal sense, I’m not sure if that release of pressure isn’t making me a worse GM. Am I missing out on experiences and great games that could go on longer, by taking the easy way out and ending it? Or am I just giving something it’s due and ending it while it’s in its prime?

If you’ve got any thoughts, please let me know in the comments!

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