Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It Looks Like A Nail

This is the front page of the default 4th Edition character sheet, as presented in the Player's Handbook.

There is an adage that says when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In fact, I wrote a post about it over on my videogaming blog.

Players solve problems in terms of the tools that they're presented with. If you started your play session by giving your players a booklet of witty quotations, you're influencing your players to think of your game as one that they should approach through dialogue. If you start play by giving everyone a musical instrument instead of their character sheet, you're going to end up with a musical game.

What tools does 4th Edition give its players?

Here is another view of the 4th Edition character sheet. In this version, I have obscured with red all the portions which wholly or primarily relate to the character's combat effectiveness.

That's more than three quarters of the sheet. We're left with character name, weight, height, alignment, skills, perception, and languages known. The 4th Edition character sheet is very unsubtly telling players that the solution to their problems is combat.

Combat is what 4th Edition does well. There is no shame in having a lot of it, if 4th Edition is what you are playing. But I frequently hear frustration from DMs who find it difficult to get some story in amongst all the initiative rolls and encounter powers.

The answer can be a simple as rearranging the character sheet. The official Character Builder tool allows you to rearrange page elements and spread the sheet over multiple pages. If you want your characters to think just a moment longer before drawing their weapons, try moving their combat powers to the back of the sheet, and moving the "personality traits" and "character background" sections onto the front. There are many homebrew sheet layouts available on the web that make this change.

In summary, if you want your game to stop being just a series of nails, try moving the hammer just a little further out of reach.

7 comments:

Jimi said...

As a jab to White Wolf fans, I think you just turned it into a World of Darkness character sheet.

Greg Tannahill said...

I loved World of Darkness for a good number of year; it has horribly slow combat mechanics and the magic system in Mage was all but unusable, but it did early work in player typing that really took the hobby a long way.

That's not to say I could stand to go back and play it again today, though.

Rob G said...

Hmm, I wonder how well that would work. I suppose it might actually work better to have a character sheet up front and a combat sheet in back, which details ALL of your combat things, including space to jot down magical item powers and the like, so you aren't constantly flipping between the front of the sheet and the back during combat.

Still, I think your example is a little overkill; your strength, dexterity, charisma, and everything else are just as much of your personality as anything.

Greg Tannahill said...

I'm not sold on traits as literal representations of ability in 4th Edition. Trait optimisation is pretty non-optional in 4E; if your prime stat is less than 18 you're not going to be hitting very often. If you take 4E traits as a literal measure of anything other than combat ability you're going to find every last Druid to be a pillar of godly wisdom and Wizards to invariably be geniuses, which makes for fairly stale roleplaying if nothing else.

PHB2 is moving even more in this direction by eliminating classes who split their competency across two stats; there's a single core stat for all builds of PHB2 classes so there's going to be even less variance in those numbers.

I tend to just treat the traits as combat competencies and declare that as far as roleplaying goes you're as strong or smart or charismatic as you feel is interesting for your character.

Kurosau said...

In light of this post, I'm curious as to why you feel like 4e puts less emphasis on storytelling as compared to previous editions of DnD, and subsequently more emphasis on combat?

Greg Tannahill said...

Previous editions gifted characters with a lot more out-of-combat powers. It treated Charisma, Wisdom and Intelligence as doing more than just powering attacks (which wasn't a great idea, but it tried). There was a lot more emphasis on non-combat equipment.

On top of all that, because maps and minis weren't built in, they didn't implicitly demand combat resolutions for all tactical situations.

I'm not saying that 2nd Ed or 3.5 were roleplaying tours-de-force, just that they were moreso than 4E. 4E is the better game, in my opinion, but the whole milieu pales by comparison to what pretty much everyone except WoTC is doing to support roleplaying these days.

Kurosau said...

Dangnabit. Lost track of your posts, otherwise I would've been back before now.

I can't say as I agree with you about RP and previous versions of the game. DnD hasn't really supported the RP side of the equation with any of its versions.

I would say that while 4e has more emphasis on combat in that the combat works a lot better now, it's no worse off for RP purposes than older versions.

Also, 4e gives us some benefits that we didn't have before. Now you get a ton more options in how you build your character, something that can help you get away from the 'stuck in a class' problems of previous games. As compared to 3.5, where you needed minis to play the game (although less emphasis, true, with no movement tactics in combat) in 4e minis really enhance the experience and make it fun.