Friday, May 2, 2008

Reversing innovation (Part I)

I've noticed a disturbing interesting trend recently. The more I read about 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, the more I hear about 3rd Edition innovations being reversed. Many times, the result is something more like 1st or 2nd edition. I have to admit that many of the changes look good on the surface, but with so many reversals I have to wonder: Are we taking a step forward or a step back? In this post I am going to examine the new monster rules. Future posts will examine XP as a commodity, and the new multiclass rules.

Monster rules were the first place I noticed this trend. In 1st and 2nd Edition, the monsters used very different rules than the Player Characters. Third edition changed this, so that the monsters were using almost the same rules as the players. They had six ability scores that increased every four hit dice, feats that increased every three hit dice, and skills points determined by type and hit dice. This had several advantages. First, it eliminated places where a disconnect between the monster rules and the PC rules could cause problems. Second, it allowed people who really wanted to play a specific monster to have the proper rules to do so out of the box. Want to play a pixie? If your DM allows it you certainly can, the rules are right there in the Monster Manual.

The problem is that the PC rules are not well adapted for monsters. One reason is because they are only "on stage" for a short period of time. For example, powers usable "at will" versus "3/day" are almost indistinguishable for most monsters, since their time "on stage" is only a few rounds. For PC's, who are "on stage" all the time, at will versus 3/day is a big difference.

Another problem with the monster rules using the PC rules is that the further you move away from "bipedal humanoid", the worse the rules broke down. Should my warhorse be good at climbing walls just because he has a high STR? Probably not, but that is the way the rules read.

Of course the biggest problem in using the same rules for monsters is the time it takes a dungeon master if he wants to customize his monsters. Strictly speaking, every time you advance a monster's HD, you have to check if he gets extra feats, assign skill points, recalculate BAB, etc. Granted, a lot of DM's ignored this, but if they do, what is the point in having these rules in the first place?

4th Edition is actually backtracking quite a bit on this point. While they have full stat write-ups, monster attack profiles and abilities are no longer tied as strictly to hit dice progression as they used to be. This added flexibility allows DMs to adjust them up and down on the fly a whole lot easier.

What is the downside? Well, it will be a lot harder to play one by just slapping on some PC levels. Granted, some monsters are getting PC write-ups in Monster Manual.  Nevertheless, the number of monsters with these write-ups is limited by its nature.

So what do I think? Well, as a frequent DM, I would rather have easier to use monsters. But I know many players will miss the ability to point at something in the Monster Manual and say "I want to play that". So in this case, it's a vote for the 4th Edition way, with reservations.

Next up: XP as a commodity!


Coyote1aw said...

Anyone who has DM's a high level campaign in 3.5 would probably agree that the monsters tend to have too much complexity. My party is 14th level and they just fought a Sorcerer Naga with 20 or so different spells at his command. Considering he could only cast 1 per round and the encounter lasted about 5 rounds, there was way too much information to effectively run him.
This was another area that monsters having the same build as characters makes sense in a "realistic" sense, but trying to DM the encounters that way just does not add up. The new system appears to be easier to play and DM and that has to be good.