Howdy. So a while back I had a fairly popular post (here) regarding various myths about 4e. Now don't get me wrong, as readers of my blog know, I am fine with criticism of 4e and/or any other game system. Criticism helps improve things. What I am not a fan of is hyperbolic nonsense. Today I want to tackle a couple more myths that have been aggravating me.
"Every class is the same, AEDU, etc etc etc, blah blah blah"
To anyone that has spent a lot of time playing 4e, I don't really need to explain why this is not the case. Play a Shaman, play a Fighter, play a Psion...you don't walk away feeling like the same thing just occurred. Why then, is this such an oft-repeated complaint? The so-called "AEDU" structure. Now forget for a moment that Essentials exists, thereby obliterating the argument in and of itself. You will only hear back that, "Well Essentials didn't exist at the beginning." Fair enough. So what is it that propels this argument forward? Why is it so common?
Let's consider for a second classic editions. If you take a look at 1e AD&D, you find that different classes obtain different class features at different levels. A Druid can identify plant types at the 3rd level. At 8th level, Rangers gain some limited Druidic spell ability. At 4th level, the Paladin can call his war horse. These abilities do not resemble one another, and the level at which they occur could be argued as largely arbitrary. I mean, I trust Gygax completely, but if Druids took until the 4th level to identify plants, the book doesn't explode.
Now consider the 4e structure. All it is doing is proving choice points at the same levels. The choices are not the same. Are the utility powers of a 4th level Cleric the same as those of a 4th level Swordmage? Not hardly. The only thing that they have in common...the only thing that is "samey"...is that they choose an ability at the same level. Likewise, if a Fighter gains a maneuver at level 7 that allows her to swing his sword in a circle, attacking everything adjacent to her, is this the same thing as a Witch choosing a spell? No. Not at all. The only thing in common is that they are both choosing abilities at the same levels.
I imagine that Heinsoo and company thought that this would be a popular "improvement" on the game. It does make it easier to anticipate and remember when new class features and abilities become available. When I play Pathfinder, if I try a new class I am continually looking back to the class description to figure out what I get and when. I admit I am somewhat of a newb, but there sometimes seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. Yet it is the very attempt to organize this sort of thing that gets so much derision! I will never claim to understand it, but the simple fact is that 4e classes do not play the same. They tried to experiment with a more...predictable, I guess is the word...progression of "choice points", and though the choices in no way resemble each other, they got slammed in the process. Oh well.
This leads me to the mother of all 4e myths, the biggest lie of all:
"You can't play 4e without a grid."
You know, sometimes you hear something said so many times, the mind almost wants to start believing it. That might be a quote or something from the novel 1984, I can't recall. What I do know is that the biggest myth about 4e, in my humble opinion, is that it is unplayable without a grid.
I am tempted to say that most folks that espouse this argument have never tried to play it without a grid. The reason this is tempting is because it is probably true. However, having spent some time on the *shudder* WOTC forums, and having seen what constitutes an "argument" on some gaming sites, I realize that I will almost immediately be hit with a, "Oh yeah? My table tried it! And it was a complete disaster!" Fine.
There is no doubt that 4e implicitly and explicitly encourages you to use a battlemap and minis. No argument there. But that isn't to say that you cannot play with only pen, paper, and dice. After all, in the 1st edition DMG, Gygax encourages the use of minis, and from what I understand, he hardly ever used them (although apparently Arneson almost always did). My point here is simply that encouraging is not the same thing as requiring.
Now forget about 4e for a minute. Try if you can to picture yourself back in the old days, a complete virgin to D&D. Do you remember what it was like looking at spell explanations? The varying ranges (in inches), the varying sizes of the areas of effect? How about trying to mentally picture the various types of dragon breaths?
I posit to you the following: there is no power in 4e that is any more or less complicated to adjudicate in gridless play than there is in any other edition of D&D. If you can handle a Stinking Cloud in your mind's eye, you can handle a close blast 3. Sorry; its just a fact.
So where on earth does this argument come from, besides the fact that grid rules are in the book? Well, I can only speculate, but I think part of it might be that instead of only the spellcasters having explicit abilities that deal with areas of effect, pushing, sliding, etc, it is also the martial types. Part of it is the published adventures, especially the early ones. There is also for some reason a strong desire in some players for perfect adjudication of distances...but any DM that has ever run classic editions in a mapless style knows that it is ok to handwave some things, or to otherwise approximate. "Are you 25 or 30 feet from the Goblin? Eh, you are close enough to move up to it and attack." Did the world end? No, no it didn't.
Now, I am not going to sit here and tell you that mapless play is ideal for a lot of encounters. Hell, there are myriad classic edition encounters that I would never DREAM of attempting without some sort of visual aid (see the entry to the Temple of Tharizdun). What I am saying is that the alleged inability of 4e to be played without a map has been so grossly exaggerated that many DMs accept it as reality without having ever even tried to run an encounter without a grid.
Its really the subject of another blog post to provide tips and tricks, benefits and drawbacks, etc of gridless play, but I will say this: try a random encounter. Nothing special...say the party is on the way from point A to point B, there is a clearing in the woods and a few Orcs attack. They flee after the first or second death. I think you will see that this huge worry about distances and everything is really not so bad in play. It changes from a player counting the squares to an enemy to a DM saying, "You are about 20 feet away". It changes from a player counting how many Orcs can get caught in a blast to the DM saying, "Eh, you can get three of them."
None of this is going to shock or surprise many experienced DMs, as a lot of you out there already switch between maps and mapless play when it fits your game anyways. Hell, I am almost ashamed to have to explain this. For some reason, this myth was allowed to gain traction; all I can do is try my best to discount it. If you have DMed any classic editions without maps and minis, you have doubtless already experienced the worst that 4e can throw at you.
So that is what I have for you today. Sometime down the line I might go into more detail about how mixing gridless 4e encounters into your campaign can be a benefit. Just remember that the best way to learn anything, as a DM, is to run games. Try things. Experiment. Don't take someone else's word for it. Don't assume things. Let your own experience be your guide.