Sunday, 23 October 2011

Adventurers vs Heroes

(I am co-opting the words adventurer and hero and divorcing them from their dictionary definitions for the purposes of this post.)

The red box for 4th edition D&D tells you up front that as a player you're supposed to play a hero, and I applaud it for that. It has a vision and it delivers on that vision. No pussyfooting about. And yes, as always, a caveat: you're free to not play a hero. Of course. It's a roleplaying game, play what you want. And yet, the game tells you clearly: be a hero. What's up with that?

In a very long old thread on RPGnet about AD&D/Basic combat, there was an almost unanimous agreement that combats were fun in spite of the rules (I have a post about it, with a link to that thread, if you can bother searching). In other words: combats were fun - so the popular wisdom goes - as long as you were doing stuff not directly handled or implied by the rules. Toppling over bookcases. Using dynamic terrain. That kind of stuff. None of it in the rules.

Now, between page 42, new trap rules, power formatting, encounter guidelines etc. 4E probably has the best straight out of the book support for that out of any edition. For example: "Bookcase - STR 15, Burst 2, +7 REF, 2d6+3 & difficult terrain" is something not only implied by but entirely part of the system. In fact, I'd say 4E has excellent support for that kind of stuff. So why isn't it lauded for that?

One thing I have observed over and over in our years of D&D play is that when figuring out how to solve a situation, players will look to their character sheet first. Only when that's exhausted they will try and think out of the box and try to come up with a creative solution - including using the scenery. And in 4E you've got loads of useful stuff on your character sheet. In a game where the primary mechanism for resolution is "get them to 0 hp", you've got a ton of powers that do damage (often a lot of it) plus something cool. Why you should ever look to a flimsy bookcase to solve your problems, if you've got something more useful right there on your sheet.

All of the above paragraphs are just a roundabout way of saying: you begin to think creatively only when you've exhausted your normal options. When the monster is too powerful and dangerous. When you're too weak and powerless. When you're out of your element.

A hero isn't out of her element fighting monsters. The danger is their element. The one they thrive in. A hard and dangerous life, but one they've chosen - it's their profession. When darkness attacks, they stand up, sword in hand. They don't have to think creatively, only tactically. An adventurer on the other hand, is out of their element. You could even say they're in pretty deep shit. They have skills, sure, but their real power lies in trickery, deception, luck. Bilbo is an adventurer, Aragorn is a hero. Conan can be either, depending on the portrayal and period in his life. Cugel is most assuredly an adventurer. The Avatar is a hero. (The Nameless One isn't either.)

It's a creative tension that's pretty pronounced in D&D. It exists between classes (Rogues vs Paladins), between levels (early tiers vs epic), decades and editions (Basic vs 4E), subsystems of rules, settings, games, groups, sessions. The lack of rules was the fruitful void of older editions, the blind spot the game organized itself around. By rule-ifying those kinds of stunts, 4E made it an integral part of play, but also removed it from the center of the game

Even if page 42 heavily supports improvisation and creativity its standarized DCs and damage outputs can easily turn it into a tactical consideration. 4E has rogues that fight with deception and trickery, sure, but they're still fighting dragons with a knife. Fighting 30 ft. tall demons made out of fire is simply what they do. Fighting 30 ft. tall demons is the deep shit adventurers get into by trying to steal the treasure.

1 comment:

  1. "They have skills, sure, but their real power lies in trickery, deception, luck." I would add ingenuity, maybe, but you nailed it with this post.