Swords to Ploughshares (Part I)

Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition is the first RPG I ever ran as a GM. I had played in other RPGs before, mostly Middle Earth or Shadowrun, a little Vampire: The Masquerade here and there, but Dungeons and Dragons had completely gone under my radar. I was aware of it, of course, but I was even more wary of its reputation: that of a rules monster. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have to keep track of all of the stuff that you supposedly had to keep track of; in all my MERP games the GM had an uncanny ability to track all that unpleasantness while still keeping the game lively, interesting, and entertaining. I guess I had been spoiled.

I missed D&D 3(.5) completely, and, though I’ve since read the Pathfinder core book, as well as the AD&D player’s guide and DM handbook, I have no nostalgic connection to either of them. Honestly, while I’d be more than willing to play in a Pathfinder game one day, I’d hate to be the one running it. It seems like an even bigger rules monster than AD&D. Most of the systems I like to play are almost as easy for the GM to keep up with as they are for the player; this is not a judgment against any rules-heavy system (like Pathfinder), it’s just a matter of preference. I like to think of myself as story-focused and I prefer to not have to keep track of too many incidentals in the process.

One of the main reasons why I like 4e is that it is relatively straightforward, and easy to pick up. Wizards of the Coast had released a “quick-start guide” for learning the system, which was a great way to see whether it was something I’d enjoy before making any monetary investment in the product. It was an easy winner for someone who had spent a lot of time away from gaming. I liked what the game had to offer, and is still the system I play most often, whether in its “pure” form or the adaptation for Gamma World. It’s quite easy to even put together a more casual, impromptu game, and published content is, for the most part, reasonably well-assembled and tells a good enough story.

However, one of the things that I immediately noticed upon picking it up (me, and everyone else), was that it was very combat-oriented. The published adventures provide a little bit of material to move players from one combat scenario to another, and overall it assumes that groups are using some sort of checkered play surface to gauge distance, and markers to designate locations of player characters and enemies. But I was fine with that, because I was not terribly comfortable with trying to design (or run) situations where there would be more opportunity to roleplay than to fight.

But that’s not all. Even now, I find myself terrified that the game might head in a different direction than I originally intended, or move into areas for which I don’t have sufficient details written. Consequently, most of the adventures I write myself are more or less “on rails.” I limit the players’ choices while still trying to tell a coherent story, rather than let them figure out what the story should be and play it out themselves. Of course, I’ve never had a game escape from the Heroic tier, so maybe dungeon delves are still appropriate for that level of character. Nevertheless, I still heavily lean on combat-based adventures, without trying to accommodate for alternate avenues of resolving the problem.

I acknowledge that this is a crutch that I lean on to save myself some imaginative work in creating a more open, fully-realized game world. However, there is nothing in the rules stating that XP can only be gained through martial means, and so I see absolutely no problem at all with awarding the same experience for intentionally avoiding an encounter, either through diplomacy or guile, especially if that meant that the encounter would not re-present itself as a problem in the future. That means sliding a stone over the mouth of the cave full of orcs, talking one’s way out of a bar-brawl in the making, or even misdirecting a raiding party so they end up being hopelessly lost in the forest instead of assaulting innocent villagers.

The tools are all already there, as 4e is honestly a pretty remarkably flexible system, I just haven’t ever taken advantage of them. As a player, I always had to rely on the GM for coming up with clever ways to accommodate for the often completely insane things that we the players, collectively, came up with to try to warp the situation to our advantage. As a GM, I’ve probably gotten a little soft, and often the sorts of things that players come up with completely surprise and disarm me, temporarily, before I can come up with a solution. Therefore, over the following few weeks, I will take an encounter or two from adventures that I have written, and try to come up with ways I would try to respond to it, as a player, to avoid or disrupt combat. In other words, an exercise in self-critique, coming from the perspective of the other side of the screen.

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