September 29, 2010

Is 4E More “Fair”?

Recently there was some drama over on another blog, wherein the issue of fairness was a factor. One player felt the GM was not running a fair game and that the other players were suffering for it. Basically, one player was given perks, abilities and advanced gear over the other players. Reading all this, it got me to thinking…is it harder to be unfair with the 4E system?

4E has very rigid rules for character generation, treasure allocation and how powers are gained. Everything is balanced against a core baseline that causes everything to be balanced with each other (with maybe the odd minor bump here and there). The system even includes for a way to alter a player’s decisions about their character’s abilities (with the ability to swap out powers and feats when a character reaches a new level); essentially providing a means to “break” and modify the system. By having this system in place there is an unspoken restriction to arbitrary character changes; it comes across as “we the game designers and the rule set have provided you with a way to ignore and break the rules, stay within those boundaries and you’ll be fine, otherwise you are doing it wrong”.
In addition, the use of the Character Builder changes the playing field. While it is not required to play it is extremely helpful and useful when running a campaign. After awhile, it starts to act as a crutch, making things so easy that without it things become difficult. However, the Character Builder does not allow for custom additions. If a DM adds or allows for something outside the bounds of the Builder it either puts up a message stating the character is “not legal” or outright doesn’t allow for the addition. In this way, this is another method by which the game is kept “fair”.
The only way to have an “unfair” advantage is to go outside the bounds of the rules.

Earlier editions were a lot more open, or at least it seems that way to me. Treasure was random and a bunch of lucky die rolls could see a low level character running around with an artifact (when artifacts were these super-powerful things meant for high end games) far beyond their level. I remember that DMs tended to do as they wished when it came to giving out gear and abilities; it was easy and almost expected for a DM to go outside the bounds of the rules. Some would even say there were no real bounds to the rules.
In addition, as a game’s life cycle lengthened there would be more added to the system that caused balance issues. Races, classes and treasure would be added that were clearly unbalanced. I remember once being in a group where one was a vampire and the other a githyanki with all of that race’s abilities. Needless to say, my normal human druid, with horrible stat rolls, was clearly and constantly outmatched by them.

Is this perception of rigidity of the rules only a perception thing? Do we, for some unknown reason, simply expect people to adhere to the rule system of 4E? Is going outside the rules in earlier editions accepted and expected? Is 4E more of a “fair” game system by virtue of this perceived rigidity of the rules?

Or does “fairness” always fall back to the GM of the game? Does a GM’s ability to ignore rules and inject his own biases mean there is no system that can be “fair” all the time?


Geek Gazette said...

I think in any edition is it possible for the GM/DM to be unfair. 4e and Pathfinder both have very good methods of making rewards fair, but that doesn't mean that they can not be ignored. Actually most rpgs stipulate that if there are rules you don't like, don't use them. The rules are more guidelines anyway.
I don't think I know a gamer who plays the rules of any rpg, as they are written. So being unfair is highly possible. It isn't right, but it is not less likely just because there are "rules" to prevent it.

The Red DM said...

The problem any game designer faces is how to reach a balance between giving the GM/DM lots of tools and giving them lots of space; there is a perception that rules are made to be followed (even if we all carry the mantra that they aren't) and so an abundance of tools can make the DM feel like he doesn't have any choice.

The truth is that you aren't any more limited by rules you don't like in 4E than the rules you didn't like in any previous edition. (I don't use the XP rules as written, just like I didn't use level limits in AD&D)

As for the rules being more fair. I think that 4E is a better balanced game, and that there are guidelines for topics that were once entirely up to the DM. Does that make it more fair? Probably, but you are right in saying that this fairness has come at the cost of the chaos that while unfair, can be the thing of great memories.

Philo Pharynx said...

4e does have more tools to measure game balance, but a GM can obviously change this. One thing I like is that it's truly hard to make an unplayable 4e character. Everybody may not be as good at optimizing, but you have to work to make something as bad as you can do in many other games.