December 6, 2011

4E and Game Empowerment

The subtitle to this article could easily have been How the DDI Character Builder is Ruining 4E. While there is some more ammunition for the 4E haters out there and this article can be construed as some 4E bashing, I first want to say that I really do love 4E. The things it has brought to the gaming table, such as exciting and dynamic combats, ease of adventure creation and the ability for the party to work together, far outweigh its negative aspects. That being said, there is some implementation of 4E, specifically the Character Builder that is driving people away from 4E and diminishing the game.

A couple of definitions for ‘Empower’ are… 
- to give power or authority to; authorize, especially by legal or official means.
- the giving of an ability; enablement or permission.”

"Empowerment" is actually a term hard to nail down as it encompasses a wide spectrum of meanings and interpretations within disciplines ranging from psychology and philosophy. However, a couple of the central concepts with Empowerment are…
-People should have the ability to make decisions about personal/collective circumstances.
-People should be involved in the growth process of whatever they are involved with and that changes are never ending and self-initiated.

This applies to RPGs as well. When a DM picks up a new RPG, he and his group should be able to make it their own. They should be able to make changes to that system to best reflect their own personal desires and needs. In a way, each gaming group takes ownership of the RPG and creates something new.

In the past this has always been the case. House games of D&D have been filled with house rules; mechanic changes/additions, new spells, new items, new classes, new monsters, etc. In fact, RPG games in general are approached in this manner (Shadowrun, Rolemaster, White Wolf, Traveller, Star Wars, Fudge, Fate, etc). All of these allow for change and this ability to make changes is a form of Empowerment. The publisher of the game system presents the system and, in effect, gives the players the ability to change it. Some publishers do this to varying degrees. Some welcome home brew modifications and actively give suggestions and outlets on how to make such changes; some publishers less so.

And this is where 4E hits a stumbling block. With its many options, character generation and character upkeep (leveling, gear acquisition) are almost reliant on the DDI Character Builder. And WotC has provided no way for a DM or gaming group to make changes to that resource; no custom powers, no custom classes, no custom magic items, no custom feats, no custom anything. In effect, WotC is saying that you will play 4E their way and no other, unless you are willing to not use their DDI Character Builder.

And this is where I believe WotC has lost a lot of their potential player base. Players want to play their own game, they want to create and make changes to reflect their play style and desires. By making is extremely difficult to make these changes they are driving away a large number of potential customers.

I’ll bring an example from one of my own 4E campaigns. Early in the campaign the PCs saved a city from a demonic attack. As part of their reward they were given the Crossroads Badge of Valor. This small magic item added +2 to Diplomacy or +4 to Diplomacy against a citizen of Crossroads. In reality, the item was minor to the players (they prefer to hit stuff first rather than talk) but they wore it proudly as a symbol of their exploits. But there is no Crossroads Badge of Honor magic item in the DDI Character Builder. So I found a magic item close to it in the Builder and changed the item to the new item, just so the item could be equipped within the Builder and thus affect the PCs skills. And the players could now care even less about the item. It is no longer a Badge that represents their past exploits; now it is just another weak magic item like so many others.

Yes, a player of 4E can make changes. A group can alter the game to reflect their own play style. Nowhere is it written or implied that WotC will send people over to your house, beat you up and take back their books if a group makes a house rule.  However, without access to the Character Builder such changes become onerous. 

What must happen in order for 4E players to become “Empowered” and take control of their 4E game? One of two things…
-WotC must allow for customization within the DDI Character Builder. This is not likely to happen anytime soon.
-A gaming group must forgo the DDI Character Builder. This is not as hard as it seems. Yes, it will require more work, but other game systems require this level of work (ever tried playing Rolemaster?). In fact, the Character Builder could still be used, but instead of using it as a method for keeping track of your character, the group could use it as a fancy database listing all the available WotC material for a character along side the group’s home brew material.

The point of all this is that since the first day the concept of mass market RPGs has hit the public, the public has been Empowered to make the various game systems their own. They have been able, and at times encouraged, to alter the game system so it could reflect the desires of the gaming group. The DDI Character Builder for 4E is a step backwards in this regard.

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