Sunday, December 3, 2017

Multiclassing, Part 3: History of the Multiclasses (4th edition)

Last time, I raved on and on about how awesome multiclassing was in 3rd edition D&D (or “3e,” as it was affectionately known).  Lots of people hated it—lots of people still do, for that matter—but I loved it, and I haven’t been shy about saying so.  But then we come to 4e, and a serious bump in the road for multiclassing.

Of course, 4e was a serious bump in the road for a lot of reasons.  4e is the beginning of the “edition wars” and the impetus for the creation of Pathfinder.  And, regardless of whether you think 4e was a good game or not, there’s little argument that it’s a very different game from the other versions of D&D.  Even Pathfinder is more similar to all the other D&D editions than 4e was.

Now, as it happens, I’m not a 4e fan.  So you can feel free to throw out any criticism I have of it as being completely biased.  But let me just summarize my edition experience before you completely discount anything I have to say.  I owned 1e, but never really played it much.  When I got back into D&D in college, it was 2e, and 2e was better than 1e in every way.  Then 3e came out, and I’ve already noted how enthusiastic I was about that: 3e was better than 2e in every way too.  And then came “3.5e”: an update to 3e’s rules that were too minor to require an entirely new edition, but too major for all your old books to be any good any more.  There were many (mostly valid) criticisms of 3.5e—that it was a cash grab, that it consisted of just enough changes to spoil your rules mastery1but I never heard anyone to try to claim that it wasn’t better.  Even the things that got nerfed were arguably better for it, and again I felt that 3.5e was better in every way.  When 4e came out, I eagerly bought it.  There was just no way it wasn’t going to be better.

Except it wasn’t.  Now, don’t get me wrong: parts of it were definitely better.  The changes to the skill system were undeniably an improvement; I was excited to see warlocks and dragonborn become core, it was awesome that healing was less of pain in the ass, and even the basic concept behind at will powers vs encounter powers vs daily powers was awesome in its simplicity.  But giving every class a slate of “powers” was too much: now every class had the same bookkeeping nightmare that was formerly reserved to wizards, and your character sheet was crowded with arcane abbreviations, and the difficulty of creating custom classes was increased by an order of magnitude (or two).  The overwhelming emphasis on tactical movement and miniatures was baffling, considering how rarely we’d used miniatures in the hundreds (if not thousands) of games my friends and I had played up to that point.  It seemed that what they’d borrowed from MMORPG games like World of Warcraft was the stuff that you didn’t really want in a tabletop game: the concepts of “tanking” and “soaking” and DPS (or damage per second), and specific roles like controller and striker, and so forth.  It all combined to give me the uneasy feeling that this version of D&D, more so than any other, was not about roleplaying, but only about killing stuff.

And then I tried to find the multiclassing rules.  And there weren’t any.

That was really the last straw.  I have never played a single game of 4e, despite the fact that I bought the books almost as soon as they hit the shelves, and the lack of multiclassing is really the single defining reason for that.  I’d waited so long for decent multiclassing, and 3e gave me that, and it was so simple and so elegant ... and now it was all gone.  This, to me, was not just a step backward but a giant bounding leap.  In retrospect, I can see that it was strictly reactionary—any time things get radically better, there’s an inevitable backlash and a hard U-turn2 (hopefully a temporary one).  But that doesn’t make it any less painful.

Now, I’ve read articles that talk about multiclassing in 4e.  These articles point to the limited list of feats that simulated multiclassing.  For instance, you could gain sneak attack by taking the rogue “multiclass feat.”  But the ability to backstab alone does not make you a rogue, and calling it a “multiclass feat” does not make it multiclassing.  Simulation is not reality.  No matter how many hours you log on a flight simulator, you are not actually flying a plane.  Oh, sure: taking the backstabbing feat meant you could now qualify for rogue paragon paths, but that was a pale sop, and completely overshadowed by the fact that you could never take a second (or more) multiclassing feat.  That means that even simulating the venerable fighter/mage/thief—a multiclass combo that had been around since first editionwas now impossible.  No, my friends, there are no multiclassing rules in 4e, and dressing up a few feats and giving them a fancy group name won’t change that.

Of course, I’ve just admitted that I never even played 4e, so once again you should take that under consideration when listening (or deciding not to listen) to what I have to say about it.  But my attitude at this point aligns with something I’ve read several times now in various blog posts and online forums: 4e is not necessarily a bad game ... it’s just not really a D&D game.  If you’re into the sort of game that it is—which is much closer to a tactical miniatures game than a roleplaying game—then it’s perfectly lovely.  And, hey: tactical miniatures games is how D&D got started in the first place, so I’m sure not gonna disrespect that as a foundation.  It’s just not my thing.  I’ve already talked about what my thing is: roleplaying is storytelling.  And I’m a storyteller.3  If I want tactical miniatures, I’ll play Heroscape: it’s super quick to set up,4 requires no more than an hour or two time investment, and can be fine-tuned to a specific genre if you really want to (but I think genre-blender is so much more fun, personally).  If I want more of an investment than that—if I want a story, that is—then I want to roleplay.  I want character arcs and overarching plots with juicy subplots and big baddies with evil plans to rule the world and a small, plucky band of heroes who are the only thing standing between the current, chaotic state of the world and total annihilation, or enslavement, or both.  I want a game that will enable me—no, dammit, I want a game that will encourage me—to be whoever I want, whatever my imagination can conjure up.  Multiclassing in 3e gave me that, and 4e took it away, and I wasn’t able to forgive it for that.

But 4e is very important to this history, because it taught me to appreciate multiclassing so much more than I had been.  You never know what you’ve got till it’s gone, they say, and it’s true here as well.  I knew that I valued story over combat, sure, and there were many features of 4e that seemed to lean in the opposite direction.  But I don’t think I ever realized how truly vital to my concept of story the multiclassing rules had become.  4e taught me that multiclassing is absolutely crucial to telling the story you want to tell.  You don’t always need it, but when you do, there’s no substitute.  Making your idea flesh involves finding a way to make the rules allow your character concept to live and breathe.  The more flexible those rules are, the easier that task is.  And I guess this exposes a fundamental divide between my approach to roleplaying and that of many others: I don’t give a crap about “balance” or simplicity of character creation or not bending the rules.  All that crap goes out the window, if necessary, to serve the story.  Remember the other part of my GM philosophy: character is king.  And, in order for that to be true, you have to be able to create whatever character you want.

Next time, we’ll polish off the history portion of the series by looking at how fifth edition made a pretty decent compromise between 3e’s multiclassing rules and 4e’s lack thereof.


1 “Rules mastery” refers to how well you know the rules; in other words, how often you know the answer without having to reach for the book.  When rules change, even by a small amount, it borks your rules mastery because you can never remember which way is the old way and which way is the new way.

2 For instance, America’s last president, who was followed by this disaster.

3 I even fancy myself a struggling novelist, remember?

4 Apart from building the map, of course.  But that’s why I tend to keep a Heroscape map on my dining room table at all times.  You know: just in case.

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