Asymmetry in Games

At the risk of provoking some of the anti-Essentials crowd, I’m going to discuss why I like Essentials, and how it represents positive progress in game design.

Fourth edition began with a structure that defined all classes. Each class got its feats, powers, and features at the same time, more or less. This structure led to the complaint among many that the game was too much like a video game. Power was carefully structured as a reaction to the rampant disparities in previous editions. As a result, fourth edition is a well-balanced game. I realize certain mechanics lead to game-breaking builds and combinations, but given the extent of the mechanical content, the game is, by-and-large, balanced.

Initially, I favored this highly structured system. It was easy to compare classes and powers side by side and say, “this is a striker because it does one extra die of damage” or “this is a defender because it does less damage but keeps enemies from escaping.” This type of structure is friendly to designers, because they have clearly defined guidelines, it’s friendly to developers, because they can compare powers to other powers of the same usage and level, and it’s friendly to fans, because they can analyze mechanics as if they were designers and developers.

As we released more powers and more classes, it began to seem like something was missing in this design approach. As more feats, powers, features, and multiclass options become available, this highly structured approach breaks down to a certain extent. A person can play a fighter without looking anything like a fighter. A warlord can be made into a striker. And classes cease to have as much meaning. One need only look at how many people are playing classes from Player’s Handbook 1 compared to Player’s Handbook 2, and Player’s Handbook 2 compared to Player’s Handbook 3. People want iconic experiences, and they want to feel like their class is different from others. Although some people enjoy the game of mechanic-analysis, it is a game that a relatively small fraction of the gaming community actually plays (though if you’re reading this blog, that probably means you’re a player).

Most people that play games just want to have fun. If you’re playing D&D, you’re probably not “playing to win.” One of the requisites for enjoying a game is having a personalized experience. Even in a social game, you want to feel like your experience is a unique one. You enjoy the camaraderie of a group, but when you go home, you remember different experiences than the person next to you, or you remember the experience in a different way. So where does that leave us in game design? It tells us that we need to create custom experiences by providing a solid foundation of disparate mechanics. What is the appeal of games like Mass Effect? It’s the combination of shared and disparate experiences. You play the same game as another person, but the character and story are different.

The Essentials classes might not be for everyone, particularly people preoccupied with playing the class-comparison game. They are not only different expressions of classes, they are different expressions of the game. These expressions show the capacity of the game to grow in a real, organic way, for an Essentials character can exist alongside a traditionally built one. Food for thought: The new rogue and fighter builds don’t go nearly as far as they could. These are representations of classic classes from D&D, but they still follow some of the same 4E advancement structures with regards to feats, ability scores, powers, paragon paths, and epic destinies. The Essentials builds are not radical departures when compared to the range of possibilities: a class entirely without encounter or daily powers, a class with only daily powers, a class that only advances more slowly, a class that gets feats every level or not at all. The Essentials builds show the flexibility of the system, and they represent what I believe is a healthy direction for any game: a direction with few (if any) buckets and boxes, one in which designers are free to give the players disparate, crazy experiences.


21 thoughts on “Asymmetry in Games

  1. Great post! I really do love and appreciate the cleverness of some of the changes including the stances and at-will movements. I saw right away that they offered similar advancement, it was just hidden a bit I think due to people’s preconceptions. And I’m happy that other people’s play styles can be accommodated under the big tent.

    The only thing that gets me is that my play style is completely left out of essentials, at least so far. I realize that perhaps with infinite resources things would have been different but I do worry that in the rush to be awesome, something important got lost. I hope I am wrong.

      1. I apologize in advance if this is a little more negative than I typically am. I want to reiterate that there is a lot that I love and appreciate about the essentials builds. That said…

        I love kick ass melee classes that do awesome things when the opportunity strikes (as represented by dailies and, to a degree, encounters). That is one of the things I love about 4th edition, the ability for even the fighter class to act out movie scenes, to have them do something cool.

        While I realize that the stances seem more “real” to the people who like more simulation in their D&D, they hold no appeal to me as a player. I may be in a minority (although I can tell from twitter that I’m not the only one), but I really wish that the product aimed at *new players* included a melee build with this awesomeness. The reason I want this is because not everyone is coming from the same background as the old school players. They are not looking for a simulation of real world physics in their fantasy world. Many people who’ve played computer RPGs are going to expect their fighter to do something really cool and awesome and may be a bit disappointed when they don’t find it.

        The most common answer that people give to this is that they could just go play a PHBx character instead. But that’s where this breaks down. Because they haven’t played an essentials character with that sort of build, they may have a hard time understanding the hows and whys of building martial characters with dailies. They probably will need to use the character builder and deal with the mess that is the feats list in there. And that’s if they even know about the PHBs since I don’t see them mentioned in any of the essentials products so far. So in the end, we’ve reinforced an old school way of looking at martial classes to a whole new generation of D&D players. I’m sorry, but that makes me weep a little inside.

      2. I want my character to be able to do cool and awesome things. Some games are based on realistic physics… and some aren’t. It’s not an issue of real-world physics. You can play gritty or wuxia and this is still a seperate thing to consider.

        Unless it’s an issue of ammo (either magical or mundane) I don’t want my character to only be able to do awesome things once a day so that we can simulate characters in movies who only do cool moves once so an audience doesn’t get bored.

        I also don’t want to have battles where my character *doesn’t* do his best because there might be a battle later on that he’s saving his awesome moves for. Worse, I don’t want to miss out on having used that awesome power when that next battle doesn’t happen and we take an extended rest instead.

        I’m cool with the Wizard being able to blow up a castle only once a day… that’s his magic spell. I want my warrior or archer to be awesome all the time though. 🙂

  2. Another problem with the highly structured approach is there are only so many ways you can combine damage expressions, movement and buff/debuffs and maintain a balance ratio. After a while, all powers start to look like the same:

    [X]W damage + ( X move spaces || +/-2 defense/attack)

    The only way forward after that is to create some really esoteric builds and add new power-source mechanics.

    1. I will add to this problem the further wrinkle that avoiding the sameness seems to have led to a noticeable bleed of design space across roles and classes. Because there are only so many ways to express “Hit: damage and movement”, we started seeing more `control’ effects on non-controllers as they advanced in level — and then the controllers felt lame, and so they got even more restrictive control — and then we have an PC-v-PC arms race that left the monsters behind.

  3. As a DM and a player, I’m actually a fan of the homogeneity in the original 4th edition class design and presentation. As a player, it means I can pick up and play another class without having to learn too many new rules/exceptions, and I know what to expect in terms of power/feat advancement. As a DM, I particularly liked it, because it made it much easier to teach a group of new players about classes all at once. I could teach them all about the things that every class can do (at-will, encounter, and daily powers) and then just need to spend a little time with the esoteric elements of each class (Wizards and their spellbooks, Clerics and their Channel Divinity powers, etc.) Additionally, it means that as a DM I don’t have to have played every class or read all of their handbook entries to have an idea how they work (I’m a big fan of how 4th edition standardized the format for powers). I remember 3rd Edition being difficult to teach new players (especially as a new-to-3e-dm) because of the variety of powers presented and the possibly different level at which they were acquired.

    I personally don’t think 4e classes feel same-y (no more so than races feel same-y even though they all grant some bonus to abilities and most grant a power) since I think the powers themselves differentiate the classes, not the in-game mechanics by which those powers are structured and implemented.

    When the Essentials classes were announced, I honestly felt a little disappointed because it seemed like this nice standard system was being broken (and in some cases the explanation for that seemed strange–new players have trouble with the concept of Daily Powers?). In some ways it felt like, as a player and especially a DM, I was being bounced back and forth between design concepts. Let’s have classes where ever class has its own rules! Wait, no, we should have classes where the rules are standard! No, wait, now we should have classes where it’s mostly standard, but some of those parts are different. And honestly, part of that feeling just comes from DM fatigue: If I bring someone new to the game, it feels like a hassle to me to now have to explain that, well, you can choose from these classes that work this way, or these classes that are sorta like the first classes but don’t quite work the same way.

    Having said all that, I have only seen snippets of the new Essentials classes (so I shouldn’t judge them by my initial reactions). But I just picked up the first books and look forward to reading them (because, after all, the thirst for new and interesting material overshadows any fear of change). I hope you’re right about it being a healthy direction for the game.

  4. I too (so far) am a big fan of essentials and the diversity it provides. My only concern is where you mention:

    “The new rogue and fighter builds don’t go nearly as far as they could. These are representations of classic classes from D&D”

    Nostalgia is great, it makes us all feel warm an fuzzy inside and all but I just worry that part of the essentials components are leaning on it too much. Attempting to entice players who have left the D&D system or stayed with an older version just seem like vain attempts to regain fans/players who are already hellbent on boycotting all WotC does. Avandra forbid this in turn disrupts the current playerbase, leaving us with a big mess 😦

    As a DM/Player of the 4e system, I’m a huge fan. It’s actually what brought me *back* to the game, as opposed to those it drove away. I live in the “if it’s not broke don’t fix it mindset” and I’m well aware that without change and growth all things die however, don’t get me wrong. I have welcomed essentials with open arms, though a small portion of me still has reservations though. Only time will tell I suppose.

  5. unfortunately, they caved to complaints of people that hated the game so now we have the magazines filled with stuff we cant use, more support for 1st and 2nd level than loyal fans who have been playing for a while, and the most boring pregens ive ever seen for encounters (the knight made me fall asleep while i read it)

  6. Although I tried a few times I just couldn’t get into 4e as much as I wanted to. I decided to pick up the new Red Box since it looked neat and was a good price – and I’m really surprised at how much more I enjoy it.

    I think the step away from dissociative mechanics and embracing more asymmetry in the game is fantastic. I’m once again excited about an “in-print” line of D&D products. 🙂

  7. j, please tell me more about “the magazines filled with stuff we can’t use” — say what? Please point to an issue of Dungeon or Dragon that is “filled” with material that has somehow been obsoleted with the release of the Essentials material.

    And more generally (actually I suppose this is mostly responsive to DreadGazebo above), why should I care that a particular design aspect of the new Essentials builds is “classic” in some way? I’m being serious — if I don’t like the new builds, I won’t use them, but what does that have to do with whether or not they were designed with some level of nostalgia for the classes and subclasses of past editions?

    If nostalgia helps bring some lapsed players back into #dnd, I’m all for it. If the same nostalgia repels existing players, they are free not to play Essentials builds if they want (or even forbid Essentials builds at their tables if they’re DMs).

    Essentials can only give me and my players more options. If new players pick up HotFL and think those builds are too simple, I’ll hand them my copies of PHB 1/2/3 — or better yet, let them spend 10 minutes at a laptop playing around with the Character Builder.

    Final thought: the day WotC comes to confiscate my Great Weapon Fighter’s daily exploits, that’s the day I’ll join you at the barricades. Until then, I’ll just keep playing the game I love.

  8. I think there is a big difference between asymmetry and balance. There is an asymmetrical distinction between psionic power point classes and the others, for example, but they are relatively balanced. (I say relatively, because even this small change does introduce a few issues).

    To mirror what Shawn Merwin wrote on his blog, Essentials builds leave symmetry behind, but they also seem to push us back to an era where certain things are just way stronger than others. I am talking about the 3.5 issues where a cleric with their buffs could make more attacks per round than a two-weapon ranger, hit harder than the barbarian, had better defenses than the fighter… etc. This was not good for the game. Spellcasters enjoyed advantages that reached the absurd at high levels. A smart PC of any class could not compete with a smart wizard once in the high levels. This isn’t just asymmetry, but poor design and poor balance.

    For Essentials, the classes don’t seem to gain that much for being different. I honestly don’t see many people, either new or experienced, who find the 4E classes too similar. Instead, I hear the criticism that 4E has given us really interesting cinematic classes and Essentials strips/dumbs that down. The Penny Arcade review comes to mind, where the asymmetry was really still boring for what are relatively inexperienced D&D players. Too simple for a WoW player? That isn’t a good base for core development. Now, maybe things will get interesting, but then we run the risk of either looping back to where we are or ending up with big balance issues. Both seem a big distraction when for many the game is really very fun.

    I have to constantly wonder if Essentials would be better as a side thing that is focused on new players and converting 3.x players instead of a core thing. Furthering this thought is that I am not sure WotC has learned from prior mistakes. Magic item rarity, for example, is a surprising system to introduce when there is no evidence that WotC understands what makes magic items powerful. And I say that with complete respect – it isn’t an easy task.

    Down at the very low level is an understanding that all of this is a business decision as well. That one has been hard to figure out. The smart call is that WotC is not doing well financially and this necessitated changes, but it is hard to know what decisions regarding Essentials come from there vs. developmental changes vs. future vision vs. 5E vs. etc.

  9. @ lawyerdm – j is right – by this point in the 4E Product series, the amount of Heroic Tier materials should be far less than releases for Paragon content, and we aren’t seeing that. Further, we are seeing Heroic Tier content for Essentials coming out, which is not even readily useful to Heroic Tier Traditional Player base.

    Dreadgazebos point about trying to “entice” the “boycotters” is sadly accurate. And Essentials is not going to get them to suddenly drop their 3.5 and Pathfinder sets and exclaim, “Oh my, we’ve been wrong all this time… look at the Slayer… WotC understands me again!”

    I appreciate your perspective Greg, but I could not disagree with it more. Essentials is just fine to get new Players and a few “old guard” Players into the game by offering Chacter builds with a gentler learning curve, but that’s all it ever should be.

    The beauty of 4E is in the way that the same “chassis” allows every class to have greater combat options, whether they swing a sword or cast a spell. The Slayer and Thief are a throwback to when melee classes had limited options, and make good “teaching” classes, but I certainly would not want to play one for years at a time. We’ve already done four versions of D&D with plenty of class asymmetry, and there are those of us “old guard” who remember how disparities in classes made for miserable players.

    Traditional 4E Builds are where the real cutting edge design still exists – let Essentials be the “on-ramp” to the game, but let’s Traditional 4E remain the superhighway.

  10. I’m a fan of more options and prefer martial classes without dailies, which I guess is a bit of a throwback to old school and more “simulationist” D&D, but hey, I prefer it. In my view the Essentials path is going for the “sweet spot” between boardgame and simulationist. I’m also optimistic about the loosening of balance, magic item rarities and articles with more fluff – like the Grinar magic item article that just came out. Best article I’ve read in a long time, very entertaining, and useful crunch too. It hits the sweet spot. Keep it up wotc! 🙂

  11. Well … I disagree. I think all fighters do feel like fighters and warlords do feel like warlords, not like strikers. Of course, with a lot of effort, multiclassing and maybe hybriding, with investment in feats and the right equipment (which, for the most part, the players do not control) you can twist anything into anything, but tackling it like this is IMO not a valid approach.

    If I play a character I want it to be different from other characters (not only other classes) and Essentials does make that more difficult actually. Try having two Slayers in your party and see how much they differ. Try the same with sword and board fighters and see what you can do even within one build.

    What WOULD annoy me about essentials, and what did annoy me about past versions of D&D (and many many other roleplays) is that you don’t have a choice: You want a complex game with more resource management? Play a wizard. You want it simple? Play a fighter. With all the advantages and disatvantages the approach might have. (I’ve seen the worst of it in a Level 21 D&D 3.5 game) And this is not about playing to win or comparing classes. This is about playing without constantly being annoyed because another player with a … differently powered class has the ability to always steal “your” spotlight. (And I also don’t wanna be in the situation that I get my showtime because someone else LETS me!)
    Lucky we’re not in the situation where you can’t choose now. Thanks to the older classes already being there, you CAN choose and everything is right. For now.

    The Essentials approach is the new design approach even past essentials. There is a reason though why standards are a good idea. They make a system easier to understand and maintain. With Essentials we get more freedom but we also greatly get an increased risk of things getting out of hand. The classes are harder to compare, but on the gametable we will see if something rocks or something fails. Without a proper systematical approach it will be hard to analyze and counter though. We’ll see.

    I do like the chance for an easy entry into D&D 4 though. Play a knight or a slayer, doesn’t get much easier than this. And once you’ve gotten to know the game like this and found out that it’s cool you can choose something else. And thanks to Fighters outside of Essentials already existing you can even choose the class you want independant of the complexity (and possibly power level) you want.

  12. One of the downsides of asymmetry, however, is that it requires you to make certain assumptions about what a normal D&D campaign should be like. Unfortunately, if you don’t share the same assumptions as the game designer, that means that the differences will cause a class to be under- or overpowered.

    I was actually a big fan of the symmetry of the 4e classes:
    * 2e was based on the idea that classes/races were asymmetrical, but balanced over the lifetime of a campaign: one class/race might dominate another at 1st level, but be the inferior choice at 15th level.
    * 3e tried to balance classes over the course of a day: a fighter might be at a consistent power level all day; a wizard might be lower for most of the day, but dominant for five rounds that day.
    * 4e made classes symmetrical, balancing them on a combat-by-combat level.

    The problem with 2e, of course, was that few campaigns went from 1st to 20th level, and at the level range you were at, one choice or the other was clearly superior. 3e, similarly, had the issue that few campaigns actually had the extended fights and number of fights per days necessary to make consistent classes as meaningful as nova classes.

    I saw 4e as a big step forward, because it made game balance less based on whether your campaign matched the assumptions the designer made. E4e’s martial classes seem to me to be a step backward.

    Removing daily/encounter powers and bumping up basic attacks means that the balance of the 4e classes vs. the E4e classes depends on how many rounds a combat lasts and how many combats you have per day. The relative value of those classes will differ wildly if your adventuring day consists of a single five-round combat or ten ten-round combats.

    Any time a designer uses asymmetry, he’s making judgments about what a game should look like. If you introduce an Option A which is better than Option B in Type X situations, but worse in Type Y situations, you’re implicitly assuming that the two types of situations will come up roughly the same amount of times (or you’ve just introduced an under- or overpowered option).

    When a designer introduces asymmetry, I think it’s important that they step back and consider why they think the new option is balanced, and when it’s better or worse than pre-existing options. Especially in situations as fundamental as a new class dynamic, I think such assumptions need to be made explicit, so that those who are actually designing adventures understand what the premises are and what can go wrong if the premises aren’t true in their campaign.

  13. I disagree that a person could, with any amount of material released for 4e, not look like a Fighter while playing, except by Hybriding or Multiclassing, which are consequences of any class system which allows it. You should give your 4e writers a bit more credit – when I open the character builder every option I see for a Fighter distinctly allows me to play someone who picks up a weapon and beats someone to pulp in various tactically distinct ways. I’m not seeing this in Essentials – I’m seeing someone who beats people to a pulp in very samey and uninteresting ways. The symmetry, as it was, was working just fine and offering a game with more variety than what I am seeing in Essentials.

  14. Just because the power states make Melee Basic Attack, and doesn’t include some form of move/status/damage bonus etc doesn’t mean he is doing the same thing over and over. Describing a blow to a bad guy can be done in numerous ways, you are simply just rolling the same dice every time.

    Now I love the power structure in 4e, but I also think that certain aspects of essentials are great. The fact that the Rogue is more about how he moves than how he swings a dagger is cool. The Essentials Assassin is a great flavourful build.

    But I can also see how, as a playing experience, it could get dull, but if you are investing in the descriptions then that is minimised some what. Plus you still have the stunts/terrain tricks that DMG 2 had to liven up the game.

    So there are still options.

  15. In the end all we’re talking about are different ways of expressing combat builds differentiated by combat features of combat classes filling combat roles using combat powers modified by combat feats and supplemented by combat magical items. Hell, even races are expressed primarily through combat abilities and modifiers.

    So while it’s nice to tweak how combat PCs are expressed, in the end it’s still just … combat.

    It never ceases to amaze me how much effort is expended worrying about it. I’m not referring to Greg, of course – that’s his job, after all. But why do players keep yammering about combat all the time? Honestly, does it ultimately matter much whether your Dipsy-do of Doom is a daily or a stance, or comes from a bloodline heritage feat? Really, who cares whether your Whirly-gig of Destruction is 1[W]+Whatever or 1[W]+Some Other Whatever. Combat matters, of course, and combat is fun, but after perusing innumerable forums it’s clear that most players treat D&D as little more than a combat engine. Essentials is a nice little re-tuning of the engine, but it won’t matter much in a year. I think the engine will run out of gas, and soon.

    Ultimately, D&D 4e won’t be able to sustain viable books sales for more than a few more years, and Wizards will fail to transform fully its revenue stream from hardcopy book sales to a subscriber-based platform – at least at levels which will make Hasbro happy. When the only ‘new’ thing you can offer every month – particularly to players as opposed to DMs — is yet more combat stuff, followed by more combat stuff, followed by more combat stuff, it’s only a matter of time before you run out of Dipsy-do’s of Doom and Whirly-gigs of Destruction. (And really, how many more medium-sized humanoids can you throw out there as a new race that is both playable and unique/interesting?) Without compelling new material, interest will decline in any already bloated combat engine, and their business model will eventually collapse.

    In the future, they need to design a game that taps into elements of role-playing that can be sustained in perpetuity while still retaining compelling combat (which all of us enjoy). I think they’ve clearly succeeded in improving the combat engine, and I believe they will continue to do so in small ways, but there isn’t much else they can do. They’re approaching the point of diminishing returns.

    If they really want to bring in more relapsed players and continue to fend off online video games, they need to offer more than just combat tweaks to combat builds differentiated by combat features of combat classes filling combat roles using combat powers modified by combat feats and supplemented by combat magical items.

  16. “As we released more powers and more classes, it began to seem like something was missing in this design approach. As more feats, powers, features, and multiclass options become available, this highly structured approach breaks down to a certain extent. A person can play a fighter without looking anything like a fighter. A warlord can be made into a striker. And classes cease to have as much meaning.”

    And the solution to this problem was to release a class (fighter) build (slayer) that exists outside the role (defender) normally allocated to that class?

    Of all the Essentials changes, many of which I like, the slayer pisses me off the most. The roles are IMO the single best design feature of 4e. The slayer could easily have been a ranger build, and the fact that it’s not seems to me a pretty clear indication that nostalgia is at work here.

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