Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Full Attack Trap

The last thing I want to do here is to throw more fuel onto the ever-raging edition war fire.  But I've been thinking lately about my aversion to D&D 3.x/Pathfinder.  I have a game group that still plays the system, and they've asked me several times if I want to join their game.  I haven't yet, because so far the flaws of 3.x and my desire to avoid them have overpowered wanting to play in another game with this group (I do still game with them, just not Pathfinder).

I did try Pathfinder a couple of times.  The thing that stood out the most was that combats lasted longer than in 4E, but were far less interesting.  I'm cool with more simplified, streamlined combat systems, but they need to a) support narrative contributions by the player in a fun and engaging way, and b) run more quickly.  Why would I want to spend 2 hours in one fight when I'm just saying "I use Power Attack" every round?  Yes, that actually did happen.

What follows are several observations from a game design perspective; while these are not my only complaints with the system, they are some of the major contributing factors.

Full Attack Action
It sounds innocuous at first glance, but in reality this is one of the most piss-poor design elements I've ever encountered in any game.  Ever.  Multiple attacks aren't a great way for character power to scale anyways.  The more attacks you roll, the more damage you end up rolling, and the end result is a lot of dice.  There's no change to the narrative action, nor the intent of that action; the only difference (besides the obvious increase in power, which can be accomplished through other means) is that the task resolution system is becoming more complex and time-consuming.  Needlessly, I might add.

But that's not the only problem with Full Attack.  The worse offender is that it makes combat far less interesting by restricting your options.  Full Attack isn't just a standard action, but takes up all of your actions for your turn.  Because making 2-5 attacks is far more powerful than making just 1, it's a non-choice - if you can use a full attack, you really should do it.  Instead of being dynamic, combat devolves into what some call "stand and bang."  You walk up to a dude, and you both throw a bunch of dice at each other until one of you falls down.  There's very little incentive to use a skirmisher-style of play, to change opponents, to move around to tactically advantageous terrain, etc.  Those fun, interesting things are made so drastically suboptimal that they simply don't come up in play. 

Ultimately, when I play a tabletop RPG I want things to do during my turn.  I want to make choices based on what makes narrative sense, and I want those choices to carry over and have meaningful mechanical consequences.  That usually doesn't happen with martial-type characters in 3.x/PF, but that brings us to...

This subject has been covered far and wide, pretty much everywhere on the internet.  So I'll keep this brief.  Martial characters are boring, so if you want to do something interesting you need to play a spellcaster.  This type of design is repellent to me because it punishes players for liking a certain archetype. 

Oddly enough, this goes both ways.  You see, spellcasters aren't universally more interesting.  At low levels they have enough spells to count on one hand (with fingers to spare!) and are otherwise reduced to taking potshots with a crossbow (this is somewhat ameliorated in Pathfinder, but the weak attack spells are a) still quite limited instead of being at-will, and b) are noticeably weaker than weapons.  Since I almost always played at low levels (1-3) back when I played 3.5, the fact that I preferred spellcasters made for some frustrating experiences (even if I wasn't aware of how frustrated I was at the time). 

Of course at high levels spellcasters are notorious for making some party members obsolete, but while they're no doubt effective, they're not necessarily fun.  First of all, being noticeably better doesn't leave you with a sense of achievement.  You've done cool things not because you made better choices than the Fighter, but because you were handed better toys.  But those toys can also be a pain.  I remember having multiple sheets of notebook paper to keep track of all of my spells, and I still had to look stuff up constantly.

Final Notes
The gap between the "boring" and "interesting" classes is just far too wide.  On one end of the scale you have the guy with the non-choices.  "I full attack" is what he says every round when it comes to his turn.  On the other end a player could get downright overwhelmed by all of his choices.  "Why am I forced to play a micromanaging bean counter just to do interesting things?"

Like I said, these aren't my only problems with the system, but I think they're two of the biggest contributors to making combat really boring, especially for players of martial characters.  Why should an increase in power come with a reduction in meaningful choices?  Perhaps if someone comes up with houserules that mitigate these problems I'd consider joining a Pathfinder game.  Maybe.

No comments:

Post a Comment