In 2000, the American Psychological Association published a study entitled “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire too Much of a Good Thing?” (PDF). You may have seen this study referenced in a few recent books including Switch by the Heath brothers and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. During this study psychologists observed consumers’ behavior as they chose between two displays of jams. One display had 24 selections of jams while another had six. While more people gravitated towards the table with more jams, they ended up buying much less than those who went to the display of only six jams. This study concluded that while people gravitate to having more choices, a high number of choices ends up being a detriment in making decisions. Let’s apply this idea to Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition.
At a certain level, probably high Heroic and certainly in Paragon and Epic tiers players might have twenty four possible choices on their turn including at-wills, encounter powers, daily powers, utilities, and items. This high number of choices mixed in with the already tactical nature of combat in 4e often leads to analysis paralysis. Players simply can’t figure out what the right move might be. I’ve seen it happen in a lot of games, I’ve seen a lot of conversations that go back and forth during a player’s turn. Analysis might never end until the DM finally moves the game forward by demanding a choice. Not all players are like this. Some are able to make choices very quickly often by eliminating options well before their turn comes up. They make decisions like firemen – the first possible option that will get the job done is the one they pick. Others, however, can get so bogged down that only when they are finally forced to make a decision do they actually make one and often it isn’t the best choice they could make. Often it isn’t even close.
Looking at Heroes of the Fallen Lands, it is clear that WotC realized the number of choices given to all character classes can get overbearing. The fighter and rogue builds are far simpler than previous builds. Limitations on paragon paths and epic destinies further focus the character in a single direction. These builds rely primarily on basic attacks modified by a hand-full of stances or tricks. These stances are easy to figure out given various situations and easy to implement. Though I haven’t played a paragon or epic-level Essentials only campaign, it would appear this limitation in choice will make for a much smoother and faster game at all levels. With limited options comes faster decisions and more focused gameplay.
The perception of choice
Unfortunately, that isn’t likely what players want. Existing 4e players will likely understand the advantages to a faster game and more focused builds but if they’re already used to having piles of encounter, daily, and utility powers, they aren’t likely to give those up easily. They want their 24 jams even if they’d be better off with 6. It personally makes me wish this was the version of D&D 4th edition that came out from the beginning. Instead, the only way we can truly capitalize off of the simplification and rebalancing of character classes in Essentials is to mandate their use. I don’t know how receptive most players will be to this but aside from some oddities (like myself) people want more options, not less. The minute a paragon-level rogue can’t take Daggermaster is the minute they’ll want to break out of an Essentials Only game. In Switch, the Heath brothers describe that it isn’t enough to convince the logical part of someone’s brain to change from an existing course, you also have to get their heart into it. You have to tap into their emotional state to show them how much better the game will run. By “Shrinking the Change” you can possibly run some one-shot paragon and epic-level Essentials Only games so players might see the advantages first hand in running simpler characters. That might not be enough, however. Beyond being far simpler to play, Essentials characters are overall less powerful than the sum total of character builds to this point.
A look at critical hits
The easiest way to see this is the elimination of critical range increases. Using just the PHB1, most character classes can find a way to critically hit on 19 and 20 rather than just 20. The lucky rogue can increase this to 18, 19, and 20. This might not seem like a big deal until you see players focusing their items and powers around these critical hits. Higher level characters also roll many more attacks than a lower level character and each of those attacks has a greater change to crit. D&D Essentials does away with this. No character build at any level is able to crit on anything other than 20. No item, no feat, no power allows for anything other than a crit on 20. Even then, there are few items or powers that offer any significant bonuses when a character DOES crit. This avoids what I like to refer to as “Matt James Syndrome” where defenders are able to dish out over 300 damage in a single round by using the right combination of items, powers, and class abilities. This look at critical hits is only one such limitation in power. Any time you reduce the amount of selections for characters, you limit their power. Any time you expand it out, power increases. If you’re running a paragon level game or above with unlimited selections in the character builder, you’re likely already experiencing this. It isn’t just for optimizers, just about any player will find powerful combinations of abilities that might end up being game-breaking.
DM vs. player
The trouble is, they LIKE all that power. Who wouldn’t? Why would a rogue willingly give up a paragon path like Daggermaster for one with fewer advantages? That means we’re facing two major roadblocks to a more streamlined game. First, players love to have lots of choices. Second, all of those choices let them make more powerful characters. So how do we reach both the logical minds and emotional hearts of our players to convince them to abandon their choice-rich powerful character builds for those found in Essentials? I wish I had a great answer but I’ll leave you with three ideas:
- Don’t try to shoehorn it into an existing campaign. If you’re going Essentials Only, start at the beginning and work up.
- Run some one-shot games in paragon and epic tiers so both you and your players can see how it runs and how it compares. Offer to run limited-duration Essentials-only games for four to six to eight sessions. It’s less of a threat when it’s only for a short time.
- Highlight the straight forward advantages of Essentials-only builds. Rogues get both backstab and sneak attack, for example, on the same hit. Slayers are part fighter and part avenger with the ability to switch from one role to another with a simple stance change.
- Time your actual battles between campaigns with fully open character builds and those with Essentials builds. Get people to actually feel how a streamlined game can go.
- Get your players to understand the importance of a balanced game. Bring them into your thoughts and decisions about the best path to take for your game. You are equals in your desires to enjoy a fun D&D game.
These solutions aren’t perfect and they’re not always easy. With a more streamlined and balanced game as our possible reward, it is worth the effort to try.