Sunday, July 6, 2008

Commentary on 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons

I played D&D as a kid, and my kid and I have played a little 3ed, though obviously, I don't have the time to pore over the volumes of rules like I did decades ago. So, I was really looking forward to 4ed. The idea that you can just pick-up and play without having to decipher lots of fine print and sub-rules and supplements and so on, this seemed like a good idea. (Although, frankly, the mastery of D&D minutiae is most certainly the appeal for some geeks.)

Surprisingly, I've had to literally force my way through the Player's Handbook. It's all so ... boring. Part of the fun of D&D (for me, as a DM) was reading through all the possibilities. 3ed had this in spades: You could do just about anything, and it gave a lot of room to go in interesting and unique directions.

4ed, meanwhile, maps everything out. Everything is classified in terms of how often you can use it, and you add this power or that feat at each level according to a unified formula. It reminds me more of Diablo than anything.

I'm not being dismissive, either. Really, 4ed is an impressive piece of work, streamlining and cleaning up a very messy game. I give it three (of five) stars because it's so easy to read and has big type with every detail clerly spelled out. (I don't like the artwork but that's my own taste.) It will surely be easier for people to casually pick up and play. What I can't figure out is why they--or really, why I would want to play it.

I gather that a lot of issues with 3ed came about because of pickup and competition games. There are such things as "powergamers" and "rules lawyers" and they found ways to drag the game down. And, of course, not all classes in previous editions were equally powerful, if you crunched the numbers. (It never occurred to me that this was a problem, but then I do everything I can to keep my players from focusing on the numbers.)

So, I guess 4ed is good in that regard. Every character boils down to one of four combat roles, and all the features they can acquire are centered around those roles, one of which they'll likely specialize in. (It's probably not as boring as I just made it sound there.)

Now, I run a very DM-centered game, and 4ed diminishes that greatly. The races have a back story which implies a pre-made, common world; Clerics pick from a variety of bland, pre-made deities; The magic items are listed in the PHB and a player can acquire them easily based on level, which implies a world where magic becomes banal at some level.

This is great for a pick-up game, I'm sure. And of course, the DM who doesn't care for all this can do as he pleases. But as you're sitting there thinking, "Well, I can ignore the two gratuitous elf races, drop the half-demon and half-dragon races, bring back the full nine alignments, assume that stuff that I miss, like gnomes, druids and illusionists will be back with the PHB II, bring back real multiclassing and prestige classes..." But at some point, one wonders, "Why 4ed at all?"

Here's a fun fact: In AD&D (what's now referred to as 1ed), you rolled a d20 to attack and checked against a table to see if you hit. Then the monster rolled a d20, etc. Magic-users would use a spell, thieves would try to sneak attack, etc. But that was combat in the original. It was said to represent one minute of fighting, including all the feints, dodges, parries, tumbling, etc. It was detail free, basically, except as the DM described the action. There were no critical hits, there were very tight minimum and maximum ACs. There was no distinction between "touching" and "causing damage" when you hit; it was really very loose aand vague.

Of course, the whole thing was a deliberate simplification. And since D&D's roots were in wargaming, with measures and calculations, you can safely assume the creators weren't afraid of complexity. (I run 3ed like this, despite the absurdly extensive combat rules.)

4ed, on the other hand, is basically a tactical board game. The rules--I mean, all the rules--are pretty much set up to facilitate putting figurines on a grid and having them combat in turn, taking equal amounts of time, doing roughly similarly powered things, and measuring everything in terms of causing damage.

Hell, you could easily put the character's actions into a computer program and let the players use hotkeys to select which power they want--and I'm sure they're working on it.

A lot of people seem to love the new rules, and it's not that I looked at the changes and couldn't see exactly why they changed them and why that was a good thing (except for the elimination of half the alignments). I get it. I really do get it.

It just leaves me cold.

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