Ch-ch-changes… (4th edition)Posted: June 8, 2008
Probably one of the worst kept secrets of my life is that I’m a bit of a fan of Dungeon and Dragons (D&D), to be precise I am a fan of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. This says a couple of things about me, namely that I have a high tolerance for Tolkien imitators (read: rip-offs) and am an unreconstructed geek.
Thus it should come as no surprise that yesterday that I went out and bought the new 4th edition Player’s Handbook (PHB) and Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) (I’ll be buying the Monster Manual too, but I didn’t want to shell out the cash for it until I get closer to actually running a game). I just finished reading the PHB and it left a distinct impression on me.
Before I get into my opinions on the 4th edition revision, I think it would be wise for me to lay on the table my history with D&D. My first exposure to D&D was via video games (namely the Baldur’s Gates series), my first exposure to the pen and paper rules themselves was with the 3rd edition (D&D 3.0). I consider myself “moderately informed” with the previous 3.0 and 3.5 rules sets. I also am midly familar with the older AD&D and the overall history of the game. I am not a rules jockey, nor am I a power gamer. My favoriute aspect of the game is DMing. I try to run fun but still relatively “serious” games for my friends. I don’t buy a huge number of supplemental products (those fuckers are expensive) but generally try and stay constant with the rules.
With that out of the way, I found a lot to like about the new revised rule set and a lot I took issue with.
The 100 ton elephant in the room of 4th edition is the influence of World of Warcraft on the design of the game. Its felt in every aspect of the new edition, from the game’s basic conceptualization to the classes to new style of play. I find this influence troubling. The “good aspects” of a game like WoW are difficult to translate into a pen and paper game. But the bad aspects were easy enough for the D&D design team to unleash on 4th edition.
An example of this is that each class now as an clear “in-rules” “role”. Fighters and paladins are “defenders”, wizards are “controllers”, to name just a few. While such roles may (or may not) be necessary for a game like WoW, where the players are interacting with the story through programed events, they are completely unnecessary for a game like D&D where a live DM can shift their story to work with the sort of party the players create. By pigeonholing each class into an obvious predefined set of roles, 4th edition robs the D&D classes of their traditional versatility. This is especially true of the spellcasting classes, wizards and clerics, who’ve had their spell lists striped down and limited (mostly) to obvious damaging dealing abilities.
A pen and paper D&D game is not a game of World of Warcraft, there is more for a player to do then kill things.
The influence of WoW is felt in the design of the classes more generally. Every class, even non-spellcasters, now have various “powers” that can be used in each combat encounter. They are very much like the sort of abilities each class has in WoW. This is both a welcome and unwelcome change. While it gives non-spellcasters (especially fighters) things to do each round, it robs the spellcaster classes of some of their uniqueness and importance.
Beyond the general baneful influnce of WoW on 4th edition’s design, the single largest change is the spellcasting system. The traditional way of “preparing spells” which had survived with, various changes (some radical) since the original D&D, has been chucked out the window, wholesale. This is both a good and bad thing. While it gives wizards more power and usefulness in lower-levels, it takes away from what makes D&D unique. I think that the system could have revised more without being completely scraped.
Much of what made D&D unique, compared to other RPGs, has been stripped out of the latest revision. Two traditional D&D (at least since AD&D) classes, the druid and the bard, are gone from the core rules. Seriously, where is D&D without bards? The gnome character race is gone too. These aren’t huge changes from a rules perspective but, honestly, part of what make D&D special is missing without them.
Another big part of traditional D&D that was stripped out of the game is the alignment system. In 4th edition, there are only five alignments; lawful good, good, evil, chaotic evil, and (the uselessly unclear) ‘unaligned’. There is no alignment to really reflect shades of gray in the new alignment system, everything not clearly good or evil is lumped together in the ‘unaligned’ category. The old system, while unrealistic, was a great way of getting cross a character’s basic philosophy at a glance, which was especially useful for DMs using pre-made adventures. Again, the designers striped out a piece of what made D&D different and the game suffers for it.
There is not a single part of the D&D game that hasn’t been changed in this revision, even changes made in the most recent previous revision, 3.5, have been reworked. Clerics no longer have domains, in fact they no longer get their powers from the gods they worship. Skill points are gone, a character is either “trained” or “untrained” in a skill. The saving throw system is revamped, along with how armor class works. Elves have been split into two races for the core rules (essentially into “magic elves” and “forest elves”). New races have been added (namely the lame “dragonborn”) and old ones taken out (half-orcs). Some of these changes are for the better (the skill system), others are of dubious necessity (the reworking of the cleric).
Some of the new design elements just aren’t well thought out, especially the higher level abilities. The new “epic destiny” concept for levels 21 through 30 is very powerful but poorly laid out for players and DMs to use, and shoddy explained (which is an exception, most of the game is very well explained). It feels like something that should have stayed in play testing longer.
Reading all of that might give you the impression that I hated D&D: 4th edition and that’s not true. There is a lot to admire in the latest edition. The game is first and foremost accessible. The writing is clear, RPG jargon is seldom used and when it is used the designers clearly explain it. You could easily give this book to a 12 or 13 year old and they would understand the basic game with great ease. The design of the book is excellent, everything is well organized and logically laid out. WotC should give their staff graphic designers a raise.
Well the graphic design of the text itself is excellent, the illustrations in the book leaves something to be desired. It begins with the cover is which is just plain ugly. The interior art isn’t much better, with offerings ranging from serviceable to typical bad fantasy art. The book would have been better of (and cheaper and shorter) with fewer illustrations.
Basically if WotC had released this game as a the improved d20 system I would have applauded it as an excellent, accessible game. As the latest incarnation of D&D, however, it leaves something to be desired. Much of what made D&D unique is gone and what replaced it is too heavily influenced by WoW for my tastes.
Of course, these judgments are contingent; I haven’t read the DMG yet nor have I run a game with live players yet. For all I know this game may play well, causing me to forget my qualms about its design. We’ll have to see. You can expect to see more from me about 4th edition D&D in the near future.