on 12 June 2008
Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition
They arrived the other day. With tense anticipation I stripped the cellophane and read the core books from cover to cover.
Now as a Big fan of the whole DnD world, and roleplaying in general, I was apprehensive about this new edition - after how Wizards of the Coast continued to rip off it's customers with the every changing editions of the Star Wars RPG (including its latest incarnation), I felt this would be something similar - another marketing ploy to resell, with minor omissions and additions, it's vast back catalogue of material.
Yet I am pleasantly surprised.
I think a lot of people are making snap reactions to how radically different the game looks and feels compared to the steady medium that the 3rd (and 3.5) edition d20 rules have provided for so long. It's interesting to note that the 3rd edition garnered similar criticisms upon its release.
Okay 4th edition is very different. It has most definitely been tempered by a need to balance the classes, to rectify and simplify some of the more hazy rules, and speed up the entire process of playing.
For example, each class now gains more feats and abilities that scale pretty much identically to everyone else. These abilities are called Powers. Players can select from a vast library of these powers, allowing them to tailor their characters to fit more specific roles. Take clerics - they can select powers which can concentrate on dealing damage via spells or weapons, or they can simply be configured to be the best healers. Fighters can be damage dealers or guardians of other players. One wonder's if the variability offered in character creation and direction by games such as World of Warcraft have coloured these new rules.
However, herein lies my objection. Dungeons and Dragon's 4th edition is being pushed (by its rules) as an adventure game, whereas 3rd edition was much more of a roleplaying game. These new rules glosses over the whole magic that creating and sustaining a new world offered in the old rules, in favour of a swift and malleable system of combat mechanics. It's all about encounters and dungeon crawling now - it has literally become Diablo.
But it does make a great adventure game. And I'm sure the more seasoned roleplay veterans will need little help adding their own flavour to it. But for younger, less experienced or new players, the entire joy of roleplaying will be watered down to a game akin to the old Advanced Hero Quest, which is a big shame.
As an adventure game, 4 out of 5 stars.
As a roleplaying game 2 out of 5 stars.
on 14 June 2008
As predictably as you like, the 4e backlash has began. People have picked their sides and the haters hate it and the lovers love it. Personally I think its a cracking bit of game design even if I don't agree with many of the design decisions.
When I picked this up I had no idea what to expect, I don't read spoilers for new games and prefer to be surprised with the outcome. As a result I knew nothing of just how much this Players Handbook was a departure for previous editions. Firstly this is only part of the story as the character classes featured in here cross three "power sources"- Martial, Arcane, and Divine. This rules out some well known classes (such as the Druid or Barbarian) who are expected to fit one of the Power Sources that will feature in a future Players Handbook. Its safe to say that this element was one of the ones that had me nearly hysterical when I started flicking through my new purchase.
As I began to read the "purist" in me began to rail against much of what I was taking in and its taken me a week to step back far enough from my initial shock factor to really begin to appreciate what the game is trying to do. Each class and race is balanced thoroughly against every other one and, although I'm not a fan of that sort of forced balance, its an impressive feat of game design. The one dimensionality of some other elements of the game system (particularly skill bonuses) rankled me somewhat but I've come to be a bit more relaxed about that.
What Wizards have done with 4e is to return it to its roots. As a game with a fantastic number of tactical combat options it excels, but it doesn't overwhelm. D&D is the biggest selling RPG in the world and as such should operate as an entry level game for new players, a feat the more complex 3e couldn't ever manage. By sacrificing a degree of realism and, yes, making the game somewhat reminiscent of MMORPG computer games they have made this Players Handbook a highly accessible game engine. In terms of cruch there are hundreds of items of equipment and magic items (scaled for use across multiple levels of play)and a new and different magic system split between the class powers of magic users and a new feature called Rituals (a great idea, but possibly a bit expensive to use in play). Creating characters is simple, flows, and is clear within the game rules. Options that are plainly not working may be traded in at a later time providing players an extra level of control over their characters and how they turn out.
This is not the D&D we grew up playing (but then for many of us neither was the 3rd Edition). So many Sacred Cows have been slaughtered in the making of this book that it will be a rare experienced player not caught by surprise by much of it. Complaints that it is simpler are absolutely on the nose, and I'm sure Wizards of the Coast's design team are happy that people are pointing that out. It may frustrate some longer term gamers, but as someone that has been playing and running games for over 20 years I feel that this game could bring back friends that have been turning their noses up at D&D for 15 of those years. I don't recommend this without reservations, but it's still worth buying the book, strapping on your +2 chainmail and cloak of resistance, and then playing a game that's fun to be part of.
on 27 July 2010
I've read so many bad reviews about D&D 4th Edition, most lacking any kind of logic, that I felt I had to add some common sense to the discussion. But before that, the mandatory credentials: I've been a DM for 20 years, starting with D&D 2nd Edition, and have read and played more RPG games than I can account for. My professional career also revolves around games: I work at Electronic Arts and I have a degree in games design and media communication. That being said...
D&D was my first RPG and I loved it in the beginning, until I realized how bad the game engine was. D&D 2nd Edition was one of the most unbalanced, inconsistent, complex and intricate game engines I've ever played. D&D 3.0 and 3.5 did much to simplify and add coherency to the core rules, but every new supplement would add complexity and rules exceptions to the whole. After a few years worth of supplements, it was as complicated to find consistency in 3.0/3.5 as it was on 2nd Edition. Rules discussions were endless and munchkinism was unstoppable. D&D at its purest.
The 4th Edition represents, in my personal and professional opinion, the biggest leap in RPG game design in history. The game engine is symmetrical, tridimensional, coherent to a mindboggling degree, clear as crystal water, and balanced as no other PnP game has ever been before. In a word, this is the first pen and paper RPG game engine I can safely say that's perfect.
I won't go into the details, there are so many good reviews here I won't repeat what's already been said. I just want to answer to those that complain about two aspects: A) 4th Edition becoming an MMO, and B) 4th Edition removing all the RPG elements from the system.
A) D&D has always been a child of its time: Basic and AD&D were designed with wargamers in mind, 2nd Edition was designed for fantasy literature readers and 3.0/3.5 were aiming to allure the visual generation that prefered miniature and card games to pen and paper (more abstract) games. D&D is to games what Tom Wolfe is to the American literature. Every 10 years, they define their current generation. 4th Edition is another step forward. It's trying to attract the attention of MMO and videogame players, and that is a noble task to undertake. If WOTC achieves to make kids forget their consoles in order to meet with their friends to bolster their imagination and creativity, they deserve a monument in every town hall. WOTC has also brought the inner logic and coherency of software games to the tabletop. The building blocks of the 4th Edition match with each other with such mastery that they build a tridimensional sphere without flaws. Every following supplement builds into that, increasing the size of the sphere, without ever altering its shape. The engine of MMOs is codified into software, it's invisible for you, and the 4th Edition engine is codified into English words that kids can understand. Now that's something.
B) Can anyone tell me when was Dungeons & Dragons a narrative storytelling role-playing game? In the 2nd Edition, skills (proficiencies back then) were OPTIONAL. Miniatures were introduced in 3.0, and as far as I know, the only non-combat feats you could select were the same ones that are present in the 4th Edition: add a new Skill or add a bonus to a Skill. Some people complain that the skill list has been reduced. So? The more narrative oriented RPGs lack any skills whatsoever, since they don't want to limit the players' role-playing possibilities. I could also argue that having Athletics +30 makes a lot more sense than being able to Climb with a +45 and Jump with a +10, but I guess that skills and narrative storytelling are synonyms for many players that have never tried an RPG besides D&D in 20-30 years... People interested solely in storytelling have never played D&D, and if they have done it, they have moved to other games as soon as they understood how D&D works. D&D has always been a game about epic characters fighting epic enemies to save the world, the universe or the multiverse. But I will say more: storytelling has never and will never be affected by a game engine. The only thing that can enhance/hinder storytelling is Theme, Atmosphere and Leit Motif. And these elements haven't been altered at all in the 4th Edition. So if you complain that D&D 4th Edition doesn't enhance storytelling, I tell you: sure, now you notice? Go and play Ars Magica, where one of the classes, the Wizard, is about one million times more powerful than the other classes; and you know why? Because they don't care at all about game balance in Ars Magica... it is a storytelling RPG, and all they care about is the story. D&D, on the contrary, has always cared about game balance almost exclusively, leaving the responsibility of good storytelling to the DM. And they have failed miserably in this task for 40 years, until now.
As a conclusion, if you like videogames, if you like boardgames, if you like role-playing games, if you like games... Read and play this 4th Edition. It is a milestone in the trade, and some day, it will be acknowledged for it.
EDIT (07/02/2013): Three years after my review, I am sad to see my definition of the usual D&D players has been confirmed: a subset of role-players without any interest in storytelling, solely focused on the simulationist conflict between PCs and DM, where rules are wielded against the other, to see who prevails. Gary Gygax would be extremely pleased to see his side has finally won the Edition War.
Many 4e haters have said that only people that didn't like D&D enjoy the current (and dying) edition, and I think they are right. We moved to other games as soon as we realized D&D was not following our growth as players and individuals. We grew tired of wargaming, and wanted to focus on the story. Don't forget 4e's Lead Designer was Rob Heinsoo, co-editor of Feng Shui (1996) and other ground-breaking story-telling RPGs, which taught us that the story is above and beyond mechanics, realism and simulation. With D&D he created the RPG equivalent of an indie movie with a Hollywood budget.
Given the reception of his avant-garde piece of mass-produced entertainment, the first time will probably be the last.
It's telling they have accused 4e of the same principles haters hold most dearly. Let me just give two clear examples: 1) similarity to an MMO, where power-building is the only goal; and 2) removing agency from the DM to put it in the hands of the PCs. In reality, 4e did just the opposite: by providing a balanced engine, it was not necessary to min-max every character to create an effective contributor to the party so, actually, to be unique, 4e PCs need to focus less on the crunch and more on their personalities. Therefore, 4e was, of all D&D editions, the LESS similar to a videogame, ever. By focusing most of its rules on (balanced) combat, 4e provided the DM with unlimited power to run the game she wanted. Interaction, exploration and every other non-combat activity fell completely at her discretion and wise judgement.
4e was, and always will be, a game for experienced and story-centric role-players. Those who didn't need the PHB to tell them how to interact with an NPC, how to end a battle that was clearly won, how to skip a combat encounter that made no sense in the ongoing story...
The problem is that Wizards couldn't say it clearly in the PHB back cover - they wanted kids to start playing the game. They didn't want them to feel embarrassed if they were told the game transcended mere combat, skill challenges and read-aloud text, that they were too young and inexperienced to make the game really SHINE. Of course they couldn't say that. They knew those new players would eventually learn and develop their role-playing skills, and they trusted that old gamers, those that already knew how an RPG is supposed to be played, would understand the message.
The problem is they didn't.
Maybe they never learned how an RPG is supposed to be played, after all, if they needed a book like this to tell them:
But the issue here is that "role-playing", "immersion" and "powers" were never the true cause of the hatred. The cause, the REAL cause, is 4e's game balance.
4e haters have been projecting in all their accusations. This edition deprived them of their power to abuse the rules, to confront the DM on equal terms, to achieve their desired goal: winning the cooperative game, without a sweat, by using their superior wits, strategy and in-game benefits, as sanctioned by a myriad rulebooks. That someone wants to win a cooperative game escapes me, but that's the sad truth. That was D&D until 4e, and they feel entitled to get their game back. In some way, I can understand that.
And they have won the PR battle. And now Wizards wants to lure them back into the fold.
But I'm afraid this is a lost cause. Wizards is trying to create an Edition To Bind Them All, but they will fail. Those of us that loved the fresh air that 4e brought with it, that embraced the revolution that modernized the game designed by Gary Gygax (The Grand Old Father of All Simulationists), can never look back. We won't go back to confronting the DM - because 4e taught us that he is our ally in creating the story. We don't want an unbalanced game anymore, because creating unbalanced encounters is easy, but a balanced system is so hard to create. We love balance because our DM can break it whenever he wants, and we don't understand why players would like to be able to disrupt the story he is trying to create with us.
Wizards, you must assume it. With 4e you looked forward to the future. D&D Previous is a different beast. It's not difficult to find out in which direction it is looking. And the worst thing is that you are about to lose us, and the 4e haters won't come back if you insist on offering a balanced ruleset.
on 18 June 2008
On the 18th June I wrote a 1 star review of D&D 4e. (I have had to remove it now because Amazon only allow 1 review per person per product). Now I would like to write another but this time I have the benefit of having DMed the game through a number sessions.
When I wrote the review in June I had read through the books and created several characters using the Character Build option that are printed along with each class, and found the whole experience to be extreemly flat and clinical. I then told my group what I had seen and we collectivly rejected the whole system vowing never to switch from 3.5.
I am now very pleased to say that all that has changed, and we owe it all to my 7 year old daughter, who one day asked me to let her play D&D.
Knowing 3.5 as well as I do I realised it would be far too complex for a 7 year old to understand, and she was dead set on playing a wizard, so in 3.5 that means I would have one very bored little girl after the first battle with me saying "Sorry dear, you`ve cast you two spells thats all you can do today." So this is what prompted me to bring out the 4e books again.
We then got my son involved as well and he is only 5. Both children really enjoyed playing. The action is alot faster than it ever has been, every character goes into every combat with at least 5 or 6 different options even a 1st level wizard, so you no longer have to hide behind the fighters in the party hopeing to gain some xp off of their efforts.
Healing Surges work really well. I would like to say to all 3.5 gamers; What is the first thing every fighter says as soon as the Cleric runs out of spells? In every game I have ever played, until now, the make camp and rest cry suddenly appears. Also in 3.5 the cleric ALWAYS casts every single healing spell possible no matter how slightly injured the fighters are before rest. All of this disrupts the flow of game and has always annoyed me. Healing Surges negate all of this. Every character has a limited number of times they can use these per day and they can only use it once per encounter during combat. Now every party member is not only involved in every encounter but the encounters from a DM point are now more fiendish and you can really push each character alot further than in any previous D&D edition. (Yes I still have my D&D Basic, Expert etc books published in 1982!!!!)
After I discovered the system in this way I then proceeded to force feed my regular group with 4e. We are a group of 6 thirtysomethings and we had possibly the best game sessions in years. As DM I am not constantly trying to be a rules guru, draging out books to find the correct way to do this or that, I can consentrate on making to game fun, which in turn makes it fun for me, and alot more dangerous for the characters....hehehe.
To everyone else who has given a 1 star review or dismissed the system out of hand as I did, I would like to say please try it. Play it properly and don`t look at individual rules changes out of context. Do this and you`ll probably be pleasently suprised....... I was.