Customer Review

42 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A perfect game engine, 27 July 2010
This review is from: Player's Handbook: A 4th Edition Core Rulebook: 1 (D&d Core Rulebook) (Dungeons & Dragons) (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 22 Oct 2010 16:41:05 BDT
Equinox says:
Extremely articulate review. Thank you.

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Feb 2011 15:39:08 GMT
The best review of 4e that I have read. Why only 3/6 helpful is a mystery to me. Thanks very much.
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