Friday, July 4, 2008

My Thoughts on Dungeons and Dragons 4E (Fourth Edition)

I posted briefly about this before, when it was first announced that the new version would be coming. Now that I've actually read the rules and also the first released adventure, I have further thoughts on the subject. I should state up front that I have yet to actually play the game. I considered waiting until then to opine about the new rules, but then figured that to really do that justice, I'd have to play it more than just for one adventure, up through to the higher levels, and that could take a very long time indeed. I'm sure I will have an opinion at that point (and I'll post it) but I think I've played enough RPGs in my time, particularly enough D&D, that I can get at least a reasonably good feel for the game just from reading the rules. (I wonder if it also helps being a lawyer... heh.)

I want to briefly address one issue that some have with the new edition - the notion that it is just a money sop. Well, guess what, game companies publish to make money. So what? In the end, making a new edition actually should save you money if all you want to do is play 3.5E - because, if you're like me and end up getting all of the books (ok, I'm an addict, so shoot me), the switch means that there are no more books to get. They are done. The 3.5E system is complete. You can now play it to your heart's content, secure in the knowledge that nothing new will ever be put out for it that you'd ever feel the need to buy. Certainly nothing official will be coming. Given the amount of material already published, there is plenty to keep you occupied for the rest of your life, so there's no need to be upset about a new version you don't like - welcome it! There's no requirement that you play it.

At this point, the initial shock has long since worn off. When I first heard the announcement, to me, it just felt too soon, maybe two years too soon. Looking on it now, I can see that the timing probably isn't all that bad, in the sense that 3.5E has been out for a long time and the rules are more than complete. Beyond that, there are so many supplemental books and so many modules out there that it would take decades to get through them all. So it's not like anyone really needed any more 3.5E material to keep on playing it for a lifetime. Though there are a few things I would have liked to see more of (like more books for psions - I've always liked them - and the main problem with them is that they have such a short list of powers compared to, say, Wizards). There are third party books, but those just aren't quite the same (though I've gotten a few things from some of them that a friend has).

Also, there were problems with 3.5E - it was a way better system than 1E and 2E, in the sense that it was a bit more robust, but at the same time, it was classic Dungeons and Dragons. It felt like the older editions - it felt like D&D (really AD&D, as that was what the older editions were). And with that probably came some of the problems. The biggest problem was balance issues, particularly as you got to higher levels, past level 15 (or even 12 according to some). Which is a problem when even non-epic play goes all the way to level 20, and of course, then there's Epic play itself. When I create a character I like to play it all the way - it kinda feels wrong to stop playing before at least reaching 20th level, if not epic level.

Independent of the balance issues at higher level (but perhaps because of them) there are basically no published adventures for higher level play. Even the copious Dungeon Crawl Classics line from Goodman Games only had one or two adventures up to level 15 or so and then a single Epic adventure. I don't know of any other published Epic adventures and there are few sources for adventures levels 15+ (the same with Paizo, whose new Pathfinder campaigns also seem to stop around level 15 or 16 and their standalone modules never seem to be above level 11). Thus, unless you have a lot of time on your hands to create your own high level adventures as a DM (and they take much longer to set up than lower level ones given the complexities of higher level monsters and having to deal with what the players can do, which is almost anything), it is hard to run a game past level 15. Which, while fine for some, again, kinda sucks if you want to go further with your characters.

At the reverse end there is the issue of fragile characters at low level, particulalry first level, where even the lowliest of enemies could potentially kill a character with one lucky hit. Admittedly for some, this is a feature, not a bug. It certainly can make for some memorable and character-defining beginnings of campaigns. Especially for wizards and such who basically get off the one spell and then have to hide in the back and shoot crossbows (badly) or some other such thing. It does foster creativity. It also adds tension and excitement. I had one campaign start off at first level where the players (as I was one) rushed into a situation we probalby shouldn't have and ended up fighting essentially the whole collection of baddies (in that case, goblins) all at once in a big clearing with lots of buildings. We very easily could have had a TPK (total party kill) there. But we worked together very effectively, using cover, creative use of our meager resources and spells, and good tactics, and actually managed to take them all out, though it was a nail-biter. Thus, 3.5E has issues with play, somewhat at lower levels, and then to a great degree at the higher levels and beyond.

This is the one thing that I think 4E clearly has done far better than 3.5E or any other previous edition of the game: support the game all the way up. In 4E the system is built to be balanced air-tight, and easy to play and prepare for as a DM from levels 1 all the way to 30. Of course, this is probably linked into what I see as 4E's biggest problem. It just plain doesn't feel like D&D anymore. I can't say for sure that's how it will feel playing it, but from reading the rules, that's just the overall sensation I get as I parse it all. What hit this home most was the way spells work. Or rather, how they no longer work.

In earlier editions, there is a huge list of spells of varying types from levels 1 through 9 (for the big spell casters) and they could do quite a lot. In 4E, every single class has "at will", "per encounter" and "daily" abilities - a very limited number of each, even at high level. Wizard combat spells are now just "daily" and "encounter" abilities (mostly daily) just like any other class, like fighters, with the only difference being that they get a list of twice as many that they "know" for the daily, and then pick which half to prepare for the day (and can't prepare duplicates).

Then, for most of the non-combat stuff, there are "rituals" which are basically spells, except they cost a huge amount of money to cast (well, some do) and take a really long time to do. They also involve skill checks. And it appears that there is only one list of them, so if you can do rituals, be you a wizard or cleric, you can do any of them. (The only important difference, perhaps, being how good your skills are for a given type of ritual - some use an arcane skill, some use a clerical skill, some use other skills).

I have to admit that the ritual concept isn't all that disconcerting - that could still keep some of the feel of D&D. But the way wizards now are just like every other class, that just doesn't feel right. In fact, reading through the various classes, it kind of feels like all of the classes are exactly the same. I know based on abilities that they are not, that they have different strengths and weaknesses based on role - so part of that is probably due to not having played the game up through the levels, but that's only part of it. There just aren't special abilities for classes like there used to be - like a barbarian's speed going up with time, or things like that.

It was also somewhat strange to me that the at-will powers are all gotten at first level - there are no higher level at-will powers.

On the plus side (for some at least) - characters start out tougher (as do monsters, for that matter). So no worries about an accidental TPK from a lucky critical. That I kind of like. Random things could wipe out a party - and given how as DM you make many more random die rolls than players do, there's a lot of opportunity for that to happen, particularly at low levels (though for some, that's half the fun of starting out at first level in 3.5E).

I also rather like how criticals are now handled - 20 and automatic - and then just do max damage, plus potentially some dice on top of that. It always sucked to roll a 20 in 3.5E only to have that only hit normally - even worse, it sucked when you actually confirmed a critical, then rolled crappy on the dice such that you did less damage than you might have done even with a single hit. Another thing I like is that every type of attack can get a critical and that creatures aren't immune to them. That's another thing I think was a problem in 3.5E - so many creatures that were just totally immune to things from some (or even most) classes. That was just annoying. And it was also unfun for the characters who were totally nerfed in such encounters. Sometimes it allowed for creativity, but a lot of the time, it just meant that certain players would be forced to sit back and be spectators in some encounters and that's just not fun.

In sum, I think 4E looks to be very well balanced and, as such, will probably be fun and challenging to play for all levels, 1-30. It also looks to be quick and easy for the DM to set up adventures, which is a big plus. (This may also result in more published modules, particularly at higher levels). Of course, that still doesn't quite deal with the central issue I have with 4E - that it really just doesn't feel like D&D anymore. 3.5E changed a lot, but it still felt like D&D - that entailed bringing alot of baggage along that probably is why there are the problems I indicated above, but even with those problems, it has been fun to play. But there are plenty of games out there, many of which are fun - the thing is, none of them are D&D. (One that I particularly enjoyed was Shadowrun). Maybe that doesn't really matter. Maybe I'm just clinging to the past. Maybe I'm just nostalgic. But I think that matters.

This difference is probably enough to keep me playing 3.5E - that and the huge number of books I have for it (adventures too) that haven't even been used yet. That said, I will play 4E, too. At the very least, I am planning to run the initial adventure path - nine adventures that Wizards is putting out to take characters from levels 1 to 30. That should give a pretty good overview of the new system. If it is fun, I'm sure we'll keep playing it, through probably not exclusively. Not if we want to get our D&D fix.

Perhaps some of the things that feel wrong will feel better with play. Perhaps some of the things that are missing will be filled in soon (like Druids, Barbarians, Psions, and other old favorites in the upcoming 4E Player's Handbook 2).

After I've played it, I'll reevaluate. In the meantime, game on!


nix4 said...

I have been playing since the red box back in the day and I too agree that there has been a certain feel and quality to the game up to 3.5.

The seperation for me was the changes to the core fighter. As though a guy with a sword and shield wasn't enough to get the job done. Now, everything must be balanced and the same for everyone at the table to be happy. No single class has any qualities that would seperate it and make it unbalanced. While we are at it, lets increase the strength of monsters because..hell they were just too silly before.

Is this anything like a fantasy reality setting? NO, its more like Dragonball-Z and thats exactly how I term 4e. And its also being talored to market to the computer gaming industry.

This is no longer a product of your imagination, its theirs and you are buying into it.

That dosn't mean its a good system, or its not fun it simply means its no based on the traditional look and feel and that despite a vast library of information and rules that, for some reason, 3.5 wasn't good enough. But a company does need to make a buck!

Keep buying those 4e books, I'm sure 5e or 4.5e is around the corner!

Darknightmare said...

You, sir, sound like a typical power gamer who just HAS to be the best in the game. Period. You also sound like someone who does not DM much.
4e has saved my love for D&D. When 3.5 came out every damn player in our gamers guild (like 30+ people) just played power characters. It got old fast. No matter what we DMs did they always pulled a rule out their ass from a book or something that we had to over rule.
Now 4e has saved me time to create great games for people, and the D&D Insider and character generator is an amazing product.
Also, though i still can't seem to find the article, WotC admitted that 3e and 3.5 were rushed ideas. They had no time or money so they released an incomplete product to keep alive.
Also, with the number of books and additions for the game it looks like this will be the addition that last for a long, long time.
Just venting.

nix4 said...

Way to dig up an ancient post. Label me however you wish, but I post my opinions regardless.

DBB said...

Tweaking isn't just about power gaming - min/maxing isn't either. As I think I've mentioned before, I used some pretty ridiculous min/maxing to make a rather fun, but certainly in no way powerful, character in 3.5. It was a character with a ridiculously high jump and climb score even while at modest experience levels. I did all sorts of fun things with that character, who was otherwise not all that useful in combat.

I could not make that character in 4E. Nor could I do anything else outside of the box, for all of the reasons I've stated before.

So no, this isn't about power gaming, and frankly, using insults against those who don't like 4E is not a particularly persuasive tack to take.

Gordon said...

4e sux ballz... yeah, troll on dude......

no, what i was supposed to say is "who cares"

lol. Much love viziel