More 4e D&D impressions: rules and materials

Gaming, Geekery

The 4th Edition of the Dungeons & Dragons pen-and-paper roll playing system was released at the end of last week. I know what you are thinking: “this must have been a holiday for geeks everywhere!” Well, sort of, but geek holidays are complicated beasts and not really what you were expecting. It’s important to remember that the #1 pass time for most of us nerd types is not doing nerdly things. It is talking about, and really arguing about, those nerdly things on the Internet machine. So the real reason everyone is excited is that at any given moment someone somewhere will be discussing 4e D&D online, and they’ll be wrong. Such things cannot be allowed to stand, because someone being wrong on the Internet attracts geeks like flies to poop (not that POOP). One day, the Internet will be powered by the furious rage generated by these geek-rumbles. I’m not kidding – you ask Mike what we do to people who dare to suggest King Kong could really beat Godzilla. The server Popehat is housed on is powered by their souls.

I haven’t had a chance to actually play it, but I’ve never let this kind of thing stop me before. The books themselves – the initial boxed set comes with the Players Handbook (PHB), the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) and the Monster Manual (MM) – are high quality printings. It isn’t like Wizards of the Coast have skimped on printing quality in previous editions – the 3e (note, when I say 3e in this article, I’m really saying “3.5 edition”) stuff was very nice. These seem almost exceptionally nice. Part of it has to do with the liberal use of art, more than I remember in any previous editions. Yeah, the Monster Manual has a bunch of art in it, as it always has. The Player’s Hand Book and the Dungeon Master’s Guide both seem to have more art than I remember in previous versions by a significant margin, and there is so much color used. Some people won’t like the style of said art of course – it occasionally makes me think that whoever was chiefly responsible for the art direction used to spend a lot of time drawing a certain dark-skinned, elfin, dual wielding geek-gasm icon I could live without – and some people might argue the art doesn’t matter in a game where most of the visualizing is intended to take place in the minds of the players, tempered by the narrative of the dungeon master. I appreciate the amount of art in the books so far. Better still are the page layouts and the smart use of color. Information in the PHB accessory is just easy to get to (as a note, I'm not much of a DM so the PHB interests me more).

The design of races and classes (in particular) has taken a new direction that is certainly interesting, and the classes are really where the biggest changes are centered around. The system gives every class interesting things to do at all times; no more “I swing my sword” or “gosh, I’m out of spells, I’ll just hide behind this fighter.” Each class and race has three basic abilities called "features". Clerics add their wisdom bonus to healing powers, and fighters can specialize in 1h or 2h weapons (never mind the more specific type) and get +1 to hit with all weapons in that category. And then there are the powers; all powers are divvied up into at-will, per-encounter, and per-day in terms of frequency of usage. Additionally, some spells are now “rituals” that are only castable in special cases with lots of preparation. Really, there is a lot of flexibility and variety built into these powers (the built-in aspect is the crux of what makes this edition stand out, and I’m going to come back to that). Fighters will tailor their power and feat selections based on the types of weapons they want to use. but won't automatically find themselves useful with only one specific type of weapon like in 3e. Power gain continues right up to level 30, but characters get further opportunity to specialize beyond feat and power selection. At level 11, characters enter the paragon tier (covering level 11-20) and chose a "paragon path", which is basically an extension of the base class with 3 new features and a couple of new powers the character can acquire if he or she chooses. There are also new feats available. This process is repeated again at level 21 when characters enter the Epic tier and chose an Epic Destiny, again bringing new features and new feats into play. Paragon path is class dependant; some of the Epic Destinies are class or skill dependant but some are open to anyone. The Epic Destinies seem modest in comparison to classes and paths, though their feature powers seem powerful It seems to me that the path/destiny choice represents a refinement but they are not necessarily more important in defining the character than power selection is (classes have many more powers than characters will get to obtain). My first impressions here are positive.

There has been a lot of talk that the system has become “more MMO-like”, a comment that us geeks instantly understand, that pseudo geeks will understand or at least sort of understand, and that normals will shake there heads and say “what the f*** does that mean” (not, I’ll note, “WTF?”. Normals don’t do “WTF”). I don’t think the statement is false, but I think that it’s just hinting at a larger truth. In the original D&D system, all of these crazy powers and feats and such didn’t exist. While there were lots of spells (there have always been lots of spells in D&D), lots of stuff just had to be decided on the fly and most things weren't hard-coded (so to speak). Even the spells often had vague results. Over the years, an increasing amount of detail has been added into the core rule set (with the rules and mechanics growing around the growing number of powers placed into the rules). More recently, it has started using more terminology that is familiar to people playing MMORPGs. One example would be how it discusses the classes in terms of 4 basic roles the way MMOs do (e.g. tank, striker). A standard MMORPG these days tends to offer dozens of useable powers to players when gaming, regardless of class; even in 3e Fighters still seemed somewhat mundane relative to most other classes. The thing is MMORPGs took this stuff from CRPGs/MUDs, the latter who took this stuff from classic CRPGS and PnP gaming anyway, and that goes right back the beginning and D&D. What MUDs and MMOs did was refine things in certain ways, mostly in keeping with the medium. It wasn’t and still isn’t possible to capture the free form nature of the original PnP Dungeons & Dragons in a game like World of Warcraft (MMORPG) or Pool of Radiance (classic CRPG; the gold box game and not the sequel). But concepts like crowd control, buffing, de-buffing, and the like have always been part of D&D (spells like Sleep, Web, Slow, and Haste are iconic D&D spells), just never codified in the way games like World of Warcraft do it. I wouldn’t say MMORPGs haven’t been a source of inspiration – I can’t see inside the heads of the developers – but I don’t think they’re the only one or even one of a few. From where I’m standing, D&D is just evolving naturally along a path it was already headed down anyway. Good designers will look at other products and systems to see what works, and various MMORPGs (WoW especially) have a number of features that have been refined over the years (refined far more rapidly in the online setting than in the print, for that matter).

If there’s a scale where one end has minimal inherent rules and the other end has a highly structured and specific rule system, 4e is either the farthest D&D has moved down to the latter end or roughly tied with 3e, which was the farthest D&D had moved towards structured I think. There’s a greater level of tactical decision making built into the powers and rules. The inherent amount of what is built into the system – which is certainly way more than Basic D&D and Advanced D&D had way back in the day – is not a good or bad thing. It’s just a level of structure that is a significant move away from free form. Any point on the spectrum has its own set of benefits and drawbacks, and moving in either direction simply changes the nature of those things; it doesn’t remove them. I don’t think player/DM imagination is removed from the equation at all. Time will tell if it suffers.

Also, I think there is a much closer source of inspiration than World of Warcraft. On the day of 3e D&D’s release, the chief designer Monte Cook climbed to the highest tower in his wizard’s castle and looked out onto the land and said “well, I’m not as pleased about all of this as I could be”. 3e as a system is not without issues, but it had a lot of neat ideas and did a lot of things well. Still, there had been many ideas discarded because they were deemed to have broken too far from traditional D&D roots. He left Wizards of the Coast and went off to create his own system, called “Arcana Unearthed” (not to be confused with, and no relation to, the classic D&D source book “Unearthed Arcana”), which got extended with rules and game play additions to become Arcana Evolved. AE is in my estimation superior to 3e D&D. It’s very much D&D like – it is a “d20” game. It took a lot of those discarded ideas and gave them a home, and it was free to operate without certain restrictive, classic D&D mechanics. Relative to previous editions of D&D, it gave classes a lot more powers to work with and without those restrictions, it hade some classes that were far superior to the 3e counter part (Champion > Paladin, Totem Warrior > Barbarian, Oathsworn > Monk). AE made me really want to play D&D again (3e had me thinking about it, to be sure).

I don’t know this, but I think the creators of 4e watched Arcana Evolved closely, even though it was a less popular system. I may be off base here; it’s just a guess from what I’ve read about 4e both pre-release, in post-release play evaluations, and in the rules. AE introduced combat rites for fighter types; 4e’s class power sets appear to have evolved in part from this (class powers are more complicated – though not so much complex – and detailed than Combat Rites). Also, AE took the traditional D&D spell system and added in a fascinating “template” system on top of it. A caster could take a fire ball and make it an ice ball if the caster had the ability to put the ice template on spells. Not only would this change the use of the spell in a tactical situation (e.g. fighting fire elementals, where fireball would ordinarily be useless), but these spell templates allowed casters to apply extra affects to spells in some circumstances. The fire template usually added damage. The ice template would add a slowing effect in some cases. 4e’s power system is rife with touches like this. The durations are frequently short (a reader of the 4e power lists will see the phrase “until the player’s next turn” a lot), but there are all sorts of stunning/slowing/somehow enemy inhibiting effects attached to powers. None of these were new ideas precisely, as I noted above. Nobody was raising the MMO question when AE appeared some time after 3e’s release. AE simply repackaged old ideas in a fresh, smart ways. I think AE was an inspiration for 4e – one of them anyway.

Questions remain:

  1. Combat in 3e could get unwieldy. The nature of the rules system was what many have called “exception based”. 3e source books had dozens and dozens and dozens of pages dedicated to key rules and the long list of exceptions that altered or nullified their application. 4e is visibly stepping away from this. How far/far enough? Ezra was underwhelmed. But there are promising play experiences and reviews out there. From what I've seen impressions are generally positive.
  2. One of the major components of this release is WotC’s D&D Insider service. Subscribers will pay an MMORPG-like fee for access to various tools, D&D Game Table, and content from the formerly-print magazines Dragon and Dungeon. It’s a significant amount to shell out; the magazine content could be interesting but won’t be something everyone cares about. The tool list I am indifferent to. D&D Game Table, however, is a big deal. It’s a tool that will allow players to play D&D sessions without physically meeting. This is nothing new – some gamers have been using #IRC or other group-chat programs to simulate PnP gaming for years (e.g. OpenRPG). But 4e D&D is a miniatures-on-tabletop game. This software will facilitate that *and* probably juggle some of the number crunching for players (or at least help DM's spot where and when to apply rules, something that could be a great help when running large encounters). It’s an interesting option, but it’s a pricey one to go for. If I subscribe to an MMORPG like Age of Conan, I’ll likely play at minimum 20 hours and possibly as much as 40 hours over the course of a month (an hour a day is 30; it’s not as much as it sounds like). I wouldn’t play that much D&D. A more flexible pricing plan would be nice, even taking into account that the Game Table is likely to be more advanced than the competition (assuming it works right, heh). All the people I'd game with live in far-flung, exotic locales, so this is the only way I'm ever going to get to PnP game with them. A piece of software like OpenRPG might not be able to to adequately couple with 4e, and I don't think 4e is going to work without miniatures.
  3. I think there’s a significant group of people still smarting from “3.5E”. After Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e), D&D has typically seen a new edition every 10 years, give or take. 3e proper launched in 2000. Wizards broke form and released the “half a version” update in 2003. It was more than simple revision, but certainly not a new version. And yet many players found themselves forking over cash for the new versions of materials. 5 years alter, and 4e has launched. Wizards obviously are in the business of making money on new materials and new editions, but this is asking a lot from a player base, no matter how dedicated it is. I’ll be curious to see how 4e does sales wise, and if it's possible initial sales might hurt because of this

Anyhow. . . we have an active thread going in the forums and we gladly welcome comments. Everyone in these parts is definitely looking for more impressions. Stop by and tell us what you think.

Last 5 posts by Grandy

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Patrick  •  Jun 12, 2008 @9:15 am

    Epic post, and I enjoyed reading it. Too bad I'll never play the game again.

  2. Grandy  •  Jun 12, 2008 @9:34 am

    Why not (I'm curious if it's normal reasons – not enough time – or something else that makes you no longer care for D&D)? The thing that's so exciting about the Game Table is that it more easily allows fogies such as your self and budding fogies such as myself to get some classic table top gaming in, and have distance not ruin that.

    Now, you and I more likely to have more disposable income than newbies and college kids and what not. But we're also more likely to have demanding schedules. Most of our forum readers who seem interesting in trying to play online in some fashion have families. The reason a "pay by the hour and bank them" system would be nice is it would allow a bunch of people with wildly differnet schedules to get together and play. Even if it's twice a quarter.

  3. Patrick  •  Jun 12, 2008 @9:37 am

    Time and marriage, my friend.

  4. J.W. Hamner  •  Jun 12, 2008 @11:51 am

    The most "MMO" like thing I've noticed is that the tank classes (Fighter/Paladin) have a marking ability that gives the target a penalty if they don't attack you.

    That actually did make me go "Hmmm… how did fighter's maintain aggro before? Why didn't the dragon always eat the mage first?" I guess the answer is that most of the time they did eat the mage first, and still might, but it's at least a nod in the direction of allowing the meat shields to say "Hey over here!"