Last night, I got to go to a preview party & early play session for the new version of Dungeons & Dragons which officially "drops" (as the kids say) today at my great friendly local game store Endgame. It was a very brief game, and certainly not something to base any huge decisions on, but I was able to get a feel for the rules, and come out of it with some opinions. Warning, this might be long & dorky.
I sort of jumped from AD&D (the original books I still love so well) to playing 3.5, and the differences were huge. AD&D was a game of the mind. You didn't have a skill to see if you could jump a ravine or climb a wall (as we all know, only thieves could climb walls) You didn't factor in facing or what percent of a fireball's damage was bludgeoning, and negative armor class was good. If you played on a battle map, it was more for storytelling and logisitical purposes, there were no attacks of opportunity or real controlling of the battlefield.
3.5 was much more a tactical miniatures game that happened to have some roleplaying involved. It was an interesting combination of streamlining and simplifying some of the more involved processes of AD&D, and adding massive amounts of rules for every little thing one could think of. I won't deny that 3.5 was the more logical and better balanced system, but my love for AD&D (faded by time as it is) stayed true.
So, I came to 4E with a sense of excitement. This was where they were going to pare down a lot of the record keeping and fiddly bits of 3.5. They were going to take the game back from min-maxers, and put it back in the hands of roleplayers. I was a little concerned about what I had heard about the game taking a lot of ideas from MMOs, and wasn't sure how that would pan out.
I sat down with 5 other players. I was the last one at the table, so I got the leftover character, a female dwarf fighter. The character sheet looked pretty familiar. Same old stats, and same old values (3-18), I did notice that there were no saving throws. Instead, you have fortitude, will and reflex defense. So, a dart trap would attack your reflex defense, rolling a normal attack roll, and trying to beat whatever that value is. It's not a bad way to do things. First good change.
I liked that the class & racial abilities were named in a thematic manner. It's a little thing, but for good roleplaying, I much prefer cast iron stomach (you have a better save against poison) to +2 posion save. It was easy to sort of take the names of abilities (which were pre-generated, so I don't know how many, or how different they are) and get a basic character idea.
One thing you definitely notice looking at a character is that 1st level characters are a lot tougher than they used to be. My 1st level fighter had 33 hitpoints and a 19 armor class, both much better than a 1st level fighter in 3.5. Monsters are slightly tougher as well, and there is a calculus built into the game to make sure that encounter strength is a little more stable than 3.5 (although, I also think it is a lot more limiting, and exacerbates the descent of D&D into a miniatures combat game.)
Each class has all sorts of abilities now, some of which are at will (generally your basic attacks, etc), per encounter (better moves that you can use once per fight. Mine allowed me to attack more than one monster for that round.) and per day (your best ability, mine was a vicious attack that would do triple damage.) The idea behind this system is to make every class have more to do, and let them do it more often. Spellcasters, especially benefit from this as magic missile is now an at will attack (meaning you can shoot it all day.) No more 2 fights then rest so the casters can get their spells back. Over all, I think this is a good change, but it does make the game a lot more record keeping heavy. I also wonder if this will have some unintended consequence that makes certain classes far better at higher levels.
I can't speak a lot about advancement, since we were playing 1st level characters, but our DM did talk a little about the higher levels. Gone are the different base attack bonus for each class, etc. You pretty uniformly move up a level (ie everybody gets a plus to attack) and you get feats every 2 levels. You also get more stat increases, so at 8th level you get to start increasing 2 stats each time. At 11th level, each class has 4 paths they can follow, which will affect their abilities, feats, etc. This is the main way I noticed to make characters different from one another. I'm a little worried that one mage will look a lot like another until they get to 11th level, but again maybe there is more that I didn't see. I like the path idea, especially since it gets rid of prestige classes, which were hopelessly broken.
Combat is again that strange combination of easier and much more complex. First off, my fears seem pretty realized, and 4E is definitely a miniatures game. There is no way you could play the game in your head. Too many fiddly little rules that demand to know which way you are facing, or who has line of sight, etc. That's sort of sad to me.
In combat, the classes have been sort of classified in MMO roles. Fighters & paladins are Defenders (get stuck into combat, and use your abilities to control your enemies. Rangers, Rogues & Warlocks are Strikers, who do damage either ranged or melee. Wizards are Controllers, who can use their powers to shape the battlefield and limit the abilities of your opponents. Clerics are Leaders, who have abilities than can help the whole party. I found it sort of bland to be classified right away, and I wonder how difficult it would be to create a character that went against those molds (ie a ranged combat fighter.) Again, having just played a 1st level character I can't say.
Here is one of my biggest problems with the new system. In stead of streamlining things and limiting the time of combat (one of the things I liked least in 3.5) they have made it even more fiddly! Now, each class has some ability that "marks" a target, and the marked target has certain minuses or takes extra damage, etc. So, on top of everything else going on, you now have to put a counter on one bad guy (which will shift when you attack a different monster) and keep track of which effects happen to that bad guy. For instance, any monster I marked was -2 to attack anyone but me, and if they tried to move I could attack them and force them to stay where they are. It's a neat ability, but it's also a logistical mess. I had to keep an eye on the monsters I had marked, and announce I was using my ability whenever they tried to move. Add to that that there were counters all over the board (I marked multiple opponents, and each of my fellow players could use their marks as well) and you get a pretty cluttered combat.
Ironically, limiting the number of spells has increased the complexity of combat. Now, you almost never make a basic attack. You are always using some special ability, which requires some bookkeeping, or some additional rolls. All in all, combat felt clunky, and this was only 6 first level characters against kobolds!
OK, I should actually get some work done today, so I'll just include some final thoughts and get on with it. This brief taste did make me want to try the game more. I like a lot of the ideas they have about making lower level games more fun for everybody (there is nothing more boring than being a 1st level mage!) and about streamlining some of the more intricate parts of 3.5. I'm not sold on the fiddly parts of combat, and I think larger fights could really drag. I'm also not happy with the final evolution of the game to a set of miniatures rules (although I suppose that is full circle..) I didn't buy the new books at the event. Partly because I wasn't compelled to, and partly because I know friends will buy it. For me, the jury is still very much out on 4E.
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