Saturday, June 6, 2009

D&D, 4th Edition

The Fourth Edition of D&D has been out for oh, about a year now, so maybe it's about time I got around to saying a few words about it.

4E is a major overhaul of D&D 3(.5), a system that was in desperate need of something along those lines. I had gotten to the point after 5 years or so of off-again, on-again D&D 3 that I simply didn't want to play it anymore (I might make an exception for Monte Cook's Ptolus). I like several d20 systems – Arcana Evolved particularly, but also Star Wars d20, but I had come to loathe D&D: the abusive feat combos, the broken weaponry, the endless puzzling over vaguely-worded spells, the ludicrously unbalanced classes with limited development choices, the power-gaming, the endless splatbooks, the incompetent low-level characters, the classic vaguely-Tolkienesque fantasy archetypes that had all the life sucked out of them. It was an incredible mess, and a sinkhole that I honestly just didn't enjoy and didn't want to get involved with again.

So, I was relieved to see that 4E tackled head-on many of the problems I had with 3E. Character abilities have been streamlined and the system complexity greatly reduced. A wider variety of fantasy archetypes can be played in 4E, some (some) life has been breathed back into the stale races and classes, and parties have greater latitude in composition instead of being forced to have a Cleric, a Fighter, a Wizard, and whoever else wants to come along. Non-mainline character classes like Paladins, Rangers and Warlocks are much more interesting, can be developed in a range of ways, and feel like core game elements instead of the bolted-on additions they were have been in all previous editions (I was able to play a decidedly ambiguous Paladin devoted to the Raven Queen as one of my characters). 1st level characters are much more robust and competent. While the emphasis in D&D remains monster-slaying, the new system of skill points and broader skills (Spot and Listen reduced to Perception; Climb, Jump, and Swim to Athletics; a bunch of stuff to Thievery; etc.) allow characters to be good at a variety of things and widens the range of challenges the DM can throw at them. Also, because all characters abilities have now been framed in similar ways (at-will powers, daily powers, and encounter powers), all character classes have interesting choices about when to unleash their powerful strikes, instead of having Wizards pore over their spell lists every round while Fighters just try to guess how much to Power Attack for. Also, as magic users now have decent at-will powers, they no longer have to worry about being completely useless after they've exhausted their few, precious spell slots.

All in all, I've been pleased with how 4E plays. It's cleaner, quicker, and appears better-balanced. While it's clearly aimed at players more interested in the violence than the roleplaying, it's full of good tips and helpful, if basic, roleplaying cues. Monsters are now easier to run for the GM without sacrificing much in terms of tactical interest, which is a big win. I no longer feel particularly drawn to D&D as a genre; I like Arcana Evolved much better as fantasy, Star Wars Saga Edition does the whole heroic angle better, and I've been recently been drawn to the Gumshoe system (Trail of Cthulhu and Mutant City Blues) for investigative-type games. But D&D is an institution, bad D&D particularly so, and 4E does a good job of trying to make it relevant again.

Which brings me to the thing I find most odd about D&D 4E. The one complaint I've heard often about 4E is that it's not D&D anymore, it's trying to morph D&D into World of Warcraft. Which is an odd argument to make, given that World of Warcraft is basically ripped off from D&D, from what I understand of it. To me, this seems beside the point. 4E is a cleaner system, which takes D&D 3.5, in which perhaps 90% of a character's abilities were devoted either to killing things or avoiding being killed by things, and brings the number down to maybe 80%. How many times have you been in a D&D game only to realize that none of your characters have any social skills because everyone has mini-maxed their Charisma down to 8 (Charisma being a generally worthless stat) and has too few skill points to focus on anything other than one or two core skills? 4E makes this scenario much less likely, and while most of your powers will involve killing things and taking their stuff, it's much less likely that your party will be powerless in the face of a slightly uncooperative NPC or a moderately steep slope.

I think the World of Warcraft complaint is based not so much on the system itself, but the fact that Wizards seems to be going with a decidedly retro angle to marketing D&D 4. Despite having developed a pretty good game system, they seem to be trying to go back to the days of AD&D in terms of game sophistication, which just happens to be about where World of Warcraft is. The off-the-shelf modules seem like absolutely classic bad D&D: dungeon hack-fests with random traps to give the Thief's life meaning and NPCs that are designed either to read exposition or to be killed. Good grief. Maybe this is what players like; but for me, not so much. I'm not into the extremes of "palace intrigue" or "cooperative storytelling" styles of roleplaying either, but I like some variety: a little humor, mystery, or intrigue between the bloodletting, some drama, some pacing. The same things I like in my boardgames. Not just clearing the room, then wondering what's going to be in the next room, and whether or not we should take a break to allow our encounter powers to reset. D&D is a much more flexible game system than this. Trail of Cthulhu has Pulp and Purist, and Paranoia has Classic, Straight, and Zap, all to help try to support different players who have different expectations. Even closer to home, the Star Wars Saga Edition has really had a quite brilliant strategy in focussing on providing sourcebooks for different periods in the Star Wars Universe (Clone Wars, Classic Trilogy, Knights of the Old Republic, Scum and Villainy) with very different flavors and styles for different players. 4E could really use something along these lines so that those who are into the whole straight dungeon-crawling experience could be happy at the same time as those of us who aren't. Maybe it's there, but if it is, Wizards' marketing isn't doing a good job of telling me about it.

Anyway, I like 4E. The core of 4E is a good game system that tries to make things much more playable, characters more competent with a wider variety of abilities and more development choices. The Players' Handbook II further develops the system with some great new classes and races that D&D desperately needs; it would be fun to play a party of characters drawn solely from the decidedly non-Tolkienesque races and classes in the PHB II, just to get some real variety. There is definitely a good game here. I'm just waiting for Wizards to support players like me before I get much farther into it.