Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons has been with us for about a year now; long enough for the gaming community to get a pretty good taste of it. I’ve been hearing various reports from gamer friends about the system, and opinions of it have fallen across a roughly tripartite spectrum, from favorable to neutral to negative. Among these views, though, there is agreement that this isn’t the same old Dungeons and Dragons. Fans of Fourth Edition sometimes call it a “transformation,” or point out, “This time around they didn’t have any sacred cows. They were ready to change anything.” Critics have generally agreed that “It might be a game some people like, but it’s no longer D&D.”
When I was a kid (back in the ‘70s and ‘80s), D&D enjoyed immense popularity, culminating in simultaneously inspiring large religious protest groups as well as its own Saturday morning cartoon. In those days it was hard to avoid the game. At a couple of different points I remember purchasing both the “Basic” and “Expert” versions (I still have the blocky yellow polyhedrals that came with it). I read through the rules and loved the concept, but I could never get any of my friends to play. I lost interest in the game at that point, and wound up missing out on the AD&D era. I briefly dabbled in 2nd Edition, but did not play it for long. Finally, when 3rd Edition came out, I played in a Forgotten Realms campaign for several years with a regular group. I also ran a brief Kingdoms of Kalamar campaign in 3rd Edition. When 3.5 was released, we moved our Realms game to that version and continued to play for quite some time. I guess you could say I’m a quasi-old-timer who only really played the game in much depth during the 3.x days.
A Hand in Creation
As I read through the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook, the first thing I noticed was the quality of the writing. It is noticeably better than the vast majority of d20 books in terms of being thorough, and well-worded and phrased enough to be fairly clear. The authorial tone really establishes the excitement of gaming, and is actually a bit inspiring. Rules are also cross-referenced consistently and well. It isn’t too taxing to read the PHB from cover to cover, and even fairly entertaining to do so.
Character creation is quite a bit simpler than it was in 3.5, and the non-magic classes have been made much more interesting through the granting of powers. The process is streamlined and pretty much headache-free.
Even on the first read-through, though, it was immediately apparent that this game is now mostly about combat. And, as many have said, it now bears a striking resemblance to an MMO (”Massively Multiplayer Online”) computer RPG, such as World of Warcraft. Characters are very powerful right away, at first level, and the book very much casts the impression that upon completing character creation you are ready to get in there and bash some heads.
Every class now has “Powers,” some of which are magic, and some of which simply represent extraordinary ability or training. These powers are your main go-to actions, and really do seem to correspond to the actions available in computer games. Powers are the things you would line up on your quick-bar in an MMO. They are categorized mostly according to how frequently you can use them: at-will, per-encounter, or once a day.
Magic-users also have access to “ritual magic,” spells that take more time to cast and require the use of a spellbook. Most of the quick, practical, and combat-oriented spells, however, are class powers for Wizards and the new Warlock class. Clerical magic is also mostly done via class powers, called “prayers.”
Skills get knocked down a peg in Fourth Edition. You start out with some when you create your character, but you don’t automatically get to spend points on skills every time you level up. Instead, the skills you pick when creating your character automatically rise every time you level up, since the bulk of your skill bonuses are calculated at half your level (rounded down). You can take a feat to learn a new skill, but by default you don’t get points to spend as you please.
And on that topic, a couple of skills are noticeably missing. There is no craft skill, no profession skill, and no perform skill. For my game, I decided to play a Bard, which will debut when the Player’s Handbook 2 comes out this month. I got a hold of a preview of this class and was excited to find that it seems to be much more useful than the 3.x bard. However I was very disappointed to find that I could not “buy” a performance skill for my bard. How was he to go into an Inn, tell stories, sing songs, win the respect of the patrons, and maybe earn a free meal and some gold?
The Dungeon Master for our game looked into this and found that things like Perform have been relegated to character background. He felt this was a great improvement, as it got them out of the way of spending points on an “effective” character. I had nearly the opposite reaction, as I don’t feel that something like a perform skill isn’t an “effective” element of a character. In fact it can be used to achieve many goals in a story-focused game, even though it isn’t directly useful in combat. However, on the positive side, and as our DM pointed out, it does reward a player for creating a character’s background. A generic bard with no written background would not have this proficiency, so a DM can use this rule to encourage players to flesh out background details.
And speaking of skills, Fourth Edition introduces something new, called “skill challenges.” It’s a codified, systematic way for a party to accomplish a non-combat goal. In theory it’s a good idea, and I’ve seen a somewhat similar mechanic in other systems encourage role play as another valid way to achieve a goal. But the problem with D&D skill challenges is that they have a rather rote, almost party-game feel to them. The DM declares when a skill challenge begins, and then everybody in the party has a chance to contribute, somewhat similar to taking turns in combat (though the skill challenge doesn’t actually go into time-based rounds). Each player gets a chance to describe how she or he will use a skill to try to meet the challenge. The DM decides if this matchup of skill and challenge make sense. The players then make rolls on the skills, and have to beat a target number a certain amount of times.
The problem with skill challenges is that they are designed by the DM (or writer of an adventure) very specifically to be skill challenges. This can give them a bit of a wooden feel, which can make role play seem much less spontaneous and natural. During our skill challenges I felt less like a role player, and much more like a child in a classroom being called on for an answer to a question in a textbook.
As somebody who enjoys both tactics and good storytelling and role playing, the new game does break my heart a little. A great deal has been streamlined, and you can sense the creators’ excitement through the words on the page. But at the same time, the game has enthusiastically gone the route of becoming an MMO done with pencils and dice, and in this transition it seems to have lost a certain something.
Classes and Characters
The classes in Fourth Edition are categorized according to four Roles, which are “Defender,” “Striker,” “Controller,” and “Leader.” These correspond somewhat to the traditional core classes of Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Cleric. However each available class in the game will fill one of these roles; for example, a Ranger is also a Striker. Some have criticized this addition to the game, however it’s really nothing more than an overt explanation of a concept that has always been there. I actually felt that this added clarity to the game, and can really help an adventuring party think about how to fill their ranks in a balanced way. Try playing a typical 3rd edition game without a cleric and you’ll most likely wind up with some dead player characters. So, if you want to write an adventure for less than four players, or for an unusual party balance such as four young wizards, then you’ll need to make adjustments in what the players need to do to get through encounters. Again, I find this to be no different than in previous editions, it’s just that they’ve quantified it and given us a system that makes it easier to think about the paradigm.
Another pleasant aspect of the role-based system is that classes outside of the traditional ones mentioned above are more dynamic, and can be just about as effective as their more traditional counterparts. For example, the upcoming Bard class can be crafted to fill either the Leader or Controller role quite well, which means that, for example, some pretty adequate healing capabilities are available to the Bard so that he or she can quite handily be the “Leader” in the party (Leaders also commonly provide other benefits to the party, such as powers which can bolster the party’s abilities and attacks). This does have the upshot of making the game feel more balanced than before.
Healing itself is something that has been made easier in Fourth Edition. Characters get a certain number of healing surges they can use so they don’t have to constantly be on the brink of death. Some long-time D&D players feel that the healing surges are another addition that makes tabletop D&D too much like a computer game, but they are actually not as powerful or out-of-control as they may sound. I actually found this to be another handy addition to the game which streamlines it, and makes it less necessary to have one character, such as a Cleric, have to constantly play medic. This was another balancing aspect that played out quite well.
Mats and Miniatures
One common complaint about the new rules is that they pretty much require you to have a mat and miniatures to play the game. All the special powers and combat details make running even the simplest encounter difficult without them. This has led some to claim that the new Dungeons and Dragons has become nothing more than a tactical miniatures RPG.
These feelings definitely resonate with me, but at the same time I have to wonder how much of this is nostalgia. Sometimes nostalgia’s accompanied by a slight, idealized revisionism. Let’s face it; D&D was never really an all-out exercise in creative group storytelling. It was always pretty much a “hack-and-slash” game. In fact, it used to get criticized for that when compared to other pen-and-paper RPGs. And it’s that action-oriented adventure gaming that influenced generations of computer games, especially MMO RPGs. It does seem only natural that the influence would reflect back on the originating game, and that the original game would find a way to move with the times while pursuing an audience who craves action-oriented adventure gaming. It may even be that the similarity to MMOs will draw in new players, and thus make the game a gateway introducing a new generation to a whole world of tabletop gaming they might not have otherwise tried.
It’s worth noting, too, that there is nothing stopping a creative group of players from choosing to emphasize story, and to find more opportunities to solve problems without combat even outside of the canned skill challenges. A set of rules, after all, is really just a list of suggested guidelines. No game system is ever going to feel perfect. If you’d like to stick with the product line, perhaps because you like one of the licensed settings such as the Forgotten Realms, there is really nothing to stop your gaming group from continuing to emphasize what grabs you the most about the game. Sometimes it comes down to playing with people who want to play in the same style that you do, no matter what the game system.
To those complaining that the game is “too much” like an MMO RPG, I might ask why that is automatically bad. I don’t agree that there is some line of similarity that tabletop games cannot cross based purely on the abstract principle that they are required to never take on those characteristics. Again, tabletop RPG games have influenced these computer games strongly, and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that the influence has started to go both ways. I do think that some of the influences have been over-applied, resulting in de-emphasizing role playing, but again, there is nothing stopping players from adding those aspects back in based on their own playing styles. One needn’t be a slave to a ruleset, either by ommission or commission of styles one likes or dislikes.
As much as I’m frustrated with certain aspects of story getting left behind, I have to admit that for what Fourth Edition D&D is, I do enjoy it. In fact, as I flipped through my copy of the PHB for reference while writing this, I began to look forward to the next game session. D&D has become a very streamlined, well-balanced, and combat-heavy game. If you enjoy tactical miniatures games, and can accept that D&D seems to headed into a tactical RPG direction, you may be able to enjoy it on that level. If not, it may be time to accept that Dungeons and Dragons is now, more than ever, very much an adventure fantasy game in the “hack-and-slash” style, and you may want to move on to another product more centrally focused on role play.