When Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition was announced in 2007, the reaction was somewhat mixed. Much of the community had found 3rd Edition to be a little cumbersome, though less so than the THAC0 days of AD&D. While my memories of lunchtime dungeon crawls in junior high are no less fond these days, albeit somewhat faded due to the passage of time, simplification has never struck me as a bad idea. Fewer tables that need to be consulted and less math required to engineer the result of an action means faster, more immersive gameplay. However, the end result of 4th Edition created an even more mixed reaction than its announcement. A lot of cries went up from players of previous editions, many of them lamentations that the game to which they had devoted so much time and attention had now been destroyed thanks to generalization and appealing to the lowest common denominator. D&D, in their minds, had become the Madden of role-playing games, with new books coming out every so often to keep the Wizards of the Coast money machine churning instead of doing anything innovative or keeping with the traditions of the previous iterations of the game.
But just because someone’s loud doesn’t mean they’re right.
Similar criticism has been levelled against the 2009 film Star Trek. While in terms of storytelling and effects it was outshone by District 9, released in the same summer, Star Trek was not quite as dumb as some claim. It didn’t have the true dramatic punch as some of the better series episode – TNG’s “Tapestry” and DS9’s “In the Pale Moonlight” spring to mind – but neither was it a completely meatheaded beer-swilling interpretation of the story. Doing something different with an established franchise is not always the worst thing that could happen to it, and just because someone changed it doesn’t automatically mean it sucks. Dungeons & Dragons is no exception. Rather than simply addressing the various arguments against 4th Edition, which might be seen as a bitter & opinionated assault (on the Internet? GASP!), I’d like to discuss the various merits & drawbacks of each extant version of D&D, including the indy child of 3.5 – Pathfinder.
D&D 3.5 – “We fixed it. Kinda.”
3rd Edition, as I’ve mentioned, had its share of growing pains. The first iteration of the d20 system could be a little confusing, and the classes were anything but balanced. With sorcerers & wizards vying for the position on the party as the finger-wiggler, fighters & barbarians arm wrestling and rogues picking locks, nobody played bards. In higher-level encounters, provided the cleric or magic-user in the party has looked up all the rules, errata & Ask the Sage articles for a spell of doom, the fighter’s job basically becomes that of a big, clunky distraction – and people say 4th Edition plays like an MMO. The distribution of skill points and limitations on class skills also tended to have the fighter wondering where the bad guy was up until the point said bad guy was stabbing them in the kidneys.
3.5 addressed some of these issues, and the amount of prestige classes available let players aim their characters in a certain direction that would help to keep them interested. For all its faults, 3.5 is a relatively solid system, geared towards the heroic endeavors of high fantasy. If you’re okay with the problems I’ve pointed out, and can get your head around the frankly embarrassing amount of rules involved or have a DM who’s fine with winging it through 90% of a campaign, there’s nothing wrong with playing 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons.
Pathfinder: D&D 3.75
Before I talk about 4th Edition, I want to touch on Pathfinder. While I have yet to play in a campaign myself (a friend has one in the works), a cursory glance at the SRD indicates that Pathfinder is a well-organized branch of the 3.5 tree, with classes more balanced, rules that make more sense and slightly less laborious class progression. Taking a feat every other level instead of every 3rd means your character is going to be more versatile more quickly. I’ll talk more about Pathfinder when I’ve had a chance to really play it, but it seems promising on the outset.
D&D 4th Edition: “It’s not World of Dungeons & Dragons. Honest.”
Let me get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, all of the classes have powers that define what they can do in combat, divided between at-will, encounter and daily use – “cooldowns” in the lexicon of people familiar with MMOs. And yes, the classes are divided among four main categories: Leader, Defender, Striker & Controller. If at this point you think 4th edition is turning D&D into an MMO on your tabletop, go ahead and start writing your hate mail now.
Go on. I’ll wait.
All done with the flaming? Fantastic. Now here’s why you’re wrong.
Two big problems with previous editions of D&D were in the laborious write-ups for the pages and pages of spells available to spell-casters, and the power gap that grew between spell-casters and melee classes as character levels rose. In 4th edition, no matter what class you’ve chosen, there’s something you can do every turn to help the party that goes beyond whacking away at a monster with a stick. And you have a few options to choose from at 1st level. A party of starting characters in D&D can take on an entire dungeon of opponents without having to worry too much about a TPK, whereas in 3.5 a wizard has more than a couple reasons to fear the wrath of a couple stray kittens.
The classes in 4th are balanced, if somewhat homogenized. Within the categories, there are a few things that set one class apart from another, but in the broad strokes, Defenders act as tanks, Leaders benefit the party, Controllers penalize the opponents and Strikers deal slightly more damage than the other types. I can hear more people raging at the idea of MMO mentalities creeping into their D&D, but in my experience, it’s a “you got your chocolate in my peanut butter” situation. Some of these changes might have been inspired by the likes of EverQuest or World of Warcraft, but if the changes are for the better, does it really matter where they came from? No party member is dead weight, combat runs more smoothly and with a faster pace, non-combat encounters are geared to be every bit as important and rewarding as combat and the system is every bit as flexible as previous iterations, allowing a crafty DM to create their own world and wing it if they so desire. It’s got something for everybody, isn’t shrouded in obfuscatory rules and is very easy for new players to pick up & play. Some people might see that as a betrayal of the old ways of Dungeons & Dragons, but in my humble opinion they’re provably wrong.
I can only say so much to try and convince people that the arguments against why 4th edition is a step in the right direction are unfounded and composed mostly of the kind of neophobia that keeps people from enjoying the new Star Trek film or entertaining the idea of socialized health care. Some people have the courage to try something new and then admit they prefer things the way they were, and that’s fine. At least you gave it a chance. If you haven’t tried 4th Edition yet, you really should. You can grab quick-start rules, pre-gen characters and an introductory adventure, all for free. What have you got to lose, other than some misinformed opinions and another source of high blood pressure?
November 3, 2009 at 3:01 pm
My problem with 4th ed is the same as it was with 3.5 and 3rd – I prefer the “R” in RPG to stand for “Role,” not “Roll.” I didn’t need more rules, I didn’t want fancy shit that my character can do, I didn’t want “Warhammer Dungeons” (I’ll stick with 40K for miniatures-based tomfoolery, because I’m a sucker). I wanted more emphasis on story and character and less emphasis on a four-page character sheet. I use dice in my games sparingly at best, and then only when I absolutely need a random element or I want to frighten and confuse my players. I could give a damn about how many hit dice a monster has or what neat powers my fighter can do with his sword – that basilisk has exactly as many hit points as I need it to in order to get the job done, and all the fancy stats in the world do not compare to actually role-playing the use of it.
Don’t get me wrong, rules are good. They serve as a framework and let us understand how the physics of a particular game world work. This is why I’m a big fan of game-specific rules. I wouldn’t run Vampire d20 because I’m a fan of the oWoD rules framework, and I wouldn’t try to shoehorn Forgotten Realms into that set. That being said, rules should not be a crutch or a restraint, and that’s what I see from 4th Edition (and 3rd, to a large degree). I used third because it had greater measures of what a character knew. I didn’t, for the most part, care about Will saves, but having a list of known skills was a great deal better than proficiencies. That being said, the primary difference between 2nd and 3rd was that I never once printed out a 2nd Ed. character sheet – I wrote them all out by hand and it took one piece of lined paper and rarely did I need both sides, and that was more than plenty. I could have done that with Vampire, but their character sheets were purty.
I may be a snooty purist here, but personally, if you’re rooting around in the rule book to figure out how many dice to roll for your longsword, you’ve missed the point of “role-playing game” and you’d be better off at “math-playing game.” This probably comes from the fact that my first encounter with role-playing didn’t involve rules (but did involve Star Trek). I loved the new Star Trek film, by the way.
I wouldn’t say that 4th edition is a betrayal of the old ways of D&D. It’s just catering to the crowd that is more interested in rules than in actual adventure.
November 8, 2009 at 7:07 pm
D&D never had very good rules for social conflicts or encounters. 4e is a great game for kicking in the door and killing things that don’t look like you before taking the corpse’s loot. I run it because I like messing with the idea that everything the players do is tropetastic. Though it is not my cup of tea. I like nWoD, UA, DitV, FATE, BW, and a boat load of games that cater to my wants. D&D 4e is a good game for what it wants to be (heroic fantasy), I just don’t like it.
Pathfinder adventure path kinda sucked.
November 17, 2009 at 12:22 pm
This was an interesting post, and you do raise some good points about how people shouldn’t jump the gun and rage over something they haven’t experienced yet. I thought the new Star Trek was fantastic and I’m a die hard Trekkie.
4E is a radically different game from 3rd edition, in the same way that Rogue Trader is different from Inquisitor or WFRP. The rules sound similar but they diverge too much for my tastes.
In 3.5, if someone was being a dead weight in combat it was by choice. The only time I was ever unable to do something was if I was incapacitated or not physically present at the scene. I play Druids, Bards, Clerics, etc. and while the Barbarian or Wizard might hoard the glory by devastating an encounter with their Cleave-Great Cleave +12 attack combo or Scorching Ray bombardment, I found ways to help out the group rather than sit back and do nothing.
However, does this mean I think 4E is terrible? No. I don’t like the system, but I appreciate the design. It makes for a more dynamic game and it delivers with the fun; I played a Warforged Artificer last DnD day and I had a blast (pun intended!) blasting minotaurs and zombies to smithereens.
It’s just I don’t care much for how the game plays. To me, the game plays more like a board games at time with how there is not a lot of wiggle room for actions. I miss the utility spells, or the spells which had effects outside of combat.
BTW, I’m JKMyth from Twitter. Howdy!