Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

By on 19 April 2008

Earlier this week, UKRolePlayers was invited to send a delegate to Esdevium to have a look at, talk about and even play Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition (D&D4e or just 4e). Accordingly, Halfbat was dispatched to the middle of a field in Alton (so said Google, anyway). This is what he found…

Preamble

(Skip this section if you’re not interested where Halfbat’s coming from, or already know!)

As many of you know, my RPG experience, both playing and GM-ing, goes back a loooong way; to the original brown-book, Chainmail-based D&D, shortly after it was released (mid-70’s if you must have a date). And then the three original supplements culminating in Eldritch Wizardry. Voyages into Traveller followed, a brief excursion into Chivalry & Sorcery and Tunnels & Trolls and finally, RuneQuest as soon as it was launched When Advanced D&D was brought out we tried that for a while, too.

AD&D was a great improvement over the original but I, and those with whom I played, disliked the tight control and lack of cross-class skills. If your thief was dead, you were stuffed for everything sneaky… So we majored on RuneQuest, with its broad approach to character development, dipping back into the other old-school games form time to time. And, as you may know, the publisher with whom I am associated, Sceaptune Games, is still heavily into RuneQuest.

So when D&D 3/3.5 was released it was like a breath of fresh air – variable skills, a simpler approach, and I even registered as a DM to run a fair few games (Living campaigns and others). The d20 license was useful, too, spinning off a bundle of other 3/3.5 games that were probably superior to straight D&D. But it was still bogged down. Star Wars Saga Edition took the d20 engine into a new direction, simplifying the annoying aspects of the game but also giving characters more options.

And for cynics, Esdevium may well be the marketing arm for Wizards in the UK, but they also gave us all completely free reign to write what we wanted (Morrus couldn’t make it at the last moment, so it was just Chris Bayliss, Steve Bayliss and me plus some Esdevium testers).

4e Misconceptions

There have been a few comments about D&D4e. Those who’ve heard presentations on 4e, like myself, may well have gained the impression that it’s World of Warcrack in tabletop form. Others may well have got the impression that with the new, online facilities it’s just another MMO. So let’s clear up those from start: it isn’t an MMO, but is a tabletop RPG. And a fun one at that.

Sure, it’s learnt things from MMOs. Wisely, the game builders have picked up some of the MMO innovations and rolled them into D&D, so you now get natural abilities and ‘per encounter’ abilities that really rock. These are recharged after a short rest, which is now formalised. And healing is vastly improved, with Hit Points being a general level of exhaustion and weariness, able to be recovered several times a day. The increased Hit Points also means that first-level characters are all viable.

These changes mean that, like an MMO, you can keep going after a short recuperation. If you have a cleric in the party, he can even help your character use more of his natural recovery abilities, allowing you to keep going for longer in combat. The overhaul of healing after an encounter allows a succession of encounters – similar to MMOs – before that game-freezing overnight rest is called for. And generic roles, also coming from the MMO world are acknowledged, too with each class being guided (but not fixed) to a particular role.

But 4e is still D&D, and we had a game. In a format many D&Ders would find completely familiar. Whilst I was disappointed to not see the full rules but merely a digest for that scenario, I have to say that what we did have works excellently on the table top and, for D&D players, offers a wonderful set of character options that will have them drooling in their rulebooks.

The core engine(s)

These have been cleaned up spectacularly. If you’ve played Star Wars Saga Edition (SWSE) you’ll get some idea of how things run.

The d20 mechanic and the modifiers are more robust, with modifiers looking like the straightforward SWSE ‘-2/-5/-10′ progression. A fairly fixed Armour Class still exists, reflecting what a character is wearing, but the three saves are now fixed ‘defenses’, recalculated at each level – Reflex, Fortitude and Will. It may seem like semantics, but it isn’t as some attacks work directly on these Defenses with no need for an extra saving roll.

And that’s part of the tidying up. I think there was much less d20 dice rolling, except when area attacks were involved. We still have damage dice, Melee attacks and Ranged attacks. We still have spells (more later), and resting overnight is still very useful.

Actions are now formalised into either a Fullturn action or a simple hierarchy of standard, move and minor action. Both standard and move action can be demoted to a lower action. Standard lets you attack, cast a spell, recover and minor allows you to do those small, fiddly things.

Areas and movement has changed. To move costs 1 movement point per square, in any direction. Area attacks are either a square or a rectangle. And that’s it. Simulationists will cringe, no doubt, but it really makes things easier to keep track of.

Oh, and that annoying, free, 5′ step has now disappeared. Yippee.

Classes

Though some of the (expensive) pre-release books may already have stated it, I’ll summarise the core Classes and Races.

Core classes are Fighter, Ranger, Cleric, Rogue, Wizard, Warlock, Warlord and Paladin.

Paladins are now merely ‘holy warriors’, able to be any alignment providing they are tied to a particular god. Fighters and Paladins are tough tanks that opponents cannot ignore (with rules to encourage it). Rangers and Warlocks are excellent long-range attackers.

Every class has ‘powers’, grouped into: At-Will, used whenever by expending the relevant action; Encounter, able to be used once per Encounter (up to a Short Rest), after which they are recharged; and Daily Powers, which can be used, well, once per day.

With this change as a background, the Wizard has been overhauled a lot. There is no spell book and components appear to have disappeared. He has an implement, normally a wand, which is required to cast some spells or to invoke some effects, but it’s not absolutely necessary. But he has a battery of powers to choose from, with those annoying 0-level spells now At-Will powers (Light, Mage Hand, etc). Though I did not see any improvement or levelling up table, which was a real disappointment on the day, the approach seems to be that he can pick from a range of powers at each level, with only his Daily Powers required to be picked at an Extended Rest (aka sleep).

This meant, though, that the Wizard was really useful in combat. He stood magic, flinging bolts of Magic Missile around at will, firing off other perencounter powers as well. He was tough, and could withstand a little punishment. In short, a 1st level Wizard became a real member of the party rather than a hanger-on.

I didn’t see a Warlord, but he’s apparently a leader and aid. Neither did I see a Rogue. Clerics are great at enabling multiple healings in combat through using a character’s own recuperative powers rather than their own – a nice touch.

The classes seem to have separated out more cleanly and each seem to be more interesting and unique. Though the roles appear to be fairly strongly defined, they are all interesting to play, with none having to take a back seat in combat.

Races

The eight core races are Human, Dwarf, Half-Elf, Tiefling, Dragon-born, Eladrin (a sort of High Elf), Elf and Halfling. Gone are Half-Orcs and Gnomes, relegated to the Monster Manual, though both can be used as Player Characters.

In addition to fixed bonuses, each of the races have their own powers. For example, once per encounter an Eladrin can take a short range ‘Fey Step’ to teleport 5 spaces and a Halfling can gain a ‘Second Chance’ to force an opponent to reroll their attack against him. Dwarves are generally tough.

Though the changes are fun and useful, I have a suspicion that they will tend to channel particular races even more towards particular classes. Some classes are certainly recommended for particular races, but only time can tell…

Other changes spotted

Levelling up is apparently now similar to SWSE, though ‘Talents’ appear to have been replaced completely by ‘Powers’. At every level a character gains a Power or a Feat, thus removing the old, annoying gaps in character progression. The levels of play have been banded: from 11-20 a character is apparently a ‘Paragon’, well-known as a hero and the way mooks and monsters react to him changes; at 21+ a character is still ‘Epic’ level but, again, the shift in emphasis apparently changes substantially.

Weapon proficiency is also different. Weapons give a variety of fixed bonuses to an attack if a character is proficient with them. During encounters, characters accumulate ‘Action Points’ that can be used once per encounter to take an extra standard action – useful for digging themselves out of a hole.

Saving throws to stop an effect from continuing to harm you is just a straight d20 roll: beat 10 and your character shrugs it off. Some racial modifiers and powers affect the result, depending on the attack. So effects do not have to be tracked – they either continue for one round or stop when a character makes a save against them.

There are other minor changes, all of which just make the game a bit cleaner.

Overall

I like D&D4e. I really enjoyed the dungeon delve we went through. 4e doesn’t pretend to be an Indie game, it doesn’t pretend to be anything else other than D&D. BUT, it’s encouraged me from both a gamer and publisher perspective to run it, play it and design scenarios and products for it. It is a step above D&D3.5 whilst still being recognisably tabletop D&D. It’s smoother, easier and much more fun to play than D&D 3.5.

If you are a player generally against or disappointed by D&D, then there may be something in this version that could amend your opinion of it. It is still a pseudo-medieval fantasy RPG in its own world and it is still combat-biased; it still going to work best in the dungeon-and-encounter based environment. But the impression 4e gives is that it has accepted this, has picked up the good bits from other games, and has optimised the gameplay in such an environment to give a much more enjoyable game.

If you’re a rabid Indie fan, then this won’t change your mind: it is D&D. If you like D&D, you’ll like 4e even more. For the rest of us borderliners, though, this version of the rules offers a new, clean life to the game that may encourage us back into the fold.

It certainly will encourage me…

Halfbat
April 2008

About Tim Bancroft

Tim’s been a roleplayer since the mid 70’s and now just enjoys running or playing tabletop RPGs as long as they are not too complicated. He’s written for a variety of RPGs over the years and has even helped develop one or two. He occasionally releases products through Sceaptune Games, but is happy to write for anyone providing he doesn’t have to do too much production work (not laziness, just physical constraints). He’s playtested a variety of RPG and wargame rulesets, though he prefers board games to the latter. In addition to a little knowledge of computers, history and theology, he also studies choral music, voice and spirituality in Winchester. If you want to be nice, buy him a curry, a bottle of good mead or port, or even invite him along to, or offer to come round to his place for, a RPG session.

2 Comments

  1. davywavy

    23 September 2008 at 12:46 pm

    There’s a scene in Waynes World in which Garth, presented with an unusual new technological device, cries “We fear change” and smashes it with a hammer. I’ve never seen a better depiction of the reality of the geek mindset. That quintessence de geek; that deciding that this is your thing and it’s the best and change can only, only make things worse.
    I’ve seen this a lot. The new Dr. Who was never going to be as good as the Tom Baker era. The new Battlestar Galactica could never live up to its illustrious 80’s predecessor. The d20 system would kill gaming. The Star Wars prequels were not going to be as good as the original trilogy.

    Okay, poor example there.

    I’d seen and read a lot about 4th ed D&D before I played it and the most repeated criticism was that it was a re-writing to appeal to the WoW generation. The structure of the game had been redesigned so that all party members could act in every scene – no more first-level wizards casting their one spell and having to wait until tomorrow to do it again. As a concept I could see the point, so I was curious enough to play.
    When the designers of Magic: The Gathering sat down to create their game in the early 1990’s, they did some quite impressive number-crunching to make the game balance fairly; they worked out how powerful each card should be and how frequent each card should be based upon its power. They even did the sums on how fast someone would increase the overall power of their pack by buying boosters and additional full packs. Mathematically speaking, it was as fair as they could make it in order to make the real test of the game one of skill. Then they promptly undid all this when the game was successful and they rushed out all kinds of booster packs with wildly over- or underpowered cards to satisfy demand. The same happened with the original V:TM; a core game built around game balance and RP experience being swallowed by book after book of ridiculous superpowers.
    The D&D 4e combat system feels very like these early iterations of those games. It’s obvious that the combat system has been designed with an eye to the large raid groups from MMORPGs and the fact that everyone has a role within those groups at all times, and it’s obvious that a massive amount of time and effort has been expended in making each class and race balance completely so nobody ever feels left out. In short, the combat rules are a brilliantly designed small-unit skirmish system.
    However, it loses several things in the process. Firstly, where 3.5 combat was a solid generic skirmish system which could be ported relatively easily to pretty much any non-gunpower small unit milieu, D&D 4e will, as far as I can see, only work within the generic fantasoworld that the game designers have built it around. Magic is such an integral part of the system and the races that I’m not sure whether the system could be used to, say, run a short fight between two crews of vikings – as 3.5 could do easily – unless a few of those vikings happened to be half-dragon sorcerors. By expanding the roles of the character classes, the designers have simultaneously reduced the scope of the game. One of the strengths of D&D, and a major reason I think it has maintained such market dominance, is that it was highly flexible to genre. 4e is much less so. I think this will give it much more mass-market appeal to a generation of gamers raised getting aggro from mobs, but there’s going to be a collective outcry of “We fear change!” from the people who remember the original 1970’s booklets.
    Secondly, something it loses as a result of this redesign of focus is any real sense of immediate threat; a recent edition of KODT ran a statistical analysis of one 1st lvl fighter vs. some goblins, and how many goblins that fighter might expect to kill before being brought down himself – the results were something like:
    1e – 2 goblins
    2e – 4 goblins
    3e – 7 goblins
    4e – 17 goblins.

    If anything, it’s the goblins I feel sorry for; they’ve gone from being terrible creatures of the night which Germanic peasants lit fires against in the depths of winter to being so much wheat before the scythe in a little under 300 years.
    This power escalation in the game design means that during play there seemed no fear or danger to my character and, as a result, little enough drama. At no point whatsoever did I feel my character any any sort of danger of even taking much damage, never mind actual death, and whilst I’m usually a big fan of immediate and total gratification in all ways I can see this just getting boring after a while. All the game really needs now is respawn points to overcome the minimal possibility of death and the WoW experience will have been fully recreated.
    Finally, the strict maths of character progress and power increase and the structuring the the game encounter system around that have changed the dynamic of the game considerably. The computer game Oblivion (itself very much a product of the D&D playing generation) uses a system whereby the monsters your character meets automatically scale in power to always be a threat to you, no matter how weak or tough your character may be – so a skeleton met at 1st or 10th level will always be, relatively speaking, as tough. 4e scales encounters in a similar way to this which does start to beg the question – what’s the point in having power levels at all? If a 1st level fighter can kill 17 goblins and a 10th level fighter can kill 17 giants which are specifically designed to be of equal relative toughness with the same ease, then it seems to me that something of the magic (and the point) of getting your level has been lost along with some of the mystery – if I know I’m mathematically as powerful as 17 goblins, then an encounter with 5 of them isn’t going to worry me much as a lot of luck has vanished from the system.

    It might sound like I’m criticising the game; I’m not. The design work is brilliant and the engine ticks over like a well-oiled machine. However, I think the design decisions made to try and attract a new market from different media will alienate a lot of the traditional gaming market. Not necessarily a bad thing, as the people within the trad gaming market will follow one of two routes – they’ll either buy the game or launch lengthy screeds on the internet about how D&D is a rubbish game and only luzrs play it and Dogs in the Vineyard is so much better and how the 3 people who ever bothered playing it would agree (a conversation I have actually had, being cornered and lectured at in the bar at Dragonmeet).
    That would have happened anyway, whatever design decisions were made within the game.
    This said, it’s probably not a game I’ll run as I’m not sure it matches my style of thinking or play. However, with luck it will attract the new market it has been designed to appeal to. After all, what’s the RP community without a new generation of n00bs for fatbeards to belittle and alienate to make sure they won’t stick around?
    D&D has a brand recognition that will, with luck, attract people to try RP and find it matches their current hobbies in tone and structure and in turn try other games. If 4e was released under a different title, it would be a well put together but unexceptional game which would have sold moderately well. As it is, it’s a major reboot of an established product line in an attempt to open the doors of gaming to a new generation. I’ll be interested to see if it succeeds.

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