I am sure everyone felt the weight of the 4th Edition Player’s Handbook II drop on the blogosphere this morning. Well, this article is a review (note: not a product spotlight) of the original 4th Edition Core books: Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. I often do product spotlights, because I like to get the word out about a new product, but this will only be my second full-fledged review of a game.
Most people have already made their minds up on whether or not they dig the new edition of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons game, so if you are one of those people, I recommend you read something else here at Mad Brew Labs (I am very partial to my Dead Wastes material!).
One of the reasons I wait a while to do an actual review is because to be able to really render a verdict, you need to spend some time with the material. I can honestly say I put 4e to the test. I played all the modules at GenCon (went from 1st to nearly 5th level), and several more since then. I have played all the tiers and given most of the classes a shot.
Without further delay, here is my macro-review of Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition.
Simplicity of Rules
One of the important aspects that 4th Edition D&D, or 4e, is supposed to bring to the table is simplicity. The designers would speak about streamlining this or that component or decreasing the complexity of a mechanic (such as grapple). Overall, the product does have a very streamlined feel, unless you are trying to find something in the index!
D&D 4e now provides levels through 30th, where previously the 21st – 30th levels were reserved for the Epic Level Handbook and had separate rules. The levels are divided into three tiers, 1st – 10th being Heroic, 11th through 20th being Paragon, and 21st – 30th being Epic. The names are familiar and have been re-purposed from 3rd Edition (there were Paragon racial classes in 3rd).
Ability score improvements are still doled out, albeit at different intervals (but still 5 times in 20 levels). A new feature for 4th edition happens at each tier; all the ability scores are improved. I definitely like the new way.
I think Wizards did a relatively decent job of reworking the races. I feel that they are more balanced (as in I use to pick Human pretty much every time, but I can now see myself picking another race). Of course, everyone know the Half-Orc (presumably because Wizards doesn’t like their origin story) and Gnomes (which can still be played using the Monster Manual or now, the PHB II).
They officially split the High and Wood Elves into the Eladrin and Elf respectively. They made the Tiefling (of Planescape origin) a core race as well as adding a new race, the Dragonborn. Dragonborn are reminiscent of the old Dragonlance Draconians and are probably the new favorite pick of former Half-Orc fanatics.
All but Dwarves, Half-Elves, and Humans have a racial Power, while the Dragonborn’s Dragon Breath racial Power is the only one that scales with the tiers (which was a huge disappointment after being told about how the races now scale at a 4e Q&A at GenCon ’07). All together, only a little tweaking has been applied to the races.
4e brings the original core classes back in the Fighter, Cleric, and Wizard, but you’ll also find the familiar Paladin, Ranger, and Rogue. The 3rd Edition core classes of Barbarian, Bard, Monk, and Sorcerer are gone but are introduced in future supplements. They bring in the new classes of Warlock (ok, not really new) and Warlord. The classes are assigned roles: Controller, Defender, Leader, and Striker (familiar for MMO gamers: tank, dps, etc.). Most, if not all, of the class’ Powers are geared towards satisfying this role.
I have a small gripe about the Warlord, because I would rather not have rank (Lord) implied by the class name, something like Tactician would be much more appropriate. Each class is now has class features which usually scale at each tier (like the Rogue’s Sneak Attack) as well as a range of uniquely named Powers. All classes gain Powers and Feats at the same progression. Oh yeah, multi-classers beware, you might now like the new method (more on this later).
Every class also has several Paragon paths available to choose from once they hit the respective tier. These are meant to help a character stand out from others of their ilk. Also, characters have a several Epic Destinies to attain which give them special abilities. The purpose of Epic Destinies is to give finality to the career of the characters that attain them, sort of an “I beat the game” shtick; you can take it or leave it…
Players now pick their level-dependent class abilities from a variety of uniquely identified Powers. These Powers all have a source (Martial, Divine, Arcane, etc.) and come in several varieties: At-Will, Encounter, Daily, and Utility.
There are dozens of Powers to choose from for each Class and most characters begin play with 2 At-Will, 1 Encounter, and 1 Daily Powers. At level 30, most characters will have 2 At-Will (still), 4 Encounter, 4 Daily, and 7 Utility Powers. I do not really care for the progression, as it seems most of your career will be spent executing the same stuff, over and over again (though the same could be said for some 3rd Edition Classes).
You can retrain 1 Power every level (or a Skill or Feat) and some levels specifically grant you the ability to swap Powers. I am not a very big fan of rampant retraining because why would I suddenly lose a Power I had for the last 10 levels?
Another component that was streamlined was is Skills. The skill consolidation and is a plus in my opinion. I like how climb and swim are now just Athletics. Some people may complain that they liked the variety and now it is impossible to create characters that specialize in a certain area. I say that should now be the realm of Feats (Webbed Feet: +3 to Athletic checks involving swimming).
I was pretty happy with the treatment they had given Skills; they had simplified them without sacrificing detail and made them more useful. That was until I saw they had cut out Crafting. Perhaps Wizards will bring back crafting in some future supplement, but I prefer it to be Core. However, I do not really have any qualms about the removal of Professions (I think this could be the purview of Feats as well or just Roleplay them).
I would be happier with Skills if there was greater disparity between base skill bonuses of characters at different levels. As an example, if I have a 5th level (+2) character with an Intelligence of 18 (+4) and she is trained in Arcana (+5), at 10th level, if I placed the 8th level Ability Score bonus in Intelligence, she would still only have an additional +4 to her base skill bonus. It’s a personal preference, but I would like to see that difference be a little bit larger.
I have often heard about how combat was streamlined. Maybe it is how it works theory, but in practice I find that combat can become just as mired and slow as with the previous generation of Dungeons & Dragons.
Others must find this true as well since my article on how to speed up combat is ranked third or fourth as my most visited post. It comes down to tracking all the marks, curses, quarries, and et ceteras that can be placed on players and monsters alike, who is bloody, who still needs to save this round… You had better come armed with a handful of pipe cleaners.
I will say I am a big fan of the new format for monsters found in the Monster Manual. While I really do enjoy lengthy descriptions of monster ecology, the new format is easier to use and makes preparing (though not running) encounters a breeze. I also think it makes the creation of original beasties far easier. I do get annoyed sometimes with their naming convention (could I have all the dinosaurs under one banner please!).
Much like classes, monsters are assigned a role, which helps the Dungeon Master utilize them best during an encounter. Monster roles include Artillery, Brute, Controller, Lurker, Skirmisher, and Soldier. There are also sub-roles Elite, Leader, and Solo. I think the roles and sub-roles are pretty self-explanatory.
The Dungeon Master’s guide really offers some good advice for both novice and experienced DMs (though mostly for novices). One of the topics presented is the Skill Challenge. While the version of Skill Challenges printed in the book is horrible and hard to implement, the errata for the DMG did a relatively decent job of cleaning it up.
What confounds me is the fact that many people claim this is a new idea. Well, perhaps this is the first time it has ever been presented in an organized fashion, but I have been running Skill Challenges since D&D first included Skills in 2nd Edition (it was 2e they were introduced, right? My memory is hazy on this). Regardless, I give the designers kudos for finally writing it down officially.
However, there seems to be a complaint, or misconception, that Skill Challenges removes roleplay from the game and is an attempt to provide a mechanic for everything. I disagree. Skill Challenges should be used to enhance roleplay, by adding that element of the unknown (often called randomness). Just have them roleplay the situation and give nice bonuses for a well-roleplayed scene.
One of the largest complaints I see with 4th Edition D&D is the lack of verisimilitude. But, you say I just pointed out how every class has a plethora of Powers to choose from! Yes, but all the Powers feel the same…
The algorithm then designers used to create Powers is a bit too transparent to me. I think they created a table of functions (like damage, movement, conditions) that had about five columns and a formula that said you could pick X number of functions with Z multiplier for a power of Nth level. Everything seems too balanced. I know, it sounds crazy, but that is my observation.
Gone are the days of yore when a player could cherry-pick Classes and Prestige Classes to create optimized character builds. Multi-classing now only works with one other class chosen with a Feat that initially only gives you limited access to a single Class ability. In order to gain Powers or Paragon Paths, you need to take more Feats (which can get quite expensive).
The reasoning behind this is to prevent character builds that were unmanageable by some Dungeon Masters in the 3rd Edition era. I think balance is the purview of the Dungeon Master, and a skilled one can deal with any build a player throws at him. I liked the flavor that the previous version of multi-classing allowed; it allowed me to build exactly the kind of character I wanted.
A major complaint with Classes and their well defined roles are that the game now pigeonholes players into pre-determined functions. I don’t think it is as bad as many make it out to be, but yes, there is still a mechanical barrier that must be overcome, but I think much of it could be resolved through roleplay and a little homebrew, but we’re speaking about the material RAW (rules/read as written).
For instance, much of the versatility has been removed from Wizards because of their lack of numerous spells. While Rituals are certainly a nifty option, many of the spells they could use to fill other roles have been removed.
I am going to write about some other issues that are really problems with corporate business models and perception, but not really issues with the game. I only mention them because I feel they are the big white elephant stand in the corner that needs to be addressed.
Many early adopters of 4th Edition bemoaned the rules bloat of 3rd Edition. There were too many supplements with too many new Feats, Classes, Spells, and optional mechanics to keep track of. Now, some of these same people are cursing the rate at which Wizards of the Coast are releasing new material for the new edition (which appears to be faster than in the 1st year of 3rd Edition).
Well guess what, it is going to happen. Wizards are going to turn out as many products as they can. Why? Because people buy the stuff, that’s why! Soon, there will be just as many, if not more, supplements available for 4e as there were with 3rd Edition. There will be power creep, it is inevitable. But guess what, you don’t have to buy them or use them!
A lot of people are complaining that this edition (just as they did when the previous edition was released) is too much like a Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG). Well, let me enlighten some of these people. These same MMOs that 4th Edition appears to be copying have their influential roots found in none other than Dungeons & Dragons. So if anything, D&D 4e has actually been influenced by its predecessors, albeit through the lens of a computer game. Art eats Art.
Copyrights & Control
Something happened within the executive suites of Wizards of the Coast during the development of 4th Edition. Where there was once a very copyleft stance on their rules, Wizards has reversed course to the familiar position of placing a tight grip upon their Intellectual Property. There is no Open Game License, the new SRD is merely a list of titles, and the Game System License is very restrictive. You can see the extent of their IP game by looking at the names of the monsters in the MM
Proponents of Wizard’s new attitude claim that many of us have been given so much previously that we have garnered an undue sense of entitlement. Perhaps, but I feel I am justified to have such high expectations from one of the premiere companies in the industry, after all, they were the ones who opened up their content in the first place.
Some very good things developed from the OGL, as well as some horrible stuff, but I think the market helped cull the weak. It helped the Industry as well as establishing the D&D brand as a power entity. I think the GSL is joke and more things can actually be accomplished just by Fair Use (which makes the GSL superfluous). However, again, this topic doesn’t have much bearing on evaluating the core game.
I am sure that the zealots will say I am bashing their favorite game while the luddites will say I am going too easy on 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. I will say that I personally do not prefer this edition, but I have had fun playing it, it just doesn’t meet my expectations.
Good Design Choices?
I really, really like many of the design choices that the minds behind the new edition made: at will powers, simplified monsters, and consolidated skills. However, 4e D&D truly strikes me as a case of a product that is not the sum of its parts, in fact when looked at as a whole, I feel like everything doesn’t add up. To me, it tastes a little watered down from its predecessor and plays more like a miniature skirmish game during combat.
Still, it scores well in my book and recommend anyone who hasn’t played a session with experienced players to do so and form your own opinion, D&D 4e may be a match for you if you struggled with how some of the mechanics worked in 3.5. And I get the impression that the target audiences for this game are players new to table top gaming as well as the players of MMORPGs, so if you fall into these categories you may fall in love with 4e.
However, if you find it lacking, but are looking for quick, easy, and fun rules, try Pinnacle’s Savage Worlds. If you are looking for crunchy mechanics and 3rd Edition compatibility, try Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG. Finally, if you want more skirmisher fun, but less fluff, I highly recommend Privateer Press’ Warmachine or the now defunct D&D Minis game.