Posted on May 30, 2008 by GRIM
Available at Amazon.com
Unlike most RPG gamers in existence I didn’t come to roleplaying via D&D. My path to gaming ran something like:
Avid Reader > The Hobbit > Fighting Fantasy > The Lord of the Rings > MERP.
Very much in at the deep end and I didn’t run into D&D at all as a player or a GM until I was 13, four or five years into my gaming career. When I did play it the relative lack of sophistication and over simplistic constriction on what I could do as a character made me pronounce it ‘stupid’, the final straw being when I managed to sneak up on a sleeping dragon and the rules couldn’t cope with me STABBING IT IN THE EYE before it could wake up.
Aside from a bit of dabbling in 2nd Edition (Dark Sun, great setting, still didn’t like the rules) and in computer game versions of D&D (Torment and Balder’s Gate) that was pretty much my limit so far as it came to D&D, fantasy appealed (Dragon Warriors, WFRP and others) but D&D didn’t because I didn’t really buy into its sacred cows so much.
3rd Edition though, and the OGL that went with it, dragged me back into D&D. Now I could engage with it on a design level and the open nature meant not only could I ‘fix’ it, but I could trade those fixes and ideas with others and get remuneration for it. Which was great! d20 had pretences at being a generic system, but it really wasn’t, it got shoehorned into every possible setting and genre under the sun, even when it didn’t fit and eventually the d20 bubble burst. and things settled down again.
What we were left with, though, was a rambling and over-bloated beast of a game with masses of WOTC and third party supplements sprawling in all directions, a behemoth filled with munchkinism and twinkish combination exploits so foul that even RIFTS players would turn their nose up at them.
Now we’re on to 4th Edition and I’ve been deliberately staying out of the gossip around it as best I can to come at the books fresh. I won my copies from Dungeon Magazine for the ‘best adventure I never wrote’ which should be published sometime before June 6th, but since I had books coming for free I didn’t see any harm in getting a sneak peak at what would be coming in the post. As such some of these comments are provisional and may be revised when I get to see actual, physical copies.
Going into this I’m coming from two directions, as both a consumer and a producer. As a consumer does 4th Edition deliver the type of game that I want to play? Does it compel and interest me? As a producer I’m looking at it and trying to anticipate where the market might go, what products might emerge, how the system might be customised and altered (if at all) and where problems might arise.
Reading through the books 4th Edition feels, to me, very much like an introductory game in a way that 3rd Edition wasn’t. The look, the feel, the language all seem, to me, to be angled towards bringing in new players. This is a really good thing, obviously, but I think that the targetting of the MMO market – which seems to be the aim – is a miscalculation. TTRPGs can’t beat MMOs at their own game, D&D aping MMORPGs is a bit like having your dad go through a midlife crisis, dying his hair, driving a porsche and trying to pass himself off as ‘Emo’. It’s a little embarrassing and not what he’s really good at. I think it may have been more productive to go after the areas where TTRPGs still excel over CRPGs and MMORPGs but hey, nobody listens to me.
I’ll wait to pass judgement on the D&D Insider computer platform but my gut instinct is that this is a miscalculation as well, charging the same amount as a typical MMO subscription for what amounts to a static graphical chess set that doesn’t even take care of some of the rolls etc for you and a few other bits and pieces that they are yet to prove they can deliver seems ludicrous to me, if it’s a choice between their WoW subscription and their D&D Insider subscription people aren’t going to go for D&DI in my opinion. If it were five or perhaps ten dollars a month I can see people subbing to it on the side but this, to me, seems overpriced.
The three books seem to be going against the grain in terms of where graphic design has been heading in RPG books since the 90s. While the level of production is professional and the artwork standard good overall there’s very little ‘feel’ to the pages. No faux-parchment effect or little notebook conceits, very little ornamentation. It is very clean, very clear, quite minimalistic. On the one hand this makes the books much easier on the eye and a lot more readable, on the other hand it makes them feel rather clinical, perhaps not coincidentally like a computer game manual.
The artwork is fairly good throughout, though there are some disappointing pieces that have a washed out look and what appears to be CGI derived imagery that doesn’t really fit. While the overall art is good it lacks cohesion. Love it or loathe it 3rd Edition had a consistent look to it ‘dungeonpunk’ while 4th Edition is a bit all over the place. The strongest theme to come through is one, again, of computer-gamey feel, a sort of pseudo-anime, pseudo-Warhammer/WoW effort of massive shoulder pads and even larger weapons. Otherwise the rest of the art seems a bit all over the place, technically good but a little schizophrenic.
The writing is fairly clear throughout but a problem I noticed was that things were introduced before they were defined so, for example, if you were reading off the power descriptions they might have a formula. 2 x [Q] + Snarf, but you don’t find out what the Q stands for or what a Snarf is until page two-hundred and twelve. On a first read through this lead to a sense of bewilderment and frustration, unable to understand quite what I was reading – and this for someone who has several systems all but memorised.
Another flaw I felt existed in the writing was that there was no attempt, not even a weak one really, to reconcile the rules with reality, or even game reality. Things work as they do because the rules say that they do and that’s pretty much it. As someone who values immersion while roleplaying I can’t help but feel that this will detract from that experience, and that’s not the only place it occurs. Throughout the game characters aren’t really treated as characters so much as playing pieces, arrays of powers and abilities rather than personalities. The roles are described, again, in MMO terms so you end up not so much creating the persona of Corvin Ravenfeather the half-elf rogue but rather your ‘Assasination/Damage specced Rogue’. While there are paragraphs here and there that encourage roleplaying the overall feel is more like a character card for playing Descent than an actual character role to get into.
The DMs guide is a triumph though, at least in writing. There’s great advice in there on player types and typical troubleshooting and it’s helpful without being patronising, something that occasionally shines through in the Player’s Guide. I particularly liked the boxed out hints and tips, which are very human comments from the developers that give you more of an insight and connection to the game than much else that’s present.
There’s no real setting to speak of, as such and while much is familiar much is also different, different gods for example and different races, but this comes more under discussion of the rules.
Over all I think the rules are an improvement and a clarification from third edition and they have been streamlined and simplified, at the basic level, by a great deal. I can see this speeding up play and making things much easier for the GM in particular – prepping monsters and encounters is now much faster, but all of this simplicity comes at a cost of depth. Where D&D was more like a bag of lego bricks before – a little crude but you could put it together any way you liked, now it’s more like a plastic model. The pieces go together certain ways and you’re told how it should be. Everything is channelled, quantified, laid out as to how it ‘should’ be and while you can fiddle around a bit you’re really only making cosmetic changes.
There is a massively heavy emphasis on miniatures and battlemats, though different parts of the book swing between saying their optional and implying that they’re essential. While one could easily enough convert the distances and areas back to feet rather than squares it is a pain in the arse to do so and a pain that they’re so heavily pushing the minis. I hate using minis and battlemats unless I’m war or skirmish gaming, I feel it detracts massively from the RP but I can see where the business decision comes in here, clearly the figures make the big bucks so anything that encourages their use has to be ‘good’. I disagree but then money talks in these instances.
Another thing that has effectively been lost is the capability to multiclass freely and easily. Now you spend feats to gain qualities from other classes but you are still pretty much stuck in your role and using these multiclass feats is ‘weak sauce’ compared to previous methods of doing so. While you can customise within your role and build to a couple of different specifications this felt stifling to my creativity when I was trying to create a character I really liked, especially at first level. Multiclassing was always an ad hoc solution to the problem of character customisation but it was still better than the solution being presented so on that score I’m not a happy bunny.
The role enforcement problem is made worse by the new skill system. You no longer have varying skill levels, you either have a skill or you don’t and that only gives you a +5 bonus within the area of that skill, this means a great deal more emphasis is weighed upon Ability scores and, even more importantly, level. Level rules everything now, giving bonuses across the board and the rewards for levelling are much greater than in 3rd Edition as well, what feels like excessive Ability score increases and a wealth of new powers.
I found the choices for races in the new book peculiar, to excise character types people like and are used to for the Dragonkin, Eladrin (Elves 2.0) and tieflings (but no Aasimar) seems a peculiar choice to me. The exotic and interesting is no longer exotic and interesting if it’s the default. It would have made more sense, to me, to retain the Half Orc, Gnome and to have the Warforged in there and to put these new ones in a follow up Player’s Guide – but then maybe that’s the point to put familiar classes and races in additional player’s guides to help them sell, if so that’s a touch cynical but perhaps good business sense.
In classes we lose the Sorcerer – the change in magic rules means the spontaneous caster is no longer needed as much (though a magic user with more lower power At Will/Encounter spells would simulate it quite well) but we gain the Warlord – a leader type – and the Warlock, a pact-based magic user. Again these feel like odd choices to me, better suited to expansion books than to the core book, I assume the Warlock is there to appeal to the MMO crowd but the Warlord I can’t particularly place, other than they perhaps wanted another ‘buffing’ class.
Feats are reduced in importance compared to the class specific powers and capabilities and many are, additionally, streamed by class themselves. In some ways this helps remove a problem of ‘feat bloat’ but on the other hand we now have many, many, many more categories which can bloat independently, all the different tiers of abilities and abilities relating to the Paragon and Epic levels of play (11+ and 21+).
Another metagame intrusion is the idea of ‘respeccing’ (sorry, retraining) allowing you to replace older, weaker powers with more powerful versions as you advance, effectively rewriting your character’s history and allowing you – if you’re careful – to maximise your potential every level by playing the system, playing the game rather than playing your character.
One ray of sunshine amongst all the metagaming and immersion breaking is the expanded concept of skill based encounters. These are now more of a creative chess game somewhat akin to the process of making an extended challenge in HeroQuest. Characters get to RP creatively and use their skills creatively to solve extended problems such as, say, tracking enemies through a forest or seducing a noble’s daughter. I like the idea as presented and see lots of RP opportunities from it but it also made me feel that in inexperienced groups the skill rolling would replace the RP and the natural back and forth of play.
Long term I can see problems with the approach that WOTC have taken in 4th Edition. While the game has been stripped back and rebooted and while the 3rd party market has calmed down there are now many more things that could suffer game bloat, rather than classes, prestige classes and feats we now have classes, paragon classes, epic destinies, at will powers, encounter powers, daily powers and multi-level equipment which means 4th Edition could end up sprawling out of control twice as fast as third edition did. The other problem is that even though the system is streamlined and simplified there are not twice as many complications, modifiers, exceptions and so forth which in their own way will slow everything right back down again.
* Clean, crisp, readable.
* Honest effort to reach new gamers.
* Forward thinking approach to support.
* Misguided attempt to engage MMO players.
* Returns to the relative constriction of Basic/2nd Edition
* Miniatures emphasis overwhelming.
Style: 4 (Good but falls short of what’s expected of the industry leader)
Substance: 3 (All rules and no inspiration makes Jack a dull boy)
My score would suggest that I rate 4th Edition as slightly higher than average. This may not be revealing my views sufficiently. The Substance score is low (average) because these corebooks do not contain anything in the way of setting information or content past some discussion of dungeons and ruins. These three books represent a game engine and advice and little more. I am almost certain that the new limited three book setting productions will be excellent and that they will provide the substance that the corebooks lack.
In my opinion 4th Edition does deal with many of the flaws from third edition, but it also embraces others – such as metagaming and optimisation. This can be dealt with by a good GM but I have to assess the books from a position of relative neutrality, as such I can’t assume every group has a brilliant GM or non-abusive players.
While I have deep reservations about D&D Insider I hope it succeeds and while I have even deeper reservations about trying to beat the MMOs at their own game I do wish D&D 4th Edition and Wizards the very best of luck with it, especially in roping in new gamers. I hope to be writing for 4th Edition – it does make that job a lot easier – and Postmortem Studios will definitely be supporting it.
Review by James ‘Grim’ Desborough