Wednesday, June 11, 2008

D&D 4th Edition - Whither RPGs

I have to admit that when I heard that Wizards of the Coast were going to release yet another edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the seminal fantasy role-playing system, I got pissed. As in angry, not as in drunk. I was angry because I bought the 3.0 Edition core books back in 2001 or so, only to have 3.5 come out not long after, and this seemed like a real stretch to put out a new edition only eight years after 3.0 came out. Considering that the original Advanced version came out in 1977, the second edition (which merely consolidated rules and added Skills but left the basic system intact) in 1989, and the 3.0 version (the first massive departure from the original ruleset) in 2000, it seems that they're telescoping the product, and in the wrong way. Like the early White Wolf releases that were swiftly replaced with second edition versions (which only took me three iterations to figure out - Vampire, Werewolf, and Spectre), I was leery of buying yet another core set of books only to have it "fine tuned" and re-released with a large number of rules changes a couple of years later.

But I have disposable income and too much time on my hands and buy things to give myself worth, so I picked up the full set of core books last weekend. What can I tell you that you don't already know!

I've been working my way through the Player's Handbook, and I think that all of the critics who say that 4th Edition is D&D by Days of Wonder has never played a CCG or a MMORPG in their lives. 4th Edition is World of Warcraft and Magic: the Gathering brought to traditional roleplaying. 

Nowhere is this more clear than in the character class descriptions. Each skill (forgive my nomenclature, I'm flying without the book handy) looks almost exactly like what you'd see on an ability card of the WoW CCG. There are keywords, various strongly typed parameters on when and how often you can use the power, even freakin' flavor text. 

Of course, MMORPGs borrowed quite a bit from CCGs, which in turn borrowed heavily from RPGs. What feels much different in this edition is that WotC are trying to generate a recurring revenue stream by creating and selling an online component (including moving their print magazines to the internet, and published piecemeal rather than as a cohesive unit). I did buy a lot of Dungeon magazines, the print organ that focused on adventures, back in the 2nd ed days, but stopped when they went to 3rd ed and my sizeable collect of adventures was suddenly deemed obsolete. 

So, like Games Workshop and their revolving Warhammer and Warhammer 40k titles and spinoffs that constantly get newer editions every couple of years, WotC seems to be trying to do both the "rebuy everything" strategy while also trying the "online subscription" strategy and seeing what sticks. Which is important, because there is a *lot* of competition for the time of the traditional RPGer these days. Even if you take CCGs and MMORPGs out of the picture, you still have a growing "indie" movement. As such, the rules contain frequent references to other WotC products from minis to character sheets to adventures and campaign settings. Nothing new, but it feels like I'm reading marketing material at times (which I suppose I am) instead of rules. 

Here's why I like the new edition, though. There's been much said about the return to wargaming roots, as most of the new rules cover combat rather than roleplay elements. I actually like this because I feel that it allows the DM to be creative. Most DMs outside of an official event tend toward rolling their own system on the fly anyway, so why bother with elaborate rules on negotiations? 

I have to admit that I also like the MMORPG feel - every new skill you get is something to look forward to, for every class. Rangers, for example, get exploits. The new format makes it very easy to see how the skills work at a glance. Here's an example:

Careful Attack

The title bar is green, so you know you can use this one as often as you want. It's an Attack 1 skill, so first level rangers in combat use it, and you don't need to worry about it when you aren't fighting. It requires two melee or one ranged weapon to use, and is a standard action (meaning that you can do it once per combat turn). You target a single critter, and it allows you to up your Dex or Str by 2 depending on whether you're attacking ranged or melee. You get your normal hit, although an increase in 2 generally will give you a plus one modifier.

Gone are the paragraph descriptions that you have to parse for a couple of minutes to get most of this information. There is a certain amount of duplication, mostly because they're trying to be consistent (the example above mentions that you need a weapon about three times), but I can forgive that in a scope this small.

Me, I like focusing on the story, and it wouldn't be hard to come up with some software that generated these stats for the specific character and printed them out in an easy reference sheet. To play with people who are "non-gamers" would require a little more hand holding, I think, but for anyone who isn't an RPGer but has done CCGs it would take little work. In fact, I'd imagine that CCGers would appreciate that they have an entire deck to work with at once, and they get to build it over time. 

[Note: I just saw that what I've been calling "skills" are actually "powers". You know what I'm talking about.]

A few other things I've noticed so far:

1) Races. Quite an array. No more half-orcs, although that was always a stretch. Now there are High Elves, called Eladrin; Wood Elves, called, uhm, Elves, Humans, Dwarves, Halflings (all wearing svelte shoes in the artwork, which really throws it for me), and half-elves. There are also Tieflings, which look like demonized humans (which I guess they kinda are) and Dragonborn, which are happier versions of Draconids from the old Dragonlance setting.

2) Classes. Warlocks, Warlords, Rangers and Paladins in addition to the Big Four. There's a lot of room for differentiation as you go up in levels - you choose a Paragon Path based on your class once you hit 11 and have an Epic Destiny once you get to 21. I like having these "big" class bumps because it gives players a real incentive to get to the next level, both incrementally and in the bigger picture. 

3) Alignment. Here I start to have trouble. They've gotten rid of nearly half of the alignments from the original game. I always like the fact that you could play a Chaotic Evil character in the context of a generally Good party and really make some role-play hay out of it. In fact, I've done just that, and the challenge for all of us was for me to stay true to my nature as an evil character (stealing things from other party members, looking out for myself above all other things, then coming up with good excuses if I got caught later!). In the new game, you are more or less limited to Lawful Good, Neutral Good (just called "Good"), and Unaligned. Even that last one is a bit of a stretch for players. The rules actively discourage you playing with an Evil or Chaotic Evil alignment. 

This is a bit of a nod to the old "Basic" D&D rules from the 80's, where you got rid of the Good/Evil axis entirely. Of course, the various races were built into the classes, so you never played a halfling cleric, you were simply a halfling. To my mind, I can understand why they made the choice (pick the obvious things and merge the rest), but the challenge of playing a Lawful character who believed strongly in rules regardless of whether they were correct or not made for some interesting game situations. I guess you could still do this, but there will be no official critters or deities that follow this path per se, and I think this was an oversimplification that shows that WotC considers MMORPGers (who don't take alignment into account at all) and CCGers are their new target audience.

And that's really what 4th ed is about. Like wargaming before it, and like eurogames in the next ten years (or less), RPGs came out and blew everything in their path away. Now it's their turn to drift slowly into obscurity (although there will always be a hobby, look at wargames) and this is the way they try to pull new gamers into the hobby. The problem is that you have two populations who are already pouring money into a hobby that they enjoy, and you want to get them to do it with another hobby? One that requires that, Bahamut forbid, they actually *read*? Books? Hmm. 

On the other hand, those of us who played a lot of D&D in our formative years (up through college age), and especially those of us who are multi-faceted gamers (who don't distain other genres because we feel it necessary to justify our own niche) will really like this system. As a relatively late-comer to both MMORPGs and CCGs, and (fortunately) someone a little older with a ton of disposable income, I will almost certainly find new life in playing RPGs again. On the down side, at least for Wizards, I'm unlikely to buy a whole lot of supplements, at least until they get around to something a little less standard like Forgotten Realms (I never saw any of the Erebor - or whatever it's called - material as I never invested in 3rd ed other than the books after 3.5 came out). On the upside, I have a campaign concept that I feel is very fresh and interesting and I'm dying to flesh it out in 4th ed. I won't say much because some of my readers are likely to be players, and I don't want to give anything away, but I can envision mapping the whole Heroic/Paragon/Epic tiers into the life cycle of my campaign pretty easily, and if I do it right it will feel like a good TV series along the lines of Lost or Battlestar Galactica, with an overriding arc, recurring NPCs, moral dilemmas, and some really good progressive revelation. I'd come up with the concept when I first got the 3.0 books, but that didn't seem like the system for me. 4th ed, that looks like the ticket.

Of course, I'm only into the character classes in the Player's Guide so far, but what I've seen so far makes me think this may be the first really good departure from the original system, at least in terms of what I enjoy about gaming. Time will tell. If I do get a campaign up in the near future, I will be sure to give session reports.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

I think you'll really enjoy the DMG, Doug. Lots of great advice on running a game, and lots of food for thought even for those who are comfortable running an RPG.

Skill Challenges are problematic, and various home-brewers and WotC are looking closely at it.

I've been crafting my own tokens for minis and sleeving Power Cards in anticipation of running something but I'd love to play if you decide to run something.