Wednesday, June 11, 2008

D&D 4th Edition: Early Thoughts

I know, it's almost a whole week since the game came out (and gave my store the best sales day of its existence, not to mention a hugely successful launch event) and I haven't talked about D&D 4th Edition yet.

Others have, though. Smith Michaels over at Blurred Productions is often sympatico with me on comics and politics, but our thought trains diverge a bit on D&D 4th Ed, which he seems a mite displeased with. You can read his thoughts on the Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide. I don't agree with everything, but I don't entirely disagree with his criticisms either. These are well-written think pieces on the game.

Wired has a fascinating article on D&D Insider, the not-yet-launched online component, and correctly nails Wizards on a too-high price tag, although they're softer on the criticism that I think is more important, namely that D&D Insider hasn't launched yet. They've also got a wildly positive review of the system.

I fall somewhere between Smith Michaels and Wired on this one. Overall, I'm very pleased with the new D&D books and system and very excited to start the new campaign on Friday. I love the look of the books, I love the new powers-based system, I love the streamlined feel of the rules, and I cannot stress enough how much I love the new Monster Manual. Easily the best monster book D&D has ever had.

However. Michaels is right that the focus has been put pretty squarely on the combat side of things. The skill system is streamlined, but the cost of that streamlining is to make it more simplistic. Same for spellcasting. Little things make me sad, like anybody can track now instead of just the rangers. Magic items have been depowered so much as to be almost impotent in some respects. No damage reduction means anybody can just hack off a vampire's head, which feels mythologically wrong. While the grab rules are greatly simplified, they also make any kind of wrestling or grabbing more or less pointless unless you've got some kind of specific follow-up power. The relatively small list of classes and powers to start with makes every early character look very similar.

However, those little things are all done for good reasons, namely taking out the frustrating elements of the game (50-50 miss chance, gone. Can't hurt the thing because we don't have magic weapons, gone. Four hours of figuring out the grapple rules, gone.) and reducing the amount of die-rolling to make the whole thing move quicker. As a system, this is a lot more elegant, and while it doesn't encourage role-play as much as a list of skills and a variance in skill levels, or any of the number of other smaller things we've lost, it opens the door for players and DMs who *want* to roleplay to focus on that instead of min/maxing the rules.

I'm quite sure we'll see more races, classes, spells and feats introduced quickly enough. Hell, Warforged have already shown up on the WOTC website, and I'm allowing my players to use them in the first campaign if they want.

Michaels is pretty much dead-on when he talks about the DMG. It's great if you've never run D&D before, it contains a lot of great theory about players, running a game, etc. This is a necessary book... for beginners. But it really should have been combined with an easier-to-read character generation chapter and released as a "Beginner's Guide" or something for $10. The DMG is mostly filler for the experienced DM, and notably thinner than the other books. Though I respect tradition, given how much tradition was thrown out the window in the name of logic and streamlining, it would have seemed better to produce a slightly bigger "Rules Guide" and "Monster Manual" rather than keep the DMG, which reads at this point like something of a vestigial organ. Especially at $34.95 for a much smaller page count than the exact same price for the larger Player's Handbook.

Overall, though, while I have my quibbles, I love the new system. I love that I could pick up on the changes easily, that they fixed any number of minor things (counterspells, identify, grappling, criticals, etc., etc.) and made it much easier and quicker to build a character, plan an adventure and (judging from my quick demos and from reading the books) play the game.

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