Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition

You knew we had to do it—we bought a copy of the fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons ruleset.

This isn’t a review, as we haven’t finished it nor played it yet. It’s just a few first impressions which might or might not be borne up in the long run.

First of all, boy howdy is this a huge change. Those folks who like to think that game companies just make a few changes so they can re-release a product and get paid for it again have no leg to stand on with this one. The entire system has been overhauled; I’d dare to say it’s a greater change from 3.5 to 4 than it was from AD&D to d20.

Secondly, yes, there are things I like about it. So far I’m not falling entirely into either of the ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ camps I’ve seen forming. First impressions, again not yet confirmed by playtesting: the system should be more self-evident and approachable to new players, particularly those who are accustomed to MMOs. The system’s powers and abilities look like they would have been easier to power-balance for the creators, which means it should also be easier to power-balance the ones you make yourself. In addition, it looks to me like it’ll be easier for game masters (GMs) to adjudicate many actions, which will make GMing easier on many folks.

That said, there are definitely some things I’m dubious about. Even before I looked online to see what anyone else’s reactions were, my husband and I found ourselves saying, “this feels like World of Warcraft written up as a tabletop game.” To be fair, I think that’s part of what’s responsible for the above positives as well as some negatives. However…

Many of the guidelines feel arbitrarily restrictive. One of the things I loved about D&D (as well as many other games) was the opportunity to get creative with your abilities and do unexpected and fun things. Many of the non-combat abilities are just plain gone from the game, and many other abilities have strange restrictions on them. For instance, there are abilities that can only be used in encounters that give absolutely no justification for why you wouldn’t be able to use them at any other time. It’s the kind of arbitrary restriction that reminds you that you’re playing a game and takes you out of the constructed ‘reality’ that is the hallmark of a good tabletop game.

Many of the descriptions of abilities made us laugh (and not in a good way). Either the prose was purple, or the justification given for an ability or a restriction on it seemed desperately hacked-together and ridiculous, or the way an ability worked was unnecessarily silly. I’ll let my husband get into the real details of some of those, since he plans to write a review after he’s done reading and we’ve played with it.

In large part, so far we can’t help feeling that most of these things revolve around one central problem: it’s as though the developers were trying to make sure that the rules were so cut-and-dried and simple that they could be arbitrated by computer. I can understand the desire for this, since everyone these days wants to do game tie-ins and MMOs and internet play tools. However, the more this is done, the more we move away from those things that make tabletop roleplaying its own beast, and one that in certain ways computer games just can’t measure up to. No computer game can yet allow you free rein with your creativity. Sure, there are still other things that set the two apart, like non-player characters that can hold true conversations with the player characters, but the open-endedness appears to have been greatly curtailed in this version of the game. Maybe I’ll change my mind when we play, but so far… well, I understand the trade-off, but I don’t like it and it doesn’t suit our play-style.


Today’s review is of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Spices & Herbs—yum!

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7 comments on “Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition
  1. My husband ran out and bought this one right away. He doesn’t play any more (lack of people to play with), but he still likes to read the guides. He had a different take on the book. He thought the cut and dry rules opens it up for more free thought and creativity.

  2. ScottM says:

    I’m much like you– I’ve skimmed the PHB and appreciate some of the things (simpler resolution) and wonder how other things will work out.

    I suspect a lot of GMs will allow encounter powers in between combat, at something like a 1/5 minute rate. Unless… are there powers that are going to undo the world if they allow that?

    I’m interesting in trying it out… mostly in a detached “trying it out” way at first. I wonder if approaching it analytically will influence my perception of play too much? I know I do the “analyze as I play” the first few sessions of any game… but that’s probably why it takes a few sessions to really get into a new system.

  3. heather says:

    Feline: We playtested an adventure last night, and while the overall rules are simplified, the problem is that the individual powers aren’t. Each one is different, and unless you’re mostly using the same one over and over, that’s a problem. The character sheet has no room for anything other than the name of an ability, but they all use different attack modifiers; are used vs. different defenses; have different damages, effects, miss effects, important keywords, etc. There wasn’t a SINGLE battle over the course of an entire evening where we weren’t constantly looking up the details of our every-round attacks.

    Then, add to that all of the class features and race features and feats. Most of which are triggered by or come into play during different circumstances, and again, don’t have enough room for all their details on the character sheet. It was impossible to remember all the circumstances under which there were abilities we needed to remember to bring into play—special individualized bonuses, penalties, etc. We found the single-most important thing to include on the character sheet next to any feature or power is the page number associated with it.

    There’s a lot I like about fourth edition. The skill system is a big improvement. The ‘feel’ provided by having more hit points and dealing more damage is very appealing for a game in which you’re playing heroes. The powers are pretty nifty, and I love a lot of the classes, such as the Warlord and Warlock. However, the details are so individualized and complex as to make it extremely cumbersome to play—unless, say, you had a computer program to keep track of things, which I expect they’re anticipating, in order to get people to subscribe to the services they’re putting out.

    And don’t get me started on the fact that some of the abilities make no logical sense whatsoever… =}

    Scott: I found the whole thing a little frustrating, simply because there are some things in the system I’d really love to use, but as a whole it’s just annoying enough that I think we’re likely to stick to 3.5. I’d like to be able to say ‘wow, this is really streamlined and cool,’ but the truth is that it would only be streamlined if you had something to keep track of all the conditionals for you and allow you to pull up the details of your characters’ powers at a moment’s notice. You can’t do that with the basic character sheet as it’s provided, and the new license does NOT allow independent development of things such as character generation programs—so no PCGen help this time. If you want the game to be easy to use, you’ll basically be forced to pay for WotC’s service, unless you don’t mind typing up the individual details of all the powers yourself every time you roll a character.

  4. ScottM says:

    There are a lot of good fan created supports for some of those details. Over at Dragon Avenue, I found some form fillable power and item cards, which gives you a convenient place to spill over with the details that don’t fit on your character sheet. If you prefer having the information prefilled, this google group has lots of different people’s power cards. Ander also has some nice prefilled cards, with all of the powers for every class and level.

  5. heather says:

    Thanks Scott—that’s very handy, and would definitely make things much easier! That does a lot to help with one of my major complaints.

    Now if they could just get rid of the power details that don’t make sense. *sigh* It seems like there are certain things they wanted characters to be able to do, and they didn’t take the time to come up with an explanation that was logical. It kind of reminds me of the Indiana Jones movie plot holes… there’s no good reason for it, because in many cases Jeff & I could think of perfectly good explanations they could have provided that would have made sense with just a little more effort. I know that probably sounds like a petty complaint, but it’s hard to maintain suspension of disbelief and immersion in a roleplaying world when some of the abilities seem downright silly.

  6. I really love 4th edition a lot. We use power cards to keep track of the effects of different powers. It really is different from the other editions of D&D, but it runs much smoother. It took us a couple of sessions to get used to it, but that is to be expected with any game. Now everything goes so much faster and easier and is so much more balanced than ever before. There is no way I would ever go back.

  7. CarpeGuitarrem says:

    A quick note here, it actually is possible to use your powers outside of a combat encounter. An “encounter” power can be used outside of combat, and is considered to be “recharged” after about five minutes, a short rest.

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