Fourth Edition: Initial Impressions and the Future of Iourn

And lo, there would be a fourth… edition.

By now the news that a fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons is to be released in June 2008 should be common knowledge. Every day new information is drip-fed on to the Internet some of it believable, some of it less so. Various theories as to what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’ abound. The staff over at EN World are doing a good job collating all the rumours, and news snippets from various website and web logs. If you haven’t checked it out, then do have a look at the following pages:

EN World
Unofficial D&D 4th Edition Info Page

However, what no website or external source is going to tell you is: what does all this mean for the Iourn campaign? Will Iourn be converting to 4e? What about the existing campaigns and characters?

This is the first of a series of articles that will chart the impact of 4e on the unending game. Once the new books begin to be released, I’ll add opinion and comment to this site. Today, I’ll look at 4e in the broader sense and try to calm unease and mollify impatience.

4e. Will We? Why? When?

Yes. I will convert the campaign. Sorry Steve. From what I have seen, the fourth edition rules look better than their third edition counterparts. Yes, there are some things that are giving me pause – notably the ludicrous advancement of PCs and the seeming reliance of miniatures and measurement – but on the whole I’m optimistic. With significantly less reliance on magic items, more options to customise the basic classes, the potential for unique clerics and the demise of preparing spells in advance there is much to look forward to.

Plus there is a great attraction in starting again. I feel as though third edition is a wild horse that has got away from me. Too many spells, too many feats, too many prestige classes… if I’d just kept a tighter handle on the options as the books came out I wouldn’t be in this mess. As it stands, I must only utilise about 20% of the game in my GMing. I never did get my head around psionics properly. This is a chance, for me at least, to do it better.

But don’t let that metagame motivation detract from the fact that I think that we can build better PCs that are more accurate and in keeping with your character backgrounds than we ever could in third edition.

There’s an old saying “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” (as opposed to the gnomish saying, “if it’s not broke, quickly take it apart and find out why”), but I think that third edition is broken. Every change I have made for the good of the game – drastically cutting back magic items to make them meaningful, slowing down XP progression, introducing spell points, trying to revamp level adjustments – has been a response to my perceived deficiencies of the system. But every change has created more problems, and more holes. To run a game actually as its written (or a close approximation thereof) is very tempting. Too tempting.

So, we’re going to convert Iourn. The only question is how we go about it. How do we make sure the change is not for the worse?

Conversion will be a slow process. I don’t want to leap in feet first and ruin what we’ve spent eight years building. There is no formula for converting between third and fourth edition. Rather than converting, you would be recreating your characters. I want to make sure that everyone has the tools and the experience to do it right the first time. This is the story for the current campaigns:

Path Perfidious Campaign: This campaign will conclude in March 2008, before the release of fourth edition. It will be played in an unholy mishmash of versions 3.0 and 3.5 of the third edition game. There will be no great requirement to convert characters to 4e, as this is likely to be the swansong for most of the PCs involved.

Game of Souls Campaign: The current weekly game will not convert to fourth edition. I am aiming to wrap up the campaign during the Summer of 2008, perhaps as early as June. Even if the campaign did survive beyond this, the level adjustments and weirdo races make any conversion problematic to say the least. Fortunately, it won’t be an issue.

League of Light Campaign: With several more years to run, and a sequel campaign in the works, the PCs from the League of Light game will have to convert at some point. They will need to do so in such a way that their abilities are broadly similar. Take Elias for example: losing ‘invisible’ abilities such as Weapon Focus might be fine, losing Hedwig is not. That said, I am in no great hurry to convert our heroes. In 4e the PHB, DMG and MM are going to be annual releases. By all accounts it looks as though the druid, monk and sorcerer will not be featured in PHB1. I am not going to convert until all the party’s characters are officially in print. There may be some online support, but failing that we’re looking at late 2009 as the earliest conversion to the new edition.

September 2008: After the Game of Souls campaign is finished, the new weekly campaign will debut at the beginning of the 2008 Michaelmas term. This one will be fourth edition from the get-go. It will utitlise races and classes from the new 4e PHB1 and will be set in an area of Iourn that has not been largely explored.

As it stands, I am still toying with the idea of running Keep on the Shadowfell (the first published 4e adventure) when it is released in May 2008. That may or may not happen, depending on where I am with the Game of Souls campaign. I may just press on with the weekly game, and leave fourth edition for September.

4e and the Campaign Setting

There are two ways you can apply a massive rules change to a campaign setting. These options are happily exemplified by Wizard’s Eberron and Forgotten Realms settings. In Eberron they are not allowing the change in rules to affect the setting. The mechanics for magic and warforged and dragonmarks may have changed, but from a story point of view they have always worked that way. There’s no retconning to make rules changes consistent with the history of the setting.

The Forgotten Realms has a long history of bending over backwards to accommodate rules changes. During the switch between 1st and 2nd edition it was ruled that the death of the assassin god Bhaal during the Times of Troubles resulted in the deaths of all the assassins that worshipped him: you couldn’t play an assassin in 2nd edition, you see. This time out, something called the Spellplague will ravage Toril. When it’s finished, magic will stop following third edition rules, and start following fourth edition rules.

Whither goes Iourn?

The Eberron approach is more appealing. Iourn has always been a story-driven setting; very few NPCs have ever been statted and I’ve always been happy to completely ignore the rules if it makes for a better story. However, there are parts of the story that are grounded in the rules. Take magic for example: sorcerers are innate arcane spellcasters, wizards duplicate their powers through their studies, but must still prepare specific spells in advance. From this distinction, I have created a role for the Arcanum Incognita, and developed a whole history of magic in the setting. Change the way magic works, and you fundamentally change that. Doesn’t something like that need to be explained?

Look at this problem from the point of view of the Potentates. The Potentates are a subgroup of wizards who got fed up with having to prepare spells in advance. Using complicated ritual and some kick-ass artefacts they were able to cast spells spontaneously, as long as they drained the lifeforce of a sorcerer to do it. Now if the rules have changed, and wizards don’t need to prepare spells in advance any more, it rather beggars the question: why did they bother? The rules change attacks the integrity of the setting.

So you see my problem. My instinct is telling me that rules don’t matter, and the creative entity that is Iourn should be free of such shackles. But the anal world-builder who aims for consistency of character, calendar and purpose throughout the setting baulks at the idea of imposing a large paradigm-shift on Iourn without doing something to explain it.

Of course, we don’t know what these changes are going to be yet, and we don’t know which of these changes will need to be addressed. No one has ever seen dragonmarks on Iourn, so the fact they work differently now from the way they used to is irrelevant. Magic on the other hand, is as insidious as it is ubiquitous – how can I not address that?

So, will the change from third to fourth edition change the campaign setting? The answer is a definite probably. Clerics may gain different powers, their magic may work differently – any number of things may change as a result of the shift in editions, and some of these things will have to be explained in game. Any changes will be as small as possible, and any explanations will be as organic and logical as possible. Watch this space.

The D&D Insider

For those of you not aware, the run up to the release of 4e will see the arrival of the D&D Insider. This is an umbrella term for a significant amount of information that will be available online through the Wizards of the Coast website. Some of this information will be free, but most of it will be subscription only.

A subscription to the D&D Insider gets you the electronic versions of Dragon and Dungeon magazines every month (they’re no longer being published in print), and gives you live access to an interactive gaming table and character creator. The idea behind the gaming table is that gamers who live far apart can play together over the Internet. The character creator allows you to use all the rules from all the books to create a character and print it out.

I am not advocating a subscription to this service. I’m going to subscribe, largely because of a the following natty feature. Each published D&D sourcebook is going to come with a unique code that can be used to activate an electronic version of the book, thus gaining a copy of the title in PDF or similar format. It also unlocks all the rules from each book online. These rules are used to inform the character creator, but they also look as if they will build into a comprehensive database.

Pause for thought. A comprehensive database. That’s something I was trying to get off the ground with the third edition books, and eventually gave up on. If this facility on D&D Insider works, and works well, then it would create a powerful and extremely nifty tool that would (for me) be worth the price of admission.

Most of the D&D Insider content is going to go live for free before the release of 4e. Give it a go. Head over to http://www.wizards.com/dnd and register if you haven’t done so already. At the very least you’ll get a few free adventures.

Next

In December 2007, Wizards Presents: Races and Classes will reach the shelves. Billed as a “4th Edition Preview”, it won’t contain any rules but the various insights may be enlightening. You can check out the blurb here and next month, I’ll spend a little time writing on how I think this will affect Iourn.

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