Well, it’s been almost a week since the release of the core rules for D&D fourth edition. I’ve had time to read most of the books now (I’m still wading through the new Monster Manual), so I thought that this would be a good time to share my thoughts. We begin at the beginning with the Player’s Handbook. There’s a lot to say about this one, so I’m going to tackle it chapter by chapter.
In order to help you navigate these pages, I’ve created a new review index that you should see in the column to your right.
Before I begin the comprehensive analysis that the PHB requires, I want to spend a little time writing about my first impressions of the system. This is a different game. It’s not a radically different game (snooker is a radically different game), but there are fundamental conceptual changes that make this the most distinctive version of Dungeons and Dragons to see print. Mechanically, this is still the d20 system. Anyone familiar with third edition D&D is not going to have a problem in picking up the rules. They are very similar. The difference lies in its tone, its direction and its vision.
The goal of the designers of 4e was to make a better game. For them better meant a faster game, one that didn’t get bogged down in lengthy combats where 80% of the gaming group was inactive for an hour at a time. For them better meant giving the GM tools to create suitable challenges for characters in a fraction of the time that third edition demanded. For them better meant balancing the classes so the power level of no one character overshadowed the others. For them better meant fixing a game that simply broke down at higher levels, thanks to the weight of rules, options and unexpected combinations of powers and abilities from different classes.
Have they done all this? Yes. The game will run quicker, the GM is freed from hours in front of complex stat blocks, the characters are balanced with one another, the game looks as though it will run as well at level 30 as it does at level 1. But is the resulting game still Dungeons and Dragons? Will it still feel like D&D when we play it? I hope it will, but I’m not certain.
The ethos behind the game has changed. I’m not talking about the alterations made to the default background, the removal of the Great Wheel, changes to tieflings – that’s just colour; if you don’t like that it is easily changed. I’m talking about game mechanics that deliberately push you to run and to play the game in a particular way. D&D has always been a game about heroes succeeding against overwhelming odds. In fourth edition this philosophy is an inescapable reality.
D&D is now a much more cinematic game. The concept of hit points has been made more abstract than ever, characters now have healing surges that they can utilise during encounters – they take a pounding, shake their head, grit their teeth and carry on (all very Hollywood). No-one is really bad at anything any more. No race gives you racial penalties to your attributes. No-one starts with an attribute of lower than 8. A reduced skill list, and a system where your ability in all skills increases as you gain levels means you can no longer be thunderously bad at anything.
Are these insurmountable problems? No. Do they alter the flavour of the D&D game? Yes. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know. Yet. I will know when I start running it. But it is a cause for concern. Regardless of how much there is to like in the new edition, fourth edition is inherently more limiting than its predecessor by design. If you want to play an heroic action game where the PCs are larger than life heroes triumphing over immeasurable odds (with a few death-defying leaps thrown in for good measure) then it is excellent. If you want to play a claustrophobic horror game then it doesn’t look fit for purpose. I can’t see Ravenloft working under the 4e rules.
So that’s my first reservation about the new system. My second is Miniatures. Any assurance from Wizards that miniatures are no more important to 4e as they were to version 3.5 is false. Where before they stated that the PHB, DMG and Monster Manual were all you needed to play, now they have added D&D Miniatures and Dungeon Tiles to the list. Obviously, this a financial decision. Wizards are a small company and have to prove to Hasbro that D&D can make money. It’s a bit sad that so much of the game is now dependent on grids and movement. I’m sure that we can unpick those rules, that we can play 4e successfully without the little plastic figures. That’s largely what this blog is for, after all.
How to Play
Well, that was lengthy. Chapter One is entitled “How to Play”. It is the typical introduction, aimed at those people who have never role-played before. It does the job adequately, underlining that D&D is a cooperative game, that no-one actually “wins” in the traditional sense. It speaks of the Points of Light conceit, that I’ve already covered in length elsewhere, and also has an interesting sidebar about the history of the D&D game. Nitpickers might spot a couple of inaccuracies, but it’s nice to see the game acknowledging its roots.
The chapter enforces the concept of the heroic player character – that all PCs can accomplish feats that no mere mortal can perform. Even seemingly mundane classes such as fighters can perform such incredible battle manoeuvres that they make Bruce Lee look like a little old man wearing a very heavy overcoat. The roles of the player and the GM are explained, as are adventures and the encounters that build them. Encounters are divided into Combat and Noncombat encounters, and there are special rules for each that will be explored later.
It is evident that D&D fourth edition still has its roots firmly in the dungeon. This has been true of all editions of D&D and I suppose you cold say the clue is in the name. It’s called “Dungeons and Dragons”, not “Perils and Politics” (even if that is the way I run the game). We can’t really judge it for being what it is. We knew what we were getting into when we bought the books.
We are then treated to one of those wonderful examples of play, where the designer has thought up an encounter and then quickly converted it into a little play. These things are always hilarious, although this one is a little short. I like the second edition one where the party is after the wererat. Anyway, it’s a story about three adventurers walking up some steps, opening a door and attacking some gnolls. It’s not great literature. There’s also a break in the middle of the narrative for the players to put their miniatures on the GM’s battle grid. That’s the shape of things to come, I’m afraid.
The chapter rounds itself out by underlining the core mechanic of the d20 system to us. This material has already been published on the web, at the D&D gaming day a while back, and in the quick-start rules that came with Keep on the Shadowfell. The core mechanic is to roll 1d20 and add loads of modifiers. Compare it to a target number. The higher the result the better. Not a million miles away from third edition is it?
The core mechanic and the game is underpinned by three basic rules. These exemplify what the designers called the “exception-based” nature of the game. Remember these and you have mastered the game:
- Simple Rules, Many Exceptions
- Specific Beats General
- Always Round Down
So basically, every feat, power and class feature in some way breaks the rules – and that is what the game is all about: exceptions. If you find two conflicting rules, then always take the specific rule. If you have to divide a result by two (or any other number) always round the result down. And that is that. So primed you can embark upon the next nine chapters with a degree of equlibrium.
Chapter One is what it is. It has to be there for neophyte players. It has to try and sell how fantastic a game this is. I only read it because I thought I would be thorough. Before I move on, I’ll just mention the art and the layout as I’ll probably forget to do so later.
All the core books are extremely colourful – in fact class features, powers, feats, equipment, magic items, monsters and so on are actually colour coded. The art is very good and very big. Each chapter opens with a double page spread, and there are often half-pages given to illustrations. The format is very easy on the eye. There’s a little recycled art from third edition here and there, but it’s most all new. There doesn’t seem a need to cram in lots of information, the presentation takes precedence, meaning there’s a fair amount of white space at the foot of some pages in order to keep everything into coherent sections. I like what I see, even if I don’t necessary like what I read.
It’s Chapter Two! This one is all about making characters.