Wednesday, July 23, 2008

4D&D Impressions

4th Edition D&D is out, and I've read some of the Player's Handbook.

First Edition (second was not much different, so I discount it) let you play "wargame D&D" or "story D&D" as you liked--D&D as a competition or as an entertainment. Family games tend to be entertainments. Party games, ditto. Euro games, often. Wargames, they're usually competitions.

As Desslock, the well-known PC Gamer reviewer of RPGs says, recent versions of D&D were too "Crunchy", that is, the barriers to entry are too high because generating and understanding a character takes so long. In First Edition you could get players going in 10 minutes, if you needed to. And there are barriers in the play, as well, which tends to become too complex for many. In 3.0 or 3.5 it takes closer to an hour. It is also much more "fiddly" to devise adventures. I've played 3.0, and refereed from modules, but I never made up a 3/3.5 adventure owing to those fiddly barriers (primarily the skills, feats, and ability modifications).

I've always treated D&D as a wargame that's entertaining--we ALWAYS have used a square grid board. 3/3.5 emphasized wargame and (at least insofar as it's "Crunchy") lost track of the entertainment. 4th edition appears to have recast D&D as an entertainment--something like a movie--rather than as a strategic game, by eliminating most of the more difficult decisions such as when to use a very limited set of spells.

First Edition is long gone. Hackmaster revived First Edition, but with its own complications and an annoyingly foolish notion that the referee and the players are actually competing with one another. (Any referee who can't kill off players EASILY, if he wants to, is incompetent.) Castles and Crusades seems to be the spiritual descendant of First Edition D&D.

4th edition appears to be an attempt to go back to the simplicity and non-crunchiness of First Edition. But the uniformity of it is very striking, and I wonder how that will affect long-term enjoyment. There are not prestige classes and skills and feats galore to unbalance the game, nor does it appear that this is wanted. Instead, every class has several powers (at-will, once per encounter, once per day). And the powers tend to read with a remarkable sameness regardless of the class. Even the wizard is no different, in melee, though at other times he is more likely to use rituals (equivalent of spells that take longer than a round to cast).

Some commentators have remarked that this edition is an attempt to turn D&D into WOW. I don't know about that, but when characters always have something they can do, can heal themselves many times, when characters rise in level rapidly, there is more WOW than in any other version of D&D. It is intended to be easy to play and easy to succeed at, I think, which also characterizes WOW, an entertainment, a "grind-fest for noobs" is how I've heard WOW described. What appears to have happened is that the competitive aspect of D&D, which was too much emphasized in 3/3.5, has been quashed in favor of the entertainment aspect. First Edition balanced the two, those who wanted to play it "competitively", more or less as a wargame, could do so, while those who wanted entertainment, as though the game were a story, can do that. 3/3.5 was almost all wargame. 4 appears to be almost all entertainment. (I should clarify here that when I say "competitive" I'm talking about players against the monsters with the referee as neutral; it is still a cooperative game where the players are concerned, one of its greatest attractions, I think.)

Competitions require planning and difficult choices, whereas entertainments reduce the number of choices to several plausible ones, and tend not to require planning. Family/party games are at the extreme of entertainment. 3/3.5 was aptly described by one speaker at Origins as "Fantasy Squad Leader", at the other end of the spectrum where wargames live. It was designed to cater to players who wanted to find the most powerful combination of rules and skills and feats, and worse, it was designed so that vast numbers of additional skills, feats, and prestige classes became available to players, so that it wasn't even a self-contained wargame but an evolving one, kind of like a collectible card game where the rules must be broken every year so that the best combinations change over time.

I remember advising First Edition referees that players do all they can to find unearned advantages, and the referee's role was to quash that. But 3/3.5 enthroned it as a virtue. There is little of that extreme min-maxing in 4th edition, and that should be an improvement for most players.

But I need to read a lot more of the Player Handbook before I can say these things definitively. At present it appears it would be an interesting game to try, but I wouldn't referee it. And while it's a fantasy role-playing game, and might be a good one, it isn't D&D any more.

1 comment:

Aquinas Dad said...

I must agree. I have Castles and Crusades and HackMaster on my shelves (along with Rolemaster and a dozen other games) and the system I keep coming back to is 1st/2nd Edition. The ease of sliding back and forth between competitive play and entertainment is so easy and so smooth that it is hard to 'lose' that when going to another system.

On a personal note, I am also annoyed by some of the changes made. As I recently said to Jen "In 3rd ed. they allowed any race to do anything. Now in 4th they claim there is no 'special niche' for the gnome - of course not! They eliminated it! But it appears we need three kinds of elf, though." I find this combination of attitudes (let's make the game more bland and uniform and then wonder why people don't like it) irritating.