A Quick Look at D&D 4th Edition

One of my recent acquisitions with the D&D 4th Edition Players’ Handbook. This is a collection of thoughts (not a review) on that work.

Understand that I started playing RPGs back in 1981, with the Moldvay-written, Otus-illustrated magenta Basic Set. I moved swiftly into AD&D, but within 5 years I had mostly moved on to other games, Champions and RuneQuest at the time. I paid close attention when AD&D 2nd Edition came out in 1989, the year I graduated from High School. I had a job by then, and bought those books, but was disappointed – the exciting 2nd Edition that Gary Gygax had written about was nowhere to be seen, and instead we got a bland construction that managed to stip away much of the character of AD&D without fixing any of its major problems. So in the 1990s instead of getting into AD&D2 I moved into Rolemaster instead, and later into a succession of other games. It wasn’t until the so-called “3rd edition” arrived that I even seriously thought about playing D&D again.

In a sense, D&D3 saved the game for me. I had many issues with it, particularly with the magic systems which seemed to me to have been under-revised, and with the overall bloat and complexity that suffused the thing. And while it didn’t do much to bring back the flavor of AD&D1, it did address a number of issues that I’d had with the core system.

D&D3 made a lot of changes to the game system – enough that compatibility with material from older editions was pretty problematic. But despite that, and despite the protestations of some purists, it was still recognizable as D&D. All of the essential elements of D&D were there… changed perhaps, but still present. The mechanics were different, but you approached actual play the same way.

I knew going in that D&D4 changed a lot. But I couldn’t say how much, or have a real opinion on the thing, without having at least read the books. I just can’t stand not having an opinion, so I picked it up, along with a couple of the modules (now called “Adventures.”) I did not feel obligated to like it, but I did feel obligated not to dislike it for no good reason – purist old-timer crankiness not being a good reason.

That said, I open the can of grognard by saying that it appears to be a perfectly servicable game, and one I’d consider playing – but it is not only not D&D, it’s not even much at all like D&D. It’s about as much like D&D as Earthdawn is, which is to say that most of the conventions are there, in a general sense, but the feel is totally different. It’s not just a total redesign, but a total redesign using a completely different design philosophy and with wholly different goals. In essence, D&D designed in the methodology of Magic: the Gathering, and intended to emulate the play of World of Warcraft. There is of course nothing fundamentally wrong with such a game. I do take exception to such a game masquerading as D&D. Nor is there anything preventing players of D&D4 from having a D&D-like experience, but if they do, it will have been put in laboriously by the gamemaster and not enabled by the rules.

As I say, there’s really nothing wrong with the thing, and my guess is that it plays pretty well. But it makes me sad, because with it the D&D of my childhood is dead. There’s a bright spot in that the old-style D&D community has never been more vibrant or prolific, and 3.5, in the form of Paizo’s Pathfinder, is alive and well. Material for both is free on the web.

Anyone remotely happy with any previous version of D&D will probably see no need for 4th Edition, and the rules are not backwards-compatible at all. You may or may not enjoy it as a game in its own right, but anybody with some idea of what the D&D experience is like is going to find it missing in this game. If you want World of Warcraft, go play it. You want D&D, find an older version of the rules that’s not a betrayal of the name.

5 responses to “A Quick Look at D&D 4th Edition

  1. WOTC is in an odd position of selling a product that most of the market for the product doesn’t need to buy on a regular basis. Maybe there is a crowd out there that loves to buy and run canned adventures, but it seems to me like most DND players tend to run in custom campaign settings. The only product that all of the players actually might need is the PHB (and even then most games won’t grind to a halt with a few PHB’s to share).

    They tried their approach from Magic – namely introducing overpowered expansion rules in the form of supplemental books, but I don’t expect it was very successful. Either DM’s wouldn’t allow supplemental books, or players could just house rule in a cool idea or several without buying copies of them all around the table.

    Then they tried the half-assed revision in 3.5, which was just similar enough to 3.0 that players felt like they shouldn’t have had to pay for it again, but just different enough to cause compatibility issues for anyone who did actually want to overhaul their campaigns. Ironically, this put them in the odd position of having to try and sell those last few 3e supplements and adventures when the market knew that they would have major compatibility issues down the line.

    Personally, I’d rather see the full reboot than the partial revision. My guess is that, if you’re mainly in the RPG for the “game”, you’re proably happy with the new form, though you’d probably be even better off ditching the dice and playing an MMORPG. If you’re primarily in it for the “role playing”, though, I can’t help but wonder if WOTC is shooting themselves in the foot by overhauling the rules so often. All they’re proving is that the best part of long-running story-driven campaigns, which are the ones that really keep people interested in the genre, is highly independent of the very products that WOTC is trying to sell.

  2. It is a very different game. I play in a D&D 4E group now and, as you say, it’s only D&D in name only. My favorite D&D was actually the classic (not Advanced) D&D rules.

    Old school D&D was more of a game about resource management. D&D 4E, well, every turn you can do something, so you always have resources. And it’s pretty hard to die. The game is more about tactics, miniatures are pretty much a necessity.

    I like both kinds of gameplay, but I do wonder why they need the same name.

  3. Hmmmm. I played AD&D 1e back in high school. Now I’m playing D&D 4e. So how could it be possible that I’m having so much fun, and it feels exactly like the D&D from way back when? I must just be fooling myself… Because of course it’s not *real* Dungeons & Dragons. No way.

  4. Yes, that’s exactly right, although you may be ‘mistaken’ or possibly ‘wrong’ rather than ‘fooling yourself’. Doesn’t mean it’s not fun, though, or that the fun is invalid – I was pretty clear on that, I think.

    I don’t actually mean to sound so dismissive as that, though – bear in mind that I’be been into RPGs non-stop since the early 80s – thus the caveat in the post – and thus am perhaps overexposed to the subject matter. I’m well aware that I’m being a fussy purist about it. I was also crystal clear on being aware that “not D&D” is not the same as “bad game.”

  5. I am an utter twat with the maturity level of a toddler and the intellect of a mealworm. I am also a coward hiding behind what I think is the anonymity of the internet. I am much too stupid to realize, however, that my IP has been logged and blocked by the administrator of this blog, who now knows where I live and who my ISP is, and that should I behave like a retarded pseudo-man in the future I will be met met with a similar response from the noble moderator, to whom I humbly apologize for being a shitnugget.

    Have a nice day.