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.