So. Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition has certainly raised some ire, hasn’t it?

New roleplaying game, roleplaying not included…

World of Warcraft Refit…

D&D for Dummies

This is NOT D&D!

D&D 4th Ed. is a travesty. It’s a terrible game with terrible mechanics.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

D&D 4’s detractors tend to hammer on three points:

1. The new edition is inspired by MMORPGs, most specifically World of Warcraft.

2. The new edition doesn’t actually promote roleplaying (with some going so far as to say that it doesn’t even allow it).

3. The new edition isn’t Dungeons & Dragons.

How valid are these points?

While I haven’t had a chance to play D&D 4 yet (Hi, Tom!) I’ve read the Player’s Handbook and The Keep on the Shadowfell quite thoroughly. I’ve also listened to the complete D&D podcast where Scott Kurtz and Gabe and Tycho play D&D 4 for the first time. Gabe had never played a paper-and-pencil RPG before but is an experienced World of Warcraft player, and he was continually finding parallels between the two.

Gabe: I should have gone with “[Jim] Felmagic”.
Tycho: No, you’d get a call from Blizzard. “‘Fel‘ is our word for dark magic!”

Gabe: This reads very much like a [Final Fantasy] Tactics game.
Tycho: Doesn’t it?

Gabe: What did you give me?
Scott: I gave you a +2 against this target – so my attack gives an ally +2.
Tycho: He buffed you.
Gabe: Okay.

Gabe: I cast Arcane Missiles. I mean Magic Missile.
Tycho: Same thing.

(after several encounters in which his character is the only effectual one)
Gabe: I’m going to one-man this instance.

As an exercise, let’s compare a famous spell as it matured through the editions. Let’s use the classic first-level magic-user spell Burning Hands.

Here’s the description of Burning Hands from the first edition of the Player’s Handbook:

Burning Hands (Alteration)
Level: 1
Range: 0
Duration: 1 round
Area of Effect: Special
Components: Verbal, Somatic
Casting Time: 1 segment
Saving Throw: None

When the magic-user casts this spell, jets of searing flame shoot from his or her fingertips. Hands can only be held so as to send forth a fan-like sheet of flames, as the magic-user’s thumbs must touch each other and fingers must be spread. The burning hands send out flame jets of 3′ length in a horizontal arc of about 120″ in front of the magic-user. Any creature in the area of flames takes 1 hit point of damage for each level of experience of the spellcaster, and no saving throw is possible. Inflammable materials touched by the fire will burn, i.e. cloth, paper, parchment, thin wood, etc.

Here’s the description of the same spell from 3.5 edition:

Burning Hands
Evocation [Fire]
Level: Fire 1, Sor/Wiz 1
Components: Verbal, Somatic
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: 15 ft.
Area: Cone-shaped burst
Duration: Instantaneous
Saving Throw: Reflex half
Spell Resistance: Yes

A cone of searing flame shoots from your fingertips. Any creature in the area of the flames takes 1d4 points of fire damage per caster level (maximum 5d4). Flammable materials burn if the flames touch them. A character can extinguish burning items as a full-round action.

Sorry, but I don’t have a second-edition player’s handbook. But notice that the spell isn’t that different. The range has been increased from the first edition version and it does more damage (1d4 per caster level instead of one point per caster level) and the target now gets a saving throw. But the spell isn’t that fundamentally different.

Here’s the description from the fourth edition player’s handbook:

Burning Hands
Wizard Attack 1
A fierce burst of flame erupts from your hands and scorches nearby foes.
Encounter ✦ Arcane, Fire, Implement
Standard Action
Close blast 5
Target: Each creature in blast
Attack: Intelligence vs. Reflex
Hit: 2d6 + Intelligence modifier fire damage.

That’s a nice impenetrable description, isn’t it? It’s pretty much just a bunch of keywords. So let’s go over them.

Encounter means that the power can only be used once per a combat encounter. Arcane is the power type of the spell, so it can only be used by characters with access to arcane power. Fire is the type of damage it does and Implement means that if you have a wand, staff or orb that improves your rolls you can use it on this spell (for instance, Gabe could use his +2 Wand of Accuracy in conjunction with this spell). Standard Action means that you must have a standard action available to use it (every player gets a standard action, a minor action and a move action in a single turn). Close means that the area affected must be right next to the character. Blast 5 means that the area affected is a square five tiles on a side. The wizard then makes an Intelligence attack on all characters (friend or foe, PC or NPC) in the square, which is compared against the target character’s Reflex. Any affected character takes 2d6 + the wizard’s intelligence modifier in fire damage.

Notice how incredibly defined that description is. Notice also that it refers to tiles on a grid. D&D 4 completely integrates miniatures into the base game – it’s no longer possible to play without miniatures.

So the detractors’ first point is confirmed in my mind. The goals of the designers of D&D 4 were to make the game both easier and faster to play and they achieved that goal by studying how computer role-playing games had done just that. (I’ve no doubt that this will make Bioware‘s job easier when they make Neverwinter Nights 3.)

But does conceding point one prove points two and three? Is it such a bad thing that D&D 4 has stolen mechanics from computer RPGs? After all, computer RPGs have been stealing from D&D for thirty-five years – and I don’t mean “taking it as inspiration”. I mean directly ripping it the eff off. Practically every designer of classic RPGs says that they started by trying to program the Dungeons & Dragons experience into a computer and the entire industry progressed from there. What’s wrong with D&D finally taking some of those improvements back for itself?

I think the explicit definition of each power is what prompts comments like the “no roleplaying required” one I quoted above. Such definitions take away options from both the player and the GM.

But again, is that such a bad thing? Notice that the “sets flammable stuff on fire” part of the description for Burning Hands is gone. Why? Well, what GM hasn’t had a conversation like this?

Player: Okay, I cast Burning Hands on the enemy wizard.
DM: Okay, he takes three points of damage.
Player: And he’s on fire now, right?
DM: What? No.
Player: What?! He’s wearing cloth armor, right? He can’t wear anything else!
DM: Yeah, he’s wearing cloth armor.
Player: Well then I set him on fire! The spell description explicitly states that…

Et cetera. Another trick I’ve seen players use is to try to use Burning Hands to ignite any lanterns or flasks of oil an enemy character was carrying. The previous rule editions don’t say anything about this, which means it’s up to the GM. The only problem is, what does the GM do? Let the spell become horribly overpowered or piss off a player? This way no one gets pissed – but if the GM wants to allow the player to use the spell in a non-standard way, he still can. I can imagine a situation where a player needs to burn a rope and says he wants to use Burning Hands to do it, and the GM allows the player to do it if he can beat a target number on his attack roll and also gives up his use of Burning Hands in his next encounter. That’s the kind of flexibility that comes from both the players and the GM having the necessary imagination – and in the end, that’s the real component of roleplaying. With enough imagination and goodwill around the table, you could roleplay just with Toon’s fifty-percent rule (though I doubt my own roleplaying skills are good enough for that).

So while point one is valid, I think point two is very weak.

Which brings us to point three. Is this game Dungeons & Dragons? You’ll be casting Magic Missile on kobolds and using Great Cleave on umber hulks…is that enough? Wizards knows that the game is vulnerable on this front, which is why the first adventure they’ve released for it pays direct homage to the classic D&D adventure The Keep on the Borderlands. They also released a fourth edition version of the Forgotten Realms very quickly and are working to get Eberron upgraded, though that won’t be out until 2009.

But of course point three is all perception. Some people will say yes and some no. My opinion is that Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is definitely Dungeons & Dragons. My only wish is that they hadn’t dropped the name “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” with the third edition…I think it would be much clearer (and inspire less ire) if 3.5 were still Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and this new edition were the new “basic” Dungeons & Dragons. As for the haters…well, I’m reminded of one day back in the early nineties when I was in an arcade watching this guy play the Dungeons & Dragons arcade game. He cast Magic Missile but died before it hit its target. He sniffed, “I thought Magic Missile never missed and instantly hit.” At which point I knew I was in the presence of snotty geek greatness.

But I’ll leave the last word to Scott Kurtz:

Scott: I guess the guys I play with at home are idiots. I am having such a good time.