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: 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)
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:
Level: Fire 1, Sor/Wiz 1
Components: Verbal, Somatic
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: 15 ft.
Area: Cone-shaped burst
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:
Wizard Attack 1
A fierce burst of flame erupts from your hands and scorches nearby foes.
Encounter ✦ Arcane, Fire, Implement
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.
Technically, there’s roleplaying in 4th Edition, even if it’s characters playing a role in the party (healer, tank, artillery, etc.)
However, yes, roleplaying has always been up to the imaginations. Still, the loss of spells that aren’t combat specific is where I think the new D&D loses the D&D I remember. No Rope Trick? It feels like it’s meant to be a transition from the table top minis Clix people into the kind of roleplaying I’m accustomed to. D&D came from minis and to minis it is returning.
If you want roleplaying-centric games, try the White Wolf games. I’m a huge fan of Changeling the Lost, though I haven’t had a chance to play it.
I have not been a big fan of D&D since the 2nd edition. I use to play a lot before 2nd edition, and played quite a bit of 2nd edition, but when 3rd, and the 3.5 stuff came out I lost interest in it.
I lost interest in it, because it seemed to dummy everything down. Not just the rules, but the whole D&D image. I mean, compare the artwork in the 1st and 2nd editions, with that in the 3rd on up. The 3rd on up stuff looks childish. I also don’t like the push towards miniatures. Some of my favorite games were played with no props, just notebook and dice. One of the best games I think I ever had was on a long car trip, where a couple of my friends whipped out some dice, and quickly drew up a couple of sketches.
I liked that flexibility.
“What’s wrong with D&D finally taking some of those improvements back for itself?”
Because.. they’re not seen as improvements when it comes to paper-and-pen roleplaying?
The problem, roleplaying-wise, with d&d was that being the first roleplaying “system” around, it broke a lot of new ground and while gygax & co were designing it, they pretty much had to play by ear.
Then we had systems like runequest (get good at doing X by doing X a lot), rolemaster (okay, you threw 16, I’ll check this table to see what table I should cross-reference in order to get description of what happened, wait a sec..) and so on, exploring the field.
Later systems, such as GURPS (surprise surprise) could learn from these experiences and actually build a system that promotes roleplaying, instead of “dice-playing”.
D&D4 isn’t D&D – it’s something else. If you don’t want to play it, buy GURPS instead. =)
2nd edition version:
Burning Hands (alteration)
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1
Area of Effect: The caster
Saving Throw: 1/2
When the wizard casts this spell, a jet of searing flame shoots from his fingertips. His hands must be held so as to send forth a fan-like sheet of flames: the wizard’s thumbs must touch each other and fingers must be spread. The burning hands send out flame jets of five-foot length in a horizontal arc of about 120 degrees in front of the wizard. Any creature in the area of the flames suffers 1d3 hit points of damage, plus 2 points for each level of experience of the spellcaster, to a maximum of 1d3 + 20 points of fire damage. Those successfully saving vs. spell receive half damage. Flammable materials touched by the fire burn (e.g. cloth, paper, parchment, thin wood, etc.). Such materials can be extinguished in the next round if no other action is taken.
So it seems they’ve taken the first ed version, plus clarified the text a bit, plus some tweaks here and there.
I was a GURPS fan for a long time, but I could only rarely find another GURPS fan to play with. And in the end, GURPS’ complexity and desire to simulate reality made it kind of unsuitable for running a fantasy campaign.
Not to mention the fact that its default magic system has all the character of a tax form. Plus, you have to throw your spells to your target so to be an effective GURPS mage you must also be a world-class baseball pitcher.
GURPS is basically the Linux of the RPG world. I learned a lot about good game design from reading the books but I don’t think I was ever able to actually run a game of GURPS.
I’m in the “it’s a different game than prior editions” group. But I’m NOT in the group that hates 4th edition (I’m currently DMing Keep on the Shadowfell for my group). I enjoy the new system, and we are having fun with it. But I understand the points of the naysayers… the game HAS DEFINITELY changed, and quite fundamentally at that. People are fooling themselves if they think otherwise.
Several things contribute to their points, namely — minions, powers, healing surges, multi-classing:
Minions are to be used as fodder — they always do a set amount of damage and they always have 1 hit point. Any monster can be of the “minion” variety — ogres, demons, giants, etc. And they all die with a single hit. Come on now… a giant taken out by a single dagger thrust?? Yes, he’s a minion, but… this requires a suspension of belief that is hard to swallow.
Every class has “powers” now… even fighters and other martial characters… and these powers can only be used a certain number of times per encounter (except “at-will” powers). Of course, fighter powers are known as “Exploits”, but it all adds up to the same thing.
Case in point… a fighter cannot make a Brute Strike more than once per day? Why not? The description of Brute Strike is: “You shatter armor and bone with a ringing blow”. The mechanics are that you do 3x Weapon damage if you hit a foe. Well… why does it take a whole day to do it again? Does that one blow really exhaust you so much that you simply cannot work up the energy more than once per day? How is this rationalized, especially since you can try again at the next possible opportunity if you miss? (It is a “Reliable” power, which means you don’t expend the “use” of the power if you miss). Again, assuming you miss, you can make a Brute Strike all day. But once you hit with it, you cannot try it again until you rest for at least 6 hours. Gee, doesn’t make much sense, right?
Healing Surges — Every character now has the miraculous ability to heal themselves out of combat. Give them 5 minutes, and they are good as new. Never mind that your character was burned to a crisp by dragon fire and dropped to negative hit points only a few moments before… now that the dragon is defeated the character only needs to spend a few healing surges (seconds of time) and he’s back in perfect fighting form. Characters are truly “gods among men” in 4th edition.
Multi-classing is effectively dead. The new rules state that, at most, you can spend a feat to gain use of one class ability of one different class, and perhaps training in a class skill of that class. But this ends up being more or less a waste because you can only use this new ability once per encounter, and the ability itself is usually one that the other class can use at-will so it’s generally pretty weak anyway.
In all, 4th edition plays more like a small-scale tactical war game with RPG elements. But this doesn’t mean it’s a bad game… as I said before, I do enjoy it. Combat is fun. But it is quite different than its predecessors.
What I meant to say is that if you want to play d&d 4th edition, play d&d 4th edition. If you want to roleplay, you might want to try some other system. Or, *gasp*, stay at some older d&d ruleset! =)
Speaking of complex game systems, has anyone here played the HERO system (Champions)? While the system truly gives you the ability to make your own powers, try to decipher this power:
1/2d6 HKA (1d6 with STR), NND (vs. FFs) (+1), Does BODY (+1) (30 pts.) +24 STR, Focus (Objects of Opportunity, 5ER 292) (16 pts.) 8PD/ 8 ED Armor, Focus (Objects of Opportunity, 5ER 292) (16 pts.)
Just FYI — Basically, this is a hand-to-hand killing attack which does 1d6 BODY damage against which there is no normal defense except Force Fields. It also provides the user with 8 points of physical and energy armor. The ability can only be used if an “Object of Opportunity” is available.
Chris S: They didn’t design the system for realism. They designed it for class balance and an “epic” feel. The daily powers are there not only to allow characters to be supermen for a short period but also to give players a way out of very difficult situations. Indeed, between the daily powers and healing surges, TPKs should only happen if players play extremely poorly and overextend themselves.
I guess in the end this is almost perfectly analogous to the old “Is Diablo an RPG?” debate.
I agree with you. This sort of contributes to the point, in my opinion. The “epic” feel was never missing from previous versions. Pre-4th editions, while not specifically designed for realism, contributed to the feeling that your characters were pretty much normal, albeit skilled, individuals who rose up to take on the challenges of the world around them, and over the course of the campaign, accomplish heroic deeds.
4th edition feels different. The characters feel superhuman. As you imply, 4th edition characters are protected by the rules. Unless you come at them with overwhelming odds, or the players play idiotically, character death is hardly possible at all. If your character does go down, he/she gets 3 tries to make a saving throw vs. death, each of which carries a 55% chance of success (1d20, 10 or higher you succeed). So unless the whole party goes down, death is pretty much impossible (the other characters in the party have several ways to enable you to survive… Heal skill, abilities that allow you to spend a healing surge, etc). Takes a bit of the edge out of combat.
I think it’s pretty obvious from your example why it doesn’t promote roleplaying: The new description contains ONLY technical stuff, everything else (hold your hands this and that) is gone. But then again, D&D players for the most part were Hack n Slash gamers anyway ;).
For the record, I need to apologize to Anthony. Some other people at work wanted to play too…. and I kinda ran out of room in the party…. Sorry Anthony. However I still want to get together and play, we just need to find some other people to play with.
So how exactly did fourth edition remove my imagination…. I can role play frigin’ candy land if I want to. “Oh no Lord Licorice grabbed me, now I can’t move. No lord don’t touch me there…”
In short 4th edition provides a cleaner framework for the game mechanics than any previous edition, similar to the clean mechanics in Candy Land. If you want to play a game “like you used to” just go ahead, the rules don’t stop you. Only your DM can really stop you (and if you bring the munchies then you can still negotiate.)
Oh one more thing, if you really want to multi class just make up a new class type. The Players handbook almost gives you a template for it. My son (age 5) plays a “Rainbow Kitty” in our campaign. We just dropped it right in as a new class/race and works it fine. Complete with “Rainbow Ball” ranged attacks and “Rainbow Stopping” Stun spells.
@David, rope trick would probably be a ritual, just make it up and move on.
Oh… I thought I had replied to this article, apparently not. Just wanted to say it was a good read!
In my opinion, there are a lot of other RPGs that are much more “realistic” than D&D. It’s really not something I expect from D&D anyways… when we play it, we play it because it’s like a computer game, with a clear goal (get better!). Realistic games are usually more complex and requires better story and/or role-playing abilities of the players.
That’s generally speaking, of course.