Dungeons and Dragons: 4th Edition
What Did Those Clowns Do?!
There's a new version of Dungeons & Dragons, and I've actually played it. So, what's it like?
Not that good.
It's clearly an attempt to pull in people who like video games by emulating their gameplay on a table. Characters, who in third edition lost the admittedly bloated proficiency system, gained the more interesting "skills" (actual skills) and "feats" (lightweight powers), now get those as a sideline to their actual powers, which are called "powers". There are tons of them. You get to pick from four or five every few levels. They are, well... They are the tabletop equivalent of special attacks from a modern action role playing game - most people single out World of Warcraft, but if you've played Diablo II then that's good enough for a comparison. There's powers you can do whenever (boring), ones on a per-encounter basis (kind of cool, actually), and ones you can use once a game day (which never get used).
The powers are slightly overblown. I suspect the aim was to give every character a long list of cool sounding things to look forward to, instead of just the characters with spells. In the old versions, wizards would be eager to reach level five because they would get a spell called called Fireball. A fighter (the generic term for any unspecified warrior lives on) got... another plus one to hit, just like every other level. Ho hum. Then they got extra feats. Now they get to look forward to such interestingly named class powers as, e.g. "Rain of Blows", "Chains of Sorrow", and "Cage of Chains". Hmmm...
If you're thinking that so much effort spent on combat abilities with cool names indicates a game with a large focus on combat, you'd be right. Wizards of the Coast has done its part in supporting the miniatures industry and made it a requirement for this version of D&D. There's little way around it, since a large chunk of the powers say "slide the target 3 squares" or "move up to six squares" or something about squares. It's ridiculous. Combat, which speeds along when the whole thing is largely imaginary, descends into the dreaded realms of power gaming and strategy discussions. The whole point of Dungeons and Dragons was to do away with miniature war gaming! If I wanted to spend this much time moving little figures around I could just go and play Warhammer!
Except I wouldn't, because Warhammer is ridiculously nerdy. Pathetic Warhammer nerds! Even I laugh at you! Hahahahaha!
Complaining about the combat aside, the game feels bland. The Player's Handbook feels like I'm just reading a guide for a computer game (the Dungeon Master's Guide is pretty damn good though, and has a lot of ideas on ). Description is light, and rules effects are heavier than ever before. But that's okay, really, since there's two more Player's Handbooks there must be a point where it gets interesting, right? Wrong. In one of the most cynical marketing ploys I've ever seen they've spread the classic D&D stuff across three books and then added in a few interesting ideas that would have been kind of interesting in their own setting! Why do this? Oh, that's right: Money.
Speaking of which, the in-game economy is entirely based around players finding and selling magic items. Not just as an inferred side effect of the players' wanton looting and thoughtless spending, it's in the rules. Players are supposed to have a a wish-list of items which will be found in treasure hoards. The game is basically streamlining the grind from a computer game so you get what you want. Speaking of magic items, they are displayed in little boxes with keywords and coloured headings, like the powers. The game also has so much book keeping there's a program for character management - which can print out little cards of the items and powers to make everything easier. So... Dungeons & Dragons is now a miniatures-and-cards game. This is not what I signed up for.
In fact, I signed up for a role-playing game. Not an all out combat game. That's what the computer is for. In the group I play with, there's not so much acting out our characters any more. Most tellingly, the person running the game is bored out of their mind. It's just not the same, and we're playing a 4th editioned sequel to the last game we played. We spend more time working out how best to optimise our party for mulching the enemies than getting excited about what's going on. Even the dice rolling is boring.
There! I said it! The key mechanic of the game is boring now! While the occasional success at a long shot is exciting, it's just plain boring to even roll the bloody dice! I blame this on the fact that a lot of the time missing with a particular power means not being able to get to try again. This is so annoying that certain classes come with some powers that aren't wasted on a failure... But it's still something that makes everyone hesitant to do certain things in the game.
It's all so frustrating. As a miniature wargame it's fun, but as the new version of D&D it's just not that great. There's some nice gameplay improvements, such as not needing a cleric to heal the party, or everyone having elements of another classes' core tactics - which gives people the freedom to do what they like and fill the gaps in the party as we go. But the rest of the game feels oddly constraining when it comes to actual roleplaying, and worst of all... it's just bland.