Monday, March 17, 2008

4th Edition Thoughts

I am conflicted about the 4th edition of Dungeon and Dragons. I am a long time D&D player, as near as I can figure I have been playing for about 20 years (maybe a little more). During this time I have seen several different versions of the game and I have branched out to many other games. D&D has been a mainstay during this whole period even though at different times other games have been featured front and center.

You won't be reading that I think the whole thing is a sell out and a money grab. It is time for a new edition. It is time in the sense that 3.X is nearing a decade old, and it is time in the sense that the cracks have been showing for a while and are starting to widen.

First edition was a mess, a fun mess, but a mess none the less. There really isn't much more to say about it. The rulebooks were disorganized and chaotic, the modules were all over the place with no real overall sense of theme and setting. This was great for the time, as they were still defining what a fantasy RPG was. In a way D&D was helping to define what generic fantasy was. It brought together many different kinds of fantasy and melded them into a whole. Obviously The Lord of the Rings had a huge impact on D&D but it flows both ways. If the LotR movies had been made in the early 80s they may have looked very different than they do now (and not just because of technology). D&D has had a profound impact on the way we imagine what fantasy objects look like.

Second edition was in much better shape, but was still pretty rough. The spell descriptions were god awful from a gameplay standpoint. They were often vague and easy to exploit, leading to many arguments at the table. Second edition was in many ways all about the role playing part of the game. There was a lot of feel even to the core rulebooks, and there were boxes and boxes of setting information. It was here that generic fantasy was really codified, it was Dark Ages England, France, and Germany with magical powers and monsters grafted on. It was a lot of fun. Some of the settings were hard to tell apart. Honestly, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Mystara, and Birthright could have been different continents on the same world. Dark Sun was different and darker and Spelljammer was a great idea ruined by early 90s camp. Planescape and Ravenloft were different and very well done. I have little experience with Council of Wyrms.

By the end of the edition the weak links were obvious. There were too many systems that were too much alike, and many of the ones that were different (Dark Sun) made heavy changes to the rules. The rules were too chaotic and confusing to start with.

Overlapping first and second edition was the D&D Basic Game. This is my favorite edition of D&D. The rules were pretty clear and easy to use. It played quick so that it actually felt like the pulp fantasy adventures that GG had been reading when he made the game. The other editions had drifted towards LotR inspired epic fantasy, which is fun, but it was weighing down the rules and frankly the powers that the characters had in those kinds of books were not very fun powers game wise. The default setting for the Basic D&D game was completely generic fantasy (Mystara in 2nd edition) but it managed to hold to the sword and sorcery feel a bit more. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos was loosly ruled with towns separated by dark dangerous wilderness. The Black Eagle Barony was not some secret cabal of demi-gods it was a harsh baron. As you grew in power you hit on other real world inspired locations and the cool Isle of Dread.

Third edition came with major rule revisions and not always for the best. The rules were much better organized and much better balanced then ever before. However, the game had a board game feel to it that it had never had before, and not just because miniature use increased. The whole style of the game played more to the munchkin set. Combats took a very long time and were often reduced to "I hit, you miss, I miss, you hit" affairs. Every effect was well defined, which was good, and every action that could cause an effect was defined, which was not so good. The first removed some of the ambiguity from the rules that second edition had. The second made it feel like you were playing in a straightjacket. When your turn came up you had a limited number of things you could do, and you picked one. There was very little room for off the cuff actions and improvisation.

Another problem in third edition was that the definition of generic fantasy started to get boring. There were a lot of logic errors in the cosmology and alignment system that started to show and the rigidness of sticking to real world history with magic grafted on was really constraining. Eberron was a bit of a change but not really enough.

My third edition days are over. I had not really been using it for a while. I preferred the two alternate players handbooks put out by Monte Cook (especially Iron Heroes by Mike Mearls). I fiddled around with the Everquest RPG but mostly I just went sci-fi and stuck with GURPS. Recently, at Fear the Con, I played in my first Savage Worlds games. Savage Worlds is a pulp action game that is very faced paced, rules light, but stays out of the way of player improvisation and fun. The whole time I was playing, I was reminded of Basic D&D. When I got home I grabbed the Fantasy Toolkits and quickly converted my upcoming D&D game to Savage Worlds. I'll talk more about the game in an upcoming post, but it went very well.

This brings me to 4th edition and the potential it has. Through their many communications with the fans the designers has claimed that they want to make play faster, more fun, easier on the DM and with more options. If they can pull this off in a way similar to Savage Worlds, they will be in good shape. However, they need to do this without "dumbing down" the game. My biggest fear is that it will become even more board game like than 3rd edition. There have been some things released that have hinted that this might be the case.

On the other hand, there have also been some really exciting things released:
  1. Nothing is sacred: They are shaking up the cosmology, the overly constrained settings, the way magic and player powers work, even the way healing works.
  2. They have put a lot of thought into how they want generic fantasy to be defined by this edition and it looks like guys like Rich Baker have decided to run with the ball. The overall feel could have more in common with the Grand Duchy of Karameikos and Fritz Leiber than with Elminster and the shire. I like the sound of the points of light surrounded by darkness.
  3. Mike Mearls. Iron Heroes was, in many ways, the game third edition should have been. In my opinion he is the best designer of d20 variants out there.
  4. Integration of computer based tool sets from the beginning. This will make the DM's job much easier.
I really like the things they are saying about changing the feel of the setting it is more in line with what I enjoy. I am concerned and excited about the rules changes. If they can streamline the game while opening it up to player creativity I am in. If they make it more Hero Quest like and force you into preset "best" builds for each class... well I already found a system that does D&D better than 3.x.

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