The more I hear about 4th Edition D&D, the more I like what I’m hearing. I think now is exactly the right time for a new edition to be announced, and the release schedule looks just fine and dandy. The DI online gaming idea looks pretty hinky too, and that’s something I’d expected to hate from the start. I just hope that it actually works. D&D doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to software, so let’s hope number 4 breaks the curse, eh?
Let’s be fair though. There’s not a huge amount wrong with the current edition of D&D right now – at least nothing with can’t be fixed with a handful of House Rules and a decent pair of scissors. The Core Books themselves are great (so long as you ignore Attacks of Opportunity, grapples and XP calculations). Heck, even the worst books WoTC have released over the years (c. 60% of the Complete…. range) have one or two redeeming features in the form of usable Feats, equipment and character ideas. Maybe I’m just being charitable, but 3.5E is the bet version of D&D to date and it’ll be a hard act to follow.
What I’d like to see is a more generic core D&D without the kooky Vancian (memorise, then cast) Magic as core; that doesn’t represent How Magic Works in 98% of all Fantasy novels outside D&D’s own fiction line (and even they hand-wave over it), so should go. I’d also love to see a move away from miniatures play. D&D isn’t a board game but one of imagination; a shift of emphasis toward online gaming and virtual tabletops ir a Good Thing if it means less emphasis on Little Plastic Figures ™ in the game.
What I’m seeing over on the Wixards’ forums and EN World is just that; a re-tooling of the existing game rather than a complete re-invention as occured with the birth of 3rd Edition. The very rules which need changing (AoO, grappling, class restrictions, etc) are those facing change, and the entire system is being streamlined to make for a better game overall.
Over in Mutants & Masterminds it’s possible to run a combat session where the good guys face off against hundreds of minions at a time. In 3.5E D&D the practical limit is 8 foes. Beyond that a GM’s head is likely to explode I’d hope that D&D takes some lessons from M&M and learns how to manage huge-scale combats like this. It really does change the game dynamic when it’s possible (and encouraged!) to have the heroes face off against overwhelming odds and the rules can keep up.
What D&D lacks more than anything is the tools to allow the generation of unique characters. Two 1st level Halfling Rogues will be 90% identical. Ditto for two 5th level human Fighters or two 20th level elven Sorcerers. The main significant differences will be in equipment and spell selection. Aside from that it’s a fair bet that the attributes will be within a point or two of each other, the skill and feat selections will be similar and the special abilities will be all-but-identical. See one 5th level Fighter, you’ve seen ‘em all.
This is mainly because D&D is based upon the concept of “layered” templates where race adds one specific set of abilities, class and level adds another. There’s little opportunity to personalize the character beyond these constraints. Rangers get to choose their combat style, Fighters get wide Feat selection (though most Fighter-types tend to follow two or three set Feat paths) and Spellcasters can pick their spell lists (again, pretty much the same spells are selected by all casters). It’s not so much “character generation” as design-by-building-block.
That’s a problem which goes away with M&M (and, to a lesser extent, d20 Modern). I hope there’s enough flexibility in all the character classes in 4th Edition D&D for it to be less of an issue there too.
I look forward to finding out