Following the maxim of “if you’ve got nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all”, I’m going to focus on what I do like about 4th Edition. I’m most of the way through the Players’ Handbook, and sorry to say it’s quite a small list. The good news though is that a lot of the good stuff can easily be ‘ported back into 3rd Edition, making that a much better game instead.
The first, introductory chapter of the PHB is right on the nail. It speaks about the heritage of the game, what role-playing is about and managed to get me really fired up for this new Edition of the game. I’d rate it as one of the best “intro to role-playing” chapters I’ve read in a long, long time. Simple, clear and perfect fodder for new and old gamers alike.
This is how to make Small characters! Unlike 3.5e’s travesty of “different weapon sizes”, 4th Edition just says that Halflings and the like can’t use big, hefty two-handed weapons and have to use some regular-sized weapons (longswords, mainly) two-handed. That keeps the equipments lists simple, solves the problem of having to provide “correctly sized” magical weapons and does it all with the bare minimum of rules of fuss. It also happens to be how I ran 3rd Edition anyhow, which is an added bonus
I’m familiar with Minions and Mooks from Mutants & Masterminds, but rather stupidly never thought of putting them into D&D. These are simple-to-handle critters who go down with a single hit from the Heroes, and do much to emphasise the characters as the centre of the action. I’ve used concepts such as Hit Point Pools (where I give treat a horde of monsters like a Swarm), but never really considered making the monsters 1hp critters. This one rule goes a loooooong way toward solving two problems with 3.5 Edition; not being able to run combats involving tonnes of critters, and emphasizing the Heroes’ central role in the story. Now you can toss the Adventurers into a room with 15 Orc Minions and a couple of Big Bads and let them chew it up, just like we used to in Classic D&D. Brilliant!
With a few reservations, I like how the Races are presented in 4th Edition. Each race has particular strengths and no weaknesses. This is better than 3.5e’s idea that every damned thing should be internally balanced, so for every +2 there has to be a -2 somewhere too. Balance shouldn’t be an obsession, and it certainly shouldn’t be a guiding factor of the game – but that’s another blogpost for another time. I’m no fan of the Dragonborn race as they smack far too much of being a marketing-inspired WoW knockoff for my liking, and I’ve serious concerns about the Eldarin’s teleport ability. That’s just far too open to abuse both in and out of encounters; I expect it to get seriously nerfed in the errata somewhere along the line. On the plus side though, I do like the new Half-Elves and Humans. Shame about the lack of Half-Orcs and Gnomes, but I guess we can’t have everything, eh? I’m seriously disappointed half-orcs don’t even make the Monster Manual too. Ah well.
One of the guiding principles of this Edition of D&D was choices. The designers clearly wanted the players to be able to customize the characters so that, for example, every Elven Ranger was different. That’s an excellent goal, and I’m sure that with a few more PHBs and supplements under their belts, it’ll be truly achievable. The problem is that right now we’ve got the goal, but not really the means to reach it. The PHB has far too few Powers for each class, and too many of those are duplicates, near-duplicates or just follow a simple combat-centred bonus to hit/bonus damage mechanic. In short, I love the goal, but they’ve fallen far short of turning it into reality. I’d much rather there were fewer huge double page spread art pages, and more damned content. They could have pulled the Powers out of the class section, consolidated the duplicates, removed the spurious-padding artwork and given us double the number of Powers in an alphabeticised chapter at the back – kinda like the 3e Spell List section, but for all classes. That would be easier to lookup during play, simple to use at character generation and maybe they’d even think to include powers that weren’t so bloody focused on big flashy WoW-style combat. Like that’s going to happen.
Damn. I wasn’t going to criticize. But hey, at least I found some good in there too. It’s not all bad.