There’s a lot of talk about 4e D&D being influenced by video games, and there’s little doubting that’s true. But I’m here to tell you that’s a good thing, and it makes 4e D&D more old school, not less. Here’s why.
All those video games, from Final Fantasy through World of Warcraft and beyond, have one thing in common. They’re all about generating characters who’s main aim in life is to kill creatures and take their stuff. That’s old school at the core, right there. What they do though is add several additional layers to the mix. The first and most obvious alteration is the big flashy graphics. Fantasy-inspired video games don’t do subtle effects where a big orange explosion will suffice. Some of that has carried through to the flavour text in 4e D&D’s Powers, but that doesn’t have to be how you play the game. Even Lance of Faith from the much-maligned laser Cleric could have a less flashy rationale in your game-world. It could be a direct stab of conscience that grips the heart of the target, or something more directly linked to your patron deity. The Lance of Faith from a Cleric of the Raven Queen could leave the target feeling like someone has literally walked over their grave.
In short, the game is as flashy as you want it to be; the effect of the Power remains the same. That opens up a whole range of old school potential. Want your Wizard to be an conjurer, illusionist or elementalist? Just describe your Powers in those terms, and you’re there.
The other thing that video games bring is multi-player support, and that’s carried across to 4e D&D with classes such as the Warlord and Powers that explicitly encourage tactical co-operative play. Add in the Skill Challenge mechanism that downright enforces every player to get involved, and you’ve got a version of D&D where teamwork is a central tenet. That’s not old school in itself – heck, in those days it was every man for himself – but it does help to bring back some of that old-style flavour. For example, in a recent short session I ran, the players had to climb up a 30′ statue to retrieve a ruby from it’s eye socket. Yeh, that scene.
Had I run this in 3e D&D, the action would have gone something like this: Rogue makes a Climb check. Rogue makes a Strength check to prize out the ruby. Rogue makes another Climb check. The rest of the party sit at the base and twiddle their thumbs.
In 4e, I ran it as a Skill Challenge. Haile (Eladrin Wizard) made a History check to identify the statue’s design and a Perception check to pinpoint a weak spot. Fomor (Human Ranger) made a Dex check to fire a tethered arrow, Fenugreek (Human Rogue) made his Climb roll while Osgrith (Orc Fighter) made an Athletics check to hold the rope taught. Dude, it was so old school it hurt.
Had any of them failed, the players had no shortage of other ways to get the Ruby. I hadn’t planned anything, just sat back and let the players brainstorm; the Skill Challenge mechanism put them on the spot. I’ve just added one House Rule to the mix – if a player says he’s not doing anything, that counts as one failure. You’re a part of the solution, or you’re a part of the reason why the solution didn’t work.
Unlike 3e D&D, 4e is more about what “feels” right than it is about mathematical accuracy. I remember ENWorld reviews where the poster would run off reams of errata where the math was wrong in a statblock. That’s just sucking the fun out of the game. 4e puts fun first, and the numbers are just there to back up the fun, just as it should be. I can make a monster who’s a 3rd level soldier-type, but make him how the heck I want. The rules give me the guidelines, and nothing more.
I like that. It’s old school.
It hearkens back to playing Red Book D&D where I’m winging it and describe a huge Ogre, deciding on the spot that he’s got 9 Hit Dice and bad breath. In 4e, I can make that 9 Hit Dice Ogre again, on the fly, and wing it once more (Ogre Savage, MM 199, add two levels means +2 to attacks, saves and AC, +1 to damage and 20 more HP. Done).
4e D&D isn’t perfect. I’m still not a fan of the PHB’s layout, wish that Rituals weren’t such an afterthought and that Wizards’ put decent indexes in their books, but these are all things that have either been solved by the fans or Wizards’ themselves by now. What we’ve got is a system that’s…. well, it’s the best darned version of D&D since 1989. That’s old school enough for me.