I’m looking at Fourth Edition D&D through the lens of a years’ worth of gaming experience with a critical eye on what it needed to do and what it’s done. This is a long-term test review spread over several posts covering both the theoretical and practical sides of 4e D&D. Welcome to Part Two.
Last time I wrote about two of the problems 4e D&D needed to address – the lengthy GM prep-time in 3e D&D, and the reduction in corner-case silly rules lawyering questions. 4e tackled both of those issues brilliantly and gives us a game that’s both fun and fast to design scenarios for, is easy to customize & fine-tune yet manages to be simple to understand and play. It’s this GM’s dream edition of D&D combining modern mechanics with an old school hackability.
The biggest problem that 4e D&D needed to address was this: attracting new players to the game. Third Edition introduced a comparatively massive influx of new players to D&D and role-playing overall. I reckon it’s fair to say that 3e completely revitalized the RPG industry overall, giving both lapsed gamers and newbies alike a new found enthusiasm for the hobby. Whether you play D&D or not, there’s no doubting that without the resurgence from Third Edition the hobby would be much smaller and poorer as a whole.
It’s pretty clear that 4e’s designers set out to woo the MMORPG crowd with it’s artwork and cinematic gameplay style, and that’s not a bad thing. But there’s a lot more to it than that. This is an edition which should – in theory, at least – appeal to anyone who loves Third Edition D&D but wants more options for their characters and also suit old-school gamers who yearn for a simpler, less cluttered system.
Has it worked, and if not what went wrong?
I really don’t know the answer to that one. I know old schoolers and Third Edition gamers alike who hate it – but I also know converts who love it in equal measure. What I don’t see (probably by definition) are the silent majority of players who don’t blog or write scathingly vitriolic forum posts but instead quietly get on with the game and play.
My foggy impression is that 4e D&D is moderately successful but hasn’t whipped the world into a shedstorm of fury. At least, not yet. WoTC have (mostly) done all the right things with a much improved Community Site, a Facebook app and D&D Online. They dropped the ball with the D&D Starter Kit but have more than made up for it both online and offine, so I’ll forgive ’em that one.
So yes, Fourth Edition D&D is a high-pixel flashy graphic combat centred battlegame. But it’s also rock-solid stable when it comes to out-of-combat mechanics too. They might take up a tiny proportion of the text compared to All Those Powers, but that’s because they don’t need to. From the superior (imho) multi-class mechanics to the Skill Challenge system and Quest-based XP rewards this is a version of D&D that’s well suited to “proper” role-playing, characterization and immersive story-telling. The combat system is just icing on the cake. Thick icing, I’ll grant you.
I’ve said before that the combat system is really whatever you want it to be – whether that’s gritty Fantasy Noir or its own default Superhero Fantasy style. That’s down to narrative choice more than anything, and that’s something which only comes with an open mind and a willingness to give 4e a fair chance. It took my group a LOT of session before they were fully on board. What can I say? Gamers are a notoriously conservative lot.
I mentioned that I’ll say something controversial about the OGL, and here it is.
Wizards’ of the Coast abandoning the Open Game License was a good thing for the industry, and I’ll tell you why.