Cover of the 4th Edition Player's Handbook

The Fourth Edition of D&D has been out for about a month and a half now. I haven’t played it yet, but I’ve had the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual in my house for several weeks now — an early birthday gift from my lovely, thoughtful, gamer sweetie.

Executive Summary

I give it a C-. D&D Fourth Edition is a one-trick pony. If you want a game that consists mostly or entirely of combat, then you’re bound to love it. If you prefer other aspects of the game, then chances are you’ll see Fourth Edition as a step backward.

The Big Picture

Wizards of the Coast (that’s the company that owns D&D) has gone to some trouble to explain why the world needed a new edition of D&D. I’m not entirely convinced by their reasons — I still think the pure, unadulterated profit motive was a dominant factor. (Notice it’s been five years since D&D 3.5 was released: exactly the same interval as between 3.0 and 3.5.) But they did make some effort to formulate other reasons, and to explain them to the gaming public through forums such as EN World.

The trouble is, most of the reasons they gave boiled down to panning D&D 3.5. This is quite a sudden change in course – last year, D&D 3.5 was (according to WotC) the greatest edition of the greatest role-playing game ever written. This year they’re telling us it stinks, in so many words. I happen to be fond of D&D 3.5 (I liked D&D 3.0 just fine before 3.5 came along). Though I would say there’s always room for improvement, I have to disagree with those who suddenly assert it’s no good.

And that, I think, is the tragic failure of the 4E design team. They concentrated on overhauling the things they thought were wrong with D&D 3.x, but they don’t seem to have stopped to ask themselves what was right about it. So they ended up throwing the baby out with the bath water. Ultimately, I don’t think the 4E designers even understood why D&D 3.x was a success.

Appearance and Presentation

Almost all reviewers take the time to gush over the slick layout and four-colored, glossy artwork in whatever product they’re reviewing. So I will bow to tradition and give you my opinion of the visual aspect of the game.

D&D 4E has artwork. It’s glossy and colorful. It’s all new. They obviously spent a lot of money on it. That means, when you buy 4E, you’ll be spending a lot of money on the artwork, too.

What D&D Fourth Edition Has Done Right

Before I get down to seriously lambasting the Fourth Edition design team, I will (in my wisdom and benevolence) make a token effort to give fair and even-handed praise to their worthy accomplishments.

Battles are No Longer a Matter of Attrition

All the way back to original D&D, the dungeon crawl has been largely a contest of attrition. Fighting monsters wears the party out. Characters lose hit points, expend spells, and consume magic items. D&D 3.x made this explicit with the guideline that a party should face up to four encounters of appropriate Challenge Rating before being exhausted. The problem with this model is that it’s not fun. The first three battles are a relative cakewalk and the last one is frustrating because the characters are running out of spells — that is, running out of options.

D&D 4E breaks the attrition model of encounters and assumes every fight is tough and dramatic. It lets the characters use their full strength and powers in almost every battle. 4E does this by providing ways for characters to recharge their powers and hit points a lot faster than in previous editions of D&D. Only a five-minute rest, rather than a full night’s camping, is required in most cases. I think this is a big improvement because it keeps the action, and the story, moving.
That’s probably the single best design decision in the new edition.

Everyone Has Something to Do

Related to the previous point, D&D 4E is designed so that spellcasters never completely run out of spells. Every class has distinctive class powers that can be used an unlimited number of times. So, in 4E, just as the fighter can do his job every round by attacking with his greatsword, the wizard can do his job every round by casting magic missile. It will be very rare for a character to sit on his hands waiting for something to do.

This just keeps more players involved in the action at the table, which in my opinion is definitely a Good Thing.

The New Character Roles

Another good choice the 4E designers made is to introduce the idea of character “roles.” Roles are a kind of meta-class that describes how characters fit into the party.

The problem this solves is that certain D&D 3.x character classes, most notably the druid and bard but also the ranger, could be hard to play. They didn’t seem to fit into any particular niche. A 3.5 druid, for example, is definitely not a replacement for a cleric, but neither is he a replacement for a wizard. A party that has a a druid, but no cleric, (or a druid, but no wizard) is definitely lacking something. I understand the design philosophy: the druid is supposed to fall somewhere “in between” the capabilities of a cleric and a wizard. What that means in practice is the druid can’t do the job of either class and a party that includes a druid instead of another spellcaster is giving something up.

In D&D 4E, the druid isn’t in the Player’s Handbook, so I have to change the subject a little. Let’s look at the rogue, the ranger, and the warlock, all of whom fill the “striker” role. They do the same thing: maneuver into a tactical position to deal sudden, massive damage to a single opponent. But they all do it in different ways. Whether the party has a rogue, ranger, or warlock is simply a matter of taste: as long as they have one of the three, they have the striker role covered. This means, in D&D 4E, a party can actually get by without a cleric. There’s another class, the warlord, that fills the same role in a slightly different way.

Battle is More Cooperative

In D&D 3.x, players could use teamwork on the battlefield, but it was hard. All the characters moved and acted independently. They ways they could help each other had mainly to do with flanking and attacks of opportunity, or buffing spells. The maneuver-related collaboration could work OK if everyone at the table had the same command of the subtleties of the D&D combat rules. Very often, though, not everyone would see the opportunities to set up a flanking attack, or the characters’ Initiative rolls would be far apart and make tactical coordination hard, and the party just wouldn’t operate like clockwork.

Fourth Edition makes battlefield cooperation easier by making it more explicit. If you want to help set up your friend, the rogue, to hit an armored opponent, you use a power that gives your friend a bonus to hit. Tactical success no longer depends on everyone picking up the right cues and then executing their actions with precision timing. Instead, characters have powers that simply help their teammates for one round. There’s even a new character class, the warlord, who specializes in just that.

I believe this will make combat faster-paced, more straightforward, and also more engaging (read, “fun”) for novice players and grognards alike.

They Fixed the Setting

Fourth Edition has broken away from the tradition of having a single, canonical world. Instead they paint their setting in very broad strokes: there used to be a big, continent-spanning empire, but it collapsed a long time ago and now civilization is in these little pockets surrounded by monster-infested wilderness. That totally works for me as a play environment. At the same time, they manage to resist the temptation to try to shove Greyhawk or Eberron down my throat (that wouldn’t work, anyway).

The cosmology of D&D (the gods, the various planes of existence) has been simplified and now makes a lot more sense. Gods aren’t tied to a specific race any more. The gods are gods: elves don’t worship different gods than humans do. Instead of hundred of planes of existence (plus quasi-planes, pseudo-planes, and demi-planes), there are about six. One of them is called the Feywild, and it seems 4E is portraying faeries as dangerous and creepy, instead of as characters out of a Disney cartoon. That gets my approval.

Where Fourth Edition Falls Flat

Now that I’ve said some nice things, it’s time to give this edition a serious roasting. Remember, I rated it a C-. I’m a tough grader though. A C- is still a passing grade.

Constraining Character Choices

There are two extremes in role-playing games when it comes to character design. On one extreme is a completely open-ended system where a player can think of any character concept he wants, and the system provides the building blocks such as skills, powers, merits and flaws, to express that concept in game terms. I’ll call this the skill-based system. Back in the 1980’s and 90’s, practically all of D&D’s competitors — Runequest, Rolemaster, GURPS, Fantasy Hero (I don’t know about Rifts) — were skill-based systems. On the other extreme are game systems that provide a set of ready-made options and all the player has to do is pick one. First and Second Edition AD&D worked like that; I’ll call that the class-based system. The one really persistent criticism of AD&D was that the class-based system was arbitrary and constraining. It didn’t allow characters to play against type or to change direction as they developed in the game.

D&D 3.x was really a hybrid between a skill-based and a class-based system. The classes were there, but a character could change class at any time. Feats and skills were at least partly independent of class. D&D 3.0 introduced prestige classes, which were a huge hit with the player community. All of this made character creation and advancement complicated, but also potentially satisfying. Characters didn’t just advance, they developed, guided by the tastes and imagination of the player.

Fourth Edition has veered back toward a strict class-based system in a big way. I consider this a major step backward; I wonder what the designers could possibly have been thinking. I suspect ulterior motives.

Players with enough imagination will never get tired of a good skill-based or hybrid character design system. We can turn out an endless variety of original characters from the workshops of our imaginations. In business terms, this is a nightmare: we’re not good repeat customers. Once we have enough tools to satisfy us, we keep playing, but we stop buying. The repeat customers are the power gamers. You know the type — the sort of gamer who spends more money on games than I spend on my car payment, and has entire bookcases bursting with game supplements like “The Ultimate Fighter” and “101 Prestige Classes.” Maybe Fourth Edition is designed to appeal to those guys — the steady customers.

The classes in 4E are defined in extraordinarily narrow terms — arguably even more narrow than Second Edition D&D. In D&D 2, if you wanted to make a fighter who fought as a lightly-armored swashbuckler with a rapier and dagger, you could do that. Not so in 4E. All the powers of a fighter rely on wearing heavy armor and using a shield or two-handed weapon. Do you want your rogue to be a daring acrobat who fights with a quarterstaff? Tough luck; all the rogue powers in the 4E Player’s Handbook require either a crossbow or a “light blade” (rapier or short sword).

I have no problem with defining the character classes to fit a role. In fact, I applaud that design choice. The problem is that the classes are shoehorned so narrowly into their roles, they don’t even look finished. If you’re playing a rogue, you have a dozen or more powers to choose from, but they all involve stabbing opponents with a rapier or shortsword. That may be variety, but it’s not choice.

As I said, I suspect ulterior motives. Maybe the classes are one-trick ponies by design, so Wizards of the Coast can make a steady income selling us shiny new ponies (and then later maybe new bags of tricks for the old ponies). The key point is, the game isn’t designed so players can create novelty for themselves. They have to buy it. Wizards of the Coast has already announced a release date for Player’s Handbook 2, and I’d give good odds there will be a Player’s Handbook 3. This will give the power gamers lots to crunch on, but it still leaves me cold.

Crippling Spellcasters

Speaking of constraints: for spellcasting classes, the lists of spells are now smaller than they’ve been since D&D was published as three paperback booklets in 1973. In First Edition AD&D, there were 27 first-level wizard spells. In 3.5, there were 39. In the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook, there are 14 first-levels spells and 6 rituals.

The spells that do exist reflect a very narrow view of what a D&D character can do and should want to do. Of the 14 first-level wizards spells in 4E, 13 of them do damage and the other is sleep. The bottom line is that wizards in 4E are good at blasting things, and compared to 3rd or even 1st Edition wizards, they don’t have much opportunity to do anything else.

Power Inflation

I don’t mind that 4E made first-level characters tougher and more capable. Frankly, even in 3.5E, low-level characters break too easily. Just ask my players.

What I do mind is that first-level characters are a lot tougher than they used to be. They have hit points in the teens or twenties, base attack bonuses of +2 to +3 (using weapons they’re proficient with), and they never run out of spells. They’re a lot more like what 3.x would call third-level characters. I haven’t played the game yet, but I fear that the sense of “paying one’s dues,” of earning the name of “hero” by surviving the harrowing but ignoble tribulations of first level, will be lost.

And the fact that every character’s ability scores seem to be 2 points higher across the board just bugs me. Making a character by the default rules, you’re guaranteed an 18 in one stat, and cannot have any stats less than 10. I happen to think it’s fun to play a character with one shortcoming. But no — D&D 4E has become Lake Wobegone, where all the children are above average. Why not just write down “18″ in every box on the character sheet and call it a day?

Writing and Clarity

If they wanted to make D&D 4E easier to learn and play, they might have started out by hiring a competent editor. Instead we have lots of new color artwork and rules that read like this:

1[W] + Strength modifier damage, and one ally within 5 squares of you gains a power bonus to melee attack rolls against the target equal to your Strength modifier until the end of your next turn.

Read that sentence a couple of times and then imagine yourself trying to argue with an obstinate player over what it means. (That’s from Righteous Brand, a Cleric Attack 1 power on page 63 of the Player’s Handbook.)

Pop quiz: What’s the difference between a burst and a blast? A shift and a slide? Are all these new mechanical terms really necessary? Did they re-use any of the terminology from 3.5?

It’s not easy to write rules that are easy to read and easy to interpret. Fourth Edition D&D makes us realize how good we had it with 3.x.

Missing In Action: D&D Insider

Along with the release of D&D 4E was supposed to come the exciting online “experience” of D&D Insider. Basically, Wizards of the Coast is trying to create a new revenue stream by convincing players to subscribe to their Web site for $14.95 a month.

The trouble is, the Web site isn’t ready yet, and Wizards of the Coast has a dismal record when it comes to releasing electronic gaming tools. D&D 4E is simpler than 3.5, but it’s not so simple I am in a hurry to go run a campaign with only a pencil and paper as my game aids. The failure to coordinate the launch of the Web site with the launch of the actual game makes me feel as if Wizards of the Coast has lost track of its customers’ needs.

They’ve also lost track of reality. The $14.95 monthly fee is, as Wizards of the Coast staff will eagerly point out, comparable to the subscription fee for the World of Warcraft MMORPG. What they seem to have overlooked is that Blizzard offers customers a little something extra for that $14.95 fee: they provide the entertainment.

Conclusion

I’m not saying I don’t want to play D&D 4E. A lot of the new game features are cool. I am itching to try playing a dragonborn warlord. A good, beer-and-pretzels, hack-and-slash dungeon crawl could be a blast in 4E.

What I don’t see happening is 4E doing what Wizards of the Coast obviously wants it to do: replace D&D 3.5 as my game of choice. (Actually, Ars Magica is my game of choice, but D&D 3.5 is probably my second choice).

By the time I get around to playing a real campaign of 4E, it will probably be time for 4.5E anyway.