Last year I attended a panel that was ostensibly about D&D 4th edition. I say “ostensibly” because of the people who sat on the panel, one had played 4.0, one had read it, one had skimmed it, and one just wanted to share his opinions. The person who had actually played 4.0 was the most rational person there. She was a bit misinformed, but she was trying. The other three… I’ll just say that I spent that panel boiling with a desire to stab them in their faces.
They essentially repeated a bunch of uninformed trash-talk. I’d heard it all before on the Internet, but I didn’t expect people to actually sit in front of me and repeat it while claiming to be some sort of authorities. Their statements were rife with misconceptions and factual inaccuracies. It was clear that the three of them were so committed to hating 4.0 that they didn’t really care what the game was actually like.
Here’s a sample of the sorts of things they said:
- It’s just a MMOG. The inclusion of cards means that WotC is telling you to never roleplay.
- It’s just for hack-and-slash. There’s no support for anything else.
- The “loss” of the magic system has destroyed wizards. There’s nothing interesting you can do with them now. Tactically they’re exactly like everyone else. (This was harped on at great length.)
- The fact that classes have “roles” means it must be a MMOG.
- All the classes are identical now.
- It’s not possible to make characters with multiple classes anymore.
- There’s no support or encouragement for storytelling.
- The rules are simple and boring.
- WotC is trying to bring in all “those kids” who play card games (they may have mentioned Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon). It’s too childish for “serious” gamers.
I hope that at this point it’s clear why I wanted to start with the face stabbing.
I’ve been playing roleplaying games since my early teens. I was exposed to them much earlier, but I preferred board games and tactical miniatures games when I was young. I played 3.0 and 3.5 in various settings for years. I never really liked combat. It was slow and tedious. I saw it as a necessary evil that I’d occasionally have to sit around doing nothing for 4 hours, taking brief 2 minute turns. Some days I brought knitting so I didn’t fall asleep. I frequently took the role of the cleric (because no one else would), which didn’t make it any less tedious. I far preferred sessions where I got to talk to NPCs or do interesting non-combat things like exploring or figuring out puzzles.
When I sat down to play 4.0 for the first time, I hadn’t heard much about it. It was very new. There were vague rumors, but fundamentally I guess I didn’t expect it to be all that different from 3.5. I was hoping for something a bit more streamlined in the same way that 3.0 was less bulky and painful than what came before it.
4.0 was different… far more so than I had expected. Combat was fast and intensely tactical. The world wasn’t just a featureless plane with a couple of immutable stone walls. You could interact with the environment and actually use it to your advantage in a fight. The characters were built to encourage people to fight together instead of being a pack of lone wolves. It was amazing.
It felt like the first day that I won a game of Puppy Pounders and the first time I played Second Edition D&D (and used up every spell on the sheet the GM gave me in a creative way) without any of the slow, boring bits from either one.
Yes, my powers happened to be on cards. Yes, that first game, the Keep of the Shadowfell, is all hack and slash. I still thought it was awesome. I played the cleric. I healed my friends, and I still got to play a real part in the battles!
Here’s my rough response to the trash talk above:
- The classes are more balanced now. Everyone bring something tactically unique to a fight and everyone has their own weaknesses. It is still possible to build a more powerful character with careful choices, but the individual classes have pretty equal susceptibility to munchkinism.
- Different classes with the same role, and even different builds of the same class are unique. They have different strengths and different strategies that they excel at. If you want nuanced mechanics and tactics to dig into, they are there. If you don’t, you have a general role. If you get the idea of the general role you’ll do just fine.
- The game doesn’t start off “slow”. Fights and stories can be interesting, complex, and fun from the beginning. There’s no reason to start PCs off at level 4 because “those first few levels suck”. (I know multiple people who did this in 3.x.)
- Things like magic can still be used in creative non-combat ways. You’re limited by what applications/effects your GM allows, just like you were in other editions. There are a lot of cantrips that have explicitly non-combat uses. There are also a huge number of Rituals, which are much larger non-combat magical spells. They’re expensive, slow, and sometimes hard to find, but they’re also powerful. Properly used Rituals can seriously alter the course of the game. They also make great hooks! :)
- You can create characters with multiple classes. The related material had been released for quite a while at the time of the panel, so I don’t think they had much of an excuse for not knowing this.
- The skill challenge system has plenty of issues, but it’s still very useful. It gives GMs a framework to support other kinds of success behind the scenes in a mechanical way. This can mean the end of needless flailing and meaningless skill checks that lead to nothing and the beginning of an era where the effects the PCs have on the world around them make sense.
- Skill challenges help tremendously when you have a complex system that you want to model. Even when you have to ad-lib some, you have that framework and you have thought about how it works before the players start poking it. From a player’s point of view, something really complex has the potential to feel more consistent and realistic without driving your GM to madness.
- In the same way that 4.0 combat allows for all sorts of environmental interactions and improvisation, skill challenges are more than tests of pure mechanical skill checks against target numbers. A good GM gives players leeway to tackle problems creatively using the resources they have at hand, whatever those may be. Smart players will be able to think of many ways to bend the situation in their favor, to tackle the problem using their own strengths, and to work together to solve problems. The system encourages this creative behavior rather than just “I roll diplomacy to convince the king,” which you may have seen previously.
- The mere existence of skill challenges telegraphs to GMs that players should be doing things other than fighting. They’re a concrete way that WotC is telling you that your game can have more than hack-and-slash.
- The monsters are simple. A monster is just what a GM needs. Less paper, less reading, less confusion and delay during combat.
- The monsters that WotC releases have a really cool array of powers that make combat tactically interesting. They’ve been designed to work together in certain ways so that a GM can build an encounter easily. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out a monster’s basic tactics or who it would work well with.
- As a PC there are also clear mechanics for figuring out about monsters IC (during combat), so you don’t need to memorize the compendium or metagame to get insight into their powers and likely tactics.
- There is a huge amount of support for GMs who are learning. The various DMGs and D&D insider are peppered with ideas in chunks as large or small as you want. You can read guidelines, advice, and suggestions, or lift whole adventures. WotC has gone out of their way to hire some very good writers and it shows.
I don’t think 4.0 is some sort of shining star or the best game out there. I do think it’s a roleplaying game with a generic fantasy setting that supports fast, interesting tactical combat. If that’s not what you’re looking for, there are probably systems that are better suited to your needs.
In the past I’ve been terrified to run anything more mechanically complex than BESM. I hated learning new rule sets. There are a lot of edge cases and a lot of nuance in 4.0. That scared me tremendously when I set out to run a game. The resources available and the simplicity of the basic combat principals meant that I could handle learning the simple stuff and slowly building up my specialized knowledge. I still screw up edge cases, but I have the 98% I need to be functional.
No one is ever going to convince me that having enough rules to choke a rhino is a good feature in a game. I really appreciate the fact that new players can sit down and play by just reading their character sheet and learning a handful of basic things. Teach them about movement and basic combat turns, give them a reference sheet for status effects, and they’re ready to start having fun. They’ll find out later that there’s more to the game.
I don’t think gaming should be some sort of exclusive club. I like being able to introduce new people and hook them quickly. Everyone should be here at the table, having fun now, not having fun after they finish reading 200 pages of rules. This is not a college physics class. It’s a hobby. You shouldn’t need to suffer to join the club.
I think it’s especially disingenuous to to imply that getting kids into gaming is a bad thing. A lot of us got started in this hobby when we were young and have fond memories of “finally belonging” at the gaming table.
I love roleplaying. I love tactics. I love great stories. I can get those things from 4.0. I can create those things in 4.0. As a gamemaster, I have control over the proportions; the rules are supporting me rather than limiting me. If my players wanted more of a talking heavy epic saga, a super crunchy game, or even something more old-school, I would be able to provide it.
I get really sick of the trash-talk. Don’t get me wrong, if you love 3.x or Pathfinder, that’s cool. If you’re having fun, you’re doing something right. I have nothing against people with taste that differs from mine.
But, if you feel the need to trash-talk, please play the game you’re trashing. Try to look past claims like “It’s a MMOG!” and “OMG Yu-Gi-Oh Players!” and focus on understanding what the system actually is before you close your mind.
You might discover that it supports the kind of games you love even better than the system you were clinging to.