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Dee Yun: (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-06-20 09:53:50
D&D 4th Edition
4th Edition is the first major upgrade to Dungeons and Dragons in eight years. Regardless of your personal views of this franchise, it is an unassailable fact that it has been extraordinarily influential on the world of gaming. Roleplaying games (tabletop, computer, console) owe their very existence to D&D. The ten million+ World of Warcraft players might actually have lives if D&D had never been.
However, flipping through the Player's Handbook, I have to wonder how relevant it still is. There's no doubt that the prominent name alone is sufficient to guarantee a fan base, but D&D is no longer at the forefront of game design. A cursory examination of 4th Edition design elements reveals how much it now borrows from its offspring (particularly MMOs), and not the other way around.
The first major change of note is the standardization of core mechanics. Attack and skill rolls, and defense values are all determined by the same universal formula (D20 + your level divided by 2, rounded down) as opposed to being determined by class specific tables. Likewise, the benefits from leveling have been standardized across all the classes as opposed to individual leveling charts.
I'm all for streamlining, but I'd have to say they took it too far, to the point of dumbing it down. They made decisions that make sense for the limited roleplaying environment of a combat-based computer game, but not for a robust tabletop experience. It feels like they're increasingly focusing on a return to the intent of the original game: miniatures wargaming. For example, in the process of standardizing skills, most of them have been consolidated into far fewer "meta" skills. Instead of selecting Disable Trap, Open Lock, Pick Pocket or Sleight of Hand, they're all lumped together into a generalized Thievery skill. You don't focus on one skill or another either; you either have it or you don't. This blanket elimination of options results in a significant loss of personalization.
Another odd choice was the shuffling or elimination of longtime staple races and classes, as seen in the strip above. The Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Monk and Sorcerer are gone, presumably to be reintroduced later in supplemental books (cha-ching). They've been replaced by the new hybrid Warlord class, and the ancillary Warlock class. The demonic visage of the Tiefling and the new Dragonborn are now core races, while the Gnome has been relegated to the Monster Manual. I've always felt that D&D is the ancestral fount of the genre, and should clearly portray universal archetypes over peripheral oddities, not the other way around - and definitely not in the core book.
The classes themselves also feel more generic than in past editions. Every class can now heal themselves, with "healing surges". WTF? Are you flexing until you feel better? Instead of specific duties, classes all fall under a general role: Controller, Defender, Leader, and Striker. MMO players might be more familiar with the terms Crowd Control, Tank, Buffer, and DPS. I understand that this decision was implemented to keep all players involved at all times, but I don't understand the nonsensical logic (HEALING SURGES?!) and the loss of personality. Admittedly, there is a massive list of abilities that allow for a broad range of customization, but they're unimaginative (the same mechanic across the classes, like the option to reroll the die) and feel much like talent specs from World of Warcraft, as opposed to organic ability progression.
What I'm trying to communicate is that I don't see the point of D&D 4th Edition. It reads like a good design doc for a computer game. If all I wanted was to run a party through an area and kill things, it'd be a lot faster and smoother with a computer adjudicating the process.
Enter the "Virtual Game Table". It's a great idea - a client that allows you to play D&D online, complete with voice chat. What boggles me is that it's subscription based, to the tune of $15 a month. You're Fucking Kidding Me. This should be a simple retail one-time purchase.
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Dan Gallagher: (dan-deleteme[at]-deleteme-squishycomics [dot] com) 2008-06-20 12:23:50
Thank you, Dee. I'm forced to agree that the D&D franchise has seriously lost its way. At first, I was inclined to believe that maybe the problem lay in me, that I am simply resistant to change and felt the need to wax nostalgic for the days of tables, charts and THAC0. For all its faults and clunkiness, the old AD&D 2nd Edition had a certain charm to it. Sure, it wasn't streamlined and there was a different game mechanic for every type of action, and yes, maybe you did have to acquire a great deal of esoteric knowledge, read from hundreds of tables and calculate things like AC or saving throws but in the end it was FUN. Anyone who knows me will attest that, while D&D has never been my system of choice, I have participated in many 2nd Ed. games, the majority of which were quite memorable and enjoyable. That has yet to be the case with 3rd Edition and, after having read through the manuals, I have little hope for 4th.