Sunday, January 29, 2012

Reviewing the D&D 4E reviews

I've spent like 10 minutes yesterday playing Star Wars: The Old Republic before I got bored, and watched video reviews of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons on YouTube instead. And read some written reviews of that game. I couldn't help but smile when noticing how much the discussion resembled us discussing the latest MMORPGs: There are the dinosaurs who hate every change, the hypers who find everything that is different great, the fanbois, the haters, the trolls, and many of the same arguments. So having come 3 years late to that discussion, and armed with hindsight, a fresh look at 4th edition, and all my MMORPG experience, let's have a look at the main discussion points on Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition:

4th Edition is different: This is certainly true. Depending where you read it, the opinions go from "this is so different, it isn't D&D any more", to "this is very different and I like it". I mentioned before that I detected influenced of MMORPGs in the 4E rules, but ultimately it goes much further; 4th Edition D&D rules are recognizably "modern" in a way that spans many different game genres. This includes them being more balanced, more accessible, less prone to one-shot player deaths, and more streamlined. And just like in MMORPGs, each of these modern features has its fans and detractors: Balanced is good because finally a D&D fighter is as interesting as a D&D wizard, but balance is bad because two different damage dealers feel more same-ish. And so on. Personally I generally like "modern" rules in many different genres. And not having played D&D in recent years, I'm not bitter about this or that change to my favorite race or character class.

4th Edition rules are a mess: True again, although not necessarily a change from previous editions. Basically Dungeons & Dragons suffers from being printed on paper. Imagine you had a printed set of rules on how a priest worked in World of Warcraft v1.0, plus a list of how that priest changed in every patch from then up to 4.3. That would be a *lot* of paper and rather unwieldy. Dungeons & Dragons is a bit like that, although there are a bit less changes to the rules over the years than in WoW. You start out with the rules in the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and the monsters of the Monster Manual. Then there are numerous updates and errata on the website. Then there are tons of optional game supplement books (because WotC needs to sell stuff). Then WotC decided to reprint the rules in a different format, including the updates, and released D&D Essentials. And in addition to that there are lots of house rules not only from your own campaign, but also that of others published on the internet and seen by your players. Dungeon Masters with some experience have long ago learned to limit what kind of rules and supplements can be used, and they are the final arbiter anyway. Personally my situation as future DM is somewhat different, because I am going to play a campaign in French. Much less material has been released in French, and I actually had to scramble to get rules books, because it appears that some of them are out of print.

4th Edition is combat heavy: Actually it would be fairer to say that *rules* of 4E D&D are combat heavy. Which then in turn prompted some authors to publish combat heavy adventures. It is today possible to play 4E Dungeons & Dragons in a way which resembles a miniature wargame a lot more than a role-playing game. The idea is that you don't *need* rules for role-playing, thus if you want to run a city adventure with a murder mystery and no combat at all, you can. The books don't talk a lot about that, but that is because the philosophy is that rules books don't have a lot to say in that sort of situation. I'm currently as a player in such a city adventure full of intrigue and mystery, and frankly we wouldn't even notice if the DM switched to a different rules system, because our interaction with the NPCs in this case isn't governed by rules, but by our creativity. Having said that, I welcome the opportunity as a DM to run some interesting combat sessions in the future. As players get older and don't meet for play sessions all that often any more, running a city intrigue adventure gets increasingly difficult; people simply don't remember all the details from their last session 2 weeks ago, and if the adventure spans months, you spend a lot of time reminding people of what happened previously. The 4E rules are quite good for creating more bite-sized adventures and encounters. Just remember that doesn't mean you can't have epic adventures in that system, it just means the books won't tell you how. Epic adventures always needed the DM to use his head, in any rules system.

So I do think that for my specific purposes, the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition rules are quite suitable. And if there are rules me and my players don't like, we always have the option to change them. This is the great advantage of pen & paper games over MMORPGs: You can adjust everything! The whole "WoW is too easy! No, it is too difficult!" discussion simply doesn't exist for pen & paper games, and with a decent DM the game will always be perfectly balanced and adjusted to the needs of the players.

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