Thursday, August 14, 2008

D&D4: Two Months In

So it’s been almost two months since the launch of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. I’ve run several sessions using the new system. My opinion can be summed up as follows:

The game has its issues: needless complexity is greatly reduced, for instance, but this does not necessarily equate to faster play because rejiggered combat math means higher hit point totals and lower accuracies. Players calling out the same power names in every round and in every combat becomes extremely monotonous, but this is easily circumvented by forbidding players to call their powers by name. D&D4, like Third Edition and 3.5, still builds adventures around encounters, not encounters around adventures, and the rules for non-combat encounters have only made this more pronounced. The tactical reinvention of monsters and character classes means that the use of a battle mat is almost a necessity. But the game is fun. It is simple, engaging, and intuitive, and I look forward to playing well into the future.

Now, when can we expect the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition?

As much as I enjoy it, this game is simply not a substitute for any of the previous numbered editions of the game. It is the spiritual successor of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia and the original D&D boxed sets. I totally see where Wizards was going with this, and it was a good idea. It is very playable. But it is so simple that even I am a little squeamish, and I love games like Runebound, Descent, DUNGEON!, Talisman, and other RPG-like board games. That experience isn’t quite what I’m looking for when I sit down with friends to play D&D. It was sufficient when I was first starting to dungeon master for my friends in 6th grade. Now we all expect something that requires a little more thought and a little more initiative from the players.

From the ground up, characters are terrifyingly without flaw, in the new edition. There are no more ability scores below eight, and the guidelines don’t advise anything below 10. We are advised with extreme prejudice that evil alignment ruins the game. Whether or not you agree with the inclusion of alignment is immaterial – the exclusion of evil gods (and their Channel Divinity feats) from the PHB is a clear, mechanical indictment of that style of play that has nothing to do with philosophy. The races have no penalties to anything – they are each good at everything, and even better at a subset of things.

The classes in D&D4 are an exercise in simplicity. Even at 30th level, a character has a choice between only 17 actions to take in a given combat round, and seven of those choices are utility powers, not necessarily attacks. Both of those numbers drop quickly as encounter and daily powers are used. Note that this has nothing to do with the powers available in the book. This is not a problem caused by lack of splat. No matter how many powers a player can choose from, he will be limited by the 17 slots he has to put them in.

Now, admittedly, I have yet to play in a high-level D&D4 game, but it looks to my trained eye like combat that is already monotonous on the heroic tier is only going to get more monotonous once you pass 10th level. By that point, you’ve basically already got all the powers you are going to get – any future power gains replace powers you already have (with the notable exception of your three paragon path powers). Epic destinies don’t grant powers, for the most part – just traits. More survivability is always good, but choice is also nice, especially when you are high level and sporting aspects of two classes, a paragon path, and an epic destiny. I expected to find variety, and instead it looks like advancement only limits a character’s options.

The skill system in the game was no surprise – we knew how it was going to work for some time. I was never overly fond of it, but I accepted it on the basis of simplicity (if I never roll up a high-level D&D3.5 rogue again, I will be a happy man). The trouble is that the skill system, as it turns out, is indicative of an overarching simplicity that takes a lot of the personality out of the game. Athletics covers just about everything your average dungeoneer will need to do that does not involve his sword. Climbing, jumping, lifting, pulling, pushing… and everything that isn’t covered here is covered by Endurance or Acrobatics. Why don’t we call a spade a spade and acknowledge that these are nothing more than Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity bonuses, respectively? We’re back to First Edition, here. These aren’t skills. Some consolidation seems wise – Stealth, for instance, never made much sense to me as separate checks to conceal oneself visibly and audibly. But Thievery? Really? Why not just have a skill called “Fighting” and roll it repeatedly in combat?

Feats, fortunately, I have little problem with. Eighteen feats in thirty levels! There’s some customizability for you. I even feel like Wizards has managed to make every feat worthwhile to someone who might want to take it. There are still mechanically great feats and mechanically terrible feats, but at least the mechanically terrible feats don’t seem like they will destroy your character. I rolled up a dual-wielding level 30 wizard/rogue/daggermaster/demigod and wound up with two feat slots I didn’t know what to do with. That was a really welcome experience. The downside to the feat system is that feats serve to make an already perfect character even more perfect. I would really have liked to see some kind of drawback or disadvantage system to offset the rampaging effectiveness of the D&D4 character. Character flaws are apparently passé, in the new age of D&D.

Equipment seems to obey a few simple rules, and with a few exceptions, weapon power in a given class (one-handed or two-handed, simple or military) seem to fall into an easily recognized equation. This is important to me because I’ve always felt like characters shouldn’t be penalized for their equipment. There ought to be advantages to playing a knife fighter over a halberd fighter that make up for the massive loss in damage, and when you take into account the fact that the dagger is a one-handed simple weapon and the halberd is a two-handed military weapon, everything does seem to even out to a greater or lesser degree. I’m not terribly impressed with the superior weapons – the rapier in particular is clearly designed for rogues and only rogues. The shuriken is even more ridiculous – it’s a dagger that can’t be used in melee that you need a feat to use at all. Unless you’re a rogue, in which case it does more damage and you don’t need the feat. I’ve house ruled the shuriken out of existence and have given rogues that 1d6 damage with thrown daggers. Seems like a much simpler solution to me than having a spare superior weapon that no one will ever use. I’ve told my players that calling their thrown daggers “shuriken” is completely acceptable, if it makes them happy.

Magic items… good lord. The system that adjudicates magic items is fine, I suppose – it’s uniform, if straightforward, and it looks like fun – but there’s no way to randomize them. I’m not averse to throwing the PCs magic they can use once in a while, but I find this idea that dungeons should be stocked with treasure appropriate to the homicidal lunatics about to raid it a bit insulting. The treasure “tables” in general are completely devoid of randomization. Players beat monster X, they receive treasure X. And a LOT of treasure X. I’ve tried selecting treasure parcels using a 10-sided die… and I don’t recommend it. The gold piece has apparently been devalued, because everyone’s got a lot of them, suddenly. Some goblins could be using their stash for armor.

Combat seems stripped down until you realize that the new Combat chapter in the Player’s Handbook is the Classes chapter. Everything you could do in D&D3.5 you can still do in D&D4… if you’re a member of a party with a few martial heroes in it. Cooperation is much more important in the tactical environment of D&D4, because suddenly only the fighter can sunder weapons and armor (and only temporarily) and only the rogue can disarm (and only temporarily). Forget about using a ranged weapon unless you’re a ranger… but then, that’s nothing new. I like the new combat system, to be honest – I rarely, if ever, looked up from the PHB while adjudicating D&D3.5 combat, and I get more fresh air thanks to D&D4. But I feel for fighters, who seem to have traded their player-strategy-driven combat superiority for more-effective but ultimately less-satisfying game-system-dictated combat superiority. Marking is some seriously weak sauce, from a roleplaying perspective.

Behind the screen, encounter design no longer takes hours – that’s a major, major plus. I don’t have great faith in the “simple” level-adjustment system for monsters (I think it breaks down after only two or three levels in either direction, rather than five levels as Wizards claims), but that’s still better than the guesswork of the First and Second Edition Monster Manuals and Monstrous Compendia, or D&D3.5’s clearly arbitrary and never-playtested DC system. Creating new monsters is not quite as straightforward as it was in D&D3.5, but I welcome a return to intuitive dungeon mastering. The only real objection that I have is what I mentioned before about adventures following encounters, and not the other way around.

The black-and-white short rest and extended rest system works very well in a dungeon context, but overland it becomes a straitjacket. Logically, the party should encounter fewer and weaker monsters outside of dungeons. Fewer battles, however, means a better-rested party, which means more powerful encounters are required to provide challenge. Weaker encounters would mean that adventurers have to be attacked multiple times in a single day, in order to provide challenge. As a result of this and other symptoms, I feel pressure to orient my sessions around encounters rather than around story. I suppose this is not a new phenomenon, but I feel that the design of D&D4 brings it to an ugly head.

That about sums it up. I’ve not given up on D&D4 yet, but I find myself missing D&D3.5, and I never thought I’d feel that way. By the end of its lifetime, D&D3.5 was a terrible mess, and I dreaded every game I ran with it. I’ve recently been exposed to Earthdawn, Second Edition, and the elegance of that system (once you learn the step chart) has definitely spoiled me. D&D4 is fun, but it is less and less what I want to be running, as time goes on. If combat were faster, it would be a great beer and pretzels game. Perhaps future supplements will improve matters – I always enjoy a good board game expansion.

Cross-posted on the official Dungeons & Dragons forums.