Everyone’s talking about it! Dungeons and Dragons made the New York Times today. They’ll be making another edition.
I haven’t written about tabletop gaming in a while, but I have mentioned in the past that… despite the contentious divide, I like Fourth Edition. I think it did a lot of things right.
I’d love to talk about this in the actual WotC group, but it’s (unsurprisingly) having some technical issues. So, from the perspective of someone who has been running D&D4 home campaigns since, basically, it was introduced, here’s what I like about D&D4 and here’s where I find it lacking.
Stuff I Like!
- Tactical Combat. Mages and Fighter-types who generally level up together and are on the same keel together and can stand toe-to-toe together at all levels. Everyone being able to participate in most every situation.
- Streamlined monster creation. It’s easy to modify the monsters. Useful because I want to run different kinds of encounters and creatures.
- Streamlined skills list. There’s not much chance you’ll pick a “bad” skill you’ll never use, which was a big problem in 3.5. Plus many types of characters didn’t have the skill points to get around.
- Nerfed multi-classing. This was stupid-broken in 3.5, and you had to take multiple classes just to get a basic character worth using. If one person was doing it, everyone at the table had to do it. Some people say “they like the options,” but I’d rather have the options in-play as opposed to staring at six different books trying to optimize for a prestige class before play even begins.
Now, here’s the stuff I don’t really like. Oops! It turned out to be a long list.
- Streamlined skills list may be a little too streamlined. My current campaign is a nautical one with a boat, and pirates! I’ve always wanted to run a campaign like this, and based on yesterday’s players vs pirates ship battle, it was a pretty good idea. But I’ve run in to a problem: no skill for sailing! I’ve had to settle for Nature, Perception, Athletics checks because I didn’t think to house-rule in a sailing skill. I may still end up doing this later. At any rate, skills for Handle Animal, Sailing, and other professional skills need to return to the game in some capacity, because the ones I’m using don’t feel right to me. And sometimes you need to know if, for example, your ship crashes in to the pirate ship, or if you manage to turn it about.
- While we’re at it, more support for non-combat stuff in general. In my previous campaign, my players wanted to train a baby hippogriff. This is not actually the kind of thing that would be an uncommon occurance in a D&D game, but unsurprisingly, there’s no rules for this kind of thing. I ended up having to poach from 3.5 to find any information on how someone would do this. I still have all my 3.5 books, but there’s no reason this kind of flavor couldn’t be in 4e.
- Skill Challenges. The 4e book would suggest using a Skill Challenge to do basically… anything that isn’t combat, such as the aforementioned hippogriff training. “Run it as a skill challenge” is, I am sure, what the advice for training the ‘griff would be. But skill challenges are… sort of wiggly. I ran two of them yesterday: one for keeping the boat steady during a magically-created storm, and one for researching the activities of a cult the group found a symbol for. They were fine. I think everyone had a good time. But since the group is currently level 3, I have two options for how to write a skill challenge: either write it at the top of the old sub-tier, where challenges are based on a group between levels 1-3, and thus really easy for a level 3 group, or, run the DCs at level 4-6, where the challenges are hard, and give XP appropriately. I chose the latter. Perhaps predictably, the group did not fail. After the (very early) skill challenge errata that happened for the original DMG, it’s near-impossible for a group to fail a skill challenge. The DCs are too easy. Prior to the errata, it was nearly impossible to succeed, instead. These were never playtested, or at least, were playtested too little and not rigorously. Incidentally, even if skill challenges are a designed part of the game-as-written, it’s sort of annoying that I always have to write them myself. The only other option is to search through years of D&D on-line magazines and other things to find the “correct” one, at which point I might discover it’s at the wrong level for my group (sorry, you can’t encounter a storm at sea until you are level 8 or 9).
- Level tiers. Sorry, I do like to start at the beginning, so I typically run in the Heroic Tier. The idea that everything magically jumps in to a new difficulty at level 11 is a little strange to me. There’s no reason the progression needs these big leaps all at the same place like that.
- Points-of-Light is a pretty milquetoast and non-committal setting. I see that they’re trying to just make the setting as accessible as possible, so people can get right in to the game, but the flavor of PoL is kind of weak. In my old campaign, I resolved this by… redoing a lot of it. I changed the gods to my own pantheon with more individual personal flavor, eliminated a few class/race opportunities, added some very basic politics, and never used “The Shadowfell.” In my current campaign I’m running PoL basically as written. I still think the default gods and demons are bland, and I’m always looking for ways I can spice them up and make them more than just “good vs evil.” I get that some people want that. But most D&D players are adults, and are not really interested in Saturday Morning Cartoon type villainy where evil is evil just because. It’s more fun to write bad guys with some motivation, not just “they are evil because Shadowfell.” Yes, it’s more fun to write interesting villains even if my players are just going to chop them up. Yes, there’s also a place – a big place – for stuff with no personality to just be chopped up. But you need both, I feel.
- Lots of weird and unfamiliar races and classes. I dunno; it feels like some of these were just added to sell splats. I get Tiefling and Dragonborn and think they’re both pretty cool starting races. We have a Deva in our current group, which works out okay, except we’re just roleplaying that he’s a very mystical human instead (with a cool body tattoo. I picture him like one of the magic users in Fable II). The main problem with introducing a lot of brand-new races is a problem of lore. When I started my other 4th ed campaign, I had accounted for the possibility of gnomes and half-orcs coming in because I knew they would show up in a later book (PHB2 as it turns out). I hadn’t accounted for the possibility of Goliaths, because…what? This was not a thing.
- Bizarre design philosophy in the published adventures. This is a long bullet point. I will discuss it later.
I think there’s stuff I wouldn’t change, that other, older gamers would say to “change back,” like the discrepancy between power levels of different classes depending on level.
I also don’t like the idea of a stronger push for everything to be digital. I never really grabbed on to the idea of playing D&D on-line, and any campaign I played in that was that way didn’t last for very long. I think it’s more fun with people around a table, having a good time exploring a fantasy world together while socializing and having snacks. There’s already a ton of games I can play on-line if I want the “sitting at home at my computer” experience and that is not why I play D&D.
I’m going to be watching these changes eagerly. I honestly hope to be involved in the playtests, because I have an eager group who I’m sure would enjoy breaking in to a new game. I guess we’ll see how the updates come out over time and see how D&D will change from there. Whatever happens, 4th edition will still work fine for my campaign, but I think everyone house-rules it a little here and there.