Tabletop Games I Have Played – Dungeons and Dragons (4th ed)

I really said I shouldn’t be writing, but it is hard to keep me away completely.  Today I’m wearing my Half-Elf scented oil, I’m being asked about drumming up a new campaign, and late summer is about to give way to early fall.  So let’s talk about Dee and Dee; let’s talk about you and me.  Dungeons and Dragons, even as I talk about tabletop games, is a topic I may have to touch on more than once, because Dungeons and Dragons is really multiple different games, depending on various editions and sub-editions.

So, now my confession: I love Dungeons and Dragons, Fourth Edition.

We roll half-elves, haters

But so many people didn’t like it, especially when it first came out, that I feel the need to explain why. I have fond experiences with 3.5 and other editions as well, which I’ll discuss in future installments, but I thought it might be best discuss the version of the game I was currently playing. In this case, I’m not editorializing for the uninitiated, and I’m going to assume you at least have some passing experience with how D&D works. If not, you really should give it a try, and the new edition is a pretty solid entry point in to the hobby.

I almost wanted to preface this with an Epic Meal Time Video, just to announce “This one goes out to all the haters.”  And Fourth Edition D&D really is kind of the “Fast Food Pizza” of D&D editions, isn’t it?  Like you’ve got your Crunchwrap layer there, and your Underdark layer here, and maybe you baked the pizza at home but it’s still got all fast food parts and toppings.

Actually, now that I think about it, the D-and-D-as-pizza metaphor works pretty well in general. You can have it with as many or as few toppings as you like; you can use old standbys or go for more exotic flavors.  You can make all the components yourself, hand-toss the dough and mix the sauces, or you can order the whole thing for delivery and still get a great pie. And having done that, you can eat the pie while playing Dungeons and Dragons, as is tradition.

Fourth Edition is also the most “video game like” of Dungeons and Dragons editions. This is an odd ancestry for such an elder game: a game-design snake eating its own tank-and-spank tail. Dungeons and Dragons begat dnd5. dnd5 begat MUD and MUD begat Diku.  Diku begat EQ; EQ begat WoW, and WoW begat… Dungeons and Dragons.

The “videogameyness” is a common complaint for people who don’t like the feel of Fourth Edition. But in many ways, D&D4 is also D&D returning more to its old wargaming roots: a tactical miniatures game about dungeon exploration, as in contrast to a storytelling engine. You can have both tactical combat and a solid story, though you’ll always have a bias. D&D4 leans tactical, but is also more organized toward pre-ordained stories than “0th edition” was. It has quite linear modules, rather than exploration-based ones, and hero characters are extremely resilient compared to virtually all older editions, meaning you’re far more likely to compose a lengthy personal arc. This makes it ideal for simple heroic stories about derring-do, adventures that might be violent or lighthearted, but are some way related to killing creatures, and taking their stuff.

One thing I like about Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons is the simplified skill system.  The skill system of 3.5 became a little cumbersome, and it was almost necessary to play it as a sub-game: to take that first level of Rogue just to be sure you had enough skill points to go around, to have that point of Craft: Silversmithing just in case your GM needed you to make a Craft: Silversmithing check.  By contrast, D&D4 does away with flavor skills, focusing on a stripped-down list of skills that are almost assured to come up in a game sooner or later. Some people believe this limits their freedom in character creation, by boiling down only a simple list of things that characters can do, but, there’s a simple solution for this. If you believe your character should craft silver or weave baskets or cook porridge, there’s really no need for a skill roll to do those things.  Just include that as flavor text about the character, and then, should it come up, offer to cook breakfast for the party in a casual sort of way.

One thing that’s a shame about Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons, however, is the simplified skill system. Drat. It does depend a lot on the Dungeon Master, after all, to decide which “fluff” skills are correct to allow, and designing a Skill Challenge that works with the system but still feels as interesting as a combat encounter has always proved challenging for me.  To help out, a few hacks are floating around for this, such as this one from D&D designers Mike Mearls and Monte Cook that suggests a different system of handling basic checks. However, when the game first came out, some people insisted skill challenges were just broken, and early-release Fourth Edition errata related to this system didn’t help matters much.

New player races can be cool, though, too

Errata (or “updates,” as they are now-called) in fact has been problematic for my groups in general, since many books have undergone major and in some cases quite recent changes.  Sure, RPG books often get edited over time, but since D&D4 is trying more than ever to provide a persistent RPG world in which to play (with frequent D&D Worldwide Gamedays, and continuation of Living campaigns), the edits are almost like the patch notes for your favorite MMO, including the occasional sweeping change to how a power like Magic Missile should work.

D&D4 also doesn’t provide much in the way of a default setting.  Since I use DMing as a creative outlet, and enjoy the process of setting design, this doesn’t bother me too much.  If you’re the sort of person that would rather use a boxed setting I agree that “Points of Light” doesn’t give you a lot to go on, and the Forgotten Realms for Fourth Ed doesn’t feel great.  In addition, Fourth Edition simply doesn’t offer many rules for for things in the described setting, if they are not combat. In one case, my players wanted to know how hard it would be to train a baby hippogriff to be a mount, and I simply didn’t have that information without resorting to the 3.5 handbooks or making it up myself. I suppose I could’ve designed a skill challenge around it, but sometimes that feels less satisfying than just playing it out (and knowing how much time that’s likely to take).  If you’re running a module, though, you don’t have to worry about this, since basically everything is figured out for you. The modules do favor combat encounters over peaceful solutions in some cases, but that’s another game design topic altogether.

So it has some downsides.  But just for a home campaign, Fourth Edition pushes some good buttons for me. It’s very flexible, allowing easy custom monster generation without much fuss, and many classes and skills can be reskinned easily just by moving around color and flavor text.  On the other hand, each class has a job, and is playable right out of the box, which minimizes the need to fuss with a lot of character optimization. During a combat encounter, the different types of combat skills provide good options, meaning that everyone can be doing something different every round, and everyone gets a chance to shine in a particular kind of situation. Designing tactical encounters is fun for the Dungeon Master, too.

So that’s why I’m running another Fourth Edition campaign this fall.  How about you?

And since someone always asks: no, I haven’t tried Pathfinder yet.  I hear great things, and I love the people who are working on it. I just haven’t managed to fit it in.






2 responses to “Tabletop Games I Have Played – Dungeons and Dragons (4th ed)”

  1. Alec Fleschner Avatar

    Me? I’m trying to run either Apocalypse World or Dungeon World, a hack based on AW. Of course, some of that is also killing time until Mage 20th Anniversary comes out….

  2. Brooke Davis Avatar

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *