Tuesday, September 23, 2008

4th Edition: The Penultimate Verdict

So 4e has been out for a couple of months now. As my regular readers (assuming any exist) will know, I've been ambivalent about it in the lead-up. Some news had me ecstatically proclaiming to the heavens, and other news had me sharpening an axe with the words "Aim Me at Mearls" engraved on it. So how did it pan out now that I've digested the books?

Let me just say that there is a long list of problems that I have with this edition. Most of these boil down to "It ain't like AD&D!", but I'm going to break it down point by point.

1. Lack of crazy shit: Some of the coolest things about D&D are the crazy powers that can send the game in unexpected directions, or change it with a single bad roll. Things like polymorph, teleport, all of the save or die effects, even the good old vorpal sword. The 4e designers went above and beyond the call of duty in carving all of these out of the game, in an effort to create something that can't be broken. The result is a bland game, D&D with all the interesting stuff taken out. Sure, the 4e Vorpal Sword has exploding damage dice that can potentially do infinite damage, but the old-school one CUTS PEOPLES' HEADS OFF!

2. Starting power: This isn't really a flaw in the design, but I despise the starting power level of PCs. I realise the monsters have been boosted to a comparable level, but to me it's just hacked out my favourite part of the game, which is levels 1-3. I love the uncertainty of delving the dungeon with a character who might die in a single hit - and when that character survives, the feeling of accomplishment is all the greater. I like a game where characters become heroes via gameplay, not ones who are heroes right off the bat.

3. Minions: I get the rationale behind these guys - use them when you want the players to mow through a horde of guys that all die in one hit. But I just can't wrap my head around them all having 1 hit point. I suppose that in the game world they really don't have 1 hit point, and it's just a rules construct, but it's still something I dislike vigorously.

4. All the classes are the same: It used to be that the classes all played very differently and had their own sub-systems. Fighters were your basic melee combatant, magic-users had spells, clerics had a combination of the two, and thieves had their skills to fall back on. Admittedly 3e blurred the lines here somewhat, but not so much that the game felt different. In 4e the classes are unrecognizable, and they all use the same system of daily, encounter and at-will powers. It would make the game far easier to balance, but I preferred the old diversity. And while we're on the subject of powers...

5. The powers are boring to read: A very large portion of the Player's Handbook is given to the class powers, and they are the most boring thing I have ever read in an RPG book. If they had written the things out sentence by sentence, like the old spell descriptions, I might have enjoyed them, but as it is they're a jumble of damage ranges and effects and other jargon that I can't keep straight in my head. The single sentence of flavour they get isn't enought to save them from blending into a homogenous blob. Is it just me, or does every single Cleric power boil down to "Hit an enemy, heal a friend"?

6. Flavourless art: The art is all pretty competent, and admittedly the Monster Manual has some way cool stuff in it, but overall there's just no atmosphere to it. It's all very safe - nothing too violent, nothing too sexy, and very little representation for classic fantasy tropes. D&D needs to regain a bit of its "Devil's Game" rep, I feel, and the art is the first place to get that across.

7. Boring Monster Manual: After I'd read and hated the PHB and DMG, I was still confident that I'd love the Monster Manual, because I love bestiaries. But no, they even made the Monster Manual boring. The friggin' Monster Manual!!! All of the monsters are just things to kill, with very little effort made to give them personality in the flavour text. Admittedly, a lot of effort has been made to differentiate them in the mechanics, but mechanics don't make me want to run them - and again, the way their powers are written now is so uninspiring.

8. Magic System is gutted: D&D's magic system was one of its defining features. Few other RPGs emulated it, and so it became one of the things that made D&D different from everything else. And there were so many cool ways you could describe the memorisation process flavourwise! I have trouble doing the same for Daily-Encounter-At-Will - but I'm open to people with ideas.

9. Roll to hit with a Magic Missile: A little piece of my soul died when I saw you had to roll for a Magic Missile. A little more of it went when I saw fireball no longer did 1d6 per level.

10. Specter?!? IT'S SPECTRE, GODDAMN IT!

And that's it, though I'm sure I could wrack my brains for more. But as the title says, this is the Penultimate Verdict - I haven't played it yet. I'm open to it, but a few of my players are highly opposed, and that's the way I lean as well. And if the new edition didn't make me want to play it, then I count that as a failure.

1 comment:

  1. This is pretty much my feelings on 4th ed after running four 6 month campaigns, number one on my list is the 'every class feels the same', followed closely by 'powers are boring'.

    Some stuff in 3.5 was broken as hell, but everything had flavor which just made it feel a lot more like a game world rather than a tabletop wargame.