Monday, August 25, 2008

Opinion of 4th Edition D&D and Forgotten Realms

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say I absolutely loathe the 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. Nor would it be an exaggeration to say I find nothing of value in the 4th edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide. After twenty-seven years of playing D&D, I find myself at a bit of a dead end.

I still greatly enjoy the last edition of the game (3rd or 3.5) and have every intention of checking out third-party publishers that stay with the older rules, but I have no interest in buying into 4th edition. I tried World of Warcraft and didn't like it. At least WoW had sound and graphics to distract me from a simplistic and painfully juvenile game system. It's pretty obvious the designers of 4th edition are fans of WoW. While the classes retain the names we grew used to over the last three decades or so, they might as well have stuck with the slang used in online gaming like "tank" or "controller" and such. In fact, they essentially did in the case of monsters. Gone are the spell levels, replaced by a simpler system because players didn't like "resource management." Instead, they gave all classes a host of abilities divided into "at will,"encounter" (typically once per encounter, but sometimes more from what I've read), "daily" (once per day, regardless of how many combat encounters happan) and "utility." Certain abilities have recharge times. Sound familiar to anyone who has played WoW?

I'm not really certain why these format is dramatically different to manage, but 3rd edition frequently funnelled players into a single big fight, followed by a need for rest to regain abilities. 4th edition eliminates that... but so to does it eliminate the art of knowing when to use your abilities and when to hold something in reserve.

I've always felt that people were buying into a single way to play 3rd edition rather than the way we played 1st or 2nd. A challenge had to be neatly balanced with the partys' level in mind, with an emphasis on consuming a certain percentage of their abilities (hit points, spells, and items). Even if the evening session didn't involve a single large combat, it wasn't likely to involve more than three to five short fights before the part had to rest. Was that the only way to play? I think not, and have designed plenty of cases where a party could fight their way through a dozen easier encounters with just enough challenge to deplete the same resources as two to five of the more typical 3rd edition challenges. I'm sure I'm not alone in understanding the many ways a DM can challenge a group without falling into the fight/rest/repeat routine.

That said, I like the variety and detail that went into 3rd edition. 4th doesn't have the oddities, nor the character. It is a video game without the benefit of sound, graphics, full-motion-video, nor even the excellent story telling in some of the better series (Final Fantasy, for example). People will play 4th, and some will enjoy it, but they're the same people that would enjoy playing cards or a board game with their friends.

3rd also made the mistake of advancing players so fast, within a year of once-a-week game nights a player would have an epic character on hand. Apparently, this is what players want. They want constant rewards for their "hard work," and get a real thrill from this "accomplishment." Unfortunately, they grow bored with their dwarf fighter, or elven wizard, and want to try something new in a short time, even with the regular prizes handed out. I've played in a campaign where it took eighty sessions to gain a single level... and had a good time for the majority of it. I play for the thrill of enacting the character, not these virtual prizes. If that was an issue with 3rd, it's a chronic ailment in 4th edition. The pace is even more torrid and it takes on the feeling of a table-top version of Gauntlet (the old arcade game punctuated by "elf needs food").

I can't blame Wizards for trying to tap into the WoW market and grow their player base, but I won't be going along with them for the ride. There hasn't been a year since 1981 in which I didn't buy new gaming products. In many years, I'm sure I spent $1000 or more, though not all of it went to TSR (and later, Wizards). I guess I should be thankful that I'm not spending much on gaming any more. My total expenditures will be to Paizo's Pathfinder rule set (a 3rd edition inspired game, basically a nice little revision of 3.5 for those who don't care for 4th) and miniatures, which are largely a seperate hobby.

I will continue to develop my own campaign world. While I would ignore small changes to the Forgotten Realms in the past, I'm writing off the 4th edition Campign Guide entirely. The old Forgotten Realms has their share of problems and warts, but 4th is not fit to be printed. Whatever they churn out over the next five to ten years, I'm confident it won't equal the quality of one of the older 2nd editon Volo's Guides or the Aurora's catalog. They destroyed the character of the game in an effort to reach out to new players, and in doing so, I'm certain I won't be the only fanatic gamer that won't be with them any more.

As depressed as I was about the prospect of no new material for the game (although I'm encouraged Paizo will contine to produce their Pathfinder line), I realized I've been getting joy out of the 1984 edition of the Marvel Super Heroes RPG (by TSR) since I was in junior high. Even if Paizo doesn't provide enough new content, it doesn't mean I can't continue to enjoy roleplaying.

My personal collection of 3.x material includes some 1100 products on PDF, another 500 or so Dragon and Dungeon magazines, and probably another 150 or so 1st and 2nd editon books I sometimes comb for inspiration. I also have my huge collection of Marvel and Shadowrun (3rd edt, having been unimpressed with the 4th edition of that game, too) to keep me busy. Maybe some new game will be worthwhile, but if not... I'll be fine with what I have.