Wednesday, July 02, 2008

3e for me

Just under a month ago, the fourth edition of the "Dungeons & Dragons" game was released with an almost complete lack of fanfare. Despite my misgivings and doubts, I promptly invested in a set of the new rulebooks, spent two weeks valiantly reading though the 832 pages of rules for this new, simpler version of the game, and have since spent some considerable time pondering the new edition, whether to switch over to it, or whether not to bother.

I'm thinking I'll not bother.

My initial impression of the new game was that the books were very big, very heavy, and really quite intimidating. Quite frankly, 832 pages of rules is just too many for a game of this sort, by a factor of about 3. My overriding emotion on first cracking open the new PHB was one of fear, rather than the excitement that has greeted each new edition I have read in the last twenty years.

However, I consciously put aside my misgivings and prejudices about the game (as far as one can do, anyway), and tried to read with an open mind. And found that the game is much, much better than I had feared. In fact, it is a good game. No, it's a very good game. But it falls short of being a great game.

Key improvements:

  • Each class has an explicitly stated role in the party. We have defenders (Fighter, Paladin), who stand at the front, take lots of damage, and protect weaker characters. We have strikers (Ranger, Rogue, Warlock), who move around a lot, deal lots of damage, but are quite fragile themselves. We have leaders (bad name, but never mind; Cleric, Warlord) who inspire the rest of their party to do better, and have powerful healing abilities. And we have controllers (Wizard), who cast big area-effect spells. By explicitly stating the class roles, they make it clear just what each class is meant to do, and eliminate some of the 'junk-classes' from the previous edition (where the Bard and Monk were decent characters, but didn't really fit most parties).
  • They've gone some considerable distance towards equalising the maths, so that high-level play works rather better. In third edition, the cumulative effect of massive specialisation and all the modifiers was that a task one character would succeed on with a 2, another would fail on except with a 20. This caused some considerable problems above level 13 or so.
  • The encounter design rules in the DMG are considerably improved, and should lead to far more interesting and more balanced encounters.
  • The DMG also includes a concept called "Skill Challenges", which handle things like negotiating with nobles, interrogating prisoners, chases, and so forth. The concept behind these is really strong. (But see below.)
  • The Monster Manual includes many different versions of common monsters at different power levels. Previously, the Orc that was presented was the weakest of his kind, and if you wanted a more powerful Orc you had to build him yourself, taking considerable time.

Key weaknesses:

  • They have adopted an 'exception-based' rules approach, where everything is a special case. This means that the game is easier to learn - you only need to know what you need to know. However, it also gives rise to 'duelling exceptions', where one character has a power that does one thing, another has a power that does something mutually exclusive, and there is no indication of how the two should interact.
  • Additionally, where special cases are given, they cannot be applied in the general case. You can close your eyes to protect yourself against the Medusa's petrifying gaze... but what about the gaze attack of the Basilisk?
  • The new DMG has been hailed as being the best ever. It isn't, although it's easy to make that mistake. The new DMG is full of really good general advice for new DMs. It also covers all of the important topics required. However, where it falls down really badly is in the area of specifics. It talks about designing encounters in the 'natural' and 'staged' ways, as well as the 'best' way ('natural' encounters start from "what creatures should be here?", 'staged' encounters start from "what would be cool to have here?", and 'best' encounters blend the two). This is a good thing; but it doesn't actually tell you how to design any of these things. Oops.
  • They've thrown out almost all of the accumulated baggage of the last thirty years. This might be a good thing, except that that baggage was a whole lot of the charm of the game. Without it, the whole thing seems oddly soulless.
  • Remember that oh-so-great 'Skill Challenge' concept, and the wonderful news that they've 'fixed the maths'? Well, it turns out they didn't run the probabilities on the system, because the odds of actually succeeding at a Skill Challenge are miniscule.
  • Perhaps most damning of all, those 832 pages of rules give rise to a game that feels... incomplete. It's like a Starter Set for a good game, a game that they'll no doubt build on over the next few years, at a cost of $30 a month. While the third edition rules could be played out of the box for years without becoming stale, the fourth edition looks like it will run out of novelty in about a year... coincidentally just as they're planning on releasing "Player's Handbook 2". In fact, even trying to build a single first level adventure that doesn't include either Kobolds or Goblins is a daunting task - there just isn't anyone to fight!

And then there are the inanities:

  • The new alignment system removes several of the existing alignments. Apparently, the concept of a character being 'Chaotic Good' was difficult and confusing, so it's now simply 'Good'. But that's not the silliest part of it. The new alignment system represents which cosmic team a character belongs to, and is otherwise neither restrictive nor descriptive. Consequently, your Lawful Good Paladin can quite happily go around burning down orphanages, and remain both Lawful Good and a Paladin, just so long as he stands ready to inflict genocide on random Orcs at the slightest provocation.
  • The mounted combat rules allow a character's mount to use his own Stealth bonus in place of that of his mount. So, a sneaky Elf on a rhino can infiltrate the enemy camp under cover of darkness, and then rampage away to his heart's content. Huzzah for Stealth Rhinos!
  • Remember that Medusa's petrifying gaze? Well, it turns out you don't need to worry about it. See, the gaze requires an action on the part of the Medusa, and closing your eyes protects you. Since it's absurd to suggest that opening or closing your eyes is anything other than a free action, there's nothing to stop you acting thus: open eyes - act - act - act - close eyes. (Fortunately, the Basilisk will still be able to get you.)

Still, the truth is that this game has always had numerous silly rules. It has always had significant weaknesses, and it has always been for the DM to bring sense to this mess.

So, 4e is a good game, but one that could and should have been much better. On reflection, though, I don't think it is sufficiently better to persuade me to switch.

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