Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition – A Pre – release Perspective From a Long Time Detractor

Dungeons and Dragons Player
Cover of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Player’s Handbook

Most people that know me know that I don’t like D&D. I have played both 2nd and 3rd edition and I have run games for both (sometimes under some amount of protest… from me) but it has never been my favorite game and while I considered the move from 2nd edition to 3rd edition a huge leap forward I still came to dislike the game and find it lacking.

So, why should you care what I think about 4th Edition? Well, simply put, so far I kind of like it.

Why I Dislike 3rd Edition D&D (And Maybe a Bit About What I Liked)

Since most people have been leaving their 2nd Edition books on the shelf for a while now I’m going to focus my opinions on the current material. I personally find that there is plenty to dislike without the need to search into the past for other blunders (see THACO).

First let me say that I can almost tolerate Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 as a simple (sort of) hack and slash game. I feel that once in a while running a game that is almost entirely about smashing your way through a dungeon and killing big nasty things can be fun. Heck, I play World of Warcraft and in the end that game is just a digital version of my impression of Dungeons and Dragons.

On the other hand I think the beginnings of the D&D failure lay somewhere around character development and social interaction. These kinds of things feel rather pointless in a D&D game, and any player trying to make a social character would probably end up rather bored.

I guess what I really mean to say is that the way I have looked at 3.5 is as a board game with some role playing elements. In a board game you can never think outside the box but with the rather extensive rules provided in 3.5 there rarely is need or reason to think outside the box in D&D. However, I like this element to some degree. It tends to make for an easy game to plan, and designing interesting encounters when you know they are going to be about combat can be fun and sometimes presents interesting challenges as a DM.

My last game ended with the players around level fifteen or sixteen and lasted for over a year. It was, for the most part, fairly enjoyable. It did become rather frustrating at some points but with extra preparation I was generally able to get around some of the problems I had.

So What Were My Problems With D&D 3.5?

Well, some were easily ignored like the silliness of the economic system. (Too often the insane price of magical objects leads to situations where one town could be fed for the rest of their lives just by selling one magic item that they had lying around {that they instead decided to give to the players as a reward}). Likewise the ever-present feeling of incredible power leads some players not to play a character, but makes demands of all NPCs since they are, of course, simply level one Commoners after all. These are minor irritations however.

Another problem I have always had was with levels. I prefer players learning new things gradually as opposed to “leveling up”. However, as it does make planning an adventure easier (you can tell how hard something will be for your players to face) I can certainly see why levels do have their advantages.

Alignment on the other hand is a bit of a larger concern that in my opinion offers no real advantage (except perhaps keeping your players in check).

Aligning My Thoughts

Silly Example #1: The players enter a small town where a murder has just taken place. They are hired by the town council to discover who has done this dastardly deed (let’s say, killing the mayor’s daughter). The Paladin (thinking quickly) turns on his Detect Evil (aka, the holy flashlight) and wanders through the town until he finds the one evil person, whom of course it turns out to be either a villain that has been hiding out in the town or perhaps just some spurned lover. Either way the Paladin lops off the offender’s head and claims his reward.
Idea for Making Alignment Suck Less: I’ve always thought a system could be developed that worked something like this. There are six categories for each of the two aspects of alignment instead of only three.

Basically, for simplicity’s sake, let’s just add the word True in front of each of the six terms we already have: Good, Neutral, Evil, Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic. (Note: Neutral appears twice and effectively means two different things, if someone ever implemented my idea they would probably want to change one of these to Balanced.)

This would give us things like True Good and True Evil. The “True” version would be the versions from the books and would represent paragons of the concept, while someone without the True affixed to their alignment would generally trend toward that alignment but would be able to diverge from it occasionally.

For example someone could be Good (though not True Good) and commit a murder during a drunken rage without losing their alignment. However being a “Good” person they would likely feel very guilty about it and would be conflicted about whether or not they should turn themselves in. Basically, one act would never change someone’s alignment. Still, if they continued to act outside their alignment and it became clear that they were different now, then their alignment could change.

I am never quite sure how to begin this kind of discussion. Many old-hand fantasy players seem to have no problem at all with alignment, looking at their Vampire playing companions as dark depressing Emo kids that need to get a life. My problem is not that I want everyone to be evil or that I want people to be able to steal whenever they want or any such thing, my problem is that alignment is so removed from reality that it often makes creating a story impossible.

Alignment does not exist in the real world. In reality we can all be pushed into doing terrible things but the commission of one terrible (or even just morally objectionable) thing does not make us “evil”. In fact, it hardly even makes us neutral. On the other hand few real world people could ever truly be considered “good”. Most evidence points to the fact that everyone does what is in their best interests and the closest we get to that in D&D is Chaotic Neutral but it’s not like we want every PC to have the same alignment.

I don’t want to get into an ethics discussion here (though if anyone does have an interest in discussing this topic feel free to e-mail me) but for me the alignment system was crippling. Yes, I had a Paladin in my group and that made it worse but even without a Paladin the idea of having such strict guidelines for what someone will and won’t do is painful and distracting.

Death, Dying and Resurrection

Most of my other problems with Dungeons and Dragons relate to this category in some form. My first problem is that there is no “aggro table” or any other “threat” as appears in your standard MMO. Yes, this is a role playing game and many people, I am sure, would find a threat list very silly and distracting, but the fact is that to me D&D often feels like a game that needs a “tank”.

Let me explain. Too often I have seen the weaker characters get slaughtered when they find themselves to be the target of an enemy’s attack. They are simply not designed to be able to take a Full Attack from a monster that has been designed to be able to breach the defenses of the tougher characters.

In a Massively Multiplayer Online Game we find the use of the Holy Trinity (Tank – Person to take damage, DPS – People to do damage, Healer – Person to heal damage). D&D has never quite worked like this, but at times it seems like this is what they were leaning toward. Of course, healing in MMOs is considered by many to be boring but healing in D&D is certainly worse. I have often felt bad for the player who can heal as the other players yell at them until they cast a heal spell instead of doing something more fun with their action. Anyway, to sum up, I feel that there needs to be more incentive for the armored and tough characters to get attacked than for the monsters to do the smart thing and ignore them and charge the casters.

Another problem I have are save or die effects. Certainly I don’t like to use them against my players but having them used against the super-cool monster I spent an hour designing is no less frustrating. The whole idea seems contrary to fun to me.

I’ll also comment here that I have always disliked the level loss mechanic related to certain monsters. The fact that a player could go down a level just seemed stupid to me but that was the way the powers worked and while I did often tweak the rules slightly it didn’t always feel like enough. This actually leads to another problem I will mention below.

All of the above leads us into the problem of character death. All characters dying at –10 was such a stupid concept that I have changed the rule more than any other. I sometimes added constitution to how negative a player could go and I toyed with the idea of adding level as well. I personally like players getting knocked down during a fight. It makes it more exciting for the others as they struggle to win the battle and save their friends, but when getting knocked down almost always leads to death I feel there is a real problem. Too often in my last game a battle was decided by whether or not the Paladin was killed after his initial charge when the big scary monster attacked him with all its attacks. I think the Paladin only died once but I know we had several other deaths in the game because, as I said, no other players could survive them.

Silly Example #2: In our above example the mayor’s daughter had been murdered and the PCs were hired to find the killer. Instead, the town council could have simply taken the reward money and gone to their local temple (or perhaps traveled to a larger city) and had the girl resurrected. It seems that a Lawful Good character (like our holy-flashlight-wielding Paladin friend) would be so kind as to inform them of this rather then take their money. No, this does not solve the problem of who killed her… until she comes back to life and tells you herself.

When players die as often as they do in a game that tends to be about exploring a dungeon (or castle or whatever) I have found that the story (and game) gets interrupted as the players need to leave and either get a new companion or get their old companion resurrected. As if the idea of pausing an adventure wasn’t silly enough the idea of resurrection is even worse. When players know they are not really going to die (just lose a level) they can be more reckless and don’t need to role play at all. To use the MMO example it ends up feeling like testing out a dungeon to see if you are high enough level or not. If you wipe, well, you can always come back when you have gained a bit more XP.

This leads me to the point on level loss from dying or from monsters’ abilities. The very idea of one player being a lower level than the others has always bothered me. It leads to uneven fights and related complications. Also, the lower level players sometimes feel less useful to the group and this leads to them having less fun. Not to mention it can lead them to being more fragile and thus die more which just makes the whole situation worse. I think in my last game I raised the cost of resurrection but I removed the level loss. It wasn’t a great solution, but with how easy it was to die I felt it was needed.

So… um… something, something D&D 4th Edition?

Yes, I was going to talk a bit about D&D 4th Edition. So let’s do that now. Essentially from what I have seen it almost feels like Wizards had a man outside my window listening to me rant after some of our old D&D sessions. This rather creepy individually then must have ran back and told his comrades all about my complaints and suggested they implement some changes when they eventually bring out a new edition.

Character Development and Character Powers

Okay so there are still levels and honestly, I can’t say I blame them at all on that one. Essentially it would be a completely different game if they got rid of levels and if they let you buy pieces of what you get for leveling up instead of just giving you the whole package (for example Base Attack +1 costs X experience points), you would see too many people foregoing too many things to get those that are perceived as more powerful.

I find it rather amusing that there are now 30 levels rather than 20 and that they are divided into three sections that play a bit differently. 1 – 10 is called Heroic, 11 – 20 is called Paragon, and 21 – 30 is called Epic. Feels really familiar for some reason…

However it does seem that they have changed the way they view special powers and special attacks. Often a character will get a certain amount of uses per encounter instead of per day, which is certainly more fun for them but also more easily balanced.

To add to this many of these abilities do something in addition to attacking. For example a Paladin can increase an ally’s defense or a Cleric can heal. This results in the player getting to make an attack roll (which, let’s face it, is fun) but still fulfill their character’s role. There is also some implication that many characters will have ways to heal themselves, which is a good idea as well I think.

One of my big complaints above was about the need for the armored character to be the one being attacked and it seems that Wizards and I agree on this. There are new abilities that either allow a fighter to defend other players or simply give the monsters more of an incentive to attack the fighter (for example the Paladin ability above). I think that this kind of thing could really help the game and make it a lot harder for accidental deaths to occur.

Death, Dying and all that Jazz

Silly Example #3: Jim Bob the Fighter is hit by a Fire Giant and reduced to three hit points. Being a stupid fighter Jim Bob stands his ground and on the next swing the Fire Giant hits Jim Bob and reduces him to -30 hit points, killing him.

His friend Anthony The Not So Dumb (also a fighter) gets hit and reduced to three hit points. Anthony has taken skills in acting for just this situation and falls down, playing dead, knowing that there is no way that the giant can miss its first attack (well, it could roll a one) and also knowing that even if the Cleric rolls well to heal, he will still most likely die. (This example is meant to represent the problem of characters being alive and awake but knowing they will die if they take another hit. Higher level characters actually have a higher lethality rate than lower level characters.)

This leads me to another thing I have seen. Apparently players now do not die until they reach negative half their hit points. This seems, at least at first glance, as though it will result in fewer players exploding and more players simply being knocked unconscious. A player could, I think, fail to stabilize and die after a few rounds but at least the other players get a chance to try to save their downed comrade.

Apparently resurrection is still in the game but it seems as though it will not be as common. Also it is now a ritual of some kind rather than simply being a normal spell.

Here there be Monsters

It seems that they have also revamped the way Monsters work. There are several different kinds of the same monster with different roles to play. They have added something called Minions, which is basically the idea of Extras used in Exalted and Scion. These are puds that can be killed with one successful attack.

I remember I broke a lot of rules for monsters back when I ran a game, including making guys that had almost no hit points but could still do damage. There was really no rules system for it but it made some of the combats more interesting. It seems they have done something like this.

Monsters also get a better laid out tactics section. It tells who they will attack and why. It also gives them reasons to hurt more than one character to reduce the focus fire problem.

Save Me From These Silly Saves

It looks like Wizards has gotten rid of a lot of the save or die effects and they say they have gotten rid of the abilities of monsters that caused level loss. These two things make me quite happy. Even something like Turn to Stone is not instantaneous anymore so the player can fight on as the effect takes hold. They have also changed the way saving throw bonuses are calculated and reduced the huge differences that some characters had (for example the fighter having a +20 to Fortitude save while the Wizard had +6). This all seems like a positive change to me.

On the other hand it looks like they took away ability damage. I don’t think that this was needed as long as the damage was always temporary. Perhaps it was simply considered too difficult to calculate and they will just give monsters abilities which confer penalties.

Social Interactions for Those Who Care

Apparently Social Interactions and the rolls associated with them are addressed far more than in previous editions. While this does not mean that the game is moving too far from its core (trudging through a dungeon) it does allow players who like to play their characters a bit of a chance to do so. It also gives more use for things like the Bluff skill.

I’ll admit that social interactions are not why I play D&D (or I should say why I would play D&D). There are plenty of other games out there that have decent rules for this kind of thing, and if what I wanted to play was a social kind of game I would play one of those. (Oh… wait… I do play one of those!)

A Chimera is Just the Sum Total of All its Parts

I’ve gone on a bit longer than I had intended to but, well, being interested in D&D came as a rather big shock to me. I still don’t know if I will ever play the game but I am certain I will at least read the base books. If it were not for the fact that they seem to have deliberately addressed so many of my complaints I doubt I would be this interested. If anyone wants to check out information on D&D they can see some rumors or head over to the official site for information that has been officially released.

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    Matt Says:

    Wow, could it be that there might be a future D&D campigan for our group? Granted I’ve always liked the game for it’s simplicity and for leaning towards the go into dungeon, receive XP, and receive treasure style. This is because I grew up on what I have seen called JRPGs back in my major console days (J stands for Japanese). Games like the Final Fantasy (I’m talking the orginal here), the Shinning series (Shinning In The Darkness, Shinning Force I, II, III, Shinning the Holy Ark, and yes I’ve played them all), and the Phantasy Star series. So leveling and high combat with a storyline thown in for good measure has always been my bread and butter table top game.

    Over the years playing games like Werewolf, Exalted, Shadowrun, and Scion with Josh and the gang I’ve learned that I do like more story driven games as well. However sometimes I just want to roll some dice and hack and slash my way through and adventure. So while I’m not holding my breath to see a 4th Edition D&D game anytime soon it’s certainly something I would like to do once Scion has run it’s course (which I’m hoping will be a long time from now because I’m really enjoying the game and our group).

    As a side note, in the game Josh mentioned I think I died a total of 5 times with each time a new character was created because I’m not big on the whole resurection deal. Every time it was a problem with the system because I played less then sturdy characters. For instance my first and favorite character of that game was Wuzzle Tinderfinger, Gnome Sorcerer. It tied the longest of all my previous D&D characters by making it 9 levels before becoming a bucket of yuck thanks to a Great Axe critical (even with an 18 Con I still was a caster type). Anyways point being I’m glad they made characters more sturdy and added abilities to let the fighters absorb more of the damage that would normally go to squishies like Wuzzle. I can say though with certainty if they are building it with the ability to swing and get off a heal in the same round a healer type would definitly be in my future if we ever busted open the game. I’ve played a Cleric before and I like the other spells they offered, but found that in most cases I was healing more then swinging my weapon which as Josh stated isn’t as exciting.

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    Scott Says:

    <rant>I’ll throw in with Josh here, D&D has never been my game of choice. I may even be less a fan than Josh (he was willing to run it).

    It really comes down to the nigh inescapable premise that most players associate with D&D, one which it seems Wizards has slowly sidled away from in small increments but will probably hang like an albatross around the game’s neck for years to come.

    I’m talking about the notion that D&D is a dungeon crawler. A hack n’ slashfest. A monster-kill-and-lootorium.

    That’s fine, I enjoy games of that kind. Only I want to play them in a different context. In my opinion, there have been heaps of computer and video games, plus card and board games, that have executed that simple premise extremely well. I may be in the minority, but I’d rather play one of those than play a “role playing game” that is really a roll playing game. Combat can be full of story, and treasure can be fun to discover, but a game which revolves so tightly around those elements to the detriment of all else shouldn’t tease and pretend to be about role playing, it should just revel in its board-gameness or video-gameness and be one of those instead.

    I think I’ll finish with a question: Does a dungeon romp need politics, guile… charisma? Is it better off without these things?
    </rant>

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    Scott Says:

    Having said all of that, I must say I did enjoy (and still do, original Genesis carts and all) the Shining games, Phantasy Star II, plus PC greats like the Ultimas. In fact there were times in Ultima VI (my favorite) where the options and dilemmas involved in keeping or breaking the high moral code of the Avatar felt like the kind of decisions I’d want to face in a good pen and paper role playing game.

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    I do emjoy throwing that kind of thing at my players but I have found that most players do not enjoy grappling with them and would instead rather grapple with a monster (though in D and D 3rd you would need to read, re read and then analyze the grappling rules to try this). And honestly, running a lighter more combat oriented game can be entertaining in its own right. Sometimes.

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    Matt Says:

    It’s not to say that I don’t think D&D can’t have a more social element in the game, but I think those elements have to be thought of differently then in the other games I’ve listed. The other games tend to have some realism and as such social interaction can be base on that level. D&D however has very little reality and there are a lot of things that you have to glace over. I think you have to play things over the top to make it work.

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    Matt Says:

    Helps if I finish my thought (and register so I can edit my comments 😛 )

    Anyways what I ment is that in D&D you need more imagination with social interaction (as a player) then with something like Scion. For me that’s a tough thing as I’m not that creative on the fly, but I’m getting better at it as the years roll on. However I can roll dice, and as such have a much easier time in combat. So I think it’s the setting along with the system that make the combat aspects more appealing then the social in a game like D&D for me.

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    Any role playing game is more about the people playing it than the rules. D and D has baggage related to it being a game about rolling dice and killing things with little plot and little realism but that dosn’t need to be what it is.

    I did find in my last D and D game that often the between dungeon parts of the game became bogged down and slow as players didn’t seem to know what to do or just didn’t care to do anything. However, they generally had fun trouncing through the dungeons and killing stuff. Of course, there was still a plot and they could interact with it and there were chances to talk with people and interact with the world I had created.

    Dice do add a certain amount of drama by themselves.

    I think that different people play games for different reasons. I admit I tend to look down on the gamers that have Vampires with Mage Spheres (old WoD) but sometimes I try to step back and just realize that if someone is having fun role playing does it really matter what kind of role playing they are doing?

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    Here is another link to 4th Edition info.

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    Okay, I am interested in D and D 4th and I am certainly going to read it and I might even run a game (since people are basically ALWAYS asking me to run D and D even though they know its not my favorite) but as I read through all the information about D and D 4th I keep coming running into the same thought:

    “Hey this seems neat… wait… where have I heard this before…”

    It seems that most of the new ideas for D and D 4th are ripped either from World of Warcraft (you can disenchant magic items in D and D now! Oh and guess what, we added Taunt!) or Scion.

    This is an actual quote from one of Wizards Excerpts.

    “The new cosmology, rooted in a great war between the primordial first creators and the gods, offered a way to incorporate giants into the setting.”

    I almost started laughing when I read this. For those that don’t know, this is essentially the over all plot of Scion and the giants are the servents of the Titans which are basically the so called “primordial first creators” in the Scion world.

    You can check out the full article on the new giants here.

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    I came across this site and wanted to link to it. He mentions that he plays Scion a bit as well as D and D and has some comments about 4th Edition.

    He also links to this article over at Aint it Cool News.

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    I wanted to comment specifically on something Scot said above but forgot to before leaving a whole bunch of other comments here.

    “That’s fine, I enjoy games of that kind. Only I want to play them in a different context. In my opinion, there have been heaps of computer and video games, plus card and board games, that have executed that simple premise extremely well. I may be in the minority, but I’d rather play one of those than play a ‘role playing game’ that is really a roll playing game.”

    I use to agree with Scott completely but I find that I have to differ now. When I was younger with all the free time in the world I found that filling that free time with complexity was almost always agreeable. These days I find that sometimes complexity (perhaps for example a complex ethical dilemma filled story in a role playing game) is great but other times something a bit lighter with less of a seriouse face is just as or perhaps even more enjoyable.

    I also really cannot agree that a computer hack fest is the same as a table top hack fest. Even the most base role playing game involves sitting around with a group of friends as opposed to sitting by yourself in front of a computer. And this is coming from a guy that plays World of Warcraft! 🙂

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    Scott Says:

    Hmm, on that last point, perhaps I put too much emphasis on playing the hack ‘n slash with computer and video games.

    There are card and board games which cover the same ground and involve playing with a table full of friends while you’re at it. HeroQuest is one example.

    The part I do agree with whole-heartedly is sitting at a table with a group of friends. Or even sitting with three other friends in front of one TV playing the same video game (though that’s getting off to another topic). The game becomes the glue, the social medium for group interaction, and that dynamic is ultimately the best part as long as it allows you to have fun.

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    Scott Says:

    Getting back to Dungeons and Dragons, Matt you said it- D&D has little reality. I was basically thinking that at that remove from reality I prefer to abstract a step further to a board game, for example, where lack of reality is not an issue.

    Of course Josh is right too, D&D’s baggage doesn’t have to figure into the sessions, it also depends on the people playing. Really a group of role players can choose to change or ignore any rules they wish so a game of D&D could be realistic, involve an intricate story and tough moral dilemmas, etc., all up to the people playing. Just that there are probably other systems which may make some of those things easier.

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    Scott Says:

    On the type of game, lighthearted or heavier and featuring tough, character-defining decisions, there’s room for either (and lots between) but I tend toward the latter with my tastes.

    It’s a bit like movies, on rare occasions I’ll watch a comedy, something light and fun with laughs every minute. Usually I’ll opt instead for the darker thriller, the taut horror suspense film, or the edgy independent drama that asks questions… and maybe doesn’t give out answers.

    As most of my friends tend toward the lighter and more dungeon-romping end of the spectrum, one might see that I don’t do a lot of role playing. World of Warcraft didn’t start that trend, but I find it interesting that Wizards clearly identifies new potential converts in the ranks of WoW players who otherwise wouldn’t be into role playing (okay that part’s obvious) and that they’d borrow elements from WoW and bridge the gap.

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    Well, I think adding some kind “threat” system to D and D is a change that has been a long time in coming. As a DM it was always hard to play a bad guy as being smart and yet dumb enough to only attack the fighter. Of course, some monsters really are that dumb…

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    Scott Says:

    Fair enough; as in Rules of Play (sidetracked from reading that while I read my new programming book, which sidetracked me from The God Delusion) game design elements can be applicable to multiple platforms/game types.

    It isn’t unreasonable to have a mechanism in D&D for allowing the fighter draw attacks off the more fragile characters, nor would it be unreasonable for the chummers… I mean, monsters, to try and “geek the mage!” Sometimes you’d kind of want them to do so, and having a means for the tough guy to guard the mage’s butt actually empowers the players while enabling you as the DM to do your worst, in a sense.

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    I think I need to make a post about where to find D and D 4th info. Until then, I like this site and thought that I should link to it.

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