Monday, March 21, 2011

My foray into 4E

Dungeons and Dragons has been around since 1974 and in over 35 years of history has been through a lot of changes. In the common nerdvacular (like vernacular but all mixed up) the major benchmarks in D&D's evolution are referred to as "editions" or "e" for the super-hip and lazy. I first dabbled in D&D during high school when 2E was all the rage. -I will now type THAC0 a whole bunch per the understood rules for discussing anything involving 2nd Edition D&D. While on my way to meet my friend, THAC0 for a lovely lunch of THAC0 with THAC0 before seeing the fine film, THAC0 presents THAC0 in THAC0, the THAC0 Story, I stopped off to pick up a six-pack of THAC0.- but I digress.

When I got back into tabletop RPGs during the mid-Oughts, 3.5 was all the rage, but was soon replaced by 4th Edition. -cue wardrums- Well, the transition to 4E set off a nerdwar of unbridled proportions. Storytellers insist that edition transitions always result in horrendous, Cheeto-fueled strife, but this was the first of such conflicts to which I bore witness firsthand.

Those who really love their 3rd Edition and its half sibling 3.5 railed against the new 4th Edition for killing roleplay by being too combat focused, for being little more than a video game on paper but waayyy slower, and for being a corporate-driven decision by a business wanting to make money. (GASP!)

Those who dove whole-hog into 4th Edition praise it as being streamlined, more balanced, more tactical, easier to run as a GM and easier to pick up as a new player. They also rail against 3.5 for being too complicated, unbalanced and old.

To which both sides added that those who subscribe to the other system are both cads and, in fact, bounders.

Anyway, since I re-entered the gaming world with 3.5E, I decided to stick with it when I started running my own game. I greatly enjoy the system, and now that I have found the book-buying loophole that is Half-Price Books, I have been able to build my library while paying used book prices, not out-of-print book prices for all my 3.5 Edition manuals. As such, I have had no desire to switch to 4th.

I love 3.5 and my players love 3.5. However, unlike many lurking in the anonymous mysts of the internet, I do not undergo a horrific lycanthropic transformation at the mention of 4E, which causes me to wake up naked in a field, covered in blood with a torn scrap of t-shirt reading "Move Minor Standard" clutched in my aching hand.

I subscribe to the old saw, "It takes all kinds" and in an effort to reach across the Edition aisle, I made my first foray into 4E gaming this past weekend. I enjoyed my time. I will play again in two weeks. However, my mental jury is still out on which system, if any, I find superior.

Here are my first impressions of 4E:
  • It does feel more streamlined and focused on "hero stuff" gone are uncool skills like "profession basketweaver" or "craft pottery". While this probably works for 95% of players, sometimes you want to play someone who is a really good cook (I have a player in my game who is doing exactly that!)
  • The method for composing stats gives your character higher numbers, but I have to assume this doesn't really affect the challenge of the game since any monster stats will be derived the same way, thus negating any advantage... but this one goes to 11.
  • Bonuses derived from leveling up have switched to a static increase, rather than changes rolled with dice (hit points) or selected from a pool of points (skills).
  • In an effort to balance the game, all character types have been given a selection of powers. I'm not sure how I feel about this yet. Yes, I think some of the powers my character can use sound really cool. But at the same time, many of them seem to boil down to "deal x amount of damage and move the target y number of squares." Gone are the vast majority of special abilities that could be useful both in and out of combat. I have to admit, it does feel a little video-gamey. An intriguing video game, but still.
  • Likewise, the equipment list is simultaneously more open and more restrictive. More open in that my character uses a magic "implement" to drive his powers. What does this implement look like? Whatever I want it to! A staff, an orb, a rune-covered burrito, everything has the same effect... the same effect. This is both refreshing, in that the player can describe their character's weapon or implement however he/she wants, but also disheartening in that it doesn't affect how the game actually plays out. The trade-offs between weapon damage, potential for critical strikes and number of strikes, which were previously determined by selecting a weapon and shield, two handed weapon or two weapons, seem to have vanished entirely. Similarly, I was told that, as a druid character, I wore hide armor. No choice. That's just how it is. Oh, and apparently all magic necklaces do the same thing in 4E... but they can look like whatever you want!

    I think this will be one of those things that bugs me about the new system. One of my favorite aspects of 3.5 is playing with gear loadouts. Carefully crafting a character's kit to attain just the right balance of lethality, impregnability and agility -not always for the maximum advantage, but more to make a sword and shield swinging fighter feel different from one who swings a halberd from horseback. Its feels like the difference between custom-tuning a race car and picking a model and color from off the lot.
Of course, all of this comes with the caveat that I have only actually played for about 3 hours at this point. These are all first impressions. The jury is still out on how I feel about 4E or whether I think it is superior or inferior to 3.5. One thing I can say for certain... it is different.


    1. I love 4e, but it has some drawbacks. Most notably is optimization geeks try to make you feel guilty for taking not-superior feats and powers. So what if you want to be more flavorful than useful? Druids can wear cloth or leather, but hide has a larger AC bonus so why wear anything else? Sure, you could play a brawler fighter who clotheslines enemies trying to run away from him and can put a dragon in a headlock, but a great weapon fighter is mechanically superior so why would you play as anything else? Reading forums about 4e is painful for me from a "hey guys lets just play things that are fun" standpoint.

      I miss Use Rope. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I'm glad they simplified how skills work, but not being able to roll a perform check as a bard still hurts.

      Powers...I dislike them sometimes. I like how essentials works in that regard. I suggest checking them out. Essentials builds are a bit more 3.5 in some regards, and I wish sometimes that they came out with them first. The martial characters have fewer powers than spellcasters, but have their own benefits that spellcasters don't. It's nice.

      I'm glad you finally tried 4e! I love DMing 4e, and I wouldn't ever DM a campaign in 3.5 again, but sometimes I find myself missing things from 3.5...and plan on running a 3.5 one-off at some point.

    2. I agree that some of the simplifications are very refreshing. I love the passive perception check rule and have adopted something similar for my 3.5 game. I also like the fact that saves and some skills are now determined by the better of two ability modifiers.

      but yeah... use rope and some of the profession skills, while often overlooked had great potential. Profession (sailor) or (trap smith) could make for a very interesting character and could easily affect combat and non-combat situations... And my 3.5 group has used perform to great effect when setting up distractions.

      4E definitely feels like a min-maxers game. I got over that urge a while ago, and now prefer to play characters with personality and a distinct style. For example, I've been wanting to run a mongol-style light cavalryman for a while.

    3. When you mention your implement feels "samey," it's because you haven't gotten your hands on anything but a simple, normal implement. There are a *ton* of magical implements (different magical items are about the only thing that can be thrown out willy-nilly without having to balance it), each with their own flavors and things they affect.

    4. I guess the issue with sameness ties more into some apprehension about how powers work. If I have at-will powers that key off the implement and deal more damage than any weapon I could carry, why would I ever carry a weapon, much less customize my gear with some melee choices, ranged choices etc? I guess I feel like in 3.5 magic is something that needs to be conserved and used at the right moment and that it requires a different mindset to play a magic-user than it does to play a tank. I'm afraid that with at-will powers, my druid might feel like just another fighter, except his sword is called an implement. Again, this apprehension could go away as I play more.

    5. The thing is, you shouldn't carry a weapon. You'll never run out of your essential druid powers and have to become a crappy ranged fighter plinking away with a crossbow. You'll always have something that you can use from your class.
      There will be combat soon, and you'll see just how awesome controller classes can be.


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