D&D Take Four

Actually, it’s more like Take Seventeen, but who’s counting? :)

Dungeons & Dragons, that venerable grandmother of role-playing games, is getting a new Edition in Spring next year. In the RPG community that’s huge news and it’s sparked an entire mass of debate. Ardent D&D gamers are already hanging on the words of the developers and trying to read volumes into the throwaway sentences of the guys from WoTC.

What we do know though is pretty sparse, and it’s getting harder to find out the real facts among all the fanboy speculation. That’s not stopping me from trying though :)

What we do know is that the new Edition promises to play faster than the current 3.5 Edition of the game. The designers are purposely (is that a word?) working on making the game easier for DMs to prepare, and make combat more exciting and dynamic for player and DM alike. One of the core races is going to leave the Players’ Handbook (the Gnome is most likely candidate) to be replaced with (probably) the Tiefling and Changeling. They’re not the races I’d have chosen for Core, but still. Surely the races in the PHB should be those most likely to be found in as many gameworlds as possible, including those created by the gamers themselves. I can’t see those two getting that much airtime, really. They’re cool, yes, but should be exceptionally rare by definition. I’d rather have a handful of “evil” races in there instead, such as the Goblin, Hobgoblin and Kobold. That would be of far more use to DM and players who wants to play a character against type.

All of the classes are going to get a make-over too, with new abilities gained at every level. One of the classes is going to leave the PHB (to appear in a later supplement) to be replaced by some kind of Fighter-Mage type. The smart money is that the Bard is going. It’s no great loss – I’m not a great lover of the Bard, and a decent Spellsword type class would be a welcome addition to Core.

What’s most interesting about this new Edition is the shift in emphasis. 3.5 Edition D&D was unashamedly focused on miniatures play. The entire combat chapter reads like a lesson in pushing plastic counters around a board, and I hate it. Of course, the game could still be played without miniatures (we did, as did many others), but doing so ignores a hefty (unnecessary) chunk of the rules.

4th Edition promises much more. It recognises that there are many different way to play D&D including gaming online using a virtual tabletop. 4E will cover imaginitive play as well as figure pushing, but WoTC is also putting a lot of emphasis on Online play. There’s a whole section of the company working on a new site that’s designed to complement and enhance the gaming experience, and it’s going to offer character generation, a game table, DM tools, online copies of the books and lots more. Some of the stuff will be free-to-use, but the cool toys will be subscription based. I’m still not sure how this is going to work in reality – do all the players have to pay for subscription to play online, or just the DM? – and I don’t think they do either, yet.

For now, I’m treating the entire DnD Insider project like any other software release. It’s vapourware surrounded by marketing hype that promises to solve world hunger; I’ll bet that 80% of what we’re seeing about DnD Insider won’t see light of day in Spring 2008, if at all. A part of me hopes it does, but I know these things. We’ll see.

What’s good though is that they recognise that online play is a Big Thing, and want to cater for it while at the same time providing a game which doesn’t explicitly require it. I see D&D getting a little edgier, a bit more World of Warcraft, but that’s not really such a bad thing it if attracts more players to the game.

As regards the actual rules themselves, WoTC are remaining tight lipped, and we can only speculate at this stage. The rules are still being playtested and are likely changing daily, so even the stuff that’s been hinted at might not exist in the final release.

This is what’s got my attention so far:

  • Attacks of Opportunity (my most disliked rule, ever) are going, to be replaced with an easier to understand and apply Immediate action. This is good, as it means anyone can interrupt someone’s turn, but only once per turn. Simple. How that plays in-game remains to be seen; the Dragon combat example did nothing to convince be combat would be faster in 4E. In fact, it did a lot to erode my hopes for the new edition. It was a mistake posting that up, methinks.
  • Vancian magic is all but gone, whatever that means. I’ve never liked the memorise-then-forget spell system, and would be happy to see that relegated as a legacy option in the DMG, personally. It looks like spells are getting a major shake up too, with spell levels matching character level. WoTC have already hinted about 25th level spells :)
  • Armour Class and combat stats are largely the same, though criticals look like they’re handled differently. There’s more differentiaion between different types of weapon too, so your selection of sharp pointy thing matters more. That’s great news; I hope there’s also rules for piecemeal armour too – that’s long overdue in D&D.
  • CR is going. Yay! Challenge Ratings, Level Adjustments and the rest were a dumb idea from the start, especially given WoTC’s love of hand-waving over how those numbers are calculated. A golden rule should be that all numbers should be quantifiable. Just as the STR stat is an absolute measure of physical strength, Challenge Rating should measure something instead of some vague “feels like a CR6 to me” thing. CR is just a horrid kludge, and Level Adjustment doubly so. I know some 3 Hit Dice monsters are more powerful than others, but don’t need a meaningless number to tell me so. A monster’s “power” depends a lot on the player’s resources, the skills of the DM and the situation, and that’s nothing Challenge Rating can measure. I’m glad it’s gone.
  • Monsters are monsters again. This is one I’m not sure about. Monster stats are going back to being different to character stats, just as that were in earlier editions of D&D. This would make for shorter statblocks (yay!), but I also think it’ll take away one of the strengths of 3.5E. I like that I can create a Blink Dog Paladin or Beholder Psion. In 4E only the races “suitable” for use as player characters will get the necessary information, but who’s to say what is suitable, and what’s not. It sounds to me like this is just an excuse to release a new edition of Savage Species to plug this hole at a later date. Heck, it’s already on the release schedule.
  • The SRD remains. This was a big worry for some folks, myself included. As far as we understand, there’s going to be a freely available copy of the rules (the System Reference Document) available for download and use, just as there is now. It’s likely to omit the same elements the current SRD does (level advancement rules and trademarked monsters, mainly), but otherwise be complete. I’m guessing this is the real reason why the Tiefling and Changeling are going to be in the PHB, just do that the PHB has two races not in the SRD. That’s my guess, anyhow.

I’ve heard people griping that 4th Edition is going to make their current stock of D&D books obsolete overnight. This is bollocks, quite simply. Books don’t rust. Your 3.5 Edition of D&D isn’t going to crumble in May 2008 just because 4th Edition is out, and all your supplements, adventures and resources will be just as valid as they are today. It doesn’t matter whether you carry on playing 3.5 Edition, take some of the rules from 4th Edition, or shift whole-heartedly over to the new system, your books will still be great resources for years to come, just as we use Classic D&D and 1st and 2nd Edition resources now.

My main concern about 4th Edition D&D is that it’s going to be over-engineered. I think the developers are looking too closely at what’s broken in 3.5 Edition, and trying to fix that, rather than taking a step back and working out what’s fun. I don’t want my D&D to be some sterile thing that’s like 3.5 Edition with the corners cut off. I like the corners :)

One thing is for sure though.

It’s going to be an interesting few months until release.

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