R#09 Reviews D&D 4th Edition!

In 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created Dungeons and Dragons, the most popular tabletop role-playing game of all time. Now, nearly 35 years later, I hold in my hands the Player’s Handbook of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, the latest (and greatest?) incarnation of the classic dice-rolling, pen-and-paper, geeky time-waster.

I rolled my first d20 (that’s a 20-sided dice, for you non-nerds) at 12, and I haven’t looked back since. I’ve been a huge fan of D&D since 3rd Edition, and continued playing through 3.5. I’ll admit, I’ve had little-to-no experience with pre-3rd D&D, but I am a tabletop gamer, and I feel as though I can supply you with a smart and relatively well-informed review of D&D 4th Edition.

Right off the bat, let’s put my pre-conceived notions on the table. Before the official release of 4th Edition, I (like so many other desperate nerds) got my hands on a PDF copy of the Player’s Handbook. I thought then about reading it over and typing up a review, but you really don’t know a gaming system until you’ve seen it in action. So I withheld.

What I gathered from reading through that PDF was that 4th Edition was very, very unlike 3rd Edition. In fact, 4th Edition differed greatly from even the Star Wars RPG: Saga Edition, which was toted by Wizards of the Coast as a preview of 4th Edition. I was a little surprised and even slightly dismayed to see such a strange and new system. It felt to me like a video game, a little bit too much World of Warcraft and not enough D&D. I wasn’t happy with many of the changes, and looked on 4th Edition with skepticism as it was officially released.

And now, two months later, I’ve DMed (Dungeon Mastered – it means I’m the guy running the game, geez) a four-hour session of 4th Edition and I’m ready to lay out my thoughts. So, without further ado: Rocket Number 09 Reviews D&D 4th Edition!

A Note to Non-Gamers: Prepare for me at my absolute, unadulterated geekiest.

The Game

Even at first glance, D&D 4th Edition is different. The art, the layout of the book, the entire rules-set – it’s all overhauled. The biggest changes deal with combat encounters. The creators sought to simplify combat through special character “powers,” and by doing away with the Vancian magic system. In 3rd Edition and all previous editions, magic was handled thusly: a magic-using character, depending on level and class, could cast so many of one spell per day. Once that spell was cast, it was gone, and would have to be memorized again through resting. Now, each class, magic and non-magic, has its own set of powers.

Powers fall into three categories: At-Will, Encounter, and Daily. At-Will powers can be used, in most cases, as many times as the player wants. They include basic melee and ranged attacks and minor spells. Encounter powers can be used once per encounter, or combat. Encounter powers are more powerful attacks that deal lots of damage and offer other benefits, such as healing or the ability to debilitate your target. And Daily powers can be used, well, once per day, and include devastating spells, powerful healing magic, and high-damage melee and range attacks.

Now, I’ll admit that for all of my skepticism, I like the new powers system. It’s fluid, fun, and each power has its own advantages, allowing each player variety in choosing what to do in combat. Fighters, for example, in 3rd Edition, could really do little more than hit things, over and over again, especially in lower levels. Now, in 4th Edition, the fighter has access to powers like Reaping Strike, which deals damage even on a miss, or Devastating Strike, which knocks enemies prone on a hit. Clerics now have the handy ability to both attack enemies and heal allies in a single round, doing away with the notion that clerics are simple healers. And wizards now always have the option of casting spells – gone are the days of using up your Magic Missiles and Melf’s Acid Arrows and switching to a bow or similar weapon. Now you can cast Magic Missile as many times as you want in a combat, once per round.

However, the power system is not without its flaws, and they become apparent after playing for a relatively short amount of time. Most characters start off with two At-Will powers, one Encounter power, and one Daily power. Granted, there are exceptions, as some classes and races receive inherent bonus powers, but the fact remains that there aren’t many powers to choose from. Variety soon becomes monotony as the dwarven fighter uses Reaping Strike for the seventeenth time in a combat. And since actions such as knocking an enemy prone, grappling with them, or cleaving are included within the powers, there really are no other options besides using one of these powers. For me, this took away some of the fun and freedom of playing pen-and-paper, and made me feel as though I was, again, playing a video game, only without the cool visuals.

Still though, the powers are fun and easy to use, and most take two rolls at most. In 3rd Edition, attacking, grappling, and knocking prone took several rolls and modifiers aplenty. In terms of simplifying the system, I suppose Wizards of the Coast has succeeded.

There’s also changes to classes and races. Returning are the stout dwarves, graceful elves, quick-footed halflings, versatile half-elves, and reliable humans. Newcomers are the dragonborn, a race of draconic humanoids; the eladrin, a society of high-elves; and tieflings, demonic beings from another plane of existence. D&D vets will note the absence of half-orcs and gnomes. While it’s sad to see the two races removed from the Player’s Handbook, you can rest assured that both are available in the Monster Manual.

With classes, we see some familiar names: cleric, fighter, paladin, ranger, rogue, wizard all return. New classes include the warlock, a slightly fanatical magic-user, and the warlord, a battle commander of sorts. Yes, wave goodbye to the monk, bard, barbarian and all the prestige classes. D&D 4th Edition has a whole new system of leveling higher-level characters, called Paragon Paths. So, in a way, prestige classes still exist, but it’s done quite differently.

The Session

I DMed Keep on the Shadowfell, the first prepared adventure from Wizards, with five friends taking up the roles of the characters. None of them were familiar with 4th Edition, and only two had seriously played D&D. As expected, things started out a little rocky, with questions aplenty and many confusing dilemmas.

I’m glad I had read the rules thoroughly beforehand, because we ran into our fair share of problems. Even so, I found myself flipping through the rulebook a lot (which was its own issue all together, but we’ll get to that later).

My major issue with 4th Edition is that it feels, to me, like two separate games. One combat game and one non-combat game. Whereas 3rd Edition had an overarching rules-set used for everything from slicing at a goblin to persuading a guard, 4th Edition tends to come a screeching halt when combat ends. It could be argued that this was due to the group of players I was with, and at least partly, it was. But a system that offers so much structure and simplicity in its combat leaves players wondering what to do when left to their own devices. If you’re new to D&D, you might have trouble shifting from combat to non-combat, which requires heavy pen-and-paper style role-playing.

Still though, after about the first hour, everyone started getting into it. The dice were rolling furiously, kobolds dropping by the dozens, spells flying this way and that. And the simplified rules are apparent, particularly when doing skills checks You know, despite my issues with the system, D&D 4th still manages the essential: it’s fun..

The Product

The Player’s Handbook is really a great-looking product, brimming with vibrant art. The style of art they’re going for in 4th Edition is cool, vastly different from Todd Lockwood’s work in 3rd Edition (which I adored). It’s a clean layout, fairly simple at first glance. Overall, I’m pretty happy with it.

Well, except that it’s nearly impossible to find anything in the damn book! The Player’s Handbook is not organized well. At all. Things referenced in the first few pages aren’t explained until hundreds later. Different terms are used for one thing, while others have no official term. For a system striving for simplicity, D&D 4th Edition is frustrating to get the hang of. And this is coming from someone who has played D&D many times before. I can’t imagine what it would be like for a newcomer to look on the daunting amount of rules, laid-out seemingly at random.

Yes, there is an index, and yes, it comes in handy. But if you’re looking for a cover-to-cover overview of the game, you won’t find it in the Player’s Handbook. It’s a frustrating flip back-and-forth scavenger hunt of a book.

The Verdict

Reading through my review, it might seem like D&D 4th Edition has more negatives than positives. This really isn’t the case. As hard as I’m being on the system, D&D 4th is fun and friendly to newcomers and veterans alike. I suppose if I could say one thing about 4th Edition, it would be that it’s different. I don’t know if it’s a step forward, per say, but it’s definitely a step away from the traditional.

This is a game system influenced by the popularity of massive multiplayer online RPGs, and board games like Descent, Arkham Horror, and other Fantasy Flight products. D&D is attempting to mature for fear of being left behind, and it’s updated heavily. It takes some getting used to, and it feels strange at first; but after the first few die-rolls, it’s business as usual. It feels like Dungeons and Dragons again. The spirit remains, even if the rules around it have changed. If you’re a fan of D&D, or just curious about the game, I would recommend picking up Keep on the Shadowfell, which includes a fairly rich campaign, sample characters, battle maps, and quick-start rules.

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