Long-Term Test: 4e D&D, Part One
Reviews are funny things. There’s reviews after reading. There’s first impressions after playing a single session. There’s thorough reviews following a game or two. And there’s long-term tests – the king of reviews. These reveal what you think of the thing after it’s finally gotten under your skin.
And this is mine, of Fourth Edition D&D.
Here’s the short version: if this game was a car, it would be the one I hated in the showroom, disliked and felt resentment at being fooled into buying by the pushy salesman, grumbled about for the first 100 miles then grew to quite like, then love. Now I’d cry buckets if it had to be towed to the knackers yard.
I’m guessing we’ve all had cars like that, right?
And that’s why reviews are funny things. If you’d asked me what I thought of 4e D&D at every step along this journey, you’d have a different answer. On my first readthru’ of the PHB I was downright savage. It looked to my virgin eyes like nothing short of a shambles with rules in all the wrong places, Rituals tucked into the back like some forgotten afterthought and – horror of horrors – a piss-poor mockery of an index.
My first play of the game was followed by just a single grumbling tweet: “Well, it plays better than it reads.”. It’s taken a long time to get my group to like it from the first faltering steps playing fun gladiator league matches in the Ptolus Arena to a short campaign set in Middle Earth (Cardolan, we will return!) and now in the run up to the end of the world in the Endday Campaign. It’s supplanted Third Edition in my mind as being the Second Best D&D Ever Made (after the Classic D&D Rules Cyclopedia (praise it’s holy name)) and that’s no mean feat.
Third Edition D&D is one heck of a hard act to follow. The supporters are fiercely loyal and it managed to completely turn D&D’s fortunes around. The rules began simple and while they gained a fair degree of complexity thanks to enough Splatbooks to sink Iceland, it managed to still stay playably fun all the way through it’s tenure as being the top of the D&D tree.
Unless you were the DM, that is.
To my mind, 3e suffered from just three problems which I’ll cleverly call Problem One, Problem Two and Problem Three. If 4e set out to do anything, it had to solve these.
The first (and, for me, the biggest) problem was that game preparation for the GM just took too long. Customizing (or, heaven forbid, creating new) monsters was this weird time-consuming science that could eat up hours like nothing else. That’s hardly fun when the resulting critter just lasts 5 combat rounds. I remember generating a 14th level Drow Wizard for one game; it took the best part of a weekend to create this guy and his retinue and less than an hour for my players to take him apart again. That’s hardly a great return. Yes, it’s brilliant in 3e that your bad guys and NPCs use the same rules as the players. But it’s less brilliant that it took damn ages to make them. The whole LA/CR/EL thing didn’t help matters either. Here’s a hint: if you have to explain the differences between them in the splatbooks and Dungeon/Dragon every single time they’re mentioned, it’s probably a rubbish rule.
And it was, and it’s gone in 4e. Woot!
Fourth Edition fixes that problem, perfectly. I can alter the level of a monster on the fly. I can build a whole new critter in under 5 minutes without needing a computer, and make it as simple or detailed as I want. Building an encounter is just a matter of totting up the XP totals, just as it should be. Give me page 42 of the DMG and I could run a game with nothing else. Ok, except maybe dice. Fourth Edition makes being DM fun again. I like that. Simple rules for the DM means the creativity flows and the prep-time slog is gone.
Problem Two sits at the opposite end of the table. It’s you, oh players, and 3e (and prior editions, for that matter) suffered under the shedload of silly, daft and anally retentive questions asked in the pages of Dragon and countless forums. Every time someone asked “is leather armour flamable?”, “where are the rules for gravity?” or “how much damage do I do with a flaming vorpal returning ghost touch longbow against a wight when I’m underwater and raging?” a fairy died. Please. Don’t do this.
Fourth Edition solved that by saying “Screw this. Ask the GM.” For that matter, 3e said that too. And so did 2nd Edition AD&D, but then TSR/WoTC promptly forgot all that and offered Sage Advice as a legally-mandated way for players to be able to tell GMs they’re wrong.
Don’t get me wrong: sometimes there are questions which only the designers can answer (such as “How the feck does Rain of Blows work?”) and to their credit they’re stepped up, clarified and errata’d where it’s needed. The number of rule questions is a thousandth of what it was though. That is a Very Good Thing Indeed. Simple rules + GM trust = win.
That’s enough for now. I’ll stop there.
Next: Problem Three, and ol’ Greywulf says something controversial about the OGL.