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D&D 4 – From Despair to Anticipation

So sometime during the summer of last year news came out about the upcoming new Dungeons and Dragons release, D&D 4. Rumors were circulating heavily about what was being proposed and the changes sounded extremely un-pen-and-paper-role-playing and a little too much World of Warcrafty. With talk about class roles (Guardian, Striker, Leader, Controller… hmmm Tank, DPS, Healer and AOE/Crowd Control?), usable skills for every round (MMO skills?), and a talent tree (oh come freakin’ on), it sounded like this was going to be a terrible sin against not just Dungeons and Dragons, but all pen-and-paper role playing.

Then I took the time to look more into it. Once again, don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t believe all rumors.

I have done some reading on the official D&D site, watched some interviews and presentations, and picked up the Races & Classes D&D 4 preview book. After checking these resources I can say that even if D&D 4 ends up crappy, at least it was done with the best of possible intentions.

What I love about D&D 4 is that for the first time the development team is looking at the game and saying “Why do we do something the way we do?” If the answer is “Because we always have,” that no longer cuts it. Instead the dev team has the goal of trying to make every round of combat have interesting choices to be made for every character class in the game at every level of the game. They want every level up to feel special, and for level to be more important to your advancement than magical gear. Finally they want to streamline and make more sense of the D&D 3rd combat system. This is good because while d20 3rd is fun and effective, it still has some glaring kinks in it (see Grappling or Turning Undead for excellent examples).

Even if in the end they fail, I feel that Wizards of the Coast deserves credit for attempting this with D&D, a system that has such strong tenants to tradition that they will criticize you if you come up with a type of dark elf that isn’t exactly like the ones from Forgotten Realms.
Personally I like the sound of what they’ve done, especially from a Dungeon Master standpoint. DMing D&D 3rd is tons of fun until about level 10 or 11. Then it starts to get hairy. I personally am not a DM who takes joy in hunting my players down into the dark corner of a forsaken dungeon and watching them cower as I annihilate their characters, forcing them to re-roll. I am a storyteller who enjoys portraying living worlds for my players to save or destroy (or both as the case may be), where the game is more about Role Playing than just combat.

This style of DMing works well from 1-10 where a higher level monster just means it does more damage or has more hit points, or maybe abilities where failing a save might come with some small, rather arbitrary and very temporary issue. Not true after level 10. Suddenly the monster manual fills with horrible beasts that will unleash 5 attacks each at +15 to hit or higher if given a full round action, or that each melee hit caused comes with a draining attack that causes level damage and gives it more hit points, or worse of all, casts spells or uses abilities where if the player fails a save, they DIE. I have to selectively filter out these creatures so that a bad roll of 1 d20 doesn’t undo months’ worth of Sundays’ work. These monster entries get more and more complicated, making the task of preparing a session more and more difficult, especially when one Challenge Rating 14 monster is not equal to another.

In D&D 4 they are changing that, removing negative levels and save-or-die effects and replacing them with much more forgiving effects. With such things in place, I’ll certainly be more willing to pit my players against such iconic D&D foes as Beholders and other things I usually stray away from.
Streamlined combat benefits everyone. It’s sad how long one round of combat takes sometimes, especially during higher levels where the complication is caused by players figuring out how to make the most of their action while we’re up against a foe they really can’t hurt thanks to spell immunity or immunity to critical hits, or a high armor class or whatever. It’s made even worse when you’re trying to remember how this combat maneuver or that will work, or how to handle a situation where players need to hit someone in a specific spot, like shoving a stake in a vampire’s heart.
I like the idea of the “everybody gets powers” system, if for no other reason it means that spell casters will get stuff they can do in case their spells run out. The added flavor of giving neat martial flourishes to fighting characters will be fun too, or so I think.

From a player race stand point, I like the way races are handled now. Breaking Elves down from all the variants in previous D&D add-ons to just Elves and Eladrins, and giving the Eladrins an even stronger tie to magic and the Elves a stronger tie to nature works well. It has a hint of WoW in it with the differentiation between Night Elves and Blood Elves, but unlike in that setting, D&D’s Elves aren’t large and purple and the Eladrins are not demonically corrupted. I think there might be potential in this Feywild realm the Eladrins live in as well.

I’m digging on the Dragonborn and Tieflings as well. At first I dismissed the Tieflings (said “Tea-fling-s” it seems), seeing their move to player character an attempt to mimic WoW’s Draenei. It turns out that while both might feature horns and tails, there is a ton of difference in the history and personality of the both. WoW’s Edrear based Demons and Draenei were once the same people this means that the they only look like demons due to a similar heritage. As a result Draenei themselves are actually light-loving good guys with their only real vice being their strong thirst for justice leading to quests for revenge (making them an excellent match to WoW’s Alliance). The Tieflings on the other hands are the descendants of a human empire who made an actual pact with demons and were quite evil people. That empire has now crumbled as so today’s Tieflings are by in large unaware of any pact and are not behaviorally bound to it. They still carry the powers of demons however, and have a sort of dark-side bent to them.

The Dragonborn offer a much more attractive “HUGE MONSTEROUS CHARACTER” option to me than the Half-Orc ever was. The concept of some poor human being forced into sex with an Orc being the likely origin of my character always bugged me, which didn’t help the whole lacking charisma or implied ignorance and illiteracy that came with them. Dragonborn on the other hand are humanoid dragons, a concept people have been latching on to for generations. They’re big, tough, can mature into more dragon-life features, and have a ton of pride and honor about them, two things I really dig on in a character.

The only part of this whole thing I don’t feel great about still is the emphasis on Roles. In general, I hate the enforced-roles idea of RPGs. Forcing the party to take a tank, a damage character and a healer or they fail is dumb because it forces someone to play something they maybe don’t like. If everyone in the party wants to be furious barbarians or powerful magi, there should be a fun game in there. At least in D&D 3rd and 3.5, there was the implication of Class role but it could be handled by all sorts of classes based on race, feat, spell, and gear selection. I’ve played in games of 3.5 w/o fighters where we were able to find a perfectly fine tank in a pinch, or without a cleric and make do without heals at all. It made it fun to play classes that could fill the role needed for the moment, rather than being forced into a niche.

That’s what concerns me about the role system. To me, D&Ds Druids are everything, and if you stick them in one of these roles, you’re going to remove their awesome utility and dumb them down into a single function. It also bugs me that we’re thinking of fighters and their ilk as defenders and not attackers when I’m used to seeing fighter-types dishing out huge amounts of damage, sometimes on par with the other people the new system could call “strikers.” I know that so far the D&D guys are saying that Guardians will control monsters by punishing them for not fighting them via the Attack of Opportunity system, which is great because that works well now. I’ll just be really sad if someday a fighter has a wow-style-taunt-or-aggro mechanics where it isn’t the true threat of damage dealt by the character that forces monsters to attack it, but a perceived threat amplified by abilities causing the fighter-type to not actually be much of a hard hitter at all.

Still over all I look forward to D&D 4th’s Players Handbook next month. I look forward to pouring through it and hopefully getting to play with it sometime. I know in the days ahead forming role playing groups with the usual gang is going to become difficult if not impossible, but I enjoy the pen and paper hobby and I hope not to give it up. Anyway, those are my thoughts on D&D 4, got any of your own?

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