Thursday 18 February 2010

Pen and Paper roleplaying: D&D 4th edition

I've had a couple of sessions of 4th edition and I thought I'd share my impressions here. I would assert that it is relevant to MMOdom, both because D&D is the template from which most MMOs stem and because it's quite likely that once Turbine, Atari, and Wizards of the Coast settle their legal wrangles that we'll see a 4th edition MMO.

My initial reaction was one of disappointment. 4th edition is very much a return to D&D's wargaming roots. Playing it as a first level character just about every ability for every class is concerned with making hit point totals go up or down or moving yourself or others around the playing map. There is a lot of tactical intricacy in manoeuvring around the battlefield. The basic aim is to give the monsters the choice of hitting the tank or stepping past the tank to hit someone else provoking an attack of opportunity by doing so.

It is a very good game of its type it just wasn't what I was expecting. I was expecting a break from MMOs into freeform creative roleplay. Instead I found a game where players calculate odds and optimise number-crunching. In other words 4th edition is like a computer game where you do the sums longhand.

Let me give an example. In previous versions 1st level casters of various types got a spell called Charm Person. This spell made the target regard the caster as a trusted friend but didn't change their attitudes to anyone else. They still disliked your party members and considered them enemies, they still supported their evil overlord. However they trusted you completely.

This meant that in order to get the most out of the spell you had to lie creatively. Telling your charmed orc that the elves and dwarves with you were actually orcs transformed by a terrible wizard, telling him that his hated rival was trying to get him in trouble with his boss and we needed to prevent this nefarious plan, etc etc.

It was a wonderful spell that heavily encouraged imagination and acting a part. And it's the sort of spell that the new system has either removed or shunted off to high level.

The cynic in me suggests that a heavily tactical system means that DMs have to purchase minatures and dungeon tiles as well as the 3 basic books and lo and behold these accessories are advertised on the back of my player's handbook as core products.

The next gripe is that the system seems astonishingly imbalanced. I (naturally enough in a number-crunching system) set myself to figuring out a character to do extreme damage. I came up with a Half-Orc barbarian.

Half-Orc gives +2 strength, adds his weapon damage again to any hit that connects as a free action and has some nice combat oriented feats.

Barbarian is a class that only really needs one stat (allowing you to optimise it rather than spread your points around), has a number of abilities that give additional attacks and uses big weapons.

I haven't unleashed this beast yet but I'm pretty confident it will do a lot more than the d8 +4 my druid pre-generated character has been doing.

In fact I saw a Barbarian in action and it was a wrecking ball even without being half-orc.

Another change is that magic item lists have been moved from the Dungeon Master's Guide to the Player's Handbook. Also caster characters can take Enchant magic item at level 4. It's a fundamental change in philosophy, magic items are now things you shop around for or even manufacture rather than items of mystery. I'm ok with this, I love item making gameplay but I can see it's another step towards rollplaying over roleplaying.

4th edition is a good game, in fact compared to the minature wargaming I did in the 70s it's leaps and bounds ahead. Using a protractor to calculate arc of fire is a memory that still makes me shudder.

I'm just a little disappointed it's not the heavy social interaction gameplay that seemed an inevitable evolution of the genre in the 80s and 90s, instead it's a game of computer type problems which you calculate by hand.


  1. A good DM can encourage roleplaying in 4th edition. One of the DM's I play with typically grants a bonus to die rolls if the action or interaction is entertaining roleplaying.

  2. Yes absolutely Stephen.

    I'm really referring to the way the rules shape psychology of players. The way that the rules are written is, if you skim the book, mainly about shifting one square, doing d8 +3 damage and that kind of thing.

    Sure there's probably a page somewhere saying you can toss the rules as written out of the window. Some of the best RP experiences are when players toss the rules as written out of the window.

    Let me give you a specific:

    On p132 of the Player's Handbook is a spell:
    Eldritch Blast.
    You fire a bolt of dark, crackling eldritch energy at your foe.
    Attack: Cha or Con vs Reflex
    Hit: d10 + Cha or Con damage

    Now what I think most new D&Ders will see from this description is:

    Attack: Cha or Con vs Reflex
    Hit: d10 + Cha or Con damage

    What I think they should see from the description is:
    You fire a bolt of dark, crackling eldritch energy at your foe.

    The rulebook gives you ammunition to do either or both but because only the numbers are essential that's what people will focus on.

    The game comes much more to life when the DM asks what you want to do and you say:
    I fire a bolt of dark, crackling eldritch energy at your foe.

    When you focus on what you're doing rather than what you're rolling you get more creative. So instead of using a power in the book you might say I pledge my soul to Azmodeus for eternity if he will sear this enemy of mine this one time rather than using the standard text. The DM might let you hit harder in exchange for consequences (which in themselves may be interesting and fun).

    Because of the way the PH is written I think it allows this but does not encourage it.

    We're not quite all the way back to the pre-D&D wargaming days where people would take a game which was purely a bunch of numbers and say things like "You dastardly French will never take Calais while I live!" but we're heading there.

    Which is astonishing to me as someone who has watched the genre moving away from that style of written rules for 32 years.

  3. Summary: I've realised that what I've been saying can be summarised as:

    RP is more fun when players can cheat in interesting ways.

    This is what a system with a human GM can do well that a system with a computer GM can't do well.