Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review: 4th Edition D&D (Part 1)

The tabletop roleplaying blogosphere is abuzz with WotC’s recent announcement of the next iteration of Dungeons and Dragons. It was not a complete surprise, as the rehiring of the somewhat controversial Monte Cook as well as the slower rate of churning out supplements led some forum regulars into speculating for a few months now. What is new is the idea that they seemed to have learned the beauty of Open Playtesting that its competitors are using and will start making beta rules available this spring. (What month does Spring start again? This tropical gamer wants to know but is otherwise too lazy to Google.) So now, the rumors of a new edition are replaced by talks of how each tabletop gamer wants the rules to look like. As expected, people have varied expectations, and flame wars have already begun. And not a single 5th Edition rule has even been revealed yet!

So instead of ironing out what I want to see out of D&D next/5E, I feel like this is a good time to review the current incarnation of the rules. Its days of being officially supported are now numbered, so I believe the 4E we are seeing now is more or less the form it will take when those who choose to stick with that edition play it next year and for the years to come. Personally, I have played 4E from the onset and have thoroughly enjoyed it from both sides of the screen. However, I do not feel as attached to it as I did D&D 3.5 (the system I played in when I first began playing tabletop RPGs) and as such will switch without that feeling of reluctance that I had back in 2008.

But why do I feel that way? Well, that’s what this review is for.

That Precious Balance

Got this from ThatRobedGuy. I don't
know where the pic was originally from,
though. Please comment if you know.
One of the problems commonly encountered in 3.5 was the linear fighter, exponential wizard problem. A game starts with a squishy wizard hiding behind a tough fighter as the former fiddles with his spell component pouch. But as the wizard scribbles more and more arcane formulae into his spellbook and learns to do things such as polymorphing into a twelve-headed hydra, flying out of the giant’s reach, and delivering instantaneous death spells from wands made by Death, the fighter is left behind with nothing but more hit points and the ability to swing his big weapon more times per round.  The two archetypes only coexist with more or less equal contributions at around levels 5-7: In other levels, one class or the other enjoys the game more than his peers. Fourth edition sought to remove that problem by making all classes balanced with each other throughout all levels of play.

So, did they succeed with this goal? Insofar as the classes are balanced, yes they did. A fighter can coexist with a wizard from levels 1-30. Optimization skills can skew the balance slightly in favor of one over the other, but it isn’t nearly enough to make one class completely irrelevant. It was not perfect, of course. With a streamlined, “hit a target defense to impose an effect” rule replacing saving throws of old, the attack roll become the center of character builds. Bumping attack bonuses up became arguably the most important thing to do with your character, to the point where your character is considered sub-optimized if you don’t take expertise feats of some kind. It also led to things such as feats that let you use your charisma for your melee basic attacks – to this day I have trouble justifying how your personality makes you good at swinging axes. But hey, hitting is important, right? For the most part, though, all characters are useful in the game; so everyone sitting on the table in front of the DM screen has fun.

Behind the screen, things took some time to balance out. Skill challenges as written in the first Dungeon Master’s Guide were a mess, and even after a number of major rewrites it fails to win over a good number of DMs. Personally, though, I believe that the current skill check DCs finally work. Monsters were also wonky when they were first presented in the Monster Manual, with boring abilities that mostly felt the same, low damage counts, and defenses that as of yet did not understand the increased importance of the almighty attack bonus. Like the skills, though, that has improved over time. I get a slight tingle whenever I’m reminded that while bastard sword deals damage in d10’s for players, enemies who use bastard swords will roll a different die if its expected damage at that level is expressed differently. Oh, and solo monsters. The idea of one boss monster against five adventurers is a staple in the genre, but even with the latest innovations, it still falls flat if you stick to official rules.

So while it took them a few years from the official release date of the game, 4E managed to stick to their balanced numbers with relatively few problems. As long as you don’t try running solo monsters, that is. Or epic tier games.

An Epic Problem

Wizards of the Coast
For the most part, the game of Dungeons and Dragons is about exploring dungeons and fighting mighty dragons that lair within. Even if the individual game and story moves away from that archetype, the power levels of characters stick within that gauge. Four to five players can explore an abandoned dungeon, fight skeletons and minotaurs or other monsters within, and collectively have a chance at slaying a dragon or some other BBEG.

From time to time, however, certain aspects of a much higher power level show up. You venture deep into a castle and encounter an imprisoned demon lord. A demigod marshals armies and marches to rule everything he could see. Clerics draw power from deities, and sometimes a campaign goes so far as to have that cleric and her deity battle her deity’s arch-nemesis in its stead. Basically, D&D has, over the years, created characters with the ability to fight entities of godlike power. To address this power level, the concept of an epic tier was invented. 3E included it as an afterthought (and as such was completely broken from a mechanical standpoint). 4E included it from the start with levels 21-30, so the expectation was that it will be more playable when compared to the previous edition.

Being playable is one thing, but making it enjoyable is another matter entirely. The big problem of epic, in my opinion, is that the monsters simply aren’t threatening enough. And it’s a multilayered problem – player characters have a good chunk of accumulated abilities by the time they hit 21, and they even get the ability to cheat death when they become fledgling gods or something similar. In contrast, monsters at the epic level do not, by default, get new stuff. All they get is higher damage and more hit points, plus the same suite of conditions that they can impose. Sure, some monsters are more interesting than that and elite or solo monsters add to the complexity. But in essence, monsters are to 4th edition as fighters are in 3rdedition.

Epics in the Philippines (my home country) feature heroes that interact with deities. These have colored my expectations of what epic is all about. Heroes court and marry goddesses, defeat armies single-handedly, engage jealous gods in duels that can last for months or years, and even fight with dragons large enough to swallow moons. The flavor that was presented in the 3E Epic Level Handbook matched these expectations. 4E, on the other hand, was not completely sure of what it wanted to be. On the one hand, epic levels let you fight abominations, which are the unwanted offspring of the gods turned into divine weapons in a war at the dawn of creation. On the other hand, pit fiends, balors, mariliths and the like, while powerful, still feel more suited in their original place as the most powerful threats player characters face before epic. Epic, to me, was the most promising aspect of D&D 4E that failed to deliver.

WotC never felt like they quite knew how to handle epic level from the flavor perspective. They had attempted to make it work at first, but as the Essentials line rolled out, it seemed as if this tier has largely been relegated to the role of an optional add-on. It’s true – the vast majority of games would not even make it to the epic tier so this is a minor issue. But by placing some of the most iconic, big bad generic guys in mid-epic, most of these monsters just wouldn’t see play.

But hey, if I wanted a level 20 balor, I can just refluff an existing level 20 monster. And if I want my epic monsters to have a more epic feel, I can just reskin the swordwings (epic level bugs whose claim to fame is super collecting) into something more badass, right?

On Saturday: The Fluff is Only Skin Deep, Programmed Restrictions, and Conclusions