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RPGs: In Which I Finally Play Dungeons & Dragons 4E

posted Aug 29, 2012, 11:54 PM by Douglas Sun   [ updated Aug 29, 2012, 11:54 PM ]
Originally posted: July 22, 2009

So, I hear that there’s a fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons out now....

Seriously, there have been times over the last year when I felt like I was the last gamer on Earth to study up on D&D 4E. But the fact is, I haven’t been part of a regular group that played Dungeons & Dragons for years — not since the long-lost days when Decipher kept an RPG studio in West Los Angeles, and I used to game with their team on Thursday nights, after they knocked off work. It was a fascinating experience, gaming with people who understood both design and publishing from the inside, and who were a lot of fun to hang around for good measure. When Decipher shut the studio down and everyone went their separate ways, I missed those game nights and never found anything to replace it.

It was almost like the Beatles reuniting, then, when the core of that old group — Owen Seyler,
Christian Moore and Matt Colville — suddenly re-materialized this past weekend with gaming in mind, adding in Sean Lashgari and AEG head honcho John Zinser for good measure. Owen and Christian drove all the way from Las Vegas loaded with enthusiasm and polyhedral dice; John opened up the AEG conference room for our use, and once Matt (as skillful and expert a DM as I’ve ever known) cast in his lot, it was inevitable that we would have him run Dungeons & Dragons 4E for us. 

Gentlemen, Roll Your Initiative: from left to right, Sean Lashgari, Christian Moore, Matt Colville (seated), Owen Seyler, John Zinser.

I brought snacks. It was both the most and the least I could do.

That I enjoyed it immensely is no surprise. Gaming with some of the best friends I’ve made in the game industry — how could it be otherwise? But since this is a blog of observations about gaming and other nerdly things rather than personal matters, I’ll proceed to my initial reactions to D&D 4E itself: 

Flattening the Learning Curve

I have heard it said — and usually as an insult, I think — that 4E is Dungeons & Dragons for the World of Warcraft crowd. I now understand the truth of that remark, but I don't see it as a bad thing. One way of looking at it is that D&D has been dumbed down to accommodate the short attention spans and lower brain-wattage of MMOG players. But I prefer to see it this way: That the changes that the 4E design team instituted have, by and large, cut the administrative work of playing the game and made it more time-efficient. Less page-flipping, more actual gaming. Not a bad thing at all.

It starts with character generation. As Matt told us beforehand, it's easier to figure out how to create a character from scratch in 4E than it was to figure out how to grapple in 3E, in that it takes less verbiage to explain how to do it and the procedure is less convoluted. It took me about an hour to create a 3rd Level dragonborn fighter from nothing (without the help of char-gen software), but mostly because I spent a lot of time poking around the PHB in the mistaken belief that there had to be something else I was supposed to do.

Class powers seem to have been conceived and organized with ease of use in mind. They’re so modular that each one you choose for your character always seems to be at your fingertips — especially if you use the reference cards that you can print out using WotC’s char-gen program. Re-conceptualizing spells as just another breed of class powers also helps in this regard, once you brush past the intellectual sediment of past editions. Treating magic as a distinct and entirely different realm within the game was always a bit of a conceptual hurdle for me; once I got used to the idea that I didn’t have to make that hurdle anymore, 4E’s handling of spells as just another form of class power, like a rogue’s evasive maneuvers or a fighter’s special attacks, seemed like an efficiency so brilliant that I wondered why it hadn’t been done before.

Again, I don't see this as a dumbing-down of the most venerable of RPG rules systems, but as an ingenious accommodation of how the market for entertainment has changed in the last 25 years. As Marcus King of Titan Games astutely pointed out in one of his RPG.net columns several years ago, the problem with the market for tabletop games is not so much that video games are killing it, but that the competition for our leisure time is so much more diverse now than it was when D&D was still young. My own experience is that unless your interests are very narrow, these days it’s hard to accommodate everything that looks like it might be worth your while. No matter how much time you try to make for any one thing, it never seems to be enough. Therefore, anything that can make your entertainment experiences more time-efficient is welcome — not shorter, but delivering more entertainment for the man-hours spent on it. So far, I’d have to say that 4E allows you to spend less time on preparation and organizing information than 3E, which means you get more roleplaying and dice-rolling for your time investment.

Flattening the Power Curve

My only real peeve about the 3rd Edition of D&D was the relative weakness of low-level characters and the relatively overwhelming strength of high-level characters, especially once you got into "Epic Level" territory. The power curve always struck me as strangely steep. Once your PCs got to about 10th Level, it made absolutely no sense to deal with low-level monsters at all, so that as you advanced toward Epic territory, your world would depopulate of such staples as orcs and hobgoblins, even ogres and trolls, as if they had somehow gone extinct as you were leveling up (could you possibly have killed them all?). Fighting them was dull and pointless, all the more so given the tactical elaboration involved in a D&D 3E encounter. 9th Level spells were so powerful that they allowed you to violate the laws of space and time with impunity; accumulate enough of them and your character pretty much became a god instead of a hero.

All of which did not in and of itself did not make 3E radically different from AD&D, but I recall that it was harder to level up in AD&D than in 3E. My recollection is that if you wanted to get a character to 20th Level in AD&D, you either had to be smart or fairly lucky, and if you could do it more than a couple of times you were probably playing enough D&D so that it was the center of your personal universe. 3E, on the other hand, seemed to treat Level 20 as your birthright — not that hard to do if you just stuck with it — and I always felt that leveling up was almost absurdly easy.

4E doesn't address these issues head-on, but it does at least flatten the power curve in ways that (so far, at least) make the game more satisfying for me. At the low end, using Constitution (instead of the traditional die roll + Con bonus) as the basis for your Hit Points at 1st Level greatly improves the survival chances of low-level characters. The Second Wind/Healing Surge mechanic improves the odds for low-level characters even more; my 3rd Level dragonborn fighter could invoke up to 12 Healing Surges at 10 HP each, meaning that he could heal himself almost thrice over within a 24-hour period just by taking a knee over and over again.

Making low-level characters more durable also solidifies a conceptual shift from what I remember of the early days of D&D, as a result of which player characters are now treated as rare, heroic and therefore, precious from the moment of their creation. Maybe it was just a quirk of the people with whom I gamed when I was in high school (in the late '70's, when D&D was still quite young), but we were essentially Darwininan in how we regarded our player characters. We didn't get terribly attached to them until they had proven their mettle (or luck) by surviving beyond 3rd Level or so. They were kind of like the replacement soldiers in The Big Red One. In that sense, we didn't create heroes; the advancement process did so by winnowing out those who were less fit.

I left roleplaying games after I went away to college, and did not return until a decade or so later. During that time, it seemed to me that sea-change occurred in how players treated their characters. I don't know if it was the rise of storytelling games as an alternative to D&D's tactical combat-heavy paradigm, or the popularity of videogame and PC RPGs, in which you are expected to identify with a pre-set character from the very beginning and follow him along a directed storyline — but everyone seemed much more invested in their characters from the very beginning. They didn't have to prove themselves as heroes; the very fact that you created them marked them out as chosen by Fate. 

This also meant, however, that it was a much more serious business if your character was killed, especially if he was killed before he advanced much. You couldn't just shrug it off and roll up another dude; you almost had to grieve first, because of all the effort you put into his backstory and such. I sensed that one reason why advancement moved so quickly in 3E was so that you could get PCs out of the fragile and perilous lower levels before an unlucky blow did them in. 4E addresses this issue by making it much harder to kill a low-level PC than ever before, and making no bones about doing so. I'm still not completely sure that I like this approach to creating and maintaining D&D characters, but I do think that if you're going to improve the chance of survival at the lower levels, it's more satisfying as a player to make 1st Level characters more durable than to get them out of 1st Level very quickly.

At the high end, the changes to Skills in 4E — eliminating any distinction in proficiency beyond Trained/Untrained and generally de-emphasizing their use — makes high-end characters a bit less powerful than they were in 3E. The Base Attack Bonus gains +1 every even-numbered Level, and there are no extra attacks per round. The changes in the way that HP are calculated ensures that the proportional difference between a low-level character and a high-level character is less jarring in 4E than it was in 3E — or indeed, than in any previous edition of the rules. All of this is to the good, I think, in that it opens up the variety of monsters that can challenge PCs at every level.

Again, these observations are based on a small sample, less than ten hours of actual gameplay. Matt led us through three encounters, with time for schooling us in the basics of 4E thrown in. Whether I will continue to hold to these opinions as I play more D&D 4E, I do no know. But I do know for certain that I would like to play more, which is more than I could say before this weekend just past.