Tuesday, September 16, 2008

D&D 4E Mini Review

I had high hopes about this. I have a lot of nostalgic memories about playing AD&D late into the night (or early into the morning). Some of those stories still stand out, even after all these years. We knew the game so well, it just sort of got out of our way, and let us tell the stories we wanted to tell.

I'd heard some grumblings that made me believe the refresh might be more story-friendly than past editions. So, as soon as it came out, I ran out and bought a set of the core books. I'd hoped to actually play a bit before writing this review, but that's not going to happen any time soon. So, without further delay, here we go.

Starting with the Player's Handbook, I appreciate the way it tries to give every class a unique way to shine. However, I felt most of the actual abilities were quite disappointing, especially for the martial classes. Often, they were only minor variations on a theme. Usually they did some damage, with what appeared to me to be a minor side effect.

The classes themselves are described with an overwhelming bias towards tactical situations, and this is painfully clear in the class abilities. Instead of making broad abilities that could be applied in a wide range of situations, these were narrowly focused, and only really useable in combat.

Want to use a confusion spell to temporarily distract the castle guards? No such luck. The confusion spell doesn't actually confuse someone. It causes damage (making it unusable in non-combat situations), and gives you some control over how the person moves. I guess that sort of models confusion from a highly abstracted perspective, but it really felt flat to me.

That brings up my second major complaint. Maybe it's just me, but I often had trouble figuring out what the ability was supposed to be modeling. Often we are only given a name and the tactical effects with very little description or explanation. It all left me wondering why ability X had effect Y. What was the narrative description of the action? How did it look or feel from the characters perspective? In many cases, I honestly have no idea.

Surprisingly utility abilities are also often only useable in a fight. Sure, they might not do direct damage, but they often had little or no non-combat uses. Some of the movement abilities maybe useable, but that's about it.

Skills are a little better, but they're still overwhelmingly described from a tactical standpoint. Ritual magic stood out as the only real breath of fresh air--but not all characters have access to ritual magic. More importantly, at this point we have very few ritual spells to choose from.

Ok, on to the Dungeon Master's Guide.

I found it somewhat ironic that the DMG started with a discussion of different play styles. They correctly identified that there are many players (like myself) who are more interested in the story and character development than tactical play.

Unfortunately, they gave no useful advice on adapting the game to other play styles. No matter how much lip service it may play to other gaming styles, at the end of the day, it's a heavily tactical game.

For example, D&D 4E has rather formulaic methods for building encounters. They go to great lengths to describe what sort of characters the players should have in their party, what sort of opponents they should be facing, and how to modify the encounter if either of these assumptions are not true. They have rather strict math for determining the strength of an encounter, and for determining the rewards received.

All this is designed to produce interesting, exciting, balanced encounters--and particularly to produce interesting, exciting and balanced combat encounters. That's fine if you're playing a war game or a board game, but for an RPG it feels stifling to me.

In particular, it feels like it would limit my ability to improvise.

I strongly feel that the ability to improvise, and having empowered players are the two pillars for building quality story-focused games. And, it feels like D&D 4E makes both of these hard. GMs are limited by the encounter construction guidelines. Players are limited by restrictively-defined abilities.

Oddly enough, Paul Tevis from "Have Games, Will Travel" said that he felt the D&D 4E skill system would actually encourage improvisation. Normally I highly respect Paul's opinions, and he's played the game while I haven't. So, I'll bow to his experience here. But, I'm sure having trouble seeing it work for me.

And speaking of Mr. Tevis, he had quite a bit more to say about D&D 4E recently, specifically comparing it to Story or Narrativist games. Check out his podcast at Have Games, Will Travel.

I'll give you the cliff notes here. D&D 4E is a great tactical game, but it's not a good tool for building communal stories.

And that's a damned shame.