Flash forward 20 years and I still play GURPS using the latest edition (4th). But a new 4th edition has arrived in the form of Dungeons & Dragon 4th edition.
I got Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 when it hit the hobby like a storm in 1999. Like many others I wasn't looking forward to D&D 4th when it was announced. I would have given it a automatic pass. But when you are starting out in publishing you need to take any opportunity that comes your way. Since D&D is the most popular system I needed to learn it. So I bought the books.
I found several things
- Fourth edition is not the Dungeon & Dragons Game system.
- It is High Fantasy 24/7
- It takes away the character customization found in 3.X
- Open Licensing is gone, gone, gone.
- Combat is one of the crunchiest I seen, everything else reach beyond AD&D 1st and reflects the spirt of OD&D than any other modern edition.
- The DMG is the best then the 1st edition AD&D DMG
- The design of the combat system works and plays well.
It is a good game. That's my short review. I am not going to stop using GURPS as my main fantasy RPG. While D&D combat is as crunchy as GURPS I like the gritty feel of the GURPS rules as well as the extensive options for customizing characters.
When the 3.0 edition came out I used it to run a pair of short campaign to learn the system and then returned to GURPS. Recently I started a D&D 4th edition campaign with the same goal.
The first two sessions used Keep on the Shadowfell and they didn't go so well. The whole thing felt like an exercise in pure wargaming. My good friend, Tim, said "Look Rob I want to learn 4th edition as much as you but next time just run it like you do your normal GURPS campaign. Don't use precanned stuff." A couple of weeks later I ran a games for a bunch of friends in Pittsburgh. Instead of using any published modules I used my Majestic Wilderlands and winged it. It went great. So did my subsequent sessions.
For a long time my normal mode of GMing has been to let my players wander about my campaign world doing whatever their characters want to do. I keep the game from being rudderless by immersing the characters into the game world. They have contacts, patrons, and friends that serve as hooks for various plots they can pursue. I keep a stack of NPCs, generic locales, and specific locales (sometimes includes published modules) by my side. Pulling out whatever I need when the players decide where they go.
One of the features D&D 4th was the ease of prep. I decide to really push it and just wing the whole thing straight out of the Monster Manual. Also this session used 9th level character instead of the 1st level characters of the previous tries.
And it worked great. The only issue is that I wished I had a stack of monster cards instead of flipping through the manual. My monster manual had numerous bookmarks sticking out of it by the session's end.
A lot of people complain about the rigid nature of the encounter system of 4th edition and parcel system of treasure. I found it a useful guide and didn't feel particulary bound by it. It helped me craft the type of encounter I wanted at any particular time.
This is important because my campaign isn't just a bunch of static locales. I try to protray a dynamic setting by having players encounter people about their daily business or just random stuff happening. Most of these are pretty mundane power wise. But a few are very dangerous and the encounter system help figured out how to use the monster to get the effect I was going for.
The game took place in the Forest of Dearthwood just outside of City-State. It is a huge forest covering several hundred square miles. It was once an elven kingdom but now is the home of a dozen or so nasty orc tribes. The players were searching for a lich named Darkon because they uncovered a plot that he was uniting the Orc Tribes. A very bad thing for City-State and the surrounding communties.
The adventure involved the characters tracking down Darkon's lair. They finally wound up in an old elven ruin where some of Darkon Minions were working. The dungeon was pretty basic consisting of an outdoor encounter outside of the entrance, a upper room, a upper store room, a lower chamber, and a long stairway down to the lower chamber, along with a secret passageway connecting the upper chamber to the lower.
If that seems redundant it because the stairways WAS sealed and WAS trapped. Darkon Minions cleared out the traps when they broke in. I do stuff like this from time to time to give a sense that the players are part of world with people and entities going about their businness outside of what the players are doing. Also all of the players were Eldarin so a despoiled Elven ruin made the situation a little more personal for them.
So there were wights in the upper chambers. A mix drawn from the several types presented in the Monster Manual. I always thought the level drain ability of the original was too nasty. The new version steal healing surges, and it is a very effective way of instilling fear into the players.
In the outdoor encounter that I ran previous to this, it was very obvious that 4th edition combat is a back and forth affair. The players will get beaten down, the clerics, paladins, and second winds start flying and hit points go back up. Sometime a perfect storm will happen and a player will go down before they are able to get any healing. However this doesn't last forever as all of this is moderated by the healing surges avalable. Once you run out for the day characters are very vulnerable.
Wights taking Healing Surges away was a morale breaker for these guys. They won the fight in the upper chamber. Found the secret passage, but when they found there were more enemies in the lower chamber. They retreated to the secret passage, sealed both ends and cast a ritual to return to a arcane circle in the Guild of Arcane Lore in City-State.
Which brings me to the hidden gem of 4th edition D&D. The ritual subsystem. This subsystem should looked over carefully by DMs as much of it has implications for how a campaign world works. For example there is a ritual that allows you to recall a chest to you from anywhere in the world. A smart party that is a member of a guild or has a well organized setup can use this to supply themselves even when they are several levels down into the dungeon. Phantom Steed, the teleport back to a arcane circle, and more all have stuble impact on the game world.
All of this can be used by any class fairly easy by taking one or more feats. It can be used as many times you need as long as you have a supply of components (rated in gp). Overall the ritual system is a win.
The combat system was fun to run and the standard, move, minor action regulated the actions quite nicely. The exception based power system works as well as it does in Magic the Gathering which is very good. However like the monster, I wished I had cards for a lot of this. Things would have been a lot quicker to look up.
However the packages of powers that make each class is what makes the game feel like High Fantasy 24/7. Previous editions of D&D weren't exactly paragons of realism but the oldest edition were so berefit of description that you could impose a specific feel by how you DMed. 3.X could generate a particular feel due to fact it allow extensive customization of characters.
I think a variant of 4th edition where there were warriors, priests, thieves, and mages combined with powers giving a gritty feel to the game would solve this problem for me.
The final word on D&D 4th edition, It not D&D but it is a fun game. If you like action and high fantasy, you won't go wrong with this edition. Otherwise stick with 3.X, or one of the older editions. Note that there are several retro-clones and you can get PDFs of the original material including the 1974 rules.