Monday, October 6, 2008

A tale of two 4th editions.

I like crunchy combat rules. I got started with Board and Counter wargames in the late 70s before playing the Holmes edition of D&D. I love rules heavy games like Star Fleet Battles and Battletech. Around 1987 I adopted as my main RPG one with the heaviest of rulesets, GURPS. 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 reaches earlier than AD&D 1st and reflects the spirit of OD&D than any other modern edition.
  • The DMG is the best since the 1st edition AD&D DMG
  • The design of the combat system works and plays well.

A lot of these points are almost custom designed to cause fans (both causal and hard core) of older editions not to move on to the next edition. Wizards is placing a huge bet that they can attract an entirely new audience.

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.


Max said...

"Which brings me to the hidden gem of 4th edition D&D. The ritual subsystem."

The downside to me is that the ritual system robs wizards of so much flexibility. My impression of the game as written is that wizards don't seem to be able to do much other than fire off attack spells.

Note that I haven't played 4e, and don't own the books -- this is based on making a character and skimming through the wizard powers and rituals sections. You've had more experience; what do you think?

Robert Conley said...

The ritual system is available all the time as long as you have the components. In the 4e games I ran this caused a larger quantity of non-combat spells with more variety.

The only negative is the 10 minute casting time. It is one of the many changes to the dynamic of the game compared to older editions.

My question to you is what ritual spell you used to use in older editions during combat?

Max said...

Well again, not having the books I can't be too specific.

Aren't Knock & Wizard Lock rituals now? Can a wizard cast an audible glamer, rope trick, etc?

I do recall that Silence is a ritual now -- and very different, in a good way, from previous incarnations. Still, there's a non-attack spell that is very useful in combat.

(Note: not really trying to be a hater here. just trying to get more of a feel for the Ritual system, since at a glance it was something that made me go "Whaaa?")

Robert Conley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Conley said...

A lot of the rituals are what I call quality of life. Phantom Steed, the teleport to a circle, and Leomund's Chest. There are divination rituals like Commune.

Your questions has given me an idea for a post on what the ritual system implies for a setting using 4th edition. Give me a couple of days and I will have something for you.

James Maliszewski said...

Personally, I'm of the opinion that deciding that some spells ought not to be able to be cast during combat is yet another way that 4e guts the magic-user/wizard as a class. The key to playing this class successfully is flexibility and a willingness to think outside the box. I have seen many supposedly "non-combat spells" used very creatively to assist a party in a combat. In my experience, what separates a good player of a MU from a poor and/or inexperienced one is the ability to look at, say, Tenser's floating disc and be able to find a way to use it cleverly that the rules don't anticipate. But then my read on 4e is that such a thing is a no-no that might unbalance the game.


Robert Conley said...

Just about every major form of gaming magic has some trade off.

While I consider 4e use of the ritual system to a good RPG subsystem. It just more thing about 4e that doesn't feel like D&D.

The same result would occur if I tried to bolt GURPS mana based magic onto D&D. The result may be fun and interesting but it not D&D.

David Larkins said...

I'm with you on pretty much every point of your assessment of 4e D&D--and happy to see a fellow 4e GURPSer online. I'm actually gearing up to run a couple GUPRS campaigns in the very near future.

Another thing I liked about 4e D&D was the skill system. I'll probably steal that wholesale for any iteration of D&D I might choose to run.

Anonymous said...

Hey Rob, we've discussed 4th ed at length. The combat is interesting, but there is little else beyond that for me. I'm hoping as we explore it further that some elements I didn't see will come out, but I've read through the books, forums, and modules and still feel it is a fancy one dimensional game. If only they had a few more full color, half page pictures to distract you from its limited potential.