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D & D 4e

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I held off on my fourth edition review to give the game a chance. As Mike Mearls and others have commented, 4e plays far better then it reads. My initial impression was this is interesting, but not really D & D. I’ve come around on that, it is D & D but D & D brought back to its roots as an add-on to a tactical miniature game.

Based on the overall picture of the game, 4e seems to have the following design goals.

  1. Draw on the success of World of Warcraft to attract new players.
  2. Come up with a publishing model which requires the players of the game to make at least 1 purchase a year.
  3. Remove ambiguity
  4. Increase the power level of the game
  5. Reduce downtime
  6. Make D & D a Strategy and Tactics game.

For the most part they hit these goals pretty well. Strategy is a far larger part of the game now, the power level is off the charts on both sides of the table, the terms and organization of a party is based on WoW and other such games, and I will be one of many next May on line to buy a PHB 2.

One of the biggest reasons for buying the next PHB is what’s missing from the current one. If you like Gnomes, ½ orcs, barbarians, monks or druids, I will see ya on line. These races and classes didn’t make the cut. Instead you now have Dragon Born, Eladrin (Truly Fey Elves – aka High Elves), Warlocks, and Warlords.

The reason for these changes seem to be a combination of providing proper balance and showcasing the new abilities and toys. All races have a significant racial power (for example Dragon Born start with a breath weapon, Eladrin with a short range teleport) which truly differentiates them tactically.

Warlord is probably my favorite new class, as it is a class designed to do nothing more then manipulate the battlefield and provided buffs to other group members, but can still hold its own in a fight. Of all the classes in 4e Warlord is truly the most symbolic of the new system as a good warlord can mean the difference between a TPK and a win.

WotC greatly changed and streamlined the verbiage of abilities, skills, and feats. All classes have power trees they climb now which grants combat special attacks, spells, and strategic situation modifiers. Powers (and feat abilities) are organized by how often they can be used. At will, once per encounter, once per day. This means even at first level, characters have abilities to make exciting attacks, and wizards now don’t have to hoard their spells.

Skills have been merged and reduced in number and skill points have been removed. On the whole I agree with these changes, skills needed to be simplified and reduced in number, and switching from a point system to the binary, you are trained or not, work’s out quite well.

Combat is greatly streamlined, but flat out impossible to play without a battle mat. Third edition encouraged the use of a mat; in fourth many powers/abilities are flat out useless without a map providing a true picture of the battle field. For example, most of the rogue abilities push and manipulate enemies around the battlefield, without the map to clarify that those abilities just don’t work. WotC did a great job removing ambiguity in combat by stripping out confusing rules like grapple and subdural damage. In fact the combat section of 4e is the smallest of all the editions so far.

The use of a mat and the increase in power level has lengthened the time a combat takes. A simple combat of 3 characters vs 5 kobolds, took 2 hours to resolve. This was a tense, fun 2 hours, and the players in question, will never look down on Kobolds again. Even this simple encounter, nearly killed 2 of the players, and forced them to think far more strategically to survive.

Downtime has been greatly reduced through the use of healing surges - 1/4 hit point heals which players can do on their own, or grant to others. This mechanic raised all sorts of alarm bells when I first read it, but in play it works well. It provides a consistant structure to healing powers, and makes the heal skill useful.

One last good part about 4e is Rituals. Ritual magic is the type of spells which are not combat oriented and take a stretch of time to cast. Anything from detect secret doors to Raise Dead is now ritual magic. But…. any class can cast from a ritual scroll. So fighters can carry around a scroll of detect traps and use it.

Now a few negatives. On the whole the 4e PHB feels a bit rushed. There are some typos, confusing verbiage and inconsistent terminology which a second pass with a good editor should have caught. The book does not have an index to powers. So as a DM if you are reading a module which says an NPC casts sleep, you need to be able to find that spell on your own without the assistance of a good index. This is a significant flaw especially since all the classes have 5-10 pages full of powers organized by level and frequency, and good luck to you trying to remember around what level a power came up on. So far the 2 published modules have included the verbiage for each power with the monster description, but still for your own works, an index would have been an easy add and a real boon to the book.

The addition of magic items to the PHB is welcome. The fact that the number of magic items, especially potions, has been drastically cut is not. Every game I have ever played has utilized potions as good throw away magic reward. Now you have about ½ a dozen to choose from, ritual scrolls fill some of the void there, but still its not the same.

So now the ultimate question, is it D & D? It’s taken me 3 games to say this, but yeah its D & D. The roll playing aspects haven’t gone away. The tactics side is a great add on and you will probably hate it if you don’t like war games, but give it a chance, once you get past the first encounter or two, you will realize that the mini based combat encourages further roll play and really bring out the best out of the whole group.