Unplugged: Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition

Almost exactly one year ago, Wizards of the Coast took the GenCon game convention by storm by announcing a new overhaul of the most popular role playing game on the planet Dungeons and Dragons was being revised to a fourth edition. The core rulebooks were released to the public in June and after several months of play, the consensus among fans seems to indicate that change is a good thing.

Dungeons and Dragons, known as D&D, was one of the first mass-produced role playing games and is now one of the most popular. Originally created by a company that came to be known as TSR, it started to run into financial trouble in the mid 90s. TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast, makers of Magic: the Gathering, and around the turn of the millennium, a new version of the game was produced that was designed to be more streamlined, easier to learn, more flexible, more modular, and more self-consistent. This 3rd version soon had some final adjustments to create version 3.5 but then settled in for the long haul. While the game has seemed to be running smoothly, the developers at Wizards felt it was time to give the game a very serious overhaul.

As before, the core game books are presented as a set of three manuals. The Players Handbook describes nearly everything a player need to know to play the game. This includes how to build a character, how combat works, and even a list of handy equipment and magic items that can be found in the game. The Dungeon Master Guide is a book dedicated to the player who will play the bad guy and run all the monsters in the game. The DM guide is a wealth of information on how to be a good DM like how to build an interesting but challenging story for players while keeping an eye on what part of the game your players like the best. While there are many improvements in the game, one of the most overlooked is how much easier it is for a Dungeon Master to create and run a game. The new rules provide simple and straightforward ways of creating reasonable monsters and providing adequate rewards for players. And to help players who constantly have to deal with rules-lawyers, basic ideas and rules are far more consistent throughout the game keeping player confusion to a minimum. The last of the core books is the Monster Manual. It is laid out with each monster getting a full page description of its basic abilities as well as a few varieties of each monster so players can encounter them again and again but see something slightly different each time. The best improvement to the monsters in the new version is an attempt to make sure each monster has a particular look and feel that makes it different than other kinds of monsters. Thus, players fighting kobolds will find they are shifty and can often sneak around and hit them from behind while players fighting orcs will soon find out they can get particularly nasty when they’re wounded.

The new version, sometimes dubbed 4E for 4th edition, is a strong attempt to introduce new players to the game and bring old fans back to the table with a more streamlined and faster playing game. Wizards took a few risks and considered nothing sacred during their reworking of the game. The watchword for the entire rewrite of the rules was fun. If something seemed to get in the way of having fun during the game, ways were found to try to fix the problem. For those familiar with the system, here are a few of the main examples:

Less Bookkeeping Tedium: In the past, combat encounters between high level characters could become quite cumbersome with players needing to constantly adjust important numbers as spells and other effects were cast or dispelled. In 4E, a player’s attacks and defenses may change in effectiveness depending on the situation, but characters fundamental statistics (like their strength, charisma, intelligence, etc…) never change, eliminating the need to frequently recalculate basic character attributes. Players and Dungeon Masters no longer have to keep track of any ongoing effects on their characters. Most effects no longer last a specified number of rounds, they simply have a 50% chance of ending on any given turn, removing yet another common bookkeeping chore from the game.

Character Building Guidance: The 3rd edition rules were very open, allowing players to create a wide variety of characters, but this would sometimes lead to some character classes being overpowered while other players might unknowingly create a very underpowered character. In 4E, every character class has a particular role in the gaming group. Strikers tend to do a lot of damage, while defenders are good at absorbing or neutralizing damage. By giving each character class a role to play, players know what style of play they can expect from any given character and the rules end up preventing anyone from being able to put together a completely untenable character.

Character Class Balancing: Players have long known that fighters start out fairly tough while Wizards are very frail weak and nearly useless at lower levels. However, at high levels Wizards can lob spells around that often completely steal the stage away from the other classes. In 4E, the classes are balanced out so that no one class can completely outshine the others. This also means that characters can have better defined abilities for any given level. So, a Dungeon Master who is running a game for level 13 characters has a very good idea of their approximate abilities, no matter what class each of the characters play. The mantra of adding in fun extends to improving the power of classes as well. Wizards can now cast basic, useful spells over and over again and only need to rest up after using up their more powerful ones. Clerics and other healing classes no longer need to stand back and heal, they can now heal themselves and others as part of their attacks. Not to be left out, the weapon fighting classes like rogues and fighters have special combat techniques they can expend, giving them options more in line with the various special options traditionally only open to magic users.

No Instant Death: Previous versions of the game had many dangers that could kill you with one or two unlucky rolls of the dice. There are no longer any “save or die” effects in the game. Instead, special attacks may require several cumulative rolls to accomplish something particularly nasty. An illithid (think squid-person with mind powers) need several good rolls of the dice before they can eat your brain away and make you their permanent slave.

Improved Monsters Separation: Most of the favorite monsters are still there, but they no longer operate on exactly the same rules as player characters. Players tend to have characters that last through many fights and encounters, but most monster are simply there to fight once and die. With this in mind, monsters have become much simpler to create, allowing a Dungeon Master to create interesting, appropriate homemade monsters in very little time.

There are more, but the list of improvements boil down to an elimination of tedious bookkeeping, an across the board standardization of character classes, monsters, and equipment, and an effort to make sure players always have interesting options available.

So, what does a new game of 4th edition look like? There is still a Dungeon Master who sets forth a basic story framework and moderates all the antagonists in the game, while the players work together (usually) to accomplish a mutually agreed upon goal. Each character class has a few basic abilities they can use over and over again when combat arises (like a ranger’s archery attack, or a wizard’s magic missile). However, every character also has abilities they can use once per combat (termed an encounter) and some they can use once per day. Even low level characters start off with an encounter and a daily power in addition to their basic powers (termed at-will powers). After each encounter, characters can take a short rest to regain their encounter powers and often regain most of their health as well. If they want to take a long nap for several hours they regain all their abilities back including their daily power(s). A typical combat will have players moving their game pieces around a square map grid (the new rules encourage the use of a physical map even more than previous versions) trying to jockey into good positions to use up their encounter powers when they can be most effective. When things get dire or a particularly tough fight erupts, players will start to use up their daily powers to try and gain an advantage in the situation. When most of a party’s daily powers and healing is used up, they find a safe place for the characters to rest up (termed an extended rest) so they can regain all their daily skills again.

All in all, I enjoy the new version of the game and look forward to several years of good use of the 4th edition rules. My main gripe about the rules primarily revolves around the lack of options for players to explore different types of characters. Only the core books are available so far, so the initial 8 classes may not satisfy players who are used to choose from among dozens of classes. Each class does have two different paths that can be emphasized (such as a ranger specializing in archery or fighting with a weapon in each hand). At higher levels (the game now goes to 30th level instead of the previous cap of 20) there are about as many options available as at lower levels, but that still makes it seem to offer fewer choices. This will all be greatly reduced as more books and supplements are produced. In fact, since the allowed range of abilities and effects are so standardized across all classes and levels, it is fairly easy for an inspired Dungeon Master to make up their own character classes without having them become too imbalanced.

With simplified rules and fewer complex interactions, the new version is especially good for introducing to new young players. A particularly talented young teen should be able to pull off being a Dungeon Master, while a young player of 8 or older should be able to hold their own (with a little coaching from time to time) during game combat. The procedures for creating a character are a tad more complex, so most kids younger than 10 or 11 would probably need a bit of help during that stage.

The single most important improvement to the game would have to be time. The new rules and guidelines greatly reduce the amount of time a Dungeon Master needs to spend to prepare for a game. At the same time, the rules for combat are streamlined so that experienced players can get through a fight far more quickly spending more time at the table having fun and less time trying to figure out tricky or overly complex rules situations. Judging the Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition rules on that issue alone, the new version is a success.

No Responses to “Unplugged: Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition”

  1. I have found the new rules a wonderful way of getting younger audiences into the game but for those that like to play around with their character and enjoy the math involved in changing your stats and attacks as needed I think the third edition and the Advanced D&D will always be the most fun.

  2. In video game vernacular they call that ‘dumbed down for console kiddies’ 😀

  3. Yup. I can hear the meeting now: “D&D was cool back when kids had to think, but now that they have to have reflexes instead, how do we make this game play to that?” It does sound like some of it is good… the better balance among the classes and levels is a good thing, and so is more definition of defenders and attackers and such. I really like the encounter vs. daily vs. ‘at will’ powers, too. So I guess it’s not all bad ;-).

    It does make for better portability, too, so you don’t have to take 3 hours to explain how your wizard came across Aegis-Fang and is able to use it (Hint: It’s not a dagger) to the DM in the place you’re spending the summer. That could be helpful.

  4. I know, I was kidding … I am actually looking forward to it as a way to get a game going with my kids … something my wife is dreading. 😀

  5. I like it quite a bit, but do miss the huge variety of things to choose from in the old 3.5 edition.

    The “good stuff” such as class and level balancing has made things much more bland in my opinion, all the powers in the players handbook seem to be simply minor variations of the same thing. This keeps things balanced, but a huge variety has been lost in 4.0.

    However, that is at least partially due to it being a “new” version. As new things are published, there should eventually be a much larger selection of powers and abilities out there. I’m looking forward to the Players Handbook 2, to see if the next round of classes meet my need for larger variety.

  6. I do plan on introing my kids into D&D one day but I bet I end up doing it with a Superhero game (like I know Colleen did) or maybe I can find an old copy of TOON. I had it once, no idea where it could be now. The basement is actually a possibility…. Funny, I love fantasy and could probably generate a wicked D&D adventure on the fly (it’s how I learned about storytelling) but I’d personally rather see my kids play in a superhero or cartoon context. Not because of the violence gore and near constant corpse robbing …. Ah, I bet it’s really just that fantasy feels a bit tired for me. But dealing in Stan Lee and Chuck Jones? Sounds fun!

    I have no one to play with otherwise. Makes me wistful in a way. D&D was a special part of my life and crucial, I think, to my offbeat career development. It’d be fun to rattle the bones again. I liked your article Matt.

  7. I’ll be doing an RPG round-up to cap off a revist of my parent’s guide soon.

    There are some interesting RPGs out there for kids. I loved Champions and it’s still my favorite RPG (superhero RPG with VERY customizable powers), but its really math-heavy so not as great for the young-ins…

    There was a Marvel branded RPG based around cards called Marvel SAGA released through TSR/Wizards of the Coast that was pretty cool.

    Toon really needs a reprint badly!

  8. Hey guys, just thought I would swing by and check out your take on 4E. I remember discussing getting into D&D (3.5 at the time) with some of you on the gamerdad forums awhile back and, as I expected, there is a helpful article here on the latest edition.

    In January or thereabouts, my 10-year-old and I got just interested enough in 3.5 to buy the core rulebooks that became obsolete with 4E. We have since purchased 4E (and a lot of accessories) and we (plus my 8-year-old) are making our way through the premade level 1-3 adventure Keep on the Shadowfell, which is a pretty solid introduction for younger players. Older boy loves it and the younger one likes it but tires of the slow pace. I played in 1978-82, and all the old feeling is coming back notwithstanding many unfamiliar elements.

    I think it’s a fantastic natural extension of the imaginary play that boys (and some girls) start to outgrow around 8-10, and the discipline (to learn a complicated system) and creativity (to roleplay and create worlds) should be attractive to parents obsessed with their kids’ development. It’s tough to compete with audio/visual excitement and immediate payoff aspect of videogames, but so far so good.

    When it was first released a few months ago, some basic equipment like a DM screen, an intro set, etc., weren’t ready, but now everything you need to start up is available. Have any of you tried it yet (besides Matt)?

Discussion Area - Leave a Comment

Tired of typing this out each time? Register as a subscriber!